Aboriginal and European cultures clash at Risdon Cove

1804 was a memorable year for Van Diemen’s Land (later to be renamed Tasmania). Historical records show that in May 1804 a significant and deadly clash occurred between the European new settlers and the peoples of the local Moomairremener aboriginal tribes.

I have been trying to picture the circumstances which might have caused fighting to break out.

Starting with the European settlers

From January 1804 onwards, Bowen sailed to Sydney from Risdon Cove and back again before making a final departure from Van Diemen’s Land in August. It is not clear how many people remained at Risdon Cove while he was away. During the months from February to May, the two officers were confused in relation to who was in charge. It wasn’t until 8 May 1804 that Bowen officially handed control over to Collins.

Another problem is that personality conflicts existed between Bowen’s free settlers, and that there were difficulties working with the few members of the military which accompanied this initial settlement. The contributing factors to the uneasiness between people are easy enough to guess: an environment that is physically unusual and unknown to the new settlers, unpredictable weather conditions, inadequate food and water, no services or shelter buildings available and everything needing to be built, the hard labour required to eat and live each day, the fact that half the number were convicts and not free to do as they please, the fact the other half had to manage and feed those convicts.  In a small community of 49 people, should one person not like another, there would be no escape, and it is easy to imagine in these harsh pioneering days irritability could burst. Even minor civic scuffles would be unsettling for such a community.

In relation to the Moomairremener indigenous peoples

Their land entitlements and living practices had been established for thousands of years. Therefore, the incursion of the European strangers would have started as a puzzling surprise and then proceeded to become a despairing resentment as their land was taken over and their food sources mismanaged. The food stores brought by Bowen’s and Collins’ ships were often unusable leading the new settlers to kill kangaroo and other game for survival. Their means for obtaining such additional food supplies included using firearms. Not only were these weapons unfamiliar to the Moomairremener peoples, they were stronger and more efficiently deadly than the weapons which the aboriginal tribes owned. Without a common language nor shared cultural beliefs, the failure of the aboriginal and Europeans to communicate clearly with each other, set a path towards localised warfare.

According to Wikipedia, on the 3rd May 1804 “a large group of Abo­rigines blundered into the British settlement. The sol­diers mistakenly thought they were under attack and killed some of the intruders. About 300 aboriginals, men, women and children who had banded together, approached the Risdon Cove settlement whilst occupied on a kangaroo hunt during a seasonal migration. The Aborigines had arrived at the settlement and some were justifiably upset by the presence of the colonists. There had been no widespread aggression, but if their displeasure spread and escalated, Lieutenant Moore, the commanding officer at the time, and his dozen or so soldiers, could not be expected to be able to protect the settlement from a mob of such size. The soldiers were therefore ordered to fire a carronade (a small cannon used for firing salutes at the settlement) in an attempt to disperse the aboriginals; it is not known if this was a blank round, although some allege grape shot was used to explain an alleged but uncorroborated high figure of deaths.

In addition, two soldiers fired muskets in protection of a Risdon Cove settler being beaten on his farm by aboriginals carrying waddies (clubs). These soldiers killed one aboriginal outright, and mortally wounded another, who was later found dead in a valley. Lieutenant Moore’s account lists three killed and some wounded. It is therefore known that in the conflict, some aboriginals were killed, and that the colonists ‘had reason to suppose more were wounded, as one was seen to be taken away bleeding’. ‘There were a great many of the Natives slaughtered and wounded’ according to the Edward White, an Irish convict who later spoke before a committee of inquiry nearly 30 years later in 1830, but could not give exact figures. White alleged to have been an eyewitness, although he was working in a creek bed where the escarpment prevented him from viewing events, claiming to be the first to see the approaching aboriginals, and also said that ‘the natives did not threaten me; I was not afraid of them; (they) did not attack the soldiers; they would not have molested them; they had no spears with them; only waddies’, though that they had no spears with them is questionable, and his claims need to be assessed with caution. His contemporaries had believed the approach to be a potential attack by a group of aboriginals that greatly outnumbered the colonists in the area, and spoke of ‘an attack the natives made’, their ‘hostile appearance’, and ‘that their design was to attack us’.” Neither  Bowen or Collins were present at the time of this attack.

Ahhh. The sadness caused by misunderstandings, ignorance, fear and lack of leadership!

Another informative site is http://members.iinet.net.au/~rwatson1/bowen/risdon_cove.htm which includes  20th and 21st century history of Risdon Cove.

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