In Tasmania 
by Nicholas Shakespeare.
Harvill, 320 pp., £20, November 2004, 1 84343 157 2
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Tasmania has long been a convenient receptacle for Australia’s gothic fantasies and projections. This is in part because of the island’s relative isolation, and because convicts continued to be ‘sent down’ to Van Diemen’s Land for slightly longer than to other colonies. But the concentration on Tasmania helped those on the mainland forget their own unsavoury past. It’s also true, however, that if you’re wearing your gothic glasses, the Tasmanian cognoscenti can resemble a storybook close-knit family with codes, and dark silences, and rules about who is allowed to speak and who isn’t.

Last year, on a hiking trip in a Tasmanian national park, I opened a book in the gift shop, and found the following shaming passage: ‘Tasmanian discomfort’ with literary interlopers ‘became outright attack when Chloe Hooper’s A Child’s Book of True Crime hit the bookshelves . . . Hooper is not Tasmanian.’ Was there any point getting my mother to fax our family tree through to the campsite? When covering Tasmanian issues, mainland journalists now detail their Tasmanian ancestry, but it seemed a stretch to call on the ghost of my forefather – supposedly a Hobart confectioner – for protection. Instead, I spent a week walking around in the stunningly beautiful and – what the hell – eerie, desolate, mournful landscape feeling contrite. I had written a novel that had besmirched the whole state. The birds and the trees didn’t think satire was a defence, and I was sorry to have maligned them.

By the end of the trip I thought the island and I had made peace. Yet driving back to the airport in a hire car, my companion and I were struck by the number of people who overtook us apparently in order to call out abuse. On the final turn-off a car full of teenagers gave one-fingered salutes, honking their horn until we were out of sight.

One of the strengths of Nicholas Shakespeare’s In Tasmania is that he comes from an island far away. He can play the part of a baffled British visitor, asking awkward questions which land him right at the heart of the most sensitive issues. His outsider status is, however, challenged at every turn. By the end of this genealogical odyssey it’s as if he’s been restored to the bosom of his family. On one level this is a traditional family romance. Exhausted after finishing his biography of Bruce Chatwin, Shakespeare moved to Tasmania – a place Chatwin never visited – to make a fresh start: ‘I was at that period sick of a life already lived. I hoped never to read another old letter again.’ No such luck: Shakespeare gets the metaphorical knock on the door, discovering his great-great-great-great-uncle to be the ‘father of Tasmania’, Anthony Fenn Kemp.

In 1793, the 20-year-old Kemp, having worked his way through a hefty inheritance, set sail for Australia, where thanks to family connections and thuggish self-interest he eventually reinvented himself as a Tasmanian aristocrat. The first archivist to whom Shakespeare reveals his ancestry warns him: ‘If I was you, I would not go around divulging that information . . . He’s a man of whom I’ve heard not one good word.’ Kemp was venal, pompous, ruthless and manipulative. He was also a Zelig figure, and Shakespeare pictures him in a slideshow of the colonies’ first fifty years: playing cards on the boat to Sydney with the kidnapped Eora tribesman Bennelong; leading the Rum Corps’s mutiny; plotting the demise of various colonial governors; fathering 18 children; campaigning to have Van Diemen’s Land rebranded as Tasmania. He died in 1868.

Tasmania was colonised when Gothic literature was at its height, and there is more than a hint of Ann Radcliffe in Shakespeare’s tales of cannibalism, corruption, convict-built homesteads, shipwrecks, bushrangers, fortunes gained and lost, bad men and bad women. Kemp’s granddaughter, for instance, the beautiful, headstrong Julia Sorrell, would make a brilliant heroine. She burst into tears at her wedding, and some years later stood throwing rocks at the stained glass windows of a church, while inside her husband converted to Catholicism. Her only belief, which she clung to with ‘imperial will’, was that she had been born to a family that was cursed.

The first British settlement was established in Tasmania in 1803. The colonists considered the original inhabitants ‘the most peaceable creatures in the universe’, but by the 1820s, Aboriginal hunting grounds were increasingly being seized by the settlers, leading to a decade-long period of violence known as the Black War. The Aborigines formed raiding parties who lit decoy fires, stole from food-stores, and occasionally attacked bystanders with their spears. The colonists campaigned loudly for action to be taken. In 1830 the infamous Black Line was thought up by George Arthur, the lieutenant-governor.

‘I had lived in Tasmania for two years,’ Shakespeare writes, ‘before I was able to come to terms with the Black Line. Powerful though the image was, Arthur’s response to the Aborigines seemed too theatrical to have been a real historical event.’ But it was a ‘real event’. The white population of male free settlers and convicts, equipped with 1000 muskets, 30,000 rounds of ammunition and 300 pairs of handcuffs, formed a human chain in an attempt to drive the remaining Aboriginal population down a narrow isthmus to the Tasman Peninsula. ‘Every white man in Van Diemen’s Land’, Governor Arthur reported to London, joined the line ‘with the most zealous and cheerful alacrity’. The operation was objectively a failure. The Aborigines, with their superior knowledge of the bush, easily evaded their pursuers, and only two people were caught. The line did, however, force already demoralised tribes from their territories, and as word spread – ‘plenty of horsemen, plenty of soldiers, plenty of big fires on the hills’, one Aboriginal woman lamented – others were suitably frightened. Four years later, all the original inhabitants, apart from one small family, had been removed from the island.

