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)