Chris Kenny, in a recent article for the Australian, commented on the sobering truth about Australian history:
“Increasingly, reality does not matter so much in public debate as the narrative.”
This has certainly been the case with Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, which has recently been found out for sourcing incorrect material and fabricating information to present a Eurocentric noble savage account of aboriginal history.
By rejecting truth and presenting aboriginal history as a narrative of good and evil, historians have gained political power as the saviours of an entire people group. Some such as historian Lyndall Ryan in her recent book, Passionate Histories, have argued in a chapter titled, ‘Hard Evidence’, that academics who focus on primary sources,
“Reflect the reluctance of many white Australians even today, to come to terms with incontrovertible evidence about our violent past and to seek reconciliation with Aboriginal survivors.”1
The evidence she provides should therefore be discounted by her own standards. In order to gain power in a politicised history, she makes the assumption that academics who search for hard evidence do not want reconciliation with aboriginals.
This sinister political game has played out in the history of the Black Line. This period of time is arguably the most infamous event in Tasmanian, if not all of Australian history. By most accounts, it expressed the colonial intent to exterminate the Aboriginal population by sending a line of colonial soldiers across Tasmania.
Historian Henry Reynolds writes in An Indelible Stain? The Question of Genocide in Australia’s History, that this action by the British government was tantamount to ‘ethnic cleansing’.2 Others such as anthropologist David Davies in The Last Tasmanians claims the Black Line played a major role in the extermination of the Aborigines.3
But what actually happened? What historical evidence is there? What follows are ten facts from Keith Windschuttle’s book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, that answer these questions by looking at the available ‘hard evidence’.4 Only by looking at the truth can we begin to achieve true reconciliation.
The Black Line did not Target all Aboriginals
The Black Line only targeted two violent tribes. In order to end the hostilities between these tribes and white settlers, Governor Arthur drew up a plan for the Black Line which focused on two groups: the Oyster Bay and Big River tribes. His goal was to put them into a safe reserve in the northern part of the Island away from settlers, to practise their traditional way of living. As Windschuttle writes:
There was no intention to treat the Aborigines as Bosnians and Kosovars were treated in the 1990s, and to kill them because of their race or religion. Even those to be removed from the settled districts were targeted not because of their race, but because of their violence. Other members of the same racial group deemed to be less hostile were not to be touched.5
Windschuttle also notes that, “the great majority of the white victims of the Aborigines were unarmed and 10 per cent of them were white women and children”.6 Hence, the Black Line did not target the entire population, but two groups that were plundering and attacking the white settlers for their British goods.
The Noble Intentions of Governor Arthur
The intentions of Governor Arthur are the keystone for historians arguing the Black Line was tantamount to ‘ethnic cleansing’. Even though his 1828 declaration of martial law in the settled districts still remained in force, up to mid-August 1830, Arthur wanted to promote reconciliation and harmony between settlers and Aboriginals. Windschuttle notes that on August 19, 1830 Arthur issued a notice saying:
His Excellency earnestly requests that all settlers and others will strictly enjoin their servants cautiously to abstain from acts of aggression against these benighted beings, and that they will themselves personally endeavour to conciliate them wherever it may be practicable: and whenever the Aborigines appear without evincing a hostile feeling, that no attempt shall be made either to capture or restrain them, but, on the contrary, being fed and kindly treated, that they shall be suffered to depart whenever they desire it.7
Fears of ‘Aboriginal Extirpation’
Based on this evidence, historians Henry Reynolds and Sharen Morgan in Land Settlement in Early Tasmania have claimed the Line was implemented to save the colony. After quoting from a speech Arthur gave to parliament, they claim his main fear was the extirpation of the colony. The truth of the matter is quite the opposite, as what Arthur actually feared was ‘the extirpation of the aboriginal race’.
“It was evident that nothing but capturing and forcibly detaining these unfortunate savages, until they, or at least their children, should be raised from their original rude barbarism to a more domestic state, could now arrest a long term of rapine and bloodshed, already commenced, a great decline in the prosperity of the colony, and the extirpation of the aboriginal race itself.”8
In other words, Arthur was worried the hostilities would escalate beyond control and the settlers would retaliate with indiscriminate violence. He was worried not about the survival of white settlers, but the aboriginals themselves. Hence, the Black Line was a program to save the Aboriginals from further conflict, not a program to exterminate them based on racial grouping.
