Van Diemonians

Inga Clendinnen

  • Van Diemen’s Land: A History by James Boyce
    Black, 388 pp, £20.75, February 2008, ISBN 978 1 86395 413 6

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.