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’.

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