Tasmanian gothic

by Greg Lehman

SOME DARK SECRETS run so deep that they slip from view. The hole left in our collective conscience is gradually plugged, with shallow distractions and awkward half-truths. Questions, if uttered, pass unheard. An uneasy and enduring silence prevails.

So it has been in Tasmania since the end of our war. This was the first and only properly declared war fought by the British on Australian soil. Initiated by Governor George Arthur on 1 November 1828, it was waged against an enemy once dismissed as a meagre scattering of 'savage crows'. But the first Tasmanians were an enemy so committed to driving the settlers from their ancestral lands that neither ad hoc massacres on a lawless frontier, nor the ravages of disease that swept ahead of muskets and poisoned flour seemed capable of quelling their determination. As their numbers fell, Aboriginal resolve seemed to increase. They simply could not give up their land.

This is a story about the consequences of such resolve and the marks it has left on the history and identity of today's Tasmanians. It is about an intriguing painting that sits uncomfortably alongside the more familiar icons of Australia's island state; offering a rare insight to why Tasmania, of all the states of Australia, should be a place with an unsettling gothic thrall.

 

I WRITE THIS in an attic room in a small, crooked, medieval building once used by the blacksmiths of Colmar in the heart of Alsace. French explorers arrived on the shores of Tasmania in 1772. The officers and artists of this and later expeditions gave the world its first descriptions of the people of Tasmania. I have come to France to see these illustrations, and to view a collection of busts of Tasmanian Aborigines at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle. These were made by the phrenologist Pierre Dumoutier after he visited Hobart on board the Astrolabe in 1838. Among the subjects was my ancestor, Mannalargenna – a leader of the Tasmanian resistance. I want to understand how French and British artists played a part in the introduction of European ideas to the Tasmanian colony, and how they formed a lens through which the world still sees Tasmanian Aboriginal culture. I have spent nearly thirty years seeking solutions to the injustice that persists for the Aboriginal community in Tasmania. My focus set on the return of land as the only remedy, I had played my part in convincing governments to vest title to land and control of heritage places as a way of re-empowering my people. Yet, for all of this, I had seen little change. Attitudes in Tasmania remained unaffected by what seemed pyrrhic victories. The Aboriginal community remained alienated from contemporary Tasmanian society, which in turn resisted the facts of the bloody history that we shared.

Throughout this time a realisation had slowly built. These were not simple prejudices, they grew out of penetrating mythologies, rooted in the oldest and most profound of themes; cultures in collision and the inexorable triumph of power. To confront such a behemoth, I must journey to its origins. It would not be enough to simply document the instincts that drive it. I must find the ancient nerves through which the historical impulse for war has flowed.

No matter what my views might be of the injustice of British colonisation or the remedies required, I had begun to understand that the war that unfolded in Tasmania was part of a grander scheme of events, which had enveloped Europe for millennia. To grasp the enduring implications of this war, I needed to visit its source. My thesis: that a hand guided by this legacy held every pen and wielded every musket used in the campaign against the First Tasmanians. The greatest impact on the world of my Aboriginal ancestors was to be caught in the grip of this. While the nations of Tasmania had lived in splendid isolation on their island for millennia, the invaders had already survived an eternity of war.

 

I HAD ARRIVED in Paris on the eve of Les Journées Européennes du Patrimoine; part of the annual Europe-wide festival of heritage. Descending into the crypt beneath the square at Notre Dame, I was reminded that this was not the meagre two-hundred-year span so entrenched in white Australian culture. Here, the city's original, crumbling foundations were cut into the chalky banks of the Seine. They tell the story of a fortress island that has resisted siege and destruction for two millenia. Not far from there, at the Musée de Cluny, I stood before a hundred decapitated heads – from statues of saints, kings and bishops – their noses smashed by invading hordes. The city has been overrun countless times and its inhabitants' tenacious response was to rebuild with the same regularity. In this way, the city was carved as a necessary stage upon which each of Western Europe's great empires would stride.

France was the birthplace of the Crusades. Many of the great cathedrals of Europe were funded from raids on Muslim emirs. It was clear to me from the stony, staring eyes of a thousand popes, kings and bishops adorning the cathedrals of Paris, Reims and Strasbourg that those who led these campaigns for the liberation of the Holy Land in the name of 'Just War' had forged the inspiration for later Christian domination of broader realms.

