Unease and disease

Redrawing the boundaries of colonial madness

OVER THE COURSE of eight years I researched and wrote a book, Bedlam at Botany Bay, about colonial madness in Australia. I read the records generated by the projects undertaken here – endeavours at every scale, from simple survival through to the efforts of empires to mobilise labour, capital and morality. Letters scratched out by the two outsized, Crown-appointed spiders working from the stone house on the rise above the eastern shore of Warrane (Sydney Harbour) and transmitted to the buildings thrown up around the edge of the water; the second settlement at Parramatta; the out­stations in contested areas; the penal stations on far-flung islands; and the lair of the hulking old beast half a world away on Downing Street. I read case notes scribbled by half-trained doctors, case law by half-trained lawyers, editorials and newsprint written in the same inflated, pompous register in which it seems that many of the better-heeled colonists prosecuted their lives. The spiders spun without cease a taut, geometric thing strung over the uneven, ungainly contours of the colony, over the actual life of the world I was working to reconstruct. Somewhere within this close web, and the stray silken threads spun silent across the water by every person with access to ink and paper and language, somewhere within and inside all this lovely, suffocating gossamer lay the monstrous and mundane matter of colonisation: a thing so ordinary anyone could do it and so special some felt called to it and so awful that it continues to poison the land and everything on it.


THE VIOLENCE OF colonisation, declared Australian art historian and critic Bernard Smith in his 1980 Boyer Lectures, is ‘a nightmare to be thrust out of mind’. Confronted by the ‘realities of the colonial frontier’ – murder, rape, abduction, theft – settlers turned from their Enlightenment principles ‘to take refuge in primitive tribal myths that lay at the heart of their own culture, in order to justify themselves’. It was this settler psychology – this thrusting out of mind – that hardened into ‘the great Australian silence’, as WEH Stanner called it in his own Boyer Lectures in 1968. It became a ‘cult of forgetfulness’.

Smith argues that there are distinct kinds of colonial power: physical control, or coercion maintained by laws, and a ‘psychological control by which the victors suppress their own moral doubts concerning the more brutal facts of conquest’. A settler colony is a fragile fantasy world, its fundamental nature hidden beneath its historical and political fictions. ‘But human nature being what it is,’ Smith writes, ‘control is never, short of genocide, complete. Physical control is eventually modified by reform or by violence; psychological control by a concerned conscience.’

The material with which that conscience works has often been the Australian bush; it is laden with settler psychology. In his essay ‘A haunted country?’, historian Tom Griffiths finds ‘echoes of frontier unease’ reverberating through the literature, art, music and memoirs of the bush. At dusk on dark winter days, for nature writer Alec Chisholm, ‘the “brooding” of the trees became almost fearsome’ with the ghosts of the dispossessed, which also haunt the writing of Marcus Clarke and Judith Wright and the journals of ordinary settlers. ‘From the very beginning,’ writes Griffiths, ‘white Australians lived uneasily with the contradiction at the heart of their “unoccupied country”.’

The quality of melancholy with which so many writers and artists sketched the bush was, in part, a by-product of the application of Darwinian theories to colonial life. These theories allowed settlers to see Aboriginal existence, and the destruction of Aboriginal land and lives, as a ‘natural process’, writes Smith, and to use the same calculus to deal with Aboriginal people that they used to deal with plants and animals. This meant that the bush came to hold all the anxieties that flowed from these dealings. It was not from nostalgia that settlers read melancholy into the Australian bush, argues Smith, but from fear and guilt.

