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’.

The main argument was over the number of natives directly killed by the settlers. Lawson thinks this doesn’t much matter: it was a genocide in any case. He is also at pains to demolish the claim often made by even the most critical chroniclers, that Britain – the metropole – was not to blame. It’s usually said that the Colonial Office did its best to protect the aborigines, that it was the settlers – many of them ex-convicts – who did the damage, against orders and to the great chagrin of those back home. No, Lawson says: the imperial government was equally implicated. He also believes that Britain’s record of colonial genocide should be taught in British schools, which makes the book relevant to the (lesser) history wars that are going on now in Britain, over how celebratory the national curriculum should be.

The genocide began, as genocides often did (and perhaps still do), with competition for land between the native population and British immigrants, who had been told that Tasmania was a potential arcadia for them, so long as they put their backs into developing it; and that it was empty of civilised people, which gave them the right to take it on. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite empty of ‘uncivilised’ people, whom they inevitably rubbed up against, with the uncivilised coming off worst. The story was similar elsewhere: in North America, of course, and in Southern Africa, where native populations were much reduced, though never quite wiped out. That was easier in Tasmania: with its being an island it was easier to tell when all the natives had been cleared out. The clashes began a few months after the first Europeans arrived, when a group of several hundred aborigines approached their settlement at Risdon Cove, just north of present-day Hobart. The aborigines were probably on a kangaroo hunt, but the settlers suspected them of hostile intentions – they were barbarians after all – and fired on them, leaving several dead.

The full circumstances are still unclear, including the number of Tasmanians killed – contemporary estimates ranged from five to fifty – and the incident bedevilled relations between the two communities for years. Tensions continued, usually as a result of white encroachments on aboriginal hunting grounds, culminating in a full-scale Black War in the late 1820s – Tasmanians against colonial troops and armed settlers. That wasn’t the only massacre. Some of the European combatants were vicious, and clearly meant to exterminate the natives, not just defeat them – Lawson provides some gory details, including infants’ brains being bashed out. The usual factors operated: need or greed on the Europeans’ part, and racist prejudice, exacerbated by fear and paranoia on both sides, together with genuine misunderstandings over what it meant to occupy land. The Tasmanians, it seemed, didn’t recognise the concept of individual land ownership, which made it difficult for the settlers to assert their claims even if they intended to do it legally. For some settlers, the aborigines’ failure to accept the validity of their claims was proof of their inferiority, as if Lockean concepts of private property were an essential mark of civilisation. The Europeans felt justified in taking over most of the country and cultivating it their way, usually with imported sheep, in the interests of agricultural progress. Tasmanians were inherently unprogressive, which meant they were bound to give way to ‘civilisation’ eventually. Whether that necessarily meant their physically dying out, as seemed to be their lot, was a moot point.

The British authorities in London – Lawson concedes – hoped it didn’t. The Black War gave rise to hand-wringing in Whitehall over the ‘ignominious stain’ it had brought on the ‘honour of their country’, with most officials accepting that it was the Tasmanians who had been provoked. The anti-slavery campaign in Britain was at its peak, with the humanitarian lobby rampant, and instructions from London, usually backed up by local governors, repeatedly enjoining Australian settlers and soldiery to treat the natives kindly. One famous proclamation (reproduced in Lawson’s book) was issued in 1830 by Governor George Arthur in comic-strip form, and showed, in its last frame, an Englishman being hanged for shooting a native (though there’s no evidence that I’ve seen that this ever happened). The problem was that Britain didn’t have the means to enforce humanitarianism on its subjects abroad, especially when they were so far away. It was a moral problem as well as a logistical one: would the few available soldiers fire on their countrymen? This was a systemic flaw in British colonialism in the 19th century, and for long afterwards: look at Harold Wilson and Rhodesia. Most colonies were run on a shoestring, and were expected to finance themselves. Generally the British depended on native collaborators to help them, and only in India did Britain have anything like the number of troops needed to impose its will: hence the repeated military defeats at the hands of the Zulus and the Maoris, and even at first the Indian Mutineers. It was for this reason, in the absence of a native collaborating class, that the colonies were so often subcontracted out to commercial companies, with settlers appointed to rule on Britain’s behalf: a form of privatisation avant la lettre, with all the disadvantages of privatisation, including the surrender of public responsibility and opportunities for corruption, as well no doubt as the benefits. Humanitarians could only fume impotently. That someone else was in charge has usually been the British Empire’s alibi.

