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Study Guide: Nanberry, Black Brother White: Theme

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 People, History & Culture

  • 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.  

Fred Maynard: Aboriginal Patriot


  • This novel takes place in the first years of white ‘settlement’ (some call it ‘invasion’) in Australia. It demonstrates how tenuous that first settlement was, and challenges views of the history which present it as a triumph over nature and adversity. Not only did the powers in England appear to abandon this sorry group of settlers in the first years, when the ship that was to supply them was wrecked on the way, but many themselves demonstrated attributes which were not terribly admirable, such as ignorance, laziness, corruption, greed, cruelty and violence.  
  • The commonly presented myth about early convicts was that many were simply petty thieves. Some historians (such as Robert Hughes) however have now recognised that they were often the very dregs of society and that the soldiers, too, were not always of high calibre.  

Land Ownership and Management

  • The novel opens with a lyrical prologue in which Nanberry is playing with his family and friends. It is headed   ‘Warrane (Sydney Cove), The Time of Many Fish and Feasts’ indicating that the Aboriginal people had their own names for places later renamed by white settlers, and that they also relished times when they knew particular foods would be plentiful. Nanberry thinks to himself: ‘There was a time for the settling of disputes, and a time to go west  tofeast on eels, a time when the bees wore fluffy yellow pollen on their legs, when you knew that in another season of moons the nectar would flow sweet and pale green when you poked a stick into the honey trees.’(p 13)
  • Often in the novel, Nanberry and other Aboriginal people are shocked by the filthy surroundings in the white camps; by how they dirty the drinking water and ruin the local land. This is at stark odds to the idea that white people came here and ‘made use’ of the land where the Aboriginal people were ‘doing nothing with it’. The myth that white settlement brought ‘civilisation’ is challenged by the actuality.
  • Many of the early settlers failed to recognise the abundance of food in this new colony because they were used to a certain diet, or had never even cooked for themselves. 

Convicts and Officers

  • The convicts in this novel clearly are regarded as lesser class citizens.  And yet some gained their ticket of freedom and became prosperous citizens.
  • Many of the officers and soldiers in this novel do not behave admirably. There are stories of drunkenness, brutality, corruption and violence. (The military forces at that time actually earned the nickname ‘Rum Corps’ for their behaviour.) 

Women's Rights

  • Rachel has been betrayed by a gentleman in England and forced to endure the filthy conditions on board ship, whilst avoiding sexual approaches from those on board. When Surgeon White takes her in she’s grateful for his kindness, but eventually becomes his mistress, recognising that he can never make her his wife.   Like Maria, her future lies at the mercy of often corrupt men, until her marriage to John Moore offers her security and freedom.  
  • Rachel and Maria have few rights, and yet like other women they made an often unacknowledged contribution to such early development. 

Adam Goods

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