In her groundbreaking 2002 book Trauma Trails: Recreating Song Lines, Jiman and Bundjalung woman Judy Atkinson writes about the effects of ‘the layered trauma that results from colonisation’. Collective trauma, she writes – drawing on the work of sociologist Kai Erikson – is more diffuse than individual trauma, but also more enduring. ‘It seeps slowly and insidiously into the fabric and soul of relations and beliefs of people as community. The shock of loss of self and community comes gradually.’ Grief may be displaced by rage, often inarticulable, but both inner compass and external guides have been damaged or lost. The result is dysfunctional and sometimes violent behaviour at individual and societal levels, which further traumatises and passes on the original violence to generation after generation. Powerful work is being done by Atkinson and other Indigenous scholars and practitioners in historical trauma studies. Atkinson founded We Al-li, a training organisation that draws on Indigenous traditions of renewal to address the continuing trauma of colonial violence. Its name comes from two Woppaburra words that evoke the passage through fire-anger (we), which is used to cleanse the earth and to make way for growth, to water-grief (al-li), the source of life that spills across boundaries, always flowing into greater sources of itself. The organisation runs workshops that use dadirri, an Aboriginal practice of deep listening in quiet stillness, to move towards healing of Aboriginal selves and communities and towards a broader healing. One program points quietly to the other side of colonial trauma: ‘We know that our white brothers and sisters carry their own particular burdens.’

I do not think these burdens, the fantasies and terrors that haunt settler Australia, have been reckoned with fully. The Australian historian Patrick Wolfe leaves space for the reverberations of terror within his structural theory of colonialism; Lorenzo Veracini, extending Wolfe’s work in a foundational text in settler colonial studies, discusses the insights that psychoanalytic theory offers into the structures of elimination and replacement. Tom Griffiths’ research on the sifters and collectors of the effects of the past found that antiquarians became ‘both violators and mediators’ of Aboriginal culture as they trawled the land for artefacts. Historical sensibilities in a settler state are fragile, brittle. Michael Warren’s recent thesis, Unsettled Settlers, explores fear and white victimhood in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land in the first fifty years of settlement, enquiring into the psychology of the frontier in greater depth. He is interested in the anxiety – the white fright – of settler communities. And Michael Sturma writes about the psychology of the frontier as that of a war zone, exploring the mentality of mass murder that became possible there.

The words ‘unease’ and ‘disease’ have a shared genealogy of distress. In recent times a hyphen has been introduced – dis-ease – to drive back to those roots. In the OED: dis-ease, an absence of ease, a discomfort or disquiet. Trouble. It is often unclear where distress ends and disorder begins, or what the boundary is between unease and the modern word disease: a condition of the body or an organ, an ailment, malady or illness. ‘A departure from the state of health,’ according to the New Sydenham Society’s Lexicon of Medicine and the Allied Sciences (1881), ‘especially when caused by structural change.’ Confronted by the outward failure of their colonial projects, including the failure to come to terms with Australia’s climate and geography and to deal justly with Aboriginal people, settlers have at times articulated its internal failure. The violence that haunts our art and literature registers moral failure. Settlers have called the land itself haunted, or cursed, but it is we who are cursed by the violence we do to the land and its people.

There is more than etymology here. How might the violent contradictions of colonisation register beyond unease in settler art and writing? Might violence not flash across settler minds and bodies and manifest in fitful dreams and in the fraught images of madness? How might colonial history interrupt the coherence of the self and the clarity of our continuing encounter with the world?


THE FIRST MENTAL health institution in Australia was a small asylum at Castle Hill, built in 1810 under the direction and aspiration of Governor Lachlan Macquarie as he strode out into the future he imagined for the southern continent. For Macquarie, the ornamental dressings of the colony’s stonework signalled the clarity of moral purpose and improvement within its residences and institutions. But when he wrote to London detailing all the works paid for from the British coffers, the ‘lunatic asylum’ at ‘Castlehill’ was far down the list. The italics and quotation marks he used to parenthesise the asylum and its site indicated – to me, to Downing Street, to the man himself? – the blurring of boundaries that the colonists sought to draw sharply.

In Sydney, the location, purpose and nature of the asylum were indistinct. To trace the course of madness through it, and through the rest of the colony’s early history, was to show the way law and empire and individual ambitions were piled upon each other, and to show that as well as the lively community painted in recent histories, this was a place of fear and trembling. Punctuating the shops and houses and schools, the apparatus of ordinary life, were gibbets and guardhouses, insolvency and insurrection, corruption and club law and, yes, also melancholy and mania. I had and have no interest in writing dreadful histories of Sydney (which may share some semantic space with the so-called black armband projects), but as I went about my work I became aware of a history in which dread was integral. And this dread was not something platonic or rarefied, but the ragged edges of colonial life breaking inner peace and shattering selves.

