Essay by Tony Birch

Thomas Keneally’s novel The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972) is based in part on historical events, particularly the crimes committed by Jimmy Governor, an Aboriginal man from New South Wales. In 1900, Governor was a key figure involved in the killing of nine Europeans, including five women and children. The killings followed Governor’s marriage to a young white woman and taunts from the Mawbey household where they both worked. After fourteen weeks on the run with his brother Joe, Governor was arrested and sentenced to death for the murders. He was hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol on 14 January 1901, days after the declaration and ‘birth’ of the Australian nation. It is widely accepted that Governor’s execution was delayed so as not to spoil the birthday party.

While interpretations of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith often focus on the supposed rage and ‘savagery’ of Jimmie and Aboriginal people more generally, a reading of the novel should not exclude the link between ‘the swift trial [of Jimmie] in December’ and the day ‘Australia became a fact’ early the following year. Rather than the notion that Jimmie is transformed from the status of a childlike ‘house black’ to an uncontrollable ‘native’, his violence and the coming of ‘Australia’ are the inextricable link in a story of mutual progress as opposed to primitive regression.

Australia was born with original sin at its core, and the violence of the colonial parent was carried into the twentieth century by the child-nation. Keneally’s Jimmie Blacksmith is the product of both colonial fear and desire – a desire to flourish uninhibited by the presence of the original owners of the country, and a fear that Aboriginal society would not eventually become extinct through direct violence or colonial neglect. Jimmie is the spectre that haunts both colonial society and the new Australia, for he is of their own making. Jimmie’s ultimate crime is patricide.

The novel, reflecting the brutality of the frontier, is often violent. The scenes in which women and children are bludgeoned to death were controversial when the novel was published. These scenes continue to cause distress in readers today (even those of us who have read Cormac McCarthy’s colonial bloodbath Blood Meridian, 1985). Some of this unease results in a direct but simplistic reading of a book about an innocent group of settlers being murdered by a marauding amoral ‘half-caste’. While it is not surprising that the novel and the feature film of the same name (directed by Fred Schepisi in 1978) angered some who regarded it as a narrow or negative portrayal of Aboriginal people, the book has to be engaged with on more sophisticated terms to be fully appreciated.

The violent episodes in the book need to be understood within the global socio-political climate in which Keneally was writing. He has since said that while writing the book in the late 1960s he was as influenced by the political atmosphere of the time as he was by the historical events of 1900. Keneally’s reflection does point to a contradiction found in the novel, one for which he can be rightly criticised. As I re-read The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, particularly the scenes depicting the slaughter of women and children, I was reminded of the Mỹ Lai massacre of 1968, when a large number of Vietnamese villagers – mostly women, children, and the elderly – were murdered by US soldiers. If this is the period of influence to which Keneally refers (and I think it clearly is), then he has inverted both the crimes and the motivating factors underpinning the violence.

The US military was an external invading force that utilised advanced technology and brute force to destroy an enemy, with little or no discrimination between soldiers and civilians. In the colonial setting of Keneally’s novel, it is the invaders who are killed, beginning with innocent women and children. The Australian frontier is no Vietnam: it is a colonial landscape where many thousands of Aboriginal people were killed by Europeans before Federation. And yet Keneally chooses to focus his storytelling eye on an act of violent revenge. Keneally has been criticised for this over the years. It is an understandable and, to a degree, justifiable critique of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. But it is also wanting.

The novel contains some qualities of a psychological thriller. Jimmie is as much an antipodean corruption of Frankenstein’s monster as he is an Aboriginal man. Worse, he is the blood-tainted and disparaged ‘half-caste’, clearly an example of a legislated ‘monster’ if there ever was one. He is mocked by settlers who see him as an infantile creation and patronise him accordingly. As the novel moves towards its pivotal act of choreographed violence, we realise that it is those around Jimmie who are formulating a perverse inversion of manifest destiny, with a culture and history of colonial violence coming home to roost.

A sense of insecurity undermining a natural sense of colonial superiority is revealed early in the novel. As a ‘mixed-blood’ child forced into servitude by whites, there is a presumption that Jimmie will at least be easily ‘managed’, if not fully assimilated into colonial society. Jimmie is encouraged by his patrons, Mr and Mrs Neville, to help in the task of further ‘diluting the race’ (as the saying went). Such a belief and rhetoric directly mimics the preamble of the infamous 1886 Aborigines Act of the Victorian colonial parliament. More commonly known as the ‘half-caste’ act, the legislation was an attempt to eradicate the Aboriginal communities of south-eastern Australia, both culturally and physically, by means of the reproductive control of women and the banishment of ‘mixed-blood’ Aboriginal people from reserves and missions. The legislation failed because of the fortitude of Aboriginal families and communities, but also because of the inherent hypocrisy and prejudices held within colonial society.

