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A landscape of revolutions

Colonial Tasmania, re-imagined.

By Richard Flanagan

At a moment when Australians seem once more prepared to voyage forward, there has arrived a book for these new times. In one of those moments of coincidence that a novelist is rarely allowed but life frequently offers, we have in the same week in which history is being made with the apology to the Stolen Generations, a remarkable history being published that offers a new and mature understanding of our origins.

For after what was falsely termed 'the history wars', but which was rather a perverted attempt to politicise the past in order to justify the renascent bigotries of what already seems a strange, lost decade, we have, in James Boyce's Van Diemen's Land, a landmark of historical scholarship that suggests a largeness and openness in our origins as a nation of which we need not be scared, nor ashamed, far less divided by bitterness and hate.

Though Boyce's story is frequently terrible, this is not a work of accusation, but a history of hope. It suggests that we are not dispossessed Europeans, but a muddy wash of peoples who were made anew in the merge of an old pre-industrial, pre-modern European culture with an extraordinary natural world and a remarkable black culture. As much as a process of colonisation, Boyce's work suggests a history of indigenisation - a strange uneven, frequently repressed, often violent process in which a white underclass took on much of black ways of living. It suggests we have a connection with our land not solely based on ideas of commerce, and that there are continuities in our understanding of our land that extend back into pre-history. It is an argument, never more timely, that we are our own people, not a poor imitation of elsewhere.

Boyce's Van Diemen's Land is for a time a land where many, according to a contemporary witness, 'dress in kangaroo skins without linen and wear sandals made of seal skins. They smell like foxes.' They live in 'bark huts like the natives, not cultivating anything, but living entirely on kangaroos, emus, and small porcupines.' No less an authority than John West, first official editor of the Sydney Morning Herald wrote in 1856 that the whites living outside of the settlement 'had a way of life somewhat resembling that of the Aborigines.'

Boyce details at length how this Van Diemonian peasantry along with black Tasmania was defeated - but not destroyed - by the colonial authorities. If the individual testimony of the bounty hunters and adventurers who bring the nascent Van Diemonian world to heel sometimes begins to feel like a Heart of Darkness journey into madness, it never descends into the grotesque or the Gothic, clichés behind the bars of which the intensely rich, human truth of Tasmania - at once terrible, beautiful and extraordinary - has been kept gaoled for too long.

For Boyce is a historian of the intimate, and through the detail of gardens, clothing and diet he makes us question so many assumptions we take for granted about that time, about our relationship with the land, and with each other. Be it the suppression of fiddling and dancing in Hobart pubs in the 1840s or the popularity of the Tasmanian Aborigines' most prized decoration, red ochre, amongst whites in Launceston in the 1830s, Boyce constantly makes us see the past fresh and anew. We are given not an invasion nor a happy history of noble pioneers, but a messy, inescapably human response to extraordinary times and places, out of which emerged a new people. It is brutal, confused, and a place of shifting alliances and understandings, a landscape of revolutions in which a revolution of sense and sensibilities so extraordinary occurs that it will be some centuries before we will be able to fully compass its liberating dimensions.

This is no accident. Tasmania was invented in 1856, the new name an attempt to erase the history of Aboriginal war, convict hell, homosexuality, to deny the manifold rebellion, not just political, but social and cultural, that suggested not only what was worst about us as human beings but also the possibility of what might be better in us, in coming to understand how to live in this strange new world.

This is not a romanticising, but it does go beyond the idea of apportioning blame that has poisoned historical discussion in Australia for too long. In Boyce's Van Diemen's Land, the white with most sympathy for the black may well be the man who murders a black in another place, while the man with best intentions, such as Governor Arthur, may be the one guilty of the worst crimes. An Aborigine such as Black Mary may be a black bushranger and police informant, the lover of an outlaw as well as his fatal betrayer. It is above all else a relentlessly human account that takes into its thinking the way in which good and evil lurk in every human breast.

For Boyce the past is not a prize of politics like the Lodge, to be fought for and won. For the truth is not relative. It is absolute, and though our interpretations are infinite, we must try and understand, as much as it is possible, that truth on it own terms.

And his exploration of what was described, not by a '60s academic, but an 1830s attorney-general, as 'a war of extermination' of the Tasmanian Aborigines is gripping in its terrible unfolding: the way it was avoidable, the way it became inevitable, the tragedy of a land where the English, as a ship's captain's wife, Rosalie O'Hare, confided in her diary in 1828, 'consider the massacre of these people an honour'.

Boyce's compelling account of the bushranger Michael Howe, whose authority equalled that of the early Van Diemen's Land governors, is a potent reminder of how much the vaunted Australian traditions of revolt had Tasmanian origins. For good reason did the Victorian government legislate to prevent Van Diemonians to emigrate during the 1850s. Ned Kelly's father was a Van Diemonian convict, and the Jerilderie Letter has sections that strongly echo the writings of Frank the Poet, the Van Diemonian convict bard whose odes to liberty were the first writings to be banned in Australia.

So much that is so rich is contained here that it will be misrepresented by both its supporters and detractors. But how good it feels to read a history that is not politics, but an act of enquiry applying intellect, empathy and a fresh curiosity to trying to discover all that from which we are torn. We have possibilities in Australia with our unique land, with our indigenous people, with our own particular response to our world, that suggest our future might still be worth dreaming.

This is a history that will be challenged, rebutted, and shown to be wrong in various places. All works of largeness and innovation invite such a fate. But its generosity of spirit exploring the possibilities of what we once were suggests all that we might yet be. It is the most significant colonial history since The Fatal Shore. If it is not as rollicking a read as Hughes' masterpiece, it is perhaps more original. In re-imagining one aspect of Australia's past, it invents for us all a new future.


This is the full text of a speech made by Richard Flanagan launching James Boyce's Van Diemen's Land (Black Inc, $49.95) on 12 February 2008. Available at all good book stores, you can read an extract here.



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