: The Black War: Fear, Sex and Resistance in Tasmania

The Black War: Fear, Sex and Resistance in Tasmania

Stephen Gray

The-Black-WarNicholas Clements; University of Queensland Press, 2014; 288 pages; $34.95 (paperback)

In his foreword to Nicholas Clements’ ‘The Black War’, Australia’s pre-eminent historian of frontier conflict, Henry Reynolds, contends that Clements has transcended the ‘angry contention’ of the Australia’s ‘history wars’ and ‘has, consequently, brought them to an end’ (p x). A high recommendation, indeed. Clements himself claims to have illuminated the war in Tasmania from ‘important and neglected angles’, and that his ‘unique approach has contributed a fresh layer to our understanding’ of the Black War’s importance in Australian and world history (p 204).

These fresh insights, according to Clements, flow from an original structural approach, his systematic juxtaposition of Aboriginal and colonial perspectives: or ‘making the dead speak’, as he observes (pp 6-7). Clements structures each chapter from a ‘White’ and then a ‘Black’ point of view. He relies, as far as possible, upon the first-hand accounts of the people involved, hoping thereby to shed light on ‘how they perceived their enemies, what it was like for them to live through the war, or how they fought it’ (p 7). In so doing, he promises to avoid traditional ‘top-down’ history, with its ‘well-worn chronology of government responses’. He prefers understanding to judgment, in other words.

There are some practical difficulties with this approach. Foremost is the absence of first-hand Aboriginal accounts of a frontier conflict that had essentially concluded by 1832 (apart from the isolated north-west, which was controlled by a chartered company, the Van Diemen’s Land Company). Necessarily, therefore, Clements’ ‘Aboriginal’ perspectives turn out to be primarily what Europeans observed of Aboriginal behaviour. He relies in particular on the writings of George Augustus Robinson, who conducted ‘friendly missions’ amongst the remaining Tasmanian Aborigines between 1830 and 1834. Only occasionally do Aboriginal voices actually appear: and even then they appear as remembered by colonists, and speaking a language it is unlikely they spoke well.

Clements highlights fascinating contrasts between Tasmanian frontier history and that on the mainland. In Tasmania, in contrast to NSW, there is no evidence of introduced disease, at least among eastern Tasmanians (p 35), suggesting that violent Aboriginal deaths may have been higher than elsewhere — in fact, a staggering rate of 1364 deaths per 10 000 per year (p 3).

In Tasmania, the weapons at the disposal of Europeans were more primitive than those places where frontier conflict occurred later. Colonists relied on the Brown-Bess musket, a notoriously cumbersome and inaccurate weapon, which was generally only good for one shot before the targets disappeared (or ‘dispersed’, as Clements writes, in what seems an unintended double entendre) (p 76). This contrasts dramatically with the breech-loading Snider carbines, available by the 1860s, or with the Martini-Henry rifles in use by the late nineteenth century in the Queensland and Northern Territory frontiers.

In Tasmania, spears were generally more effective weapons than muskets, due to thick forests and its powder-destroying damp (p 83). First-hand accounts also reveal the European preference for attack by night, often just before dawn, when the Tasmanians were at rest, and close to campfire to stave off cold. In contrast Aborigines never attacked by night, seemingly because of fear of evil spirits (p 111). For an unknown reason they also did not attack in the rain (p 90).

Aboriginal Tasmanians showed plenty of hatred for their white assailants. They used guerrilla tactics, and torture (p 102), and arson. However, they did not employ arson on a large scale, despite the colonists’ fear of such a tactic, and its potentially disastrous economic effects. Nor is there any record of Aboriginal men raping white women (p 100), despite the ample and horrific evidence of rape of Aboriginal women by white men.

On these matters of vital detail, the book has plenty to say. This is not the case on the larger questions of judgement more recently belaboured in the ‘history wars’ debates. In part this flows from Clements’ methodology, which focusses on the participants’ attitudes and experiences, largely laying questions of labelling, of good and evil to one side.

Nevertheless, Clements does pitch in to the debate about whether what occurred in Tasmania was ‘genocide’, as Robert Hughes and many others have claimed (p 4). He argues that the Tasmanian conflict differs from such internationally accepted genocides as those in Nazi-occupied Europe, in Rwanda, and in Ottoman-controlled Turkey, because in the latter cases the victim groups were ‘targeted for specifically ideological reasons. Tasmania’s natives, on the other hand, were not killed because of their politics, race or religion’ (p 57).

As well, Clements argues, genocides ‘are inflicted on defeated, captive or otherwise vulnerable minorities’: in Tasmania, colonists ‘were engaged in a serious conflict against a capable and terrifying enemy’ (p 57). While not expressing a final opinion on this matter, Clements does say that ‘the attitudes and circumstances that provoked colonists to kill natives in Tasmania were very different from those typically associated with genocide’ (p 58).

These contentions are highly questionable. What the participants thought they were doing is rarely the final determinant of their moral or legal guilt. His arguments on genocides overseas have little to do with the legal definition of genocide, as Clements himself acknowledges. His arguments about moral or commonly accepted notions of genocide need surely to be fleshed out more. In what way were Tasmanian Aborigines not a ‘vulnerable minority’? As Clements points out, the European death rate in the conflict was 15 per 10 000 per year, not much more than 1 per cent of the Tasmanian Aboriginal death rate (p 3). As he notes elsewhere, the Tasmanians eventually gave up their resistance because, when one European was killed, another 50 came to take their place.

Warfare it may have been termed by the colonisers, and there is no doubt of their fear: but it was an extraordinarily unequal warfare, when compared with ‘conventional’ conflicts such as the two world wars. Perhaps ‘indigenicide’ best expresses the uniquely unequal nature of these encounters, after all.

Overall, I found Clements’ book highly readable, and well-researched, if one that necessarily falls short of its claims. It seems clearly written with both a scholarly and general audience in mind. This, perhaps, explains the scope of the claims, for without a large, single-sentence claim (‘end of the history wars’, or ‘it was war, not genocide’) a book on this topic is unlikely to attract much attention from the general Australian readership, which prefers stories of heroism in World War I to these more unpleasant and guilt-inducing tales.

Finally, I found myself questioning whether it is to the book’s detriment that it largely avoids making judgments. Tout comprendre est tout pardonner may be a valid stance for a novelist, but is questionable when it comes to a historian, particularly of such an intensely contested and blood-soaked episode as this.

STEPHEN GRAY teaches law at Monash University.

(2014) 39(3) AltLJ 202
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