Tag Archives: European settlement

Possession of aboriginal lands by European settlers and the government of Van Diemen’s Land

John Wadsley’s Brighton, Central Highlands, Derwent Valley and Southern Midlands Councils Joint Land Use Planning Initiative – Stage 2 Heritage Management Plan of July 2010 reports: ‘After the initial period of European settlement from 1803, a large influx of free settlers and pastoralists in the 1820s saw a major expansion of European influence and land grants in the central and midlands areas of Tasmania. Settlement along the Derwent, Jordan, Clyde and Ouse rivers forced local Aboriginal bands from traditional hunting grounds and increased tension between settlers and tribal groups. Conflicts flared in a number of areas, with local farmers and vigilantes attacking Aborigines and retaliation by tribal groups attacking road gangs, stockmen and homesteads.

In 1828 Governor Arthur declared martial law against Aborigines after failed attempts to divide Aboriginal lands from the “settled districts” to reduce the number of attacks by tribal groups. By 1830 the number and frequency of attacks by and on had reached such a level that Arthur decided to launch a full scale military operation against the indigenous population in the southern Central Highlands, southern Midlands and south east areas. This became the so-called “Black Line” which was intended to round up Aborigines and move them from the settled districts. By 1831 some hundreds of Aborigines and settlers had been killed over land occupation and dispossession of traditional tribal lands. The Aboriginal population in the Midlands and Central Highlands was by now very small, probably less than 100. Many traditional hunting areas had been cleared of tribal groups allowing further expansion of pastoral activities. The so called “conciliation” process under George Robinson eventually saw the remaining Aboriginals moved off their traditional lands to Flinders Island by 1834, and then to Oyster Cove in 1847.’

Thwarted by barriers

I am deeply dispirited. I have some sad news. My impulsive project to walk from the mouth to the source of the Derwent River will be thwarted by greed and other human characteristics of a negative nature. Despite this situation, I am working on a new plan to reach the source of the Derwent River at Lake St Clair Lagoon in a physical and meaningful way and, once I have fleshed out the details, a future post will offer an explanation.  Meanwhile, after you read the following, your suggestions will be most welcome.

During stages 1-14, from time to time I recorded how access to the actual river edge was sometimes denied me because properties were fenced and gated.  I bemoaned the fact that across Tasmania, in many instances the law provides that property owners own land and water to half way across rivers. While a ‘grace and favour access’ or by ‘a permission granted approval’ process exists in some places, much of our river edges cannot be walked freely.  Yet in so many European countries ‘right of way’ paths and walking trails across the land have been taken for granted for centuries so there is much more freedom to simply enjoy being outdoors.  Non-indigenous settlement is too recent in Tasmania so a criss-cross of ‘ancient’ walking paths has not been established, and the pathways of the inhabitants prior to settlement, the aborigines, either have been obliterated or knowledge of their location is not easily available to the non-indigenous population.

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Photo of the Derwent River taken through a house block on the western edge of the town of New Norfolk.

The damage is done and to repeal laws and ‘take away’ land from owners would be political suicide, and cries of unfairness and for expensive compensation would abound. I can imagine the legislation arose partly from consideration of the practicality as to who or which organisation would maintain the thousands of kilometres of river edges across Tasmania and keep them clear from bracken, blackberry brambles and exotic weeds.

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Can you spot the River through these profusely growing weeds?

While walking for leisure purposes has a history in Tasmania since the beginning of European settlement, our early legislators did not have a crystal ball to see that the 21st century is one in which many people want a healthy lifestyle that involves exploring and accessing our natural environment without barriers.

Unfortunately, a damaging minority of people are greedy, thoughtless, and cannot be trusted to meet their promises.  The consequence is what I found during Stage 15 and what I can foresee for Stage 16.  I soon realised that almost no free/public access to the River exists between New Norfolk and Gretna, and it seems this will also be true for any future inland push along the River.

After leaving New Norfolk on the westward proceeding Glenora Road on the southern/western side of the Derwent River, I soon registered paddocks and more paddocks had been recently re-fenced with fresh spiky barbed-wire.

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Note second fence line inside and parallel to the barbed wire fence line.

This year, the Australian Federal Government budget made a concession for small business owners and granted an immediate full tax deduction for expenses up to $20,000.  My conclusion was that farmers in the Derwent Valley grabbed this opportunity and used it to protect the limits of their properties.

