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Aboriginal History, Volume 38, 2014

The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania by Tom Lawson, 263 pp, I B Tauris, London, England, 2014, ISBN 9781780766263 (hbk), $49.95.

Tom Lawson’s specific field of research expertise is genocide. Based in England where he is a Professor in History at Northumbria University, Lawson is best known as the author of several monographs on the Holocaust, including one in which he investigated the Church of England’s attitudes and responses towards that momentous mid-twentieth-century event. The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania follows a similar vein, but focuses on a different time and place, nineteenth century Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). More specifically he addresses Britain’s role in what he has termed the ethnic cleansing of Van Diemen’s Land, in the context of Lieutenant Governor George Arthur’s declaration of martial law in the colony. He examines the Black Line operation against the island’s rapidly declining Aboriginal population, the Black War, and George Augustus Robinson’s conciliatory ‘friendly mission’ as well as its aftermath.

Lawson’s express purpose in The Last Man was not to write a Tasmanian history per se, but to actively intervene into contemporary British culture (which, he contended, has grown somewhat smug after having been able to point the finger at Germany in the wake of World War Two) through reinscribing some of the atrocities committed by the former British Empire as it extended its global reach. While his Tasmanian case study was initially intended to form part a wide-ranging study of a global history of British involvement in genocide, Lawson found ‘that the interactions between genocide in Tasmania and British history were so intricate, multi-layered and long-standing that that case alone demanded a specific book’ (p. xviii).

The ‘last man’ from whom Lawson’s book takes its title was William Lanne, also known as ‘King Billy’, who, when he died in 1869, was widely lamented as having been the last male Tasmanian Aboriginal person and whose remains were infamously desecrated within hours of his passing. While allegedly carried out by a colonial surgeon, the theft of Lanne’s cranium took place because of the perceived value of the illicitly acquired material to scientists of race (specifically Edinburgh-based phrenologists), thus explicitly linking the colonial medico’s actions with his British homeland. This infamous episode functions metonymically for Lawson’s construction of the relationship between Britain and its island colony. He convincingly argues that it was the British colonisation of Van Diemen’s Land, and the enactment of British policy in the Australian colonies, that resulted in the near extinction of Van Diemen’s Land’s Aboriginal population.

As John Connor noted in his endorsement of the book (printed on the rear of the dust jacket), The Last Man, while ‘clearly written, accessible and strongly argued’, is also ‘obviously controversial’. Indeed, in the first of his six chapters Lawson devotes considerable attention to defining his use of terminology, including the word ‘genocide’, claiming that he is far from being the first historian to apply this concept in the Tasmanian context. The author has traced the emergence of discourses of ‘extermination’ and ‘extirpation’ back to the early years of the colony, with published histories printed as early as Hobart-based newspaperman Henry Melville’s 1835 History of the Island of Van Diemen’s Land highlighting the devastating consequences of colonisation for the island’s Aboriginal inhabitants (p. 8). After World War Two, according to Lawson, the ‘author of the idea of genocide, Raphael Lemkin … included the Tasmanian case study in his projected history of the concept’. Lemkin, Lawson has contended, drew heavily on James Bonwick’s The Last of the Tasmanians, published in London in 1870, in framing this concept (p. 9). It is largely on this basis that Lawson has confidently applied the contested term to his depiction of events in Van Diemen’s Land.

In critiquing the contemporary historiography of Tasmania, Lawson has suggested that these more recent histories in their detailed focus on the local, while valuable, have inadvertently written out the metropolitan centre. In the chapters that follow, he writes London back into the equation with some aplomb. His second chapter titled ‘Genocide in Van Diemen’s Land’ reconsiders the event at Risdon Cove in 1804 (known as the Risdon Cove massacre) and critiques the retrospective significance placed on this as the seminal event that seemingly locked the ‘indigenous Tasmanians … in a spiral of vengeance’ following which warfare and the resultant near annihilation of the indigenes became inevitable (p. 29). Lawson also engages with the Line and the Black War in this chapter, during the course of which he takes particular issue with Henry Reynolds’ interpretation of Britain’s role in this devastating conflict.

In his third chapter, Lawson recasts Conciliator George Augustus Robinson’s ‘Friendly Mission’ and the consequent series of removals of the majority of the remaining Tasmanian Aboriginal people to smaller, offshore islands as an episode of ‘ethnic cleansing’. In so doing, he states his disagreement with James Boyce who recently constructed the deportation as representing ‘a breach with Downing Street’ (p. 70). Instead, for Lawson, the removals represented a continuum of policies agreed between London and Hobart in the 1820s, and were a mechanism for furthering the British mission to colonise and civilise the original inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land. He elaborates this argument at greater length in his fourth chapter, which is devoted to the Flinders Island settlement to which the exiles were ultimately sent, and the ways in which ‘fears of their imminent demise haunted British politics in the mid 1830s’ (p. 91), particularly contributing to the establishment between 1835 and 1837 of a select committee in the British House of Commons that considered the impacts of British settlement on aboriginal peoples across the Empire.

The final two chapters of The Last Man see a shift in geographical focus away from Van Diemen’s Land back to Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Lawson uses these chapters to ‘challenge this assumed separation of a destructive, indeed genocidal, Empire from its British home’ (p. 127). He does so through first considering the extensive rendering through art and prose in Britain of the extermination in Van Diemen’s Land, then through turning to recent negotiations over the return of Indigenous people’s remains from British museums and other collecting institutions to present-day Aboriginal communities.

While Lawson has not delved into the everyday minutiae of life in colonial Tasmania, it was not his intention to do so. Instead, he has engaged with Vandemonian history only in so far as was necessary to support his overarching aim of writing London back into the colonial context of death and destruction at the far reaches of Empire. In considering Vandemonian history at the macro-level of British policy and practice, and in the context of the historic and contemporary reverberations of the Tasmanian past in present-day Britain, Lawson has made a valuable contribution to the historiography. The Last Man complements and, more controversially, contests aspects of, the locally produced canon and will be of interest to anyone engaging with histories of colonial Australia and/or with an interest in the British Empire, its legacies, and Britons’ present-day understandings and conceptualisations of these.

Kristyn Harman

University of Tasmania


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