Van Diemen's Land – Murray Johnson + Ian McFarlane

The frontier wars around our country have been a cause, in recent decades, for fervent debate between historians, played out in the media and in books. On our island the years of the so-called Black War caused fear on both sides of the conflict, but ‘war’, given the numbers involved, stretches the definition. Rather, it seems to have been a series of skirmishes, frightening nonetheless; often violently savage for the combatants and civilian populations. It was a battle the First Tasmanians were never going to win, given their decreasing population, internecine warfare, the ravages of disease and lack of fire-power. This was followed by a sad-beyond-words demise for them, only to rise as a recognised entity to again be a force to be reckoned with, in another sense, in more recent times.

Murray Johnson and Ian McFarlane, both steeped in the history of our first peoples, trace their story further in the one volume than has previously been the case, to my knowledge. Much of what ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ contains has been covered before, but the authors take the history from pre-contact times right up to the modern day – in fact to the recent controversy over the Brighton Bypass. The tome included accounts of the atrocious treatment of the Aborigines by the Bass Strait sealers around the time when the first European settlements on the island were being established; the second ‘war’ on the island between the local North West clans and the VDL company which lasted long after hostilities had ceased in other areas; as well as what happened on the islands after the cessation of Wybalenna. This last section was particularly welcome as it covered a stage that I knew scant detail about, a period from 1850 to1970 being accounted for. The traditional story, as I learnt at school many moons ago, ended with Oyster Cove and the death of Truganini. We now know, of course, that the presence of people of Aboriginal descent had a history that continued on.


All of the book is couched in prose that is eminently readable, patently well researched – as well as being, in parts, immensely disturbing. It also introduced me to some new players. The two Georges (Arthur and Robinson) are well known, as are Truganini and William Lanne. Those interested in the history of our state will know of the dark side of John Batman, thanks to Rohan Wilson’s novel ‘The Roving Party’. On the other side there are the resistance leaders such as Woorrady, Mannalargenna, Umerrah and the import, Musquito. And in present times there is a warrior of a different nature, Michael Mansell. But the newcomers to the list are as equal in fascination, as far as I am concerned, as the aforementioned.

Firstly the two scribes introduced me to the combination of Gilbert Robertson and Black Tom. Robertson (1794–1851), coloured colonialist and newspaper editor, was the son of a West Indies planter and his slave mistress. He was raised and educated by his well-connected grandfather in Scotland. Robertson arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1822 as a free settler. In 1828 he led the first ‘roving party’ to bring in Aborigines who had been waging attacks on white settlers. He was appointed chief constable of the Richmond district, but was remarkable in that he saw the Aborigines as patriots engaged in a war of resistance against the invaders. This is despite the fact that his party may have killed outright a number a number of them. He incurred the wrath of the establishment by standing up for the rights of the indigenous people, arguing that they should not be hung for their ‘crimes’, but treated as prisoners-of-war – not a popular opinion at the time. Given that, in at least one case he was successful in saving a life. As a whole the roving parties, with Batman to the fore, generally killed more than they bought in, even after Arthur put a bounty on those captured to be taken, initially, into incarceration. Robertson’s relationship with the Governor was frosty, but he absolutely despised Robinson. Robertson was the first to suggest a conciliator be appointed to go into the bush and peacefully bring out those remaining original inhabitants still scattered around the island. He obviously saw himself in that role. Arthur dismissed this idea, preferring the notoriously unsuccessful notion of the Black Line. Later, as it was obvious what a folly the Line was, Robinson put himself forward as Protector and swore it was his idea alone, even if his eminence vaguely remembered he had heard it all before. Robertson was livid, particularly when his right hand men were stripped from his service to go bush with Robinson; the latter having convinced the Governor to give him the gig. One of these was Black Tom. As editor of a local newspaper Robertson vented his spleen, with the result he was several times imprisoned for libel. All of this angst caused him to quit Van Diemen’s Land to become the agricultural superintendent for the Norfolk Island penal station. He was a newspaper editor in the Western District of Victoria when he died of a sudden heart attack in the middle of a heated political campaign.

His off-sider, Black Bob, was a white-raised Aboriginal who became involved in Musquito’s rampages early in the conflict. When captured he was spared the noose and sent to Macquarie Harbour to serve time. After his release, he became a skilled tracker for Robertson. He was then ‘seconded’ to Robinson’s mob as they trawled the back blocks for native inhabitants. He eventually ran out of steam at the fledging settlement of Emu Bay where he died of dysentery in 1832.