In the Tasmanian case, the authorities did manage to mitigate some of the effects of colonisation, but always in the direction of helping the Tasmanians adapt to their new situation rather than protecting them from it. Aboriginal children were taken into white people’s homes, for example (often as cheap labour, but at least it kept them alive); in the 1830s and 1840s a settlement was run for Tasmanians on nearby Flinders Island (to Westernise them, basically); and the missionaries, always less likely to believe in black people’s inherent inferiority than most other colonists, played their part. The Flinders Island settlement failed, however, and most remaining Tasmanians were eventually shipped to the Australian mainland, where they presumably merged with other aboriginal tribes. That’s one of the factors behind Lawson’s argument that they never actually ‘died out’.

This is important to him, because it undermines the theory widely held at the time – and still prevalent, he thinks – that their complete extinction somehow proved that the process was natural, and so no one’s fault but their own. He calls this the ‘extermination discourse’, a habit of thinking that Lawson seems to believe was triggered by the Tasmanian situation, though it goes back much further than that. In earlier times it was usually applied to the native Americans, often to make kind folk feel better about their massacre by European settlers (horrible, but it would have happened anyway), and just sometimes to enjoin charity towards them, to ‘smooth their dying pillows’. Lawson wants to argue that those who believed this discourse were genocidal in intention. That is one of his reasons for implicating the British state.

Another is a result of his definition of ‘genocide’; he doesn’t take it necessarily to mean literally killing a whole race, which is the popular meaning that has attached to the word since the Nazis. The 1948 UN Convention on Genocide allowed for a broader definition: ‘acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’. That leaves several gaps: the ‘in whole or in part’ bit, the words ‘national’, ‘ethnical’ and ‘religious’, and the word ‘destroy’, which could be taken to include means short of murder, like the undermining of cultures. (We need to be careful here: does Margaret Thatcher’s destruction of South Yorkshire’s mining community in the 1980s qualify?) In the Tasmanian case, and in a more general colonial one, the word might well be stretched to include attempts to re-educate or Westernise or proselytise the natives. If this results in wiping out a way of life, then that counts too. This is what leads Lawson to regard British humanitarian efforts to help Tasmanians adapt to the ‘modern world’ as not much better than literal genocide. But his clinching charge against the British state is that although it didn’t want massacres, it did want colonisation – and that necessarily involved violence. ‘Colonisation itself amounted, in total, to genocide,’ and the British knew it, deep down. Behind all the talk about ‘naturally dying races’ was the idea that doing away with primitive peoples was somehow a sign of ‘imperial British glory and majesty.’ What better indication of British might than the destruction of an entire race?

This suggestion – that Britons took a particular imperial pride in genocide – is provocative, and important if true. But we probably need more evidence. Lawson gives us a single quote (repeated twice) from the Times that appears to say something of the kind, but the Times was hardly the representative of the popular press Lawson takes it to be. The same may apply to his evidence for the prominent part he believes Tasmania played in contemporary British culture as the main source of his ‘extermination discourse’: a couple of landscape painters, with tiny natives usually placed – significantly, he thinks – in shaded areas; some little-read travel books; one stage play, which was very much on the side of the aborigines (it painted the settlers as the savages); skulls hidden away in various collections; and some spears and a boomerang deposited in a small museum in Saffron Walden. Lawson puts great trust in his own speculations – phrases like ‘it seems likely’, ‘I think it much more realistic’, ‘it seems fanciful’ and ‘I am not convinced’ abound – but it would be good to have more empirical evidence too. The same goes for his most provocative argument, and his motive, he says, for writing the book: the idea that the Tasmanian genocide is part of what still constitutes modern British national identity – ‘part of who “we” are’. ‘Britain,’ he says, ‘is in effect a post-genocidal state.’

‘Post’, of course, can mean many things: it could indicate that Britain has got over all this. But that’s not how the prefix is generally used in postcolonial circles today. What Lawson means is that the Tasmanian genocide or its memory still infuses the British present. But his evidence for this consists only of a little noticed row about the return of some old Tasmanian skulls, now in British museums, to their descendants, resisted by some curators on the essentially ‘imperialist’ ground that science, being universal, is more important than irrational cultural susceptibilities; and an inconspicuous headstone in the cemetery of Bath Abbey, where, ‘if you look very closely’, you will see the name of Governor George Augustus Robinson, officially ‘Chief Protector of the Aborigines’ in Tasmania, described as their ‘Pacificator’. If you have to look ‘very closely’ it can’t be all that prominent in modern British life.

But for Lawson, the Tasmanian issue still lies at the bottom of our national amour-propre. ‘The perception of Britain at the apex of human civilisation,’ he writes, ‘relied on the memory (and celebration) of genocide.’ It is our memories, though vague and deeply buried, of the total elimination of peoples such as the native Tasmanians that help us to feel that we are history’s winners, and therefore right.

