Monday, December 3, 2012

Tasmanian Aborigines, A History Since 1803, by Lyndall Ryan

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Lyndall Ryan’s history of Tasmania’s Aborigines provides an agonising story of suffering, hardship and eventual dispossession. It highlights perhaps one of the most terrible episodes in Australia’s history.

Most Australians know in brief the terrible history of Tasmania’s Aborigines. The entire indigenous population was either killed or died as a direct result of European settlement. Disease, starvation and a severe diminution in Aboriginal health was the result of their land being usurped and regular food sources taken away.  Eventually the remaining Tasmanian Aboriginal population was sequestered away from the settlers by dumping them on Flinders Island. The ostensible reason for this policy was to ‘protect’ Aboriginals from the violence of the whites, but in reality it was to clear the way for complete European takeover.

Lyndall Ryan’s Tasmanian Aborigines is an impressively detailed history of Tasmania’s first peoples, from pre-1803 European arrival, when life was organised according to clans and nations, through Aboriginal resistance and outright war, to a complete European hegemony. It would take close to two centuries for the surviving descendants of Tasmania’s first people’s to start redressing the grievous wrongs of the past, such as stolen lands and, more grisly, stolen body parts and skeletal remains that were spread out through Australian and European museums.

For those, like myself, who have not read in any detail the history of Tasmania’s Aborigines, this is a shocking and deeply distressing story. Right from the beginning of white settlement it seemed the unspoken aim was to completely rid the island of all its indigenous population. This was coupled with deeply racist attitudes, based on undisputed notions of European supremacy. It was simply unthinkable to entertain any ideas that Tasmania’s original inhabitants might have highly valuable knowledge to contribute. Rather they were thought of as hopeless savages who could only be saved by Christian moral precepts and abandoning their traditional ways in favour of housekeeping and farming. Europeans salved their consciences about stealing Aboriginal land by believing that they were a dieing race. Nature was killing them off anyway. The theory of evolution meant it was all inevitable.

The low opinion that the Aborigines were held in is evidenced by the way in which their bodies were treated as ‘scientific’ trophies after death. Truganini’s skin was used as a tobacco pouch, while the last male Aboriginal man, William Lanney, was barely buried before he was secretly dug up and his body plundered for its parts. 

Tasmania’s Aborigines fought hard for their land. They maintained a strong resistance to European settlement that was basically a black versus white war. Their numbers reduced from an original population of around 6000 to a just over a hundred and then rounded up and taken to Flinders Island where they could be forgotten.

Lyndall Ryan’s history of Tasmania’s Aborigines is one of unrelenting sadness and tragedy. It contains the darkest, most silent aspects of Australian history. 

Tasmanian Aborigines, A History Since 1803, by Lyndall Ryan. Published by Allen and Unwin. ISBN: 9781742370682  RRP: $35