In Australia the links between genealogy and shame have long been understood. But now that having a convict ancestor no longer represents a ‘stain’, there is a whole new terrain for white Australians to feel ashamed and uncomfortable about. The prime minister, John Howard, has effectively used this guilt – holding it up as an indulgence on the part of ‘elites’ – to excite hostility among the majority towards indigenous people and their rights.

To complicate matters further, about 15,000 people now identify themselves as Tasmanian Aborigines, four or five times the probable number when Kemp arrived in 1803. They have little detailed knowledge of their ancestors’ languages, spiritual beliefs or cultural practices, other than via the imperfect records of the colonists. All the same, many Aboriginal descendants have made a decision to ignore their predominantly white ancestry: ‘If I put in a teaspoon of coffee and add water what do I get? Coffee,’ one man, Jimmy, tells Shakespeare. ‘And if I put more water in it? Coffee. And if I put this much milk in?’

The correct answer is obviously still supposed to be coffee. But should it really be milk and water with some coffee in it? Shakespeare points out that a ‘society that accepts its mixed identity is not so likely to be troubled by this contradiction’. Accepting that one’s lineage is comprised of the invaded and the invaders isn’t easy, however.

The Tasmanian Aboriginal community is plagued with infighting, especially around the question – again – of legitimacy. The most prominent leaders often accuse each other of not being Aboriginal: that is, of not having a traceable ancestor. This can lead to much bitterness and absurdity. A ruling in September 2002 by the Independent Indigenous Advisory Committee rejected a woman’s claim for Aboriginality, but upheld the claim of her brother.

A failure to understand events from an Aboriginal perspective is evident in virtually the whole of Australian history – and yet it is difficult for most Australians to respond to all this without bafflement or cynicism. As the historian Henry Reynolds, who himself has Tasmanian Aboriginal ancestry, admits, ‘If you say you’re a Tasmanian Aboriginal you are saying that you’re something you don’t know how to be. You don’t know how to live it.’ But who’s to say, in the end, which is stranger: a blue-eyed, born-again Tasmanian Aborigine renaming herself an Aboriginal word meaning ‘by the sea’, or someone of European origin endlessly sifting through birth and death certificates? What is genealogy if not a form of ancestor worship?

When Shakespeare’s mother telephones from England to announce he may have other relatives in Tasmania, he asks, ‘warily’: ‘Are you sure?’ A sentiment echoed by the reader. A second disgraced profligate great-great uncle emerges. Petre Hordern, a bankrupt gentleman farmer from Devon, is a sympathetic figure, but it’s easy to tire of these bifurcating family trees. That said, this branch yields two extraordinary cousins, Maud and Ivy, spinster sisters who have lived all their lives in the same house, with a ‘silver-framed photograph of Lady Diana’ and ‘ranks of bridal dolls’. Ivy gives Shakespeare a diary of the most important events of her life:

Cow shed started, 6 June 1940
Maud got her false teeth, 22 September 1941
We had electric light put through, 9 July 1943
Uncle Joe passed away, 17 December 1969

‘It seemed to me,’ Shakespeare writes, ‘that these sisters had achieved serenity by narrowing everything in; by not going beyond the front gate.’ For Ivy, an amateur genealogist, who has been away from home only once, on a day trip nearly sixty years ago, her hobby was a form of travel.

There’s no denying, however, that by this point In Tasmania has evolved into a genealogical nightmare. In Hobart’s Salamanca Market it is possible to buy two-headed T-shirts, a slur – perpetuated, I’m sure, by mainlanders – about inbreeding. In Tasmania does and does not lay this insult to rest. Shakespeare is quick to point out that Tasmanians, according to the Menzies Institute, have a lower rate of congenital malformation than the average Australian. But everyone in his story is connected to everyone else. Distant cousins seem to multiply in every chapter. Tasmania emerges as an island of genealogists: genealogists who are all related.

Maud and Ivy, it turns out, are related to one of the Aboriginal leaders to whom Shakespeare has been talking. They are also related by marriage to a Tasmanian branch of Shakespeares, including Nevin Shakespeare, whose father looks like Nicholas’s father, runs an electrical business and was bottom of his English class.

In the village of Kindred, ‘so called because everyone was related’, Shakespeare finds ‘an entire hamlet of Chatwins’. Of course, a brief look at the family tree – Chatwin: Six Generations in Tasmania – reveals that the Chatwins and the Kemps are related. A circle is closed, and Shakespeare declares himself finished with genealogical investigations.

‘I do not doubt,’ he writes, ‘that if I had come to another place – shall we say Idaho? – I would have found exciting cousin upon cousin.’ I’m not so sure. And I suspect Shakespeare isn’t either. This interconnectedness is Australia and England’s enduring bond. He quotes a Mrs Prinsep, who visited Hobart in 1829 and wrote to those at home: ‘I enjoyed a thousand English associations . . . cats and cottages, ships and shops, girls in their pattens, boys playing at marbles; above all, the rosy countenances, and chubby cheeks, and the English voices.’ Tasmania was the ideal place for English families, and law courts, to send wayward sons and daughters. Shakespeare’s book is an elegant tribute to the strange, beautiful island where he and his lost kinsmen had thought themselves beyond reach.

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