How bad are we?
- 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’.
Vol. 36 No. 17 · 11 September 2014
Writing of genocide, Bernard Porter states that ‘literally killing a whole race’ has been ‘the popular meaning that has attached to the word since the Nazis’ (LRB, 31 July). But the physical destruction of individuals has never been necessary or sufficient for an event to be defined as genocide. Raphael Lemkin coined the word in 1944, and explained: ‘Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a co-ordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.’ It is the group, not the individual, that is the target of genocidal destruction. So the word doesn’t have to be ‘stretched’, as Porter states, in order to include ‘humanitarian’ actions such as taking Aboriginal children away from their families and putting them into white people’s homes. Porter states that Tom Lawson thinks this is ‘not much better than literal genocide’; in fact, it is literal genocide.
Further, Porter’s statement that colonies such as New Zealand witnessed ‘nothing at all that could remotely be described as genocidal’ doesn’t make sense unless it rests on a false definition of genocide. His statement that settlers in various colonies had no reason to exterminate the natives’ cultures because they relied on the natives’ labour to work the land they had stolen from them is oxymoronic. Without land, a culture and a way of life is destroyed. Colonisation takes all the land. Ergo, colonisation is genocidal.
Vol. 36 No. 18 · 25 September 2014
Bernard Porter questions the extent to which, in the 19th century, the extermination of the Tasmanian aborigines fed larger, racist narratives about the inevitability of imperial progress, and the idea ‘that Britons took a particular imperial pride in genocide’ (LRB, 31 July). In 1897, H.G. Wells published The War of the Worlds in serial form on both sides of the Atlantic. In the famous first chapter he cautioned his readers against judging ‘too harshly’ the genocidal ambitions of the invading Martians:
We must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?
University of Warwick