The Lieutenant

This article refers to The Lieutenant (book) written by Kate Grenville. It focuses specifically on the relationship between the text and the context Encountering Conflict.


Today we’re discussing The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville in relation to Encountering Conflict. If this isn’t one of your texts, or you haven’t watched our video on Encountering Conflict yet – stop! – go watch that first and come back.

There are four possible texts you could be studying for Encountering Conflict, of which this is one. Make sure you’re not watching videos for texts you’re not studying.

Alright- on to The Lieutenant, which I’ll just call the book from now on.

This novel explores a historical conflict through the lens of a personal journey through ideological conflict. The story is that of Colonial Australia, but told through the voice of someone who does not totally accept the Colonial narrative of superiority and conquest. The novel presents not only a range of conflicts, but a variety of responses by the characters who encounter them.

Grenville’s style

  • Setting: the novel is distinctly set in early Colonial Australia as seen through the way that characters talk and the attitudes that they hold, particularly toward Aboriginal Australians and the landscape.
  • Historical narrative: the story is set within a known historical story: that of Colonial conquest of Australia. Moreover, this particular narrative parallels that of William Dawes, a young Lieutenant that was on one of the ships of the First Fleet in 1788.
  • Linear “quest” narrative structure: in many ways, this story represents a quest narrative in which the protagonist seeks to obtain a particular goal. For Rooke, the goal is to find his place in the world. The narrator comments: “he had no evidence, but doggedly believed that there would one day be a place, somewhere in the world, for the person he was.”
  • Limited omniscient third-person narration: this style of narration means that Rooke is not the narrator directly, but the narrative is wholly focussed on him and sees into his thoughts. This allows for the reader to understand Rooke’s development of attitudes and feelings towards the Indigenous people he encounters. Significantly, the choice of Rooke as the protagonist means that the story is told from a Colonial perspective, but not one as closed as characters such as Silk. Instead, the reader is asked to follow a character whose attitudes and responses to conflict shift over the course of the novel.

More importantly though, let’s look at the big ideas of Encountering Conflict which emerge from The Lieutenant.

Different forms of conflict

There are virtually endless examples of types of conflict within this text, but a few are notable given the setting in early Colonial Australia. The conflict between white settlers and Indigenous Australians can be seen to manifest itself not only in physical clashes between the two groups, but in the internal, intellectual and cultural responses of those involved.

Physical conflict

Grenville has set her novel in a time of great change and conflict. This is portrayed through Rooke’s brief involvement in the American Revolutionary War, a massive upheaval in British/American history. It is this conflict that in part pushes British Marines towards Australia as a new delivery point for their convicts. This demonstrates how one conflict can give birth to another.

Examples of physical conflict after arrival in Australia are numerous. There is great fear from the settlers of physical retribution from Aboriginal peoples, expressed through characters such as Willstead. Lennox and Willstead both belief that the settlers need to demonstrate a greater use of force, while Brugden even more violently beliefs that they will only be tamed through use of indiscriminate violence. Repeatedly the settlers commit violence as part of their conquest to dominate and tame both the landscape and Aboriginal peoples. They capture and attempt to “domesticate” Indigenous slaves, forcing their narrative of “civilised” on unconsenting Aboriginal victims.

The sentiment that without violence, conquest would be undermined is expressed by many of the settlers. The Lieutenants are told to always have their guns loaded in case of “native attack”. Guns become a symbol of this conquering, as well as of the inherently unequal physical conflict between the two groups. Rooke reflects repeatedly on the deeply destructive power that a gun can have, and how easy it can become for a man to get used to firing one without considering the consequences.

This physical conflict is justified through the commitment of many of the settlers to Colonial attitudes of ownership and superiority; a form of intellectual conflict. When British settlers arrived in Australia, they determined that Indigenous people had made no attempt to “own” or “govern” the land in a Colonial sense of those words, and therefore declared “terra nullius”. This meant that by British law (a law thus forth imposed on Australia) the settlers were not required to negotiate with Indigenous people for land rights; they were deemed to have none. This entire application relied on racist notions of superiority of law and culture. These notions are reflected in characters assertions that Aboriginal people are “savage” or “dirty” throughout the text, as well as criticisms of their unwillingness to adopt British culture, including speech. The Governor demands the natives to “parley” with the settlers, or if they refused, be “turned to account.”

