"We are emissaries of God, science, justice ... We know pity and the Devil knows what else. But nothing beats three staked heads. What was it that the young naturalist Darwin said when he visited here a few years past and sat in this very dining room? 'Van Diemen's Land enjoys the great advantage of being free from a native population.' You think such freedom is easily won? Perhaps you think it can happen without several staked heads."
These words are uttered in conversation over dinner by a smiling agent of the Van Diemen's Land Company, which owns the northwestern corner of the island now known as Tasmania. This man possesses "the chilling certainty of a man unafraid of the horror he has discovered in himself." The dinner's host is famed explorer Sir John Franklin, who will soon be maneuvered out of his position as governor of the island. It is 1843. By this time the vicious "Black Wars" have decimated the indigenous population. The small remaining population has been removed to a sordid reservation on Flinders Island off the coast, where demoralization, deracination and disease perpetuate a pitiless drumbeat of death.
In his latest novel, "Wanting," Australian author Richard Flanagan limns a compelling and stark rumination on the raw cruelty of extermination. Most of the European purveyors of that crime are indifferent or blatantly hostile towards those on whom they inflict genocidal suffering. Progress and civilization are ineluctably on the march. Dark-skinned heathens have no place in a changing world where conquest, colonization, and, of course, making money are supreme values. If bloodletting and the extirpation of indigenous culture are the grisly prices that must be paid in order to ensure the extension of European civilization, then so be it. Regarding his participation in the violent elimination of the native population, the agent calmly asseverates that "my full conviction was and is that the laws of nature and of God and of this country all conspired to render it my duty."
One of the shrinking numbers of native survivors is a young black girl named Mathinna. Despite the atrocities that have destroyed her people, she is possessed of youthful joy and able to relish life's wonders. "How she loved the sensation of the soft threads of fine grass feathering beads of water onto her calves, and the feel of the earth beneath her bare feet, wet and mushy in winter, dry and dusty in summer."
Observing Mathinna, Sir John Franklin's wife Lady Jane is smitten by the "small Black girl dancing in a children's corroborree [aboriginal ceremonial gathering] staged in welcome on the brilliant white sand." The English woman is 47 years of age and childless, and resolves that she and "her aged and corpulent husband," Sir John, will adopt the child and transform her from her "savage" state into a refined and cultured European. Lady Jane makes her announcement of this intention "as though it were the final item to be ordered off a long menu." It is a dubious and ultimately tragic undertaking.
Though the story of Mathinna provides the book's center of gravity, Flanagan's novel is comprised of a shifting montage of characters and settings. Two years after Sir John departs Tasmania, the explorer embarks on an ill-fated sea voyage to locate the Northwest Passage. The two ships and all of the men are lost, including Sir John, in the gelid expanse of the Arctic. For years nothing is known about what has befallen the expedition. Finally information is secured that provides a partial scenario of the disaster. One alarming factor stands out: Evidence indicates that some crewmembers had engaged in cannibalism. The allegation is shocking, horrifying. After all, civilized Englishmen would never sink to such despicable depths, even if they were starving to death. Would they?
Lady Jane enlists the estimable Charles Dickens to rebut such horrific implications: "For those who had followed the greatest mystery of the age, the prospect of the most popular writer of the day putting forth his view on the sensation of the rumours of cannibalism was irresistible." Dickens' eloquent defense of Franklin and his crew reminds a stunned nation that Englishmen are not savages and "if Sir John had perished, it would have been nobly, gloriously, heroically; not as a goggle-eyed barbarian." Long after Dickens published his inspiring essay it would be proven that cannibalism had indeed taken place.
Says this fictional Dickens, "We all have appetites and desires. But only the savage agrees to sate them." Of course this is a preposterous lie that veils the ferocious avarice, rapacity and outright hypocrisy of those who assume superiority over others. Flanagan's "Wanting" is a most worthwhile, albeit horrifying, read.