Monday, 25 February 2008

Book Review: Van Diemen’s Land by James Boyce

John Glover's Mount Wellington and Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point, at the TMAG website

As someone who enjoys the Tasmanian bush, particularly its accessibility, cleanness, and wildness, the concept of Tasmania as being different and comparatively special is important. On most measures I just think the rest of Australia can’t compare, but the things which make our state special are sometimes not obvious, even to those who live here, and they are so easy to destroy or degrade. Here we have a history book which actually makes some interesting observations about how we might relate to our situation today.

This is a very interesting book, in which James Boyce throws new light on the early white settlement of Tasmania. He makes the distinction between “Van Diemen’s Land” and “Tasmania” very clearly. He says in the introduction that his hypothesis is “the character of the island which became the enforced home of over 72,000 sentenced criminals (42 percent of the convicts transported to Australia) does matter. The fact that protein-rich shellfish were there for the taking , that wallaby and kangaroo could be killed with nothing more than a hunting dog, and that abundant fresh water and a mild climate made travel by foot relatively easy, does change the story. The convict’s hell was, thank God, a human creation alone. This book is about the tension produced by siting the principal gaol of the empire in what proved to be a remarkably benevolent land. It sees this paradox to be at the heart of early Tasmanian history, and to have important implications for the nation as a whole.”

Boyce shows how early Tasmania was quite unlike early New South Wales. He points out that the Van Diemen's Land settlers were probably the healthiest people in the British Empire, and this arose from the nature of the land they had settled. Life in early Van Diemen's Land was, while not always idyllic, quite unlike the way we imagine it from our understanding of later history – for example, under Governor Arthur, or as portrayed by Marcus Clarke in For The Term Of His Natural Life. Eventually the authorities realised that the life of the convicts transported to Van Diemen's Land appeared to be better than that which they left behind. It didn’t seem to be a punishment at all.

The view of Tasmania as cold, wet, poor, backward and unimportant continues today. When you read Saul Eslake’s assessment (Talk transcript here) of Tasmania from the point of view of his economic and social data, it can seem a little bleak, although much improved from the deep dark days of the Gray administration. I sat in a room where Saul’s view was presented to a senior manager from Canberra. She took it all in, understanding the implications of some of the negatives for particular segments of the population, but at the end waved her hand out the window at the tremendous view of blue sky and fluffy white clouds behind a sunlit Mount Wellington, speechlessly implying “well yes, some of those things aren’t great, but look where you live!!”

Our value as a state, a people, as communities, is not measured by our wealth, our sophistication, our adoption of new technology and the ways of the “mainland”. Tasmania really is a little different, and Boyce suggests some of the ways this difference developed and perhaps remains.

It just isn’t quite the way it’s seen. We have our problems, but we also have the compensations that come from living in one of the most beautiful places on earth. The original Eden was brought undone, often in evil, corrupt and incompetent ways. How true that is of today.

Dead trees south of Oatlands - 19th February 2008

The violence towards the aboriginals, and the poor whites, is all in this book. Boyce makes the interesting suggestion that one of our major environmental problems was caused by our racism. He offers the opinion that the reason the trees no longer grow properly in much of the southern midlands is the possum population, a population that was kept in check by the aboriginals. Once they were gone, our trees had no hope.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s easy to read, interesting and challenges us to see Tasmania in a different light.

Here's a link to an extract.

Here's Richard Flanagan's review of the book in the SMH.

Henry Reynolds' review is here.

Published by Black Inc. Books ( Melbourne 2008

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