Review: Tasmania Aborigines

Tasmanian Aborigines: A History Since 1803,

by Lyndall Ryan.

Allen & Unwin, 418 pages.

 

 tas aborigines

“The white men have killed us all; they shot a great many. We are now only a few people here and we ought to be fond of one another. We ought to love God. God made every thing, the salt water, the horse, the bullock, the possum, the wallaby, the kangaroo and wombat. Love him and you will go to him by and bye.”

In 2005, Eddie Kneebone, a member of the Bangerang people and reconciliation campaigner, painted a multi-panelled work to exhibit the impact of European settlement on the north-east of Victoria. The work was titled Bones of Contention and was painted shortly before his death. Along with the painting, Eddie Kneebone provided notes beginning with the so-called Massacre at Broken River in 1838. Kneebone wrote of the aftermath: “the troops came on horses with guns and swords, hunted and killed the Aboriginal people as they found them…” Kneebone continued: “land truly did bleed and their bones fell like rain.”

Lyndall Ryan first encountered Aboriginal History at Macquarie University in 1970s with her PhD thesis. The thesis was later transformed into the book The Aboriginal Tasmanians in 1981, with and a second edition appeared in 1996 containing an additional two chapters. However, Tasmanian Aborigines: A history since 1803 is a completely new book. Nonetheless, the thesis of her early work – that Tasmanian Aborigines resisted British colonisation and did not die out in 1876 or in any other period of Tasmania’s history, still remains cogent.

Ryan suffered more than any other scholar during the ‘History Wars’ and the ‘Black Arm-band of History’ – brought about from Historians Geoffrey Blainey and Keith Windschuttle. Windschuttle charged Ryan and fellow historians – Henry Reynolds to name one – of deliberately misleading Australians about Australia’s contact history. Windschuttle argued in several articles in the journal Quadrant and his book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Van Diemen’s Land 1803-1847 that Ryan had fabricated footnotes to invent settler massacres in the Black War during the 1820s.

Tasmanian Aborigines is Ryan’s vindication from Windschuttle’s “fabrication” claims. The book is divided into six parts: Invasion, 1803-26, War, 1826-31, Surrender, 1829-34, Incarceration, 1835-1905, Survival, 1840-1973 and Resurgence, 1973-2010. Each section of the book continues a sysinct path through Tasmania’s contact history; one of the many strengths of Ryan’s new book compared to her 1996 edition. It adds clarity to her argument and assembles what I would have thought to be a irreducible topic, into an argument of outstanding clarity.

The beginning of the book introduces the reader with a comprehensive overview of Tasmania, or Trouwunna as the Aborigines called their island. Ryan provides a detailed and interesting overview of migration movements, physical features, landscape, food, family and the nine nations of Trouwunna. The opening chapters are important to the whole work. Ryan surveys several sources dealing with the original population of Aboriginals in Tasmania before and during the European settlement of the island. These numbers provide a firm base for the rest of Ryan’s thesis.

Next, Ryan begins to analyse the first steps of the European invasion (a term that Ryan consistently uses through the book): the Wrangeowrapper – White Devil, up until 1826 with the “pastoral invasion.”

The book moves drastically into a new phrase of Aboriginal and European relations between 1826 and 1831. With Aboriginal attacks, European reprisals, and increased atrocities led Governor George Arthur to declare Martial Law on 1 November 1828.

In the sixteen months between the declaration of martial law in November 1828 and March 1830, it would seem that there were at least 120 attacks by the Aborigines on the settlers, leading to about fifty deaths and at least sixty wounded. On the other hand, at least 200 Aborigines had also been killed, many of them, it appears, in mass killings of six or more. The war was beginning to take its toll on both sides (p. 121).

Late in 1830, Arthur was still under serious pressure from settlers. Settlers, including women and children, were still under attack from Aboriginal tribes. A further sixty colonists were killed in settled districts. In comparison, 300 Aboriginals were killed in the same period, with at least 100 of these losing their lives in mass killings of six or more. The continued pressure on Arthur led him to respond with a “sledgehammer.”

