Inside Story

The sense of islandness

Ian McShane reviews Henry Reynolds’s new history of his home state

Ian McShane 28 June 2012 2564 words

Island destiny? The one-time prison settlement at Port Arthur (above). canberra lad/Flickr

A History of Tasmania
By Henry Reynolds | Cambridge University Press | $39.95

DURING a visit to Tasmania in 1872, the English novelist Anthony Trollope accompanied the colony’s premier and several government ministers to Port Arthur on one of their inspections of the infamous prison. In its last years of operation, Port Arthur was holding British convicts yet to serve out their sentence, together with locally convicted prisoners, paupers and the mentally ill. Trollope listened in amazement to several inmates’ stories, and reflected on how strange it was to witness such misery in a landscape that reminded him of an English parish or a pleasant seaside retreat.

Many Tasmanian writers have discussed Trollope’s observations of the physical and social imprint of convictism on Tasmania, especially his famous dictum that Tasmania was destined to live on the relics of its convict past. This sense of “islandness” – the geographical and historical factors that shape Tasmanian identity – is an important theme in Henry Reynolds’s lucid and engaging new history of Tasmania. But Reynolds also argues that writing a history of Tasmania inescapably means writing about nation and empire. Tasmania has a unique and profound story, he argues, but that story contributes to our understanding of Australia’s past and present in significant ways.

Trollope visited Tasmania during the long economic slump after transportation to the island ended in 1853. The downturn contrasted with the boom on the other side of Bass Strait. Vandemonians had once seen Victoria as their colony; now it was striding ahead. Deprived of the British revenue and military force associated with the convict system, the island’s ruling class sought to shore up its own privileges by imposing labour conditions and criminal sanctions reminiscent of the convict system. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, though, some of the same public figures who had campaigned for independence from Britain were advocating union with Victoria.

The deeply human story of convict transportation connects at many points with the driving intellectual interest of Reynolds’s distinguished career: the interaction between Indigenous people and colonisers (or invaders, as he puts it). Reynolds has explored the complexities of Indigenous–settler relations in a dozen or so books. The title of the book that brought him to public prominence, The Other Side of the Frontier (1981), summarises his focus on conflict and Indigenous resistance. His subsequent analysis of the legal, political and moral contexts of colonial occupation and property rights, The Law of the Land (1987), was influential in the High Court’s recognition of native title in the 1992 Mabo case.

Reynolds’s work during that period gained him an international audience and large measures of praise and criticism at home, and he found himself at the centre of a major political and legal battle. As the Western Australian academic David Ritter observes, opponents of native title assumed that discrediting Reynolds would weaken the doctrine itself. Later, Reynolds and other revisionist historians found themselves under attack on another flank of the “history wars,” most contentiously through Keith Windschuttle’s assertion that they had exaggerated the number of Indigenous deaths from armed conflict in Van Diemen’s Land.

In 1998, Reynolds retired from James Cook University, where he had taught Australian history for three decades, and returned to his birthplace of Tasmania. There, he has encouraged the work of an emerging group of Tasmanian Indigenous historians and produced a clutch of new work. This latest book is not intended as a reference work, he says, but rather as a more selective account of Tasmania’s political development and the major economic and social changes the island has seen over the past 200 years.

IT WAS the European maritime expeditions to Van Diemen’s Land in the late eighteenth century that began this era of significant change. Between 1772 and 1802, eleven expeditions explored and mapped the southeastern Tasmanian coastline, with French landing parties spending lengthy periods onshore. Conflict – often, in Reynolds’s view, born of misunderstanding – was never far away, for “each party found the other conflicting and volatile.”

Early in his account, Reynolds discusses the pivotal encounter in 1804 between the Mairremmener people of southern Tasmania and the British marines based at Risdon Cove, the earliest British encampment. Working with contrasting contemporary accounts, Reynolds concludes that what began as a kangaroo drive by the Mairremmener may have turned, following an initial volley of musket fire by the soldiers, into the most serious frontal assault on settlers in Tasmanian history. The confrontation lasted for three hours, and colonial observers – including the evangelical “conciliator” G.A. Robinson – concluded that it destroyed any real prospect of peace between black and white in Tasmania. As Reynolds says, the Mairremmener were at the heart of the “Black War” in Tasmania. Whether or not other language groups became aware of the episode, within a generation “all had been engulfed by the overwhelming tide of settlement.”

