Monday, March 24, 2008

Aboriginal history of North West Tasmania

I am reading Beyond Awakening - The Aboriginal Tribes of North West Tasmania: A History, by Ian McFarlane, which Mum and Dad gave me. Dad has read it - Mum said it left him feeling ashamed. I am half way through, and I can feel the same heat burning me too.

Over thousands of years, the first Tasmanians set fire to sections of forest, creating grasslands to attract kangaroos. In the 1820s, they attracted a white grazing company, the Van Diemens Land Company, based in London. The climate and the grasslands were ideal for raising merino and saxon sheep, to meet the booming demand in Britain for wool. The Brits needed to find woolgrowing country in the new colonies, as the demand in Britain for mutton was even higher than for wool. They had, in fact eaten all their sheep.

All the VDL Co. had to do was push the blacks off their hunting grounds. Edward Curr was chosen as the man to run the enterprise out here. The company directors recommended that the aboriginals be treated well, and shown that if they walk off the hunting grounds, they will be better off than before. Instead Curr issued an edict the Company staff were to have no contact at all with the aboriginals. Unfortunately, white sealers (who were not under Curr's control) and company shepherds and surveyors (who were) kidnapped black women and children, then casually shot black men who tried to intervene.

The Company was a law unto itself, as its lands were at the northwest tip of the island, and the colonial administration only knew what Curr chose to tell them about what went on there. Clashes escalated, and a company shepherd named Thomas John was speared in the thigh, (a traditional punishment for adultery), after trying to abduct some aboriginal women.

The short, sad story is that a large group of aborigines muttonbirding were ambushed, around 30 aboriginal men shot dead in cold blood, and their bodies thrown off a 200 foot cliff at Cape Grim. The colonial government knew nothing at all about the massacre until nearly two years later. Governor Arthur sent the famous "Conciliator" George Augustus Robinson, to investigate. The men involved freely admitted the details. As far as I know there was never a trial.

That's where I am up to in the book. Obviously there are many versions of history, your Keith Windschuttles would say not so many died at Cape Grim, and anyway the aboriginal men were complicit in trading women from their own tribe to the whites for dogs and flour. It doesn't wash, for me.

What have we got to gain by taking that angle? A big sigh of relief - phew! We didn't wipe them out - they wiped themselves out! Hooray! Great-great-great grandad walked onto some vacant land, worked hard to get a return from it and founded our glorious dynasty. We deserve everything we've got!

McFarlane doesn't offer any such happy fable. It has made me think about the land I grew up on, went to school on, places we went on holiday when I was a kid, growing up on part of the VDL company's 350,000 acre land grant. At a time when in England you could hang for stealing a pocketwatch, in Tasmania a whole country was stolen, a whole people was displaced and harried into oblivion.

We fair-skinned people are living in this beautiful place, speaking English, eating lamb and wearing wool to this day. Elf and I bought some land from our neighbours last year, and the paperwork was incredible. I'll get back to you when I have finished the book.

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