This sledgehammer solution from Arthur was to drive the Big River and Oyster Bay Aborigines from the Settled Districts to the Tasman Peninsula. To do this, Arthur called on every able-bodied male in the colony, bond or free, to combine with the military and police forces to form a human chain or line to undertake the task (p. 131) on 7 October:

The line would advance for three weeks in a pincer movement south-east across the Settled Districts until it converged on 28 October unto a 60-kilometre line bounded at one end by the towns of Sorell and Richmond at Pitt Water and the stretched along the Prosser River and Prossers Plains to Spring Bat on the east coast.

Arthur’s Black Line was meant to be “a knockout blow that would bring the conflict to an end.” The line was “more like a very large scale Scottish Highlands shooting party: the soldiers and colonists were the bearers and the Aborigines were the prey waiting to be flushed out of the bracken.”

The Black Line gave the colonists in the Southern, Central and Eastern parts of the Settled Districts unfettered possession of the land. The “reckoning” of the Black War and the Black Line in the Settled Districts of Tasmania, an estimated 1000 people had perished, with an Aboriginal to colonial death ratio of 4:1.

The catastrophic destruction of the Aboriginal population in Tasmania after the Black War marked a new policy direction for Australia colonies. The new policy direction was for ethnographer, humanist and devout Christian G.A. Robinson, to walk around Tasmania to organise the surrender of Aboriginal survivors. Robinson and Arthur’s plan was to remove the remaining Aboriginal population from the main island of Tasmania to a “sanctuary” at Wybalenna. The task Robinson undertook was no small feat. Robinson first had to track down a dwindling population that would more than likely have been avoiding contact with whites. Furthermore, Robinson then had to negotiate with the Aboriginals: removing them from their land and relocating them.

Ryan’s detailed account of Robinson’s task is both chilling and at most times confronting. Ryan’s tone throughout this section of the book remains elucidate, even though there are some passages that cause a feeling of aghast. “Both men firmly believed they were saving the western Aborigines from certain extermination and extinction and providing them with the benefits of British civilization and Christianity (p. 214-15).”

Even with Robinson’s and Arthur’s good intentions, their actions can only be described as myopic. Both men were unprepared for the consequences of removing the remaining Aboriginals off their land. The consequences were devastating: as fast as Robinson was brining Aborigines to the sanctuary, they were dying.

The Wybaleena Island sanctuary was a disaster. After successful lobbying by the remaining the Aboriginal population on the island, they were later removed to the ‘Oyster Cove Aboriginal Station’. The station was divided into two sections, with a total area of just over 700 hectares. Nevertheless, the suffering of the Tasmanian Aboriginals continued. At theOyster Cove Aboriginal Station, there was still a “shocking” death rate, dreadful conditions and massive alcohol abuse: “The realisation that many white people saw more value in them as skeletons than as a living people led them to fear for their lives. It is not surprising that more of them resorted to alcohol to drown the prospect of the impending horror (p. 263).”

With the death of Truganini in 1876, many white Tasmanians believed that the colony was now completely ‘native free’ (p. 275). Her body was exhumed in 1878 and was available for scientific purposes until it was placed in the Tasmanian Museum where it was on public display. The vile desecration of Aboriginal remains were commonplace. However, Truganini’s death and then the public display of her remains, promoted the belief of a native free Tasmania.

I recall several times being told that the only successful genocide in Modern History was that of the Tasmanian Aborigines. I even recall myself saying it to others. Having said that, it is completely wrong. Ryan’s cogency is the argument of resurgence. Even though the duration of Ryan’s book is devoted to destruction and death, the remainder is filled with the important fight by the Tasmanian Aboriginals to regain their identity.

Ryan thoroughly recounts the prodigious work of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) and campaigners such as Michael Mansell, in their effort for recognition and also the return of ancestral remains that were taken from the Aboriginal people and taken to various institutions.

The work of the TAC, Mansell and other campaigners, led to the Tasmanian parliament to apologise to the Aboriginal community to the Stolen Generations; the first to do so in Australia. Tasmania was also the first to compensate the Stolen Generations.

Ryan applies an equanimity narration throughout the whole book. This is in spite of various accounts of death, incarnation and desecration that will no doubt cause some aghast in most people. Ryan’s eminence as a historian is broadcasted throughout this work. It is an account that brings together a pragmatic and irreducible topic with a didactic tone, giving Australians, and future Australian’s some issues to discuss openly if White Australians and Aboriginal Australians are to move forward.

