The Lieutenant

by Kate Grenville

The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville X
The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2009, 320 pages

    Paperback:
    Sep 2010, 320 pages

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BookBrowse Review

A remarkable story, set in the early days of Australian colonization, about the poignancy and emotional power of a friendship that defies linguistic and cultural barriers

Loosely based on the notebooks of astronomer William Dawes, The Lieutenant split our readers into two distinct groups. About two-thirds of those who reviewed it loved it, but a few of the remainder were considerably less enthusiastic:

Fans say...
In this beautifully written and delightful novel, Grenville seamlessly weaves historical fact together with a multitude of philosophical questions in order to create a vivid and compelling story (Eileen P). The book explores the huge themes of friendship, the conflict between cultures, and courage. As one man discovers himself he finds that he has it within him to follow his conscience no matter what the cost. All intertwined with the magic of language, mathematics, and astronomy (Maryanne K).

If you are interested in the Aboriginals and how the first penal colony was settled in New South Wales in the 1780's, The Lieutenant is the book worth reading. Although it is fiction loosely based on a real person, the rich details of daily life, conflicts, and diversity of language drives the story leaving its readers to want more (Marion C). The historical background adds a new dimension to a story you may think you know. Questions of culture and morality left me thinking about this book long after I finished it. Book clubs will enjoy this as will readers who liked The Forgotten Garden or Olive Kitteridge (Susan B). Of particular interest to me was the way in which the author portrayed the young lieutenant's burgeoning preoccupation with the intricacies of the aboriginal language and culture. I very much liked Grenville's use of language and am looking forward to reading an earlier book of hers, The Secret River next (Susan K).

Kate Grenville has a new fan! Her simple and straightforward style belies a depth and complexity of both story and characters. This is not only a novel of science and exploration, but also of discovery - discovery of place and peoples and language, discovery of self and purpose. (Madeline M-S). This was a hard book to finish because I found myself lost in thought and not reading. A beautiful book (Sally G).

But some feel that...
The story is lacking in purpose, there seems to be no theme nor any successful conclusion (Margo A).  I think this is a good book, well worth reading, but feel the author missed the opportunity to develop it into a great book with a more powerful story (Jean T); not enough time is spent on any of the elements of the story. I was left wishing for a deeper examination of the characters and events (Katherine Y).

The bottom line
The Lieutenant revisits the same period Grenville wrote about in The Secret River (2005), the first years of the Port Jackson penal colony, but this is a more compact, leaner work.  Although based on the diaries of William Dawes this is not your typical historical fiction - Grenville is as much, if not more, focused on observing the mind of her protagonist than she is in exploring the vista he beholds.  As we inhabit his mind, his moral dilemmas become ours, and we share his isolation.  Written with a poet's sensibility, this is an adventure into the nature of language and culture and of how people can connect across seemingly impenetrable barriers.

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Above: The Charlotte, one of the eleven ships in the First Fleet, at Portsmouth before departure in May 1787.
Right: A studio photograph of a convict showing the convict uniform and the use of leg irons. c.1880s.

This review was originally published in October 2009, and has been updated for the September 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

Beyond the Book

The Australian Penal Colonies

You might wonder why Britain would choose to send ships filled with convicts and their jailors to, quite literally, the other side of the world.  The answer is simple economics.

In the 1780s, the British population was increasing fast, as were the effects of the Industrial Revolution which led to the displacement of a great many people who, without land, rights or jobs, were reduced to stealing. 

Meanwhile, Britain, having lost the American Colonies, was on the lookout for new land to colonize.  The east coast of Australia, charted by The Endeavor in 1770, looked like it had potential.  So it was decided that instead of using slaves, the infrastructure of the new colony would be built with convict labor - a free and often skilled work force that also went some way to solving the British convict problem.

On the whole, the convicts sent to Australia were not hardened criminals.  About eight out of ten had been convicted for stealing, one in three were Irish and almost without exception they were poor. Most were sentenced for seven to fourteen years of penal servitude; others were to serve "for the term of their natural lives" - the latter having been commuted from the death sentence. By the 1770s there were over two hundred crimes in Britain that could result in the death penalty, including stealing anything worth more than 5 shillings (which is about £28 or US $40 in today's money according to this nifty historical inflation calculator).

In 1787, the First Fleet of eleven ships arrived in Port Jackson (now part of Sydney Harbour).  It is thought that 1,403 embarked from Portsmouth Harbour in England; 1,332 arrived. During the voyage 69 people either died, were discharged or deserted and seven were born. Of those that arrived, about 732 were convicts, 514 were crew and marines, 54 were the wives and children of marines, about 14 were officials or passengers, and just 18 were children belonging to convicts, 4 of whom were born during the voyage.  Two more convict fleets arrived in 1790 and 1791, and the first free settlers arrived in 1793.

Tradesmen were highly valued and assigned to tasks that fitted their skills, while the unskilled were assigned to work gangs. Many convicts were assigned directly to free settlers who were responsible for them, thus reducing the burden on the fledgling administration.  The majority of women (representing 20% of convicts) were assigned as servants, in the early days to marines and later to free settlers, with many being forced into prostitution.  Other women, especially new arrivals and those who were pregnant or being punished, were assigned to "female factories" (prison work houses).  Having completed their sentence the convicts were freed with parcels of land allocated to them and were able to take on convict servants themselves.

165,000 convicts would arrive in Australia between 1788-1868, mostly to Port Jackson; with some, after 1850, being transported to Western Australia.

Of course, it should not be forgotten that in 1787, when the first convict ships arrived, Australia was already home to an estimated 318,000-750,000 indigenous people (with over 250 spoken languages and 600 dialects), the majority of whom lived in south-east Australia - the same attractive part of the country to which the early settlers arrived.

Links

  • A partial list of stolen goods that resulted in transportation to Australia as a convict.
  • A list of the convicts on the First Fleet, and their sentences.
  • Links to lists of the more than one million immigrants to Australia between 1788 and 1900

This review was originally published in October 2009, and has been updated for the September 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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