The Settlement

Jock Serong

The Settlement
Text Publishing
29 August 2023

The Settlement

Jock Serong

On the windswept point of an island at the edge of Van Diemen's Land, the Commandant huddles with a small force of white men and women. He has gathered together, under varying degrees of coercion and duress, the last of the Tasmanians, or so he believes. His purpose is to save them-from a number of things, but most pressingly from the murderous intent of the pastoral settlers on their country.

The orphans Whelk and Pipi, fighting for their survival against the malevolent old man they know as the Catechist, watch as almost everything proves resistant to the Commandant's will. The wind, the spread of disease, the strange black dog that floats in on the prow of a wrecked ship...But above all the chief, the leader of the exiles, before whom the Commandant performs a sordid dance of intimacy and betrayal.

In The Settlement, Jock Serong reimagines in urgent, compelling prose the ill-fated exploits of George Augustus Robinson at the settlement of Wybalenna-a venture whose blinkered, self-interested cruelty might stand for the colonial enterprise itself.


Jock Serong’s two previous historical novels, Preservation and The Burning Island, were hailed as gripping literary thrillers. This book, however, trades the roving journeying in those earlier works for something different. Though it’s equally compelling to read, and also powered by Serong’s descriptive, muscular prose, The Settlement takes a slower, more mournful pace. It has to, because the focus is truly harowing: the genocide of Tasmania’s First Peoples and their forced displacement to a settlement at Pea Jacket Point on Flinders Island.

The Settlement opens in 1831 on the island now called Tasmania, where we meet a group of refugees of the colonial wars that have raged across the island. They are ostensibly ‘led’ by a figure dubbed ‘the Man’. Fuelled by missionary zeal, he wants to track down the survivors of the wars and transport them away from the main island. To do so, however, he needs the skills of ‘the Chief’ – Mannalargenna – leader of his clan, a broker of alliances and a savvy reader of human motivations. Mannalargenna’s desire to ensure the survival of the remaining Aboriginal Nations is exploited by the Man, who lies with promises of freedom and assurances they will return to their lands. What unfolds is a tense wrestling of power and, once the story shifts to the Flinders Island settlement in 1835, a rapid corrosion of what was already a highly unstable trust.

Truth lies at the heart of this novel; it’s a valuable resource that is in short supply. Life on the settlement is suffocated by a stale miasma of lies, abuse, self-justification and delusion from those in power. Reckoning comes in blazing moments of truth-telling, where the reality of this colonising project cannot be denied. In the front matter, Serong states that multiple First Nations organisations were consulted to write this story, and it has resulted in a carefully considered, moving novel that resists easy narrative expectations and catharsis. This is a book that doesn’t let us readers off the hook – nor should it.

Jackie Tang is the editor of the Readings Monthly.

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