Nanberry: Black Brother White explores themes of Aboriginal people, history & culture, early settlement/invasion, convicts and officers, land ownership and management, and women’s rights. These themes are explained in further detail in the boxes below.
Aboriginal self-determination was quelled for decades after early failed experiments in brokering an equal relationship between white and black. Like Nanberry, many were tolerated only when they adhered to white society’s rules, and became eitherservants or were patronised as foster children and sometimes later discarded.
Nanberry was a real person, possibly the nephew of Bennelong after whom the famous landmark and an electorate in Sydney are named. Bennelong’s life has been documented, and the story of the discovery of his gravesite has been in the news this year. Nanberry’s life has also been traced in a range of documents, as well.
Racism is deeply embedded in the interactions typified in this novel. Jackie French makes an explanation (in her ‘Apology’ at the beginning of the book) regarding the racist attitudes and words necessary to give the real flavour of the times she’s describing in Australia.
Violent conflict was rife in these early years, although successive generations have sought to deny the existence of such massacres and armed conflicts, and some commentators continue to do so.
Apart from the effects of violent conflict, many Aboriginals died of introduced illnesses such as small pox and influenza.
People in the novel are surprised by Nanberry’s dress in gentlemen’s clothes, his command of English manners, and ability to speak English.
There are many references to Indigenous beliefs in the text, for example: initiation ceremonies (pp 212-5), a warrior’s code of honour (p 10), and communal rather than individual ownership of land which is crucial to Aboriginal belief.