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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


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

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