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Nick Brodie’s The Van­de­mo­nian War. Anna Ge­orge’s The Lone Child. Shaun Prescott’s The Town.

Hardie Grant, 352pp, $29.99

In The Van­de­mo­nian War, his­to­rian Nick Brodie turns his at­ten­tion to one of the most con­tentious and fiercely de­bated events in Aus­tralian his­tory: the fron­tier con­flict that erupted be­tween Abo­rig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants and Bri­tish colonis­ers in Van Diemen’s

Land in the late 1820s and early 1830s. He ar­gues, con­vinc­ingly, that the con­flict was not a se­ries of hap­haz­ard at­tacks per­pe­trated by in­di­vid­u­als and small bands of rogue set­tlers, as it has of­ten been char­ac­terised, but an au­tho­rised, mil­i­tarised, co-or­di­nated cam­paign or­ches­trated by the colo­nial gov­ern­ment with the clear aim of erad­i­cat­ing Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple from the is­land of Van Diemen’s Land. It was, in short, a war.

De­scrib­ing the con­flict as a “war” is not in it­self a rad­i­cal claim – the con­flict has long been known as the “Black War” af­ter all – but Brodie draws heav­ily on pri­mary doc­u­men­tary ev­i­dence to show the com­plex­ity and so­phis­ti­ca­tion of the cam­paign against the Abo­rig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants im­ple­mented by the mil­i­tary and civil pow­ers work­ing as one. In­deed, as Brodie re­peat­edly demon­strates, there was lit­tle mean­ing­ful dis­tinc­tion be­tween mil­i­tary and civil pow­ers dur­ing the pe­riod. He de­picts a colo­nial Van­de­mo­nian so­ci­ety that was mil­i­tarised at all lev­els. From Gov­er­nor Ge­orge Arthur him­self, who held “the dual role of Lieu­tenant Gov­er­nor and Colonel Com­mand­ing”, to the land­hold­ing set­tlers who ef­fec­tively raised their own pri­vate mili­tias, down to the in­di­vid­ual men in rov­ing par­ties, sent out to cap­ture and, of­ten on the slight­est pre­text, kill, Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple. Brodie shows how this per­va­sive mil­i­tari­sa­tion en­abled a small pop­u­la­tion of colonists to mo­bilise swiftly, dec­i­mate the Abo­rig­i­nal pop­u­la­tion, then re­turn to civil­ian life and col­lec­tively for­get the true na­ture and ex­tent of the con­flict they had per­pe­trated.

In mak­ing his case, he draws ex­ten­sively from the records of the of­fice of the “colony’s se­nior civil bu­reau­crat”, now held at the Tas­ma­nian Ar­chives and Her­itage Of­fice. In the colo­nial sec­re­tary’s ar­chives, Brodie came across a vol­ume of ma­te­rial en­tirely ded­i­cated to cor­re­spon­dence re­lat­ing to “mil­i­tary and para­mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions against Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple in the in­te­rior of Van Diemen’s

Land” in the 1820s and 1830s. Re­mark­ably, con­sid­er­ing the con­tentious­ness of sub­ject mat­ter, these let­ters have been al­most en­tirely over­looked, and very few have ever been “ex­am­ined, an­a­lysed or cited by his­to­ri­ans”.

