The Secret River

The Secret River Summary and Analysis of Drawing A Line


Soon after the incident with the Aborigine and the oyster at Smasher Sullivan's place, the atmosphere at Thornhill's Point begins to change. Where once the Thornhills and their servants lived in uneasy peace with the clan of Aborigines, a feeling of fear now hangs over the settlers. Aborigines from all along the Hawkesbury pour into Thornhill's Point for a ceremonial gathering. However, the Thornhills do not know that the gathering is a peaceful ritual. They believe that the Aborigines are massing in preparation for an attack. When the ritual chanting and rattling of spears begins, a very real fear takes hold of the Thornhills and their servants. William tries to calm his family's fears and assures them that the Aborigines are just having a get-together. But William is as worried as the rest of them.

Willie and the two servants, Ned and Dan, push for preemptive violence - take the gun and shoot them before they descend on the hut. Dick stands up to them, saying there is no need for a gun. An essentially non-violent man, William does not want to take the gun, as he has no desire to kill another human being. However, he knows he has to do something to show that he is willing and able to protect his family and his land. With a show of bravado, William leaves the hut to sneak up on the Aborigines' camp and see what is going on. William's suspicions are confirmed when he sees the Aborigines covered in what he thinks is war paint. William feels the powerful energy emanating from the men. He watches Whisker Harry take centre stage, dancing and singing, and realizes that he is not just an old man but the leader of his tribe, a man as powerful in his own society as the Governor of New South Wales. William remembers with deepening anxiety how he pushed and slapped Whisker Harry on their first meeting.

William returns to the hut to find that Sal has laid out all of their belongings, intending to give them to the Aborigines in exchange for their lives. The mood in the hut is growing increasingly tense, and William feels a great pressure to do something. He decides to shoot the gun out of the window, hoping the loud explosion will scare the Aborigines into disbanding. The shot echoes off the cliffs, filling the hut with the smell of gunpowder, but the chanting and thundering beats continue without a break.

At the end of a nerve-wracking week for the Thornhills, the Aborigines disperse of their own accord. Only the original clan remains on Thornhill's Point. However, the tension continues to hang over the settlers. William buys more guns and teaches Ned, Dan, and Willie to shoot. He decides to buy some of Smasher Sullivan's vicious dogs for protection. After a bit of haggling, Smasher takes William up to his hut to choose the dogs. William is shocked to find an Aboriginal woman chained up in the hut. Smasher leeringly tells William that he and Saggity have been having their way with her and offers the woman to William, who turns away in horror. William leaves in disgust and trepidation without buying the dogs. He knows that nothing good can come of Smasher and Saggity's behaviour.

A couple of weeks later, Smasher Sullivan and the other settlers pay a visit to Thornhill's Point with worrying news. While Webb was away from his settlement, the Aborigines distracted his wife and stole all of their corn and belongings. Smasher, Saggity, and the other men are enraged and pushing for violence. Their words are laced with racial hatred. Mrs. Herring speaks up and says that Smasher and Saggity are headed for trouble, letting on that she knows about their sexual abuse of the Aboriginal women. But Smasher continues with his rant, forcing Blackwood to leave the hut in disgust.

The attack on the Webbs is one of many by the Aborigines on the white settlers during the spring of 1814. Fields are burned and men speared. The Aborigines are fighting back against the settlers' encroachment on their land. The British government decides to put an end to the Aboriginal attacks and sends a regiment led by Captain McCallum to deal with the 'native problem.' The regiment stops at Thornhill's Point before setting out on their campaign. Captain McCallum has recently arrived in New South Wales, and he is arrogant and completely naive about the land and the ways of the Aborigines. He treats William as the convict he once was, setting off William's issues with authority and his hated feeling of inferiority. A week later, McCallum and his regiment pass through Thornhill's Point on their way back to the garrison. Their expedition was a complete failure. They not only failed to pen in the Aborigines with their human chain, they walked into a trap and found themselves surrounded. Three soldiers were killed.

