The Tasmanian genocide (early 1800s) is where white British settlers wiped out nearly all the native people of Tasmania (then called Van Diemen’s Land) and then sent the few hundred still alive to prison camps where they died of disease and despair. Truganini (pictured), the last full-blooded Tasmanian, died in 1876.
There were 6,000 Tasmanians. They had lived in Tasmania for 30,000 years. They were hunter-gatherers, each band with its own lands which it hunted and maintained with controlled burnings.
In 1803 white British settlers began to arrive.
Native Tasmanians were, at least on paper, British subjects with the full and equal protection of the law. In practice, though, even when the government knew of “murders and abominable cruelties” committed by whites against Tasmanians it did nothing.
Despite killings, there was an uneasy peace of sorts. Whites lived along the coast. Most of the good hunting lands were still under Tasmanian control.
Then in 1817 whites discovered that Tasmanian lands were great for raising sheep. From 1819 to 1824 the British government took, without treaty or payment, huge amounts of Tasmanian land.
From about 1823 Tasmanians grew increasingly violent. In 1826 Governor George Arthur declared them “open enemies” beyond the protection of the law. It was now open season on killing Tasmanians, what some call the War of Extermination.
Reasons whites killed Tasmanians:
- to get revenge for past killings (1 white = 70 Tasmanians);
- to protect “their” land and their sheep;
- to take Tasmanian women and girls for forced labour and sex;
- for sport;
- just because.
As one newspaper put it, they were “shot like so many crows”.
By 1829, with only a few hundred Tasmanians left, the governor suffered a sudden a fit of conscience. He changed to a policy of “conciliation and protection” – meaning capture and imprisonment.
The government rounded up the remaining Tasmanians and sent them to prison camps, which featured:
- high-salt diets,
- poor water supply,
- separation of children from parents,
- re-education in Christian civilization,
- white respiratory diseases.
At one camp two-thirds were dead within the year. At another camp whites urinated on them.
In 1830 the government set up the Aborigines Committee to look into why Tasmanians were so hostile. It mainly blamed Tasmanian treachery and savagery – not its own robbery of their land.
By the 1850s the genocide was already being written off as “natural” and “inevitable”, what the late 1800s would see as Darwinian fate. Good Christians did not like being called animals by Darwin – but were not above using his ideas when they acted like animals.
In the late 1800s when mixed-race Tasmanians, the children of those stolen Tasmanian women and girls, asked for their land back, the government sent them to Cape Barren Island, where they lived until 1951 beyond the reach of the law. From the 1920s to 1970s the government took their children from them to teach them white ways.
Since the 1990s there have been some land given back and apologies made.
The g-word: Most Australian historians do not regard it as genocide – that would require proof of “intent”.
Source: “Forgotten Genocides” (2011), edited by Rene Lemarchand.