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Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania

by Tom Lawson I.B.Tauris
Pub Date:
Hbk 256 pages
AU$54.99 NZ$60.86
Product Status: In Stock Now
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Little more than seventy years after the British settled Van Diemen's Land (later Tasmania) in 1803, its indigenous population had been virtually wiped out. Yet this genocide - one of the earliest of the modern era - is virtually forgotten in Britain today. The Last Man is the first book specifically to explore the role of the British government and wider society in the destruction of the Aboriginal Tasmanians. Although the introduction of European diseases undoubtedly contributed to the decline of the indigenous population, Tom Lawson shows that Britain supported what was effectively the ethnic cleansing of Tasmania - particularly in the period of martial law in 1828-1832. He also illustrates the ways in which the destruction of indigenous Tasmanians was reflected in British culture - both at the time and since - and how it came to play a key part in forging particular versions of British imperial identity. The Last Man provides the first comprehensive picture of Britain's role in the destruction of the Tasmanian Aboriginal population.

Introduction: History, Memory and Genocide in Tasmania Chapter 1: Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing 1804-1832 Chapter 2: Saving Souls and Cultural Genocide 1832-1876 Chapter 3: Memory and Return: Genocide in British Culture 1804-2011 Conclusion

‘’Tasmania is a small place with a rich historiography. Two themes in particular have intrigued Tasmanian story was the intensity of the conflict during the years of the Black War from 1826 to 1831. This was by far the historians and novelists since the nineteenth century and have appealed to film-makers and artists in more recent times. The fate of the Aborigines and the convict system which dominated society from 1803 to 1853 have both attracted notice as a result of their dark, dramatic potential. They were the central themes of John West’s great two- volume History of Tasmania, published in Launceston in 1852. Every year the relevant body of literature grows. The intense ‘history wars’ of a decade ago were principally about interpretations of Tasmanian history in the early nineteenth century, and many books and articles have been published in recent years.
The long and continuing interest in the fate of the Tasmanians is understandable. The tragedy was played out in a confined space over a brief period of time. It was as though the drama unwittingly observed the unities of time and space. And it unfolded close to the major population centres of Hobart and Launceston – not, as so often was the case later in the century, in vast and re- mote hinterlands. The local newspapers reported events only a day or so old, and the efficient colonial government recorded and preserved detailed records. The lay missionary George Augustus Robinson spent more time in the bush with the Aborigines than any other European official in early colonial Australia. His diaries and letters (not widely available until the 1960s) provide a mine of information about his Aboriginal travelling companions.
Another striking feature of the most serious conflict to occur anywhere in Australia. Small bands of poorly armed warriors exacted a heavy price on settlers, killing 250 and wounding many more. The economic impact of the resistance was so great that the government of George Arthur responded with the notorious Black line of more than 2000 men, which swept across central Tasmania for six weeks. It was war and was both generally and officially recognised as such. The other reason for the intense focus on Tasmania was the well-recorded fate of the surviving party of Aborigines who returned from exile on Flinders island in 1847 and the death of the last members of the party and especially of Truganina in 1876, an event that was reported throughout Australia and overseas. The deaths of old men and women, generally known as the last of their tribe, was a common event in many parts of Australia at the time in those areas of early settlement, but they attracted only local interest. Truganina was believed to be the last member of a unique race of people and thus gained universal attention.
Which brings us to Tom Lawson and the book in hand. Lawson will not be known to many people in Australia. He is a professor of history at Northambria University in the United Kingdom, and his previous work has been about the Holocaust and British reactions to it. The provenance shapes the thesis. Lawson explains in the introduction that The Last Man is the product of an intellectual journey that began with the history of the Holocaust, then on to a reflection about Britain and the violence that accompanied the extension of the empire. From there his research took him to Tasmanian history, which he initially thought would be the subject of one chapter of a much more comprehensive study. But it become increasingly clear that the ‘interactions between genocide in Tasmania and British history were so intricate, multi-layered and long standing’ that it demanded a specific book. This distinct focus would provide space in what is, by Australian standards, an already crowded scholarly field. Lawson focuses his attention on the role of the British government and ‘the echoes of colonial genocide in British culture’. It is therefore ‘not a book about Tasmania but about Britain’. The aim throughout was to ‘learn about the British genocidal past’. And this distinctive and innovative approach provides the book’s main interest for anyone with a passing interest in the story of the Tasmanian Aborigines.
About half the book deals with the relevant developments in Tasmanian history. Lawson has done his home- work. He has worked in libraries and archives in both Britain and Australia, and has read the most significant secondary sources published up to the time he finished his manuscript. The Tasmanian material, which occupies about half the book, is well written and provides a competent survey of the major events. But there is, of necessity, little that pushes the main themes beyond the boundaries of current historiography. Where the Australian reader will find new insights is in the material about the reaction to Tasmanian events in Britain, and in Lawson’s conclusions about the relationship between metropolitan heartland and the frontiers of empire. Lawson sets out to challenge the assumed separation ‘of a destructive, indeed genocidal Empire from its British home’. He pushes this thesis even further arguing that ‘genocide made a significant contribution to British culture, and indeed British identities’.

