TASMANIA’S DARK HISTORY
THE BOOK TO ‘END THE HISTORY WARS’?
HADSPEN is a dormitory suburb of Launceston, a mix of modest, modern homes and notable convict-era buildings on the South Esk River. But in the early 1800s it was on the exposed frontier of white settlement, and it came under sustained attack from Aborigines incensed at European incursions on their land, women and hunting grounds.
Around 1827 (the exact date is unknown) indigenous warriors besieged the Hadspen home of ex-convict and farmer Thomas Beams. The Aborigines killed two of Beams’s servants, both convicts. According to an account written by a Beams descendant in 1947, the farmer and his neighbours quickly formed an armed “war party’’. They stormed a blacks’ camp in a deep gully late at night; one of the Europeans took off his boots and wore several pairs of borrowed socks so he could move silently through the bush. When dawn broke, 11 Aborigines lay dead.
This was one of many cold-blooded murders that were committed by both sides in the most intense frontier conflict in Australia’s history — Tasmania’s Black War, which raged in the state’s east from 1824 until 1831.
For 31-year-old historian Nicholas Clements, that mass killing near Hadspen is intensely personal: Beams, the man who led the war party, was his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. Clements includes this story — handed down through several generations of his family — in his groundbreaking book, The Black War:
Fear, Sex and Resistance in Tasmania, which is released this week. Asked about the role his distant forebear played in the conflict, he says cautiously: “My whole philosophy is not to judge historical figures, I think that’s a pointless endeavour. I want to try to understand how and why they did what they did.’’
The Black War purports to be the first social history of a conflict that has been condemned by some historians and indigenous activists as an act of genocide against the Tasmanian Aborigines. Clements strongly disagrees with that claim (more of which later). Nonetheless, he has crafted a narrative that is determinedly nonpartisan: each chapter is told from alternating black and white perspectives.
In fact, this book by a virtually unknown author has already been hailed by respected frontier historian Henry Reynolds as a work that will end the history wars. (This ideological skirmish erupted during the Howard era, when socalled “black armband’’ historians faced off against proponents of the “white blindfold’’ school; the embers of this incendiary debate still smoulder today.) Reynolds writes in a foreword to The Black
War: “Clements has written a book that, while reflecting upon the history wars, has transcended their angry contention and has, consequently, brought them to an end. In itself that is a remarkable achievement.’’ Reynolds maintains that the younger historian is “remarkably even-handed, avoiding the partisanship that has characterised and diminished much of previous scholarship’’.
Clements lives in Launceston, just a few kilometres from the sites of the Hadspen killings. In a phone interview with Review, he reflects: “Obviously I’m not proud of what my ancestors did, but I’ve gone to a great deal of trouble to try and understand why they did it. I think my book does a pretty good job of explaining that.’’
Thomas Beams and his brother, Robert Beams, were transported to Australia from England for stealing drapery, and both ended up as emancipated convicts in Tasmania. In 1804, Robert joined the expedition that established British settlement in the state’s north.
Having survived the brutalities of a penal colony, both brothers found themselves living through or taking part in a vicious, seven-year frontier conflict. According to Clements, this war “claimed the lives of well over 200 colonists and all but annihilated the island’s remaining Aborigines … Nowhere else in Australia did so much frontier violence occur in such a small area over such a short period.’’
He estimates about 600 Aborigines died in eastern Tasmania from 1824 to 1831. Only about 260 of these deaths are documented. “Most of the ambushes on Aborigines were undocumented. It’s the exceptions that we hear about,’’ he says, adding that the killings Thomas Beams was involved in do not appear in official records. “It was a family story, I suppose, but it has great verisimilitude.’’ (There are details in the 1947 account that only a historian would know, he maintains.)
For all its neutrality, Clements predicts his book may “shock some and infuriate or upset others’’. He avoids using the word “massacre”, even in instances where large groups of innocent people (usually Aborigines) were killed. “It’s too emotive, it’s been in the genre too long and it connotes too many things that I want to dispense with,’’ he insists.
He rejects the claim of Robert Hughes, author of the bestselling The Fatal Shore, that the treatment of Tasmanian Aborigines was “the only true genocide in English colonial history’’.
Other historians have made similar claims, but Clements argues (as did Reynolds) that “genocide’’ is an inappropriate term to apply to the Tasmanian conflict, because colonial authorities did not have a deliberate policy aimed at destroying the Aboriginal population.
He also argues that “if you call it genocide, you really neglect the agency and resistance of the Aboriginal people. Aborigines in Tasmania had the simplest technology of any known modern humans. And yet they put up a stronger resistance than any indigenous peoples in 140 years of conflict on this continent. That in itself is a remarkable feat.’’
He draws on letters, journals and colonial press reports to get inside the heads of those on both sides of the war. “I haven’t fluffed around at the top looking at the larger legal and moral debates, I’ve got straight down, I’ve looked at what happened on the ground,’’ he says in his direct way. He paints a vivid picture of the terror that stalked Europeans and indigenous people alike. As they went about their chores, settler women locked themselves inside their huts, while settler men and assigned convicts rarely ventured outside without a weapon. Indigenous people, meanwhile, felt unsafe lighting large camp fires at night. As the war intensified, there was speculation some Aborigines resorted to infanticide so the cries of their infants would not give them away.
