The Making of Martin Sparrow by Peter Cochrane

The Making of Martin Sparrow

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Set in 1806 – a mere 18 years after the First Fleet landed in Botany Bay – this novel chronicles the activities of Martin Sparrow and a rag-tag collection of convicts, farmers, constables, prostitutes and hunters.  Martin holds leased farmland near the lower reaches of the Hawkesbury River.  He is heavily in debt and can see no way of paying what he owes.  Especially now after the Great Flood of March 1806 washed his holding into the sea.

The Hawkesbury region is the frontier of the embryonic New South Wales – where the lives of the men who populate it are ‘nasty, brutish and short’.  In the words of Thaddeus Cuff – a Constable and one of the area’s very few civilized men – ‘you want to see men at their worst, you follow the frontier’.

In this well-researched and well-written novel, the reader does exactly that.  Written in colonial vernacular, the novel describes day-to-day life in a colony populated by the overflow of criminals from England who are policed by men who are equally [and perhaps more] brutish and violent.

In setting the context for the novel, the author describes succinctly and movingly the day-to-day horrors existing in the colony.  The buying and selling of women as ‘wives’ which may well be illegal but is argued for by claiming that it is ‘custom’; the horrific punishments meted out to men who are considered to be of no intrinsic value by men who have themselves been brutalised; the ugly and demeaning manner in which the colonists speak of and act towards the First People – all are set out dispassionately and with an objectivity which in no way lessens the impact and horror.

Martin Sparrow – faced with a debt he can’t repay and as a lessee to land which has now ended up in the ocean – seriously considers escaping ‘the mean-hearted little world of the ridge and the river’.  However, Martin knows that he lacks mettle and panache and so needs to have someone to take him with them.  At the same time, two convicts, who have both mettle and panache, are planning an escape believing that, on the other side of the mountains, there exist –

the most beautiful grassy woodlands you are ever going to see, and way below, a small village, embosomed in a grove of tall trees by a most majestic river, flowing west, west as far as you can see, and small boats gliding the channels between little islands, and women, knee deep in the shallows, casting their nets. [71]

This imaginative vision of western New South Wales is based on an opinion expressed by no less a personage than Matthew Flinders who of course has not ever been there.  He is convinced though that the west is largely made up of a vast inland sea populated by whales.

After hearing this description and especially the reference to the women, Sparrow lets out ‘a deep sigh’ and immediately commits himself to the escape plan.  His decision sets in train a series of events which has as their purpose both the making of Martin and the describing of the brutality of life in a fledgling colony.

Thus, he sets off with his two convict companions to find their way to this idyllic world over the mountains.  However, there are obstacles everywhere not the least of which is a river which they cannot cross without a boat.  Taking advantage of a young boy – who coincidentally is the son of a magistrate – they borrow [steal] his boat.  Sadly, the boy dies an horrific death by bull shark.  This is simply the first of a series of brutal deaths most of which are at the hands of Martin as he begins to develop courage and fortitude in an attempt to win the heart of Beatrice Faa.  Bea [as she is called] is the discarded 17-year-old wife of a sealer and who may or may not have a family connection with the Chief Constable – Alister Mackie.  Bea is sold to a farmer largely to protect her against a worse fate if she was left in the town.

Martin has an affinity with the local First People which stands him in good stead as he traverses the mountains on his way to the ‘embosomed village’.  Along the way, after dispatching to their maker a number of escaped convicts, he rescues a young girl – Dot – who is held captive by a farmer and forced to be his ‘wife’.  This farmer also meets his just desserts at the hands of Martin.

There will be no spoiler informing the reader of this review of the fate of Martin.  However, in the concluding paragraphs, there is a foreshadowing of the impact of the growing colony on the First People.  Moowut’tin – an important character in the novel and a member of the First People – says while looking down at Martin and Bea walking westwards through the grassland –

Of his people he knew at once, not long ago, there was only themselves and others like them, and the edged world was theirs alone.  They were one and indivisible with their beginnings, with then and now, with earth and stone and tree and all living things … abiding [444]

In his Afterword, Peter Cochrane describes his book as ‘a work of fiction in which the documented past provides points of departure into an imagined world’.  Echoing Moowut’tin’s words above, the author makes the point – ‘the people of that hinterland [the so-called wilderness] were, in 1806, still sovereign in their retreats, unmet, as yet, by the creeping floodtide of white settlement’.  [453]

The Making of Martin Sparrow is a book well worth the reading.  Its language, the accuracy of its depiction of life in the colony, the tension created by Martin’s escape and its consequences all contribute to an excellent historical novel.

Peter Cochrane is a widely published historian and writer based in Sydney.  He is best known for his book Colonial Ambition: Foundations of Australian Democracy which in 2007 won the inaugural Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History and the Age Book of the Year.  His previous work of fiction was Governor Bligh and the Short Man.  He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

The Making of Martin Sparrow


by Peter Cochrane

Penguin Random House

ISBN 978 0 670 07406 8

453pp; $32.99





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