*

The Tasmanian genocide also makes Britons feel good in another, somewhat contradictory way. Because it was so far away, allegedly perpetrated by local ruffians rather than true Brits, unplanned and – let’s face it – not as gruesome as the Nazi Holocaust, it does little to undermine the common British assumption that we could never have been guilty of such a thing. This assumption exasperates Lawson. His scholarly background is in Holocaust studies. Instituted, in part, to promote ‘self-reflection’, Holocaust studies are presented in Britain, at least popularly (all those Second World War programmes on the History Channel), as exclusively to do with Germany, and the reflection they reinforce is the old self-satisfied one of Britain as a uniquely tolerant and liberal country, by contrast with Germany in the 1930s and 1940s: ‘It couldn’t have happened here.’ So, ‘counterproductively’, in Lawson’s opinion, ‘Holocaust memorialisation is being fed more and more into ideas of British national pride,’ and that’s a travesty. I agree. The lesson the Holocaust should be used to teach – if it’s proper for history to be ‘used’ in this way at all – is that any nation or people can behave atrociously if the conditions are right. It wasn’t just the Germans. In different circumstances the British might have behaved as badly. In certain circumstances – and the Tasmanian case is an example – they did.

That is a valid and important point. It should be taken on board by every history teacher in the country, and of course by Michael Gove’s acolytes and others who want history to impart ‘patriotism’. But it’s not exactly Lawson’s. Lawson wants to target Britain as a nation just as wartime Germany has been targeted. He regards British colonialism as inherently genocidal, just as Nazism was. But is that right? The British committed dreadful atrocities in their colonies, which should be more widely publicised, but the purpose of colonialism was not atrocious, and many of the colonies witnessed nothing at all that could remotely be described as genocidal. That was because their indigènes were powerful enough to resist, as in New Zealand, and because the British needed them to trade with. Even Lawson’s loose definition of ‘genocide’ as including the extermination of cultures applies inconsistently. In most of its colonies Britain was anxious, on the contrary, to preserve local cultures, partly because it respected them (a little), but mainly because it didn’t want to stir the natives up. In the early 20th century this was called ‘indirect rule’. It was colonial nationalists who objected to this the most. They thought – rightly in the main – that the system was designed to keep them in their place.

Elsewhere no one, not even settlers, had any reason to exterminate the natives, or their cultures, if they relied on their labour to work the land they had stolen from them. Literal genocide happened only in certain colonial situations, usually when there seemed little chance that the locals would fit into the broader colonial or settler scheme. The near extermination of the native Americans is the best example; then there were the Caribs, the Tasmanians, and the Hottentots of Southern Africa under the Dutch. The motive was always individual settlers’ land hunger (or greed), and the situation was always made worse when the metropolitan authority had few means to stop them. Of course the British Colonial Office was ultimately responsible for ‘pacificating’ Tasmania. It can be criticised, fiercely, for not doing better. But that would have involved its being more imperialist, in a sense, rather than less. (Or is that too Jesuitical?) In the end, it was private enterprise that did the damage, not the ‘British state’, or more generally, the rise of global capitalism, with which British imperialism had an ambivalent relationship, facilitating it in some ways, limiting it in others. That has been a more potent force in modern history than colonialism per se, and the main factor behind ‘cultural genocide’, whether in Britain’s more resilient colonies or in the South Yorkshire coalfields.

If this book can help put a stop to efforts to over-egg the British Empire, made in recent years by leading Labour politicians as well as Tories and Ukip, then that’s all to the good. As Lawson himself insists, this is ‘not a book about Tasmania but about Britain’, designed to reveal ‘the British genocidal past’ (his italics). But whether we Brits need to feel as guilty as he obviously thinks we should about our ‘genocidal origins’ is surely debatable. Certainly the knowledge of this genocide in Tasmania – and others elsewhere – should make us a little more humble when it comes to attacking motes or even Holocausts in the eyes of others. In that regard his book performs a valuable service. But there is also the question of to what degree guilt can be passed on: the sins of the fathers, and so forth. It can be argued that we are all far more the products of our contemporary circumstances than of our collective past. Any formulation of ‘national identity’ ought to be based on that understanding. Myths about the past may play a part in that identity, and there is a case to be made for modern states’ making retributions, in the form of compensation, for past national wrongs. But that doesn’t necessarily make those past wrongs – any more than past national virtues – part of us, in the absence of more empirical evidence than Lawson provides here.