The Line was Not One, but Many
Contrary to popular belief, the Black Line was not a singular line that walked across Tasmania. In the first weeks, the line was 120 miles long, with an average of one man per every 100 yards. Windschuttle notes the terrain was at times so difficult, the line could barely remain in formation. There were reports of impenetrable woods and unclimbable hills where men simply walked in single file on the main roads.
By the 24th of October, it was only thirty miles wide. Indeed, the starting line was a V-shaped broken line that used three separate groups to meet targets, that never ventured into Upper Northern Tasmania.9
As seen by the photo above, the Line targeted the areas of the Big River and Oyster Bay Tribe, and was largely unsuccessful in capturing these groups in the rugged Tasmanian terrain.
Legal Penalties were Identical for White Settlers and Aborigines
Lieutenant-Governor Arthur in 1828 gave a proclamation to the Aborigines. Painted boards were placed on trees and frequently travelled areas for aboriginals to see. The signs were a proclamation that the government intended to treat both black and white people alike.
Windschuttle traces this egalitarian commitment to human rights with the evangelical enlightenment sentiments at the time. What is even more striking is the panel at the top, which shows mixed race men and women holding children of the opposite skin colour. What was once a legal proclamation is a today a powerful picture of reconciliation.
The Black Line’s Death Toll
Several weeks before the Line dispersed, former Soldier Edward Walpole discovered a group of forty to fifty aboriginals from the Oyster Bay and Big River tribe. In the ensuing fight to relocate the now combined tribes, two were captured and two others were shot during the fighting.
Besides these two deaths, the only other death associated with the line was on October 18th by William Gangell, who killed one man during an attack on his home from eight aboriginals. This attack took place behind the line, and left both William and his son injured while still being able to spear one attacker with a pitchfork.10
Apart from this, no other men in the line came across any bodies, and no wounded casualties were left to die and kill their children. After summarising these events, Windschuttle notes this falsification comes from anthropologist David Davies, who plagiarises several pages of James Bonwick’s The Last Tasmanians, each providing no references for their claims.11
Australian historian Lyndall Ryan argues three other Aborigines were killed in the midlands during October, partly because of the Black Line.12 She claims a group of around twenty Aborigines from the Ben Lomond, Great Swan Port and Stoney Creek clans, led by the Oyster Bay chief Mannalargenna, encountered a military party who shot three of them dead. The sources Ryan uses are two letters from Major William Gray to Arthur, written on 19 and 24 October.13 Importantly, Windschuttle notes,
These letters, however, do not mention the chief Mannalargenna or any of the events Ryan describes. Instead, they are about a small group of Aborigines headed by a chief called Limogana, who lodged for a short time at John Batman’s house near Ben Lomond…
In another letter on 1 November, Gray told how this band met a group of constables sent from Campbell Town to apprehend them. In the ensuing fight, two constables were wounded by spears and two Aborigines, one of whom was Limogana, were shot dead. This affray took place in the north-east of the island… six days after Arthur’s main procession had reached Sorell in the south. So, these two deaths cannot be attributed to the Black Line.14
The idea the Black Line left a trail of death is a falsified myth based on sources that do not exist or sources that do not relate to the Black Line. The most accurate death toll was three.15
Land Rights and Ownership in 1830
During the Black Line, Australia was under international law. In the face of political absenteeism and the lack of permanent residents, the British acted within their rights to occupy Tasmanian land. Nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes spanning across vast areas of uncultivated land did not grow crops, and therefore was understood to not legally possess the Land.
