BOOK REVIEW: Nicholas Clements’ Black War (Review by Justin Cahill)

the-black-warIn 1976, Manning Clark famously asked “are we a nation of bastards ?” He was writing about Whitlam’s dismissal. But Clark’s real targets were the “heart dimmers”, the reactionary conservatives who he believed had brought down a man of vision.

Similar elements continue to deny that European settlement here led to war with the Aborigines. Generally, historians have tip-toed around this aspect of our past. Reading their accounts you would think the local people had, after thousands of years living here, simply melted away. But they resisted and it’s time we acknowledged the wars that followed.

Other nations do not share this collective amnesia. In New Zealand, the European settlers’ breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi, made with the Māori in 1840, led to over twenty years of civil wars. Those wars have a firm place in New Zealand national history. There are monuments to the dead. Battlefields, such as Rangiriri pā, are protected historic sites. There are movies about the conflict, including Utu, released in 1983.

The frontier wars between the Indians and settlers in America’s west spawned a culture of their own, culminating in 1970 with the publication of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

But, to paraphrase the historian James Belich, while kids play cowboys and Indians, who plays convicts and Aborigines ? There is has been acknowledgement of such a conflict, the ‘Black War’, in Tasmania. It provided the background for a movie, Manganinnie, released in 1980.

Yet recent accounts of our frontier wars have been marred by sloppy extrapolations of casualty figures from primary sources or by simply ignoring Aboriginal evidence. But how much evidence do we need ? The Tasmanians endured for about 30,000 years then, co-incidentally, were reduced to several hundred within 30 years of European settlement. Are we just too gutless to confront past wrongs ?

Clements

Nicholas Clements

If not, we had better steel ourselves. Clements is open about his political leanings and the limitations of his sources. But the contemporary reports he has found show the Tasmanian government, despite humanitarian protestations, planned to rid the colony of the local people, either by transporting them to island ghettoes or simple extermination. His accounts of their fight for survival are harrowing. Apart from detailing the massacres of poorly armed warriors, he provides vivid accounts of how the women and children were captured, used as sex slaves then often murdered.

Clements’ approach is unique that he gives equal space to the experiences of the settlers, soldiers, emancipists and convicts. He acknowledges they were “…victims of their circumstances …hatreds, frustrations, fears and sadnesses.” For example, most of the convicts transported to Tasmania were not professional criminals, but just working class men who fell on hard times. Shipped to the other side of the world and brutalised by the penal regime, they were left with the bare shreds of humanity. Fear of attack from the local people stripped them of even that – reducing them to the level of broken, snarling dogs.

We pride ourselves that we live in a more civilised age. But Clark’s question remains unanswered. Are we to be a stagnant, introverted society living in denial ? Are we still a nation of bastards ? Clements shows we don’t have to be.

Grab a copy of Nicholas Clements’ Black War here


Justin Cahill is a Sydney-based naturalist and historian. His publications include a biography of the ornithologist Alfred North and A New Life in our History, a history of the European settlement of Australia and New Zealand told from the perspective of ordinary people. He has also written on Chinese history, including the negotiations surrounding Britain’s acquisition of Hong Kong and its decolonisation in 1997.

Justin’s most recent publication is the first part of Epitome for Eleanor: A Short History of the Known Universe, written for children. His current projects include a natural history of Sydney’s Wolli Creek Valley.

He regularly contributes reviews to Booktopia.


the-black-warThe Black War

Fear, Sex and Resistance in Tasmania

by Nicholas Clements

‘At its core, The Black War is a story about two peoples who just wanted to be free of each other . . . sooner or later Europeans and Aborigines were bound to clash, but it was Tasmania’s unique circumstances that turned this encounter into a ‘war of extermination’.’

Between 1825 and 1831 close to 200 Britons and 1000 Aborigines died violently in Tasmania’s Black War. It was by far the most intense frontier conflict in Australia’s history, yet many Australians know little about it. The Black War takes a unique approach to this historic event, looking chiefly at the experiences and attitudes of those who took part in the conflict. By contrasting the perspectives of colonists and Aborigines, Nicholas Clements takes a deeply human look at the events that led to the shocking violence and tragedy of the war, detailing raw personal accounts that shed light on the tribes, families and individuals involved as they struggled to survive in their turbulent world.

The Black War presents a compelling and challenging view of our early contact history, the legacy of which reverberates strongly to the present day.

