Reconciliation in Tasmania: War, Memory and Empathy

By Dr Nicholas Clements
Robert Hawker Dowling, National Gallery of Victoria

Reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Tasmanians is a complex, generational process for which no precise roadmap exists. Ultimately, I do not know what it will take, but here I want to examine two necessary and currently unmet preconditions: acknowledgement and empathy. In what follows I will explain why acknowledging frontier conflict and its legacy, and empathising with each other past and present, are so crucial to reconciliation. I will then consider how these two lofty objectives might be framed, if not obtained. But first, I will outline the origins of the discord: the Black War, that appalling conflict from which we’ve never truly healed. 

The Black War

Tasmania’s Black War (1824-31) is frequently claimed to be one of the most comprehensive genocides in history. It was not genocide. It was war. The men who killed Tasmania’s Aborigines were not incited by racism, ideology, or religious fervour. Rather, this was a conflict propelled by lust, fear, revenge, and the catastrophic logic of colonialism. At stake for the colonists were their lives and livelihoods, while the Aborigines stood to lose not just their way of life, but their very existence. For a war between the most culturally and technologically dissimilar humans to have ever laid eyes on each other, it was also a surprisingly closely matched affair.

The invasion of tribal lands was the ultimate cause of the Black War, but it was not just the white man’s presence that Aborigines objected to. In the mid-1820s there were six times as many white men as women. Predictably, some frontiersmen employed violence to procure sex with Aboriginal women and children, and this was the war’s main trigger. Ultimately, though, combatants were spurred to violence by an array of motivations, all of which combined with Tasmania’s peculiar geography and demography to produce a particularly grisly state of affairs.

As more colonists flooded in, Aboriginal attacks in eastern Tasmania soared from 20 in 1824 to 250 in 1830 (fig. 1). War parties torched dozens of properties, plundered hundreds of homes, and speared thousands of sheep and cattle. Even more devastating was the human toll: 219 colonists killed and 218 wounded. This represents an annual per capita death rate two-and-a-half times higher than that of Australians in World War Two. Almost everyone lost somebody they knew.

Figure 1: Aboriginal violence, eastern Tasmania 1823-1832

Figure 1: Aboriginal violence, eastern Tasmania 1823-1832

“The first precondition of reconciliation is formal, public acknowledgement of frontier conflict and its victims.”

In response to growing public pressure, Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur ordered the now infamous Black Line. This seven-week military campaign involving 2,200 men remains the largest domestic offensive in Australia’s history. It was also a total failure, which did little to suppress Aboriginal violence. Rather, it was a religious zealot named George Augustus Robinson, aided by a band of savvy Aboriginal emissaries, who eventually put an end to the violence by persuading the remnant tribes to surrender.

The evidence indicates that colonists killed at least 306 Aborigines between 1824-31, but the true number was plainly much higher. The war’s 200 or so Aboriginal survivors, exiled to Flinders Island in the early 1830s, had lost nearly everyone they knew, together with their country and their way of life. Their experience of the war had been a cocktail of gut-wrenching emotions all but incomprehensible to us today.

When the Black War was over, thousands of years of Aboriginal sovereignty had been usurped, and an ancient people all but expunged from the face of the earth. Australians are deeply ambivalent about the skeletons in their national closet, yet reconciliation will remain merely a dream until we muster the courage to be frank about our past.

Remembering

The first precondition of reconciliation is formal, public acknowledgement of frontier conflict and its victims. The Black War is the only war ever fought in Tasmania, for Tasmania. Maybe 1,000 men, women and children lost their lives, yet not a single monument commemorates these victims. In fact, Australia’s frontier wars, now recognised to have claimed at least 80,000 lives, are not commemorated in any state or territory, save a handful of private plaques.

The Australian war memorial refuses to acknowledge these wars, and the Australian government refuses to apologise for the invasion that incubated them. This from a nation otherwise infatuated with war, its memorialisation, and too often its glorification. The Australian creation story, so we are told, begins once upon a time in the trenches of Gallipoli. Although this myth has an element of truth, the wars that really shaped Australia were not fought overseas. Australia’s frontier conflicts spanned 140 years, and nothing surpassed the intensity of the Black War.

The struggles of the Tasmanian Aborigines deserve to be commemorated. Armed with nothing more than spears and clubs, they put up the stiffest resistance of any indigenous people anywhere in Australia. They fought to the very end, until scarcely two dozen of them remained. Among them were many individuals worthy of our admiration. Men like Tongerlongerter, a revered warrior who cut off his own arm after it was shattered by a musket ball, cauterised the wound, and continued to lead his people.

