In the latest issue:

Short Cuts: Wholesome Royal Gossip

Jonathan Parry

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Van DiemoniansInga Clendinnen

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Van Diemen’s Land: A History 
by James Boyce.
Black, 388 pp., £20.75, February 2008, 978 1 86395 413 6
Show More
Show More

I first came across James Boyce five years ago, when he wrote the lead essay in a collection called Whitewash, intended to argue against the ruthlessly revisionist ‘frontier history’ of Keith Windschuttle. In The Fabrication of Aboriginal History (2002), Windschuttle had argued that, contrary to the claims of various ideologically driven left-leaning historians, very few Tasmanian Aborigines had died in conflict with whites. True, they had been reduced within thirty years of contact to a stricken handful, but that was because of their own vicious and destructive behaviour. Many readers were impressed by Windschuttle’s apparent mastery of the sources and his declared devotion to empirical detail. Boyce’s essay demolished those claims in a beautifully systematic discussion of the real range of evidence, and a judicious assessment of what we can know, what we might yet find out and what we cannot know about the first fifty years of white settlement in this most southerly settlement of Australia.

Now comes Boyce’s detailed study of Van Diemen’s Land, from its first convict settlements in 1803 until it became Tasmania in 1856, after a new wave of prosperous settlers tried to shrug off the island’s disreputable past by a magical act of renaming. (The numbers were against them: by that year, 72,000 convicts had been dumped on the island and three-quarters of its adult males were or had been convicts.) Thanks largely to Robert Hughes’s Fatal Shore (1987), Tasmania is thought of as a convict hell: a place of ferocious floggings and inhuman confinement. So it would become, but only after the transformations in its economy and polity deliberately effected by that second wave of settlers. For the first generations of convicts, when it was still Van Diemen’s Land, Boyce claims the island was a veritable Eden.

Convict-keepers in Port Jackson relied on the bush and the opaque natives it sheltered to keep their convicts tractable and discourage them from trying to escape. Even the serial runaway ‘Black Caesar’ could sustain his liberty only briefly, and then by plundering the supplies of convicts or Aborigines. When the Van Diemonian settlements were subjected to the same terrifying neglect by the mother country which had brought Port Jackson to near starvation, they found a life-saving resource on their doorstep: an abundance of kangaroo and emu living on grasslands kept clean and productive by the Aboriginal regimen of regular burnings. There were no dingoes on the island; its most formidable carnivore was the Thylacinus cynocephalus, the ‘wolf-headed pouched dog’ or ‘Tasmanian tiger’, still thought by the hopeful to lurk about the place. The thylacine was ferocious enough, but no match for large, fast-moving game.

Local Aborigines typically relied on fire to bring kangaroo and emu to their spears. The big hunting dogs the British brought with them could simply run these animals down. According to Boyce: ‘The possession of a single dog, stolen or purchased, meant a convict could live independent and free in the woods … Without dogs, the bush was a site of probable death, but with them, the grassy woodlands of Van Diemen’s Land became, within two years of settlement, a hospitable refuge.’ The seasoned and sensible David Collins, once the right-hand man of Arthur Phillip, the governor of New South Wales, in Port Jackson, now lieutenant governor of the Van Diemonian settlements, responded to diminishing supplies by ordering the purchase of kangaroo meat ‘at 6d per pound from any person who may deliver such at the Public stores’. This profitable trade was briefly monopolised by officers hunting vicariously through their convict ‘gamekeepers’, but within the year there was a thriving illicit trade in hunting dogs, as ‘with what seemed extraordinary speed, a motley collection of British criminals made the bush home.’ Kangaroo meat would feed and kangaroo skins would clothe the convict colonists, and in time the soldiers, too, while independent-minded newcomers learned to exploit bush resources with something of the panache of Aboriginal Tasmanians: ‘For a surprising number of current and former convicts, food, clothing and shelter were to come not from the payment of wages, prescribed rations or charity, but to be the gift of the land itself.’ Even when the price of kangaroo meat dipped, there remained a useful trade in skins to supplement the sealskins being taken by the sealing colonies established on the windswept islands to the north.

The sealer communities provided a model of anarchic self-sufficiency. As one observer lamented in 1817,

They are complete savages, living in bark huts like the natives, not cultivating anything, but living entirely on kangaroos, emus and small porcupines, and getting spirits and tobacco in barter for the skins which they capture during the sealing season. They dress in kangaroo skin without linen and wear sandals made of seal skin. They smell like foxes.

He might have added that most of them had acquired Aboriginal wives, sometimes by trade, more often by savage force. These women would found the families who carry the Tasmanian Aboriginal heritage today.

