American farmer and poet Wendell Berry said of the first Europeans in North America that they came with vision, but not with sight. They came with vision of former places but not the sight to see what was before them. Instead of adapting their vision to suit the place, they changed the landscape to fit their vision.
The same can be said of the first Europeans in Australia. They modified the landscape to suit their domesticated plants and animals. They sowed seeds to create pasture for sheep and cattle and opened up areas to cultivate crops brought from the northern hemisphere.
This eye for the open parts of the Australian landscapes likely contributed to a view that Aboriginal people, too, almost exclusively preferred open vegetation types such as woodland and grasslands.
But findings from our recently published study of archaeological records challenge this notion. They show that Aboriginal people also inhabited Tasmania’s forests, in particular wet sclerophyll forests.
It’s important to understand how people used, affected and related to the natural environment. The way Tasmanian Aboriginal people hunted, gathered and used fire had a major influence on the structure, function and distribution of today’s plant and animal communities. This has big implications for conservation today.
In recent years, a series of books have examined Aboriginal land management over at least 50,000 years. Bill Gammage’s Biggest Estate on Earth, Billy Griffiths’ Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia, and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu have all helped us read the country as a cultural landscape that Aboriginal people managed intensively – shaping it intelligently over tens of thousands of years through fire, law and seasonal use.
Gammage in particular emphasised Aboriginal people’s unvarying dependence on open vegetation sustained by frequent burning. Our findings question this dogma, which has prevailed for centuries.
Our research suggests imposed visions of former places – and the nostalgic license of colonial artists – had previously skewed our perception of preferred Aboriginal landscapes towards those that match a northern hemisphere ideal of human habitat, rooted in the theory of prospect and refuge.
Prospect refers to a view over open ground affording sight of game and forewarning of danger. Refuge refers to features offering safety such as easy-to-climb trees. The ideal combination of prospect and refuge is a view of water over closely cropped grass, framed by the horizontal branches of a mature tree. This ideal dominates real estate advertising to this day.
What we found will surprise you
Our study used archaeological data in an ecological model to identify habitats most likely occupied by Aboriginal people in Tasmania during the Holocene – the last 10,000 years of the Earth’s history following the end of the last ice age.
The model identified the environmental characteristics of 8,000 artefact sites in the Tasmanian Aboriginal Heritage Register, including features such as altitude, slope, aspect, soil type, pre-1750 vegetation, distance to the coast and distance to fresh water. We then mapped all parts of the island that shared the environmental characteristics associated with artefact sites.
The spread of artefacts showed us that while Tasmanian Aboriginal people occupied every type of habitat, they targeted coastal areas around the whole island, and drier, less steep, environments of the central lowlands.
Few archaeological materials from the last 10,000 years of the Holocene have been found in the wet, rugged western interior. However archaeological materials from the preceding Pleistocene period indicates the western interior was more intensively occupied during the last ice age.
The most important finding of our analysis, however, is that physical aspects of landscape proved to be stronger predictors of Tasmanian Aboriginal occupation than vegetation type. The strongest predictors proved to be flat ground, clay soil as an indicator of fertility, low altitude, proximity to the coast and proximity to inland waters. In particular, our results indicate Holocene Tasmanian Aboriginal people exploited wet eucalypt forests as much as open vegetation types.
Why these findings matter
This result points to a more complex and interesting relationship between Tasmanian Aboriginal people and forests, such as if and how frequently fire was used in these environments.
More archaeological surveys, particularly in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, are needed to test whether our analysis is a true reflection of Aboriginal resource use. An upside to the recent bushfires in Tasmania is that such surveys are more easily carried out in burnt environments. So we have a perfect opportunity to discover more about how Aboriginal people shaped their island home.
Our research contributes to restoring Tasmania’s cultural heritage, reclaiming the history of the island and dispelling the myth of the nomad. All of this supports Tasmanian Aboriginal and non‐Aboriginal people in working towards culturally sensitive conservation and land management.
Truganini’s death in Hobart in May 1876 attracted worldwide attention. She was widely, but wrongly, believed to have been the last Aboriginal person to have survived the Tasmanian genocide. Her demise symbolised the devastating impacts of British imperialism on Indigenous peoples.
Yet Tasmanian Aboriginal people continue to live on the Bass Strait Islands, in rural and urban Tasmania and elsewhere. Their culture, although severely disrupted by the British invasion, persists. Part of this survival is the resurrection of a language, palawa kani, that is used by some Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Recently there have been calls to use the Aboriginal name nipaluna for Hobart, and other places are already using dual names.
Across Australia, an estimated 250 Indigenous Australian languages and hundreds more dialects were spoken before the British arrived. The cultural disruption caused by invasion has resulted in more than half of these languages vanishing.
In parts of the country, Aboriginal people and linguists have been working to preserve and restore some of the country’s original languages. In this wider context of language preservation and renewal, a reconstructed Tasmanian Aboriginal language has recently emerged. Palawa kani (“Tasmanian Aboriginal people speak”), is based on surviving spoken and written remnants of the island’s original languages. The written form of palawa kani has only lower case letters following a decision by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre to discontinue capitals.
In 1981, linguists Terry Crowley and Robert Dixon estimated that between eight and 12 different languages, some mutually unintelligible, were spoken by Tasmanian Aboriginal people prior to invasion. They used a variety of colonial records to arrive at this estimate.
Maritime explorers, missionaries and colonial officials wrote Tasmanian Aboriginal words and phrases in their journals. Some, like botanist Allan Cunningham, jotted down lists of words. Others, such as Quaker missionaries James Backhouse and George Washington Walker, also wrote down the lyrics to Tasmanian Aboriginal songs.
Between 1829 and 1834, the Conciliator of Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson, travelled the island with an entourage of Aboriginal people, including Truganini, and white servants. They aimed to capture Tasmanian Aboriginal people who had survived the Vandemonian War, which had been fought between Aboriginal people and the British colonists. Robinson relied on interpreters, but he and his white companions learned some Tasmanian Aboriginal languages. Robinson wrote down over 4,500 Tasmanian Aboriginal words. His white servant, James Gravenor, later spoke some words in Truganini’s Aboriginal language at her burial.
Many Tasmanian Aboriginal words continued to be used by those living on the Bass Strait islands. Tasmanian Aboriginal singer Ronnie Summers grew up on Cape Barren Island. He has written, for example, about how “yolla” is an Aboriginal word for short-tailed shearwaters.
South of Hobart, Fanny Cochrane Smith continued to use some of her Tasmanian Aboriginal language. Famously, in 1899 and 1903, she was recorded singing several songs and speaking in this language.
Since the 1990s, Tasmanian Aboriginal people including Theresa Sainty, Jenny Longey and June Sculthorpe have worked to restore language to their community. palawa kani has been built from words and songs passed down Aboriginal families as well as phrases and words recorded in colonial documents. It is a composite language that has been embraced by some, but not all, Tasmanian Aboriginal people.
Today, Tasmanian Aboriginal people are using palawa kani in different contexts. These include educational settings, during ceremonies and at official functions. Digital materials, posters and flash cards have been produced. People are encouraged to use palawa kani in their homes. Language learning is also supported by palawa kani being used in the award-winning animated television series Little J and Big Cuz.
Gradually people living in and beyond the wider Tasmanian community are becoming used to hearing or seeing palawa kani. In 2014, Tasmanian Aboriginal musician Dewayne Everettsmith’s debut album Surrender included melaythina, the first song released in palawa kani. More recently, in April 2018, the oratorio A Tasmanian Requiem premiered in Hobart. It included palawa kani, English and Latin. On approaching the ningina tunipri Tasmanian Aboriginal gallery at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart, visitors hear palawa kani.
Around Tasmania, some national parks and other significant landmarks now have dual names. Examples include Mt Wellington, near Hobart, which is also known by its Aboriginal name kunanyi and Asbestos Range National Park in the north of the state. The latter was renamed Narawntapu National Park in 2000, prior to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre discontinuing the use of upper case letters in palawa kani.
