- The Destruction of
- the Tasmanian Aborigines
- Crimes Against Humanity
- by Professor Runoko Rashidi
- To many, the mention of Tasmania evokes
humorous recollections of the Tasmanian devil--the voracious
marsupial popularized in American cartoons. Tasmania is an island
slightly larger in size than West Virginia, and is located two-hundred
miles off Australia's southeast coast. The aboriginal inhabitants
of the island were Black people who probably went there by crossing
an ancient land bridge that connected Tasmania to the continent
- The Black aborigines of Tasmania were
marked by tightly curled hair with skin complexions ranging from
black to reddish-brown. They were relatively short in stature
with little body fat. They were the indigenous people of Tasmania
and their arrival there began at least 35,000 years ago. With
the passage of time, the gradual rising of the sea level submerged
the Australian-Tasmanian land bridge and the Black aborigines
of Tasmania experienced more than 10,000 years of solitude and
physical isolation from the rest of the world--the longest period
of isolation in human history.
- It is our great misfortune that the Black
people of Tasmania bequeathed no written histories. We do not
know that they called themselves or what they named their land.
All we really have are minute fragments, bits of evidence, and
the records and documents of Europeans who began coming to the
island in 1642.
- THE BLACK FAMILY IN TASMANIA
- The Tasmanian aborigines were hunter-gatherers
with an exceptionally basic technology. The Tasmanians made only
a few types of simple stone and wooden tools. They lacked agriculture,
livestock, pottery, and bows and arrows.
- The Black family in Tasmania was a highly
organized one--its form and substance directed by custom. A man
joined with a woman in marriage and formed a social partnership
with her. It would appear that such marriages were usually designed
by the parents--but this is something about which very little
is actually known.
- The married couple seems to have remained
together throughout the course of their lives, and only in rare
cases did a man have more than one wife at the same time. Their
children were not only well cared for, but were treated with
great affection. Elders were cared for by the the family, and
children were kept at the breast for longer than is usual in
child care among Europeans.
- THE BEGINNING OF THE END OF
- The isolation of Tasmania's Black aborigines
ended in 1642 with the arrival and intrusion of the first Europeans.
Abel Jansen Tasman, the Dutch navigator after whom the island
is named, anchored off the Tasmanian coast in early December,
1642. Tasman named the island Van Diemen's land, after Anthony
Van Diemen--the governor-general of the Dutch East India Company.
The island continued to be called Van Diemen's Land until 1855.
- On March 5, 1772, a French expedition
led by Nicholas Marion du Fresne landed on the island. Within
a few hours his sailors had shot several Aborigines. On January
28, 1777, the British landed on the island. Following coastal
New South Wales in Australia, Tasmania was established as a British
convict settlement in 1803.
- These convicts had been harshly traumatized
and were exceptionally brutal. In addition to soldiers, administrators,
and missionaries, eventually more than 65,000 men and women convicts
were settled in Tasmania. A glaringly inefficient penal system
allowed such convicts to escape into the Tasmanian hinterland
where they exercised the full measure of their blood-lust and
brutality upon the island's Black occupants. According to social
historian Clive Turnbull, the activities of these criminals would
soon include the "shooting, bashing out brains, burning
alive, and slaughter of Aborigines for dogs' meat."
- PART 2
- TASMANIAN DEVILS IN HUMAN FORM
- Group of Tasmanian
- courtesy of Tas
Aboriginal Historical Services
- As early as 1804 the British began to
slaughter, kidnap and enslave the Black people of Tasmania. The
colonial government itself was not even inclined to consider
the aboriginal Tasmanians as full human beings, and scholars
began to discuss civilization as a unilinear process with White
people at the top and Black people at the bottom. To the Europeans
of Tasmania the Blacks were an entity fit only to be exploited
in the most sadistic of manners--a sadism that staggers the imagination
and violates all human morality. As UCLA professor, Jared Diamond,
- "Tactics for hunting down Tasmanians
included riding out on horseback to shoot them, setting out steel
traps to catch them, and putting out poison flour where they
might find and eat it. Sheperds cut off the penis and testicles
of aboriginal men, to watch the men run a few yards before dying.
At a hill christened Mount Victory, settlers slaughtered 30 Tasmanians
and threw their bodies over a cliff. One party of police killed
70 Tasmanians and dashed out the children's brains."
- Such vile and animalistic behavior on
the part of the White settlers of Tasmania was the rule rather
than the exception. In spite of their wanton cruelty, however,
punishment in Tasmania was exceedingly rare for the Whites, although
occasionally Whites were sentenced for crimes against Blacks.
For example, there is an account of a man who was flogged for
exhibiting the ears and other body parts of a Black boy that
he had mutilated alive.
- We hear of another European punished for
cutting off the little finger of an Aborigine and using it as
a tobacco stopper. Twenty-five lashes were stipulated for Europeans
convicted of tying aboriginal "Tasmanian women to logs and
burning them with firebrands, or forcing a woman to wear the
head of her freshly murdered husband on a string around her neck."
