#17: Will Martin, by Catherine McKinnon

Catherine McKinnon’s Will Martin, another novella from Griffith Review 50: The Novella Project III, is an immersive historical fiction based on the 1796 mission by George Bass and Matthew Flinders to explore the coastline of the Illawarra region south of Sydney, in the small boat Tom Thumb.

I read this 25,000-word novella in a single sitting and found it captivating from the first page. The story is told from the perspective of the titular character, Will Martin, a young naval servant who accompanies Bass and Flinders on the journey. By focalising through this lowly character who remains a bit of a historical void (little is known of his life), McKinnon is able to explore the thoughts and concerns of colonial settlers and explorers, particularly with respect to the cross-cultural complications of first contact. This is, inevitably, still the perspective of the colonisers, who view the Aboriginal people—’Indians’—on a spectrum from childlike innocents to savage cannibals, but the narration of Will Martin’s interiority provides valuable nuance.

The story opens aboard the Tom Thumb as Will pushes off from their main ship, the Reliance, anchored in Port Jackson. The crew’s motto, ’Audere est faerce’—’to dare is to do’, along with the slap, slap of water against the side of the boat, is a recurring hymn that follows their mission, first as they head out between the heads and into open ocean, then again and again as the story progresses. Will is Bass’s servant, selected by him for the mission, but he is keen to impress the sceptical and demanding Flinders:

The Lieutenant stores a secret ledger in his memory. Each person has two columns, for and against, and the Lieutenant always knows where a person is placed. It is not surprising to hear him tell, in bitter words and months after the event, of some small injustice he has suffered at the hand of another.

A touch of humour endears Will to us, a very early colonial example of the egalitarian Aussie takedown of those in authority who may take their power too seriously:

We jostle to find a sleeping nook. Not a simple task as Mr Bass’s legs, which do seem longer than a horse’s, jerk about. The Lieutenant, thinking himself in privacy perhaps, begins souring the air with foul odours. I tuck one arm under my head and bury my nose in the other. I do not know if sharks can smell but, if they can, I will put coin to it that the Lieutenant’s inner winds, once released, will keep them distant.

The story is one of hardship and adventure, starting with a lack of fresh water—due to an oversight by Will—followed by difficulties landing their very small boat in rough waters, encounters with Aboriginal people, hunger, and the colonial ’discovery’ and naming of various localities. An account of the overall historical plot of the mission can be found in The First Footers – Bass and Flinders in Illawarra (pg. 9-19), and the action of the story is engaging, pacey and skilfully told—a masterclass in the ability of fiction to bring historical accounts to life and fill our knowledge gaps with various possibilities. In some respects this novella reminded me of Eleanor Dark’s The Timeless Land, particularly in its telling of the party’s encounters, dealings with, and varied attitudes towards the native inhabitants of the land.

The explorers fear some tribes of the Aboriginal people as cannibals, accept Aboriginal hospitality when offered (though with a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding concerning their motives), and view them as inferior ’savages’, while also showing interest in their language and customs. None of this is new, of course, yet through the relatively unknown character of Will, McKinnon is able to explore cross-cultural first contact in a multi-faceted way. While there should be no illusions about the inherent racism of the colonial view—Flinders miming as if to shoot ’Indians’ is comical; speculating that they may not be cannibals but “the kindest of Indians” is something that Will can “hardly” countenance—there is also, through Will’s evolving experience, an interest in their motivations and an awe of this great land that recognises the settlers’ own childlike lack of knowledge. Going into the mission, Will wonders:

Who foretells what possibilities issue from a land that breeds animals with enough spring to jump over huts, and birds that are taller than a man, run faster, yet cannot fly.

We three are hushed. As if being here is a step too far beyond our knowing. When I first learnt my letters I stumbled over those that would not jiggle together. I whittled away at them until one day I shaped a word. I felt so shiny with myself for having a whole word in my grasp. But a day later, when my uncle Hilton gave me one of his books to read, I fell so low. Before I started my lessons I did not notice words at all, but that day I did, only I had not reckoned on there being so many more to know. Here in the new world it is like we are all just learning our letters.

There is an evocative beauty to McKinnon’s writing, this from early on in the story:

The sea never stops its caress of the earth. On land, old-bone branches crack and crash. This place is an upturn of the natural world, each step, new and old.

Then, towards the end, fear turns to awe:

All about me there is a vast unknowing. Mr Bass and the Lieutenant jabber on. I ache to know what might be the Indians’ purpose? Would they have eaten us? I start to shake. I am not frightened now but I am in awe at the mysteries of this strange world. Sometimes being alive is too much. It is like a new rope knot that I have never seen before and cannot untie.

McKinnon’s choice of Will to narrate the story, and the uncertainties we find in his interiority, allows her to signpost the inherent uncertainty and unreliability of all historical accounts, not just historical fiction. Rather than detracting from the historical account, this allows her to explore the spaces between our knowledge, covering both what we can infer and what we can never know at all.

This is a fine novella that brings to life a perhaps little-known exploratory mission in the early years of colonial Sydney. Upon further investigation I’ve found that this story has been threaded together with others in McKinnon’s novel Storyland, shortlisted for the 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award, so perhaps it would be better to start there and read the entire novel. An earlier version of Will Martin also appeared in Transnational Literature in 2011, so there could be an interesting exercise in viewing the development of the work across its various iterations. Kudos to Griffith Review for providing space for this in its novella form.