Van Diemen's Land: An Aboriginal History
by Murray Johnson and Ian McFarlane
The history of Aborigines in Van Diemen’s Land is long. The first Tasmanians lived in isolation for as many as 300 generations after the flooding of Bass Strait. Their struggle against almost insurmountable odds is one worthy of respect and admiration, not to mention serious attention. This broad-ranging book is a comprehensive and critical account of that epic survival up to the present day.
Starting from antiquity, the book examines the devastating arrival of Europeans and subsequent colonisation, warfare and exile. It emphasises the regionalism and separateness, a consistent feature of Aboriginal life since time immemorial that has led to the distinct identities we see in the present, including the unique place of the islanders of Bass Strait.
Carefully researched, using the findings of archaeologists and extensive documentary evidence, some only recently uncovered, this important book fills a long-time gap in Tasmanian history.
“By the later eighteenth century Tasmania's Indigenous population had reached its optimal peak, and one can only wonder what the future of their isolation may have been.”
Hobart is shaped by its convict past. The imposing architecture of the convict era is everywhere in Tasmania.
However, take a walk on the west coast, or look closely at vegetation maps, and another story starts to emerge; that of an inconceivably long period of Aboriginal inhabitation. The relatively subtle footprint of Aboriginal life on the environment is at stark odds with the pervasive evidence of European occupation. It's a daunting task to balance European and Aboriginal history in the cultural psyche of Tasmania. However, Van Diemen's Land: An Aboriginal History endeavours to do just that. The narrative races through time, breathlessly revealing new implications for modern Tasmania.
This book is already a seminal work in Tasmanian Aboriginal history writing. Johnson and McFarlane have bought together a wealth of old and new research and present a vivid picture of Tasmanian Aboriginal culture and characters. The life and times of people whose names should be familiar to us are bought to life: Fanny Cochrane Smith, Tanganuturra, and Nicermenic of the north-west tribes, Mathinna and her tragic relationship with the Franklins, to name a few. Oyster Cove, the Bass Strait Islands, and Risdon Cove are focal points for horrific tales of annihilation. Van Diemen's Land is a touchstone for students of history looking to understand the legacy of the Tasmanians who came before us.
Murray Johnson has taught and published in Australian History and Indigenous Studies. Ian McFarlane specialises in the Aboriginal history of north-west Tasmania and has taught at the University of Tasmania.
Words: Priya Kitchener