“Terra nullius” is an old, old legal concept, stretching back to the beginning of Western democracy. In its most generous interpretation, it means “no man’s land”, that ownership by seizure of something nobody owns is legal, legitimate under the law. You can’t “steal” something that doesn’t belong to anybody. The term has special significance in Australia (not the good kind), as this continent was declared “terra nullius” when the British invaded, in effect erasing the sovereignty of the people who had lived and worked on this land for some 50,000 years. Claire G Coleman is a writer and activist of Noongar heritage, and she turns this legal concept on its head in her allegorical novel of the same name, Terra Nullius.
Each chapter of Terra Nullius opens with a fictional extraction from an imagined archive – though, at first, they are so believable that you’ll take them as fact. Letters home from “settlers”, government memos, all informing the position that the “settlers” are having trouble “saving” the “natives”. It would seem that they don’t want to be saved.
The early chapters are immediately – shamefully – familiar to any Australian, but I’m sure they’d read like a horrifying dystopia to anyone not acquainted with this country’s true history. The “natives” are forced into civilising missions, tortured and enslaved, separated from their families and forced into servitude.
One character emerges, Jacky, as a Native slave on the run. He was taken from his family at such a young age, he doesn’t remember where his “home” is – he just knows it can’t be with the callous and cruel Settlers. His journey, on foot, across the country and his attempts to find his true home link all of the other characters across Terra Nullius together. They include a woman who knows no life other than that of the refugee camp in which she has grown up, the cruel Settler nun who resents and tortures the child Natives in her care, a colonial administrator known as the Devil, and a Settler who recognises the humanity of the Natives he massacres and abandons his people to join his supposed foes.
The big shift comes in Chapter 10. It’s simultaneously obvious (anyone who’s heard about Terra Nullius from a review like this one, or even simply read the blurb, knows it’s coming), and not well foreshadowed in the text. I would’ve liked Coleman to sow a few more seeds before reaping.
In essence, what Coleman has thus far let the reader believe is a historical novel – depicting the genocide of the First Nations people of Australia after the colonisers invaded – is actually set towards the end of the 21st century. The “Natives” are human beings, of all colours and creeds, while the “Settlers” are an alien species that have invaded our home planet. For me, it evokes The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments – a post-apocalyptic world that is jarringly familiar.
An under-realised haunting aspect of Terra Nullius is the fact that no one is coming to save us. There is no salvation for the Natives. The few that survive the invasion aren’t home free; they’re scavenging, scrabbling to survive in a world completely and irrevocably changed. In that respect, it’s not only a metaphor for invasion – it’s climate change, it’s capitalism, it’s even a global pandemic.
As critical history, Terra Nullius works, but as literature it feels a little shallow. Even with the exceptions-to-the-rule, the handful of Settlers who are horrified by what their people inflict upon the Natives, the story still leans heavily on a Bad Settlers v. Good Natives binary. That may be all too true, but it doesn’t necessarily make for good fiction on its own. The familiar colonial atrocities are enough to shock and horrify, but I struggled to see a narrative drive beyond “look how terrible this is”.
I think Terra Nullius might have worked better if the metaphor had been explicit from the start. Instead of the Chapter 10 “gotchya” moment, Coleman could have placed us in her “dystopia” from the beginning and let the title make the parallels. Of course, this might not have worked for an international market (who presumably weren’t taught the abuses of terra nullius in high school or university), but for me it would’ve made for a better reading experience. As it stands, Terra Nullius seems to me a great premise that isn’t fully realised, an interesting idea forced to compensate for the absence of story.
If you’d like to read a First Nations perspective on Terra Nullius – and I highly recommend that you do – you should definitely start with Alison Whittaker’s review for Sydney Review of Books.