Colmar, situated midway between the capital Strasbourg and the city of Mulhouse near the Swiss and German borders, has had its share of warfare. Founded in the ninth century as part of the Frankish Realm, the city lies between the high forests of the Vosges to the east and the steady flow of the Rhine to the west. This broad and fertile valley has witnessed a succession of human invasion. The Romans had established a garrison in Strasbourg to the north by 12 BC and held onto power for four centuries until overrun by the Alemanni early in the fifth century. Ruined castles, overgrown by forest, top the highest hills, each presiding over its accompanying village – the medieval can still be seen. Each crumbling fortification brings to mind the Bishop d'Cluny, his knights dispatched on bloody campaigns, their horses pounding roads paved by long-retreated Roman armies of a thousand years before.

The valley would be conquered by the Huns, Franks and Swedes. It would form a battleground for the Austrians and Brandenburgs and be held by both French and Germans. Colmar would witness massacres by the Catholics of St Bartholomew, Jewish pogroms and then be torn apart as a savage battlefront of the Great War. Despite the appearance of peace and tranquility created by picturesque abbeys and vineyards, the earth had been trodden flat by an endless succession of marching armies.

Yet, however traumatic this period might have been, it is only the tip of an iceberg of human conflict. The region's history before 100 BC is the realm of legend and folktale, and of prehistory. Species of human had existed in Europe for at least 60,000 years before this. We Homo sapiens were able to spread west from our stronghold in Central Asia only after overcoming the presence of Homo neanderthalensis in fertile valleys like this. Modern humans had arrived on the Australian continent at least 10,000 years before. Such early arrival in Australia must, at least in part, have been a measure of the time it had taken for our species to secure their first invasion of Europe and conclude a much earlier, unrecorded war of dominance against a truly primitive foe.

 

THIS WAS NOT the first journey I had taken to make sense of my cultural identity. To be Aboriginal is to exist in the country of a thousand generations of ancestors. I have grounded thirty years of political activism with an appetite to thoroughly know the island on which I had been born. Stretches of the remote southwest coastline, where the wildness has been undisturbed by the sound of children's games and sacred song for more than three lifetimes; flooding caves holding outlines of long dead hands, stencilled in blood and ochre far beyond the reach of daylight. I have walked on layers of wallaby bones and charcoal, left by hunters returning from days spent skirting the margins of Ice Age glaciers; drawing meagre sustenance from cold, desolate tundra where lush rainforest now grows.

In the Tarkine country north of the Pieman River, cattle are driven along ancient native roads, across vast dune fields to forage on storm-strewn kelp. Their hooves trample graves in which shell necklaces have encircled resting bones since before Christian time. Among tall coastal middens, the scattered boulders are sand-blasted smooth; the faintest of circles just survive to mark the work of unknown hands in distant creation times. This is the country where legends tell of the first man, made by star spirits from a kangaroo – given knee joints so he could sit down – creating a new home for the most southerly people on the planet.

In all of these Tasmanian travels I have found sadness in lonely places that were emptied of the living – warriors, healers, story-tellers, dancers, fathers, matriarchs, infants – cleansed from their country so that settlers could take up land grants and enjoy a promised peace. The 'Old People' exist now as the ghosts of a distant past. These journeys had given me a sense of connectedness and belonging, albeit carved from colonial havoc. The rivers and valleys, bays and inlets are all vibrant places; inured with countless generations of living. I have names and stories for each. Colonial records hold reports of my ancestors; the words that they spoke on a certain day dance in my imagination with sketches and photographs left behind as the gentler artefacts of occupation.

Each journey has been a tortured one, drenched with an abiding absence that could be sensed, felt, heard. Where the songs of women praising the harvest should have rung through the tea-tree glades, there is only the plaintive, piping call of a Firetail finch. Instead of the boom of drums around a late night bonfire, only the soft thud of a wallaby, startled in the gloom. Sea eagles soar in still airs that should be streaked with the smoke of a dozen campfires. In Tasmania, an empty wilderness was created, not found – a dark, unknown land where the wind whispers secrets too frightening to hear.

 

THE STORY OF Tasmania's war is not part of the state's ever-changing tourist brand. It is the one truth that can never be uttered – the source of an ancestral curse. There is a terrible history lurking beneath the surface of the island's placid lakes. It stalks the shadows of each rainforest glade and casts a disquieting hue across the lurid vistas of wilderness upon which our fame is built. Tasmania's history is one of shameless deception that outraged even the citizens of the day. When the war was won a veil was drawn and a chapter closed. Saint and sinner could join in sombre lament. With inevitable necessity the Native threat had been banished.

