Ancient footsteps

Mercury, Greg Lehman, p. C13

Aboriginal academic Greg Lehman draws back the veil on Tasmania”s secret heritage
TO LIVE in Tasmania is to exist in the eye of a quiet, relentless storm. Famed for its vast wilderness reserves, placid lakes and tranquil forests, in recent years Tasmania has become an internationally recognised tourist destination and a tree-change” refuge for Australians seeking an escape from the clutter of urban life. Yet, despite the cleanest of air, our gourmet produce and a thriving culture of literary and visual arts, Tasmania harbours a dark and threatening secret.
From its meagre beginnings in 1803, the colony of Van Diemens Land seemed destined to become a jewel in the colonial crown of Britain. Seal skins were exported for leather, felt and fur. Then, following the collapse of seal populations, whale oil became a number one export lighting the streets of London, and lubricating the machinery of the industrial revolution.
Hobart Town quickly became one of the most important British ports in the South Pacific, with a surprisingly cosmopolitan population drawn from almost every continent.
The quality of life that we now enjoy in Tasmania owes its beginnings to these early days. But, just out of sight of the tourists, beyond the day-to-day thoughts of its residents; the island continues to harbour a dark and unresolved history that comes to haunt all who linger here.
The decimation of our seal and whales species has been rejected for decades as an unacceptable economic activity. Following years of tortuous politics and economic folly, we have now come to the same understanding about the clear felling of our forests. Such destructive exploitation has been common across the globe and we do not stand alone in sharing this shame. But there is one task to which the colony dedicated itself that makes us more unique – and the results of this deadly quest continues to haunt the very landscape that surrounds us.
It was within a year of the first European settlement that the colony of Van Diemens Land took its first confused steps towards a conflict with the Tasmanian Aboriginal nations that soon descended into wholesale extermination. The Black War was begun when Governor Arthur declared Martial Law in 1828 “against all the black or aboriginal Natives within every part of this island”. George Arthur called for Aborigines to be expelled by force” from the settled districts by “whatever means a severe and inevitable necessity may dictate”.
Such was the desire in Tasmania for Aborigines to be gone, that Truganini was enthusiastically declared to be the last of her people, despite numerous of her kin and their children continuing to survive and assert their rights.
For most, this is a terrible and unimaginable period of our history. It is a subject that few Tasmanians today can willingly discuss. But for those of us who are descended from the survivors of this attempted genocide, it is an intrinsic part of our heritage. Indeed, it is an unavoidable element of the heritage of all Tasmanians.
Surrounded by such a horrendous past, what can we do? Attempts to ignore or deny our history have all failed. The world does not forget great injustices. Raphael Lemkin, the Jewish scholar who first coined the term `genocide” in 1943, referred to Tasmania as a textbook example.
But the answer might not be as difficult as we imagine. We need only to look to the most infamous perpetrator of modern genocide to see the answers. Germany has, since the Nuremburg Trials in 1946, committed itself to owning” its past. With no option of trying to ignore the consequences of Hitler”s policies, it has embraced its responsibilities for reparation and remembrance. Holocaust museums and places of remembrance have become powerful sites of healing and redemption for today”s German people, as well as millions of tourists who come to share the sorrow of man”s inhumanity to man.
Tasmania has its equivalent places. Wybalenna and Oyster Cove were internment camps, where Aboriginal Tasmanians were banished and left to die. Risdon Cove was the site of Tasmania”s first Aboriginal massacre. While these have been returned to the Aboriginal community through land rights legislation, there has been no support from either private or public sources to establish the heritage centres and keeping places that the community has wanted for so long.
These are needed not just by Aborigines, but by the whole Tasmanian community. They provide the opportunity for practical reconciliation. The wonderful contribution of Hobart”s Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston and the small but important Tiagarra Cultural Centre and Museum in Devonport are not enough. Living cultures also exist outside of museum walls.
Aboriginal heritage must not be limited to places of suffering and sadness. As Aboriginal Heritage Officer Daryl West once said to me: “This whole island is an Aboriginal site!” Nowhere in Tasmania is far from material reminders of this land”s 40,000 years of human history. Stone tools can be found almost everywhere. The community”s cultural custodians continue to gather their materials for the traditional practices of shell necklace and basket making.
Tasmania”s shell middens and rock art are widely respected as amongst the oldest in the world. And the results of Aboriginal fire management can be seen throughout our dry forests and grasslands. Yet these are threatened every day by changing land use, careless development, vandalism and theft. The law currently offers minimal protection to these unique cultural places. Of immense importance to Tasmanian Aboriginal people, they are also priceless educational resources for future generations of Tasmanians to be able to understand the incredible cultural heritage of an island that has much more than just a convict past.
Each of these examples of Tasmania”s Aboriginal heritage offer us all an opportunity to share in Tasmania”s deep and rich human history, and to acknowledge and engage with the events of the past that continue to influence all of our lives today. Aboriginal heritage in Tasmania remains an untapped resource for the social and cultural development of the state. Its huge economic potential has yet to be fully realised.
As you read this, the Tasmanian Government is developing new heritage legislation to replace the outmoded Aboriginal Relics Act of 1976. We must all hope that the urgent and profound need for healing on this island will motivate Cabinet to show leadership and vision in the way that Tasmania”s Aboriginal heritage is embraced. Tasmanians have lived under a cloud for far too long. Brave action is required to own our past and face our future together.
Aboriginal culture and heritage is vastly undervalued. Many Tasmanians are yet to come to terms with the violent history of the state. HERITAGE
Tasmania”s landscape is loaded with ancient heritage. Tasmanian Aboriginal culture is unique in the world.