Cotter: A Novel by Richard Begbie

The older I become, the more interested I am in the history of the places with which I am familiar.  I didn’t learn a lot of Australian history (either colonial or earlier) while at school, and while I’ve spent a bit of time studying Australia’s political history, there are huge gaps in my knowledge.

This book is a novel.  It combine the facts known about Garrett Cotter with a fictional representation of those parts of his life outside official records.  Reading it made me keen to learn more.

Cotter: A Novel by Richard Begbie

‘It was a Friday, November the eighth, one hundred and forty days since they had sailed from Cork, and Garrett Cotter (prisoner twenty-nine) had arrived.  For life.’

The name Cotter is well-known to those of us who live in and around Canberra.  There’s the Cotter Dam on the Cotter River, and the Cotter reserve nearby.  But who is the Cotter after whom these places are named?  I read a little about Garrett Cotter while visiting the Cotter Dam a few weeks ago.  When I found this novel a few days later, I immediately added it to my reading list.  I’m glad I did.

So, who was Garrett Cotter?

Garrett Cotter, born in County Cork in 1802, was an illiterate nineteen-year-old in County Cork when he took part in a ‘whiteboy’ action in early 1822.  (I’ve read that ‘Whiteboy’ actions were part of a series of revolts by the rural poor between the 1760s to the 1840s trying to get better conditions: fairer rent, more land to work.) Garrett Cotter was arrested, tried and sentenced to death.  His sentence was later commuted to transportation for life.

In 1822, when Garrett Cotter was sentenced to transportation, European settlement of mainland Australia was confined to a small area around Sydney.  When Garrett Cotter died, aged in his eighties, at Michelago in 1886 he was a respected grazier in the district.  In this novel, Richard Begbie takes the comparatively few facts known about Garrett Cotter and his long life and uses fiction to flesh out the details.

Three things stood out for me in this novel. The first was Mr Begbie’s portrayal of Cotter’s relationship with the Indigenous people, his appreciation of their relationship with the land:

‘That be just the thing, sir.  Onyong – and the other blackfellers – they be seein’ the country different from us.  ‘Tis not cut up into square blocks for them but is all one, from the top of the hill to the floor of the river.’  And the blacks they do be lookin’ after the land in their way, and clever with it.’

Mutual respect comes across in the novel.

The second is that Cotter’s punishment, as the result of an altercation with Donald McKay in 1832, provided him with an opportunity.  He was sentenced to four years beyond the ‘Limits of Location’, beyond the Murrumbidgee River.  This was land Garrett Cotter was familiar with, land that his friendship with the Indigenous leader, Onyong, had led him to during a previous drought.

The third is that the house that Garrett Cotter built at Michelago, the one in which he and his wife Ann raised their family, is still standing.  I understand it is still occupied by members of the Cotter family.  I travel past that house quite frequently on my way to and from the Snowy Mountains, and had wondered about its history.

Before settling at Michelago, Garrett Cotter lived in various places.  Richard Begbie names Coolemon, Currango and Tantangara.  I’m familiar with Currango and Tantangara, and happy to learn more.

When ‘Cotter’ had its book launch at the National Library in August 2016, descendants of both Garrett Cotter and Onyong were present.  How fitting.

I enjoyed this novel, and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in Australia’s colonial past.  In this novel, Richard Begbie draws Garrett Cotter out of the shadows.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


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