To live in Tasmania today is to exist in the eye of a quiet, relentless storm. The island, politically and aesthetically, is a quintessential green. It is a destination of choice for Australians seeking an escape from the clutter of urban life. The cleanest of air and mildest of climates bestows on its small population a gourmet life; where fine wine and culinary delights accompany a thriving culture of literary and visual arts. These reassure both visitor and resident alike that, of all the places in the world, this must be closest to heaven.

From its meagre beginnings in 1803, the colony of Van Diemen's Land seemed destined to be a precious jewel in the colonial crown of Britain. With an end to convict transportation in 1853, the colony seemed set to flourish. But for two centuries, just out of sight, the island has harboured a dark and unresolved history.

It was within a year of the first European settlement that the die had been cast and the fledgling colony took its first confused steps toward conflict with the Tasmanian Aboriginal nations whose land it was to over-run. On 3 May 1804, the British at Risdon Cove had their first encounter with a large group of Aborigines. According to Henry Reynolds, the group, which included women and children, was 'probably on a hunting expedition'. Frightened soldiers (some say drunk) fired on them in the commanding officer's absence. Estimates made at the time of the carnage ranged as high as fifty killed.

In the coming decades, as the number of livestock grew, settlers demanded more land; inevitably increasing the number of destructive encounters with Aboriginal tribes. This culminated in Governor George Arthur issuing a series of proclamations placing the colony under martial law and calling for Aborigines to be expelled by force from the settled districts 'by whatever means a severe and inevitable necessity may dictate'. James Boyce argues that the popular interpretation and overall effect of these proclamations was to provide legal immunity and state sanction for the killing of Aborigines wherever they could be found. The resulting slaughter became known as the Black War.

This unfolding mayhem soon came to the attention of Sir George Murray, Secretary of State for the Colonies. He expressed his fears to Arthur that '…the whole race…may, at no distant period become extinct. Any line of conduct, having for its avowed, or for its secret object, the extinction of the Native race, could not fail to leave an indelible stain upon the character of the British Government.'

That the annihilation of a people was pursued as a popular, if unofficial objective in Tasmania is undeniable. In 1830, a Gilbert Robertson reported to the Aborigines Committee, which had been set up to report on the crisis, that 'a party of constables and some of the 40th Regiment [killed] 70 [Aborigines] by firing all their ammunition upon them, and then dragging the women and children from the crevices in the rocks, and dashing out their brains.' Many similar massacres were being reported at the time, yet the Governor took no action to punish those responsible. Instead, his response was to seek a more palatable solution. He set up a series of camps on off-shore islands, where nearly three hundred survivors of the war would be transferred and kept in permanent detention.

The thought of an ethnic cleansing in Tasmania fatally challenges the notion of an 'Australia fair'. This might be Tasmania's darkest secret, but it is also the least-kept. Raphael Lemkin, the Jewish scholar who first coined the term 'genocide' in 1943, referred to Tasmania as a textbook example. The subject remains a disputed one. Henry Reynolds has long held that the term should not be applied in Tasmania. Yet, the tolerance of active killing, forced exile and permanent detention are all consequences of Tasmanian policies between 1828 and 1864. The last detention facility at Oyster Cove was only abandoned when its inhabitants, left to die in miserable conditions, had reduced to a single old woman. Benjamin Madley, from Yale University's Genocide Studies Program, concluded an exhaustive 2008 study thus, 'Tasmania under British rule was clearly a site of genocide'.

 

AS A RESULT of the recent 'history wars' – an ill-tempered and often pseudo-academic stoush between opinion-writers from Quadrant magazine and historians including Reynolds and Boyce – grudging awareness of the reality of colonial conflict in Tasmania has become an established element of historical discourse in Australia. Yet, despite voluminous colonial documents and a wealth of visual records from the time, the Black War remains absent from Australian national remembrance. There was no glorious victory, no legendary loss on a far-flung beach. While our national imagination has churned heroes from slaughter on the fields of France during the Great War, the first war that Australians ever fought entrenched Tasmanian Aborigines as the archetypal enemy within.