The level of de­tail Brodie is able to present, thanks in large part to this cor­re­spon­dence, pro­vides a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into the in­grained hypocrisy and re­lent­less dis­sem­bling of Gov­er­nor Arthur’s ad­min­is­tra­tion. Even as the colo­nial gov­ern­ment spoke pub­licly of con­cil­i­a­tion, hu­mane treat­ment and peace be­tween set­tlers and Abo­rig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants, it si­mul­ta­ne­ously en­acted strate­gies to re­move (via ex­ile or death) Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple from the is­land via a net­work of co-or­di­nated para­mil­i­tary bands, out­posts, mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions and leg­isla­tive ma­noeu­vres. The hypocrisy of their po­si­tion was of­ten in plain view. Brodie quotes the of­fi­cial procla­ma­tion de­liv­ered when Arthur ex­tended mar­tial law to the en­tire is­land in 1830, which stated that the use of arms to cap­ture Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple “be in no way re­sorted to” ex­cept, of course, if the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple in ques­tion did not im­me­di­ately drop weapons and come meekly into cap­tiv­ity. As Brodie says, “Ba­si­cally any­thing other than peace­fully sur­ren­der­ing meant they were fair tar­gets.” It says much about the hyp­o­crit­i­cal self-de­cep­tion of colo­nial­ism that in the very same procla­ma­tion Arthur could de­clare, ap­par­ently sin­cerely, that Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple should be “treated with the ut­most care and hu­man­ity”.

The Van­de­mo­nian War is an ad­mirable piece of schol­ar­ship. The depth of re­search is ev­i­dent on ev­ery page, and it seems likely that fel­low his­to­ri­ans will build upon Brodie’s work for years to come. For the av­er­age reader though, this is a chal­leng­ing book. It is not the kind of ap­proach­able so­cial his­tory we’ve come to ex­pect from our pop­u­lar his­to­ri­ans in re­cent years, full of de­scrip­tive pas­sages and cre­ative leaps. Brodie gives us what the pri­mary sources re­veal and lit­tle else. It is only in the preface and af­ter­word that he al­lows him­self to be­come some­what polem­i­cal, declar­ing his themes force­fully and di­rectly. Other­wise he lets the ev­i­dence speak for it­self, briefly sign­post­ing his ar­gu­ments, but re­frain­ing from im­pos­ing a grand nar­ra­tive or in­dulging in sup­po­si­tion about events or mo­tives not di­rectly ev­i­denced.

Even the most ca­sual reader is likely to recog­nise Brodie’s com­mit­ment and sin­cer­ity, but his ap­proach does not al­ways make his work read­able or com­pelling. Large sec­tions of the book are, frankly, a slog. This is a dif­fi­cult thing to rec­on­cile when the sub­ject mat­ter is so im­por­tant, the ap­proach to the ma­te­rial so rig­or­ous and the facts so hor­rific, but it may be the un­avoid­able cost of the kind of schol­ar­ship Brodie is en­gaged in. There is so much de­tail that it of­ten ob­scures rather than clar­i­fies the broader sense of the events un­fold­ing. Keep­ing track of who ev­ery­one is proves chal­leng­ing enough, let alone at­tempt­ing to re­mem­ber their re­spec­tive time lines, lo­ca­tions, re­la­tion­ships and roles in the con­flict.

Brodie’s rather for­mal and aus­tere prose style doesn’t help mat­ters ei­ther. He is al­ways clear, but even events that are clearly of great im­port or in­ter­est be­come flat­tened and dull un­der the weight of his dili­gence. He is ob­vi­ously keenly aware that this is a onesided nar­ra­tive, and in­cludes as much pri­mary ev­i­dence about the Abo­rig­i­nal per­spec­tive on the war as he can, but it’s hard not to wish that he might ex­pand his purview some­what to al­low sub­se­quent re­search into the Tas­ma­nian Abo­rig­i­nal ex­pe­ri­ence to be in­cluded.

Brodie shies away from al­most any de­scrip­tive prose that isn’t drawn from a pri­mary source, which can leave the reader strug­gling to clearly picture the land­scape, peo­ple or events be­ing re­counted. Even the maps in­cluded are strictly con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous, but un­for­tu­nately they also hap­pen to be mostly il­leg­i­ble. This lat­ter is a small in­stance of com­pre­hen­sion be­ing sac­ri­ficed for au­then­tic­ity, but it’s one that typ­i­fies the book’s ap­proach – an ap­proach that may cost this book the wider au­di­ence it de­serves. DV

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