Why Colonialism-Themed Literature Should Be Reinforced into Education Systems

Featured Artwork: Thomas Blackshear

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Spoilers ahead for  The Secret River by Kate Grenville

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For my IGCSE English Literature syllabus, I was required to read a novel centered around the theme of colonialism entitled The Secret River, written by Kate Grenville. Before, I had known very little about colonisation’s true implications; I had always thought of it as a tool that had fortified education and advancement to the people.

I know better now.

Throughout primary school, I had many international teachers who came from countries like Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain. I remember them telling us myths and legends stemming from indigenous communities, such as the captivating tale of the Māui warning the sun to travel slower across the sky so that they could have longer days, after ensnaring it with ropes. I had two teachers who were of Māori descent and they especially enjoyed telling us their precious stories during Golden Time.

Such sacred stories deserve to be kept alive in indigenous communities, to be passed down from generation to generation — and that begins with educating young people about the crimes their forefathers have perpetuated upon them.

When my class dissected each and every bit of The Secret River, we were slowly pulled out of the bubble; these white settlers who called themselves ‘discoverers’ and ‘heroes’ were just plain old murderers. Those who claimed they brought knowledge and peace to the indigenous people had instead brought a plague upon them.

A little summary of The Secret River: William Thornhill is the main character, shipped to New South Wales as a convict. After several fearful interactions with the Aboriginals of Australia, he begins to respect and admire the way they live, in freedom and at one with the wilderness. You may even say that he is jealous that they are content with their simple, easy-going lifestyles, so unlike the ones of the white settlers, whose complex social hierarchy leaves much to be desired.

However, his mind starts to become poisoned by the evil beliefs of Smasher, a key character in influencing the future actions of our protagonist. Thornhill ends up conforming to what is expected of him, a white man, and participates in a mass killing of an Aboriginal community, an event that will haunt him for eternity. Despite knowing that it is wrong, he does it anyway so that he does not lose face among the disgusting, low-life convicts who constantly surround him and his family.

In the epilogue, it is revealed that during the rest of his life, he continuously seeks out fickle signs that could suggest some had managed to survive the attack and are just living hidden from view; of course, they are pointless manifestations.

He had amassed a lot of material wealth over the years, being known as a ‘Mr.’, which is a stark contrast from his shabby upbringing within the slums of London. What is success? Sure, he had acquired a lot of respect and admiration in the settler community of New South Wales, but how did he get there? The only reason why he was able to climb so high atop the social ladder was because of his involvement and solidarity with the white settlers’ barbaric movement against the Aboriginals.

Every day he is reminded of the innocent blood that stains the floors of his mansion, the bones his prosperity balances precariously upon. Nightmares fuel his sleep, filled with the cries of babies and the gushing of crimson blood flowing steadily into the Earth.

A lesson learnt? Don’t be silent.

Our teacher provided us well-needed history lessons during our Secret River breakdown, informing us of the many horrors settlers had executed upon the native communities who just wanted to be left alone.

They stole newborn babies from families and raised them as Christians, completely stripping them of their native identities and calling it an act of ‘saving them.’ They performed mass destructions of native communities and praised themselves for removing these ‘savage’ people from the land. They chained and tortured people of colour to work as slaves, forcing them to work in inhumane conditions and treating them lower than the scum on their boots. All this time the white settlers swore that the natives were the animalistic savages when really, it was themselves.

The true stories of colonialism should be basic knowledge for high-school students. They cannot, for all their lives, believe that Christopher Columbus is a hero for ‘discovering’ America. He should be known as he truly is: a tyrant who ordered genocide of thousands of Native Americans and had their bodies paraded through the streets (amongst other things). Can you believe that there is a day dedicated to celebrating him?

There are so many other proclaimed others whose statuses as monumental historical figures have established the green light for further crimes against native people. Systemic racism began when people started patting themselves on the back for stripping the land of the very people who had cultivated it!

An anthropologist by the name of Margaret Mead said that “helping someone else through difficulty is where civilisation starts.” When we are given the privilege of having a voice, we must use it to help others who are unheard. When people refuse to listen to them, we will lift them up and amplify their voices by using our own. Civilisation isn’t defined by pots and pans or grinding stones and sticks; it is defined by the ability to know compassion and act according to the principles of humanity.

Thornhill had the power, the privilege to stand up and say, “this is not right, and we must stop” — but he didn’t. That is the difference between a coward and a human.

By ingraining the brutality of colonialism into works of literature and in turn enforcing them into education systems, we can remedy those who learn discrimination through observation, enlightening teenagers from a relatively young age. Literature expands emotions, feeding them from character to human in ways that history textbooks fail to replicate.

Humanity is in all of us but for some, it has to be reawakened. Only by being fully cognisant of the damage we have done will we be able to see ourselves for what we truly are.