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Aboriginal History Volume 36, 2012

Tasmanian Aborigines: A History since 1803 by Lyndall Ryan, xxix + 448 pp, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2012, ISBN 9781742370682 (pbk), $35.00.

Rarely are we able to witness an academic’s scholarship on the same subject mature across her career. Tasmanian Aborigines can trace its beginnings in Lyndall Ryan’s 1975 PhD thesis, published in 1981 as The Aboriginal Tasmanians. That groundbreaking work was the first history of Tasmanian settlement to reference the field journals of GA Robinson, and the first to conclude ‘the Tasmanian Aborigines have survived’. A second edition in 1996 reprinted the original text with a new introduction and two new concluding chapters. Tasmanian Aborigines might recount the same history, but the text is rewritten completely. It is indeed ‘vastly different from its predecessor’, as Ryan puts it. It warrants its new title.

It is ‘an odd irony’ writes Ryan in Tasmanian Aborigines, that Keith Windschuttle’s ‘key argument that settler massacres were largely invented’ should have ‘become the starting point for important new countervailing work in the field’. Was Ryan’s new book likewise inspired? Perhaps originally, and it will for that reason be read with curiosity and anticipation, but readers will find Tasmanian Aborigines far more than a response to Windschuttle. Thankfully so, for his accusations, which can be boiled down to a handful of mistakenly tangled footnotes (to which Ryan responded thoroughly in Robert Manne’s 2003 Whitewash) could hardly sustain an entire new history, and nor does Ryan attempt to make it do so.

From the outset Ryan attempts to refresh her approach to a field that must now be so familiar to her. Ryan has been inspired by the research into Tasmania’s colonial history. Following Aboriginal Elder Patsy Cameron’s important history Grease and Ochre, Ryan titles her opening chapter ‘Trouwunna’, returning an indigenous name to Tasmania, and all that a name can evoke and represent. James Boyce’s portrayal of first generation Van Diemonians has clearly influenced Ryan’s description of Tasmania’s early agricultural and sealing communities as a ‘Creole Society’, an effective contrast to what follows: the pastoral ‘invasion’ that so terribly altered Tasmania’s history.

The subsequent three parts that recount the war, the forced removal of the Aborigines, and their incarceration, are perhaps Ryan’s finest. Forming the core of her original book, they are here enriched with a masterful command of primary sources and a maturing of writing. The narrative is careful and thorough. We are immersed in detail – indeed over a third of the book is dedicated to 21 terrible years – but it is also suspenseful and page turning. We emerge finally to celebrate ‘survival’. As Ryan extends the narrative into the present, she also, appropriately, extends the simpler idea of ‘survival’ into the complexities of contemporary Tasmanian Aboriginal politics: land rights, repatriation of human remains, stolen generations and the legal debates over identity. Considering the controversial and complex nature of contemporary Tasmanian Aboriginal communities, Ryan’s account is useful and well informed.

Tasmanian Aborigines seems bigger than its predecessor, covering more ground and with improved research, writing and design (including, importantly, redrawn maps). It is, overall, a thorough, chronological account. Ryan gets on with telling the story, largely undistracted by temptation to respond to Windschuttle’s attack. Some important new ideas have, however, been shaped by that controversy.

Ryan’s chapter title ‘The Reckoning’ might be recycled from her first book, but is newly apt in light of the history wars, that saw, as Tom Griffiths put it, historians ‘exhuming bodies from the archives and counting them’. Ryan does offer a death tally, and from this concludes Tasmania’s ratio of Aboriginal to settler deaths was ‘only’ 4:1; low compared to Raymond Evans’ ratio of 12:1 in Queensland, a figure shared by Richard Broome in Victoria. Ryan argues that Broome’s figure should be doubled, and from this concludes that the number of Aboriginal deaths in those three colonies alone is 7,000 more than Henry Reynolds’ estimate of 20,000 for the whole of Australia. These are important new claims that require response and further consideration.

It follows that any attempts to reckon the total number of Aboriginal deaths should be based upon a solid estimate of the Aboriginal population prior to settlement. In this the numbers have varied greatly for Tasmania, but have often agreed at around 3,000 to 4,000. It is significant, and probably sound, that Ryan doubles this number. She attempts to historicise the population estimates under the umbrella term of ‘scientific racism’, in which the Aborigines were variously and repeatedly defined as having been too simple and too small a society to have survived, and thus ‘faded away’. She brings together a range of scholars and projects dating from the mid-nineteenth century to the late twentieth century, including the work of EB Tylor (the ‘father’ of anthropology) in the 1890s and Rhys Jones, the first professional archaeologist to date Tasmania’s occupation in the 1960s. This theoretical basis is arguably too broad and too blunt. Many of these scholars were interested in the effects of Tasmania’s isolation, particularly in light of the Aborigines’ relatively Spartan material culture, and while their ideas may now appear archaic and racist, few, if any, listed by Ryan were motivated to justify the then-assumed idea of extinction as natural. Windschuttle was. He took the lowest population estimate of 2,000 in order not only to have were fewer Aborigines die, but to argue that they were too vulnerable to have survived anyway. If he misrepresented many of these older scientific ideas to serve this purpose, there is no need to do so again.

Windschuttle’s real target – or perhaps his lure – was arguably not Ryan’s careful account of war with its positive ending of survival, but an older, popular perception of Tasmanian history born from the myth of extinction. Since the late nineteenth century, Tasmania has been widely cited as Australia’s – even the British Empire’s – darkest hour. By the 1970s, in the first-wave of anti-colonial politics, Tasmania’s story of extinction was recast (particularly in international scholarship and popular media) within a framework of genocide. Indeed for a time the terms ‘extinction’ and ‘genocide’ (as Ann Curthoys observes) became interchangeable in the Tasmanian context.

Ryan’s first book described the contemporary Tasmanian Aborigines as ‘victims of a conscious policy of genocide’, but perhaps because of the term’s association with extinction (and her focus on survival) it did not pursue the idea further. Since then, Henry Reynolds has argued that Tasmania does not offer a definitive case of genocide, while Curthoys has disagreed. In Tasmanian Aborigines Ryan describes the settler colonial society as having ‘genocidal behaviour’, and she finds it ‘impossible not to agree’ with Boyce’s assessment that removal of the Aboriginal western nations was ‘an act of ethnic cleansing that was tantamount to genocide’. But here her discussion on genocide closes. Considering the sophisticated nature of the discussions on genocide in Tasmania since the publication of her first book, Ryan’s opinion would be welcome, not only on the technical applicability of genocide, but also its meanings within the broader representations of, and intense controversies over, Tasmania’s colonial history.

Tasmanian Aborigines does not, however, aim to be a reflective history. It is an informative, formidable and fact-driven history of Tasmania’s Aboriginal people, and in this is unparalleled and almost faultless. Reliable and solid in its research, Tasmanian Aborigines is also fuelled by evident compassion. This is a book that will extend and enrich the understandings of Tasmania’s past.

Rebe Taylor

University of Melbourne

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