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Living in Tasmania stories

Black War historian finds balance

Edition150 Author Nicholas Clements

Nicholas Clements, a 31-year old historian, wilderness guide and rock climber, has written a new book on Tasmania’s Black War that defies classification as a view from either the left or the right.

There are even suggestions that The Black War: Fear, Sex and Resistance in Tasmania could end the State’s so-called History Wars.

Launceston-based Clements prides himself in the objectivity of his research and has used a technique new in the chronicling of the tragic conflict of 1824-1831.

He writes alternating chapters from the viewpoints of the settlers and the Tasmanians.

“I haven’t fluffed around at the top looking at the larger legal and moral debates,” he said in an interview with Rosemary Neill of The Australian: “I’ve got straight down. I’ve looked at what happened on the ground.”

Clements draws on letters, journals, contemporary newspaper reports and even family history to explain what was done and why it was done.

One of the key protagonists in the history wars, Professor Henry Reynolds, encouraged Clements to write the UTAS PhD thesis on which the book is based.

Reynolds, himself, has hailed the outcome as the “end of the history wars.”

So you would assume it leans further to the left (and Reynolds) than to the right (and his protagonist Keith Windshuttle).

However, Clements concedes there is “a bit of truth” in Windshuttle’s claim that some modern historians were embellishing evidence to portray the settlers’ part in the conflict in the worst possible light.

Clements told Neill: “Ironically, I have quite a lot of respect for Keith … Too many people have taken too much licence in their interpretations and have been really, really sloppy with their use of evidence.”

A direct forebear of Clements was a victim of a murderous Aboriginal raid in what is now Launceston around 1827. He led a terrible revenge attack on a sleeping camp.

“My whole philosophy is not to judge historical figures,” Clements said. “I think that’s a pointless endeavour. I want to try to understand how and why they did what they did.”

According to his careful research, more than 200 colonists died in the eight years of intense conflict and the remaining indigenous population was all but annihilated.

“Nowhere else in Australia did so much frontier violence occur in such a small area over such a short period,” Clements said.

Only about 200 of an estimated 600 Aboriginal deaths during the period were documented.

In his determination to be objective, Clements avoids the emotive words “genocide” and “massacre” in his writing, a decision he concedes might shock and infuriate some people.

In his view, there was never an official policy of genocide, although his research reveals a widespread annihilate-or-be-annihilated attitude among the settlers on the frontier as Aboriginal attacks intensified.

The Tasmanians had begun hostilities hoping that if they could kill enough of the mysterious intruders and their livestock they would be able to regain their hunting grounds and way of life.

But as more and more settlers arrived, this hope was crushed and the war became a desperate, day-by-day struggle to survive.

Constantly hunted by mounted parties, the Tasmanians had to keep moving and were forced to abandon their elderly, weak or wounded relatives who were unable to keep up the relentless pace on which their lives depended.

Infants were sacrificed lest their crying betrayed the group to armed troops or a settler posse.

Unable to hunt freely and forced into the highlands in winter, the dwindling clans were obliged to raid settlers’ huts for food and blankets they now needed to stay alive.

It is difficult to imagine a more hopeless or desperate situation.

Because the Tasmanians feared the dark and its population of devils, all their attacks were made in daylight.

Because the settlers found it impossible to track the enemy down in daylight and depended on campfires to give away their positions, almost all settlers’ attacks took place at night or at daybreak.

This was a reversal of the normal order of events in a guerilla war and made the Tasmanian conflict unique.

Clements believes the sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women by white males was central to the war.

He acknowledges that some clans prostituted their women to the invaders, but also documents “gin raids” in which women were kidnapped, raped and sometimes murdered.

Clements describes the “sealers” of Bass Strait as slave traders who took Aboriginal women to be their labourers, food gatherers and sexual playthings.

It has been documented elsewhere that some Tasmanian men responded in kind by targetting white women when they could, but their aim was not rape but vengeful murder.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever read from an historian about the importance of the gender imbalance or the racial sexual desires of these convicts out on the frontier,” Clements told Neill.

“You put people in that environment with no European women; with no command structure – total sex deprivation and total licence … this sort of scenario is replicated around the world and throughout history.”

This book published by the University of Queensland Press is a worthy addition to the many attempts made by Tasmania’s writers to explain how a 32,000-year-old culture was shut down in just eight terrible years.

If it is not the end of the history wars, it is certainly a serious and welcome step towards academic objectivity.

Footnote: The title ‘Black War’ was coined a long time ago and it’s about time somebody gave the conflict of 1824-1831 a more dignified description.

10 June 2014

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Facts about Tasmania


Tasmania is the southernmost state of Australia, located at latitude 40° south and longitude 144° east and separated from the continent by Bass Strait. It is a group of 334 islands, with the main island being 315 km (180 miles) from west to east and 286 km (175 miles) north to south.


Tasmanians are resourceful and innovative people, committed to a continually expanding export sector. In 2012–13, international exports from the state totalled $3.04 billion. USA, China, Taiwan, India, Japan and other Asian countries account for the bulk of exports, with goods and services also exported to Europe and many other regions.


Tasmania is similar in size to the Republic of Ireland or Sri Lanka. The Tasmanian islands have a combined coastline of more than 3,000 km.


The main island has a land area of 62,409 sq km (24,096 sq miles) and the minor islands, taken together, total only 6 per cent of the main island’s land area. The biggest islands are Flinders (1,374 sq km/539 sq miles), King, Cape Barren, Bruny and Macquarie Islands.


About 250km (150 miles) separates Tasmania’s main island from continental Australia. The Kent Group of Islands, one of the most northerly parts of the state, is only 55km (34 miles) from the coast of the Australian continent.


