THE BLACK WAR: FEAR, SEX AND RESISTANCE IN TASMANIA
By Dr Nicholas Clements University of Queensland $ 34.95
THIS is not the first book with the title Black War to deal with early colonists and native conflict in Van Diemen’s Land, culminating with the infamous Black Line of 1830.
The first Black War was published in 1948 and written by Clive Turnbull. Nonetheless, the modern author, Dr Nicholas Clements, has treated the subject with even- handedness and with full documentation.
Between 1824 and 1831, at least 218 colonists and about 600 Aborigines died violently in eastern Tasmania. The Black War, as it became known, was the most intense frontier conflict in Australia’s history.
This is first book by Launceston-based Clements, an honorary research associate in the School of Humanities at the University of Tasmania who said in the preface: “I cannot recall ever learning about the Black War when I attended high school in Tasmania in the mid 1990s.”
This being the case, he certainly answered his curiosity with his book. It is a very detailed account, but fittingly easy to read.
Much of it is harrowing, dealing with the tragedies both sides experienced during the confrontation. He starts by giving the background to 1830, providing the attitudes from both white and black, then the warfare, the Black Line and the war’s end.
The first confrontation happened in 1803 at Risdon Cove, which was controversial.
Clements passed over this episode rather quickly, saying it was “certainly not the primary catalyst for the Black War”.
He delves into great detail about how whites viewed the natives and vice versa, with many Tasmanians “considering white men to be ancestral spirits”.
The natives soon learnt of the white man’s way – including their weapons. As settlers spread out, the threat to the Tasmanians became more apparent and, especially from 1824, the number of native attacks against settlers increased to the point where the whites experienced extreme terror and panic. Clements deals with the sensitive topic of genocide. Was the government guilty of genocide? Were the colonists? He has an interesting answer: “Whatever word we use, we must at least acknowledge the attitudes and circumstances that provided colonists to kill natives in Tasmania were very different from those typically associated with genocide.”
Things could not continue. Before the spring of 1830, blacks had killed or wounded at least 417 colonists so “decisive action” had to be taken, with Governor George Arthur organising the Black Line.
That was almost a complete failure. But the writing was on the wall and while attacks continued in 1831, the number of settlers grew and the number of natives lessened. The end was in sight.
The Black War will not please everyone, as the matter has become very political and sensitive. But he has treated it admirably and given an excellent exposure of an unfortunate episode in our history. I enjoyed the read.