Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 7, 2013

Sweet Water, Stolen Land (1993), by Philip McLaren

Cultural warning: Readers are warned that this page contains the names of deceased persons.

ILW 2013NAIDOC Week (July 7-15) and Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers kick off today, coinciding nicely with my reading of Sweet Water, Stolen Land by Philip McLaren, a Kamileroi man.  This confronting tale of Aboriginal dispossession won the David Unaipon Award for Unpublished Writing in 1992, and, so the blurb tells me, went on to become a ‘runaway national success when it was first released’ by UQP in 1993.   Magabala Books, Australia’s oldest indigenous publishing house, re-released it in 2001, but it seems to be out-of-print now.  Which is a pity because it’s compelling reading and I’m not surprised that it became a bestseller.

Sweet-Water-Stolen-LandSweet Water, Stolen Land is an historical novel exploring the expansion of Lutheran missionary work in the Coonabarabran area in the 1860s, cleverly inverting the Christian message to show how it betrayed its own ideals.  Two families, Black and White, are in competition for the same land in the 1860s, but it doesn’t take long to see how government policy conspired with opportunistic human nature to make traditional life untenable for the Blacks.

While McLaren in his Preamble confirms that he has taken some departures from the historical record with the settings, the characters and most of the incidents, events such as the Myall Creek Massacre did take place, and the central female character, Ginny, is modelled on the author’s own great-great grandmother who became leader and spokesperson for the Aboriginal people of Coonabarabran.

The writing style is blunt and unemotional, which increases its impact.  The story is told in chronological sequence interspersed with flashbacks which reveal the back story of Pastor Karl Maresch and his spirited wife Gudrun, who come to the Wurrumbungle Ranges to set up the Neuberg Mission.  Through flashbacks we also learn about Ginny’s Dreaming and about her marriage to Wollumbuy, which the author uses to establish Ginny as an adaptable and resourceful young woman.

From the outset, Ginny and Wollumbuy don’t want to ‘come in’ to the mission because they prefer their traditional lifestyle, but their meeting with Maresch turns out to be emblematic of the moral chaos which surrounds colonisation.  McLaren links this fictional Lutheran pastor, Maresch with the initiative of real-life George Fife Angas, (1789-1879) an English businessman who features in the historical record at the Australian Dictionary of Biography as a merchant, banker, landowner and philanthropist.  Angas funded Nonconformists to emigrate to South Australia, enabling them to set up a mission society for dissenters to take up farming.  However, as McLaren says in his Preamble:

When [Angas] personally financed German Lutheran missions his motivation appeared to be guided by Christian paternalism, but when he became active in massive land grabs his ethics were in question.  His German missionaries skilfully herded Aboriginal people from their land, making its seizure and exploitation easy.  (p. vii)

McLaren’s character was opposed to slavery when in England, but his actions in using Aborigines as tenant-farmers bound to the mission for 30 years, were incompatible with any Christian principle.  In contrast to the  hagiographic entry at Wikipedia, this is how McLaren describes this venture:

Filled with righteousness and armed with faith, the Lutherans ventured to outback Australia to convert the Aboriginal people – to tell them, with absolute certainty, that forty thousand years of Aboriginal Dreaming was wrong.  They passed on the word of the Lord and set about redeeming the heathen Australians through education, Christian principles and ethics, and tenant farming. (p. 7)


The presence of these missions provided a simple solution for governments determined to ‘open up the land’ for settlement: the traditional owners who were in the way were to be rounded up and moved on to the missions.  And this is what happens to Ginny and Wollumbuy: they and other members of their camp are rounded up by the local police; made to watch while their gunyahs (shelters) are burnt: and herded into Coonabarabran for processing before being despatched to Maresch’s Neuberg Mission.  Ginny, who has learned English from a chance encounter with an English schoolteacher, speaks up, which earns her a night in the cells as a troublemaker.  Sergeant Thompson visits her in the cells overnight, and so do all the other men …

As he left the cell, another white man came in and sat next to her on the bunk.  She could hear Sergeant Thompson laugh as he joined a group of men at the end of the corridor.  As she realised what the rest of the night held in store for her, the tears coursed down her cheeks. (p. 42)

While there is no airbrushing away Australia’s unedifying frontier history, McLaren engages his readers with an enthralling series of murders.  Someone is killing mission pioneers on the boundary and desecrating their bodies.  The Aboriginal artifacts strewn about at the crime scene are enough for Sergeant Thompson to haul in hordes of male Aborigines but the perspicacious reader has noted other suspects – and even when McLaren artfully reveals who it is, there is no quick and easy arrest as there is in the movies, for the author is more sophisticated than that.

McLaren is interested in redemption, and with a deft hand he offers reconciliation through love across the racial divide.  But it is also quite clear that moral authority rests not with an invasive set of religious principles but with someone and something more interesting: Manduk, a storyteller.

And that’s a fine conclusion to come to, in my first review of indigenous story-telling for Indigenous Literature Week!

Author: Philip McLaren
Title: Sweet Water, Stolen Land
Publisher: Magabala Books, 2001 (first published by UQP 1993)
ISBN: 9781875641772
Source:  Personal library, purchased from Fishpond.


Fishpond: Sweet Water – Stolen Land  (Second-hand copies turn up from time-to-time at Fishpond)

Or try Brotherhood Books (who had a copy for $4.50 on the day I looked) or AbeBooks (who had two copies, but at three times the price).


  1. […] see Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers […]


  2. […] screenplays and academic essays. Of his seven novels, I’ve read Sweet Water, Stolen Land (see my review).  Alas WP doesn’t tell me which four have been translated and distributed […]


  3. […] Anita Heiss writes across a range of genres including what she jokingly calls ‘choc-lit and a recent foray into historical fiction with Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms, and with that strategy she spreads that message to people through novels written to entertain. Philip McLaren does the same thing with genre fiction, writing historical fiction such as Sweet Water, Stolen Land (1993, re-released 2001 by Magabala Books).  This novel is set in Australia’s unedifying frontier history, where (to quote my own review): […]


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