The Last Man contributes to a new trend in British history, which is belatedly challenging the ideas, so long prevalent, that the Empire was overall a benign force in the world. It was clearly a view much easier to propound in Oxbridge or Knightsbridge than from the frontiers, where violence had acquired and maintained the vast territories grabbed by the British in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is a view of the world which has a double relevance for Australia. Anglophile Australians, many of them trained in British universities, were among the most ardent advocates of the idea of the benign Empire and the continuing relevance of the Commonwealth. It also allows Australians to respond to the ancestral British view that what went wrong in Australia was that the lowerclass colonial riff-raff undermined the humanitarian designs of well-mannered gentlemen in London. In his conclusion, Lawson declares that if his book has contemporary relevance it is to say that when contemporaries think about the British Empire they should remember the violence on which it was based. And when they think about genocide they should remember ‘that it is part of our world too’.

Lawson is clearly at home when discussing the contentious question of genocide, without adding all that much new to the long-running Australian debate. He deals with the question of what is now called cultural genocide. It is a controversial question much debated internationally, and was considered and finally rejected in the meetings that led to the framing of the genocide convention in 1948. Equally challenging is the proposition that the whole colonising project was underpinned by the genocidal intention of removing and replacing indigenous and tribal people. Lawson’s awkward application of the concept of cultural genocide to Tasmania illustrates that his expertise in Holocaust studies far outreaches his detailed knowledge of Tasmanian history.

But in many ways the book presents its most challenging ideas when dealing with Britain itself. Lawson acutely illustrates the intellectual and cultural importance of the idea of the presumed disappearance of the Tasmanians. It led to numerous important assumptions and suggested that the process of evolution was both operative and
demonstrable. ‘Primitive’ peoples were passing away while ‘advanced’ ones were ascendant and destined to bestride the world. Their fate might occasion mild regret, but the process was beyond human control. It both justified imperialism and enhanced the sense of racial hierarchies. ‘In other words,’ Lawson argues, ‘an understanding of genocide in Tasmania informed a British sense of racial superiority.’

The Last Man is an interesting result of a British historian exploring Tasmanian history for what it tells him about his own society and that of Europe generally. Lawson’s most provocative insight is that ideas of racial hierarchy and the struggle for existence that emerged from the frontiers of Empire were carried back into Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. Lawson believes that a study of genocidal colonialism would suggest that the Holocaust was a ‘form of colonial violence come home to Europe’.’’

Henry Reynolds lives in Richmond, Tasmania. He worked for many years at James Cook University in Townsville, and has written many well-known books about Aboriginal–European relations. His recent books are A History of Tasmania (2011) and Forgotten War (2013), which won the Victorian Premier’s Prize for non-fiction.

- Henry Reynolds, Australian Book Review, May 2014

'This clearly-written, accessible and strongly-argued book contends that the British Government committed genocide in Van Diemen's Land/Tasmania - and, by implication, in other parts of the British Empire. This study, whilst obviously controversial, provides an important contribution to the current public debate that is reassessing the record of the British Empire following the recent emergence of new archival sources.' - John S. Connor, author of The Australian Frontier Wars ''The Last Man enhances our knowledge of British imperial history as it played out in one of its most distant colonies, Tasmania. It shows how British policies and practice meant that Aboriginal society there was almost destroyed. In using the international scholarship on genocide along with its own original and detailed empirical historical study, it reminds us of the enormity of what happened. As if that were not enough, The Last Man then goes on to show how understandings of this Tasmanian genocide have since reverberated through British culture, right up to the present. In doing so, it asks us to reconsider the nature and meaning of British history for us now." -Ann Curthoys, author of Freedom Ride
Tom Lawson is Professor of History at the University of Northumbria. He is the author of Debates on the Holocaust and The Church of England and the Holocaust: Christianity, Memory and Nazism.