History of the Nepean-Hawkesbury wins Prime Minister’s national award

Wednesday, 15 December 2021

A history of Australia's first successful settler farming area in Western Sydney has won the prestigious 2021 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. 

People of the River: Lost worlds of early Australia, by acclaimed historian Dr Grace Karskens and published by Allen & Unwin, was the winner in the highly competitive Australia history category.

The judges’ commended Dr Karskens on her “meticulous scholarship” which resulted in an “epic history of the Hawkesbury-Nepean River.” 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts Paul Fletcher said the awards highlighted the creativity of Australia’s writers and celebrate their enrichment of our culture and identity. 

“In these testing times literature carries even more importance, connecting us to a range of Australian voices and bringing us closer together,” the Prime Minister said.

“I congratulate this year’s winners and thank them for their contribution. They have continued a tradition of excellence and creativity in our writing that is recognised by lovers of books everywhere.”

Minister Fletcher said the annual Awards provided much-deserved acknowledgement for Australian authors and celebrate the art of literature.

“This year’s Awards have highlighted the outstanding talent of Australia’s literary community which has enriched lives of many people across the world,” Minister Fletcher said. 

“In a year where much of the country relied on reading to access the world beyond their own four walls, this is an opportunity to recognise the authors whose voices have entertained and sustained us.”

Liberal Senator for Western Sydney, Senator the Hon Marise Payne, said Dr Karskens’ pioneering history provided important insights into Australia’s colonial past.

People of the River is an engaging work that encourages all Australians to consider how the formation of modern Australia was shaped along the banks and farms of the Hawkesbury-Nepean region,” Senator Payne said.

“Dr Karskens book enriches our understanding of Western Sydney’s complex past and reminds us of the need to acknowledge past injustices and work together on shared solutions.

People of the River is a very worthy summer read, and I congratulate Dr Karskens on receiving Australia’s highest literary honour.”

For more information about the winning and shortlisted works go to www.arts.gov.au/pmla





About the book


Dyarubbin, the Hawkesbury-Nepean River, is where the two early Australias—ancient and modern—first collided. 'People of the River' journeys into the lost worlds of the Aboriginal people and the settlers of Dyarubbin, both complex worlds with ancient roots.


The settlers who took land on the river from the mid-1790s were there because of an extraordinary experiment devised half-a-world away. Modern Australia was not founded as a gaol, as we usually suppose, but as a colony. Britain's felons, transported to the other side of the world, were meant to become settlers in the new colony. They made history on the river: it was the first successful white farming frontier; a community that nurtured the earliest expressions of patriotism; and it became the last bastion of eighteenth-century ways of life.


The Aboriginal people had occupied Dyarubbin for at least 50,000 years. Their history, culture and spirituality were inseparable from this river Country. Colonisation kicked off a slow and cumulative process of violence, theft of Aboriginal children and ongoing annexation of the river lands. Yet despite that sorry history, Dyarubbin's Aboriginal people managed to remain on their Country, and they still live on the river today.


The Hawkesbury-Nepean was the seedbed for settler expansion and invasion of Aboriginal lands to the north, south, and west. It was the crucible of the colony, and the nation that followed.


About the author


Grace Karskens is author of The Colony, winner of the 2010 Prime Minister's Non-fiction Award, and of The Rocks, winner of the 1998 NSW Premier's History Award. She is Emeritus Professor of History in the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of New South Wales, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales.


Judges’ comments


By researching widely in the humanities and sciences, Grace Karskens has crafted an epic history of the Hawkesbury-Nepean River. Like the river itself, this engaging work twists and turns, sometimes switching back on itself, to capture the complex interplay between the waterway and its environs, the people who have called it home for millennia, and those who have arrived over the last 230 years. Unlike some recent fictionalised works suggesting that a single massacre by Europeans soon after their arrival, wiped out the Aboriginal people of the river, Karskens' meticulous scholarship reveals a far more intricate story of interdependence. This includes the sharing of Commons land and crops, bushcraft and tracking, and a mutual love of horse racing. As Karskens says, 'massacre history implies that there were no battles, no resistance and no survivors', an implication that is patently false. Throughout the text, Karskens generously acknowledges her fellow historians, as well as Aboriginal knowledge-holders, and experts in the fields of ecology, geology, soil science, flood and fire risk, linguistics, anthropology and archaeology. However, in drawing on those who have preceded her, Karskens has created a work that is fresh, vibrant and all-encompassing.