The word nipaluna, for Hobart, came from a word recorded by Robinson on 16 January 1830. The Conciliator wrote in his journal that his Aboriginal informant Woorrady (Wooreddy) told him Hobart was called nib.ber.loon.ne. On 11 July, Robinson recorded the name for Hobart as niberlooner. Different spellings were common in the 19th century for Aboriginal and English words. Those working on palawa kani have had to take these variations into account.
Present day use of palawa kani goes beyond dual place naming. It is also being used as a language of protest. Earlier this year, in February 2018, a television advertisement spoken in palawa kani went to air to protest against the Tasmanian Government’s plans to reopen some four-wheel drive tracks in the remote Arthur Pieman Conservation Area in Tasmania’s north west.
Despite not all Tasmanian Aboriginal people embracing palawa kani, the reemergence of an Aboriginal language in Tasmania is providing the island’s first peoples with a culturally distinctive, unique voice.
As Hobart’s Old Government House was being demolished in the late 1850s, workers made a remarkable discovery. Lifting the floor, they found an old pine board covered with four rows of pictures. Six scenes painted in oils depicted interactions between white people and Aboriginal men, women and children.
An old colonist who had arrived in Van Diemen’s Land back in 1804 remembered seeing such a picture board. She told The Mercury newspaper in November 1874 how she recalled it
hanging on a gum tree at Cottage Green [now Battery Point] where … there was an Aboriginal “Home”, to the occupants of which rations were issued.
In the early decades of the Australian colonies, British officials tried different techniques to communicate with Aboriginal people. Some strategies were brutal, such as when Governor Arthur Phillip had Arabanoo, and later Colebee and Bennelong, kidnapped. The Governor planned to restrain these Aboriginal men until they learned English and could act as go-betweens (eventually Bennelong became an intermediary and a companion to Phillip).
Other communication strategies were more creative. Around 1816, Governor Lachlan Macquarie used proclamations nailed to trees to try to convey messages to Aboriginal people in New South Wales. None of these are known to have survived. In the 19th century, visiting Italian scientist Enrico Giglioli thought that Tasmania’s colonists were copying Macquarie’s approach when they began using picture boards.
The Tasmanian picture board found stashed under Old Government House is rare. Only six others like it survive, all bearing the same picture sequence. This design has become relatively well known. Yet people continue to debate the meaning behind the boards. Some believe they depict the rule of law, others see martial law.
The central motif of the Lieutenant-Governor shaking hands with an Aboriginal leader, and the other pictures illustrating equality, have led scholars to conclude that picture boards were used to promote conciliation and harmony.
In 2014, fellow historian Nick Brodie and I were astonished to read detailed descriptions of two very different Tasmanian picture boards, in a manuscript by an unidentified author held in the Allport Library in Hobart. The author wrote about “Several Paintings of Panel […] about Eighteen Inches Square” that were “divided into compartments each of which represented a series of Actions admonitory to the Natives of the course intended by the Government to be pursued in future towards them”.
These visual warnings to Aboriginal people were part of Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur’s propaganda campaign during the Vandemonian War. We were intrigued by the scenes the writer described. To bring these to life, we invited Melbourne-based Tasmanian artist Simon Barnard to create impressions of what these other picture boards might have looked like.
The manuscript described scenes mirroring events that actually occurred. Take, for example, the Aboriginal man pictured in chains. In August 1830, following an altercation between field police and Aboriginal people at the Shannon River in Central Tasmania, the Colonial Times reported how an Aboriginal leader was
led in chains to the capital […] a large and heavy cart chain was twisted around his neck, and the other end of it was in the left hand of one of the conquerors.
The newspaper stated that two Aboriginal men were killed during the Shannon River affray. Other Aboriginal men, including the well-known resistance leader and convict from New South Wales, Musquito, were hanged in Hobart.
The two boards described in the manuscript presented Aboriginal people with a grim choice. Resist the British and guns and death awaits you. Adopt colonial ways and things will be better for you. The writer even suggested that “Official Rank & Station should be open to them [Aboriginal people] & […] they might even aspire to the dignified & confidential Employment of Postman”.
The accounts of these more recently rediscovered boards complicate our understandings of Van Diemen’s Land, by showing how the colonial government offered stark terms. Depicting “soldiery […] firing upon a tribe”, these images convey the brutal realities of the Vandemonian War more accurately than the board found under Old Government House. Rather than implying friendship and equality, the sequences of pictures on these other two boards illustrate diverging paths for Tasmania’s Aboriginal people following the British invasion.
The altercation-themed board’s picture sequence showed how, if Aboriginal people continued to resist the invasion, they would continue to be shot by soldiers, field police, armed settlers, and convicts. Those taken into custody could face the hangman.
On the other hand, the assimilation-themed board depicted how, in order to survive, the island’s original inhabitants could adopt Western ways. It showed Tasmanian Aboriginal people peacefully trading with the newcomers, being subservient to the Lieutenant-Governor, wearing colonial clothing, attending church, and taking up employment.
Aboriginal engagement with picture boards
Little evidence has survived to tell us how Aboriginal people engaged with or reacted to picture boards. We know at least one Tasmanian Aboriginal man became familiar with the imagery.
On 26 November 1830, the Tasmanian and Austral-Asiatic Review reported how Surveyor-General George Frankland gave the well-known leader Eumarrah a “little sketch” that illustrated:
[…] the consequences of the Aborigines adopting a peaceable demeanour, or of continuing their present murderous and predatory habits. In one part of the sketch, the soldiery were represented firing upon a tribe of the Blacks, who were falling from the effects of the attack. On the other part were seen, another tribe, decently clad, receiving food for themselves and families.
Ultimately this colonial propaganda was telling Tasmanian Aboriginal people that they really had no choice at all. Assimilate to survive. Resist, and perish.
On 1 July 1983, in a dramatic four-three decision, the High Court of Australia ruled to stop the damming of the Franklin River. It brought an end to a protracted campaign that had helped bring down two state premiers and a prime minister, as well as overseeing the rise of a new figure on the political landscape – the future founder of the Greens, Bob Brown.
The fact that a remote corner of southwest Tasmania became the centre of national debate reflects what was at stake in the campaigns against hydro-electric development. For many, like novelist James McQueen, the Franklin was “not just a river”: “it is the epitome of all the lost forests, all the submerged lakes, all the tamed rivers, all the extinguished species”. The campaign was a fight for the survival of “a corner of Australia untouched by man”; it was a fight for the right of “wilderness” to exist.
“It is a wild and wondrous thing,” Bob Brown wrote of the Franklin River in May 1978, “and 175 years after Tasmania’s first European settlement, the Franklin remains much as it was before man – black or white – came to its precincts.”
But it was not only the idea of “wilderness” – of an ancient, pure, timeless landscape – that saved the Franklin. The archaeological research that took place during the campaign was at the heart of the High Court decision. Far from being untouched and pristine, southwest Tasmania had a deep human history. What was undoubtedly a natural wonder was also a cultural landscape.
‘A sea of stone artefacts’
The archaeological site at the centre of the campaign was, for a time, known by two names: Fraser Cave and Kutikina. Kevin Kiernan, a caver and the first director of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, was the first to rediscover the site. He and Greg Middleton recorded it on 13 January 1977 as part of a systematic survey of the lower and middle Gordon and Franklin Rivers.
They were aware that the monolithic Hydro-Electric Commission was considering the region as the site for a new dam and they were searching for something – “maybe a big whizz-bang cave” – that might save these valleys from being flooded. In an attempt to raise awareness of this threatened landscape, they started a tradition of naming rock features in the southwest “after the political figures who would decide their fate”.
Fraser Cave was thus named after the sitting Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser. There was also a Whitlam cave, a Hayden Cave and a Bingham Arch. When the Tasmanian Nomenclature Board caught wind of this tradition, they accused Kiernan and other members of the Sydney Speleological Society of “gross impertinence” for naming caves outside their state. In mid-1982, at the suggestion of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, Fraser Cave became Kutikina, which means “spirit” in the oral tradition nurtured by the dispossessed Tasmanian Aboriginal community on Babel Island in Bass Strait.