Much of this plays itself out through the language of the settlers. Their patronizing assumptions come through in how they express themselves and discuss the Indigenous Australians. As Rooke rightly asserts: “war was a species of conversation.” It allows for a total degradation of the Indigenous man in the eyes of the settlers; they are willing to kill and cut the heads off of “natives” if six cannot be captured and returned.

Talbot Silk as a character represents the narrative of white colonial privilege and notions of superiority. He describes the barbaric notion of conquest as “interesting” and doesn’t share Rooke or Gardiner’s hesitation.

Cultural conflict

It is through the clash of cultures that Colonial Australians come to consider their own culture as superior to that of the Indigenous Australians. Ownership does not have the same meaning for Colonial and Indigenous Australians. There are numerous references to the settlers expecting ownership negotiations to take place on “white man’s terms” which manifests itself in erecting fences and signs, whereas Indigenous conceptualisations are focused on working with the land rather than against it.

Notably, in this clash of culture victory is not about who has the superior culture, but who holds the physical power to enforce their culture upon another group. Indigenous people do not relinquish their culture voluntarily, but are forced into the constraints of Colonial Australia. The devastating effects of this, even beyond this text, are well known within Australia.

Due to the focus on Rooke as a character, including insight into his thoughts, his internal conflict is particularly notable. He faces various emotional expressions of internal conflicts, such as guilt for his role in capturing six Indigenous people. He is ultimately faced with the internal conflict that mirrors any tough decision; a moral conflict of what path is better. He is struck by the mutually exclusive paths of following his duty or following his conscience, the second ultimately winning out at the expense of the first.

Causes of conflict

The Lieutenant explores various causes, some of which are shared by both parties and others that are one sided. The novel also portrays the ways in which one conflict can cause another: such as the clash of cultures generating interpersonal, physical and internal conflicts for the individuals involved. Some of the most interesting causes of conflict to discuss are competing perspectives, fear and acceptance of authority.

Different perspectives

Within the group of settlers and between the Indigenous Australians and settlers, there are contrasting attitudes and beliefs that are sometimes inherently contradictory. Beliefs about land, law and ownership are strong examples of this that pervade the disagreements between the groups.

The rough and dangerous Brugden portrays this in his statements about land and Indigenous people. He sees the land as a thing to be tamed and controlled, turned into a “gentleman’s estate.” He believes that he is entitled to shoot local fauna and natives as a white man with superior beliefs and culture. His flippant attitude to these acts is revealed in his statement “when in Rome…”


Fear is an obvious spark that causes conflict; often evoking in individuals the “fight or flight” response. Within The Lieutenant fear is shown to stem from different things and result in contrasting responses from those who experience it.

Many of the men are afraid of the local Aboriginals. They believe that Indigenous men are likely to conduct a sneak attack and that they need to have their guns loaded “at all times.” This represents the notion of fear of the unknown; a common sentiment in the literature of colonists. There is a feeling of danger in the depths of the forest or the unfamiliar culture of natives. The settlers feel outnumbered and vulnerable:

‘Do you understand, man? There are too few of us, and God knows how many of them.’

In contrast, Rooke’s fear is of authority. On the ship he saw what could happen to those who disobey authority through the hanging of the would-be-mutineer. When Gardiner expresses regret for following orders, Rooke hurriedly tells him to be quiet and wary of who he expresses such a sentiment to. Gardiner remains on Rooke’s mind when he struggles through the decision to disobey authority in support of the Indigenous people he has come to know.

Unquestioning acceptance of authority

Acceptance of authority can lead individuals to allow themselves and others to get hurt without much consideration. Logically, the best soldier is one who follows orders precisely without questioning why they are being told to do something. This essentially removes the human element from physical conflict; replaced by mindless machines that obey superiors. The risk of this is that it provides absolute power to those in control without the checks and balances of second opinions.

