The Visitors by Jane Harrison

Reviewed by Rod McLary

The Visitors is a re-imagining of that fateful day in January 1788 when the eleven ships of the First Fleet entered what we now know as Sydney Cove.  The events of the day are described from the perspective of a group of seven Elders, each representing one of the First Nation mobs around the bay, as they meet to decide what action – if any – they should take in relation to the visitors.

The story begins when a scarlet parakeet falls dead at Grandfather Joseph’s feet; he asks himself – ‘What does it all mean?  What is about to happen? [1]  Young Lawrence – nineteen-years-old and almost finished his initiation rite – is eager to pass on what he has seen in the bay – ‘a nowee of an unknown kind is approaching’ [8].  Being the impetuous youth he is, Lawrence disobeys the directive not to approach the visitors and late one evening he paddles out to the ship.  The consequences of his action reach far beyond the ‘whacking’ he receives from Uncle Raymond when his indiscretion is discovered.  These consequences become evident later in the narrative.

Astute readers would by now have taken note of the names of the protagonists in the novel – all slightly tongue-in-cheek – Gary, Gordon, Lawrence, Joseph, Albert, Walter, and Nathaniel.

The nowee anchors a little offshore and from time to time a small group in a small boat comes ashore causing great consternation among the local mob.  The visitors behave in ‘bizarre ways’ – they can’t find water; they chop down a tree for firewood instead of using fallen branches; they give the mob gifts which have no purpose.  In short, the visitors begin as they mean to continue.  Over the course of the day, more nowees arrive until there are eleven.

To consider how the mobs will respond to the visitors [by welcome or by rebuff], Gary – an Elder from another mob – calls an Elders’ meeting in two sunrises time in Warrane [the Aboriginal word for the Sydney Cove area].  As the Elders work their way to a consensual decision, insights into the lifestyle of the mobs are shared.  The foods they gather and the times when available, their favoured methods of making canoes and weapons, the interactions between individuals, and their cultural rites of passage – all of which add further depth to the narrative.

From their vantage site at the top of the escarpment, the Elders are well placed to observe and monitor the movements of the nowees – and the behaviour of the visitors.

On one rather heart-wrenching occasion, the Elders observe the crew on one ship gathering for an event.  The crew assembles a pole from which to hang a rope looped at one end.  Readers will know immediately what is soon to be done but the Elders look on with horror as they struggle to understand what they are seeing.  Two of the crew appear dragging ‘a mere boy’ [201] towards the pole and the rope is draped over his head – and the boy is hanged.  Albert expresses what the Elders are thinking – In your wildest thoughts, can you ever think of such a thing? [204]

Even more concerning are the harbingers of what lies ahead for the First Nations peoples.  Lawrence recounts to the Elders when during his clandestine paddle to the nowee he observed a sailor leaning over the rail who then sneezed.  Lawrence ‘felt a small spray, like from a waterfall’ [178].  Later in the day, he begins to feel extremely unwell, very lethargic, and ‘foggy in the head, misty, wet’ [253].  He is suffering from what is presumably influenza which came with the First Fleet.

In the Coda to the novel, the consequence of welcoming the visitors to the land is set out in simple direct language but with an undercurrent of regret.  The landing of hundreds of men, the felling of trees, the handing out of rum and the effect of it, the landing of the sick, the strange animals which wander off, and the devastation of smallpox on the First Nations peoples.

This is a novel which is infused with humour and pathos – and an undercurrent of regret for what has been lost since that day in January 1788.  The death of Lawrence through an introduced disease perhaps can be seen as a metaphor for the loss of a way of life, a love and respect for country, and the absence of community.  The final sentence of the novel says it all – We once lived in Paradise. [290]

The Visitors began as a stage play which had a sold-out season at the Sydney Festival in 2020.  The author – Jane Harrison – is descended from the Muruwari people; her first play Stolen was performed in Australia and internationally.  Her second play Rainbow’s End won the 2012 Drover Award.

The Visitors


by Jane Harrison

Fourth Estate

ISBN 978 146076 198 4

$32.99; 292pp


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