Tongerlongerter was perhaps the Black War’s greatest hero, leading his people, the Mairremmener of southeast Tasmania, as they resisted the invaders of their country with extraordinary skill and terrifying violence. Yet where is his name commemorated? Who has even heard of him? The failure to recognise Tongerlongerter and the thousands of other Aborigines who died as a result of Britain’s invasion of Tasmania casts a disappointing shadow over Labor’s otherwise commendable apology to the stolen generations in 2008.

More controversially, I also think we should remember the British victims, most of whom were convicts, transported for trivial offences, only to meet their deaths in a strange land at the hands of an even stranger enemy. People like the two convicts assigned to my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, who probably had no idea what had hit them when they were clubbed to death on the banks of the South Esk River in the late-1820s.

Free settlers also perished in the Black War: landowners like Bartholomew Thomas, who was killed, along with his overseer, during a good faith attempt to conciliate a tribe at Port Sorell. No doubt Thomas, like so many of his contemporaries, went to his grave ignorant of the true impact his intrusion had on his killers.

Some colonists had never even held a gun, much less fired it at an Aborigine. Others had killed their black enemies at every opportunity. Even then, only a small number were driven to kill by feelings of racism or greed; most were motivated primarily by fear and revenge. Attempting to understand the behaviour of these beleaguered individuals does not require that we condone it. Regardless of their guilt or innocence, the soldiers, settlers and convicts who first colonised Tasmania are pivotal to its history, and it is important that we learn their stories.

Moreover, the legacy of the Black War reverberates to the present day. If reconciliation is to achieve any depth at all, we must acknowledge not just the war, but also the myriad trials and achievements of mixed descent communities. Largely a consequence of Britain’s invasion of Tasmania, many Aboriginal descendants continue to suffer disadvantage and dislocation: a situation that cries out for recognition no less than the war itself.

Empathy

The Black War was not, as it has so often been portrayed, a battle between good and evil. Such moral polarisation, together with the guilt and victim complexes it fosters, is as unhelpful as it is inaccurate. Both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Tasmanians are prone to demonising colonists; a tendency that distorts the truth far more than it reflects it. The Black War was a battle between two peoples who, for the most part, both felt they their actions were eminently defensible.

We have little to gain from leveling judgment at historical figures whose attitudes were so ignorant and myopic as to be unrecognisable today. On the other hand, we have much to gain from trying to understand why such attitudes existed, and how they fueled the violence. This kind of understanding is crucial, not just for reconciliation, but for avoiding similar tragedies in the future.

The Black War is ultimately a story about the human condition; about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances who came to experience, and to often perpetrate, the most ghastly acts. But it is also as story of courage and resistance, solidarity and survival. This history matters, not because it tells us who we were, but because it hints at who we are. We like to imagine we are somehow fundamentally different from the men who did the raping and killing on Tasmania’s frontier, but we are not. Combine ideology, desperation and fear, and our species’ capacity for cruelty is unbounded. A thin veneer of circumstantial luck is all that separates us from our forebears, and that luck will one day run out. Now more than ever we must learn from our forebears’ mistakes, just as we must learn from the Aborigines – peoples who have forged a rich and sustainable existence in Tasmania for some forty millennia.

***

It is time to formally acknowledge the Black War and the ways it has shaped the present. Only by candidly interrogating our past can we hope to navigate our future. Above all, though, we must empathise with each other, even with the colonists who sowed the divisions between us two centuries ago. It is time to come together as fellow human beings – imperfect, inconsistent, suffering brothers and sisters – all of us repelled by the horrors of the past, and all of us ready for reconciliation.

Dr Nicholas Clements is an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Tasmania. The chief source for this article is his book The Black War: fear, sex and resistance in Tasmania (UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 2014).

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  • “We have little to gain from leveling judgment at historical figures whose attitudes were so ignorant and myopic as to be unrecognisable today.”

    Really. How about reflection on current attitudes and policies? How about what is taken for granted now and how what was taken for granted then may illuminate it?

  • Lola Greeno

    I am sure you realise through your research on reconciliation will be a ongoing saga. Many of us would prefer a public agreement but I doubt I will see it in my lifetime. Also with current wars overseas impacting everyday thoughts. I appreciate the work you doing to continue to debate the past histories of Tasmania. It would great to see more of your material published in a series to encourage other historians/academic researchers to take up the challenge of reconciliation question. I doubt Government will seriously take it on in our current global humanitarian situation.