The Black Line


This year’s Anzac Day post was sparked by an argument with my daughter. Psyche and I argue pretty noisily, which was a problem when we were both teenagers (OK, I was 40) and neither was prepared to back off. Not so much now that I’m a bit older. We were watching the Australian movie The Nightingale (2018) and the argument was about whether Aborigines made guerilla attacks on white settlements, as implied by the movie. I said Yes, and she said, No they didn’t she works with and talks with Aboriginal people and they only made reprisals.

School children learn the names of Aboriginal Resistance leaders these days and Perth’s new city square, Yagan Square, is named after one. Another, in the Kimberleys in WA’s north, who came up when I was writing up Kimberley Massacres was Jandamurra. There are others in every state. The page, Aboriginal Resistance (here), lists many instances culled from just a few sources, stating “when this many are seen in such a long list they help to explode the myth that Europeans walked in here and took over without any real resistance” .

The Nightingale is set in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1825, only a few years after white settlement began in earnest. A young Irish woman convict, Clare, working as a servant is raped by a British lieutenant and her husband and baby murdered. The lieutenant and a small party head off through the bush towards Launceston pursued by Clare intent on revenge. She secures the assistance of “Billy” an Aboriginal man who speaks perfect English . Billy, real name Mangana, is seeking to rejoin the women of his family who have been taken north. There are more rapes and a lot more bloodshed, and some stuff about the Aboriginal and Irish cases being equivalent. Let’s say 3/5.

So. Time for research. If I were home I’d turn to Henry Reynolds, the historian most responsible for arguing that white settlement involved a series of frontier wars. I have a couple of his books, but here I am in Darwin (or there I was at time of writing).

First, the Black Line.

Prior to European colonisation, there were up to 15,000 Aboriginal people in Tasmania living in nine nations. White settlement began in 1803, and ramped up quickly following the end of the Napoleonic wars. The reaction of the original inhabitants was hostile (unsurprisingly) and by 1824 the two communities were clearly at war. In 1826 all Aborigines were declared to be “insurgents”, meaning they could be shot on sight; in 1828 Governor Arthur declared martial law; and in 1830 he commanded the white community to form a line, the Black Line, across the island in order to drive the remaining Aboriginal population south to the Tasman Peninsula where they could be rounded up and relocated to reserves on islands in Bass Strait (between Tasmania and the mainland)

The community being called upon to act en masse on the 7th October next, for the purpose of capturing those hostile tribes of the natives which are daily committing renewed atrocities upon the settlers … Active operations will at first be chiefly directed against the tribes which occupy the country south of a line drawn from Waterloo Point east, to Lake Echo west …

Lieutenant-Governor of Tasmania, George Arthur, September 1830

The operation resulted in only two captures and two deaths, but nevertheless had the desired effect of forcing all Aboriginal people off lands claimed by white settlers. (Source: National Museum of Australia, here).

And that brings us to The Conversation, 24 Apr. 2014, Tasmania’s Black War: A Tragic Case of Lest We Remember (here). The author, Nicholas Clements, a researcher with University of Tasmania, believes that the proximate cause of Aboriginal anger was not so much white settlement as the constant taking by white men of Aboriginal women for sex. This accords for instance with the causes given for the killing of whites in my recent post on Kimberley massacres (here).

The toll from eight years of war, the most violent anywhere in Australia, was Colonists: 223 killed, 226 wounded; Aborigines: 306 killed, thousands dead of disease, just 200 survivors remaining to be exiled to Flinders Island.

The National War Memorial, which is happy to memorialize not just two World Wars but our participation in immoral conflicts from the Boer War and Boxer Rebellion to Viet Nam and Iraq, refuses to recognise the combatants on either side of Tasmania’s Black War for the spurious reason that neither side involved ‘Australian’ soldiers.

I’m not sure the War Memorial – which is increasingly being repurposed as a temple to glorify the Nation, rather than to deplore the conflicts to which the division of the world into nations inevitably gives rise – is in any case the appropriate place to confront our bloody history.  But until we, the right as well as the left, do acknowledge our history then there can be no hope of Reconciliation, and today is a good day to remember that.


Jennifer Kent writer/director, The Nightingale, 2018. Featuring as Clare: Aisling Franciosi; Mangana: Baykali Ganambarr, an Elcho Is, NT/Galiwinku man

see also: My review of Robert Drewe, The Savage Crows (here)


22 thoughts on “The Black Line

  1. Thank you (as always) Bill for your thoughtfully researched post. In your last line, you use the word ‘remember’ and I think that is what is important – as soon as words such as ‘commemorate’ come into play, it’s a slippery slope to ‘celebrate’. Yes, ANZAC Day recognises a specific time, place, and group of people, however it is also a time to reflect on conflict at a broader level.

