Coming to terms with Tasmania’s forgotten war

Tasmanians have yet to engage fully with the unspeakable in their history. Nina Matthews Photography

Is Tasmania at a tipping point? Over the next two weeks The Conversation, in conjunction with Griffith REVIEW and the University of Tasmania, is publishing a series of provocations. Our authors ask where does Tasmania’s future lie? Has it reached a “tipping point”, politically, economically and culturally? Thinkers, writers and doers from Tasmania and beyond, including members of its extensive diaspora, challenge how Tasmania is seen by outsiders and illuminate how Tasmanians see themselves, down home and in the wider world.

Some dark secrets run so deep that they slip from view. The hole left in our collective conscience is gradually plugged, with shallow distractions and awkward half-truths. Questions, if uttered, pass unheard. An uneasy and enduring silence prevails.

So it has been in Tasmania since the end of our war.

This was the first and only properly declared war fought by the British on Australian soil. Initiated by Governor George Arthur on November 1 1828, it was waged against an enemy once dismissed as a meagre scattering of “savage crows”. But the first Tasmanians were an enemy so committed to driving the settlers from their ancestral lands that neither ad hoc massacres on a lawless frontier, nor the ravages of disease that swept ahead of muskets and poisoned flour seemed capable of quelling their determination.

As their numbers fell, Aboriginal resolve seemed to increase. They simply could not give up their land.

This is a story about the consequences of such resolve and the marks it has left on the history and identity of today’s Tasmanians.

I have spent nearly 30 years seeking solutions to the injustice that persists for the Aboriginal community in Tasmania. Attitudes in Tasmania remained unaffected by what seemed pyrrhic victories. The Aboriginal community remained alienated from contemporary Tasmanian society, which in turn resisted the facts of the bloody history that we shared.

These were not simple prejudices, they grew out of penetrating mythologies, rooted in the oldest and most profound of themes; cultures in collision and the inexorable triumph of power.

My thesis: that a hand guided by a thousand years of European history held every pen and wielded every musket used in the campaign against the First Tasmanians. While the nations of Tasmania had lived in splendid isolation on their island for millennia, the invaders had already survived an eternity of war.

The story of Tasmania’s war is not part of the state’s ever-changing tourist brand. It is the one truth that can never be uttered – the source of an ancestral curse. There is a terrible history lurking beneath the surface of the island’s placid lakes. It stalks the shadows of each rainforest glade and casts a disquieting hue across the lurid vistas of wilderness upon which our fame is built.

Tasmania’s history is one of shameless deception that outraged even the citizens of the day. When the war was won a veil was drawn and a chapter closed. Saint and sinner could join in sombre lament. With inevitable necessity the Native threat had been banished.

To live in Tasmania today is to exist in the eye of a quiet, relentless storm. The island, politically and aesthetically, is a quintessential green. It is a destination of choice for Australians seeking an escape from the clutter of urban life. The cleanest of air and mildest of climates bestows on its small population a gourmet life; where fine wine and culinary delights accompany a thriving culture of literary and visual arts. These reassure both visitor and resident alike that, of all the places in the world, this must be closest to heaven.

Within a year of the first European settlement the die had been cast and the fledgling colony took its first confused steps toward conflict with the Tasmanian Aboriginal nations whose land it was to over-run. On 3 May 1804, the British at Risdon Cove had their first encounter with a large group of Aborigines. According to Henry Reynolds, the group, which included women and children, was “probably on a hunting expedition”. Frightened soldiers (some say drunk) fired on them in the commanding officer’s absence. Estimates made at the time of the carnage ranged as high as 50 killed.

In the coming decades, as the number of livestock grew, settlers demanded more land; inevitably increasing the number of destructive encounters with Aboriginal tribes. This culminated in Governor George Arthur issuing a series of proclamations placing the colony under martial law and calling for Aborigines to be expelled by force from the settled districts “by whatever means a severe and inevitable necessity may dictate”. James Boyce argues that the popular interpretation and overall effect of these proclamations was to provide legal immunity and state sanction for the killing of Aborigines wherever they could be found. The resulting slaughter became known as the Black War.

The thought of an ethnic cleansing in Tasmania fatally challenges the notion of an “Australia fair”. This might be Tasmania’s darkest secret, but it is also the least-kept. Raphael Lemkin, the Jewish scholar who first coined the term “genocide” in 1943, referred to Tasmania as a textbook example. The subject remains a disputed one. Henry Reynolds has long held that the term should not be applied in Tasmania.