But although Kiernan admired the natural splendour of Kutikina in 1977, he did not immediately recognise the artefacts it contained as human-made. It was not until he returned in February 1981 that he realised what he had found. He and the new director of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, Bob Brown, and its secretary, Bob Burton, were searching the remote valley for evidence of a convict who had supposedly perished in the region after escaping the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station.
The story conjured the “wildness” of the country and the discovery of his bones might help bring publicity to their campaign against the dam. But when they climbed through the entrance of Kutikina, they were amazed to find a sea of stone artefacts and ashy hearths extending into the dark. These were no convict bones.
Three weeks later, a team of archaeologists, cavers and National Parks officers rafted down the Franklin River to investigate. It was already dark on 9 March 1981 when they tied their boats to the riverbank. They had a deep chill after hours navigating the fast-flowing river, hauling their aluminium punt and rubber dingy over successive rapids, journeying deeper into the dense rainforest. The rain picked up again as they unloaded their gear and took shelter in the mouth of the cave, which opened “like a huge, curved shell”.
Some of the team started a small, smoky fire to cook their dinner, while the others, with the light of their torches, ventured into the cavern. Kutikina opened out “like an aircraft hangar” and extended for almost 200 metres into the cliff. But it was not its scale that excited them: it was the idea that this remote cave, buried in thick “horizontal” rainforest, could have once been home to a thriving human population.
Too tired to erect their tents, they unrolled their sleeping mats on the disturbed floor at the cave entrance. It later occurred to them that they were probably the first people to sleep there in around 15,000 years.
Over the following days, as rain poured outside, the team carefully surveyed Kutikina. The archaeologists, Rhys Jones and Don Ranson, opened a small trench where the black sediment of the floor was covered by a thin layer of soft stalagmite. The test pit only extended to a depth of 1.2 metres before it met bedrock, but it yielded an extraordinary 75,000 artefacts and 250,000 animal bone fragments.
This small pit represented about one per cent of the artefact-bearing deposit, making the cave one of the richest archaeological sites in Australia. “In terms of the number of stone tools,” Jones said to one journalist, “much, much richer than Mungo.”
The archaeological remains at Kutikina told a remarkable story. The tools appeared to be a regional variant of the “Australian core tool and scraper tradition”, found across the mainland during the Pleistocene, suggesting immense chains of cultural connection before the creation of Bass Strait. The bone fragments were also curious. Most had been charred or smashed to extract marrow, and almost all (95 per cent) were wallaby bones, suggesting a finely targeted hunting strategy, similar to that found in the Dordogne region in France.
But most surprisingly, underneath the upper layer of hearths, there were angular fragments of limestone that appeared to have shattered and fallen from the cave roof at a time of extreme cold, forming rubble on the floor. It was one of the main pieces of evidence that led Jones to speculate in his diary: “Is this the late glacial technology?”
Home to the southernmost humans on earth
The possibility of Ice Age dates conjured the image of a dramatically different world. Pollen records in the region revealed that what is now rainforest was once an alpine herbfield like the tundra found in Alaska, northern Russia and northern Canada. Twenty thousand years ago, the mighty trees of ancient Gondwanaland had retreated to the river gorges, where they were irrigated and sheltered from fire, while wallabies and wombats roamed the high, open plains above.
The cold blast of Antarctica, only 1000 kilometres to the south, had dropped temperatures by around 6.5 degrees Celsius. A 65-square-kilometre ice cap presided over the central Tasmanian plateau, feeding a 12-kilometre-long glacier that gripped the upper Franklin valley. Icebergs floated off the Tasmanian coast.
At the height of the last Ice Age, Kutikina was home to the southernmost humans on earth. The people of southwest Tasmania hunted red-necked wallabies on the broad open slopes of Franklin valley, they collected fine stone from glacial melt water gravels and chipped them into tools, and they sheltered beside fires in the mouths of deep, limestone caverns. “They alone,” Jones reflected, “may have experienced the high latitude, glacier-edge conditions of a southern Ice Age.”
Significantly, during a separate excavation near the confluence of the Denison and Gordon Rivers, archaeologists also discovered tools and charcoal dating to 250–450 years ago, long after the ice cap had melted and the rainforest had returned. It revealed that the river valleys of southwest Tasmania had a recent, as well as a deep, Aboriginal history.
The rediscovery of Kutikina made the front page of the local and national newspapers, and was discussed on the floor of Parliament, but, surprisingly, it was restricted to the margins of the conservation campaign. John Mulvaney later reflected on the productive, albeit tense alliance between archaeologists and conservationists during the campaign:
We claimed an Ice Age environment of tundra-like grasslands, where their dearly loved primeval forest was supposed to have stood eternally. By discrediting the image of a forest wilderness, we were ruining their image and battle cry!
Added to this tension was the animosity the Tasmanian Aboriginal community felt towards both the archaeologists, for fossicking on their land, and the conservationists, for suggesting they had never lived there. Their activism during the campaign had profound implications for the Australian archaeological community. But while Aboriginal leaders such as Rosalind Langford and Michael Mansell were eager to regain control of Kutikina – “the most sacred thing in the state” – they also recognised the value of the history that had been uncovered. As Mansell said:
The fact that the Aborigines could survive physically and culturally in adverse conditions and over such a long period of time … helps me counteract the feeling of racial inferiority and enables me to demonstrate within the wider community that I and my people are the equal of other members of the community.
At the 1981 Tasmanian Power Referendum, 47 per cent of the electorate voted in favour of the Gordon-below-Franklin dam. But, remarkably, there was also a 45 per cent informal vote. Tens of thousands of voters had scrawled “no dams” on their ballot papers. The unprecedented “write-in” had been organised by the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, led by Brown. It repeated this highly organised, campaign-oriented strategy at local, state and federal elections throughout 1982.
The federal leader of the Australian Democrats, Don Chipp, also recognised the mood of the electorate against the dam and in August 1981 he initiated a Senate inquiry into “the federal responsibility in assisting Tasmania to preserve its wilderness areas of national and international importance”. Jones, Mulvaney and the executive of the Australian Archaeological Association were among the many to make submissions to the new Senate Select Committee.
The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre also made a submission, drawing upon the archaeological research to underline the cave’s “great historical importance”. But they also made a more personal plea. The Franklin River caves “form part of us – we are of them and they of us. Their destruction represents a part destruction of us.”
This advocacy had a profound influence. Several members of the Senate Committee flew into the Franklin valley to see the ongoing archaeological work and when the committee presented its report on the Future Demand and Supply of Electricity for Tasmania and Other Matters, the archaeology dominated the “other matters”. “Apart from any other reasons for preserving the area,” they concluded, “the caves are of such importance that the Franklin River be not inundated.”
Prime Minister Fraser heeded the conclusions of the report. He did not want the Franklin dam built, but he was reluctant to intervene in what he regarded as a state matter. So he did not act when construction on the dam began in July 1982.
Protests and political shifts
On 14 December 1982, the same day the region was formally listed as a World Heritage site for its natural and cultural value, a chain of rubber rafts blocked the main landing sites along the Franklin River, protestors occupied the dam site and rallies were held in cities across Australia.
By autumn 1983, 1272 protestors had been arrested during the Franklin blockade, and nearly 450 had done time in Hobart’s Risdon Prison, including Mansell and Langford, who were charged with trespass on their return from visiting Kutikina.
While the blockade continued, and with a federal election just around the corner, the ALP made a snap change in its leadership on 3 February 1983. It replaced Bill Hayden, who had voted against Labor’s policy to stop the dam at the party’s national conference, with Bob Hawke, who had voted for it. And in a tumultuous few hours of Australian political history, Fraser called an early election on the same day. It would turn out to be a grievous political miscalculation.
Neither Fraser nor Hawke believed the Franklin River dispute decided the 5 March 1983 election, but the outgoing Deputy Prime Minister, Doug Anthony, was adamant: “There is no doubt that the dam was the issue that lost the government the election.”