Indeed, there were no chiefs or alliances that inhabited the Land for the British to trade with. Anthropologist A. P. Elkin makes the following observation in his journal devoted to the study of aboriginal culture titled Elements of Australian Aboriginal Philosophy:
A more significant aspect is that they belonged to their “country” — that it owned them; it knew them and gave them sustenance and life. Their spirits had pre-existed in it — in the Dreaming. Therefore, no other “country”, never mind how fertile, could be their country.15
Ironically, when activists and historians claim the land was stolen from the aboriginals, they are injecting a Eurocentric view of land. Aboriginal culture had no concept of land ownership, but instead the Land (Capital ‘L’ as it was a spiritual entity) owned them. Windschuttle goes onto note:
Significantly, not one of the colonial sympathisers ever cited a comment by the Aborigines themselves about their views on the subject… It is telling that in all these native accounts of inter-tribal hostilities, some of which took hours to narrate, there is not one reference to trespass as a cause of conflict.
There are no statements of the kind: ‘we fought them because they came onto our territory’, or any variants thereof. This absence is itself strong evidence that the culture of the Tasmanian Aborigines did not have such a concept.16
The Influence of Christian Evangelicalism
Governor Arthur was a product of the intellectual and cultural values of his time. He brought the evangelical attitudes which ended the slave trade to his colonies, which believed God made all peoples both primitive and civilised equal before the Creator.
By 1833, Evangelicals had not only abolished the transportation of slaves (1807), but had made slave ownership throughout the empire illegal. Evangelicalism became the driving social and political determinate in Tasmania and throughout Australia. Arthur himself wrote in 1822:
“If I have exceeded my authority, I rest my excuse on the great necessity of doing justice to the Indian.”17
On reports of stolen children and aboriginal mistreatment, officials expressed their “utter indignation and abhorrence” and punished settlers from lashings to executions.18 These Christian influences were the backbone of early Australian society and characterised the good-natured attempts at reconciliation towards aboriginal peoples.
The Spanish ‘Black Legend’
The settlers did not just inhabit a Christian milieu, but an imperial one. John Locke’s writings on the eve of the revolution on conquest were not just mental concepts that Englishmen thought of.19 They were practical arguments with real implications, by harmonious actions towards indigenous people. This was in reaction to the Spanish in South America, who had a different reputation. As Windschuttle argues,
Ever since the Spanish Armada of 1588, English Protestants had been nourished on a steady diet of anti-Spanish stories designed to show that the adherents of the Roman Catholic Church were capable of any cruelty.
What became known as the ‘Black Legend’ began with stories about Catholic atrocities perpetrated on the Dutch Protestants during their revolt against the Spanish crown. The legend became firmly entrenched when stories emerged about the treatment of the natives in the Spanish colonies of the Americas…
Written in 1542, Las Casas’s Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies became a frequent point of referral for the officials of the British Empire until the late nineteenth century.20
Destruction and extermination were the very things the British were fighting against, and the ‘Black Legend’ served as a template to model their Enlightenment and Evangelical attitudes towards foreign peoples.
The Decline of the Aboriginal Population
The question remains, how did their population decline? Firstly, it is important to note how many estimated aboriginals were living in Tasmania at the time. Windschuttle uses the work of James Backhouse Walker in 1898,21 who made the first attempt to use ethnographic evidence to analyse aboriginal tribes and locations. According to the average band size and population densities at the time of British arrival, the population was less than 2000.22
If the population was under 2000, how many were killed by white settlers?23 Windschuttle’s account systematically goes through every massacre and killing documented during the time period. He accounts for a total of 118 aboriginal people killed by white settlers. These were not just acts of aggression, but the majority occurred while settlers protected their homes from raids and robberies. Windschuttle notes,
“From 1803 to 1831, they average just four deaths a year, which, in the history of imperialism, must surely rank as just about the lowest rate of violent death ever meted out to indigenous inhabitants anywhere”.24
On top of this, the Tasmanians were the most primitive society ever discovered at the time. One measure of this was their technology. The men hunted with wooden spears and clubs. The women used wooden digging sticks to uproot plants and used wooden chisels to prise shellfish.
For shelter, they stacked branches and bark to make temporary domed huts, but usually slept in the open. Settlers described abandoned campsites with rotten animal carcases and faeces around the campfire where they slept.
