History of the smaller great southern land
ulian Pepperell’s Fishing for the Past would be a wonderful Christmas present for enthusiastic anglers. But don’t stop there. For conservationists, it provides a valuable appraisal of fishing stocks in Australian coastal waters before and after the Europeans arrived. More generally, anyone with an interest in our history will discover a treasure trove of information.
‘‘Today,” writes Pepperell, “those who go down to the sea to fish often wonder what it must have been like to first cast a line or a net into untouched waters.”
He details stories of fishing from early European voyages. He notes that for tens of thousands of years before that “Aboriginal people had been fishing these waters with spears, hooks, nets and traps, and gathering shellfish from the beaches, rocks and reefs”.
To achieve the “purest” snapshot of this transition, Pepperell set a cut-off date for the records at 1800 (with a couple of important exceptions). His aim is to avoid the “possible effects of later fishing in previously pristine areas, and the subsequent influence of European contact on fishing activities of Aboriginal people”.
He had rich sources for his investigation. Wonderful fishing stories abound in journals and diaries. We learn William Dampier found a “partially decomposed and very smelly ‘hippopota- We have all become aware of the changed image of Tasmania. Until the 1970s, the place was perceived as scenic and laid-back (if also backward), cold and with a Hydro-Electric Commission constantly on the rampage.
Then along came environmentalism, Tasmanian wines and cheeses and bottled fresh air. Then the Museum of Old and New Art. Suddenly the place became highly desirable. With the internet, it is no longer so isolated. And so mainlanders — not just retirees — are moving there, with the result that Hobart house prices have soared.
It is timely, then, that a book examining the history of finding utopia in Tasmania should appear now. Alison Alexander’s title, Duck and Green Peas! For Ever!, is the exclamation of a convict nursemaid, fantasising on what Tasmania would be like if there were no free settlers. (This land of plenty, many convicts felt, rightly belonged to them.) In this fascinating book, Alexander traces various visions and conceptions that have been fastened on the island, from within and without.
Alexander is well aware that utopia, etymologically speaking, is no place at all, and hence all the more easily signifies an idealised, egali- mus’ ” in the stomach of a tiger shark caught in Shark Bay (the “hippo” was a dugong); that a French sailor survived the first shark attack; and that governor William Bligh, “marooned” offshore in Tasmania, “enthusiastically fished with a rod for ‘trout’ and bream”.
Matthew Flinders found, inside a great white shark, a seal that had been previously speared by an Aborigine. James Cook nearly died when he ate the liver of a poisonous puffer fish. Joseph Banks admired the “fine fishing lines” and “very neat” shell hooks used by Aboriginal women in Botany Bay. Flinders respected the Sydney Aboriginal taboo against eating stingrays.
Illustrating the written documentary record are amazing paintings and drawings. As a matter of general culture, Australians are familiar with waratahs and other flora, kangaroos, emus and other fauna depicted by painters and diarists from the time Europeans first encountered the continent; not to mention extensive pictures of the original inhabitants as individuals and as groups going about their traditional life which, near the coast, usually meant fishing.
Yet the equally marvellous collection about fish has largely been neglected. Fishing for the Past provides overdue recognition of the beautiful and diverse paintings and drawings that recorded the coastal marine life. The artists tarian community. But this does not necessarily involve a communal lifestyle, or even, in the end, idealism. Almost as if bearing the newcomers in mind, Alexander sensibly defines utopia as attaining a lifestyle that is your heart’s desire, implicitly in a new place. It could be said that all first-generation colonists were prompted by an urge for dramatic self-improvement, in a socially fluid setting full of opportunity. So she is able to stretch her subtitle Finding Utopia to cover the caste of corrupt officials who lorded it over Hobart in the 1810s and 20s. Utopia for them, perhaps, but purgatory or hell for everybody else.
The contrast with the opening chapter is particularly sharp. There Alexander paints an idyllic picture of the original Tasmanians enjoying their utopia, as it is perceived by French navigators, the Aborigines’ first contact with the outside world. The French, predisposed to think of them as “noble savages”, at first responded to what they saw as their affectionate benevolence and the “happiness and simplicity of their state of nature”. But then they noticed the harshness of their living conditions, the subordination of the women, the inexplicable burning of country — and had to slough off unexpected stones and spears. Zoologist Francois Peron changed his tune: the laughing children of nature he had earlier noted became “the miserable horde inhabiting these lands”. included military and naval men trained to record what they saw in the days before photography. Many European voyages also included professional artists and scientific illustrators who were employed specifically to describe new biological and anthropological discoveries.
