The 19th Century European Settlers: Values and Attitudes of a Bygone Era

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The values and attitudes of the European settlers in Australia during the 19th century may seem preposterous to us today, but at the time their beliefs were normal and accepted. Caucasian people were thought to be superior to all other people, and Europeans were also thought to be superior to everyone else. So convicts sent over from England to Australia, who were the lowest kind of people in England, had a greater amount of power and respect than the Aboriginals had in Australia.

The people then had different perspectives to us nowadays on race, gender, class and many other things. The settler’s views on the Aboriginal people were generally shared and accepted by most people during the colonisation of Australia. Kate Grenville’s story The Secret River is set during the time in which Australia was colonised. An understanding of the historical context in which The Secret River is set, shapes your reading of the text because it helps you to understand issues in the text such as class, race and gender.

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Firstly, knowing about the class structure of the period that The Secret River is based on, gives the reader a greater understanding of the text. They believed in The Great Chain of Being where God was the highest ruler and the church had a lot of power.

Then there was the King because their society is ruled by a monarchy. They took the class structure very seriously, and once someone had been in a very low class, say with William Thornhill being a convict, they could never have as much respect.

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Thornhill “had a sudden dizzying understanding of the way men were ranged on top of each other, all the way from the Thornhills at the bottom up to the King of God, at the top, each man higher than one, lower than the other” showing how he was in a very low class compared to the vast range of other higher classes above himself. When Thornhill was a convict he was the lowest of the lows, so when he and other convicts like himself were sent to Australia, they immediately moved up a class from where they were in England because of the Aboriginals being thought of as a lower class than the whites, because they were thought of as inferior to the whites. When in Australia “He let himself imagine it: standing on the crest of that slope, looking down over his own place. Thornhill’s point. It was a piercing hunger in his guts: to own it.

To say mine, in a way he had never been able to say mine of anything at all” because of his low status he had almost no power or wealth, so to finally own something, something so significant, it was a big deal for him. Thornhill continued to increase his wealth and therefore get to a higher class. But even though he has gained so much, people will always see him as a convict, no matter how wealthy he becomes. He promised himself, when he was poor and not respected, that he would never be like the gentry in England, that he would be a good person, but as he gained wealth and power he soon forgot what it was like to be in such a low class. When he and Sal received their first convict servants, he became even more so like the gentry he swore never to be. He and Sal had played the game of master and servant before, but having their own real servants “was another kind of pleasure altogether, and no game.” for they finally had complete power and control over another person’s life.

William Thornhill, having gained so much, had almost forgotten completely how he used to be, but when he went to pick up his own convict servants, the man working there recognised him from when he was first deported to Australia as a convict, which reminded Thornhill that he was once a lowly convict himself, and that he will never be able to erase that from his past. If the Thornhills returned to England, as Sal desired, they would go from where they were in Australia, a reasonably wealthy and respected family, to back from where they were before, one of the lowest of the lows, yet slightly wealthier than they were previosly. Having knowledge of the class structure in 19th century Europe and settled Australia gives the reader a greater understanding of the text. Having an understanding of the historical context of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, helps to shape your reading of the issue of race in the text.

The whole settlement of Australia was based on the idea that whites were the superior race and that the Aboriginals were inferior, they were even thought of to be as low as animals, inhuman. The settlers thought that they were very unusual, even barbaric, in the way they acted and the fact that they wore almost nothing at all. Also according to the settlers “There were no signs that the blacks felt that the place belonged to them. They had no fences that said this is mine. No house that said, this is our home. There were no fields or flocks that said, we have put the labour of our hands into this place.” so they decided to claim the land as their own. The Aboriginals had no sense of ownership as such; they generally shared what they had. So Thornhill thought it was perfectly fine for him to claim some land and to build his property there. The Aboriginals ‘trespassed’ on his land and he made pitiful attempts to make then leave, though he and Sal soon grew used to their habits and their nakedness.

He soon realised that “the blacks were farmers no less than the white men were. But they did not bother to build a fence to keep the animals from getting out. Instead, they created a tasty patch to lure them in. Either way, it meant meat for dinner.” proving that they were not as unintelligent as he first thought, they just knew the land better and had different ways of doing things. For Thornhill “there was an emptiness as he watched Jack’s hand caressing the dirt. This was something that he did not have: a place that was part of his flesh and spirit. There was no part of the world that he would keep coming back to, just to feel it under him.” because by then he understood that the Aboriginals did have a kind of connection with the land, he was envious of this. The settlers believed that the Aboriginals were less evolved than themselves, as did the Aboriginals think of the whites. The English people who arrived in Australia believed in ownership, unlike the Aboriginals, so when a settler ‘claimed’ a piece of land, he could not understand why the people kept trespassing and the Aboriginals did not understand why they couldn’t go on that land, unknowing of property and ownership as the whites did.

Some settlers grew used to the Aboriginals more than others, like Blackwood for example, so much so that they could even be called friends, whereas there were others who always thought that the Aboriginals were low and inhuman, like Smasher Sullivan, and thought that the aboriginals ought to be punished, even though sometimes they did not realise that they’d done anything wrong at all. Aboriginals were treated unfairly and were punished for being Aboriginals; the settlers were cruel and utterly racist. Knowing about the issues of race during the colonisation of Australia, gives the reader a greater understanding of the racial issues raised in The Secret River. Having an understanding of The Secret River’s historical context shapes the reader’s perspective on gender issues raised in the text. Men during the 19th century held the power. They were head of the church, which held much of the power in society, and they ruled as King, who also held a lot of power, and just general men held more power than most women, for they were mostly the more dominant person in the relationships and they were ‘man of the house’.

For the most part, during the 19th century, women were thought of as the weaker sex. Their role was to cook, clean and bear children, and the majority of women played this part willingly. Sal being the most prominent female character in The Secret River does not resemble this stereotype very much. At times she portrays the stereotype, for instance when an old friend of theirs is sentenced to by hung, Thornhill went but Sal “would not go to witness the hanging” which makes her seem feeble and weak. Again she’s portrayed as the stereotypical 19th century woman when “Thornhill saw that she was prepared to wear herself away to nothing for her children” because she had such strong mothering instincts. But in other instances she is portrayed as almost being stronger than Thornhill because “Sal pushed back against it all” when times became difficult, and Thornhill constantly refers to her as cheeky and at one point called her a “terrier”.

He said she had “a stubborn intelligence as unyielding as a rock” which you wouldn’t normally find in a description of the average woman during that period. Thornhill appears to admire Sal’s feistiness and strength. Thornhill is portrayed as a seemingly average man. He appears to be a fairly ideal man except that he is in such a low class that he becomes undesirable and has no one that respects him. There are some fairly stereotypical characters in the text and there are also characters that break the boundaries of the stereotypes. Knowing the historical context of when The Secret River is set gives the reader a greater perspective on the gender issues raised in the story.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville will have a lot more meaning and give a greater understanding if the reader is familiar with the historical context on which it is based. Without the knowledge of colonial Australia, much of The Secret River would not make much sense. If someone today was to treat the aboriginals now how they were treated then, there would be uproar from the population, but during those times it was perfectly fine and generally accepted by everyone. Racism played a huge role in colonial Australia, yet is redundant in modern society. The values and attitudes of people have changed greatly over time and will continue to change in the future.

Cite this page

The 19th Century European Settlers: Values and Attitudes of a Bygone Era. (2017, Jan 28). Retrieved from

The 19th Century European Settlers: Values and Attitudes of a Bygone Era
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