Reynolds dismisses a simple connection between the Black War – and particularly its best-known episode, the costly and inept attempt to drive Indigenous people into the southeast corner of the island – and the removal of the Indigenous Tasmanians to the disastrous Wybalenna settlement on Flinders Island. With martial law declared in 1828 and a bounty placed on Indigenous people, the decision to relocate was, in Reynolds’s view, pragmatic. Once resettled, they resisted controls over their movements and attempts to make them work, and made clear their claim to ownership of the land and its resources. They considered themselves a free people with political rights and grievances.

Opinion among the colonisers was divided. Some colonists protested against the brutal and immoral treatment of the Indigenous people, although Reynolds argues that Robinson’s “friendly mission” salved many a colonist’s conscience. (Travelling through the island with Trugernanner and several of her compatriots, Robinson attempted to make contact with Indigenous people and convince them to relocate to Flinders Island.) With disease and distress taking its awful toll on the population at Wybalenna – in contrast to the good health of the convicts held there, as Reynolds observes – the settlement was closed in 1847 and the remaining group moved to Oyster Cove in the southeast. Trugernanner, the last surviving member of the Wybalenna community, died in Hobart in 1876. Her funeral was attended by the Tasmanian premier, several cabinet ministers, and religious and civic leaders.

Evolutionary theory invested this event with special significance. Darwin himself had commented on the vulnerability of the Indigenous people on his visit to Hobart in 1836. Trugernanner’s death seemed for many to close a sad, if inevitable, chapter in Tasmania’s history – a view that was reinforced by the public display of her skeleton in the Tasmanian Museum and Gallery until 1951. How surprised the mourners would have been, Reynolds suggests, if they had witnessed the political re-emergence of Tasmania’s Indigenous community a century or so later, particularly around land rights and the politics of cultural heritage. For Reynolds, this is one of the striking features of Tasmania’s recent history.

Tensions between convicts and free settlers were also significant and enduring. The desire of the colony’s governors, particularly the autocratic George Arthur (1824–36), to cultivate a colonial gentry was supported by huge grants of prime pastoral land. Tasmania’s social structure and patterns of wealth were established early, with pastoral settlement initially extending from Launceston and Hobart into the fertile grasslands of the midlands. Rising wool prices for much of the nineteenth century ensured generations of prosperity for the select group, as they did in many parts of the mainland. In 1875, ninety-two of the largest hundred rural estates had been acquired before 1832, their interests well served by the disproportionate number of pastoralists sitting in the Tasmanian parliament.

At the other end of the social scale, the convict system had left a significant institutional and welfare burden on the state. With its small population and isolation, argues Reynolds, it was more difficult to conceal or rise above a convict past in Tasmania than elsewhere in Australia. The large number of state and charitable institutions established in the late nineteenth century housed a far larger proportion of state dependents than in any other Australian colony.

The feeling of vulnerability among socially privileged Tasmanians led to passage of the repressive Masters and Servants Act in the last days before self-government in 1856. An employee accused of breaking a contract by failing to work diligently could be arrested by any member of the master’s family and jailed without charge for up to a week. Drunkenness or obscene language could be punished by imprisonment for three months. A correspondent to the Southern Star newspaper claimed to have heard the act denounced by Tasmanians in outback South Australia, “men who did not know what freedom was until they reached Australia’s shores.”

The economic decline continued until the discovery of mineral deposits in Tasmania’s north and west in the late nineteenth century. By the end of the century, the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company, formed to exploit the copper deposits at Queenstown on Tasmania’s rugged west coast, had an annual turnover rivalling the entire Tasmanian state budget. But Tasmania’s long-term economic performance, slow population growth and reliance on shipping concerned legislators.

CHANGE was on its way, however. Desperate for zinc for munitions production, the federal government helped establish a plant on the banks of Hobart’s Derwent River powered by the new hydro-electricity generators located in Tasmania’s central highlands. The era of hydro-industrialisation had begun.

The formidable Hydro-Electric Commission is popularly associated with “Electric” Eric Reece, Labor premier for most of the years between 1958 and 1975. Reece began his working life in the west coast mines, rising through Labor’s industrial and political wings. He was unemployed for several years during the Great Depression, and for much of his long and powerful premiership he lived in a weatherboard cottage in the Housing Commission suburb of Goodwood, on Hobart’s northern fringe.

