The Black War – Nicholas Clements

In my latter years I shied away from it – I really did. The history needed to be taught – in fact, it should be a compulsory requirement in our island’s schools. But working with the Aboriginal community to improve the outcomes of indigenous students (one of the most enlightening and enjoyable aspects of a forty year career), I discovered there were divisions within their number over the story that needed to be told and so, from the classroom perspective, I became wary. I stuck to the big picture, the narrative over the whole of the country, conveniently ignoring that of the local peoples. I am now out of the loop, so to speak, so I am not sure if attitudes have changed – softened in recent times. I firmly believe no Tasmanian child should depart the process without a firm understanding of the clash between two cultures on this state’s historical frontiers.

‘The Black Wars’ is a fascinating, often troubling book. Clements has been courageous. He doesn’t shy away. Some of the factual accounts of what actually happened during the period covered does not make for pretty reading. With this whole, decidedly sorry saga, there are two words that have always troubled me – the notion that what happened out on the backblocks during this time was a ‘war’ – the notion that the result was a conscious policy of ‘genocide’. As for the former, the raw figures are minuscule compared to the great clashes of the last hundred years and it always seemed to me that the skirmishes that went on would be better described as a ‘conflict’. But when Clements boils it all down to percentages, then a different hue is cast on the events. It transforms the data. The military involvement he illuminates was also much larger that I had previously envisaged. As a result, ‘war’ now sits more comfortably.

black war

Certainly there were calls for ‘extermination’ as the ‘war’ rolled over from the 1820s into the next decade – and on the North West Frontier on into the 1840s (it intrigued me that the final recorded skirmish of it occurred in the Table Cape area, the very region I spent the final years of my time teaching). During these years, as Clements so vividly describes, the fear and loathing on both sides of the ledger for the other were palpable. For a time the colony was nigh on paralysed by the atrocities committed by ‘white’ and ‘black’ and the terror that ensued. In some sectors of the settler community hotheads did call for the Aboriginals to pay the ultimate price – and there is no doubt of what, by the end, the latter were attempting to do. Of course their goal was futile and they knew it as their attacks went from targeted to indiscriminate. Never was it otherwise that the odds were stacked in favour of the invaders. The problem with all this is that, out in the remote rural areas, officialdom had little control – and the brutal background of many of the ‘white’ transgressors in these locations meant there occurred scenes of unmitigated inhumanity. This could not be tolerated by the native warrior chiefs – they were forced to retaliate in kind. It is worth remembering that, in the period just before the conflict heated up, Van Diemans Land had only just recovered from the debilitation caused by unrestrained bushranger gangs.

Clements, after placing what he intended to do with ‘The Black War’ in context, looked at it largely on the ground rather than in the halls of government. Using the reasonably considerable contemporary accounts to be had – at least on the invaders’ side – he successfully places the reader squarely in the middle of it all so he/she feels the desperation increase for both parties as no solutions to it, other than those of a violent nature, could be found. No soft gloves were used here by the author, as even the nobility of the ‘black’ cause gave way to heinous slaughter of the innocents – as well as the deserving.

Circling around all this was the work of George Augustus Robinson – once the hero of the times (as well as in the era of my own education), but these days more of a divisive figure. It’s his copious journal keeping that has largely provided Clements with the Aboriginal take on the events. The saddest, most heart wrenching data of all involves the incredibly small numbers that he retrieved from the bush as the last of the warrior groups surrendered. The settlers were incredulous that so few caused so much mayhem towards the end. For me much of the territory Clements wrote on was known in an overall sense – albeit not the gory detail. What really came as a surprise was how much of a shambles the notorious Black Line was. I knew how badly it failed, putting that down to the ingenuity of those they were attempting to ensnare. Largely, though, it was the complete mismanagement of the grand strategy by the authorities, as well as the lack of real enthusiasm by the settler/military participants once they had to do battle with the vagaries of a Tasmanian spring in a wild terrain.

Logically sex would have had to have been a factor in all this – the bulk of ‘white’ maledom wasn’t getting any, at least of the ‘legal’ variety, as a result of a substantial gender imbalance. Here the ‘blacks’ could provide a source for alleviating that need. In the main this was foul, unforgiving sex. The ‘gins’ became little more than slaves if captured, often ending their use with a bullet to the head – and the crass class that inhabited the fringes of ‘civilization’ liked their prey to be as tender in years as possible. Ugly, ugly stuff – at its most barbaric out on the Strait’s islands. It is this frontier that Clements suggests is worthy of a deeper examination in a future tome – only, at this stage, he isn’t prepared to write it. This is largely, I would think, for the same reasons that I wasn’t prepared to take what I knew into the classroom. He claims ample documentation for what went on is available and not all of it puts the blame squarely on the side of the colonials. Clements noted that Aboriginal women were used by their men folk as bargaining tools – in some cases readily prostituting their females to gain favour, tucker or other wares.

With ‘The Black War’ Clements complements others working in the same area such as Boyce and his mentor, Henry Reynolds. I would strongly suggest that this book be an insisted read for any educator intending to take our island’s dark history to his/her students. With his research you would also think that the so-called ‘history wars’ have well and truly been put to bed.

To complete this appraisal, here are two interesting facts that the author brings to our attention. The first was that the initial Tasmanians never attacked during the night when the spirits abounded, whereas their enemy usually preferred the cover of darkness to slaughter our first inhabitants in their camps. Secondly, contrary to expectation, although the killing of livestock by the ‘blacks’ was common, what they speared and waddied out of existence was never consumed.


Clements’ tome is a fine achievement, with the author greatly impressing at the recent launch of ‘The Black War’ in Hobart. I had the pleasure of sitting next to his mother at the event and she was justly proud of her son. His work is revelatory to say the least.

From The Australian =

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