This stands in contrast to the long European experience of war, where enemy and ally are fluid identities, and where treaty and reparation are the established guideposts of national relations. In Tasmania the standing of Aboriginal nations was simply swept from the table with an unspoken agreement that it should be raised no more.

Tasmanian colonial artists struggled with the unseemly haste by which any further discussion of the Black War was ceased. While John Glover is perhaps Tasmania's best-known early painter to feature Tasmanian Aborigines as a foreground to his picturesque works, the characters he depicts are strangely incongruent to the events of the time. In the early 1830s, Glover presented his audience with a fanciful memorial to mark the end of conflict. Warriors who, armed with long spears, waddies and firesticks, had slain settlers and burned their barns and crops to the ground just months before, danced and sang in the whimsical scenes he created. They seem cast as a grotesque footnote to colonial accomplishment. Innocent. Unaware. Childlike. Others artists such as Thomas Bock and John Skinner Prout continued this sentimental acknowledgement. Their portraits provide a unique visual record of the ancestors of today's Aboriginal community who had died before the introduction of photography to the colony. But this visual record offers little clue to their experience of war.

It was an ageing engraver and minor painter named Benjamin Duterrau who stood alone in his desire to directly confront the seriousness of the Black War. Arriving in Hobart from London in 1832, just months after its end, he was quick to produce a series of engravings, reliefs and portraits on the subject. These characterised a cast of 'noble savages' that he would use to play out the drama of Australia's first epic history painting. The Conciliation embedded an enduring melancholy into the mythology of Tasmanian wilderness, depicting a scene in which a hollow treaty is struck between the governor's agent, George Augustus Robinson, and the last resistance fighters to oppose British rule. Robinson had travelled with a small group of Aborigines, including a woman called Truganini, traversing the whole island on foot in an effort to contact each of the tribes remaining free on their country. His mission was to end the war and spread his Evangelical Christianity to the survivors.

Dutterau could have created a grand, triumphant scene in the tradition of Velazquez's Surrender of Breda. The lectures on art he presented at the Hobart Mechanic's Institute (Australia's first) and the statuesque figures he posed in classical Greek tradition leave no doubt that he was fluent in art history and the language of romantic iconography. Equally, he might have crafted a sombre historical scene in the manner of Benjamin West's Penn's Treaty with the Indians. Instead, The Conciliation presents a more complex tableau. It reveals his passion for Raphael and a theme recently revisited by the French revolutionary painter Jean-Jacques David with his painting The Sabine Women, first exhibited in 1799.

Duterrau is known to have had an intense interest in Raphael's School of Athens and his Cartoons. He utilised these references to invest various characters in the composition with gesture, emotion and passion – among these, incredulity and suspicion. Raphael also supplies allusion to the Apostles as founders of the Christian church. In this way Duterrau describes a tense scene where the war is brought to an end with pious authority. The Aborigines find themselves under a new jurisdiction and are saved from their own ignorance, as the Apostles had saved Jews and Gentiles two thousand years before. Elements found in David establish a counterpoint in the composition, as the Aboriginal woman known as Truganini pleads with outstretched arms for her reluctant husband to accept the truce. This emblematic figure recalls a similar one in The Sabine Women where Hersilia, wife of the Roman leader, Romulus, also intervenes with an appeal for peace.

Duterrau was aware that Robinson had deceived the Aborigines and that the treaty was immediately discarded by the governor once he had the fighters under his control. The wisdom of Truganini's husband was proven and their fate was sealed. These are scenes hung heavily with the European history of moral conflict. An origin for David's figure can be traced to Satan, Sin and Death, an earlier painting by William Hogarth. This work was created asan illustrationto Milton's gothic masterpiece Paradise Lost, a biblical epic of the Fall of Man, the Temptation of Eve, and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It is an archetypal gothic tale, with Satan the greatest tragic hero in English literature – mingling humanity with hubris and rebellion.

Milton's epic had a huge influence on the development of gothic literature, running to at least sixty editions between Duterrau's birth and his arrival in Hobart. Its influence is most notable in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, where the creature reads Paradise Lost and suffers at its revelations. Duterrau brought Tasmania under the same dark veil. In this analysis, Robinson fits perfectly the role of a tragic hero, alone in the wilderness, miraculously surviving both the rugged landscape and the treacherous Natives. He wrote of his journeys as a terrifying ordeal of the soul requiring virtue, bravery and self-sacrifice. With all the necessary elements of a gothic tale, he challenges the tyrant of war and saves the maiden Truganini (with whom he was romantically linked) from faithless savagery.