Yet, the tolerance of active killing, forced exile and permanent detention are all consequences of Tasmanian policies between 1828 and 1864. The last detention facility at Oyster Cove was only abandoned when its inhabitants, left to die in miserable conditions, had reduced to a single old woman. Benjamin Madley, from Yale University’s Genocide Studies Program, concluded an exhaustive 2008 study thus, “Tasmania under British rule was clearly a site of genocide”.

Despite voluminous colonial documents and a wealth of visual records from the time, the Black War remains absent from Australian national remembrance. There was no glorious victory, no legendary loss on a far-flung beach. While our national imagination has churned heroes from slaughter on the fields of France during the Great War, the first war that Australians ever fought entrenched Tasmanian Aborigines as the archetypal enemy within.

This stands in contrast to the long European experience of war, where enemy and ally are fluid identities, and where treaty and reparation are the established guideposts of national relations. In Tasmania the standing of Aboriginal nations was simply swept from the table with an unspoken agreement that it should be raised no more.

Tasmanian colonial artists struggled with the unseemly haste by which any further discussion of the Black War was ceased.

In the early 1830s, John Glover presented his audience with a fanciful memorial to mark the end of conflict. Warriors who, armed with long spears, waddies and firesticks, had slain settlers and burned their barns and crops to the ground just months before, danced and sang in the whimsical scenes he created. They seem cast as a grotesque footnote to colonial accomplishment.

Others artists such as Thomas Bock and John Skinner Prout continued this sentimental acknowledgement. Their portraits provide a unique visual record of the ancestors of today’s Aboriginal community who had died before the introduction of photography to the colony. But this visual record offers little clue to their experience of war.

It was an ageing engraver and minor painter named Benjamin Duterrau who stood alone in his desire to directly confront the seriousness of the Black War. Arriving in Hobart from London in 1832, just months after its end, he was quick to produce a series of engravings, reliefs and portraits on the subject. These characterised a cast of “noble savages” that he would use to play out the drama of Australia’s first epic history painting. The Conciliation embedded an enduring melancholy into the mythology of Tasmanian wilderness, depicting a scene in which a hollow treaty is struck between the governor’s agent, George Augustus Robinson, and the last resistance fighters to oppose British rule. Robinson had travelled with a small group of Aborigines, including a woman called Truganini, traversing the whole island on foot in an effort to contact each of the tribes remaining free on their country. His mission was to end the war and spread his Evangelical Christianity to the survivors.

Dutterau’s painting of The Conciliation presents a complex tableau. It reveals his passion for Raphael and a theme recently revisited by the French revolutionary painter Jean-Jacques David with his painting The Sabine Women, first exhibited in 1799.

Duterrau is known to have had an intense interest in Raphael’s School of Athens and his Cartoons. He utilised these references to invest various characters in the composition with gesture, emotion and passion – among these, incredulity and suspicion. Raphael also supplies allusion to the Apostles as founders of the Christian church. In this way Duterrau describes a tense scene where the war is brought to an end with pious authority. The Aborigines find themselves under a new jurisdiction and are saved from their own ignorance, as the Apostles had saved Jews and Gentiles two thousand years before.

Elements found in David establish a counterpoint in the composition, as the Aboriginal woman known as Truganini pleads with outstretched arms for her reluctant husband to accept the truce. This emblematic figure recalls a similar one in The Sabine Women where Hersilia, wife of the Roman leader, Romulus, also intervenes with an appeal for peace.

Duterrau was aware that Robinson had deceived the Aborigines and that the treaty was immediately discarded by the governor once he had the fighters under his control. The wisdom of Truganini’s husband was proven and their fate was sealed. These are scenes hung heavily with the European history of moral conflict. An origin for David’s figure can be traced to Satan, Sin and Death, an earlier painting by William Hogarth. This work was created as an illustration to Milton’s gothic masterpiece Paradise Lost, a biblical epic of the Fall of Man, the Temptation of Eve, and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It is an archetypal gothic tale, with Satan the greatest tragic hero in English literature – mingling humanity with hubris and rebellion.