On 31 March the new Hawke government passed regulations to prevent further construction on the Franklin dam. Tasmanian Premier Robin Gray took the matter to the High Court, challenging the constitutionality of Hawke’s “interventionist” legislation. His appeal failed by the narrowest of margins.
The judges in the majority considered that the Commonwealth had a clear obligation to use its External Affairs power to stop the proposed dam, as the inundation of “the Franklin River, including Kutikina Cave and Deena Reena Cave”, would breach the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act and damage Australia’s international standing. They also invoked the Commonwealth power to make laws with respect to Aboriginal people.
The Franklin River campaign has entered “the folklore of Australian environmentalism” as a green victory: a battle won, in Clive Hamilton’s words, through “the intrinsic worth of wild places.” But behind the scenes it was the deep Aboriginal history of the region that pushed the decision over the line. The archaeological evidence featured in every report about the judgement, and privately Malcolm Fraser considered it to be the deciding factor.
At a public meeting in Hobart in the late 1830s, Solicitor-General Alfred Stephen, later Chief Justice of New South Wales, shared with the assembled crowd his solution for dealing with “the Aboriginal problem”. If the colony could not protect its convict servants from Aboriginal attack “without extermination”, said Stephen, “then I say boldly and broadly exterminate!”
Voluminous written and archaeological records and oral histories provide irrefutable proof that colonial wars were fought on Australian soil between British colonists and Aboriginal people. More controversially, surviving evidence indicates the British enacted genocidal policies and practices – the intentional destruction of a people and their culture.
When lawyer Raphael Lemkin formulated the idea of “genocide” after the second world war, he included Tasmania as a case study in his history of the concept. Lemkin drew heavily on James Bonwick’s 1870 book, The Last of the Tasmanians, to engage with the island’s violent colonial past.
Curiously, books published before and since Bonwick’s have stuck to a master narrative crafted during and immediately after the Tasmanian conflict. This held that the implementation and subsequent failure of conciliatory policies were the ultimate cause of the destruction of the majority of Tasmanian Aboriginal people. The effect of this narrative was to play down the culpability of the government and senior colonists.
More recent works have challenged this narrative. In his 2014 book, The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania, Professor Tom Lawson made a compelling case for the use of the word “genocide” in the context of Tasmania’s colonial war in the 1820s and early 1830s, a time when the island was called Van Diemen’s Land. As Lawson writes, in the colony’s early decades, “extermination” and “extirpation” were words used by colonists when discussing the devastating consequences of the colonial invasion for the island’s Aboriginal inhabitants.
Nick Brodie’s 2017 book, The Vandemonian War: The Secret History of Britain’s Tasmanian Invasion, argues that the war was a highly orchestrated, yet deliberately downplayed, series of campaigns to efface Tasmanian Aboriginal people from their country. Brodie’s book makes extensive use of over 1,000 pages handwritten by Colonel George Arthur, revealing exactly how he prosecuted the Vandemonian War. (Disclaimer: Nick Brodie is my partner and occasional research collaborator.)
Arthur’s correspondence tells all
In his dual roles as lieutenant-governor of the colony and colonel commanding the military, Arthur directed a series of offensives against Aboriginal people.
Imperial soldiers, paramilitaries and volunteer parties were regularly deployed. Some parties were assigned Aboriginal auxiliaries as guides. Arthur’s war eventually included the largest ground offensive in Australian colonial history.
Shortly after he arrived in the colony in 1824, Arthur began stockpiling weapons. He blurred the lines between military men and civilians. Military officers and soldiers were given civil powers.
Former soldiers were encouraged to settle in Van Diemen’s Land and to help quell Aboriginal resistance. Settlers were issued with hundreds of guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Convicts who fought against Aboriginal people were rewarded.
Military and civilian parties scoured the island for Aboriginal people, taking some prisoner and injuring or killing others. They destroyed Aboriginal campsites and caches of weapons.
Arthur knew his war parties were killing their opponents, but continued to send them out regardless. He feigned ignorance after John Batman, leader of one of the parties and later founding father of Melbourne, fatally shot two injured Aboriginal prisoners in his custody.
Colonial strategy became more severe over time. Bounties were introduced at £5 for an adult Aboriginal person and £2 per child to encourage colonists to bring in live captives. These payments were later extended to cover not only the living but also the dead.
Arthur’s regime leaked stories to the press to manage the public’s understanding of the war. It publicly announced the retirement of parties that it continued to support, and selectively recorded evidence given to an investigative committee.
As the war progressed, Arthur ordered men to conduct many covert operations. While there were some expressions of empathy for Aboriginal people, many reports painted them as aggressors, thereby justifying government action and even secrecy.
Ultimately, a couple of thousand soldiers, settlers and convicts were recruited for a general movement against Aboriginal people in late 1830. During this major campaign, Arthur rode his horse up and down the lines. He personally oversaw the operation. He sent dedicated skirmishing parties out in front of “the line”. Surviving records do not reveal how many casualties may have resulted.
In the latter stages of the war, Arthur sent George Augustus Robinson to carry out so-called diplomatic “friendly missions” to Aboriginal people. While these were taking place, Arthur continued to orchestrate military and paramilitary operations, including some conducted by nominally diplomatic operatives.
Eventually, Arthur declared that details of the war had to become a military secret. He then continued with a series of major military offensives against the island’s remaining Aboriginal population.
By the mid-1830s almost all of Tasmania’s surviving Aboriginal inhabitants lived on small islands in Bass Strait, some with sealers and others at the Aboriginal Establishment on Flinders Island. From an Aboriginal population numbering somewhere in the thousands on the eve of invasion, within a generation just a few dozen remained.
Whereas the master narrative framed this state of affairs as proof of a benign government caring for unfortunate victims of circumstance, the colony’s archives reveal that Aboriginal people were removed from their ancient homelands by means fair and foul. This was the intent of the government, revealed by its actions and instructions and obfuscations. In the language of the day the Aboriginal Tasmanians had been deliberately, knowingly and wilfully extirpated. Today we could call it genocide.
Learning from New Zealand
As well as legacies of death and dispossession, the colony left a legacy of deliberate forgetting. Our neighbours across the Tasman Sea acknowledge and now formally commemorate the 19th-century New Zealand wars. The first Rā Maumahara, a national day of remembrance, was held on October 28 2017.
Yet today in Australia people quibble over whether the nation’s colonial conflicts ought to be called “wars”, or indeed whether any conflicts took place.
Despite some differences, wars prosecuted in the Australian colonies share strong similarities with the New Zealand wars. British colonists and imperial soldiers fought against Indigenous people who took up arms to protect their families, land, resources and sovereignty.
Yet colonists perceived their Indigenous opponents differently. Through British eyes, Māori were feared as a martial foe. Australian Aboriginal people, on the other hand, were considered incapable of organising armed resistance despite extensive evidence to the contrary.
New Zealand has begun a new chapter of national commemoration for the wars fought on its soil. Is Australia ready to follow suit? Or will it, by omission, continue to perpetuate the secrecies of its own wartime propaganda?
Half buried in the sand, uprooted stalks of kelp are like splashes of dark blood against the white quartzite, ground fine as talc. In the translucent shallows, tendrils of kelp flounce lazily as the water gradually turns to turquoise then a deep Prussian blue at the horizon. Behind the crescent of beach, matted tentacles of spongy pigface disguise accumulated detritus of crayfish, oyster, abalone and scallop shells, rubbish middens thousands of years in the making.
Known as Recherche Bay, this exquisite table-shaped body of water in the southeast corner of Tasmania was named by the French explorer Bruni D’Entrecasteaux who rested his ships Recherche and Esperance here in April and May 1792. Before the French arrived, this place was an important ritual site for the Nuenonne people, who journeyed in bark canoes from Bruny Island to meet with the Needwondee and Ninine people, who travelled overland from the west. For millennia they made this trip: the same seasonal migration; the same ritual feast. Not any more. Not since Ria Warrawah was loosed among them.
