Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Black War, by Nicholas Clements

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

In this new history of Tasmania's Black War, historian Nicholas Clements examines the conflict from both a black and white perspective.

The Black War took place between 1825 and 1831 in Tasmania, a full blown conflict of shocking violence. The combatants were the British colonialists and the various differing Tasmanian Aboriginal tribes. It was a war in which the colonialists were ultimately victorious, although it plunged them into a life of fear and loathing. By 1833, the last remaining Tasmanian Aborigines were persuaded to surrender, with assurances they would be protected and looked after. They were taken to Flinders Island where their health steadily declined, due to disease.

This new history by Nicholas Clements started its life as a 200,000 word doctoral thesis. For this book it’s been reduced to about 60,000 words (on my guess). Clements has tried to strip out a moralising tone by viewing the conflict from a white perspective, then a black perspective. Hence each chapter tackles a particular aspect of the Black War, first through white eyes, then black. One of the difficulties of presenting a black side of the conflict is the paucity of Aboriginal records. The historian has to rely on what contemporary white diarists, writers and journalists wrote about their encounters with Aborigines.  

Reading this sort of history, where so much of the record is sparse, it really is incumbent upon the reader to try and imagine what the Black War must have been like, for both sides. The risk is always to accept the numbers killed as just an abstract historical statistic. You really need to imagine the full implications of the information that is presented.

The British government never had an official policy of exterminating the Tasmanian Aborigines. Yet the project of settling Tasmania was so confused and ad hoc, with little forethought given to the rule of law or how to effectively communicate with the natives, that it left a huge vacuum for just about anything to happen. On the frontier, away from the more civilised centre of Hobart, life was pretty much lawless. You could kill, abduct and rape without anyone to stop you.

There were often explicit calls for extermination in Tasmania’s newspapers. These calls grew as the conflict escalated. They expressed a common view, strongest at the frontier where men and women had to actually deal with Aboriginal attacks, that the only way to solve the problem was to get rid of all Aborigines. It’s quite extraordinary to read the newspapers of the time with their explicit language and reported views of white colonialists.

The conflict largely began due to a gender imbalance. There were far more white men than white women in Tasmania. So colonialists, their servants and convicts, took it upon themselves to start abducting Aboriginal women for the purposes of sex. They were locked up, raped, and many times simply murdered afterwards. Aboriginal men started launching attacks in retaliation.

The Aboriginal attacks grew in violence as did their despair throughout the conflict. There are descriptions in the book of white men surviving Aboriginal attack, and how terrifying it was. Tasmanian Aborigines also killed white women and children. The Aborigines were initially dismissed as being backward natives with minimal skills, but colonial fighters soon came to realise that their opponents were very skilled warriors. Aborigines could ambush their enemies, melt into the bush, then move on at extraordinary speed. All on foot.

There are several things that held the Aborigines back, although they were very successful on many fronts and created an atmosphere of dread and terror. White colonialists felt Aboriginal numbers were far larger than what they actually were, a testament to their success as fighters. Firstly, the native Tasmanians were organised as separate tribal groups, so they didn’t work in concert. Secondly, Tasmanians were fearful of night time spirits, so they would not attack at night. Due to this fear, they also kept fires at night, which would give away their location.

White colonialists, on the other hand, would only attack by night. If anything attests to the differences between the two groups, their thinking and culture, it is the fact that blacks attacked only by day, and whites only by night.

This is a shocking book. If you take the time to imagine the violent episodes, the hopelessness of the situation, the inability of whites to approach an ancient people who’d never met outsiders before, then it’s one of the most despairing tragedies that never should have happened. Imperial Britain was supposed to be one of the most enlightened cultures the world had ever seen. How did they then end up killing an entire population?

Nicholas Clements does a restrained and highly intelligent job in showing a bloody colonial conflict from both sides. In just 200 pages he portrays one of Australian history’s most comprehensively destructive wars.

The Black War: Fear, Sex and Resistance in Tasmania, by Nicholas Clements. Published by University of Queensland Press. ISBN 9780702250064. RRP: $34.99

Similar books:
Forgotten War, by Henry Reynolds
The Biggest Estate on Earth, by Bill Gammage
Tasmanian Aborigines: A History Since 1803, by Lyndall Ryan
1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia, by James Boyce

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