Reviewed by Ian Lipke
How easy it is to remain in ignorance or completely forget important events, incidents that happened in history that should never have been allowed to recede from our memories? Who can admit to knowing the details of the Black War of the late 1820s that scourged the southeast of Tasmania? I am reasonably well versed in the history of Australia yet had never heard of Tongerlongeter, the great First Nation leader, who took white settlers to task for stealing tribal land, land that had been under the control of indigenous people for the past tens of thousands of years.
Reynolds and Clements have made it their goal to enlighten us and, in the spirit of true scholarship, to tell the story of a statesmanlike ruler, in tones neither hysterical nor exaggerated. For the uninitiated, Tongerlongeter was acclaimed leader of the Oyster Bay nation of south-east Tasmania in the 1820s and 1830s at which time he and his allies attacked white settlers and tormented the authorities in some of the best-led resistance seen anywhere on Australian soil. Governor Arthur, whose name is known even to undergraduate students of history, found less than common ground with his opponent. The war came to a close as the result of a negotiated settlement, but only after thousands of aborigines were reduced in number to twenty-six. Isolation on Flinders Island saw the passing of a once proud people.
It is no dry history tome, this tale of Tongerlongeter. Startling information is revealed concerning ways the aboriginal people dressed in all weathers, keeping warm through coating the body with ochre and fat. Or huddling close to dogs when no alternative was available. I was appalled to hear of the suffering inflicted on the human skin by canine scabies (133) but was intrigued to learn that the natives did not see the affliction as an infective ailment but rather the result of a visit by an evil demon called Wrageowrapper. That we have lost a people whose mindsets are so markedly different from our own is a tragic shame on us. That we no longer care and, in any case, no longer know, is a greater tragedy that we’ll never understand.
The book we are discussing, not only condemns the grasping greed of the white invader but also highlights the stamina of men like Robinson who, working with intelligent and far-seeing natives like Kickertopoller, were able to end the Black War and negotiate a peace. Only twenty-six of Tongerlongeter’s followers remained alive, their spirits dashed and aware that their rebellion was over. On the last day of December 1831, this small band marched through the streets of Hobart and off into history.
But whose history? I’m a product of the 1950s and 1960s, a university student of Australian history, and I had no knowledge of any Black War. Stanner’s lecture in 1968 called The Great Australian Silence made no impact on me, (I was working for a living) but it did on those who were becoming impatient with “a sunny story of peaceful pioneering” (3). Reports of atrocities, of murder, rape, and killing as a sport filtered through until “challenging, revisionist scholarship reached into every corner of th[is] continent” (3).
It is timely that the story of Tongerlongeter and his people be told, and particularly so by Reynolds and Clements, who have come forward with the story and the supporting evidence of just what happened in the 1820s and 1830s in Tasmania. It cannot be described as anything less than an unforgiveable slur on the activities of mankind.
By Henry Reynolds and Nicholas Clements
Paperback | Aug 2021 | NewSouth | 9781742236384 | 288pp | 234x153mm | GEN | AUD$34.99, NZD$39.99