Wooredy, the last elder of the Nuenonne, saw it with his own eyes. In the cosmology of the original Tasmanians, Wooredy explained, Ria Warrawah was the intangible force of evil that could infest all things. Since the beginning of time, Ria Warrawah was held in check by the great ancestor who lived in the sky, maintaining the world in precarious balance until two avatars of evil fashioned as clouds pulling small islands floated into this very bay. As a small boy he had been transfixed by the sight of the French ships floating in from the ocean, and disgorging onto the land strange creatures just like the returned dead who had been drained of colour by the rigours of their journey. He watched as they walked about to collect water and make a fearsome sound with a stick that spat fire before returning to their floating islands.
He never saw those ships again, but when he was a young man on a hunting trip to the northern tip of Bruny Island, Wooredy observed two more such apparitions of evil float into the river estuary on the mainland opposite. This time the dead men came ashore and remained there, cutting down the trees to build huts and disturbing the ground all about. Plenty more of them arrived. And the Nuenonne began to die.
Thirty years after he watched the ships Lady Nelson and Ocean enter the estuary of the Derwent River, Wooredy was still hunting on his traditional country. He was by then a renowned warrior in his mid-forties who went about naked and wore his hair in the traditional fashion – long greased ringlets coloured with ochre that fell over his eyes like a mop. Wooredy was a cleverman, so knowledgeable in ritual and healing that the white men who came to his island called him the Doctor. Even he proved no match for the epidemic illness that between April and December of 1829 swept away nearly everyone of his clan.
Wooredy was not the last of the Nuenonne. That terrible distinction belonged to his second wife, Truganini, a woman whose name is vaguely familiar to most Australians, having achieved undesired celebrity as “the last of her race”.
An irresistible force
For most of my adult life I have been compelled by the story of Wooredy and Truganini, people who lived through a psychological and cultural transition more extreme than most human imagination could conjure. Both were witness and participant in a process of apocalyptic destruction without parallel in modern colonial history. Their experience has invariably been told through the prism of regretful colonial imperative, a rueful backward glance at the tragic collateral damage of inexorable historical forces. That is not a narrative I wish to perpetuate. Wooredy and Truganini compel my attention and emotional engagement because it is to them I owe a charmed existence in the temperate paradise where I now live and where my family has lived for generations.
My great-great-grandfather was fresh off the boat from England in 1829 when he was handed an unencumbered free land grant of over a thousand hectares of Nuenonne hunting grounds. On this land he prospered and put down deep roots, while the traditional owners were repaid with exile, anguish and despair.
Richard Pybus may have been the first white man granted freehold title to a large part of Bruny Island, but other grant holders followed soon enough. Next came George Augustus Robinson, an ambitious tradesman and self-styled missionary who threw over his successful business as a builder to become “conciliator” of the Indigenous Tasmanians. He had lofty ambitions that he could teach these ancient people to shuck off their savage ways and become good Christian serfs.
My ancestor’s neighbour was a most problematic fellow. Tempting though it is for me to despise the man, I remain immensely grateful for his voluminous daily journals that have given me a glimpse into the lived experience of Wooredy and Truganini, who were his close companions for 12 years as guides and intermediaries in the audacious project of conciliation that he called “the friendly mission”.
Heaven only knows what sort of excursion Wooredy and Truganini thought they had embarked upon on 29 January 1830 when Robinson took them from their island to sail to Recherche Bay for an overland trek to the west coast. Since the beginning of time the Nuenonne had taken this journey in their bark canoes, while nomadic treks through the southwest were part of the timeless, seasonal pattern of their traditional life. Such a journey encompassed return, a completion, in accordance with the natural cycles of the environment. A journey for the purpose of reaching a destination was entirely new. Not to return would have been unthinkable.
For more than 40 years, Wooredy had made trips to and from his island and knew Recherche Bay held the malevolent spirit of Ria Warrawah, embodied in a carved tree that was left by the French visitors. The day after their arrival, while hunting he came across a decayed body of a woman that showed no sign of violence. Ria Warrawah had caught her, he was sure of it. When the body was identified as a Ninine woman on a visit from the west coast who had become ill and been abandoned to die alone, Robinson was dismayed that his Tasmanian companions were strangely unmoved by this apparent callousness. It was yet another display of their belief “that no human means can avert the doom to which they are consigned”.
This stubborn fatalism about the irresistible force of Ria Warrawah deeply rankled him, even though Wooredy had given him a potent lesson in the awesome power of Ria Warrawah as they were sailing to this tranquil bay. During the trip Wooredy identified all the land that passed before his eyes as the country of three interconnected clans – the Mellukerdee of the Huon River, the Lyluequonny of Southport and the Needwondee of Cox’s Bight – all of them gone within the span of Wooredy’s adult life. This land was empty, he explained. Nobody left.
Plunging into the wild
Mid-morning on 3 February 1830, Robinson set out with his Tasmanian guides as well as a handful of convict retainers to walk overland to the west coast. The sun was shining and he estimated the distance to Port Davey to be about 60 miles, which would take them about three days. Truganini had relatives among the Ninine people of Port Davey and was anxious to get going but Wooredy was not so keen, displaying an inherent hostility toward the toogee – his collective name for people from the west coast — that Robinson found disturbing. It was an enmity he shared with the six other Tasmanian men in the party who were aliens in this country where they did not know the language or customs.
The steady, reliable Wooredy was considered by Robinson to be his “loyal and trusted companion”, and next he looked to the “respectful and compliant” Kickerterpoller, whose command of English and knowledge of European customs made him an ideal negotiator in Robinson’s eyes. This young man was from the Paredarererme clan from Oyster Bay, stolen from his people when he was about nine and given to a settler as a farmhand. As a youth he ran away to join in a guerrilla war before being captured in 1824 when he became a guide for the roving parties.
Kickerterpoller was very familiar with this kind of expedition and knew only too well the coercive, violent ways of white men. Although the mission was not a paramilitary organisation like the roving parties, and no one was openly armed, the convicts all carried guns and the brace of pistols Robinson had hidden in his knapsack told him it was not so friendly. Suspicion aside, Kickerterpoller had reason to cleave to Robinson, at least in the short term. Instead of being confined in a foetid gaol, the Tasmanians were at large in empty country where they could hunt freely. And no one was shooting at them.
No white man had ever attempted an overland route to the west coast, and Robinson knew nothing of the territory before him. Among the colonists, an enduring perception had taken hold that the southwest was a terrible place, a geographical extension of the inhuman horrors of the penal settlement in Macquarie Harbour. Everyone knew the stories of convicts driven beyond endurance by the cruelties of the penal system who had escaped into the hinterland never to be seen again. One convict bolter who survived his encounter with this terrible land was sustained throughout his ordeal by eating the companions he murdered. If the rigours of this hellish environment could drive a Christian white man to cannibal depravity, why would any white man willingly set foot upon it?
George Augustus Robinson was no ordinary white man. He had a hankering to venture into the heart of darkness and immerse himself in the challenges offered by the vast wilderness of the new world. He would reason to himself that his object in plunging into the wild was to shine the light of God into the darkness, while his wholehearted embrace of untamed nature revealed a passion for elemental experience much at odds with his evangelical posturing. All along the rugged way, his steps were driven by a voracious ambition to be feted and admired by the settler elite who had showered derision upon his enterprise. He was determined to return to their small world as a conquering hero.
Walking in single file, with the convicts bringing up the rear, the party followed the creek westward for a mile or so until they reached a flat plain that stretched for many miles, promising easy walking. To everyone’s dismay, they almost immediately sank into tepid water that rose to their calves. The pretty olive-and rust-coloured grasses that stretched as far as their eyes could see were growing in a porous layer of peat that sat on a hard quartzite base, trapping the voluminous rainfall into a watery bog. For hours the party pulled their legs through marshland that at times sucked them down to their knees. Reaching higher ground they were only slightly less dismayed to find an almost impenetrable belt of thick eucalypt scrub.