When the formal tactics of the army failed, the Governor of New South Wales gives the settlers permission to defend themselves, a decision that allows the settlers free reign to use violence against the Aborigines. The settlers along the Hawkesbury again gather at Thornhill's Point to discuss the decree. The majority of the settlers, led by Smasher and Saggity, are thrilled with the news. Saggity even proposes poisoning them en masse with 'the green powder.' Smasher pulls out a pair of human ears, claiming he sold the head to someone in Sydney after he boiled it clean. Smasher reattaches the ears to his belt, where he wears them for good luck. Blackwood can no longer contain his fury and frustration at Smasher's inhumane treatment of the Aborigines. He makes a grab for Smasher and punches him in the face, knocking out his remaining front teeth.

After the visitors leave, Sal suggests that they sell up and head home to London. William protests that it's only been six months since they arrived at Thornhill's Point. He tells her that he won't go back to working as a waterman on the Thames. He reminds her of the squalor of their dwellings and the hunger they experienced in London. Sal then suggests that they move to one of the little towns on the Hawkesbury; William can continue to trade with the Hope and she could open a rum bar. Sal's plan is a good one, but William will not give up on his dream. He tries to convince her that the Aborigines mean them no harm and tells her that he wants to give it the five years that she promised. Sal does not continue to argue, but William knows that she is not convinced. He also knows that trouble is coming.


Drawing A Line charts the beginning of the end of William's effort to follow Blackwood's advice - give a little/take a little. The ceremonial gathering of the Aborigines brings home to William and his family the fact that they are surrounded. The gathering on their land signals that it is really not their land at all, but a solid piece of the Aborigines' territory. Since William comes from a culture that uses weapons to kill and subdue other peoples, he finds it difficult to accept that all the rattling of spears is merely to provide rhythm for the songs. Grenville points out the gaping abyss between the Aborigines and the white settlers when William fires the gun out of the window. For the people inside the hut, the reverberating explosion means power. However, the Aborigines do not even seem to hear the shot; they are so removed from the actions of the white man that a gun shot means little to them.

Throughout the novel, Grenville carefully juxtaposes Aboriginal and British culture. In earlier chapters, she points out that the Aborigines are like the gentry William so envied in London. They spend the majority of the day at leisure and have all their desires fulfilled. Through William's growing understanding of Aboriginal culture, Grenville also suggests that the Western cultivation of the land and the Aboriginal burning of grass to attract kangaroos are both means of farming. The process may be different, but the result is the same. In this chapter, William realizes that Whisker Harry is a man of strength and standing in his society, the equal of the Governor.

By continually paralleling Aboriginal and Western cultures, Grenville wants to demonstrate to the reader that the two cultures are not actually all that different. In The Secret River, Grenville presents two seemingly opposing themes: the clash of civilizations and the potential for coexistence based on a common social structure and shared humanity. Beginning with the Thornhills' arrival in New South Wales, Grenville presents these two themes side by side. One represents the actual path that Australian history took - the domination of the Aborigines by the white settlers. The other symbolizes the path of peaceful co-existence that Australian history could have taken.

In the character of Dick, Grenville presents the alternative future of Australian youth. Instead of growing up to despise or, at best, disregard Aboriginal culture, future generations of Australians could have learned from the Aborigines. Dick always stands up for the Aborigines, and he abhors the thought of violence against them. His skill with the spear testifies not only to his willingness to learn from the Aborigines, but also to the Aborigines willingness to cooperate and live peacefully with the settlers. The Aborigines accept Dick into their midst without question, teaching him all the things that they teach their own children. Through the character of Dick, Grenville provides a glimpse of what Australia could have become if the two cultures had been allowed to co-exist and learn from each other.

The fear that the Thornhills and their servants experience during the ritual gathering is the primary cause of the eventual dispersement and destruction of Aborigines by the white settlers. Fear often leads to anger. An essentially humane person like William can be pushed to uncalled for or disproportionate violence by fear and incomprehension. While British imperial policy advocated the subjugation of foreign lands, the task of actually subjugating those lands often came down to the settlers themselves. When Captain McCallum's army fails, it is the settlers who are now on front line of the 'native program.' The fear they experience from being watched by hidden eyes contributes to their willingness to use violence against the Aborigines.