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Forgotten voices

Books | Two books grapple in different ways with the evidence of Tasmanian Aboriginal history, writes Greg Lehman

Greg Lehman 21 December 2015 2031 words

Imagined lives: detail from Robert Dowling’s painting, Group of Natives of Tasmania (1859). Wikimedia

Van Diemen’s Land: An Aboriginal History
By Murray Johnson and Ian McFarlane | NewSouth Books | $39.99

Forgotten War
By Henry Reynolds | NewSouth Books | $29.99


Contention and disquiet never seem too far away when the subjects of Van Diemen’s Land and colonial warfare are raised. These recent books demonstrate that while the campaign by Keith Windschuttle to undermine the reputations of “revisionist” historians continues, the task of questioning both entrenched and emerging narratives in Australia’s account of its treatment of Indigenous people has not been diminished. Murray Johnson and Ian McFarlane’s Van Diemen’s Land: An Aboriginal History follows Henry Reynolds’s most recent volume, Forgotten War; while different in scope, the two books remind us that the details and consequences of colonial conflict with Australia’s First Peoples remain vitally important. This is no better evidenced than by the contestation that occurs over factual, source and narrative validity in recent historical literature.

For a society still struggling with its identity and searching for a more open relationship with its past, coming to terms with the fact that the killing of Aboriginal people was intrinsic to the founding of the nation seems never to have been more urgent. The creation of the island colony now known as Tasmania was New South Wales’s response to an apparent threat of French invasion after ships under the command of Nicolas Baudin began surveying the area in 1802. Governor King, despite being assured by Baudin of France’s lack of interest in colonial expansion in the region, dispatched lieutenant John Bowen in September the following year to establish a permanent British settlement. Within six months, the first coordinated military action by a European power against Tasmanian Aborigines had occurred.

Baudin’s visit had been preceded in 1772 by an expedition led by Marion du Fresne. The French anchored in Frederick Henry Bay on 3 March and, after unintentionally provoking Aborigines by lighting a fire, were attacked with stones and spears. Du Fresne responded with a fusillade, wounding several Tasmanians and killing at least one. This, the first recorded Aboriginal fatality on the island at European hands, has been largely forgotten. But the events of 3 May 1804, when Bowen’s detachment fired on approaching Aborigines at their Risdon Cove settlement, continue to resonate in contemporary Tasmania.

The small inlet on the Derwent estuary just north of the city of Hobart is widely known today as the first British settlement in Tasmania. In fact, it proved to be unsuited to development, and lieutenant governor David Collins quickly established alternative sites at Sullivan’s Cove and New Town Bay. It was from these new locations that the colony’s convicts and free settlers heard the sound of a cannon being fired at a large group of Aborigines who had entered Bowen’s camp.

Enough has been written about these events at Risdon Cove to establish that around 200 Aborigines were engaged by soldiers for a period of at least three hours. Estimates made around the time of the number of Aborigines killed range from as few as three to as many as fifty. And while official reports described the Aboriginal presence as threatening and violent, other observers described the incident as an overreaction to an innocent kangaroo hunt.

These events created an identity for the site as Britain’s first beachhead in the invasion of the island and the consequent dispossession of its Aboriginal population. For contemporary Tasmanian Aborigines, it is the place of the Risdon Cove Massacre, and the beginning of Australia’s first forgotten war.

Over the next three decades, hundreds of Tasmanian Aboriginal men, women and children were recorded as having been killed by convicts, settlers and military as the colony’s newspapers howled for their blood. Roving parties, funded by the governor, attacked Aborigines in districts targeted for settlement, and a vast military operation known as the Black Line swept across those parts of the island in an armed campaign to capture and remove the survivors.

Johnson and McFarlane draw critical attention to Risdon Cove, joining a long list of authors who have attempted to sift through the contradictory fragments of evidence available to make a forensic account of the events. Despite allocating over twenty pages to the subject, the authors are emphatic that its importance is overstated:

The so-called “Risdon Massacre” occurred the following May, an incident that has often been grossly exaggerated. On this occasion there was certainly loss of life, but to refer to it as a “massacre” is naive at best.

The authors share such sentiments with those of Windschuttle in his publication The Fabrication of Aboriginal History (Macleay Press, 2002). But it would be too simple to describe them as sympathetic to his project. Johnson and McFarlane are at times dismissive of Windschuttle’s assertions, describing them as “errant nonsense,” but give him credit for many other observations. Overall, they contribute a valuable analysis of the disparate records of the events at Risdon Cove. But it is in their energetic rejection of the term “massacre” that the authors’ subjectivity becomes problematic. Equally apparent is their discomfort with contemporary Tasmanian Aboriginal identity and the possibility of an authentic cultural expression. Through frequent reference, the authors seem to veer back towards Windschuttle’s distaste for contemporary Aboriginal cultural self-determination. The passage of the Aboriginal Lands Act 1995, unamended and with unanimous support from both houses of the Tasmanian parliament, was perhaps the greatest example of self-determined achievement in Tasmanian Aboriginal history. Yet it goes unmentioned. Criticism of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, an organisation at the heart of Aboriginal political assertion and Indigenous cultural renaissance in Tasmania, seems oddly passionate and strenuously critical. This belies a historical text that invests otherwise admirable effort in compiling one of the most extensive and wide-ranging accounts yet published.

