As mentioned in an earlier post, the Aboriginal Tasmanians were the indigenous people of the Australian state of Tasmania, located south of the continent of Australia. The island was originally called Van Diemen’s Land and the indigenous peoples referred to themselves as Parlevar or Palawa. Prior to European colonisation in 1803, their population has been estimated between 3,000–15,000. Apparently obtaining accurate figures was problematic, possibly due to the elusive nature of the Palawa.
Several historians record that introduced diseases were the major cause of the destruction of the full-blooded Palawa, but author Geoffrey Blainey documented that by 1830 in Tasmania: “Disease had killed most of them but warfare and private violence had also been devastating.”
Other historians regard the Black War as one of the earliest recorded modern genocides. American historian, and genocide specialist, Benjamin Madley wrote: “Despite over 170 years of debate over who or what was responsible for this near-extinction, no consensus exists on its origins, process, or whether or not it was genocide” however, using the “U.N. definition, sufficient evidence exists to designate the Tasmanian catastrophe genocide.”
While it may be more comfortable, in this day and age, to attribute the demise of the Palawa to diseases introduced by European settlement, the active measures taken by both settlers and government alike to rid the island of its indigenous population cannot be ignored.
Between 1825 and 1831 a pattern of guerilla warfare by the Aboriginal Tasmanians was identified by the colonists, some of whom acknowledged the Aboriginal people as fighting for their country. Rapid pastoral expansion and an increase in the colony’s population triggered Aboriginal resistance from 1824 onward when it has been estimated by Professor Lyndall Ryan, and Australian academic, that 1000 Aboriginal people remained in the settled districts. Whereas settlers and stock keepers had previously provided rations to the Aboriginal people during their seasonal movements across the settled districts, and recognised this practice as some form of payment for trespass and loss of traditional hunting grounds, the new settlers and stock keepers were unwilling to maintain these arrangements and the Aboriginal people began to raid settlers’ huts for food. The official Government position was that Aboriginal people were blameless for any hostilities, but when an aboriginal man named “Musquito” was hanged in 1825, a significant debate was generated which split the colonists along class lines. The “upper class” saw the hanging as a dangerous precedent and argued that Aboriginal people were only defending their land and should not be punished for doing so. The general population, or “lower class” of colonists, wanted more Aboriginal people hanged to encourage a “conciliatory line of conduct.” Governor Arthur sided with the “lower class” and 1825 saw the first official acceptance that Aboriginal people were at least partly to blame for conflict. In 1826 the Government gazette, which had formerly reported “retaliatory actions” by Aboriginal people, now reported “acts of atrocity” and for the first time used the terminology “Aborigine” instead of “native”. A newspaper reported that there were only two solutions to the problem, either they should be “hunted down like wild beasts and destroyed” or they should be removed from the settled districts. The colonial Government assigned troops to drive them out. A Royal Proclamation in 1828 established military posts on the boundaries and a further proclamation declared martial law against the Aboriginal people. As it was recognised that there were fixed routes for seasonal migration, Aboriginal people were required to have passes if they needed to cross the settled districts with bounties offered for the capture of those without passes, £5 (around 2010:$1,000) for an adult and £2 for children, a process that often led to organised hunts resulting in deaths. Every dispatch from Governor Arthur to the Secretary of State during this period stressed that in every case where Aboriginal people had been killed it was colonists that initiated hostilities. While many aboriginal deaths went unrecorded the Cape Grim Massacre in 1828 demonstrates the level of frontier violence towards Aboriginal Tasmanians.
By 1833, George Augustus Robinson, sponsored by Lieutenant Governor George Arthur, had persuaded the approximately 200 surviving Aboriginal Tasmanians to surrender themselves with assurances that they would be protected, provided for and eventually have their lands returned to them. These ‘assurances’ were in fact lies – promises made to the survivors that played on their desperate hopes for reunification with lost family and community members. The assurances were given by Robinson solely to remove the Aboriginal people from mainland Van Diemen’s Land. The survivors were moved to Wybalenna Aboriginal Establishment on Flinders Island, where diseases continued to reduce their numbers even further. In 1847, the last 47 living inhabitants of Wybalenna were transferred to Oyster Cove, south of Hobart.
All of the Indigenous Tasmanian languages have been lost. Currently, there are some efforts to reconstruct a language from the available word-lists. Today, some thousands of people living in Tasmania and elsewhere can trace part of their ancestry to the Palawa, since a number of Palawa women were abducted, most commonly by the sealers living on smaller islands in Bass Strait; some women were traded or bartered for; and a number voluntarily associated themselves with European sealers and settlers and bore children. Those members of the modern-day descendant community who trace their ancestry to Aboriginal Tasmanians have mostly European ancestry, and did not keep the traditional Palawa culture.
Other Aboriginal groups within Tasmania use the language words from the area where they are living and/or have lived for many generations uninterrupted. Many aspects of the Aboriginal Tasmanian culture are continually practised in various parts of the state and the islands of the Bass Strait.