Originally known as Van Diemen’s Land, the island of Tasmania has a brutal past, extending from its time of European settlement and the genocide of its indigenous population.
The local government of the day paid bounty hunters to kill in an attempt to prevent the murder of settler families and livestock as Europeans set up home and fenced off land that had both practical and spiritual significance to the locality’s Aborigines.
As the two very different cultures clashed, so death, mayhem and slaughter followed.
Tasmania is not the archetypal red dust of Australia. A mountainous island of dense forests, fast-flowing rivers and deep ravines, early 19th century Europeans did not find life easy, not helped by the wet, cold climate. First established as a penal colony, it was to Tasmania the most hardened criminals were sent.
In 1829 the first settling was little more than 25 years old, but martial law had already been passed. It was the time of the ‘Black Wars’, a terrible period of Australian history as the genocide of the Tasmanian indigenous population resulted in almost complete annihilation.
John Batman’s roving party
And it is John Batman, farmer and explorer, founder of Melbourne (just a few years after The Roving Party is set), who is the main protagonist of Rohan Wilson’s novel – a rum-soaked killer of men who, whilst reasonably fair, has no liking for “the black fella”, including the fearsome Black Bill, a black reared as white in a European household.
It is Batman who leads the small roving party, a “mongrel lot” of convicts, “tamed blacks” and Black Bill (anything but tamed), with a remit to remove – and kill if necessary – the clanfolk aborigines, led by the fearless Manalargena. The reward for the men is their ‘ticket’ or freedom along with land grants and money.
It’s a bloody tale as the men track across the remote, impenetrable and inhospitable land in almost freezing temperatures, setting up camp in clothes wet from river crossings or the incessant rain. Food is scarce and the mood in the camp is as dark as the rainclouds scuttling across the skies above them.
None of the convicts are suited to such endeavours, and there is little trust between the men. It is Black Bill who, on three separate occasions, saves the lives of members of the party and a begrudging respect slowly builds. Respect yes: trust, no – not even from Batman on whose land Black Bill now lives.
Rohan Wilson’s The Roving Party
It’s a stark novel, brutal in its telling. Loosely based on the truth (Batman did organise a roving party in 1829), The Roving Party is as much about human nature as it is about the Black Wars. The men rarely come across the clanfolk in any significant numbers. They spend weeks tracking cross-country, eking out their own tortuous survival in the hope of that ticket.
And whilst it is hauntingly descriptive, The Roving Party is strangely hollow: the immersion in tracking Manalargena, which becomes a personal crusade for Black Bill, and associated hardships result in a one-dimensional narrative. We know next to nothing of the other men – and in reality little of Black Bill. Yet we spend months in their company.
It is this lack of characterisation and variation that renders The Roving Party ultimatelydisappointing, a novel six years in the research and winner of the 2010 The Australian/Vogel Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript by a writer under the age of 35.
- Rohan Wilson, The Roving Party (Allen & Unwin, 2011)