Just after dawn next day they located “the native track” that led to the south coast. The track had not been used for many months, and in places was completely swallowed up by rainforest – which meant clambering over fallen trees that were slippery with moss, sometimes crawling through on hands and knees, then a steep descent down a cliff face where almost every step caused a cascade of small boulders. After much slipping and stumbling they finally reached the shore, where they made camp just as huge heavy drops of rain began to fall, and persisted all through the night.
At sunrise, greatly disheartened and drenched to the bone, the expedition set off once more, climbing up and over rugged country covered with dense forest, punctuated by huge outcrops of barren rock with jagged edges sharp as knives. When they reached the coast they were sweating profusely under the baking sunshine as they walked for several hours along a wide arc of squeaky, shifting sand pounded by heavy surf. Lagging a mile or two behind Robinson and his guides, the burdened convicts stumbled and cursed. That night, camped at the bottom of a deep coastal ravine, Robinson was very apprehensive. They had covered no more that 20 miles, and supplies were running dangerously low. There were no people around to render assistance. Along the way they had passed many bark huts of the Needwondee, all deserted. Wooredy explained these people were snatched away by Ria Warrawah.
The fourth day involved negotiating a passage across a daunting mountain range that consisted of a series of polished quartz summits. Much of the time they progressed on hands and knees, clinging onto the wiry tufts of grass or pitiful, wind-stunted trees. After persevering all day in this unforgiving terrain without any food, the guides were at the point of total exhaustion. Truganini could barely walk. Kickerterpoller was no longer compliant, boldly remonstrating that this was not the way locals travelled. Even a roving party that moved through cleared country on level ground did not go at such a pace.
The indefatigable Wooredy was the only one not prone with exhaustion. Scanning the ragged, precipitous coastline his sharp eyes located the supply schooner lying offshore in a bay about six miles ahead. White men called this place Louisa Bay, but Wooredy knew it to be where the creator spirit Droemerdeener fell from the sky into the sea. Like Recherche Bay, it was once a ritual meeting place for all the clans of the south-east, and it held extensive shell middens and hidden rock paintings. Here was where his father and grandfather built the sturdy canoes they took to distant Maatsuyker Island to hunt for seals. There was no more hunting for seals on Maatsuyker. In a few short years the seal colony had been wiped out by the same rapacious white men who had stolen so many of the Nuenonne women.
Re-energised by the prospect of food, Robinson followed his guides in a headlong scramble down the mountainside, reaching Louisa Bay by late afternoon. Two hours later the shattered convicts arrived. Watching Truganini gleefully diving for crayfish, he ruefully acknowledged how perilously close they had come to starvation. The rigours of the journey convinced him that he would not survive the trip to Port Davey without reliance on Indigenous food supplies and local knowledge of the bush. He would have to defer to their way of doing things.
A hideous irony
For the next six weeks Robinson kept to the meandering, leisurely pace of the Tasmanians, for whom travel was subordinate to the requirements of hunting and gathering. He was growing increasingly frustrated at his failure to make contact with the elusive Ninine. Although evidence of their fires and their grass-covered huts were plentiful, the people kept well out of sight. Truganini knew how to find her relatives, but was in no hurry. Slyly deflecting Robinson’s pursuit, she spent her time diving for crayfish, oyster and abalone or collecting small wild plums, sweet red berries and edible roots. The men went hunting for wallaby, wild duck and an elusive animal somewhat bigger than a dog, with distinctive stripes on its back. It was a kind of hyena, Robinson thought.
As the food became more plentiful, the difficulties of the terrain got greater. Moving further westward toward Bathurst Harbour meant pushing into mountainous country covered with almost horizontal forest. Beset by mizzling rain that never let up, they were forced to crawl along precipices or wade for miles through thigh-high water. Impervious to the brutal terrain and the perpetual rain, Robinson found the experience excruciatingly uncomfortable, yet utterly exhilarating.
Robinson was sticking close to his guides, sleeping around their fires and sharing their provisions of abalone, crayfish and fresh wallaby meat, while the scornful convicts made camp a considerable distance away and spurned the Tasmanians’ fresh food in favour of their Christian food of spoiled potatoes and salted meat. Nor did they want any part of the heathen singing and dancing that went on every night at the Tasmanians’ camp, with Robinson as a fascinated participant. He listened attentively as Wooredy told of the exploits of the creator spirits who made man from the kangaroo, writing up copious notes in his journal.
As the stories were sung with a repeated, chanted chorus, Robinson cleverly inserted himself into these nightly rituals by joining in the chanting. And he played his flute, which was a great hit. The Tasmanians were all having a fine time. After years of terror and harassment they were back in the bush, reviving a traditional way of life that revolved around hunting and ritual. And Mister Robinson was there to make sure the surly white men with guns were kept a safe distance.
So began a system of mutual support and protection between Robinson and his Tasmanian guides that for Wooredy and Truganini lasted 12 years. They might not have properly comprehended Robinson’s intentions, but they understood that their relationship with him had undergone a profound change since leaving Louisa Bay. In contrast to his earlier behaviour, where his efforts had been to make them like himself, in the wilderness it seemed as if he was in the process of becoming one of them.
Wooredy took the lead in an overt effort to induct Robinson into the Tasmanians’ way of life, leading the nightly ritual re-enactments of how animal spirits formed the world, how they left their recognisable mark on the landscape and how they emerged in the form of man and other species to inhabit that landscape. In Wooredy’s spellbinding stories, and in their song and dance, the Tasmanians asserted the palpable reality of their world, as opposed to Robinson’s abstract talk of God, heaven and hell.
This reciprocal relationship between Robinson and his Tasmanian guides had all the elements of tragedy. In his detailed accounts of their interactions, Robinson revealed a genuine interest in Tasmanian culture and an affectionate regard for the people. He slept with them, sang with them, hunted with them, learnt their language and marvelled at their mental and physical adaptation to the natural world. The hideous irony was that despite the intense pleasure he took in this elemental experience, which caused his impoverished puritan spirit to soar, Robinson sought to ingratiate himself to secure their trust so he could use them to entice the remaining Indigenous population into his custody.
Fancying himself as an ethnographer, he was also making a study of the curious ways of the primitive Tasmanians in the wild for the book he intended to publish. His journal entries offer not a glimmer of awareness that his travel companions might think they were in a relationship of mutual obligation.
Robinson could invest his companions with fundamental human feelings of sadness and pleasure, even affection and loyalty, but to grant them complex reasoning and intricate social relationships would have destroyed the whole rationale of his activity. The idea that Wooredy and Truganini might have regarded themselves as equal partners in his enterprise would never have entered his head.
In the middle of March the party reached the vast waterway of Bathurst Harbour. They had been walking for six weeks without making contact. The inhabitants of the southwest proved no more accommodating than the savage landscape, “fleeing before my approach as the clouds flee before a tempest”, Robinson wrote with heavy exasperation. It was at Bathurst Harbour that one of the guides spotted a flag fluttering on the shore, causing Robinson to experience a surge of expectation. The flag was revealed to be a pathetic, desperate signal planted by three escaped convicts from the penitentiary at Sarah Island, many miles to the north. Their bleached skeletons, still wearing tatters of government-issue clothing, were an unsettling reminder of how inhospitable this place could be for white intruders.
Squatting on the ground to register this grim find, Wooredy suddenly pointed to smoke rising in the distance hills. The sight of smoke set Robinson’s heart racing all over again – at last the Ninine were in sight. Wooredy and Truganini set off in hot pursuit, and in the following days they made contact with the Ninine time and time again, but could persuade only two young women to come with them to meet Mister Robinson. The rest of the group simply melted away into the bush. These two women were entertained with the baubles Robinson gave to them and were also utterly beguiled by the sound of his flute, but it took days to persuade them to take him to their hiding place.
Pushing through tough scrub, Robinson followed the two women for a very long way, until they reached a hidden clearing. After several loud hoots, ten naked women emerged, with six children in tow, followed a little later by ten men, all of them standing over six feet tall, naked and carrying spears, with dead wallaby thrown over their shoulders. Wooredy told how he had walked all day to meet with them and how Robinson was constantly calling out gozee, meaning “make haste”, which caused great mirth. They kept repeating “gozee” to Robinson, then collapsing into gleeful laughter. Cautiously they sniffed at the biscuit he offered, before handing it back, then they amused themselves stroking and prodding his pale skin and meticulously examining the blue coat he was wearing.