It is this aspect – the character of the historical commentary – that is most troubling about Van Diemen’s Land. From its introduction, which describes Aboriginal attempts to “recreate language and customary practices, not always successfully, with their authenticity at times highly questionable,” and asserts contemporary constructs of identity as a “mockery,” the authors seem intent on a broader project. In their tendency towards judgement, which too often overshadows the attempts at careful, evidenced observation that characterise most of the book, they raise questions about exactly what is implied by the subtitle of their volume: An Aboriginal History. If added simply to differentiate their book in the marketplace from James Boyce’s excellent Van Diemen’s Land (Black Inc., 2010) then the answer is uncomplicated. If the subtitle is meant to suggest some sort of account of a Tasmanian Aboriginal presence in history, however, then the subtitle is misleading.

Johnson and McFarlane’s acknowledgements fail to mention a single Aboriginal person. Complete absence in this regard is surprising, but perhaps telling. I can only suspect that the book is somehow framed in spite of Tasmanian Aboriginal historians and commentators. The dismissal of Patsy Cameron’s book Grease and Ochre (Fullers Bookshop, 2011) as the work of an “uncritical revisionist” taking things to “fanciful heights” seems to confirm this. If I am right, and the book is an attempt to reclaim Tasmanian Aboriginal history from the idiosyncratic hands of Aboriginal scholars, then it does so in a blunt and unsophisticated way.

Any claim that Van Diemen’s Land is an “Aboriginal history” might be expected to require an engagement with Aboriginal voices, otherwise it may only succeed in denying Aborigines the ability to tell our own story. In asserting this, I am not arguing that such voices are beyond criticism. But they should be engaged with on the basis of an understanding of the social and historical context of their advocacy for recognition, and their value as cultural documents. Outright dismissal stakes out some very high moral and academic ground, which becomes problematic given the authors’ own subjectivity, and their reliance on secondary sources and newspaper reports in exploring such difficult subjects as paleoclimates, anthropology and linguistics. Circumspect treatment of these sources, as well as of “revisionists” like Cameron, would result in a more balanced and considered approach to what is otherwise a valuable summary text.


Henry Reynolds features strongly in Van Diemen’s Land’s acknowledgements, and contributes a valuable foreword to the volume. Reynolds commenced his academic career with Aborigines and Settlers, published in 1972, and followed it with The Other Side of the Frontier, ten years later. His latest book returns to the subject of frontier conflict as a matter of urgency and relevance. Counter to the arguments of Windschuttle, which see colonial domination of Aborigines as overstated in its pertinence to Australians today, Reynolds argues that these events are increasingly germane to understanding both the past and the future of the nation. He points to Australia’s intensifying relationship with war as an ongoing defining element of national identity, and argues that the current focus on providing long-overdue constitutional recognition of Indigenous people is a key reason for confronting the lasting implications of frontier history.

Unlike well-known conflicts such as the Boer wars, Gallipoli or Vietnam – through which, Reynolds points out, nothing was won for Australia as a nation – frontier wars like those fought in Van Diemen’s Land were essential in subduing violent resistance to British invasion of Aboriginal land. They also paved the way for key economic drivers such as pastoralism. Reynolds argues that their importance has been obscured by the widespread myth, which emerged in the early twentieth century, of a romantic frontier, in which the only war was that waged on nature and the elements. This replaced the national narrative of preceding decades, in which the debate was not about the existence of conflict as much as about the morality of campaigns that were acknowledged to kill Aborigines.

These, says Reynolds, were the wars that made the nation, not those on faraway shores. In the future, he argues, when minor engagements such as Gallipoli and those of the cold war fall into obscurity, it will be the foundations of imperialism and colonisation that will endure as central to Australia’s origins. For this reason more than any other, they require recognition and serious treatment by institutions such as the Australian War Memorial. Figures as diverse as historian Geoffrey Blainey and governor-general Sir William Deane have highlighted this challenge. Yet the Memorial’s official position remains that such subjects are best considered in the nation’s museums, a view that Reynolds sees as misguided and negligent.

Each of these books offers a measure of judgement and opinion on the implications of colonial conflict as it is variously seen in Australian history. But it is Reynolds who astutely recognises the dilemma facing historians who wield history as an instrument of judgement on the past. Those who committed killings – whether or not they are correctly described as massacres – acted according to the standards of their times. Whether they should be judged by the standards of those times or of our own is, according to Reynolds, a substantial question. Contexts change, and continue to do so.

Meanwhile, Windschuttle’s call for objective truth in history remains as a hollow, ideological hope. His legacy, however, is a template method for energetically dismissing narratives that seek to engage in the richer task of understanding the contextual terrain in which ideas of truth grow. Reynolds’s call for critical engagement with the mythological dimensions of Australia’s view of itself directly confront Windschuttle’s belief in the existence of a single, proper story. His call should also be taken account of by those who wish to document the experience of Aborigines in history. The task of the historian is to search out evidence, account for its context and present it for collegial analysis. Ridiculing those colleagues – or worse, the subjects of historical inquiry – will always say more about the political and social context of our times and our relationship with the past than it can about the facts of our history. •

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