A Tasmanian Genocide

Consider two passages (more or less quoted directly) from two disparate sources, each coming to their own conclusion completely independent of the other. The first is from the 2003 book The Fatal Shore: A History Of The Transportation Of Convicts To Australia, 1787-1868, by Robert Hughes (pp.120-127):

Van Diemen’s Land had been occupied to forestall the French who, to the alarm of New South Wales’s tarpaulin Governor King, had been nosing about in the ill-chartered waters of south-eastern Australia. Bass Straight, which separates Van Diemen’s Land from the mainland, was discovered in 1797-98. Its weather was bad and its waters were strewn with islands whose vast colonies of wildlife would support the future seal trade of Australia, but which were a peril to ships. … But to go through Bass Strait, avoiding the long southern route below Van Diemen’s Land, clipped weeks off the passage from England to Sydney. The strategic importance of this sea lane was obvious, and King strongly felt there had to be a settlement to secure it. In august 1803 a little party of forty-nine souls sailed from Port Jackson. Their leader was a twenty-three-year-old lieutenant from Devon, John Bowen (1780-1827). Meanwhile, King’s pleas for settlement at Port Phillip Bay, protecting Bass Straight from the questing French, had reached London. The [arranged] expedition was under the command of (marine officer) David Collins. The bay proved a miserable disappointment: sandy sterile ground, little water, a persistently hot northerly wind, swarms of biting flies, and great difficulties of access by sea. So there was general relief when dispatches arrived from Governor King in Sydney authorising Collins to abandon Port Phillip and move his settlement down to the Derwent, to join Bowen’s tiny band. The English invasion of Van Diemen’s Land was by higher imperial standards a muddled and squalid affair. How many Tasmanian Aborigines died while the invading whites readied this cavity is not known, because no one knew how many there were to begin with. The best guess at present is 3,000 to 4,000 people, hunting and gathering in small bands of 30 to 80—a population density roughly equal to that of the Aborigines of coastal New South Wales. But die they did—shot like kangaroos and poisoned like dogs, ravaged by European diseases and addictions, hunted by laymen and pestered by missionaries, “brought in” from their ancestral territories to languish in camps. It took less than seventy-five years of white settlement to wipe out most of the people who had occupied Tasmania for some thirty thousand years; it was the only true genocide in English colonial history. By the standards of Pol Pot, let alone Josef Stalin or Adolf Hitler, this was a small slaughter. But not to the Tasmanian Aborigines.

The second passage is taken from The Handbook Of Linguistics (2003), edited by Aronoff and Rees-Miller (pp. 30):

No Australian language has a large number of speakers, the most viable languages having at most a few thousand. The records of the extinct Tasmanian languages are sparse, and Dixon (1980) concludes that they are insufficient to exclude the possibility that they may have been related to Australian languages, though equally they are insufficient to establish such a relationship (or any other). Speakers of the Tasmanian languages must have been separated from the rest of humanity for about 12,000 years, from the time rising waters created the Bass Strait to the first visits by Europeans, making them the most isolated human group known to history; the genocide visited upon the Tasmanians in the nineteenth century is thus also a scientific tragedy of the first order.

♦ ♦ ♦

Map of Australia from 1838: Sydney, Port Philip, Bass Strait and Van Diemen's Land (north to south from mid-east coast).

Map of Australia from 1838: Sydney, Port Philip, Bass Strait and Van Diemen’s Land (north to south along lower third east coast).

Quotations provided under Fair Use of the Copyright Law.

An Australian Rift

The Australian Aborigine, is, on the whole, a wonderful person, in my experience. Spend five minutes with them and see the sadness in their eyes and hear the sorrow in their voice. They are, traditionally at least, far more equitable a race than the European – perhaps legacy of a long-standing ‘unspoilt’ civilisation.

White man’s legacy; industrialisation albeit with benefits, brought the scourges of modern society: infectious diseases; non-communicable chronic disease; drugs and alcohol; chemicals, bombs, radiation, etc..

The gap between whites and blacks in this country is wider than the Rift Valley itself. But the chasm of culture and understanding is by the far the greatest problem, indeed the problem through which all others take hold. It is this inherent disconnect between white man and black man, at a fundamental human level, rather than money, science, technology, power or politics, that continues to drive a wedge between the two.

The solution requires a paradigm shift within both sub-populations. White man particularly has to acknowledge his paradoxical and unique but intermittent and spasmodic combination of apathy and paternalism. Meanwhile, Black man needs to stand up and be counted.

My hope is that the slow but steady emergence of aboriginal leaders into the public debate is met by a steady shift in white-man’s attitude toward them. The fundamental problem has always been and continues to be a lack of dialogue – the two cultures have for the most part clearly failed to engage. Both parties need to reach out and meet in the middle, even if it is, initially, a meeting at the bottom of a deep valley.

To that end, white man, in his disproportionate position of power, needs to take the lead and the burden of most of the responsibility. One day then, with the Aborigine’s blessing, white and black man will meet, not at the bottom of a great rift, but perhaps even atop a great big rock.

Black and White

Everybody, take responsibility for the standard of living, quality of life and indeed average life-span of aborigines in rural communities. It is THE [Australian] national disgrace! And it’s not about money. It starts with addressing the major disconnect between white and black man that is apparent still. It starts inside the hearts and minds of all of us, black and white.

The Black Man in Arnhem Land

It is a sad indictment all round I think. I do not know of a solution. The problem? The aboriginal situation in Australia. And it’s a severe problem.

Perhaps the beautiful and untouched civilisation — allegedly some 150,000 years old — the oldest linear surviving on earth, is exactly the problem.

Isolated on this great south island with no external contact, to European, or Asian, or even African man, this isolated people’s has not seen different ways and customs from different lands, living mostly nomadically (but within their confines) from one place to the next.

The nomad has not the ability to settle his land, agriculture and animal herding are just not possible or just not on his radar. Settling itself may yet be found to interfere with the sensitive ecological balance, but only Black man hitherto aware of this? And having no external contacts sealed their fate.

And why then did not the Australian Aborigine take to the water and discover new lands? Did they not yearn for what may be beyond the horizon. Where they content to not go beyond wading the littoral land. Why were they different, clearly different from White man, in that way?