About the Author

Dr Nicholas Clements is an honorary research associate in the School of Humanities at the University of Tasmania. Born in rural Tasmania in 1982, he now lives in Launceston. Nick is an avid rock climber and bushwalker, whose passion for Tasmania’s landscape and history inspired him to write The Black War.

Grab a copy of Nicholas Clements’ Black War here

BOOK REVIEW: Charles Bean by Ross Coulthart (Review by Justin Cahill)

Charles Bean, Australia’s official correspondent during the Great War, is one of Australia’s most influential historians. He was, almost single-handedly, responsible for creating one of the most treasured aspects of our national psyche – the Anzac legend.

To Bean, the men Australia sent to the Great War were a heroic ‘race apart’, whose self-sacrifice, courage and valour gave a new birth to our national identity. He later commemorated their achievements in his Official History of Australia in the War and his role in establishing the Australian War Memorial.

A century on, many thousands of descendants still gather at memorials each Anzac Day to remember those lost at war. With about 25 members of my extended family having served in the War, the Anzac legend is a significant part of my own history.

The legend has not remained unchallenged. Some have labelled it an embarrassing glorification of war. It was the target of Alan Seymour’s 1958 play, The One Day of the Year, and as the Great War generation slowly passed on, successive layers of the myth were peeled away. The efforts of Simpson and his donkey were, we are told, exaggerated. Anzacs, it appears, attacked Egyptian civilians, destroying their business premises and homes.

For decades, Bean’s name was a byword for nationalist propaganda. My generation certainly viewed his work with, at best, suspicion and, at worst, disdain. Was this fair? Coulthart’s sympathetic, yet scrupulously balanced account shows we may have rushed to judgement. Bean was a hands-on historian. He got as close to the front as possible, often exposing himself to considerable danger to find out what was happening, and showed great courage in rescuing wounded men under fire. He was meticulous in collecting accounts of battles and sifting fact from fiction. He walked the tightrope between his self-imposed duty to report on the War accurately and the restrictions of official censorship with some success.

Author: Ross Coulthart

Author: Ross Coulthart

Bean, like us all, was no paragon of virtue. He tended to forget his place and intrude into political decisions, especially those involving assignments to command positions. He shared his generation’s passive anti-Semitism, causing him to undervalue the work of the Australian commander, Sir John Monash. To his credit, Bean had a degree of insight into his shortcomings. He later acknowledged and regretted his errors – a further act of courage some current historians could learn from.

Ultimately, Coulthart asks us to confront the issue of whether historians can provide accurate accounts of what actually happened. This biography is a strong affirmation that they can achieve this. Coulthart has a lucid, engaging style which brings readers up close to this subject – so close I occasionally felt I was hovering over Bean’s shoulder as he worked.

This is among the best biographies of an Australian historian available, fittingly released during the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the events Bean meticulously recorded.

Order your Signed Copy of Charles Bean here!


Justin Cahill is a Sydney-based naturalist and historian. His publications include a biography of the ornithologist Alfred North and A New Life in our History, a history of the European settlement of Australia and New Zealand told from the perspective of ordinary people. He has also written on Chinese history, including the negotiations surrounding Britain’s acquisition of Hong Kong and its decolonisation in 1997. Justin’s most recent publication is the first part of Epitome for Eleanor: A Short History of the Known Universe, written for children. His current projects include a natural history of Sydney’s Wolli Creek Valley.

He regularly contributes reviews to Booktopia.

BOOK REVIEW: Where Song Began by Tim Low (Review by Justin Cahill)

Way back in 1987, while flicking through New Scientist, an article on birds caught my eye. It was about research that indicated the ancestors of Lyrebirds were among the world’s earliest songbirds. Back then, Australia was thought to be a refuge for species left over after it spit from the supercontinent, Gondwana. Songbirds were generally associated with Europe. The idea they had first evolved here seemed so unlikely that I kept the article, assuming the whole thing would go the way of cold fusion.

In Where Song Began, Tim Low tells how what was once theory became accepted fact. This is an exceptionally important book. High quality, up-to-date works on our natural history written for a general audience for are rare. Low generously stuffs his account of with fresh insights. It turns out the Treecreepers that live in the Blue Gums at the bottom of my street evolved from another ancient song bird. The Magpies that pick their way through the lawn only recently diverged from the local Butcherbirds. Once-mighty theories come crashing down. I was taught New Zealand’s endemic flightless birds, including the Kiwi, only survived as it had split from Gondwana just before mammals big enough to eat them evolved. It turns out that their able-to-fly ancestors probably came from Australia after New Zealand drifted away and were large enough to suppress the development of mammals there.