A colonial fantasy is exemplified in Jimmie Blacksmith. Not only is there hope that he may be ‘civilised’; Jimmie is also expected by some to contribute to ‘breeding out the race’ – the original owners of the country – by marrying a white woman (Gilda in the novel): ‘If you could ever find a nice girl off a farm to marry, your children would only be quarter-caste then, and your grandchildren one-eighth caste, scarcely black at all.’

While some hold out hope for Jimmie, through the tutelage of Christian religion and the accompanying Protestant work ethic (with none of the rights won by white workers), his attempted ‘uplifting’ is ridiculed by other ‘pioneers’. Some mock Jimmie’s attempts to understand colonial customs and master the English language; ‘My God, you do use your indefinite articles well, Jimmie. I’ve never met a black who could use one before.’ Others harbouring barely repressed anxieties, could not countenance the idea of Aboriginal survival within colonial society: ‘Healy, Lewis, now Newby had each staked his soul on Jimmie’s failure. If they were so supreme on their land that they didn’t need to be political, why should they yearn so for Jimmie’s mistakes; and when mistakes were not made, dream them up?’

Early scenes of the novel are marked by the sneers and outbursts of settlers whether it be remarks about the supposed unreliability of ‘the blacks . . . the best of them are likely to vanish at any time’, direct and calculated racist language, ‘Yer have any religion? Other than nigger?’ and threats of violent punishment, ‘I’ll cut your bloody black balls off.’ All the while, the poverty and marginalisation resulting from colonial dispossession are deflected and transferred onto the Aboriginal body. The real cause of the decline and anticipated extinction of the ‘race’ is claimed to be the result of the physical and mental inferiority of Aboriginal people, aided by an unhealthy thirst for alcohol. ‘Tribal men were beggars puking Hunter River rotgut sherry in the lee of hotel shit-houses . . . [they] lent out their wives to white men for a suck of a brandy bottle.’

We are introduced to Jimmie some years after he has been in the ‘care’ of whites. He reads the Bible and obeys his colonial masters. He is subject to the ridicule of local squatters and farm workers and witnesses the hypocrisies of self-righteous settlers. Jimmie becomes deeply troubled and first realises that he will never become an equal in the embryonic nation on the very day he is promoted to the role of a tracker, joining the local police force, where he is expected to hunt down his own people for the purpose of punishment and imprisonment:

But when they gave him his uniform, Jimmie Blacksmith understood his mistake. The blue coat was a giant’s, the cap loose, the trousers knifed him in the crutch. He had taken a florid foreign oath to Victoria and was now on the books as a tracker, a comic abo in some other black’s clothes.

While the subsequent explosion on the frontier takes some time to erupt, this is the moment when the fuse is lit. Once Jimmie Blacksmith confronts the mould in which he has been cast by colonial society, ‘his desire for blood’ becomes unstoppable. It would be a mistake to presume that Jimmie’s bloodlust is evidence of his rejection of colonial society and of a reversion to a state of savagery. He rejects nothing. Jimmie Blacksmith gives into the reality of what he has become, a product of colonial society, including its desire for blood.

One of the more pathetic characters in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is the school headmaster and sympathetic figure, McCreadie, whom Jimmie meets during his time on the run, a period that involves more murder and robbery. McCreadie laments the terrible treatment meted out to Aboriginal people, and condemns acts of colonial violence, including crimes committed against Aboriginal women and the desecration of sacred sites. He goes so far as to attempt to absolve Jimmie from his crimes: ‘“I can understand you being angry,” he would say in the midst of a night silence. “Oh, I can imagine it, Jimmie. I mean settlers still talking about marauding blacks. Only ten years ago they did. But how many whites ever got killed by aborigines?”’

Jimmie Blacksmith has no time for a white man’s version of sorry business. Although he ‘loved to hear these admissions’ spoken by McCreadie, they mean nothing to Jimmie in either an emotional or moral sense. In one of Jimmie’s more chilling observations, he muses that such statements of apology ‘were the luxuries he kept McCreadie for’. Jimmie has no time for a mea culpa, either from himself or from a member of the society that created him. He is a visionary who sees what is ahead for him (death), and for the new Federation.

When Keneally was writing this novel, ‘Aboriginal History’ was unknown. The influential body of work of the eminent historian Henry Reynolds was yet to be written, Aboriginal voices of the oral tradition were repeatedly silenced, and the vast colonial archive that sometimes diligently documented its propensity for violence lay in waiting, yet to fully incriminate itself. Given the era in which it was written, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is a remarkable novel. It tells a disturbing and confronting story, one that remains relevant.

Today we often debate the validity of non-Aboriginal authors writing Aboriginal characters. Keneally has directly addressed this issue. His view, not unexpectedly, is thoughtful and engaging. He says he would not write the character of Jimmie Blacksmith today as he did more than forty years ago – ‘from within a black consciousness’ – but not as a response to political correctness or ‘some sort of no-go zone for writers’. His decision is based on mutual respect, recognition, and a desire ‘to extend a faltering hand across the gulf of culture.’ I believe that The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was written with this thought pre-emptively in mind.

© Copyright Tony Birch 2015