Every time I look at Nanberry: Black Brother White I think ’How on earth did this happen?’
Once there were two brothers, one black, one white, in a colony at the end of the world. The two brothers witness the struggles of the colonists to keep their precarious grip on a hostile wilderness, the black brother haunted by the memories of the Cadigal warriors who will one day claim him as one of their own.
But that wasn’t the book I intended to write.
I wanted to write a short, mostly funny book, about Australia’s first doctor, so lonely that he tried to tame a possum. It was to be called The Possum Who Kissed a Convict. I thought I knew the story, from Surgeon White’s diaries and letters of the time. The Aboriginal boy Surgeon White adopted when he was orphaned in the smallpox epidemic would be part of the background. ‘Native’ children back then were adopted as servants, and I’d found fewer than a dozen references to the boy. There was a convict housekeeper, too, who bore Surgeon White a child just before he left for England, maybe worth a page or three.
So much of what we think we know about those first years of the early colony is either myth or cliché. But my mother had read me Tench’s diaries from that time as bedtime stories. I thought I knew every primary source that could be used. Yet as I began to write The Possum Who Kissed a Convict more information almost landed on my lap.
The transcripts of the Old Bailey trials came online. Suddenly I discovered that Surgeon White had true companionship in Rachel Turner, possibly the first woman who was defended in an English court of law, almost certainly innocent. She would become the wealthiest, most loved woman in the colony. Nor did Surgeon White forget her when he sailed away. He supported her, wrote to her, insisted that his convict born son come to him in England, to be educated as a gentleman. Draft two of the book changed completely. Now Rachel had an equal role with Surgeon White.
Andrew, their son, the illegitimate convict brat, became an officer. He fought at Waterloo, as a sapper. His life was to be a footnote in the book, which would end when Surgeon White was recalled to England, attempting to take his possum with him. I contacted the Australian sappers simply to see what role the sappers played at Waterloo. Instead, I found Steve Sheehan, who had been researching Andrew Douglass Keble White for over 20 years. Surgeon White’s son is celebrated not just as a Waterloo hero, but also as Australia’s first returned serviceman. There is a dinner in his honour every year.
By now The Possum Who Kissed a Convict was draft three. It was twice as long as draft one, with Andrew as one of the main characters, the book extended to take in his life, too. The book was almost ready for the printer.
Then at a history conference morning tea I mentioned I was writing a book about Surgeon White, who had adopted a boy called ‘Nanberry’. The woman behind me turned and said ‘Nanberry is my ancestor.’ A few weeks later the letters of sailor Dawes were published- and there was a reference to Nanberry, giving him one of his other names as well. Suddenly, with the extra name, far more information was within reach. I stayed at my computer till 2 am, emailed friends who could help research.
I had it wrong, every bit of it. Nanberry was no servant. Surgeon White adopted him as his son, giving him the name he’d eventually give his own son when Nanberry insisted on keeping his own name. At eight years old this boy, with a genius for languages, became the colony’s translator. Eventually Nanberry would become a Cadigal warrior and a sailor, balancing both cultures to achieve, I think, a life of great fulfilment. We hear so much of the tragedy of lives like Bennelong, but little of those like Nanberry, who found a respected life in both white and black society.
I rewrote the book again. And again. And again.
It was fascinating material, about extraordinary people: battles, lives sacrificed to codes of duty, and survival against crippling odds of starvation, disease and isolation. It was a story of one man’s abiding love for his children and a woman he could never marry, and of two brothers, separated by race and all the prejudices of the time, who loved each other too. It is a story about how both of them triumphed over the circumstances of their birth.
Parts are almost unbelievable — and yet they happened. Above all, this book is as close to the primary sources as I could make it. Even much of the dialogue is words quoted from more than 200 years ago. By the time I had completed draft fourteen, the book was Nanberry: Black Brother White, with the two brothers, not their father, at the centre. The possum, however, stayed. It is difficult to get rid of possums, whether in your roof or writing.
Could bringing together so much research make a compelling book? As with Flood, my other shortlisted book, I waited, scared, for the first readers’ reactions. Usually you know if a book works. Generally, if you want to read the book you are writing instead of the book you pick up at bedtime, you can be pretty sure you’re on the right track. I wondered if I had managed to make Flood accurate. With Nanberry: Black Brother White, I didn’t know if so much data could be condensed into a story. You can change fiction to make it more exciting. You can’t change the past.
Now, each time I read a review, open a letter or email about the book, I feel like crying. Nanberry: Black Brother White, is so much their story- Nanberry’s, Andrew's, Rachel’s and Surgeon White’s. I desperately didn’t want to let them down.
But it was also a joy and privilege to write this book, all fourteen versions of it, to track down their stories, from old letters and court transcripts to White’s own words, a compelling a window into that strange world of two hundred years ago.
Sometimes it’s almost as though there is a whisper through time: ‘Remember me.’ Most of all, I hope I have done those whispers justice.