Crossing the Bass Strait from mainland Australia into Tasmania is rather like crossing the Solent from England to the Isle of Wight. Insularity breeds a remoteness from the currents of history. And if England’s southern island is a step back to the 1960s, Australia’s equivalent seems redolent of the 19th century in which it was first settled – and of the same issues as colonisation set in train.
As quaint as Hobart, the Tasmanian capital, may seem, with its half-hour rush hour and lack of tower blocks, a drive 200km north to Launceston, the island’s second city, is even more of a time slip. Its broad streets still have the look of a colonial town; its plain shopfronts might still be selling whalebone corsets.
There’s a sense of security to this whole island; but it is a deceptive sensibility. From its beginnings as a western settlement in 1803, Tasmania was witness to extraordinary pressures, to an extent that reverberates today: ideas of exploitation and appropriation that set the tone for the urgent debates of the 21st century.
During my stay, state elections in Tasmania returned a majority Liberal administration pledged to roll back the gains of a powerful green lobby – to the extent of reversing Unesco World Heritage status on parts of the virgin forest. The federal government is also vehement (vicious, some might say) in its treatment of asylum-seekers, who are kept in detainment camps on other islands to the north of Australia..
Driving over the Midlands between Hobart and Launceston, one quickly sees why Tasmania appealed to British free settlers. Van Diemen’s Land, as it was known, offered plentiful resources and rolling landscape that resembled an English country estate. Paintings of 19th-century scenes at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston evoke Constable as much as an island at the end of the world. Indeed, new research shows that children of transported criminals fared better than their British peers, benefiting from high protein and sunshine.
Among them was my own ancestor James Nind, transported in 1831 for stealing 19 hens and a cock. In the darkened basement of Hobart’s State Library, lined with chain-link fencing as if to imprison its subjects, I found original documents detailing James’s crimes and his sole previous conviction for the theft of manure. It’s an extraordinary notion: that one could be banished to the other ends of the earth for stealing shit. Nevertheless, James apparently prospered, as did many other convicts, some making vast fortunes from sheep farming (many of the same men had been transported for stealing sheep in the first place).
Yet those fields also became hunting grounds for human beings, as “roving parties” of convicts were sent out to pursue Aboriginal people. Feral bushrangers instituted a new lawless culture of their own: men such as the notorious Michael Howe, who declared himself “lieutenant governor of the woods” and exerted significant political power until he, too, was hunted and decapitated and his head exhibited in Hobart.
It now seems Howe’s gang were outlaws in more than one sense. Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, associate professor in humanities at the University of Tasmania, told me two of its members had been imprisoned for “unnatural acts”, raising the possibility that the troupe was “gay-friendly”. The gang also included Aboriginal females – “two black native women, armed as well as the men”.
New estimates show that at least 800 indigenous people and 200 convicts and settlers died in the “black war”. As we drove north, Maxwell-Stewart spoke of the “White Australia” policy of the early 20th century, which created concerns in the mother country that this racist stance on immigration would cause unrest in the empire, especially India. “There’s no doubt if the Aboriginal population in Australia had been bigger, they would have introduced apartheid,” he said. Indeed, when apartheid ended, many white South Africans emigrated to Australia.
Yet some see Australia as a liberal hope for the future. The South African exile J M Coetzee, renowned for his fictional critiques of apartheid, told me that his adoptive country could be “the future of the anglophone race”. It was a typically cryptic remark from this famously reclusive writer, who now lives in Adelaide. But looking at Tasmania, with its extraordinary natural beauty, and its determination both to remember and to move on from the past into the future despite the ravages of a retrogressive administration, one might start to agree.
Philip Hoare is the author of “The Sea Inside” (Fourth Estate, £9.99)