The Vandemonian War
In The Vandemonian War, historian Nick Brodie turns his attention to one of the most contentious and fiercely debated events in Australian history: the frontier conflict that erupted between Aboriginal inhabitants and British colonisers in Van Diemen’s Land in the late 1820s and early 1830s. He argues, convincingly, that the conflict was not a series of haphazard attacks perpetrated by individuals and small bands of rogue settlers, as it has often been characterised, but an authorised, militarised, co-ordinated campaign orchestrated by the colonial government with the clear aim of eradicating Aboriginal people from the island of Van Diemen’s Land. It was, in short, a war.
Describing the conflict as a “war” is not in itself a radical claim – the conflict has long been known as the “Black War” after all – but Brodie draws heavily on primary documentary evidence to show the complexity and sophistication of the campaign against the Aboriginal inhabitants implemented by the military and civil powers working as one. Indeed, as Brodie repeatedly demonstrates, there was little meaningful distinction between military and civil powers during the period. He depicts a colonial Vandemonian society that was militarised at all levels. From Governor George Arthur himself, who held “the dual role of Lieutenant Governor and Colonel Commanding”, to the landholding settlers who effectively raised their own private militias, down to the individual men in roving parties, sent out to capture and, often on the slightest pretext, kill, Aboriginal people. Brodie shows how this pervasive militarisation enabled a small population of colonists to mobilise swiftly, decimate the Aboriginal population, then return to civilian life and collectively forget the true nature and extent of the conflict they had perpetrated.
In making his case, he draws extensively from the records of the office of the “colony’s senior civil bureaucrat”, now held at the Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office. In the colonial secretary’s archives, Brodie came across a volume of material entirely dedicated to correspondence relating to “military and paramilitary operations against Aboriginal people in the interior of Van Diemen’s Land” in the 1820s and 1830s. Remarkably, considering the contentiousness of subject matter, these letters have been almost entirely overlooked, and very few have ever been “examined, analysed or cited by historians”.
The level of detail Brodie is able to present, thanks in large part to this correspondence, provides a fascinating insight into the ingrained hypocrisy and relentless dissembling of Governor Arthur’s administration. Even as the colonial government spoke publicly of conciliation, humane treatment and peace between settlers and Aboriginal inhabitants, it simultaneously enacted strategies to remove (via exile or death) Aboriginal people from the island via a network of co-ordinated paramilitary bands, outposts, military operations and legislative manoeuvres. The hypocrisy of their position was often in plain view. Brodie quotes the official proclamation delivered when Arthur extended martial law to the entire island in 1830, which stated that the use of arms to capture Aboriginal people “be in no way resorted to” except, of course, if the Aboriginal people in question did not immediately drop weapons and come meekly into captivity. As Brodie says, “Basically anything other than peacefully surrendering meant they were fair targets.” It says much about the hypocritical self-deception of colonialism that in the very same proclamation Arthur could declare, apparently sincerely, that Aboriginal people should be “treated with the utmost care and humanity”.
The Vandemonian War is an admirable piece of scholarship. The depth of research is evident on every page, and it seems likely that fellow historians will build upon Brodie’s work for years to come. For the average reader though, this is a challenging book. It is not the kind of approachable social history we’ve come to expect from our popular historians in recent years, full of descriptive passages and creative leaps. Brodie gives us what the primary sources reveal and little else. It is only in the preface and afterword that he allows himself to become somewhat polemical, declaring his themes forcefully and directly. Otherwise he lets the evidence speak for itself, briefly signposting his arguments, but refraining from imposing a grand narrative or indulging in supposition about events or motives not directly evidenced.
Even the most casual reader is likely to recognise Brodie’s commitment and sincerity, but his approach does not always make his work readable or compelling. Large sections of the book are, frankly, a slog. This is a difficult thing to reconcile when the subject matter is so important, the approach to the material so rigorous and the facts so horrific, but it may be the unavoidable cost of the kind of scholarship Brodie is engaged in. There is so much detail that it often obscures rather than clarifies the broader sense of the events unfolding. Keeping track of who everyone is proves challenging enough, let alone attempting to remember their respective time lines, locations, relationships and roles in the conflict.
Brodie’s rather formal and austere prose style doesn’t help matters either. He is always clear, but even events that are clearly of great import or interest become flattened and dull under the weight of his diligence. He is obviously keenly aware that this is a one-sided narrative, and includes as much primary evidence about the Aboriginal perspective on the war as he can, but it’s hard not to wish that he might expand his purview somewhat to allow subsequent research into the Tasmanian Aboriginal experience to be included.
Brodie shies away from almost any descriptive prose that isn’t drawn from a primary source, which can leave the reader struggling to clearly picture the landscape, people or events being recounted. Even the maps included are strictly contemporaneous, but unfortunately they also happen to be mostly illegible. This latter is a small instance of comprehension being sacrificed for authenticity, but it’s one that typifies the book’s approach – an approach that may cost this book the wider audience it deserves. DV
Hardie Grant, 352pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 12, 2017 as "Nick Brodie, The Vandemonian War". Subscribe here.