Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 20, 2018

Cotter, a Novel (2016), by Richard Begbie

Reading Richard Begbie’s historical novel Cotter coincided this week with the arrival of the latest Quarterly Essay, Moment of Truth – an essay by historian Mark McKenna about how Australia’s future is contingent on coming to terms with our past.  This is the blurb:

In this inspiring essay, Mark McKenna considers the role of history in making and unmaking the nation. From Captain Cook to the frontier wars, from Australia Day to the Uluru Statement, we are seeing passionate debates and fresh recognitions. McKenna argues that it is time to move beyond the history wars, and that truth-telling about the past will be liberating and healing. This is a superb account of a nation’s moment of truth.

“The time for pitting white against black, shame against pride, and one people’s history against another’s, has had its day. After nearly fifty years of deeply divisive debates over the country’s foundation and its legacy for Indigenous Australians, Australia stands at a crossroads – we either make the commonwealth stronger and more complete through an honest reckoning with the past, or we unmake the nation by clinging to triumphant narratives in which the violence inherent in the nation’s foundation is trivialised.”

I don’t need to have read the essay yet to agree that yes, it’s high time for a more honest narrative about the beginnings of modern Australia, but Richard Begbie’s book shows just how hard it can be to get it right.  His novel uses the fragmentary record of a pioneer narrative to tell the story of a dispossessed Irish convict-turned-squatter forging an empathetic relationship with the Indigenous owner of the land.  It’s engrossing reading, tracing Garrett Cotter’s life from grinding poverty in Ireland where he was caught up in a ‘Whiteboy’ action and sentenced to death, commuted to transportation for life.  By temperament Cotter is a quiet and industrious man and he does well in New South Wales, fortunate to be assigned to reasonable men and though illiterate, intelligent enough to make good use of the opportunities that came his way.  Like many convicts, he flourished in the colony and ended up as a grazier in the high country around what is now Canberra, and became patriarch of a large and respectable family.

The problematic aspect of this novel arises in its portrayal of Cotter’s relationship with the Aboriginal leader Onyong. Having been dispossessed by the British in Ireland, Cotter is portrayed as an empathetic individual who recognises Onyong’s prior ownership of the land.  Since Cotter has very little agency in his own life in the early years of sentence, he can’t be said to be responsible for Onyong’s dispossession.  He is as much a victim of circumstance as Onyong is, the difference being that (short of insubordination and the penalties that would entail) although he has no alternative but to co-operate with his masters, he is nevertheless part of the machinery of colonisation.  Onyong, for reasons not satisfactorily explained in the novel, chooses to help Cotter find fresh pastures during the drought, and invites him to participate in a great feast when Bogong Moths are in season.  Why Onyong would invite a stockman to bring cattle into the fragile environment of the high country when he must have known by then how much damage cattle do, I can’t imagine.

Cotter’s redemption from his criminal past is part of the grand narrative of Australian opportunity, and Begbie does a fine job of portraying his hopes and dreams, his setbacks and his successes.  But while there is apparently documentary evidence that the real-life Cotter had a special friendship with Onyong, the story ends, as we know it must, with Cotter appropriating Onyong’s land, and eventually with hard times for the disheartened Indigenous people.  As James Dunk at the Rochford Street Review argues in his review,  remorse isn’t really enough for Cotter’s eventual betrayal.

See also Richard Willson’s review in the SMH and this article at the Canberra Times about a meeting of the descendants in 2016.

Author: Richard Begbie
Title: Cotter, a Novel
Publisher: Longhand Press, 2016
ISBN: 9780975232958
Source: review copy courtesy of the author.

Available from Fishpond: Cotter: A Novel


  1. Oh dear … I have this too, but haven’t read it yet. And yet I should given the setting!


    • Oh, you will love it. I think. The descriptions of the country are beautiful:)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Miles Franklin, descended on both sides from squatters in the high country says the same about local indigenous people being helpful (and Kim Scott speaking from the indigenous side says much the same in That Deadman Dance). It is rape and shootings that seems to have put the locals offside, as you.might expect!


    • Yes, but not only that. Somewhere in Cotter Onyong points out that the kangaroo and other animals they used to eat have no grazing grounds any more – and it is only then that the penny drops for Cotter that they are hungry and he butchers a cow to share for their dinner. Which is good, but not a solution because he’s the only one doing it.


      • Read a news story in the last few days that the kangaroo population has greatly increased since white settlement with the destruction of the forests in favour of open grazing. (I have been trying not to say how much I despise stories by white people about the one good white man when white settlement was characterised by innumerable unacknowledged murders rapes and outright massacres).


        • LOL Bill you would love the conversation I have been having with the author behind the scenes. Here’s an excerpt that shows you where I stand (which is definitely not ‘despising’ authors of good will who have a go at it):
          ” The historical novel IMO is the literary equivalent of Australia Day. It’s just not possible to portray the courage and enterprise and suffering of First Settlement without it risking seeming to be celebrating dispossession, or ignoring it, or making it seem inevitable, or by showing ‘friendly Aborigines’ rendering indigenous people complicit in their own dispossession.
          However unlike Australia Day which we could so easily move and transform into something new that we could all feel comfortable with, I do not think we should abandon the historical novel. Its problematic nature and complexity is IMO part of the conversation that we need to have and keep having in this country. And every historical novel reviewed and discussed by serious people is an instalment in the process… “


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