How bad are we?

Bernard Porter

  • The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania by Tom Lawson
    Tauris, 263 pp, £25.00, January 2014, ISBN 978 1 78076 626 3

It’s well known now that contact with British settlers in the early 19th century led to the extinction of the native Tasmanians; it was pretty well known at the time too. But much about that extinction is obscure, including the numbers involved: most estimates suggest that in 1803 between five and ten thousand aborigines lived on the island, and that by 1876 there were none – only mixed-race Tasmanians and those deported to the Australian mainland survived. (William Lanne, the ‘last man’ of Tom Lawson’s title, died in 1869; two Tasmanian women survived him briefly.) There is also disagreement about the way they met their end, or rather about the relative roles played by settler violence, intertribal conflict, exogenous diseases, declining fertility and plain demoralisation; and about the contribution made by the local colonial authorities. Modern Australian historians seem prepared to accept a large measure of retrospective blame on behalf of their nation; a few years ago this provoked the almost comically reactionary Liberal prime minister John Howard to inveigh against what he called the ‘black armband’ view of his country’s history (as opposed to the proud Gallipoli view), which launched the popular debate that became known in Australia as the ‘history wars’.

The main argument was over the number of natives directly killed by the settlers. Lawson thinks this doesn’t much matter: it was a genocide in any case. He is also at pains to demolish the claim often made by even the most critical chroniclers, that Britain – the metropole – was not to blame. It’s usually said that the Colonial Office did its best to protect the aborigines, that it was the settlers – many of them ex-convicts – who did the damage, against orders and to the great chagrin of those back home. No, Lawson says: the imperial government was equally implicated. He also believes that Britain’s record of colonial genocide should be taught in British schools, which makes the book relevant to the (lesser) history wars that are going on now in Britain, over how celebratory the national curriculum should be.

The genocide began, as genocides often did (and perhaps still do), with competition for land between the native population and British immigrants, who had been told that Tasmania was a potential arcadia for them, so long as they put their backs into developing it; and that it was empty of civilised people, which gave them the right to take it on. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite empty of ‘uncivilised’ people, whom they inevitably rubbed up against, with the uncivilised coming off worst. The story was similar elsewhere: in North America, of course, and in Southern Africa, where native populations were much reduced, though never quite wiped out. That was easier in Tasmania: with its being an island it was easier to tell when all the natives had been cleared out. The clashes began a few months after the first Europeans arrived, when a group of several hundred aborigines approached their settlement at Risdon Cove, just north of present-day Hobart. The aborigines were probably on a kangaroo hunt, but the settlers suspected them of hostile intentions – they were barbarians after all – and fired on them, leaving several dead.

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