As aforementioned, Tasmanian Aborigines: A history since 1803 is Ryan’s vindication. The “few, explicable and trivial” errors that were made in her previous works have been rectified. If there was a positive to come from the history wars, it is this book. Only on several occasions Ryan mentions Windschuttle, yet, convincingly refutes his myopic claims. Tasmanian Aborigines is a vital scholarly work that leaves Windschuttle’s work in a state of dilapidation.

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Review: Anzacs Long Shadow

‘The Allure of ANZAC’ and the Australian Defence Force.

 Review of James Brown’s Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession, Redback4, 2014, 184pp.

9781863956390

My great Uncle and Grandfather both served in Vietnam. My great Uncle was with the Australian Armoured division while my Grandfather was a member of the Royal Australian Navy on HMAS Sydney (III). Growing up around these two men offer a paradox between serving members or veterans – especially the Navy – of how Anzac is commemorated and how the day is perceived in the public. While most follow the words inscribed on the Sydney War Memorial in Hyde Park, “Let silent contemplation be your offering,” others turn Anzac day into something that James Brown believes resembles more like a festival.

James Brown, a former commanding officer in the ADF, and now a fellow at the Lowy Institute researching military issues and defence policy, has produced a short, sharp and sophisticated analysis of Australia’s Defence Force and the role the ADF played in Afghanistan.

With 2014 being the centenary of WWI and also the upcoming centenary of Anzac in 2015, the Australian Government is planning to spend $325 million (with an already tight budget) on the prestigious event. In addition, there is an expected additional $300 million through private donations. In comparison to the United Kingdom (here we could draw on the famous lines of Andrew Fisher: “Australia will defend Britain with every last man and every last Shilling”), Australia will outspend the ‘Mother Country’ by 200 per cent.

The Australian Government’s funding of the centenary of Anzac and the First World War, is match by the commercialization of this ‘sacred day.’ Brown lists several commercial activities and products, including a paddle boat race across the Dardanelles and the ‘Sands of Gallipoli.’ Brown mockingly chastises such promotion that was legislated against in the 1920s. This extravagant event is best summarized by Brown himself: “This year an Anzac festival begins, a commemorative program so extravagant it would make a sultan swoon… But commemorating soldiers is not the same as connecting with them.”

After dealing with the formalities of the centenary of Anzac, Brown moves onto a more pressing issue facing the ADF. Brown highlights the growing rift between spending significant amounts of money on dead soldiers while neglecting those who are living and suffering from their experiences. The extent of this rift is felt from the public – that has no understanding of War in the Modern World – through to the Federal Government and well into the organisations established for the Returned Soldier – most notably the RSLs.

Brown believes that the Anzac legend has instilled a Nineteenth Century character that military structure, discipline, and strategy are no match for the individual, egalitarian Digger: an “idolatry of a culture suspicious of officers that favours egalitarianism.” The Anzac legend manifests itself in today’s soldiers: wearing thongs and shorts when attending dangerous duties.

Not only has the Anzac legend created a culture of relaxation and lenience in defence force personnel, it has also neglected other pillars of defence such as the Navy. Of the 96 Victorian Crosses awarded in all conflicts, not one mariner has been awarded the VC. Yet, a reoccurring theme is the posthumous awards for valor for Simpson and his Donkey.

The growing gap between the living soldier and that of the dead soldier is clearer in Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan. A war of great complexity – “we weren’t fighting one war, we were fighting hundreds across the country” – the Australian military performed with outstand professionalism and military precision. However, when it came to communicating what Australia’s role was, no politician or high-ranking military officer could articulate what the Australian role was: Australian soldiers would not combat against the enemy – but they did. Military personnel will not engage in narcotic operations – but they did. Much of the military debate or conversation on Australia’s defence force is focused on the past.

Brown’s analysis of Australia’s military is the strength and major focus of this book. The issue is not with fighting personnel, but rather those higher in command and also the politicians responsible for their deployment and policies. Compared with several other nations, Australian Colonels, Generals and Majors are not seen in the public debate. The military does not encourage those in high command to write or analyse previous decision, policies and mistakes Australia, or others, have made. For example, the Australian military does not analyse the amphibious landing at Gallipoli. Quantico is the only place to have conducted a detailed review and analysis by George Patten in 1938. Without this detailed information, it is possible that the D-Day invasion would not have had such success. The lack of review and writing process could also hinder the development of Australia’s defence force. Brown highlights new purchases made by the Australian Government without a shift in strategy or focus to use these new purchases with the desired effect.