Within The Lieutenant the British Empire is portrayed as not taking personal sensibilities or thoughts into account. Instead, it enforces a strict hierarchy in which allegiance is demanded of subjects:

To bend to the kings will required the suspension of human response.

The consequences of disobeying this are clear to Rooke. He sees the would-be-mutineer be hanged and, later, Gardiner become a “marked man” for disobeying a superior:

He had let himself drift in his mind some distance from serving and obeying. He had allowed himself to feel he was his own man, taking hold of this new place with both hands, opening all its doors himself

Rooke is sympathetic to him at the time, for he questions how he would have behaved in the same situation. This later plays itself out in his conflicting obligations to duty and his conscience as a friend to Taragan and the Indigenous people. He is struck by these contrasting ideas:

A man was obliged to become part of the mighty imperial machine. To refuse was to become inhuman in another way; either a bag of meat or a walking dead man.

Different responses to conflict

Obviously the clash between settlers and Indigenous Australians evokes differing responses from each group, but the novel also reflects extensively on the different responses within the settling community. Rooke provides a point of contrast to the dominant perspectives of conquest and expansion of the British Empire displayed by the settlers.

Rooke’s decision to learn the Indigenous language reflects his desire for peaceful coexistence, against the colonial narrative of conquest and subjugation. He imagines himself as a Galileo of sorts, breaking barriers through exploration of the unknown, and endeavors to create the groundwork for future cross cultural relations. Rooke recognizes how far this aim, and his friendship with Taragan, leads him from the perspectives of those around him:

Now he saw how far he had travelled from the world he once shared with Silk. Tagaran seemed to have led the way down some other road altogether.

Ultimately, his connection with Taragan and the Indigenous people comes to mean so much to Rooke that he sacrifices his duty and position to fulfill his moral obligation to them. The end of his journey as a freer of slaves demonstrates how much the experience has changed him.

This leads us naturally on to thinking about the different ways one can resolve conflict.

In any conflict, there are various ways that resolution can be achieved, all dependent on the perspective of the individuals involved. For most of the settlers in this novel, resolution would be achieved through domination over the landscape and Indigenous populations with Aboriginal people submitting to white rule and culture. This is a one sided perspective of course, because for the Indigenous Australians, resolution would entail the return of their stolen land and a cease to the threats to their way of life.

Rooke reflects a different attempt at resolution altogether: one achieved through common understanding and respect. He wants to learn their language and culture to allow for this cross cultural communication to take place. His acceptance of this alternative culture can be seen in his feeling that the first touch with Warungin’s hand is “a gift” with more meaning than the muskets, telescopes and trinkets that the white men have offered to the Indigenous people. He feels with learning the language and incorporating it unconsciously into his own life that a “boundary was being crossed and erased. Like ink in water, one language was melting into another.” His search for peace through common understanding can be seen in his reflection that understanding surpasses mere vocabulary and grammar:

It was the heart of talking; not just the words and not just the meaning, but the way in which two people had found common ground and begun to discover the true names of things.

Different allocations of roles within conflict

Grenville clearly aligns herself with Indigenous people who suffered at the hands of settlers in this text, and they are positioned as victims. Uniquely though, the story is not told from their perspective, but from those of the perpetrators. The protagonist begins as a general member of the class of perpetrators, acting as a bystander to the conflict, but ultimately transitions to the role of activist in refusing to follow orders.

Rooke participates in Silk’s expedition to capture, but finds himself conflicted by his friendship with and admiration for the Indigenous group he has come to know. He ultimately refuses to betray them, disobeying his orders. He knows that refusal has consequences, but puts himself in a position where he may suffer them anyway, therefore stepping out of the role of bystander to the conflict that is about to take place. Before, “he had persuaded himself that as long as the expedition failed, there was no harm in being part of it,” but now, he recognises his participation as wrong:

If you were part of such an act, you were part of its wrong. You did not have to take up the hatchet or even to walk along with the expedition.

Instead, he takes a stand:

“It was a wicked plan, sir, I am sorry to have been persuaded to comply with the order. I would not for any reason ever again obey a similar order.”