Serpent Dust by Debra Adelaide

This is one of those novels I came across purely by chance.  I found Ms Adelaide’s novel, her imagining of life for both Indigenous  and European people immediately after the arrival of the First Fleet in January 1788, incredibly moving.

Serpent Dust by Debra Adelaide

‘I had two mothers in the end, but it was my birth mother who remained my best, my closest, my strongest one.’

In this novel, Debra Adelaide writes of how the Europeans and the Indigenous Eora people met when the First Fleet sailed into Port Jackson in 1788.  Different characters provide different viewpoints – Dyirra’s narrative provides a view from an Eora perspective:

‘And for most of us, our minds were deliberately blank as we first contemplated this alien vision before us: huge vessels, eleven in number, containing a cargo of white figures, strangely clad and decorated, talking another language which hissed and crackled like a mouthful of fire instead of human speech.’

European perspectives, including those from by Mrs Twineham, the wife of a clergyman, Cowper – an Irish convict, notes from the surgeon’s journal and a group of marines provide different viewpoints.  And, within two years of the First Fleet’s arrival, the Indigenous people who watched the First Fleet arrive had been decimated by smallpox.  But how did smallpox arrive in Australia?

Each of the different narratives provides, within its particular perspective, a piece of the puzzle.  A possible (and frighteningly plausible) account of how smallpox may have made its way from Europe to Australia.  But this novel is not just about the transmission of a disease which proved fatal to so many Indigenous people, it is about assumptions, about how small things can have unintended and horrific consequences.  It is about two very different cultures, both displaced, and about some of the individuals within both cultures.

‘Galgalla.  It was the dust of the serpent that had infected us, invading our bodies to erupt in these monstrous sores.  It was the terrible anger of the Rainbow Serpent, unleashed on us for disobeying him.’

I found this novel incredibly moving.  By telling the story through different perspectives, through overlapping lives and experiences, Ms Adelaide made it possible for me to imagine how easily this tragedy could occur.

And afterwards?

‘Yura gone.  Yura all gone.  Serpent dust kill all.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith