VISIONS FOR OUR ISLAND
Duck and Green Peas For Ever: Finding Utopia in Tasmania Alison Alexander Fullers Publishing, $45
Tasmanian history often conjures images of violence and despair — the brutal justice of the convict system, the wild and corrupt years of early settlement, the massacres and dispossession of Aborigines, their frontier war and cruel exile on Flinders Island, bushrangers, cannibal escapees, sealers, whalers and the extinction of the thylacine. Many writers and visitors dwell on this dreadful past, but it is not the whole story. For all the gloom, Tasmania inspires plenty of love, even adoration. Prolific historian Alison Alexander explores this perspective in her latest book, the engaging Duck and Green Peas For Ever: Finding Utopia in Tasmania. It is an intriguing take on our past, packed with illustrations, quirky stories and unexpected insights.
Alexander has unearthed an impressive collection of dreamers and their stories. It is surprising how many visions of utopia have been projected on Tasmania. From evangelical Christians to communists, industrialists to hermits, hippies escaping the rat race to those fearing nuclear catastrophe and preparing for Armageddon, the list goes on and on.
There is something about islands that attracts visionaries. Perhaps it is the possibility of creating an ideal society far from the crowded, troubled world. Heart-shaped Tasmania, one of the more isolated large islands, with a moderate climate and good arable land, lends itself to such hope.
Visionaries came to Tasmania with the French explorers in the 18th century. Fired by ideals of the Enlightenment, they imagined a remote Arcadia populated by the “noble savage”, living an uncomplicated life, uncorrupted by the so-called civilised world. The French were curious and respectful when they encountered Aborigines the first time, depicting them in beautiful illustrations. After a while the French began to realise that life for the Aborigines was hard, and many of the explorers’ romantic ideals were shattered.
There was little thought of Arcadia when the first convict ships arrived, but in time even some convicts imagined a promising future in the colony. Alexander starts her book with the delightful story of a convict woman, “rather drunk and very chatty”, riding home in a cart driven by her master and telling him that free settlers should go to hell and the colony should belong to the convicts. “It was their country, and their country it should be ‘Duck and green peas! For ever! Hurrah!’”
Some convicts, through enterprise, hard work and luck, made themselves rich.
Free settlers arrived in the earliest days of the convict colony, and never stopped arriving. In the 1830s and 1840s, Lady Jane Franklin, wife of the governor Sir John Franklin, tried to establish a community of sober, industrious free settlers on the Huon River. She preferred devout Anglicans and Methodists, untainted by a convict past. The township of Franklin was named in her honour.
Lady Jane was far from the last to dream of a pastoral utopia. Artists such as John Glover painted idealised pictures of the colony, and pioneer settlers came up with place names such as Paradise and Promised Land. Some of these pastoral dreams were to end in failure. The idea of a homeland for retired British army officers from India and later soldier settler schemes often foundered on the farming inexperience of the settlers.
One sad failed dreamer was Frank Critchley Parker, who hoped to establish a homeland for Europe’s persecuted Jews near Port Davey and who died alone in the bush surveying the area.
Much more successful was Austrian migrant and mountaineer Gustav Weindorfer, a pioneer of Tasmania’s environmental movement. Alexander describes him as “perhaps the man who more than anyone else created a long-lasting image of utopia in Tasmania”. In 1910, he declared that the Cradle Mountain area “must be a national park for the people for all time”. He built a chalet, Waldheim, and encouraged people to visit, stay and explore. Cradle Mountain became one of Tasmania’s favourite attractions.
Sometimes rival visions of a Tasmanian utopia clashed, particularly when the dream of a prosperous state with a dynamic manufacturing base driven by cheap hydroelectricity came up against the growing environmental movement. Alexander shows how the contested visions of developers and conservationists continue to this day.