Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The Black War

The Black War: Fear, Sex and Resistance in Tasmania by Nicholas Clementsclements-the-black-war

The Black War is the name given to the conflict between the indigenous population of Tasmania and their conflict with the European settlers. It ran from around 1824 to 1831 and represents both the largest military operation on Australian soil and a brutal guerrilla conflict. It also featured fear, lust, paranoia and despair on both sides.

The most striking feature of this book is that every chapter is equally divided between telling the story of Whites and Blacks. This clever device allows Clements’ to explore, explain and ultimately sympathise with both sides.

Lest anyone be confused, or willing to believe indulgent lies, the moral scales are heavily weighted in one direction. The Tasmanian aborigines lived for 33’000 years on this remote island, yet survived barely 30 more after white colonialists arrived. They faced not only the destruction of their lives, but also their cultures, their way of life. The final years must have been as miserable as any people have lived, in the face of a relentless and ever strengthening opponent.

Worse, the lawless men operating off the Northwest coast hunting seals effectively established a slave society. They —like others across the island—kidnapped aboriginal women for sex. These women were then forced into bondage to serve, and killed when no longer useful. Hundreds of women suffered in this fashion over many years. Clements’ chapter on this vile period is as grim and sorrowful an incident in Australian history as I have ever encountered.

Yet a true picture of this conflict requires an understanding that the indigenous population must not be viewed through crude stereotypes of noble savages with a nature-infused purity. There were misogynistic and brutal elements of the indigenous culture. The Black War was a real war and the white population —many of whom were forced to be there as convicts or as very poor settlers— lived for many years in real terror.

The aborigines launched regular raids on isolated farms and travellers, indiscriminately killing men, women and children. Their deaths were not quick or clean, with clear evidence of brutality and even torture. As art and oral histories from the time reveal, many farms became virtual castles, with high walls and other defences installed. While the men would go out to work, constantly watching their backs, the women would stay home and nervously scan the walls for signs of movement.

Clements argues that it is only by understanding this fear that the actions of the white population can truly be understood. He counters the arguments of Robert Hughes and some on the left who have described Tasmania as a site of ‘genocide’. In Clements’ view there was neither the ideology or systematic application of violence to justify this label. Yet contra the absurdities of Keith Windschuttle and others, the record of brutality and ultimate extermination of the indigenous population by the white colonial population is clear.

This is a book born of and during the so-called ‘History Wars’, a context the author is very aware of. Despite being the PhD student of one of the key players Henry Reynolds —who also pens the foreword— Clements has written a text that challenges the claims of both sides. His careful scholarship and efforts at balance should in an ideal world help move the national discussion beyond the otherwise superficial back and forth that have thus far defined Australia’s discussion of its colonial history.

Along the way, Clements tells the story of Australia’s most significant indigenous war. The Black War was a true war in the sense of clear sides engaged in a violent struggle for ultimately incompatible political ends —to live on Van Diemen’s land without the other. Fascinatingly, Clements suggests that some of the indigenous population saw white settlers not as other humans, but as returned and evil spirits. The growing size of their population and fearful new weapons can only have added to this perception of an other-worldly threat.

The Black War may be unique in human history for its solar rhythm. The indigenous population only launched attacks during the day. The colonials almost only during the night. The reasons for this are obvious. During the day, the superior knowledge and skills of the aborigines allowed them to evade capture or detection. Their only vulnerability was at night as they slept and their camp fires —necessary for warmth in Tasmania’s often wet and cold climate— gave away their location.

The Black War also features the largest military operation on Australian soil. The Black Line was a foolish and misguided effort to have white convicts and soldiers link arms and draw a human line across the island. The idea was to pen in, capture and kill as many aborigines as they could find. Yet almost none were detected by the thousands involved, and after two embarrassing months of failure and growing misery for those stuck out in the bush, it was abandoned.

While many of the colonial strategies were absurd, the colonial structure and shackled convict population gave the white population an advantage their opponents did not have. Due to the divided nature of aboriginal society their actions never rose above the level of tactics. Tribes rarely cooperated against their common enemy and some betrayed rival tribes for the spoils of war.

There’s no single ‘lesson’ that can be drawn from this conflict. Knowing this history won’t suddenly help Australia solve the immense problems confronting its contemporary indigenous population. But we’d be a closer to a resolution if more of us, as citizens and commentators could emulate Clements’ efforts to genuinely understand and empathise with all involved in conflict.

Except the slave-owning seal hunters off the North-West cape. Fuck those guys

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