Their most advanced technologies ranged from woven grass bags and ropes. To get warm, they used fires and animal fat at night, and could not boil water until the British brought containers.25
Treatment of Women
However, the most vulnerable aspect of their society was their treatment of women. French anthropologist Francois Péron said of one group:
“They were nearly all covered with scars, the miserable results of the bad treatment of their brutal husbands.”26
George Augustus Robinson documented the courtship practice of Aboriginal men stabbing their future wife with sharp sticks and cutting them with knives.27 In 1820, Lieutenant Charles Jeffreys wrote:
“The women are known sometimes to run away from that state of bondage and oppression to which they say their husbands subject them… they find their situation greatly improved by attaching themselves to the (British) sealing gangs.”28
Aboriginal society placed no constraints on prostitution, as it was common for convict stockmen to bribe Aboriginal men with sugar to gain sexual favours. Some would offer their wives for bread.29 Windschuttle concludes,
The real tragedy of the Aborigines was not British colonisation per se, but that their society was, on the one hand, so internally dysfunctional and, on the other hand, so incompatible with the looming presence of the rest of the world.
Until the nineteenth century, their isolation had left them without comparisons with other cultures that might have helped them reform their ways…
Hence it was not surprising that when the British arrived, this small, precarious society quickly collapsed under the dual weight of the susceptibility of its members to disease and the abuse and neglect of its women.30
One of the most significant depopulation effects were from respiratory diseases, particularly influenza and pneumonia. George Robinson observed this everywhere he went:
“The aborigines of this colony are universally susceptible of cold, and that unless the utmost providence is taken in checking its progress at an early period, it fixes itself on the lungs and gradually assumes the complaint spoken of, i.e. the catarrhal fever.”31
He found much the same pattern on both the west coasts. In September 1832, Robinson reported:
The number of aborigines along the western coast have been considerably reduced since the time of my first visit. A mortality has raged amongst them, which together with the severity of the season and other causes had rendered the paucity of their number very considerable.32
This outbreak of disease brought in from white settlers was characteristic of the island’s history, and was not just part of isolated events. Windschuttle provides a brief survey of each documented outbreak:
Twenty-three people died from June to August 1833. Seventeen died in six months from January to June 1836. Another thirteen died from January to March 1837. In February 1839 after two supply ships, the Tamar and the Vansittart, brought a new influenza infection to the island, eight of the Aborigines quickly died in the ensuing epidemic.
The reports of the post-mortems routinely conducted on those who died at Wybalenna revealed symptoms consistent with viral respiratory infection, particularly influenza and pneumonia, followed by a bacterial disease of pyemic nature.33
Windschuttle makes the final point:
In Fate of a Free People, Henry Reynolds urges us not to underestimate the ability of the Aborigines. They did not lack control over their own fate, he argues, and we should not see them as helpless victims of the invaders. This is a valid point. But it also means we should see them as active agents in their own demise, because their men hired out and sold off their women without seriously contemplating the results.34
What Windschuttle — and to some extent Reynolds — argues is that individuals have responsibility for their own actions. The evils of the past cannot be blamed on anyone other than those that perpetrated them.
In the end, British officials like Governor Arthur did everything in their power to protect Tasmanian aboriginals from white settlers due to their evangelical convictions.
Despite historians who have re-written the past, the real reason the Tasmanian aboriginal population declined was due to both aboriginal culture and disease immunity at the time due to their geographical isolation.
All of this is not to say that there are not many serious and significant issues facing indigenous communities, or that they haven’t experienced injustice in the past. But ultimately, reconciliation starts with telling the truth about our history.
Some academics try to politicise history and avoid ‘hard evidence’ as an excuse to gain power. These activists thrive off the lie that aboriginal people and modern-day Australians cannot co-exist. Every Australian wants reconciliation. But it will never be achieved if we allow the truth to be concealed.
- Lyndall Ryan, “‘Hard Evidence’: the Debate about Massacre in the Black War in Tasmania.” Passionate Histories: Myth, Memory and Indigenous Australia, edited by Frances Peters-Little et al., vol. 21, ANU Press, 2010, p. 39.
- Henry Reynolds, An Indelible Stain? The Question of Genocide in Australia’s History, Viking, Ringwood, 2001, p. 76.
