Reviewed by Ian Lipke
This novel by Robert Cox introduces its readers to a man called Tom Birch, one of those almost forgotten identities who lived in a fertile part of middle and eastern Tasmania. As always in attempts to resurrect a person, long dead, there must be considerable research combined with a lot of effort and, sometimes hypothesizing (or as my saltier colleagues might quip ‘guesswork’).
Robert Cox is an experienced researcher. He reveals his skill at every level of his investigations. Though resource materials might be scant, he places his faith in local publications of the time. The Hobart Town Gazette, Colonial Times, The Tasmanian, and The Hobart Town Courier were contemporary newspapers of substance (as much as could be in colonial times). Government publications, such as the Executive Council minutes, were consulted in depth as were published materials of fleeting interest.
Cox can argue that his account of Tom Birch’s life is authentic. The facts, where they are obtainable, stand up to scrutiny, the conclusions that Cox draws from his data are valid to the extent of man’s recorded knowledge, and the third element, the guesswork, seems more valid than not.
The facts are never in dispute. However, there is another element in monograph writing, the attitude of the writer to his subject. Cox supports the natives, the Palawa, when they take exception to white settler expansion of their grazing lands to feed the ever-increasing mobs of sheep. It’s a reasonable, morally honest stance to adopt. But Cox expands moral indignation to relate to Tom Birch, or Kikatapula, or Black Tom, as he is variously known. Kikatapula’s year of birth is unknown but his activities against the white invaders flourished in the late 1820s until his end in the new decade. It is known that he received an exceptional education and was well equipped to understand white ways and develop means of cooperating with them.
He preferred murder to negotiation. Unreasoning anger drove his decisions. Saved from the gallows, he was not relieved or thankful. According to Cox, he was incensed. Why? Cox fails to explain. This is not a slip of any importance. Cox tells Kikatapula’s story in informative, academic language with sufficient warmth to attract general readers. It is a book that an intelligent layman would enjoy. At the same time new materials, new ideas, and new understandings are sufficiently numerous to satisfy the academic.
According to this account, Kikatapula’s life was one of vigour and action, thought and strategy, killing and hatred. Yet Cox reports that certain elements in the white community supported him throughout his life. His end was wretched and lonely. Cox portrays this sadness with the pen of a master writer:
[The site’s] log fence, Kikatapula’s only substantive memorial, ensured that his memory did not immediately die. But, like him, like his great tragic tale, like his people, their songs, their stories, their customs, their ancient culture, it gradually disappeared, effaced by the omnivorous advance of time and tyrant civilisation (240).
An appropriate point to end this review of this thought-provoking, stimulating, carefully constructed account of the life of an important figure in Tasmanian history.
by Robert Cox
$39.95; 324 pp