War at home in black and white
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-