All societies have jagged edges and all communities have crushed souls in their midst. The mad, like the poor, are always with us and were with us in the same ancient rounds of sermons and signs on the mount and by the sea. But just as other madnesses carry the burdens of other social configurations – of stale and crusted cultures and perverse racial fictions and every iteration of communal angst – the madness of colonial Sydney seemed to show the particular tensions of a settler colony wrestling with what it was to be criminal, to be free, to be in exile, to be in control.

The chapters of my book are bound up in these internal questions about the precarity of colonisation, mapping places where settler projects fell apart, even as the overall project of colonisation ploughed invariably on towards the present. I write about the suspicions that grew up around madness in a society of felons, and how the law of lunacy was used to protect the fragile extension of imperial power into the further reaches of the colony. I show madness close to the heart of the early conflicts – ideological, interpersonal, egotistical – that gave shape to colonial society, and show how the treatment of those who were ill defies our expectations of colonial power and the convict system.

Not so the epilogue. In Elizabethan dramaturgy, an epilogue allowed a playwright to comment directly on a drama after its denouement, through a mouthpiece. In my own I use Alexander Green, the young, tortured hangman of New South Wales, to articulate deeper doubts and concerns that bringing these stories of breakdown into the world had forced upon me. The young Dutch circus tumbler was transported to the colony and acted as a police informer until he was exposed; afterwards, he took perhaps the only path open to him – becoming the colony’s executioner – and drank away its darkness. He died, insane, in the asylum, having slurred and stumbled into the glaring future, a colony throwing off the grim scaffolding of its birth.

In truth, the hangman makes an incoherent (and mostly mute) mouthpiece. As an analogy his life is imperfect. All analogies are. But there is something about the dimmed gaze and tired death work of Alexander Green, something in his desolate trajectory that seemed to fit the wretchedness that continued to course through the colony even as it lurched towards external indicators of prosperity and success. Reviled by the community and apparently haunted by his dispatches, Green was as much a captive to his misaligned stars as any of Shakespeare’s objects of pathos.

Shakespeare never leaves a stage in pathos, as JFA Pyre writes in ‘Shakespeare’s Pathos’ (1916). It is instead engulfed by the frantic action and moral drama of the play, so that in the final moments, as Pyre writes, ‘the winds fall and cease, and the waves break back on themselves in a mighty subsidence; but it is the calm of a supreme exaltation. We ourselves, like the hero at his last breath, seem to be snatched up out of the storm and the struggle which roll harmlessly backward below us.’ At the close of the play we feel ‘a momentary superiority to all finite agitation’, writes Pyre, quoting George Santayana to articulate what that feeling is: ‘that emotion of detachment and liberation in which the sublime really consists.’

History is not so safe. There can be no detachment, and no liberation, reading settler history on settler country; there is nothing sublime about a settler state. And so from the inward questions about madness that drove my book’s chapters – how madness ruptured and revealed the infrastructure of the colony – I turned to new questions. What harm did colonial violence do to settler minds? How did settlers’ consciousness of their theft and violence translate beyond unease and into disease and disorder? Madness is always with us, and it always refers beyond itself. What is its moral content in settler Australia? It began to seem that madness might have enveloped the least bearable parts of colonial experience, to be draped in the language of unreason and sequestered in a hospital or asylum. It began to seem that the asylum was part of the spiritual apparatus of the colony.

These are not conventional historical questions and reflections, and I falter as I write them. But the chaos of madness, its interrupted logic, the pieces of language and meaning that it marks up and preserves, all point to the contradictions that, while inhering all selves and societies, are vividly rehearsed in colonial lives.