As a child my father showed me how to pass through barbed wire fences. The process is best with two people but one can do it. You put your shoed foot on a lower strand of wire to hold it down, then pull the next one up and slip through the enlarged space hoping not to be spiked by the barbs.  But today’s farmers in the Derwent Valley know this trick. Since they don’t want people on their land, the wires are now extremely taut and the spacing between many lines of wire is only about 10-15cm.  If an adult expects to pass through the barbed wire fences of Derwent Valley farmers then Dad’s technique cannot work.

Barbed wire fences were not my only barrier to accessing the Derwent River.  Gates presented insurmountable challenges.  Almost all gates that I arrived at were padlocked. That hasn’t always stopped people accessing a property because the use of strong square wires or other metals in gate construction usually helps you with a footing to lift up and over the top.  Not so with many Derwent Valley farmers’ gates.  The new gates either are ringed in barbed wire or are wrought iron with high straight verticals which provide no place for feet.  For me these were unclimbable.

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Very occasionally I came across older fencing that had minimal or no barbed wire and seemed very climbable. But alas. These fences had an additional strand attached; an electrified line. Intended to keep the cattle in and from trampling fence lines, these electric fences were an absolute barrier for walkers like me.

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In places, farmers had cleverly left overgrown tangles of thorny blackberry canes that extended down paddocks and into the river, as an impossible barrier near their fence lines.

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I came across signs such as ‘Private Property’ and on one occasion the sign warned that ‘Trespassers would be prosecuted’.

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Even access was limited to the very open Sports Ground at Bushy Park, one which contains almost no infrastructure. This Sports Ground edges the Styx River as it flows into the Derwent River.

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The sign pictured below was particularly annoying because it was suggesting that permission might be given if a request was made. However, I couldn’t get access to ask for permission to walk across the land.  Once on the spot, there was no way to discover who the landowner was and then to somehow connect with them using technology.

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On a particularly wonderful luscious green hill that wound around the Derwent heading for Gretna, one where walking close to the river would have been a great pleasure, the sign ‘Trespassers will be shot’ was a strong deterrent.

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During my walk I had decided that perhaps anglers had not respected the limited access they were given to the River at key points, via styles over fences. I mused that perhaps fishermen had strayed further than permitted, wrecked fences and generally not left the land as they found it.

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Blog follower Jo told me a story of how a few men had prearranged with a landowner to come and fish in his dam. After their weekend of fishing they emailed the landowner with thanks for the opportunity to take home 50kgs of fish. Needless to say, this greed was rewarded by the owner telling the fishing party never again to ask for permission to enter his land.

Later at the Gretna Green Hotel where I waited for the bus back to Hobart after completing the Stage 15 walk, I talked with a local about the reason for the impenetrable barriers to properties.  Apparently wood lifting, and cattle and sheep rustling used to be rife in the Derwent Valley until farmers closed their borders.  Not only would people drive onto properties to chop down trees and collect sufficient fire wood for their own personal needs, they would bring trucks in and take loads away to sell.  All without the permission of the land owner.  Similarly, whole cows and sheep would disappear in their droves overnight.  Regularly.  Modern day farmers’ costs are high, their income comparatively low for the hard work they put in, and so they were unprepared to subsidise the living of others. Their fences and gates have become good barriers – not perfect, because occasionally some unscrupulous wanderers bring bolt and fence cutters.  Nevertheless, as a walker with no intent to leave my mark on the land, I cannot proceed.

In my last steps walking into Gretna, I passed the two paddocks through which I envisaged Stage 16 would start. But both had impassable fences and gates with padlocks.  For the next stage, which was expected to cover the area from Gretna to Hamilton via the river, there are at least 4 property owners and who knows how many padlocked gates, bramble congested river edges, barbed wire and electric fences. It is not realistic to ask owners to come and unlock the padlocks and then relock them after I pass through.

While it is true, and you will read details in future posts, that I did access the river from time to time during Stage 15 and experienced some wonderful locations, for most of the walk I was deeply depressed about the limitations under which my project is being placed. I am pleased that writing this post has helped purge some of that anger and frustration. Now that the situation has been recorded, I feel much more ready to be positive again and determine a new way  to reach my goal.  The goal remains the same, but the process must be modified.

Wilderness – what is it?