Author Tim Low

There is much we still don’t know. The eminent archaeologist Colin Renfrew once observed that human DNA, archaeological and literary evidence remain difficult to reconcile. It’s the same with our birds. While it has long been known that Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea had a distinct birdlife, is only now becoming clear just how unique many local species are.

And how have we treated them? As Low recounts, we have destroyed large parts of their habitat, shot them en masseto decorate hats with their tail feathers, killed their young and collected or smashed their eggs. For decades, thousands of muttonbirds were bludgeoned to make a tanning oil, ‘Vita Tan’, sold to unsuspecting bathers at Bondi Beach. In Sydney, habitat destruction has caused the populations of many once-common species to decline sharply. Some face local extinction.

Low also provides fascinating insights into Australia’s economic history. Before the advent of plastics, we had a thriving trade in‘exudes’, the saps and gums that oozed from our native trees. They were used to make an extraordinary range of products, including gramophone records, cosmetics, chewing gum, paint and tooth paste.

Low’s accessible style makes this a very appealing book for those looking for an insight into Australia’s unique flora and fauna. It is a book you can dip into and be assured of learning something new.

Grab a copy of Where Song Began here


Justin Cahill is a historian and solicitor, his university thesis being on the negotiations between the British and Chinese governments over the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

His current projects include completing the first history of European settlement in Australia and New Zealand told from the perspective of ordinary people and a study of the extinction of Sydney’s native birds.

He is a regular contributor to the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Heckler’ column.

REVIEW: Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 by Max Hastings (Review by Justin Cahill)

28 June 2014 marks the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife, Sophie, at Sarejevo. The conflict it spawned destroyed four empires, brought two of my great-grandfathers to the trenches strung out along the Western front and one of my great-granduncles to Gallipoli.

A library of books already exists documenting every facet of the conflict. The coming anniversary has inspired many more. Can there be anything left to say? Max Hastings shows us there is still much to learn about the outbreak of World War I; that “war to end war.”

Hastings offers three important lessons. The first is on causation. For far too long, the standard accounts of the War’s origins have been dominated by the assumption that Europe’s great powers blundered into conflict. Hastings shows that each made a series of calculated decisions that they knew would lead to war. Nor did they underestimate its extent.

The second is on sources. Most accounts of the War are dominated by the views of monarchs, presidents, prime ministers, generals and diplomats. The voices of ordinary people are rarely heard. Hastings redresses this imbalance, including an impressive range of quotes for their letters and journals in his account.

Sir Max Hastings

Max Hastings

Hasting’s third lesson is about guilt. He makes it abundantly clear that Germany and Austria-Hungry were to blame for the escalation of international tensions after the Archduke was killed and the eventual outbreak of hostilities. And therein lies Hasting’s unspoken fourth lesson.

After the War, Germany was forced to accept guilt for the losses its aggression caused the Allies. It agreed to pay them reparations of US$63 billion (about US$768 billion in 2010, the year the last instalment was paid).

Germany was promptly torn apart by civil war. By the 1920s its economy was crippled by hyperinflation; the Depression wiped out what remained. Hundreds of thousands lost their jobs, savings and homes. Who could lead Germany out of the darkness? Cue the rise of Adolf Hitler, already undergoing his metamorphosis from Viennese derelict to genocidal psychopath.

The rest is not quite history. We still live with the War’s ultimate results; all arguably caused by two gunshots one sunny day in Sarajevo. Hasting’s book is a timely reminder the past is never that far away. And it always has something more to tell.

Grab a copy of Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 here


Justin Cahill is an historian and solicitor, his university thesis being on the negotiations between the British and Chinese governments over the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

His current projects include completing the first history of European settlement in Australia and New Zealand told from the perspective of ordinary people.

He is a regular contributor to the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Heckler’ column.

The Vatican Diaries: A Review from Guest Blogger Justin Cahill

Guest Blogger Justin Cahill shares his thoughts on John Thavis’ much talked about book The Vatican Diaries.

What is it about large, hierarchical institutions that attracts so much interest? Is it their enormous wealth and power? The eccentricities of their leaders? When that leader is, in name at least, Jesus Christ, and its power are said to include universal salvation, such questions assume vital interest. In his Vatican Diaries, John Thavis sets out to answer them. A ‘vaticanista’ (Vatican journalist) for 30 years, Thavis eagerly follows in the footsteps of Bill Shirer and Tim Crouse to give us some insight into how this two thousand year old behemoth works.

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