It is this aspect is concerning for such a well renowned military force that communication is not encouraged, often leaving the public in the dark as to what policy are we applying, what are we doing in Afghanistan? And why are we doing these operations? This is where Australian politicians also fail. Stephen Smith and Joel Fitzgibbon who both held the Defence Minister positions are depicted as glib and uninterested with defence issues. Complex issues are ditched for easy and cheap defence policies such as a new medal or pin for military families.

Brown has found the middle ground in this debate, offering a well-balanced and analytical account of the issues facing the ADF and the well being of living soldiers. There are a lot of issues – past and present – wrapped up in this book, but Brown handles these issues with a brightness that is welcomed within this debate. Brown is not a historian, and does not claim to be, however, he has handled the debate over the Anzac legend with great poise, balance, fierceness and relevance to the issues facing the ADF and personnel.

Review: Burial Rites

A Sympathetic Ear

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites Picador, 2013, pp352.Burial-Rites

I hereby confirm that the criminals, Fridrik Sigurdsson and Agnes Magnusdottir will be executed on Tuesday the 12 January, on a little hill close to the cottage of Ranhola, between the farms Holabak and Sveinsstador.

The aforementioned passage was taken from a letter to the District Officers of Svinavatn from District Commissioner Bjorn Blondal. Also in the same letter, Blondal calmly instructs that:

If it is such that the executions are not possible to carry out on this day due to weather, the next day possible will then be selected, and all the people who have been ordered to attend must do so, as stated above.

Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites – short listed for the Stella Prize – is based upon the historical events that took place in Iceland between 1828 and 1830. Agnes Mahnusdottir, Fridrik Sigurdsson and Sigridur Gudmundsdottir were convicted for the gruesome murders of Natan Ketilsson – Agnes’s boss and ‘lover’ – and Petur Jonsson, then burning their bodies in an attempt to hide the crime. Agnes and Fridrik would be the last persons executed in Iceland in 1830, while Sigridur, saved from execution, died serving out her life sentence as a servant a few years later.

Before Agnes’ execution, she was interned with District Officer Jon Jonssons family at Kornsa. The family, composed of Jon, his ailing wife Margaret and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga, are reluctant to take on the job of a murderess and a “whore” and make their reluctance known to Agnes.

The family is then later joined by a young clergyman Toti Jonsson who was chosen by Agnes to assist her in the Christian beliefs to prepare her for death and into the arms of Christ. However, with the Icelandic winter and the small space within the house, Agnes and Toti’s conversations are never private. There are several tense scenes where the Jonsson family listens to Anges’s story, convinced that she is telling lies. When Toti first met Agnes, he was very nervous and unsure how to approach a woman convicted of two brutal murders. Toti does learn to become a better listener of Agnes’s story, convinced that she needs a sympathetic ear rather than be showered in prayers and proverbs. It is through this personal conversation that Agnes discloses her life events, a twisted love triangle, and the night of the murders.

Agnes, while reluctantly accepted by the Jonsson family, begins to be an influential and important person around the farm. Her expertise with medicines, farming, slaughter and cooking win her some favour with Margaret and Steina. However, Lauga never trusts Agnes.

Burial Rites is the culmination of Kent’s ten-years of research into the executions. The research is easily visible: there are the translated documents and letters that begin each chapter, the representations of speech and grammar and the intrinsic detail of Icelandic life through slaughter, harvest, Icelandic rituals, winter and summer. The writing is also impressive, offering engaging detail:

Next are the bones, and the heads. I ask Lauga to empty the tallow pot of gristle and water, but she pretends she cannot hear me and keeps her eye fixed ahead of her. Kristin goes instead. When Steina sidles up to me again, smiling shyly, wondering if there is anything I need doing, I ask her to fill the emptied pot with the bones that cannot be used for anything else. Salt. Barley. Water. Steina and I haul the pot next to the poaching blood sausage, for the marrow to leach into the simmering water, for the salt and heat to prise away all the tenderness from the carcass. She claps her hands when we fix the slopping pot upon the hook and immediately begins to throw more fuel on the fire.