The word ‘wilderness’ has different meanings depending on context. Dictionaries offer a range of similar meanings:

  • An uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region. Neglected or abandoned.  A large area of land that has never been developed or used for growing crops because it is difficult to live there. (Oxford)
  • An unsettled, uncultivated region, especially a large tract of land that has not been significantly affected by human activities. A barren or desolate area; a wasteland. Something characterised by bewildering vastness, perilousness, or unchecked profusion. (The Free Dictionary)
  • A wild, uncultivated region, usually where humans do not live. Any desolate tract or area. (WordReference.com)
  • A tract or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings. An area essentially undisturbed by human activity together with its naturally developed life community. An empty or pathless area or region. (Mirriam Webster dictionary)

From Old English used in the 13th century, the word ‘wilderness’ is derived from wild dēor ‘wild deer’, wilddēoren ‘wild beasts’, and from wildēornes, ‘land inhabited only by wild animals’. From Middle English, wildern is ‘wild’.

Reflecting on these varying definitions, I realise some of the meanings ring true particularly in relation to the land along the Derwent River between Lake Catagunya and Derwent Bridge (I anticipate this part of the River will take at least 8 days to walk, over three stages).

Lake Catagunya to Derwent Bridge

The sides of the River will be uncultivated and uninhabited. Its dense forest, littered with generations of massive tree falls, will make some sections relatively inhospitable.  The only markers of human kind will be parts where old growth logging has or is occurring, and where the infrastructure associated with dam construction across the Derwent River has occurred and is being maintained.  The area will not be barren, desolate (although I might feel desolate when penetrating some of the denser bush hour after hour), and it is not neglected, abandoned nor a wasteland.  This wilderness will be rich with flourishing flora and fauna, have profound connections with the original indigenous population pre-European settlement of Van Diemen’s Land, hold a social history with the settlers who moved inland in the 1800s and 1900s, and include an occasional contemporary history with photographers, tourists and fishermen.

The United States of America has proclaimed special legislation. ‘The Wilderness Act bans all kinds of motors, roads, and permanent structures from large tracts of American territory. It provides a legal definition of wilderness, as land that’s “untrammelled by man” with a “primeval character and influence”.’  You can read more at this site.  What is the Australian situation?

The Wilderness Society of Aus logo

The Wilderness Society of Australia summarises our state-based rather than national legislation in relation to the wilderness. ‘Dedicated wilderness legislation exists in NSW and SA, which allows the nomination, assessment, declaration and management of wilderness. In other States, such as Victoria, Queensland, WA and the ACT, management of wilderness is provided for under general nature conservation legislation, with varying degrees of usefulness in terms of actually ensuring identification and appropriate protection.’

In Tasmania we have a range of legislation including the most recent Tasmanian Forest Agreement Act that was negotiated to include the requirements of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) – that is, those parts of Tasmania which have been recognised with World Heritage listing for their natural and cultural heritage that is important to the world community.  Tasmania’s Nature Conservation Act talks about biological and geological diversity, and historic sites and provides regulation for our fauna (and strangely it also covers animals which do not live in Tasmania such as dingos and wolves) and flora. The word ‘wilderness’ does not appear.

stock-photo-64271807-walking-boot-and-bike-tread-marks-on-muddy-trail(Image is a free iStock photo)

The land on which I will walk has been walked for thousands of years originally by our indigenous ancestors and more recently by their descendants and European settlers. However, there will be parts on my trek which will not have had many footfalls because of the isolation and the forest density.  Unless there was a purpose such as surveying the Derwent River as part of planning to build dams, sensible people would travel from Lake St Clair towards the coast  via the region around the township of Ouse, or by more hospitable routes. With or without the word ‘wilderness’ being written into our state legislation, much of the inland edges of the Derwent River edge are undoubtedly genuine wilderness.

The weather in southern Tasmania

The early non-indigenous settlers in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), almost all of whom were formerly residents of the typically rainswept and cool British Isles or had lived in hot India, documented their thoughts on the weather.

Their descriptions of our weather were usually based on comparisons with the situation from which they had relocated. Generally the impression given is that the weather on this island is temperate, irritatingly variable, and considerably easier to live with compared to that experienced in the settlers’ original homelands. For example, in James Bischoff’s “Sketch of the History of Van Diemen’s Land” written in 1832, there are many references to the climate and its relationship to agriculture and animal husbandry. More generally he says: ‘To one accustomed to the moist climate and plentifully watered countries of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Van Diemen’s Land, at first sight, may present a dry and unproductive appearance; but upon a nearer acquaintance, it will put on a more inviting aspect.’  It was ‘the regularity and salubrity of its climate’ which Bischoff found attractive.  The author also claims that ‘A book was published at Calcutta, in 1830, giving an account of Van Diemen’s Land, principally intended for the use of persons residing in India, and shewing the advantages it holds out to them for their residence; the following is extracted from that work: Its climate seems so well adapted to the renovating of the constitution of those who have suffered from their residence in India, that it only requires to be pointed out, and the easiest manner of getting there made known, as also the cheapness and comfort of living, when there, to turn the tide of visitors to the Cape and the Isle of France, towards its shores.’