These ten families made an impressive group, with everyone in excellent health and high spirits. This jocular band agreed to accompany Robinson back to his camp, laughing and shouting all along the way, until they breasted the hill above Kelly’s Basin. Suddenly they stopped in their tracks and fell silent. Coming toward them were a group of white men in a boat.
Robinson was livid with anger at the curious convicts who had disobeyed his order to stay out of sight. Knowing he had no hope of inducing the Ninine to take another step, he went alone to his camp. Early next morning he anxiously climbed the same hill and was distressed to see that the Ninine had slipped away. Wooredy and Truganini followed on their tracks for next two weeks, being led in a game of hide-and-seek, making sporadic contact with the Ninine, only to have them disappear at whim.
Palpably frustrated by his failure to effect “conciliation” with the local population, Robinson was equally perplexed by the attitude of his guides. He was alarmed when the Tasmanian men told him they could round up the Ninine for him if only he would give them his pistols. Alternatively, his convict retainers advised that alcohol would be the most effective weapon, explaining “it would only be necessary to make them drunk and you could take them anywhere”.
Robinson expected this kind of response from convicts, which is why he kept them far away from any possible contact, and he was alert to the potential antagonism from the men from other language groups, but it was beyond his comprehension that Wooredy should want to capture a people to whom he was closely related. Robinson began to suspect his loyal and trusted companion could be causing the extreme wariness of the Ninene, especially when he heard Truganini warn them that her husband “did not like toogee”.
It was a genuine shock to Robinson to realise that all his expedition team thought the purpose of their travail in this rugged, wet and wind-ravaged landscape was to capture the inhabitants. No one appeared to understand him when he reiterated that his friendly mission was merely to gain the confidence of the west-coast clans. Taking captives was never his intention, he insisted, oblivious as always to the implicit message he was giving. His Tasmanian guides were already captives. Captivity was the new order in which they lived and it was apparent to them that even the white men who carried the supplies were captives.
To what end had Robinson marched them across the island, his bemused companions might have wondered, if not capture and removal? What other motivation could there be for such an insane expedition through this barely penetrable wilderness?
Soon after it became a British colony, New Zealand began shipping the worst of its offenders across the Tasman Sea. Between 1843 and 1853, an eclectic mix of more than 110 soldiers, sailors, Māori, civilians and convict absconders from the Australian penal colonies were transported from New Zealand to Van Diemen’s Land.
This little-known chapter of history happened for several reasons. The colonists wanted to cleanse their land of thieves, vagrants and murderers and deal with Māori opposition to colonisation. Transporting fighting men like Hōhepa Te Umuroa, Te Kūmete, Te Waretiti, Matiu Tikiahi and Te Rāhui for life to Van Diemen’s Land was meant to subdue Māori resistance.
Transportation was also used to punish redcoats (the British soldiers sent to guard the colony and fight opposing Māori), who deserted their regiments or otherwise misbehaved. Some soldiers were so terrified of Māori warriors that they took off when faced with the enemy.
Early colonial New Zealand had no room for reprobates. Idealised as a new sort of colony for gentlefolk and free labourers, New Zealanders aspired towards creating a utopia by brutally suppressing challenges to that dream. On 4 November 1841, the colony’s first governor, William Hobson, named Van Diemen’s Land as the site to which its prisoners would be sent. The first boatload arrived in Hobart in 1843 and included William Phelps Pickering, one of the few white-collar criminals transported across the Tasman. Pickering later lived as a gentleman after returning home.
In 1840s Van Diemen’s Land, convict labourers were sent to probation stations before being hired out. Many men transported from New Zealand were sent down the Tasman Peninsula, where labourers were needed at the time.
Ironically, those eventually allocated to masters or mistresses in larger centres like Hobart or Launceston would have enjoyed more developed living conditions than New Zealand’s fledgling townships. In those days, Auckland’s main street was rather muddy. Early colonial buildings were often constructed by Māori from local materials.
At least 51 redcoats were shipped to the penal island. Some committed crimes after being discharged from the military. But many faced charges related to desertion. Four of the six soldier convicts who arrived Van Diemen’s Land in June 1847 were court-martialled in Auckland the previous winter for “deserting in the vicinity of hostile natives”.
As Irish soldier convict Michael Tobin explained, the deserters had been returned to the colonists by “friendly natives”; that is, Māori who were loyal to the Crown during the New Zealand Wars. Perhaps as a form of insurance, Tobin had also struck Captain Armstrong, his superior. Several other soldiers also used violence against a superior – it was bound to ensure a sentence of transportation, removing them from the theatre of war.
Irish Catholic soldier Richard Shea, for instance, was a private in the 99th Regiment who used his firelock to strike his lieutenant while on parade. This earned him a passage on the Castor to Van Diemen’s Land. His three military companions on the vessel, William Lane, George Morris and John Bailey, all claimed to have been taken by Maori north of Auckland and kept prisoner for four months. But surviving records reveal that their military overlords thought that the three had instead deserted to join the ranks of a rebel chief.
In 1846, NZ governor George Grey proclaimed martial law across the Wellington region. When several Māori fighters were eventually captured and handed over to colonists by the Crown’s Indigenous allies, they were tried by court martial at Porirua, north of Wellington.
After being found guilty of charges that included being in open rebellion against Queen and country, five were sentenced to transportation for life in Van Diemen’s Land. The traditionally-clothed Māori attracted a lot of attention in Hobart, where colonists loudly disapproved of their New Zealand neighbours’ treatment of Indigenous people. This is ironic given the Tasmanians’ own near-genocidal war against Aboriginal people.
Grey had wanted the Māori warriors sent to Norfolk Island or Port Arthur and hoped they would write letters to their allies at home describing how harshly they were being treated. Instead, they were initially held in Hobart, where they were visited by media and other well-wishers. Colonial artist John Skinner Prout painted translucent watercolour portraits of them. Each of the fighters used pencil to sign his name to his likeness. William Duke created a portrait of Te Umuroa in oils.
Hobartians were worried that the Māori could become contaminated through contact with other convicts. Arrangements were made to send them to Maria Island off the island’s east coast, where they could live separately from the other convicts.
John Jennings Imrie, a man who previously lived in New Zealand and knew some Māori language, became their overseer. Their lives in captivity were as gentle as possible and involved Bible study, vegetable gardening, nature walks and hunting.
Following lobbying from Tasmanian colonists and a pardon from Britain, four of the men, Te Kūmete, Te Waretiti, Matiu Tikiahi, Te Rāhui, were sent home in 1848. Te Umuroa died in custody at the Maria Island probation station in July 1847. It was not until 1988 that his remains were repatriated to New Zealand.
Reducing crime through imposing exemplary sentences saw dozens of working-class men transported to Van Diemen’s Land. One such fellow was James Beckett, a sausage-seller transported for theft for seven years. The only woman sent from New Zealand, Margaret Reardon, was sentenced to seven years’ transportation for perjuring herself trying to protect her partner (and possibly herself) from murder charges. After being found guilty of murdering Lieutenant Robert Snow on Auckland’s North Shore in 1847, the following year Reardon’s former lover Joseph Burns became the first white man judicially executed in New Zealand.
At one stage, Reardon was sent to the Female Factory at Cascades on Hobart’s outskirts to be punished for a transgression. Eventually, she remarried and moved to Victoria where she died in old age.
In 1853, transportation to Van Diemen’s Land formally ended. New Zealand then had to upgrade its flimsy gaols so criminals could be punished within its own borders.
The 20th anniversary of the massacre at Port Arthur again raises pressing questions – for surviving victims, their families and the Australian community more broadly – about ways of remembering the tragedy.
The relationship between trauma, tourism, commemoration and the nature of the place itself is a complicated one.
The isolated prison, housing the worst convicts, was intended to instil fear to deter others. And the authorities played up the horror of punishment there.