- Not a single European, however, was ever
punished for the murder of Tasmanian Aborigines. Europeans thought
nothing of tying Black men to trees and using them for target
practice. Black women were kidnapped, chained and exploited as
sexual slaves. White convicts regularly hunted Black people for
sport, casually shooting, spearing or clubbing the men to death,
torturing and raping the women, and roasting Black infants alive.
As historian, James Morris, graphically noted:
- "We hear of children kidnapped as
pets or servants, of a woman chained up like an animal in a sheperd's
hut, of men castrated to keep them off their own women. In one
foray seventy aborigines were killed, the men shot, the women
and children dragged from crevices in the rocks to have their
brains dashed out. A man called Carrotts, desiring a native woman,
decapitated her husband, hung his head around her neck and drove
her home to his shack."
- PART 3
- THE BLACK WAR
- "The Black War of Van Diemen's Land"
was the name of the official campaign of terror directed against
the Black people of Tasmania. Between 1803 and 1830 the Black
aborigines of Tasmania were reduced from an estimated five-thousand
people to less than seventy-five. An article published December
1, 1826 in the Tasmanian Colonial Times declared that:
- "We make no pompous display of Philanthropy.
The Government must remove the natives--if not, they will be
hunted down like wild beasts and destroyed!"
- With the declaration of martial law in
November 1828, Whites were authorized to kill Blacks on sight.
Although the Blacks offered a heroic resistance, the wooden clubs
and sharpened sticks of the Aborigines were no match against
the firepower, ruthlessness, and savagery exercised by the Europeans
- In time, a bounty was declared on Blacks,
and "Black catching," as it was called, soon became
a big business; five pounds for each adult Aborigine, two pounds
for each child. After considering proposals to capture them for
sale as slaves, poison or trap them, or hunt them with dogs,
the government settled on continued bounties and the use of mounted
- After the Black War, for political expediency,
the status of the Blacks, who were no longer regarded as a physical
threat, was reduced to that of a nuisance and a bother, and with
loud and pious exclamations that it was for the benefit of the
Blacks themselves, the remainder of the Aborigines were rounded
up and placed in concentration camps.
- In 1830 George Augustus Robinson, a Christian
missionary, was hired to round up the remaining Tasmanian Blacks
and take them to Flinders Island, thirty miles away. Many of
Robinson's captives died along the way. By 1843 only fifty survived.
Jared Diamond recorded that:
- "On Flinders Island Robinson was
determined to civilize and Christianize the survivors. His settlement--at
a windy site with little fresh water--was run like a jail. Children
were separated from parents to facilitate the work of civilizing
them. The regimental daily schedule included Bible reading, hymn
singing, and inspection of beds and dishes for cleanness and
- However, the jail diet caused malnutrition,
which combined with illness to make the natives die. Few infants
survived more than a few weeks. The government reduced expenditures
in the hope that the native would die out. By 1869 only Truganini,
one other woman, and one man remained alive."
- PART 4
- THE LAST TASMANIANS
- With the steady decrease in the number
of Aborigines, White people began to take a bizarre interest
in the Blacks, whom Whites believed "to be a missing link
between humans and apes." In 1859 Charles Darwin's book,
On the Origin of Species, popularized the fantasy of biological
(and therefore social) evolution, with Whites at the top of the
evolutionary scale and Blacks at the bottom.
- The Aborigines were portrayed as a group
of people "doomed to die out according to a natural law,
like the dodo, and the dinosaur." This is during the same
period in the United States that it was legally advocated that
a Black man had no rights that a White man was bound to respect.
- William Lanney, facetiously known as King
Billy, was the last full-blood male Tasmanian. He was born in
1835 and grew up on Flinders Island. At the age of thirteen Lanney
was removed with the remnant of his people to a concentration
camp called Oyster Cove. Ultimately he became a sailor and some
years he went whaling. As the last male Tasmanian, Lanney was
regarded as a human relic. In January 1860 he was introduced
to Prince Albert. He returned ill from a whaling voyage in February
1868, and on March 2, 1868 he died in his room at the Dog and
Partridge public-house in Hobart, Tasmania.
- Lanney, the subject of ridicule in life,
became, in death, a desirable object. Even while he lay in the
Colonial Hospital at least two persons determined to have his
bones. They claimed to act in the interest of the Royal Society
of Tasmania. On March 6, 1868, the day of the funeral, fifty
or sixty residents interested in Lanney gathered at the hospital.
- Rumors were circulating that the body
had been mutilated and, to satisfy the mourners, the coffin was
opened. When those who wished to do so had seen the body, the
coffin was closed and sealed. Meanwhile it was reported that,
on the preceding night, a surgeon had entered the dead-house
where Lanney lay, skinned the head, and removed the skull.