Godwins Guide to Emigrants to VDL

Godwin’s “Emigrants Guide to Van Diemen’s Land more properly called Tasmania held in the collection of the State Library of Victoria, written in 1823, offers the following: ‘This island has to boast of perhaps the most salubrious and congenial climate of any in the known world, for our European constitution: It has been ascertained by the thermometer to be similar to that of the south of France; the general temperature being about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and the extremes from 43 to 80 degrees. The spring commences early in August, the summer in November, the autumn in March, and the winter in May. The winter, therefore, is not of more than three months’ duration, and the severest part only six weeks.’

Ros Haynes writes on a University of Tasmania site in 2006 ‘In most areas there was adequate rainfall, the climate was more conducive to growing the crops they were used to …. The temperature was also considered more invigorating than the heat and humidity that enervated settlers in the other Australian colonies. Van Diemen’s Land was soon marketing itself as the ‘Sanatorium of the South’, famous for its flowers, fruit and healthy inhabitants.’

Dixons cover

John Dixon, in his 1839 book (available as an E-book) “The Condition and Capabilities of Van Diemen’s Land, as a Place of Emigration: Being the Practical Experience of Nearly Ten Year’s Residence in the Colony“, explained, ‘Lingering illness is seldom heard of in Van Diemen’s Land: and, in consequence, the deaths always seem to be sudden.  These seeming sudden deaths may contribute to praise of the climate: for they may improve its salutary influence, by sustaining the body in health longer there, than in the climate of another country.

These days we would describe our climate as being cool temperate with four distinct seasons. However, across the island, our temperature and rainfall ratings vary according to topography, nearness to the coast and time of the year.  Despite Tasmania’s capital city Hobart being the Australian capital city located closest to South Pole, it is known as the nation’s driest capital city.  By contrast, parts of the west coast of Tasmania expects rain for more than 300 days each year – I lived in Queenstown once and it rained for three weeks straight leaving me feeling very sun deprived.

Helpful tip

When you visit Tasmania for the first time, you will find any and everyone will be happy to talk with you about the weather – for many minutes at a time.  Such conversations may help you to make new friends.  However, please avoid some pitfalls. If you normally live in a super cold climate it may not be appropriate to say our weather is so mild and lovely here, when powder snow tops our mountains in the distance and light drizzle saturates the ground – because we may not think highly of the weather under those circumstances.  Similarly if you come from a very hot climate it may not be appropriate to say the weather is so gorgeously moderate here when we have a 35 Celsius degree day, because it is likely we will consider that to be a hot day. I guess we all have our peculiarities.

Searching for aboriginal history along the Derwent River; rethinking my approach

Thanks to the clarity of writing in Greg Lehman’s chapter ‘Telling us True’ (Manne, R Ed. 2003 Whitewash On Keith Windshuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne), I am rethinking my approach to ‘discovering’ and reporting on the ‘true story’ of aborigines living along the Derwent River prior to European settlement.

Whitewash book cover

Greg explains “In Aboriginal English, the word ‘true’ has a very specific intent, but a rather elusive meaning. ‘Aw – true!?’ will be a familiar phrase to anyone who knows blackfellas. It is a question of authenticity and at the same time of an apprehension of reality. The phrase encompasses much of what it is to communicate within a cultural space inhabited by Aboriginal people. This is a space within which ‘fact’, ‘reality’ and ‘certainty’ are secondary considerations to the act of communication. ‘Having a yarn’ is more governed by the protocols of respect, trust and companionship than by the imperative to explore the veracity of a statement. Rather than listening with an expectation of photo-accurate observations of a subject, hearers of a ‘yarn’ listen for meaning, nuance and metaphor. And only by knowing the person speaking – or at least her family – are you likely to get more than a minimum of what is really being said. For us, the ‘truth’ is made up of countless, contradictory, ironic and provocative elements, woven together into an allegorical, sometimes fictive documentation of what it is to live our lives.”

One implication of this comment is that all ‘facts’ cannot be known nor understandings developed in one meeting. Talking with people takes time and, of course, further chats take more time.  So I feel encouraged to slow down the process of my investigation to allow for a bigger picture to emerge, when I reach the research stage of listening to oral histories.

