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‘The long shadow of remembrance’: Remembering the debate about massacre in the Black War in Tasmania

Author(s): Lyndall Ryan

Journal: Coolabah
ISSN 1988-5946

Volume: 3;
Start page: 51;
Date: 2009;
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Keywords: Tasmania | massacre | memory | historians | Aborigines

The Black War in Tasmania 1823-1834, is widely accorded by historians as oneof the best documented of all Australia’s colonial frontier wars. Yet debate still rages aboutwhether massacre was its defining feature and whether it accounted for the deaths of manyAborigines. As Keith Windschuttle pointed out in 2002, this is an important debate becauseit reflects on the character of the Australian nation and the behaviour of its colonial forbearsin seizing control of Aboriginal land.To understand how the debate took shape and where it stands today, this paper reviews itsorigins in 1835 and then shows how it was played out over three historical periods: 1835-1870; 1875-1939; and 1948-2008; by focussing on the key protagonists and how they usedthe available sources and methods and explanatory frameworks to make their case. Thepaper finds that in the first period, the belief in widespread massacre dominated the debate,drawn from oral testimony from the victorious combatants. In the second period, the beliefin massacre denial took hold, based on the doctrine of the self-exterminating Aborigine. Inthe third period however, the protagonists engaged in a fierce contest for control of thedebate. One side argued for massacre denial, based on the belief that more settlers thanAborigines were killed in the Black War while the other argued for the opposite case, basedon the belief that the evidence for massacre was now too overwhelming to be dismissed.The paper concludes that the massacre debate today is a microcosm of the wider debateabout the impact of settler colonialism on indigenous peoples; and in particular about thehumanity of the Tasmanian Aborigines as a hunter gatherer people. Above all it reflects thereluctance of many white Australians today, to come to terms with incontrovertibleevidence about our violent past and to seek reconciliation with the Aboriginal survivors.
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