His­tory of the smaller great south­ern land

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ba­bette Smith Jim David­son’s

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

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