Here convicts – already languishing as far from their homes as possible – were now subjected to unknown terrors in an alien wilderness. Though the actual administration was relatively “enlightened”, the image was unrelentingly negative.
Everyone, it seemed, had an interest in playing up the horror.
The full circle
In 1877, the prison was closed. The government sought to obliterate its dark history and the shame of a convict past by changing the township’s name to Carnarvon. And by selling off the prison buildings on condition they were demolished.
Yet almost immediately tourists began to flock to the place, creating an important local industry. Souvenirs, guidebooks and postcards appeared; convict buildings were turned into guesthouses.
Fishing and hunting were popular but many tourists were drawn by morbid curiosity and a taste for the macabre.
Those early tourists could be a raucous mob. Reports spoke of “merry crowds” who danced in the mess rooms; pilfered “relics”; enjoyed the “thrill” of being shut up in a cell; and shrieked at the tales of horror told by the guides.
Some were ex-convicts: one would, for an extra shilling, remove his shirt and display the scars left by the lash.
Some tourists might reflect on the past’s brutality or British perfidy, but generally, a good time was had by all. The violence and gruesomeness were an entertainment.
The horror was in stark contrast to the landscape itself. Though at first seen as gloomy, alien and oppressive, the natural setting soon came to be regarded as romantically wild, awe-inspiring and picturesque.
The site’s neo-Gothic church, badly damaged by fire and covered with ivy, came to be seen as a romantically picturesque ruin.
Visitors drew attention to the irony of somewhere so beautiful being the scene of horror. Trauma amid beauty would become a common theme, revisited following the events of 1996.
A fine balance
Successive governments could not ignore the fact that Port Arthur was a money-spinner. In 1916, the site received some minimal protection. And, in 1928, the name was changed back to Port Arthur – Carnarvon had never caught on.
The Stone Henge of Australia and one of the greatest tourist assets which this state possesses.
A more middlebrow and respectable class of tourist began to take an interest, admiring the site’s “Englishness” and the beauty of its historic ruins.
As one visitor put it in 1918, “bitter memories are fading into romantic interest”: the “beautiful workmanship” of the carved stone conjured up an English monastery rather than an Australian gaol.
A new management authority in 1987 treated the convict past with more sensitivity and respect, contrasting with some of the tackier commercial exploitation. But it still introduced a ghost tour that, on Viator’s tourism website, promises “ghoulish stories”, “terrifying tales”, “harrowing history” and a generally “spine-chilling” and “spooky” experience.
The melancholy and reflective were still jostled by people having a good time. For some reason, convict suffering is fun.
This touristic enjoyment of trauma poses a problem.
But often the response can verge on voyeurism and emotional indulgence; melancholy, pity and sorrow can be perversely pleasurable emotions.
What marks out convict tourism is the way that, while some tourists are moved, others are simply entertained. This lies at the core of the dilemma facing Port Arthur managers on the 20th anniversary of the massacre.
The tragedy that unfolded 20 years ago added another layer of horror to a site already scarred by atrocity, but one where heartbreak jostled awkwardly with holiday making.
The management’s immediate response was purposely low key, with a sensitively understated memorial to the massacre – off the beaten tourist track. It allowed tourists and workers to quietly remember the dead, who were also tourists and workers.
The switch to a more public commemoration for the 20th anniversary shows the dilemma remains: how to commemorate Port Arthur as a tourist site.
In truth, the best memorial to the victims of Martin Bryant, his Colt AR-15 and his FN FAL, will always be effective gun control.
Tasmania’s Black War (1824-31) was the most intense frontier conflict in Australia’s history. It was a clash between the most culturally and technologically dissimilar humans to have ever come into contact. At stake was nothing less than control of the country, and the survival of a people.
Around 1000 lives were lost, but the loss of cultures and histories was far costlier. Had it happened elsewhere, the Black War would be common knowledge. Yet nearly two centuries on, most Australians know almost nothing about it. This Anzac Day it is worth reflecting on the price we pay for such ignorance.
For the first decade or more after Britain settled Tasmania in 1803, its tiny outposts on the Derwent and Tamar rivers never comprised more than a few thousand poorly equipped colonists. The vast majority of the island remained under Aboriginal control and conflict was infrequent. This soon changed following the defeat of Napoleon and settlement of the island’s interior was proceeding apace by the mid-1820s.
This invasion of tribal lands was the ultimate cause of the Black War, but it was not just the white man’s presence to which Aborigines objected. There were six times as many white men in the colony as there were women, and almost none of the latter were available to frontiersmen.
Predictably, some of these men employed violence to procure sex with Aboriginal women and children, and this appears to have been the war’s main proximate trigger.
Among our deadliest wars
As more and more colonists flooded in, Aboriginal attacks soared from 20 in 1824 to 259 in 1830. War parties torched dozens of properties, plundered hundreds of homes and speared thousands of sheep and cattle. Even more devastating was the human toll: 223 colonists killed and 226 wounded.
This represents an annual per capita death rate two-and-a-half times higher than that of Australians in World War Two. Almost every colonist lost somebody they knew. The war’s 200 or so Aboriginal survivors, exiled to Flinders Island in the early 1830s, lost nearly everyone they knew, together with their country and their way of life.
At first glance this suggests a very uneven conflict. Yet there is evidence for only 306 specific killings of Aborigines between 1824-31 and the true figure might not have been much higher than double that.
The apparent asymmetry stems from the fact that most of the island’s several thousand original inhabitants were probably not killed by white men directly, but rather by the disease, internecine conflict and general bedlam they introduced.
What’s more, Aborigines could not replenish their numbers, while every colonist they killed was replaced by a hundred more.
Although they lost the Black War, the efforts of Tasmania’s Aborigines deserve to be commemorated. Armed with just spears and clubs, they put up the stiffest resistance of any indigenous people anywhere in Australia. They pressed the fight until scarcely two dozen of them remained.
We know the names of many. We even have portraits of some, such as Thomas Bock’s haunting sketch of Tongerlongerter, the celebrated resistance leader who severed and cauterised his own arm after it was shattered by a white man’s bullet. Such characters are worthy of our intrigue, and our admiration.
We should also remember the British dead, most of whom were transported for trivial offences, only to meet their deaths in a strange land at the hands of an even stranger enemy. Some had never held a gun, much less fired it into an Aboriginal camp; others had killed their black enemies at every opportunity, but all were victims of circumstance.
Regardless of their guilt or innocence, these luckless men and women are pivotal to Tasmania’s history, and it is essential that we learn their stories too.
An excuse to forget
Growing calls for the Australian War Memorial to commemorate the nation’s frontier wars have been steadfastly rejected. They did not involve the Australian military, runs the objection.
This is technically correct; Tasmania was a British colony until 1901. Nevertheless, colonial forces played a significant role in the island’s frontier conflict, which culminated in 1830 with the Black Line – the largest domestic offensive in Australia’s history. This ambitious seven-week operation involved 550 soldiers and 1,650 settlers and convicts – fully 10% of the colony’s population.
But military or no military, the Black War was just that – a war – and everyone from the governor to the field-hand acknowledged it as such.
The War Memorial’s obstinacy reflects a more general ambivalence among Australians towards the skeletons in their national closet. The cultural brokers of the last century have taught us to graze contentedly on a lean historical diet of sporting heroes, rural battlers and of course Anzac legends. Underlying this stultifying trend is the assumption that acknowledging our ancestors’ mistakes will undermine our national pride and identity.
This is misguided, to say nothing of condescending. As many other countries have shown, a nation that confronts its past, owning its mistakes and learning from them, can only inspire pride.
My grandfather is a decorated World War Two veteran. We meet every Anzac Day and pay our respects to his fallen mates. The speeches are always moving; though the only mention of the colonial frontier I can recall was a dignitary noting how “peaceful” it had been.
Anzac Day commemorates numerous conflicts, from the Boer War to the Boxer Rebellion, but the Black War is not among them. This perplexes my grandfather, as it does a growing number of Australians. It was not just a war fought in Tasmania, it was a war fought for Tasmania.