Twice named ‘Best Temperate Island in the World’ by international travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler, Tasmania has a mild, temperate maritime climate, with four distinct seasons.


In summer (December to February) the average maximum temperature is 21° Celsius (70° Fahrenheit). In winter (June to August) the average maximum is 12° C (52° F) and the average minimum is 4° C (40° F). Snow often falls in the highlands, but is rarely experienced in more settled areas.

Annual Rainfall

Tasmania’s west coast is one of the wettest places in the world, but the eastern part of the State lives in a rain-shadow. Hobart, the second-driest capital city in Australia, receives about half as much rain as Sydney.

Annual Rainfall

Annual rainfall in the west is 2,400 mm (95 inches), but hardy locals insist there is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing. If you travel 120 km east to Hobart, you experience a much drier average of 626 mm (24 inches) a year.


The 512,875-strong community spreads itself across the land; less urbanised than the population of any other Australian state. Hobart, the capital city, is home to more than 212,000 people.

Capital City

Hobart nestles at the foot of kunanyi / Mount Wellington (1,270 m / 4,000 ft) and overlooks the Derwent Estuary, where pods of dolphins and migrating whales are sometimes seen from nearby beaches. Surrounded by thickly forested rolling hills, the city is home to the state parliament and the main campus of the University of Tasmania.

Capital City

Its historic centre features Georgian and Regency buildings from colonial times. Hobart is home port for coastal fishing boats, Antarctic expeditions and vessels that fish the Southern Ocean.

Land Formation

Mountain ranges in the south-west date back 1,000 million years. Ancient sediments were deeply buried, folded and heated under enormous pressure to form schists and glistening white quartzites.

Land Formation

In the south-west and central highlands, dolerite caps many mountains, including Precipitous Bluff and Tasmania’s highest peak, Mt Ossa (1617 m / 5300 ft). More than 42 per cent of Tasmania is World Heritage Area, national park and marine or forest reserves.


Vegetation is diverse, from alpine heathlands and tall open eucalypt forests to areas of temperate rainforests and moorlands, known as buttongrass plains. Many plants are unique to Tasmania and the ancestors of some species grew on the ancient super-continent, Gondwana, before it broke up 50 million years ago.


Unique native conifers include slow-growing Huon pines, with one specimen on Mt Read estimated to be up to 10,000 years old. Lomatia tasmanica, commonly known as King’s holly, is a self-cloning shrub that may well be the oldest living organism on earth. It was discovered in 1937.


Tasmania is the last refuge of several mammals that once roamed the Australian continent. It is the only place to see a Tasmanian devil or eastern quoll (native cat) in the wild and is the best place to see the spotted-tailed quoll (tiger cat), all carnivorous marsupials.


The eastern bettong and the Tasmanian pademelon, both now extinct on the Australian continent, may also be observed.


The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, was Australia’s largest surviving carnivorous marsupial and is a modern day mystery. The last documented thylacine died in captivity in 1936 and although the animal is considered extinct, unsubstantiated sightings persist.

History and Heritage

Aboriginal people have lived in Tasmania for about 35,000 years, since well before the last Ice Age. They were isolated from the Australian continent about 12,000 years ago, when the seas rose to flood low coastal plains and form Bass Strait.

History and Heritage

Descendants of the original people are part of modern Tasmania’s predominantly Anglo-Celtic population.

History and Heritage

Tasmania was originally named Van Dieman’s Land by the Dutch explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman in 1642. The island was settled by the British as a penal colony in 1803 and the original name was associated with the convict era. It was changed to Tasmania when convict transportation stopped in 1853.


A resourceful island culture has generated leading-edge niche industries, from production of high-speed catamaran ferries and marine equipment to lightning-protection technology.


Tasmanians produce winches and windlasses for some of the world’s biggest ocean-going pleasure craft; large-scale inflatable evacuation systems and provide specialist outfit-accommodation services to the marine industry.


The Wooden Boat Centre at Shipwrights Point has re-established the skills and traditions of another age and attracts students from around the world.


Tasmania is a world leader in natural turf systems for major sporting arenas and in areas of mining technology and environmental management. Its aquaculture industry has developed ground-breaking fish-feeding technology and new packaging.


Tasmanians sell communications equipment to many navies and their world-class fine timber designers and craftsmen take orders internationally for furniture made from distinctive local timber.


The state is a natural larder with clean air, unpolluted water and rich soils inviting the production of 100 varieties of specialty cheeses, as well as other dairy products, mouth-watering rock lobsters, oysters, scallops and abalone, Atlantic salmon, beef, premium beers, leatherwood honey, mineral waters, fine chocolates, fresh berry fruits, apples and crisp vegetables.


Tasmania is a producer of award-winning cool-climate wines, beers, ciders and whiskies. Other export products include essential oils such as lavender, pharmaceutical products and premium wool sought after in Europe and Asia. Hobart is a vital gateway to the Antarctic and a centre for Southern Ocean and polar research.


The industries in Tasmania which made the greatest contribution to the State’s gross product in 2010–11 in volume terms were: Manufacturing (9.4%), Health care and social assistance (8.2%), Financial and insurance services (7.2%), Ownership of dwellings and Agriculture, forestry and fishing (each 7.1%).

Getting to Tasmania

Travel is easy, whether by air from Sydney or Melbourne, or by sea, with daily sailings of the twin ferries Spirit of Tasmania 1 and 2 each way between Melbourne and Devonport throughout the year.

This site has been produced by the Brand Tasmania Council © 2014

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