However, there is a disadvantage to Kent’s historical narrative. By beginning each chapter with a translated document, Kent sets the boundaries for the chapter and does not look to go outside the historical documents. This, therefore, makes the novel not so much a challenging read – unless you are like me and struggle with the pronunciation of Icelandic names.

Kent’s novel is also divided into a twin narrative. Agnes’ voice is told in first person, while a discrete third-person narrates over Toti and also the Jonsson family. Although Agnes’ voice does not feature as much as I would like it to as her voice can be the most difficult and most compelling voice – “they say I must die They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.” To me, it seems to be a stylistic choice of her troubled and misunderstood life: “They will not see me. I will not be there.”

Although there are small stylistic problems with Kent’s novel, her deep knowledge and research into the events in her attempt to “supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman,” and challenge that Agnes was “an inhuman witch, stirring up murder,” succeeds within her twin narrative. While Burial Rites is a book to challenge the idea of Agnes, it is also a book about a woman who lived with the odds stacked against her, leading the reader to question whether Agnes was guilty or not guilty?

Review: The Night Guest

The Long Goodbye9781926428550

The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane, 288pp.

Penguin Australia, 2013.

On a trip into town for some shopping, Ruth bumps into a person who turned out to know her:

Mrs Field! Ruth! cried this woman. She was so very small – ‘petite’, Ruth’s mother would have called her – that she made Ruth think of a little toy prised from an expensive Advent calendar. Ruth tried to arrange her face into an expression of recognition; she must have failed because the woman said, with a hopeful smile, ‘It’s Ellen?’

Although McFarlane never uses the word “dementia” in the book, it is clear that Ruth is struggling with it.

The book has a personal connection to me: my grandmother suffers from dementia and have, on several occasions, visited her to receive that same “expression of recognition.” McFarlane, in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, revealed, “both my grandmothers suffered from dementia, and I wanted to write respectfully and unsentimentally about this.”

Ruth Field lives alone in her seaside home on the Coast of New South Wales with her favourite chair – helping her ailing back and to watch the whales pass by her house – her cats and her fading memory, blurring together the past and present. Early one morning, a tiger visits Ruth. Not long after the tiger makes its first visit to Ruth’s home, Ruth receives an unexpected visitor, Frida, sent by the government to care for Ruth for a few hours per day.

Gradually, throughout the novel, the true extent of how Frida will “care” for Ruth is revealed. Ruth’s son’s, Jeffery and Phillip, who live in New Zealand and Hong Kong respectively, leave Ruth to her own devices and loneliness, even though they are in constant contact through phone calls. This enables the large, exaggerated and often tender Frida to insert herself into Ruth’s life.

Frida begins by relieving Ruth of duties such as cooking, cleaning and washing. This leaves Ruth to begin reflecting on her past life: growing up in Fiji with her parents, meeting her first love Richard, moving to Australia to experience her first heartbreak, meeting her husband, Harry, having children and eventually retiring to the Coast in New South Wales. Eventually, Ruth and Frida’s relationship quickly becomes indispensible, transforming into a kind of love and reliance:

Ruth waited every weekday morning for Frida to come in her golden taxi, and when she left they fell into silences of relief and regret. Ruth found herself looking forward to the disruption of her days; she was a little disgusted with herself for succumbing so quickly.

As the novel progresses, along with Ruth’s confusion and dementia, Ruth does not know who to trust. Ruth extends an invite to Richard, Ruth’s first love from Fiji, to visit. Richard takes up this offer and does visit for the weekend. However, to Ruth’s surprise, Frida has moved into Phillip’s old room: “Oh, dear. You knew I was staying over, to help with Richard’s visit. Remember?” The growing confusion of Ruth makes it easy for Frida to manipulate Ruth for her own personal gain. However, is this her only true motivation? There are scenes of affection between Ruth and Frida that constantly challenge our expectations of what Frida is really doing.

The Night Guest is a brilliant debut novel from McFarlane. The novel is masterfully created with a compulsive readability around a modern topic. It is unusual for a young writer to write about the elderly, however, McFarlane has produced a suspense novel layered with gentle humour, lonlieness, isolation, memory and tenderness, that studies the vulnerability faced by the elderly. The novel also poses an important question: who is to care for the elderly when others are unwilling or unable to do so?