In the jagged red and grey country of the Bunuba, a boy is enticed by new technology and new ways of behaving and relating to others, which gradually estrange him from his people. He becomes friendly with a white police aide, and travels with him. But this leads him into being complicit in the mistreatment of Bunuba people. The pressure on Jandamarra grows and grows, forcing him eventually to the choice – acquiesce to the torture of his family, or commit the ultimate frontier betrayal – murdering a mate.
In the world of G A Henty and H Rider Haggard, he’d be the typical treacherous savage. But that world with its counterpoint of chivalrous Englishmen is turned upside down by the savagery of the settlers. They took Jandamarra’s wife hostage, murdered his mother and at least 30 other Bunuba (official count, unofficially many more). The despair Jandamarra must have felt when he saw that relentless brutality, and his doomed resolve to keep on fighting, is well imagined in excellent low-key commentary – some in Bunuba – by Dillon Andrews, June Oscar and others. And then, when the settlers had killed him with the help of an Aboriginal man from another country, they cut Jandamarra’s head off and sent it to London for the collection of a gun manufacturer. Savages?