- David Davies, The Last of the Tasmanians, Shakespeare Head Press, Sydney, 1973, pp. 123, 126.
- Keith Windschuttle, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. Vol. 1, Van Diemen’s Land 1803-1847. Sydney: Macleay Press, 2002.
- Windschuttle, ibid., p. 173.
- Windschuttle, ibid., p. 130.
- Government Notice, No. 160, 19 August 1830, British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies, Australia, 4, p. 233.
- Arthur, Memorandum, Sorell Camp, 20 November 1830, British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies, Australia, 4, p. 244.
- Windschuttle, op. cit., p. 174.
- List of articles plundered etc, AOT CSO 1/316/7578, p. 676;
Gordon to Arthur, 19 October 1830, AOT CSO 1/316/7578, p. 681;
Hobart Town Courier, 20 November 1830, p. 2.
- Davies, pp. 130-132, with Bonwick, pp. 177-180.
- Lyndall Ryan, The Aboriginal Tasmanians, 2nd ed. Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1996, pp. 149, 159 n. 4.
- AOT CSO 1/316/7578, pp. 684-701, 714-7. AOT CSO 1/316/7578, pp 712-3; Hobart Town Courier, 16 October 1830, p. 2 and 13 November 1830, p. 2: Robinson, journal, 15 November 1830, in Plomley, Friendly Mission, pp. 276-277; and J. E. Calder, Some Account of the Wars, Extirpation, Habits etc. of the Native Tribes of Tasmania, Henn and Co, Hobart, 1875, p. 102.
- Windschuttle, op. cit., p. 176.
- A. P. Elkin, “Elements of Australian Aboriginal Philosophy.” Oceania, vol. 40, no. 2, 1969, p. 96.
- Windschuttle, op. cit., pp. 104, 109.
- Sir George Arthur Shaw, pp. 50-53, in A History of Tasmania, Vol 1, p. 137.
- Report of the Aborigines Committee, 1830, British Parliamentary Papers, 4, p. 208.
- John Locke, ‘Of Conquest’, Second Treatise of Government, paragraph 175 in Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett, Mentor, New York, 1965, p. 431.
Also see John Locke, ‘Of Property’, Second Treatise of Government, paragraph 27 in Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett, Mentor, New York, 1965, p. 329.
- Windschuttle, op. cit., p. 186.
- James Backhouse Walker, ‘Some notes on the tribal divisions of the Aborigines of Tasmania’, in Early Tasmania: Papers Read Before the Royal Society of Tasmania 1888-1898, Government Printer, Hobart, 1950 ed., pp. 269, 278.
- Also see Ling Roth, a scholarly nineteenth-century investigator of the subject; James Walker was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Tasmania 1898-99; Peter Benson Walker, All That We Inherit: The Walkers in Van Diemen’s Land, J. Walch and Sons, picture in Hobart 1968, pp. 75-81. Taken from Windschuttle, op. cit., p. 367.
- Windschuttle, ibid., p. 397.
- Windschuttle, ibid., p. 362.
- Windschuttle, ibid., p. 377.
- François Péron and Louis Freycinet, Voyage de Découvertes aux Terres Australes… le Géographe, et le Casuarina, 2 vols., Paris, 1807-1816, cited by Roth, Aborigines of Tasmania, p. 113.
- Robinson, diary, 19 and 20 November 1830, N. J. B. Plomley (ed.), Friendly Mission: The Tasmanian Journals and Papers of George Augustus Robinson, Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Hobart, 1996, p. 280.
- Charles Jeffreys, Van Diemen’s Land: Geographical and Descriptive Delineation of the Island of Van Diemen’s Land, London, 1820, pp 118-9, cited by Roth, Aborigines of Tasmania, pp. 114-115.
- Windschuttle, op. cit., p. 385.
- Windschuttle, ibid., p. 386.
- Robinson, note with letter, Maclachlan to Colonial Secretary, 24 May 1831, Friendly Mission, pp. 461-462.
- Robinson to Curr, 22 September 1832, cited Friendly Mission, p. 695 n. 113.
- Windschuttle, op. cit., p. 374.
- Windschuttle, ibid., p. 386.