Labor’s association with hydro development dates back much further, however, as Reynolds reminds us. Albert Ogilvie, Labor premier during the later depression years of 1934–39, deserves greater recognition for setting Tasmania on its uncompromising development path, principally through a brilliant tactical ploy in the 1934 election. Having received leaked plans for a new power station on the upper reaches of the Derwent River, Ogilvie built his campaign on the project and won government. Between them, Ogilvie, his successor Robert Cosgrove, and Reece, all firm supporters of hydro development, held the premiership for almost four decades.

Ogilvie’s political tactics were backed by a commitment to stimulatory public investment, a view that ran contrary to the prevailing orthodoxy of balanced budgets and financial austerity. When the Tarraleah power station opened in 1938, it doubled Tasmania’s electricity generating capacity. Paper production plants were opening in northwest and southern Tasmania, and soon came the decision to construct a power-hungry aluminium smelter at the mouth of the Tamar River, north of Launceston.

Some Tasmanians, bureaucrats as well as citizens, had reservations about the Hydro-Electric Commission’s dominance of the state’s political economy, from its drain on the state’s loan funds to the secrecy surrounding electricity supply to its major customers. As Reynolds points out, there was also considerable opposition in the 1930s to the plan to raise the level of Lake St Clair as part of dam works. This early environmentalism was fashioned from a romantic view of the landscape as sublime and undisturbed by humans. In the late 1960s, popular and political opposition to hydro-industrialisation – scarcely imaginable a decade earlier – began to spread, fuelled by a significant miscalculation by the commission and the government, the decision to flood Lake Pedder. It found political expression through the United Tasmania Group, which Reynolds and other writers identify as the world’s first green party.

Recent environmental debates, particularly the successful campaign to prevent the damming of the Gordon River, necessarily receive limited attention in this book. By choosing to end the narrative in 2004 – the date oddly nominated by the Tasmanian government as the bicentenary of European settlement (read the book for an explanation of the political gymnastics surrounding that episode) – Reynolds also misses covering much of the recent pulp mill debate. But his analysis of Tasmania’s political, economic and social development helps explain the alternative visions for Tasmania advanced during the pulp mill debate, as well as its brutal politics.

REYNOLDS’s conviction that writing Tasmanian history also involves writing about the history of the nation, and about the British empire, is exemplified in many ways in A History of Tasmania. Van Diemen’s Land was Australia’s second settlement, and Hobart its second-largest urban centre until the middle of the nineteenth century. The island was central to imperial strategy, both as a defence against the expansionism of other European nations and as the empire’s jail. Its wool clip fed British mills in the nineteenth century and its young men fought – and many died – under the British flag in the twentieth. Andrew Inglis Clark, Tasmania’s attorney-general for much of the decade 1887–97, made a significant contribution to Australian federalism and democracy as a drafter of the constitution and theorist of proportional representation. Debate over Tasmania’s economic position within the federation was an important factor in establishing the Commonwealth’s grants commission. More recently, Tasmania’s environmental politics has exerted a strong national influence.

Although one of Tasmania’s achievements is its record as an early and successful democracy, this was not seen as noteworthy in Tasmania’s 2004 bicentenary celebrations, particularly among elements of the environmental movement. But there is a fragility to Tasmanian democracy that matches – indeed, appears to go hand in hand with – concerns about its economic vulnerability. The Legislative Council acted for many years as a brake on the lower house by upholding what its members saw as “the fixed interests of the community.” And although, as Reynolds acknowledges, minority or slim majority government has been a norm under the state’s Hare-Clark electoral system, the major parties conspired in 1998 to reduce the Tasmanian parliament to the size it was in 1856 in order to minimise the Greens’ influence.

As Reynolds eloquently demonstrates, Tasmania has a unique and compelling story, but how is it told, and where? Concluding the book, he expresses his disappointment at the lack of history in the Tasmanian school curriculum. There is, he suggests, a striking contradiction between the palpable nature of Tasmanian history – evident in its built heritage and the imprint of agriculture and industry on the landscape, as well as in its social and political institutions – and its neglect as an object of study. Unfortunately, his observation of the Tasmanian scene is true of the teaching of history in other parts of Australia, in schools and in universities. This fine book shows how the past continues into the present, and why our knowledge of it is vital to understanding where we are now and charting our future. •