The spectral, for Bernard Smith, calls upon Freudian psychodynamic theories of repression and involves parallels between individual childhood and ‘the childhood of a nation’, so that tradition and folklore eliminate those parts of history that are difficult or painful. Smith looks to poetry, fiction, journalism and art to see how violence has been suppressed and sublimated. Engaging history with psychoanalytical theories of trauma and repression elicits new kinds of historical knowledge, as the work of Cornell English Professor Cathy Caruth demonstrates. Doubts about the colonial project, writes Tom Griffiths, ‘have a long and intriguing history; they are the emotional burden of Australian settlement; they are the recurrent, inescapable shadows and spectres of the colonial experience’. He finds those shadows in poetry and fiction, like Smith, and also buried in the diaries and memoirs of the frontier.

My studies in madness lead me to wonder about other forms of haunting, about how the curse of colonisation might work itself out in settler minds. The stout, bearded worlds of nineteenth-century medicine and law had no language for knowledge too painful or for experience too powerful, for the way the brutal elements of the colonial project might wreck everything, break spirits and souls and minds, might be muttered about through sleepless nights and lead to rage or tears that find no words. And might not these fragments and whispers and gestures, these symptoms, return in spectral forms?


COLONIAL VIOLENCE CONTINUES to haunt us. In her novel Salt Creek, published in 2017, Lucy Treloar spins family history and formal history together, situating the narrative both in the historical world and in the imagined moral landscape of the Australian frontier. It is written from the perspective of Hester Finch, whose family, after business failure in Adelaide, moves south to the Coorong, a narrow lagoon running down Long Bay – the land of the Ngarrindjeri. It is an effort to recoup losses and return to the material comforts of the town and its cues of civilisation. It is a story about the desire to escape: the unremitting Coorong; the colonial world; insolvency; anonymity; the tight-wound social strictures that reached from London’s drawing rooms across the oceans. To escape the demise towards which the family seems inevitably to careen.

The Finches are propelled on their trajectory by the restless ambition of Hester’s father, Stanton Finch. He presents as a mild-mannered man who educates and indulges his daughters as well as his sons, placates his disappointed wife, and regrets the crude racial prejudices of his first- and second-born. The family intends to improve the land they have taken up, arriving under the assumption that the Ngarrindjeri have no science, architecture, agriculture or religion. They will bring civilisation, they declare in phrases that ring hollow and false from the first, a ringing that situates the book in the wake of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and Rohan Wilson’s The Roving Party and other novels that strip away moral fictions. Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu approaches this conceit on a different plane; his target is the wider contradictions that mark the encounters between Europeans and Aboriginal people. Pascoe argues that settlers’ faith in the rudimentary nature of Aboriginal technology held strong even as they documented the evidence of its sophistication. He reads settlers’ words back to them.

At the 2020 Write Around the Murray festival, Treloar spoke of the flatness, the lifelessness, of textbook history compared with the living conversation with history, with her ancestors and with other heirs of colonial memory, which she prosecutes in her fiction. Salt Creek engages, she said, with the story-making of her settler family. At the core of those stories was a contradiction: Aboriginal people had left the land by the time her ancestors settled, it was said, but it was also said that her great-great-grandmother used to ‘run wild’ with the local Aboriginal people, and there was talk of an Aboriginal station hand who lived for a time with the family. Treloar uses a moral, psychological drama to engage with these silences and the well-rehearsed fictions – the lies – of her family. In a submission to a parliamentary enquiry, Treloar’s ancestor wrote that ‘no good has ever come to Aboriginals from contact with Europeans’. For Treloar, this was a revelation. ‘He knew the damage he had caused,’ Treloar said, ‘and had proceeded anyway.’


AT THE BEGINNING of a new year, I write in a house on the Murrumbidgee River, in the Yaouk Valley. A valley of open grassland, the Yaouk lies south of the Namadgi National Park, with its valleys of silver wattle, peppermint gum and candle bark. I wish I knew better how to write of its life and beauty, of the way light spills through the valley and every small place is alive with water striders and burnished blue dragonflies, beetles and native bees. Low-slung blue-tongues and interrupted skinks, weebills and wrens quickening the scrub. Whipbirds and magpies everywhere singing. An echidna sharing with us the climb up to Yaouk Bill, three eagles circling out of vision. Trout bursting from the river at dusk, a platypus dipping under­water as a pair of ducks arrive in state. We return here as often as we can.