In crafting Australia's first historical epic painting, Duterrau underpinned the drama that had played out on the island of Tasmania as a reiteration of the eternal battle between good and evil, and the profound consequences of betrayal. That he should have chosen such a theme to explore, and drew upon the art of the French Revolution is no surprise. Duterrau's family history was steeped in war. He was a Huguenot – a French Protestant. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Huguenots had been subject to missionaries, forced conversion, persecution, torture and massacre at the hands of French Catholics. When Louis XIV declared Protestantism illegal in 1685, tens of thousands of Huguenots fled to neighbouring Protestant countries, as their country was no longer their own.

 

I FIND IT hard to resist the thought that Duterrau's responsiveness to the situation of my ancestors echoed sympathy with his own. James Bonwick, who knew Duterrau in Hobart, wrote that he 'shed tears over the fate of his black friends' and had urged him to write of their 'sad tale' as he had done through his painting. Bonwick was so moved that he produced three volumes on the subject.

For me, The Conciliation neatly weaves together the histories of French religious conflict and the Tasmanian colonial war against a backdrop of interminable bloodshed across Europe. My experience of the tangible artefacts of war that form the very fabric of monument and landscape in France make it clear that a mature society is one that lives with its past. An enduring legacy of war is to be reminded of past mistakes. The Conciliation elaborates a theme that seems to have resonated powerfully for an artist of Duterrau's background. That this might be so takes the events in Tasmania from being an inconsequential flurry on the edge of civilisation and places them among the mainstream of world events. It shifts the Aboriginal nations of Tasmania from anthropological curiosity to players on the world's stage – with the same international rights to justice.

The attempt to extinguish traditional Indigenous society in Tasmania set the scene for a continuing drama to which the whole world remains witness. Long before Marcus Clarke's novel For the Term of His Natural Life (1874),or films such as The Tale of Ruby Rose (1988) or TheHunter (2011), Benjamin Duterrau scripted the first chapter of Tasmanian gothic. This story is reiterated with every acknowledgement of Tasmania's other great tragedies: the thylacine, Lake Pedder, and the ongoing struggle to save its ancient forests. All of these form powerful mythic characters that engage an international imagination, and resonate with a diversity of unresolved and self-inflicted sins across the globe.

The colonial jewel of Van Diemen's Land was tarnished from the beginning. Despite the grandeur of its wilderness and the modern attraction of its lifestyle to those weary of a world in chaos, Tasmania's sanctity as an oasis remains fraught to its heart while our deepest secret remains unacknowledged. But a remedy might still be achievable.

We need only to look to the most notorious perpetrator of modern genocide to see how. Germany has, since the Nuremburg Trials in 1946, committed itself to 'owning' its past. With no option of ignoring the consequences of Hitler's policies, it has embraced its responsibilities for reparation and remembrance. Holocaust museums and places of memorial have become powerful sites of healing for today's German people. Millions of visitors also come to share redemptive sorrow for the inhumanity that has been practiced so widely across human culture.

Is it too late to acknowledge the genocide that played out in Tasmania? Is 200 years too long ago? Truganini is memorialised by Duterrau as desperately seeking an end to the killing, only to be imprisoned for her efforts. She witnessed the entire drama unfold – as the idealistic young woman arguing for a treaty with G A Robinson, then the weary old woman who was finally released from detention at Oyster Cove. Deep in the storerooms of the Paris museum, the castes of my ancestors seemed to inquire as I met their stony gaze, 'Has there been progress? Is there justice for us yet?' Truganini had likely wondered the same as she left her confinement for the last time. In France progress seems to be a constant of history – pock-marked as it is by struggle and bloodshed. French president François Mitterrand made a formal apology to the descendants of the Huguenots in 1985. This marked the 300th anniversary of the revocation of Protestant rights. Europeans are familiar with war and have learned how to deal with its costs.

Tasmanians have yet to engage fully with the unspeakable in our history and accept its terrible legacy. A scattering of history books does not make amends. Acknowledgement must be public and profound if it is to matter on the world's stage. Can we end the silence on Australia's first war and the terrible methods it employed? Maybe then the burden of our haunted past will be eased and the ancestral curse broken. The spectre of genocide must be confronted and its consequences owned before this gothic tale can conclude.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 39: TASMANIA – The Tipping Point? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.