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    • Keith Murdoch and CEW Bean recognised the opportunity offered by the formation of the first AIF and the Gallipoli landings to construct a celebration of Australian-ness, while pretending to honour WWI dead and the day has wandered up and down in national consciousness ever since. But even with the benefit of some distance I can’t fully understand how ANZAC Day got to the bogans on the beach stage (luckily impossible this year) it has currently achieved since Jeff Kennett seemingly sparked its post-Vietnam War revival. As a pacifist I have maintained a lingering liking for Remembrance Day but the celebration of ANZAC Day has long since left me behind.

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  2. Interesting post, Bill, with a lot of ideas to cogitate. I particularly like your reflections on the War Memorial. It is a thorn in the side of Canberra’s cultural institutions because of the special funding treatment it regularly receives from the government, and, as you say, the difficulty in shifting its emphases. It’s good though that the issue is talked about – as was the issue of indigenous representation at the National Museum of Australia. Fortunately there the “good” side won, and indigenous lives, history and culture are a significant part of what NMA does. We need these healthy debates to (try to) keep our cultural institutions honest.

    I liked Kate’s comment re the slippery slope from “commemoration” to “celebration”. It’s interesting how that has happened with funerals to many now being described as “A celebration of the life of …” I actually don’t mind that in some circumstances eg for my MIL’s funeral. Dying at 97 meant to me that she did have a life to celebrate, but her daughter was having none of it! OK, so I’ve gone way off topic now. It’s Kate’s fault!!

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    • I don’t mind celebrating a life, though I have been to astonishingly few funerals, and I wouldn’t mind ‘celebrating’ the life, or at least the legend, of Simpson and his donkey. It always used to please me that ordinary Australians used the colours green and yellow to represent their country when our flag was red, white and blue, sang Waltzing Matilda instead of that Girt by Sea thing, and our national hero was a stretcher bearer. But those days are long past, sigh…. Now even truck parking bays are named after soldiers.

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      • You are lucky Bill to not have been to many funerals. I feel I’ve been to quite a lot, but maybe it depends on what we think is “a lot”!

        I agree with you re the over-focus on war heroes. You are right about truck parking bays. I think we have some in Canberra named after military people.


    • Oh, I’ve been to nearly double that, I’d say, since turning 30, including two for which I was the “celebrant” (is that what you call it at a funeral) – for my uncle and my mother-in-law.


  3. Unfortunately I didn’t learn a thing about the Frontier Wars in school and it’s only as an adult through my own research and through reading books like Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior that I came to learn about Aboriginal resistance to colonisation. I think it’s an excellent point about the War Memorial, and it receives so much funding, it would be something to see at least some of that going towards recognising the Frontier Wars. The argument that neither side were “Australian” seems weak considering technically there was no “Australia” at the beginning of the Boer War


    • I enjoy doing research driven posts, which makes me ponder your answer to Karen (Booker Talk) this morning and wonder how often my approach is outside your comfort zone. But I think we all have different approaches and if we sometimes have to skip-read to get to the bits we engage with, then that is probably as close to ideal as we’re going to get.


    • Thanks Liz. Australians hear all this stuff but refuse to internalise it, so I’ll just keep banging on. I wrote about the Black Line once before, in my review of Robert Drewe’s The Savage Crows, but it has taken me two days to realise I forgot to mention it or give a link.

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  4. I didn’t know anything about this day in Australia, though I’m not surprised; I don’t remember studying anything about Australia in my entire education (and wow, typing that makes me feel like an asshole). One thing that I appreciate about social justice activists in the U.S. is how they question what we celebrate vs. what we remember. Columbus Day is getting loads of flack in the last several years, whereas we used to graciously accept our day off and lay on the couch. But should we be so complacent with history? The answer is no.


    • Don’t feel like an asshole. Australians (of my generation anyway) learnt very little at school about the US, about anywhere except England really. Australians are now questioning Australia Day (26 Jan) which celebrates the ‘founding’ of Australia – actually the day the first white settlers moved to present-day Sydney, and which of course as far as the Indigenous inhabitants are concerned, like Columbus Day, is a celebration of white Invasion; and Anzac Day (25 Apr), which celebrates the first action by the Australian Army and which is increasingly being taken over by over-the-top nationalism.

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