The north-western frontier features again through a female warrior, a Tommeginner woman, Walyer. She’s been sometimes described as the Tasmanian Amazon. Born in the Table Cape area, she spent her teenage years with the Straits sealers; whether willingly or abducted is open to conjecture. There she picked up a command of English. She later returned to her home area with a mini-arsenal of firearms. It’s possible she first used weapons on her own people during her time on the islands, but on returning back to the mainland it seems she was ready to inflict some pain on the whites for their many injuries to her kind, although again historians are conflicted on her exact motivation. She was soon joined by like-minded souls to become the only female resistance leader ever recorded on the island. But she didn’t evade the sealers for long and they caught up with her in 1830 – or again, did she flee back to them in response to the whites, none to happy with her after her rampages along the mainland coast, turning up the heat. When she attempted to kill one of their number the sealers gave her up to the authorities. Robinson, whose progress had been impacted on by this amazing woman, on hearing of this, stated in his diaries that it was ‘…a matter of considerable importance to the peace and tranquillity of those districts where she and her formidable coadjutors had made themselves so conspicuous in their wanton and barbarous aggression‘. It was, he thought, a ‘…most fortunate thing that this woman is apprehended and stopped in her murderous career…The dire atrocities she would have occasioned would be the most dreadful that can possibly be conceived.’ She died in 1831 of influenza. At a time when Aboriginal women were regarded by most whites they had contact with as chattels to be used for sexual purposes and traded, her defiance was remarkable, despite much of her story being unclear.

wayler tasmanianaborigine

Even if they didn’t become warrior-women like Walyer, there were others of the female gender prominent in the history of these times. Richard Flanagan wrote a novel based around the unfortunate Mathinna; Dolly Dalrymple’s achievements are well chronicled as are those of Fanny Cochrane, who made the first sound recordings of her people’s language. Another great voice for the First Tasmanians – and whose story I had not previously encountered – was Lucy Beedon, the Queen of the Isles. She initially came to light when Francis Nixon, the first Anglican bishop of Van Diemen’s Land, visited the isles of eastern Bass Strait in 1856. He was most impressed with her as she had taken on the responsibility of educating the islander children. Daughter of sealer Thomas Beedon and his partner Emerenna, she was schooled on mainland Tasmania whilst her parents were settled on Badger Island. Here she embraced the Christian religion, learned to read and write as well as, eventually, developing a head for business. When she returned to the Furneaux Group she became a force to be reckoned with by all those ‘outsiders’ trying to take advantage of her people, especially in the dealings over the mutton birding rights. By her early twenties she was already a formidable woman due to her massive size and intelligence. She became lessee of Badger island, remained unmarried all her life and devoted herself to managing the islanders’ financial affairs. During her time in the area she transformed it from its perception as being populated byan idle, alcohol-sodden population to one of sober industry where, most importantly, women were treated as equals. Eventually her duties took her away from teaching so she set up a school with an employed instructor. Family fragmentation became, for the most, a feature of the past for now, under her guidance, a future could be had without leaving home. It was a sad day when she passed on, age 58, in 1886.

Lucy Beedon

There are so many other interesting ‘characters’ to be met between the covers of ‘Van Diemen’s Land’. Read of Deloraine’s Paddy Heagon, alleged to have possessed a swivel gun (a small type of cannon) to dispense with the local first peoples. Discover what was the shocking incident that took place at Cooee Point, near Burnie, that almost blew the lid off the VDL Company’s covert policy of extermination in those parts it held sway over. What was the impact of Bishop Montgomery (who produced a famous son you may of heard of) on Aboriginal affairs during his tenure in Tasmania? What was the cause of the feud that schoolteacher Edward Stephens, half addled with drink, had with the community’s policeman on Cape Barren Island to caused shots to be fired? How was it possible for the islanders to cope for so long without any modern conveniences, or any assistance from the powers to be? And in these pages you can read stories of the forced removals of children from their families – another tale sad-beyond-words. Lastly, there was that terrible word – ‘octoroon’.

But times change and in our new millennium, to be of Aboriginal ancestry, is a badge of honour. There is no more of that nonsense of Truganini being the last of her kind, as was so often referred to in school curriculum when I was growing up. Some of what was so wrongfully taken away has been reinstated, although much more needs to be done. Conciliation is afoot on our island, as it is on the big one across the water. Hopefully that will soon be ratified in the constitution. The two authors are to be commended for their wide ranging account of a story that should never be lost in the mists again. It is an account that the venerable Henry Reynolds has rightly described as, ‘A study that will remain essential and relevant for years to come’.

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