Living in Tasmania stories
Black War historian finds balance
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