That the sealers should be the key agents in a thriving imperial trade only compounded their offence, especially as similar freedoms were becoming available to convicts, too. In 1806, Surveyor Harris was still complaining: ‘We have neither tea sugar coffee soap candles oil wine spirits beer paper cheese butter or money, and if we had the latter those things are not to be procured.’ What they did have was abundant meat, and the health of the convicts remained excellent. This Eden could sustain unlicensed hunters quite as easily as it sustained men in the employ of masters who were themselves not over fastidious about suppliers, provided the profits were good. For the first seven years of its existence, David Collins presided benignly over this fluid little society, tolerating the illicit bonds linking settled ‘respectables’ and the roving white population of the grasslands, welcoming back any absconders among his ‘people’, as he called the convicts. By the second decade of settlement, with Collins dead, opinions and divisions hardened. The one-time highwayman Michael Howe, who called himself the ‘lieutenant governor of the woods’, had carved out a fiefdom through his control of access to the grasslands, in covert league with leading men in the colony and with a tough squad of convict bushmen to back him. He also seems to have enjoyed good relations with the indigenous population through his Aboriginal wife, Black Mary.

Howe came to pose a serious threat to the administration, and between 1815 and 1818 the British authorities in Van Diemen’s Land engaged ‘in what amounted to a civil war’ with Howe and his bushrangers. When bounty-hunters killed him outside his bark hut in 1818 (decapitating the corpse, in accordance with the gruesome protocols of the day) he was dressed from head to foot in kangaroo skins. A contemporary tells us:

In his knapsack was found a sort of journal of dreams … From this little book of kangaroo skin, written in kangaroo blood, it appears that he frequently dreamed of being murdered by natives, of seeing his old companions … of being nearly taken by a soldier; and in one instance … his sister. It also appears from this memorandum book, that he always had an idea of settling in the woods; for it contains long lists of such seeds as he wished to have, of vegetables, fruits, and even flowers.

A garden, a cottage, unimpeded access to the bounty of ‘the woods’ – self-sufficiency in a kangaroo economy. What is especially valuable about Boyce’s analysis of the new Van Diemonian culture is his appreciation of the existence there of a pre-industrial vision of the good life: the tenacity of what E.P. Thompson called ‘plebeian culture’, in opposition to a dominant ‘patrician culture’ determined to establish exclusivist notions of the ownership of land. Up until now Thompson’s work has had rather too little impact on Australian historical studies, where convicts tend to be represented as battered innocents: human clay ready to be shaped anew in the Antipodean world. Boyce hears an older drumbeat in the choices many Van Diemonians made. Even when the great landholders triumphed in Tasmania, as they had in England, and tipped lesser men off ‘their’ land, the mountains, scrub, forests, coasts and the multitude of offshore islands still offered refuge to the poor and the stiff-necked. The large game might have gone – the kangaroos withdrawn, the emus extinct – but there remained an abundance of smaller wildlife, and if white men drew the line at possum with its eucalyptus-flavoured flesh there was other fare: in 1865 an ex-convict fondly remembered ‘capital dumplings … made with small green parrots, more common than sparrows’. Boyce sums up:

Ordinary Britons in the early 19th century (and the Irish for much longer still) did not expect to have much in the way of possessions; meeting the essentials of life on a day-to-day basis was their primary aim … For men and women who had known poverty, harsh penal discipline, and autocratic masters and officials, success was not to be gauged by the accumulation of capital but rather by self-sufficiency and the extent to which one could preserve life and freedom.

Even when the second-wave pastoralists were asserting exclusive ownership against black and white alike, convict bushmen were still tending their flocks, meeting their masters’ quota of meat for the government store by judicious rustling, and building their own stake in the new sheep economy by taking a third of the natural flock increase in lieu of wages.

Boyce displays a fine discretion on the tense issue of Aboriginal-white relations on the island. He recognises the clues which indicate co-operation, the signs and silences which point to conflict. He dismisses the ‘innocent hand of introduced disease’ as a major cause of the decline in the native population. Native Tasmanians appear to have been notably healthy both before and after contact. Nor was social decay effected through drink, dependence and disease as in early Sydney or Melbourne. The inference is that the destruction of the Tasmanian Aborigines came as a result of battle, casual killings and the harrying of the population.

