Suggestions of genocide put the colonisation of Australia in a harsh light. The issue arises most frequently in reference to the natives of Tasmania.
When the British established their earliest Australian colonies they perceived of a territory that was effectively empty, theirs for the taking. The legal basis for their claim was the doctrine of terra nullius, ‘land where nothing exists.’ Once the colonists had a productive use for the land, the indigenous people of Australia’s eastern seaboard didn’t have a hope of retaining possession of it.
On the continental mainland colonisation meant displacement and relocation. In Tasmania European conquest went one tragic step further, until no full-blooded aboriginals remained.
First Contact in Tasmania
In the early days of contact with the outside world it is believed there were up to 5,000 Tasmanian aborigines. They were hunter-gatherers, roaming their tribal territories and living in rudimentary shelters that served their nomadic lifestyle. In their earliest encounters with European explorers, the natives of Tasmania were observed as friendly, at the same time wary of the mysterious outsiders.
There was no contact during Abel Tasman’s short stay at the island that would bear his name, and subsequent visits by both French and British explorers went without incident. Tahitian crewman Omai took great delight in showing off to the people of Bruny Island when the Resolution called on Captain James Cook’s third voyage in 1777.
When occasional ship visits to Tasmanian waters turned into permanent British settlement, it wasn’t long before tensions rose and conflict resulted. In 1803 the New South Wales administration established a penal colony and free settlement near present-day Hobart. Supplies were scarce in this harsh and remote environment, and to survive the newcomers hunted game on the local peoples’ traditional lands.
Tasmania’s Period of Violent Conflict
With their superior weapons and desperate to fend off starvation and disease, the Europeans easily took control of the sparsely populated territory surrounding their new settlements, decimating the wildlife that the indigenous people had for centuries harvested sustainably. Conflict became inevitable, and the first violent confrontation between Tasmanian aboriginal and settler occurred in May 1804.
Not only was there by now competition for limited resources on which to live, but the settlers were only too ready to abuse the local inhabitants and their culture. Aboriginal women were taken as slaves and mistreated (male settlers and the sealers who worked out of Tasmania far outnumbered females), and settlers stole aboriginal children for labour or to serves as ‘pets’. Inevitably Europeans also brought with them diseases to which the Tasmanians had no natural immunity.
By the 1820’s the aboriginals were engaged in guerilla warfare against the colonists in defence of their land and way of life. They had tactical advantage over the ill-trained troops stationed on the island, knowing the country as they did and equipped to live off the land. In 1826 and 1827 over 100 aborigine attacks on white settlement were recorded, resulting in 42 settler deaths. Such incidents would continue to escalate.
Historical records point to both the competition for land and the ongoing mistreatment of their people as the provocation that forced aboriginal fighting men into open conflict. Revenge payed a big part in their motivation, but they were also seeking economic and political redress for the loss of their traditional lands.
The Solution to the Aboriginal Problem
By 1828 the European population of Tasmania had reached 18,000 and over three quarters of a million sheep grazed the island. In the northwest, the Van Deimen’s Land Company was in control of 330,000 acres of grazing land. Historian John Molony writes about the effects this had on the local aboriginal population: “…conflict became so intense that the virtual extermination of the local blacks, either by killing or deportation to government reserves, became inevitable.”
The colonial administration went some way to acknowledging the plight of the aboriginal people, but their plans for a resolution did not include sharing territory. Pastoral farming of Tasmania was incompatible with the ongoing presence of the native people, and there was no question, the white tribe would prevail.
In November 1828 the government declared a state of martial law, action intended to provide a controlled solution to the problem. In reality it opened the way to the systematic removal of the native people from their homeland. Backed by the law, colonial troops and settlers engaged in a series of massacres that became collectively known as the ‘Black War’. The aboriginal population of Tasmania was reduced to less than 300 people.
In 1835 Governor Arthur received a report that stated ‘the entire aboriginal population are now removed (to Flinders’ Island).’ There they endured appalling living conditions until in 1847, when just 46 still survived, they were shipped back to the main island. The last to die was the female Truganini, who passed away in Hobart in May 1876.
- Madley, Benjamin, Patterns of Frontier Genocide 1803:1910, Journal of Genocide Research, June 2004, Volume 692), pp. 167-192
- Molony, John, History of Australia, The Story of 200 Years, Viking O’Neil, Melbourne, 1987