Twelve months ago, my family was sheltering in the Yaouk from smoke and fire. The fires had burned across the country for two months already, but the final gifts of 2019 had been a burst of lightning, a rush of winds and a thousand fires lighting the eastern seaboard. Lightning struck nearby, and for three days we sheltered inside, watching the trees recede into the smoke through the living room’s cinematic windows. When we ventured out to swim in the river there was sulphur in our throats and eyes. The light ashen, stricken.

We woke in the night to check the progress of the fire through the surrounding bushland. At first light on the third day, we decided it was time to leave. We drove along the access road and when we rounded the hill and dropped into the valley, we found it barricaded by smoke and mist. Breaking through, we worked slowly east along the edge of the Namadgi, bewildered by what we could make out to the left and right. The palpable exhaustion of the land and its creatures, the claustrophobia of the heavy sky. As we pushed north into the national park and the mist cleared, we felt unsafe. We felt that we could not seal ourselves from the world.

Seven hundred plant and 200 animal species make the Namadgi their home, including many rare and threatened species. The Orroral Valley bushfire burned more than 80 per cent of the Namadgi, and the rains that followed caused floods that multiplied the damage. Now, as I scroll through online galleries of the animals and plants of the Namadgi, I wonder which have become purely spectral things.

We all have stories of that Black Summer, of poisoned air and vanishing cities, of seared animals and desperate flight. We all watched as gauche icons advanced through the pale green of the Rural Fire Service app, turning everything to black. We all have its incinerating heat imprinted somewhere. We were climate refugees for a season, hiding and fleeing the fires. We heard the screams of koalas and read of three billion lives lost or displaced. We talked of the end of the Australian childhood, but there were other things we did not talk of.

Now is not the time to talk about climate change, our politicians said as the bush burst into flame. As the fire raged we saw our shallow, marketeering politics stared down, melted down, cussed out by fire. ‘All I could cling to,’ wrote McKenzie Wark in Commune, ‘would be that Australia’s entire political apparatus is now exposed as incapable of dealing with reality.’ The extraction of fossil fuels that has generated much of Australia’s ‘prosperity’ now ‘makes the landscape from which it is extracted unstable and unlivable,’ Wark continued. It is no surprise that politicians who are beholden to oil and coal might not find time to talk about and still less to deal with their planet-ending effects. But did the cataclysm find any of us capable of confronting the reality of our situation?


HISTORY TAKES TIME. It relies on the emotional distance and analytic clarity that time allows. If the passage of time allows us to call up the mechanics of colonisation, the spectre of violence, the origins of trauma, it also allows us to see their arduous effects and implications and to see how the half-life of the past speaks truth to the power of the present. Colonial power is in the process of being dismantled under the combined pressure of Aboriginal resistance and settler contrition. But how long will it take, what remove must be made, to draw the line from foundational violence to madness and trauma, through the haunting of settler culture to the mechanics of extraction and the ruptured land? The country now abounds with more than the projections of our anxiety and guilt. It bears the material scars of our recklessness and ambition.

As a historian of madness, I listen to those who diagnose the psychological symptoms we currently pathologise as elements of a deeper protest of the psyche and of the planet. The screams of animals and the spread of inarticulable despair, the dissociative business of mourning the passing away of the non-human world while, with the other hand, we level or re-engineer ecosystems – might this not all be etched, like the trauma of colonisation, upon our human psyches?

Climate change has altered our experience of time. We are aware of the eons, like ice shelves, sliding into the heating seas, of the melting futures and histories that are piling up around us. We are harried by the great acceleration that began in the postwar years and runs apace; we try to keep our footing as we spiral towards Hothouse Earth, to continue our work as the geological falls in upon the historical and the planetary upon the personal.

It is our work now to tell stories that navigate the anxious reason and serene unreason of the present – to listen anew, and to read our words and dreams and nightmares back to ourselves again.

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