Reynolds’s declaration about Clements’s book ending the history wars is a big call. “I was quite knocked back by that,’’ says the first-time author. The depth of research that informs the narrative is one reason Reynolds backed it so strongly. The Black War is based on a PhD thesis the older historian encouraged Clements to write. Clements says his thesis includes a table of every violent incident that took place on Tasmania’s eastern and northwestern frontiers from 1804 until 1842. “It’s difficult to argue with that level of research,’’ he adds. (While the war on Tasmania’s eastern frontier ended in 1831, frontier skirmishes continued in the state’s northwest until 1842.)
So what is this novice historian’s take on the history wars? It is, like his book, carefully measured. He writes that the historical literature on the Black War “had almost always been sympathetic to the Aborigines and disparaging of the colonists — at least that was [the case] until 2002, when Keith Windschuttle published The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Volume One, Van Diemen’s Land 1803-1847.’’
Windschuttle claimed that more settlers than Aborigines were killed in early colonial Tasmania. He accused left-wing historians of making exaggerated claims about white atrocities and of fabricating evidence. He also argued that the notion of “frontier warfare’’ was fictional.
His book ignited a firestorm of criticism and debate, but Clements is blunt about Windschuttle’s there-was-no-war argument. “I’ve completely disproven that,’’ he says.
However, he concedes there was a “hint of
‘I’VE GOT STRAIGHT DOWN, I’VE LOOKED AT WHAT HAPPENED ON THE GROUND’
truth’’ in the conservative historian’s view that some 20th-century historians embellished their evidence to portray Europeans in the worst possible light. “Ironically,’’ he says, “I have quite a lot of respect for Keith. I think the philosophy he espouses — not what he practises, but the philosophy he espouses — is quite admirable. Too many people have taken too much licence in their interpretations and have been really, really sloppy with their use of evidence.’’
Clements speaks to Review in a week when he leads two multi-day treks to Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair. He is an avid trekker and rock climber and he loves the craggy glories of the Tasmanian landscape. “It’s kind of my obsession,’’ he says, chuckling. “It’s probably limited my career a bit because I love Tasmania so much. There is so much beautiful wilderness and untouched rock climbing. You could spend 15 lifetimes here and never get close to completing it all. Tasmania’s in my blood.’’
An eighth-generation Tasmanian, he has trekked through many of the death-haunted locations he writes about, to get a better feel for the events he seeks to recapture. “I think it’s really important to know the country,’’ he says. “To walk it. I’ve done my share of trespassing and trekking and trying to soak in the sights and sounds and feel of the places where the war took place.’’
He has taught and studied history at the University of Tasmania, but is training to be a highschool teacher, partly because of a lack of openings at Tasmania’s universities and partly because he wants to remain in the state in which he was born, raised and recently married.
He has a distinctive take on the causes of the Black War. He emphasises how, in a colony with a “staggering’’ shortage of European women, main, immediate catalyst was whites’ sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women. He documents how shepherds and convicts in remote areas took part in “gin raids’’ — kidnapping, raping and sometimes killing Aboriginal women. (He also acknowledges that some tribes prostituted their women to whites in exchange for food or other favours. But this sex trade soon turned into widespread abduction and rape by Europeans.)
He argues that sealers in the island’s northwest ran a slave trade, kidnapping indigenous women and prepubescent girls to be their unpaid labourers and sex slaves. The great warrior Mannalargenna was devastated when he lost a sister and three daughters to sealers.
Clements feels other historians have “neglected’’ the degree to which this sexual abuse triggered the war. “I don’t know if I’ve ever read from a historian about the importance of the gender imbalance and the racist sexual desires of these convicts out on the frontier. To me it’s the elephant in the room. One of the reasons (for the neglect) is that no one wants to detract from the role of invasion.’’
As the frontier of white settlement pushed out inexorably, Aborigines also committed some horrific crimes. In October 1828, Oatlands farmer Patrick Gough had been trying to fend off an attack on a neighbour’s property when Aborigines invaded his family’s hut.
The warriors killed Gough’s wife, his fouryear-old daughter and a female neighbour, and injured his 13-month-old baby and seven-yearold daughter. The farmer and his surviving daughters continued living on their lonely frontier, but 11 months after the triple murder, Aborigines burned down their home. Such crimes sent waves of panic through the colony; some whites feared it was so unsafe, it would have to be abandoned.
In writing from an Aboriginal perspective, Clements grappled with the dearth of first-person accounts by indigenous people caught up in the war, as theirs was an oral culture. “You’re always coming up against that cultural chasm’’, he reflects. So he drew heavily on the writings of George Augustus Robinson, a controversial figure who helped end the Black War by rounding up Aborigines on his “friendly mission’’. The indigenous Tasmanians who surrendered were resettled on Flinders Island, where many died from ill health and homesickness. Nevertheless, Robinson’s observations were “incredibly detailed, so without them I don’t think such a project would be possible’’.
Although Clements documents atrocities committed by settlers, convicts and sealers, he is adamant that “judgment contributes nothing to our understanding of the conflict. They did some absolutely terrible things. I just don’t get anything out of cursing them. You put people in that environment, with no European women, with no command structure — total sex deprivation and total licence, a brutal lifestyle. It’s not just Tasmania where you get this. This sort of scenario is replicated in similar scenarios around the world and throughout history.’’
The Black War: Fear, Sex and Resistance in
Tasmania, by Nicholas Clements, University of Queensland Press, $34.95, is released next week.
From far left, author Nicholas Clements loves Tasmania’s wild places; Arthur’s Proclamation to the Aborigines, 1830; frontier historian Henry Reynolds says Clements’s book ends the history wars