Nothing to shout about
by Greg Barns
[ politics - august 03 ]
On 12 September 1803 the British Government claimed Tasmania, Australia's southernmost state, as its own, when Royal Navy Lieutenant John Bowen and 48 passengers stepped ashore at Risdon Cove in the south of the island. Bowen didn't stay long (he'd picked a spot with poor soil and low rainfall), but in February 1804 the British returned. Captain David Collins set up camp at Sullivan's Cove, in what would become Tasmania's capital city, Hobart.
Thirty one years before the British claim, the French navigator Marion du Fresne became the first European to encounter Tasmania's aboriginal population when he landed at Marion Bay on the island's east coast. Du Fresne was followed by his countryman, Bruni D'entrecasteaux, who charted much of the island's south-east. (The remains of a vegetable garden he planted were discovered at Recherche Bay earlier this year and are now the subject of heritage assessment.) And when another Frenchman, Nicholas Baudin, and his team of scientists, zoologists and geographers spent January of 1802 traipsing through Tasmania's ancient forests and waterways and meeting the aboriginal occupants of the island, the British decided they had to claim the territory quickly.
The Tasmanian State Government and the Hobart City Council want to acknowledge the bicentenary of these events, but for the Island's aboriginal people, such an idea is, in the words of Michael Mansell, the chair of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, akin to acknowledging the work of the Nazis. It is not the French expeditions that Mansell is concerned about - D'entrecasteaux and Baudin appear to have had harmonious contact with the aboriginals - but the aggression shown by John Bowen when he was dispatched from Sydney to ensure that France did not get a foothold on the vast Australian continent. The behaviour of the 19th century European settlers after Bowen is also a sore point.
At the heart of the controversy is the white settlers' destruction of the aboriginal population and culture. When the British settled Tasmania 200 years ago, there were around 2,000 aboriginals: 73 years later, not one full-blood aboriginal was alive. They had been killed by a combination of European diseases and the settlers' gunshots. According to Mansell, there is little significance in acknowledging white settlement when the aboriginal inhabitants had lived in Tasmania for over 30,000 years. Mansell is a long-time aboriginal activist and a key organiser of protests against the 1988 Australian commemoration of the settlement by the British government of Sydney on 26 January 26 1788.
Mansell seems to be having some success in his campaign against the Tasmanian Bicentenary Advisory Committee, chaired by a former Tasmanian government minister, Fran Bladel, and funded by the Tasmanian government.
It has announced that it will not be acknowledging Captain Bowen's 1803 landing because many in the aboriginal community saw that landing as an invasion. On 12 September, Bowen and his men fired shots at the local aborigines; the number killed is a matter of controversy among historians today, but most believe that around 50 died as a result of the British aggression.
However, despite Mansell and the authorities having called a truce on this aspect of the bicentennial, the spokesperson for the Lia Pootah aboriginal community has said that their people "have every right to mark the event that is relevant to their area." Lia Pootah tribal elders and descendants of Lt Bowen will take part in a ceremony at Risdon Cove to acknowledge their 'shared heritage'.
The perceived lack of planning by the Advisory Committee has lead to what one prominent aboriginal leader has called a "morass of politics" surrounding the event. Neither the Tasmanian government nor the Hobart City Council seems prepared to deal with the anger felt not only by many in the aboriginal community over how to mark the anniversary but also by European Tasmanians such as the Hobart Town 1804 White Settlers Association, the group representing descendants of the first white settlers. They cannot obtain Hobart Council approval to place a plaque with the names of 600 white settlers on it on a major city thoroughfare, Hunter Street.
Prominent Australian historians are now advising the organisers. Professor Anna Haebach (an expert in aboriginal culture and history from Queensland's Griffith University) has said that if the bicentennial is going to heal the wounds between aboriginal Tasmanians and the white population, there has to be an acknowledgement of "what the reality was: that there was a conflict and killing. If you ignore it, it just festers. You've got to keep talking about it." Haebech even favours some recognition of Captain Bowen's 1803 killing of aborigines.
Haebech's colleague, University of Tasmania historian Dr Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, points to the 2000 Irish Famine commemorative: the Irish "had a full year of promoting exhibitions, museum displays, documentaries and books and it allowed a lot of Irish people to come to terms with something in their history that had become a grey cloud hanging to one side. That is exactly what Tasmania should do."
So far, there has been little focus on the French contribution to Tasmania. Du Fresne encountered an aboriginal community and killed one of them, wounding others. D'entrecasteaux appears to have been more intrigued by the scientific knowledge that Tasmania's lush vegetation afforded them: his expedition collected over 5,000 plant species in just over a month!
There's only a few weeks to go before the first historic date of September 12 and yet both the Tasmanian government and the Hobart City Council, seem to be moving as fast as possible to lower the expectations (and thus the temperature) of the event - neither refers to this historic milestone on their web page. But the long suffering Tasmanian aboriginal community and the white Tasmanian descendants of those involved 200 years ago want to know how their leaders will recognise their place in the State's history.