In 1829 Van Diemen’s Land, Black Bill (a “Vandemonian, and as good as white”) can see the stars from high above. His ear is constantly pressed to the wind and to the earth in an effort to hear for some sign of Manalargena, a legendary aboriginal warrior who some say was born a witch. With ancient turns of phrase, Manalargena speaks long and hard against the whites and decries their contempt for peace.
One day, Black Bill is joined by John Batman and a group of grimly visaged men of war, including Batman’s manservant, Gould, and two Dharug men, Crook and Pigeon, newly come from Parramatta. They have grubby and weathered faces, and the black men are tall and well-shaped for bush life. All are well familiar with squalor, hardship, pain and suffering. There’s “nine all told for the roving party,” this ramshackle crew of natives and convicts who have been contracted by Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur to root out and destroy Manalargena at any cost.
Thus begins the roving party’s journey through the northeastern part of Van Diemen’s Land. Heading toward the snowy crags of Ben Lomond, a “battlement white with silvered snow,” they turn into a stretch of forest “entirely hostile to folk of any nation native or not.” These outlaws, drifters and psychopaths are presided over by the two domineering personalities: the nominal leader, Batman, who possesses a deep vein of sadism, and Bill, so full of conceit, anger and self-delusion.
The hunters beggaredly clutch to life as their clothes hang in rags. They tote their rusted firearms, walking the ground like “pilgrims guided by the word of a demented god.” Sinking inch deep into the miserable damp of this old country “a thousand generations black,” Bill begins to spin his awful tale of how the old men of his tribe grew to acknowledge that their solitary ways were ever closer to being undone.
Wilson’s rhythmic, powerful narrative, almost poetic in its eloquence, plunges us deep into the Tasmanian wildness, a world as harsh and weather-beaten as the characters who inhabit it. The men march on in single file down the side of Ben Lomond. Unable to catch the ever-elusive Manalargena, the company elects to pursue easier prey—namely, defenseless women and children who inhabit the bush of the North East. From the thickets of heath and flowering musk to the headman’s cries that drown in the clamor of wind, the group stumble across the remnants of a ritual painting. The smeared ochre and white clay tells of the ancient provenance of these people who inhabit the hills.
Across this rich tapestry of setting and character, Wilson’s Black Bill is the tale’s emotional center. His humanity keeps the book on course, even when events turn tragic in scenes that foreshadow the dreaded Black Line and the ultimate genocide of Tasmania's aboriginal population. When the bounty hunt turns into a murder spree, the gang forget their simple mercenary aspirations and become increasingly captivated by the magnetism of Batman, who tells them they are agents of a pitiless natural law and must sacrifice the undeserving natives to a blood-soaked god.
Weaving Tasmania’s convict and aboriginal history into an intricate web of personal demons, cannibalism, political desires and intense ambition, a violent reality ultimately drives this tale, adding weight to much of the presumed power and moral authority of the "mother country." What is ultimately so formidable and tragic is how Wilson’s simple but gifted prose can envision a State forever on the cusp of change.
Most heartbreaking is Black Bill himself, who is at first exiled from his beloved wife, Katherine, and then from both his native and colonial worlds. Fate waits by to ambush Bill, this rightfully embittered aboriginal man who finds himself front and center in the midst of a war that even after two hundred years has come to symbolize the very worst of British colonialism.