By the serene shore of the D'Entrecasteaux Channel on Tasmania's south east coast, my thoughts turn again to Cassandra Pybus's book "Community of Thieves.' It's 20 years since I read this book, the last time I was in Tasmania in fact. It is a short but powerful history of the extermination of the Tasmanian aborigines, and it upset me profoundly at the time.
At dusk, standing on this shore looking south, it is difficult to make out the settlements along the coastline. There are swathes of dark bush, and stands of tall trees remaining from the relentless logging that has taken place here. The sea is calm, flat, stretching across to the distant hills of Bruny Island. The stars are coming out among the last wash of evening mauve, the same stars that Captain D'Entrecasteaux saw as he anchored his sailing ship in this lovely harbour in 1793. What a relief it must have been to discover it, after the violence of the ocean!
He had been tasked with making observations of the natural environment and its inhabitants, nothing more, (apart from finding out what had happened to La Perouse, who along with his entire expeditionary force seemed to have vanished off the face of the earth), and perhaps this is partly why this very early encounter between white invaders and black inhabitants was almost uniquely friendly, sympathetic and non violent. They shared meals. Aborigines carefully guided a group of sailors through the bush, some of them linking arms affectionately as they walked, seeming to treat the sailors as guests. The Aborigines stood patiently and good humouredly while the French scientists took various measurements of their bodies. There were attempts on both sides to establish communication, the French sailors giving the natives trinkets and sweets, and red cloth that they admired, and the Aborigines helpfully showing and naming the many plants that the botanists wanted to collect. Some of the officers wrote lists of aboriginal words - now the only record of their language that remains. The two groups sang their songs to each other.
My friend, (who I am visiting here), expresses his opinion that if only the French had sunk their flag in the soil instead of the British, everything might have gone differently, but I think this is fanciful, especially when you consider how the French colonialists behaved in the Congo. No, it was the desire for settlement, for ownership and possession of the land, that produced the conflict that the indigenous people were destined to lose. In this very early encounter, the natural human qualities of curiosity, friendliness and generosity were not yet over-ridden by that of greed.
Just north of here, at Margate, there is a local museum, clearly the passion of some local historians, who have chronicled, collected and collated hundreds of photographs, artifacts, newspaper stories, and curiosities about the history of the D'Entrecasteaux Channel. There are exhibits on whaling, apple growing, abalone fishing, the timber industry, and the lives of Dutch immigrants who settled in the area after the second world war. It is almost entirely the history of white settlement since the mid 1800's. 'Almost', because there is a small space given to the Tasmanian Aborigines - a photo of King Billy and his family, a note about the numbers of black people who were 'taken' to Flinders Island, (the implication is that they would somehow be happier if they were all together in one place), and another note which states sorrowfully that 'many died of depression and despair', as if perhaps their fate might have been different if they had been able somehow to get a grip on themselves.
My friend tells me that there is a good walk along the cliffs at Blackman's Bay, not far from here, and I set off to look for it in the car. Expecting a bush setting, or open country at the least, I am amazed to find myself in suburban Hobart. I had heard of a real estate boom in this once sleepy city, and here is evidence of it, just half an hour south of the city centre. The houses are all huge, built very close together on small blocks of land, and they straddle the rolling headland of Blackman's Bay vying aggressively with each other to command the best view of the Channel. There is, of course, not a single black man to be seen, and almost nothing of vegetation. I walk a little way along a clifftop path that skirts the dress circle. The vegetation has been hacked away on the ocean side, presumably by householders wanting a completely unimpeded view; the other side of the path is bordered by ugly and intimidating security fences.
The title of Cassandra Pybus's book is painfully apt. Who is 'The Community of Thieves"? We are. We stole the homeland of a whole people, destroying their living and their culture in the process, for our own material gain. The worst of it is that, more than 200 years later, we have learned nothing, and so far from making restitution, we are not even sorry. Being sorry of course, would mean actually stopping doing the thing that caused offence or injury, every child knows that. But we KEEP ON, taking land for our own short term profit, destroying indigenous cultural and sacred sites in the process.
I do not make an exception of myself. I too am a thief. I paid a price up front in dollars for the land I live on, and have the title deeds to it, but it was the equivalent really of buying stolen property. In the art world, little sympathy attaches to the purchaser of a stolen painting, the law usually requires that it be returned to its rightful owner. The indigenous people did not 'own' the land, in the sense that we have of property ownership, but its centrality to their lives was, and is, as fundamental as it is to ours. What restitution can I make?