In addition when I read this comment, I was reminded that depending on our personal backgrounds and experiences we always ‘know’ or believe something to be true and we often then say ‘it’s a fact, I saw it, smelt it, felt it’, etc.  However, experience with friends, colleagues, relatives and strangers let us know that any of our truths is likely to be different from another’s. For example, when police ask two eye witnesses at an accident or crime to detail what they saw, their true stories will be different, even if similar.  So I am left wondering what aspect of aboriginal history can I ‘discover’ and report on without making an interpretation.  Will such a job be possible?

When Lehman added “The historic event, which contains real acts; the archaeological site, containing real artefacts; the human life, containing real experience, are just snapshots in history.  They are in themselves meaningless.  Without an observer or an interpreter, they have no life, no implication for the present and no wisdom for the future. The space between these snapshots is a vacuum that necessarily fills …” I can see that weaving a story around any ‘facts’ in order to make connections will be problematic if I hope to present a ‘true story’.

Further along in his chapter, Lehman notes “…sources of ‘social understanding’ are usually referred to by sociologists as authority and tradition.  But it is an error to consider these as fixed or providing a constant benchmark of truth …” Earlier postings in this blog indicate the start for my research project is the printed and written word of Europeans. To rely on this ‘evidence’ alone would be to forget that any ideas and comments represent limited points of view, and that any ‘truths’ would necessarily be fashioned from particular experiences and the constraints of the colonial environment. Lehman’s comments remind me that caution is required.

Disbelief in a single, privileged truth is what frees us from the power of prejudice.”  I hope I can remember to question every idea that I read, and all those which come to mind. In addition, I hope I will always consider the impact of my written words.

Where will I find authentic and reliable information about Tasmania’s aborigines prior to 1803?

This question has been asked because I am not concerned with researching European settlement or its impact on Tasmania’s indigenous population.

It seems that three categories of information sources might be used for my study:

  1. the written/printed word,
  2. material anthropology, and
  3. oral histories. Such histories might exist in association with the continuance of authentic movements such as dance and sound making.

As stated in an earlier post, the original settlers in Van Diemen’s Land, the descendants of non-indigenous peoples, and other non-indigenous people have left historical written/printed documentation. In addition, exploring visitors to this island before European settlement made written records. Each of these writers will have their own perspective, and so my challenge will be to remember what they write is not necessarily a fact. This means I will need supporting and corroborating evidence of other kinds; material artefacts and/or oral histories.  I do not expect to find any early 19th century documentation written by Tasmanian aborigines – but I would be very excited to read such records if I should find them.

James Joyce, in his essay “Fantasy Island” (Manne, 2003, Whitewash Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne) refuted the evidence of Keith Windshuttle’s book (2002, Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Volume One, Van Diemen’s Land 1803-1847 Macleay Press, Sydney) when he declared ‘Windshuttle can impose his contemporary conclusions on Van Diemen’s Land history only by limiting the selection of sources …’.  Joyce’s position reminds me to stay focused and to explore broadly.

At the moment, I have started working through a mountain of freely available reference material seeking clues as to what I might need to follow up with careful research.  As yet, I have found very little that pertains to the Derwent River. These are early days during which I will come to an understanding of the limitations and challenges of my project.

The scope of my research into Tasmanian aboriginal history

My last post generated lots of interest so this post should clarify my intentions.

Principally, I plan to gather information about the aboriginals who frequented the area along the Derwent River, from the mouth to the source of the River. My research aims to collect and collate reliable and authentic information about the life of the indigenous communities prior to European settlement in Van Diemen’s Land/Tasmania.  In so doing, I hope to be able to understand the value of the River to early indigenous peoples, as well as the way the topography influenced their lives.

This study will not consider –

  • interactions with new settlers, convicts or any other non-indigenous person
  • the effect of European settlement on the lives and practices of the indigenous community
  • the history of mainland indigenous peoples

I suspect I may be challenged to present a ‘before and after 1803’ scenario of the situation for aboriginals.  Others have researched and written on this aspect generally although not specifically focused on the Derwent River, and I am seeking a fresh perspective which is not encumbered by conflict with European settlers in early Van Diemen’s Land.

The periods of history about which I want to collect information, are –

  1. before European settlement
  2. at the moment of European settlement in 1803
  3. some years after 1803 to later in the 19th century – this is deliberately loose to allow for non-indigenous people many decades later who have a first-hand experience, to contribute any information they have about any authentic aboriginal practices – but I will only be looking for those indigenous practices which do not seem to have been altered as a result of European settlement.

This quest will occur intermittently because it will compete with the priorities of my other projects and commitments.