Milton’s epic had a huge influence on the development of gothic literature, running to at least 60 editions between Duterrau’s birth and his arrival in Hobart. Its influence is most notable in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where the creature reads Paradise Lost and suffers at its revelations.

Duterrau brought Tasmania under the same dark veil. In this analysis, Robinson fits perfectly the role of a tragic hero, alone in the wilderness, miraculously surviving both the rugged landscape and the treacherous Natives. He wrote of his journeys as a terrifying ordeal of the soul requiring virtue, bravery and self-sacrifice. With all the necessary elements of a gothic tale, he challenges the tyrant of war and saves the maiden Truganini (with whom he was romantically linked) from faithless savagery.

In crafting Australia’s first historical epic painting, Duterrau underpinned the drama that had played out on the island of Tasmania as a reiteration of the eternal battle between good and evil, and the profound consequences of betrayal. That he should have chosen such a theme to explore, and drew upon the art of the French Revolution is no surprise. Duterrau’s family history was steeped in war. He was a Huguenot – a French Protestant. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Huguenots had been subject to missionaries, forced conversion, persecution, torture and massacre at the hands of French Catholics. When Louis XIV declared Protestantism illegal in 1685, tens of thousands of Huguenots fled to neighbouring Protestant countries, as their country was no longer their own.

For me, The Conciliation neatly weaves together the histories of French religious conflict and the Tasmanian colonial war against a backdrop of interminable bloodshed across Europe. My experience of the tangible artefacts of war that form the very fabric of monument and landscape in France make it clear that a mature society is one that lives with its past. An enduring legacy of war is to be reminded of past mistakes.

The Conciliation elaborates a theme that seems to have resonated powerfully for an artist of Duterrau’s background. That this might be so takes the events in Tasmania from being an inconsequential flurry on the edge of civilisation and places them among the mainstream of world events. It shifts the Aboriginal nations of Tasmania from anthropological curiosity to players on the world’s stage – with the same international rights to justice.

The attempt to extinguish traditional Indigenous society in Tasmania set the scene for a continuing drama to which the whole world remains witness. Long before Marcus Clarke’s novel For the Term of His Natural Life (1874), or films such as The Tale of Ruby Rose (1988) or The Hunter (2011), Benjamin Duterrau scripted the first chapter of Tasmanian gothic.

This story is reiterated with every acknowledgement of Tasmania’s other great tragedies: the thylacine, Lake Pedder, and the ongoing struggle to save its ancient forests. All of these form powerful mythic characters that engage an international imagination, and resonate with a diversity of unresolved and self-inflicted sins across the globe.

The colonial jewel of Van Diemen’s Land was tarnished from the beginning. Despite the grandeur of its wilderness and the modern attraction of its lifestyle to those weary of a world in chaos, Tasmania’s sanctity as an oasis remains fraught to its heart while our deepest secret remains unacknowledged. But a remedy might still be achievable.

We need only to look to the most notorious perpetrator of modern genocide to see how. Germany has, since the Nuremburg Trials in 1946, committed itself to “owning” its past. With no option of ignoring the consequences of Hitler’s policies, it has embraced its responsibilities for reparation and remembrance. Holocaust museums and places of memorial have become powerful sites of healing for today’s German people. Millions of visitors also come to share redemptive sorrow for the inhumanity that has been practiced so widely across human culture.

Is it too late to acknowledge the genocide that played out in Tasmania? Is 200 years too long ago? Truganini is memorialised by Duterrau as desperately seeking an end to the killing, only to be imprisoned for her efforts. She witnessed the entire drama unfold – as the idealistic young woman arguing for a treaty with GA Robinson, then the weary old woman who was finally released from detention at Oyster Cove.

In France progress seems to be a constant of history – pock-marked as it is by struggle and bloodshed. French president François Mitterrand made a formal apology to the descendants of the Huguenots in 1985. This marked the 300th anniversary of the revocation of Protestant rights. Europeans are familiar with war and have learned how to deal with its costs.

Tasmanians have yet to engage fully with the unspeakable in our history and accept its terrible legacy. A scattering of history books does not make amends. Acknowledgement must be public and profound if it is to matter on the world’s stage. Can we end the silence on Australia’s first war and the terrible methods it employed? Maybe then the burden of our haunted past will be eased and the ancestral curse broken. The spectre of genocide must be confronted and its consequences owned before this gothic tale can conclude.

You can read the whole series here.