- Reportedly, the head of a patient who
had died in the hospital on the same day was similarly skinned,
and the skull was placed inside Lanney's scalp and the skin drawn
over it. Members of the Royal Society were "greatly annoyed"
at being thus forestalled and, as body-snatching was expected,
it was decided that nothing should be left worth taking and Lanney's
hands and feet were cut off. In keeping with the tradition no
one was punished. William Lanney, the last Black man in Tasmania,
- QUEEN TRUGANINI: THE LAST TASMANIAN
- "Not, perhaps, before, has a race
of men been utterly destroyed within seventy-five years. This
is the story of a race which was so destroyed, that of the aborigines
of Tasmania--destroyed not only by a different manner of life
but by the ill-will of the usurpers of the race's land.... With
no defences but cunning and the most primitive weapons, the natives
were no match for the sophisticated individualists of knife and
gun. By 1876 the last of them was dead. So perished a whole people."
- On May 7, 1876, Truganini, the last full-blood
Black person in Tasmania, died at seventy-three years of age.
Her mother had been stabbed to death by a European. Her sister
was kidnapped by Europeans. Her intended husband was drowned
by two Europeans in her presence, while his murderers raped her.
- It might be accurately said that Truganini's
numerous personal sufferings typify the tragedy of the Black
people of Tasmania as a whole. She was the very last. "Don't
let them cut me up," she begged the doctor as she lay dying.
After her burial, Truganini's body was exhumed, and her skeleton,
strung upon wires and placed upright in a box, became for many
years the most popular exhibit in the Tasmanian Museum and remained
on display until 1947. Finally, in 1976--the centenary years
of Truganini's death--despite the museum's objections, her skeleton
was cremated and her ashes scattered at sea.
- The tragedy of the Black aborigines of
Tasmania, however painful its recounting may be, is a story that
must be told. What lessons do we learn from the destruction of
the Tasmanians? Truganini's life and death, although extreme,
effectively chronicle the association not only between White
people and Black people in Tasmania, but, to a significant degree,
around the world. Between 1803 and 1876 the Black aborigines
of Tasmania were completely destroyed.
- During this period the Black people of
Tasmania were debased, degraded and eventually exterminated.
Indeed, given the long and well-documented history of carnage,
cruelty, savagery, and the monstrous pain, suffering, and inhumanity
Europeans have inflicted upon Black people in general, and the
Black people of Tasmania in particular, one could argue that
they themselves, the White settlers of Tasmania, far more than
the ravenous beast portrayed in American cartoons, have been
the real Tasmanian devil.
- INDIGENOUS TASMANIANS TODAY:
SURVIVORS OF THE HOLOCAUST
- The above article was written around 1997
and was a part of an ongoing series of articles designed to draw
attention to the past and present, the history and the current
status, of Black people around the world. In that sense I believe
that it is basically a very good article. It should be pointed
out though that it was written before my first trip to Australia.
More and more, over the the course of time, I have come to find
that travel is a wonderful educational experience indeed, and
that during the process you often come across information not
commonly found in books.
- In November 1998 I was invited to speak
at the World's Indigenous Peoples Conference in Toowomba, Queensland,
Australia. During my Australian sojourn, in addition to the Conference,
I was able to travel to several regions and three states. For
the first time I interacted with large numbers of Indigenous
Australians. The Conference itself was magnificent; a real triumph
and one of the great experiences of my life.
- Even before the Conference convened, however,
I was shocked to meet for the initial time a Black man from Tasmania!
He was professor Errol West of the University of Southern Queensland.
Prof. West (a noted scholar and an excellent poet) and I quckly
developed a close bond and soon became good friends.
- We talked and socialized together a great
deal and it became readily apparent that only the full-blood
Blacks had perished in the holocaust, and that there were Black
people living in Tasmania today. Obviously, this was in stark
contrast to all of the major writings on the subject. Prof. West
also gave me a very different and contrasting view of Truganini.
- My trip to Australia gave me a great deal
to think about and a lot to reassess. Eighteen months later I
returned to Australia and saw even more of this fascinating country,
and I have since learned a great deal more about the history
and current conditions of the original people.
- And the education hasn't stopped. Several
months ago I received a series of emails from a Tasmanian sister
who expressed tremendous gratitude for the article and encouraged
and assured me that the Blacks of Tasmania "are alive and
still fighting for our rights and the recognition that we deserve
as Indigenous peoples." In 2002 I plan to travel to Tasmania
itself. And the education continues.
- Runoko Rashidi is an historian, public
lecturer and writer engaged in a love affair with Africa. He
is currently organizing educational tours to Kenya and Tanzania
in April 2001 and Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand
in November 2001. For information contact Rashidi at RRashidi@swbell.net.
- Note: In 1971, an Aborigine artist, Harold Thomas, designed
the Aboriginal flag. It is divided into two equal halves. The
top is black, the bottom is red and there is a yellow circle
in the center. The black half symbolizes indigenous Australian
people's past, present and future. The yellow circle is the sun,
the giver and renewer of life. The red half of the flag is the
earth. It also represents red ochre symbolizing spiritual attachment
to the land.
- DEDICATED TO
The First World Books
For more information on indigenous Australia!
This article was
published courtesy of Professor Runoko Rashidi
- Copyright ©
1998 Runoko Rashidi.
- Revised: July 1,
2001, All rights reserved.
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