War at home in black and white

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ro­han Wil­son

The Black War: Fear, Sex, and Re­sis­tance in Tas­ma­nia By Ni­cholas Cle­ments UQP, 268pp, $34.95

UNITY is per­haps the sin­gle most sig­nif­i­cant fea­ture of Ni­cholas Cle­ments’s The Black War: unity of ob­ject, of method and of out­come. The book pre­sents a star­tling, con­fronting view of the pe­riod be­tween 1825 and 1831 when the stale­mate that had char­ac­terised the early phase of Tas­ma­nian coloni­sa­tion ended and full-blown con­flict en­gulfed the whole of the set­tled ar­eas. This pe­riod, long called the Black War, has been the sub­ject of a great deal of aca­demic in­ves­ti­ga­tion in re­cent years, but not since Henry Reynolds’s 1981 work The Other Side of the Fron­tier have we been pre­sented so lu­cidly with an Abo­rig­i­nal per­spec­tive on the fight­ing.

As post­mod­ernist de­con­struc­tor Keith Jenk­ins ob­served, unity is trou­ble­some in his­to­ri­og­ra­phy. There is such a dis­per­sal of documents, such a plethora of facts, that to dis­ci­pline the ma­te­rial into shape re­quires some kind of strong-arm­ing. The unity that re­sults then ‘‘is not, and can­not be, one which has arisen from the dis­persed facts them­selves’’ but is in­stead a ‘‘unity which is and can only be log­i­cally de­rived from out­side of these things’’.

In this re­gard, it is in­ter­est­ing how very openly Black War wears its heart on its sleeve. Cle­ments de­scribes in the pref­ace be­ing struck by the un­ortho­dox for­mat of a book on the Pales­tine-Is­raeli con­flict — half writ­ten by an Is­raeli, half by a Pales­tinian. Read­ing com­pet­ing view­points side by side helped him to ‘‘em­pathise with both sides’’ of the ar­gu­ment more ef­fec­tively than a con­ven­tional trea­tise would have.

Cle­ments car­ries this for­ward into his book. Each chap­ter al­ter­nates be­tween the white and black sides of the fron­tier, ex­am­in­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of war­fare and the im­pact it had on the men, women and chil­dren at the front. It avoids the le­gal and gov­ern­men­tal as­pects of the con­flict by keep­ing a tight fo­cus on the re­al­ity at ground level. How did the Abo­rig­i­nal Tas­ma­ni­ans fight so suc­cess­fully for so long against su­pe­rior tech­nol­ogy and or­gan­i­sa­tion? How did whites deal with guerilla tac­tics that made set-

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