Sydney Parkinson, for example, sailed with Cook on the Endeavour and died before returning to England but left a body of beautiful work behind him. Austrian artist Ferdinand Bauer sailed with Flinders. French artist Charles-Alexandre Lesueur worked with naturalist Francois Peron on board the Geographe captained by Nicolas Baudin. The multicultural list extends to enthusiastic amateurs among the sailors as well as talented convicts who were lucky enough to find a patron who encouraged them to paint and draw.
Fishing equipment and methods are closely examined. Illustrations include a contemporaneous poster of all the varieties of hooks used by Europeans as well as Aboriginal hooks of varying sizes and made from turban shells, found by archeologists. After reading Fishing for the Past, I now understand what “hauling the seine” involved and what hard work it was when done from the beach.
Despite the variety of resources, the record is often patchy or contradictory. Pepperell weighs the different factors affecting claims of an “abun-
When it comes to the settler period, there were ventures that were purely exploitative, such as the activities of the Van Diemen’s Land Company (still active in the island’s far northwest). Alexander wastes no space on that. But she does point to the Castra colony of the 1860s, an attempt to lure retired Indian army officers to the gentler climes of Tasmania. (Only a few came and only one stayed the course.)
An altogether more amazing venture v was the talk in 1940-41 of a settlement at Port Davey for Jews J fleeing Hitler. This idea originated in Tasmania in the eyes of a muddled idealist, had the premier’s good wishes, but got little traction. The man himself, no bushman, was easily overcome by harsh conditions and died on a bush track.
Pride in the island and its beauties b began early and led to a set of stamps with local views on them, almost a world first. A certain amount of romanticism always hovers over islands — the world in miniature — and several times the place is referred to as the “heart-shaped island”. (There are no references, though, to “the map of Tasmania”.) Sometimes people were dreaming of Tasmania even without realising it. WH Auden once described his ideal place: an island with mountainous scenery, notable Georgian architecture, and an opera house perpetually playing Bellini. Tasmania may find the last a bit dance” of fish versus “none to be found”. His appraisal takes account of the different seasons, locations and methods as well as the skills — or possible incompetence — of the fishermen. In June 1788, for instance, was it the winter season or the arrival of Europeans that depleted fish stocks in Sydney Harbour? Or was it an influx of sharks?
Having examined what the Europeans were catching for themselves, Pepperell then looks at what the same sources tell us about Aboriginal fishing. He concludes that “hook-and-line fishing does not appear to have been practised by Aboriginal fishers in western Australia. Hooks are unknown from the entire west coast.”
But fish traps or weirs were widely used by Aborigines in the west. Dampier left a detailed description of this method of catching fish. Near King Sound in the Kimberley region, he noted, “Their only Food is a small sort of Fish, which they get by making Wares of Stone across little Coves or Branches of the Sea; every Tide bringing in the small Fish and there leaving them …”
Pepperell has meticulously examined journals, logs and diaries and, most riveting of all, pictures that catch a vital period of European impact on an ancient continent and its people. This book is one to keep. is a historian and writer. of a challenge, but Hobart does have that bijou, the early 19th-century Theatre Royal.
Closer to our own time, there are chapters on the wilderness and environmental battles, and on alternative living in the bush. Hermits and solitaries, pursuing their private utopia, also receive a chapter, while as we come closer to the present there are more individual stories, whether from immigrants or hippies.
Tasmania’s own utopian ventures are explored, too: the Southport settlement of the 1890s, sponsored by the premier’s wife; the fundamentalist Christian communities (one of them called Paradise) beneath Mount Roland; the millennialism of communism. The party did not have much of a following in Tasmania: jobs were scarce, while there were few industrial workers and left-wing intellectuals to push things along.
Alexander has produced an overall history of Tasmania from a particular slant, clarifying a different trajectory. Her material is widely drawn, since she has now produced more than 30 books on Tasmanian history.
At least two of them, her biography of Jane Franklin and her incisive account of how Tasmania coped with the “convict stain”, deserve the attention of anybody with a serious interest in Australian history. This book is a third. Sumptuously produced with a wide variety of illustrations, it is a credit to its publisher, the wellknown Hobart bookshop. most recent book is A Fuhrer for a Father: The Domestic Face of Colonialism.
The Catch (c. 1817) by Joseph Lycett