The book’s only structural awkwardness is a 56-page appendix called ‘Towards Genocide: Government Policy on the Aborigines 1827-38’. The term ‘genocide’, applied only gingerly elsewhere in colonial Australia, has its most plausible application in Tasmania. Boyce’s decision to discuss this in an appendix is strategic in that it isolates the issue of government intention which has dominated the discussion of frontier history in Australia. My anxiety is that researchers might be tempted to read only the appendix, when the main section of the book contains a careful tracing of the shifting relations between incomers and original inhabitants, and some interesting, and properly tentative, conclusions. The two leading historians of the Tasmanian frontier, Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan, have argued that most black deaths followed the overt hostilities marked by the declaration of martial law in October 1828. Boyce thinks the turn to systematic violence began around 1820, when free settlers began the thrust into territory they were determined to treat as their exclusive property. Boyce also believes, on the basis of (laconic) settler diaries and journals, that it was convict bushmen who undertook the ‘dispersal’ and destruction of the resident clans: these men knew the Aborigines’ tracks, campsites and meeting places, and used that knowledge to destroy them as they made the land safe for their masters’ sheep. He suggests that by the time serious reprisal attacks began in 1824 the native population had already been fatally reduced and that the tough warrior bands who fought settlers and soldiers over the next years were no more than the remnants of the old society. The evidence is scant and scattered, as is usual with colonial killings, but Boyce’s complex arguments are compelling.

The Black War ended when the last free Aborigines were coaxed into submission by promises of eventual return to their homeland. Instead, they were sent into permanent exile on islands in the Bass Strait, where nearly all would die from disease and despair. It is this betrayal and the removal of all Aborigines from every part of the main island of Tasmania that leads Boyce to convict the local colonial authorities not of genocide (once past the title, the word does not appear in the appendix) but of ethnic cleansing: ‘The black hole of Tasmanian history is not the violence between white settlers and the Aborigines … but the government-sponsored ethnic clearances which followed it.’ What especially shocks him is that the displacement was gratuitous. The land in the far north-east and the rough, mountainous land to the west were not coveted by whites, so why remove those who lived there? What kind of malice or cruelty or failure of humane imagination required that final brutality?

In the end the bushmen who had first co-operated with the Aborigines and then supplanted them would be expropriated too, as a wealthy elite came to dominate an island run for their convenience, with convicts at last reduced to a proper subservience. By 1834 a settler could happily observe: ‘This country is now getting very much improved as we have now no blacks or any bushrangers to fear, with a soil most beautiful and the climate the finest in the world.’ Convicts were tamed by savagely coercive laws (Lieutenant Governor Arthur hanged a man a week over a two-year period, usually for stock theft) and the calculated violence inflicted on convict bodies and minds at Port Arthur.

Amid general applause in Australia Van Diemen’s Land has attracted a handful of criticisms. One is that, lacking a global perspective, it displays a naive ‘exceptionalism’. As Clifford Geertz once said, ‘You can study different things in different places, and some things – for example, what colonial domination does to established frames of moral expectation – you can best study in confined localities.’ My own view is that these matters can be studied only in confined localities – a region or an island or a conference room – and that the close study of particularities is the only kind of analysis likely to generate (more Geertz) ‘useable truths’. Another (bizarre) complaint is that Van Diemen’s Land is not ‘proper’ history because it is too attentive to the ‘natural’ environment: an environment already deeply marked by human intervention before contact, and transformed after it. The interplay between human intentions and intended and unintended consequences, as the book describes them, is absorbing and chastening. Throughout, this book has something of the amplitude of a good Victorian novel: there are fascinating chapters on the post-Famine influx of Irish convicts, on transplanted pub conviviality, and on the dread of rampant homosexuality, which would lead first to the interruption and then to the cessation of the transportation of males to the island. Like the best history, Van Diemen’s Land is not an artfully constructed narrative with the (inevitably inadequate) evidence banished to endnotes, but a dialogue between historian and reader as they explore the fragile sources, and the silences, together.

Tasmania is only a short flight from where I live, but I have never been there. Now I will go, because its grasslands, mountains, bays and islands have become real to me, each territory with its own history and bearing the subtle scars of its particular past. Van Diemen’s Land has marked my home province, too. Van Diemonians were prominent in the de facto settlement of what would become Victoria, bringing their sheep, their politics and their native-handling experience with them.

Australian schoolchildren complain that Australian history is dull, lacking coups, revolutions and wars. Boyce shows us a race war, fought intermittently but bitterly, with permanent exile to remote refugee camps the fate of the handful of black survivors. He shows us a coup carried out by a ruthless administration in alliance with a new settler class against Van Diemen’s Land’s convict culture: a coup marked by a reign of terror of hangings, floggings and the deliberate breaking of men’s spirits as well as their bodies. He also shows us the ‘silent withdrawal from the centres of dependence to the backblocks, forests and “waste lands” of the island’ of Van Diemonians still pursuing the vision of a pre-industrial moral economy they had brought with them, and for a time managed to make real.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.