Historiography, or the writing of history, began in Tasmania with Tasman's meticulous account of claiming the land in 1642. Subsequent visitors continued to record what they saw and did. Matthew Flinders incorporated the narrative of his 1798–99 circumnavigation into a survey of earlier discoveries in A voyage to Terra Australis (1814).
The official nature of the earliest British settlements ensured the keeping of records and, to some degree, their preservation. RW Giblin's two volumes on The early history of Tasmania (1928–39) are thorough accounts; Phillip Tardif's John Bowen's Hobart (2003) shows the continuing potential of these foundational sources. Initially, as James Boyce argues (Island 66), the tiny communities ostensibly devoted to punishment often provided notable freedoms, but the record is scant for those living beyond convention and control. Such indiscipline was curbed with the arrival of Lt-Governor Arthur in 1824. Much historical writing on Tasmania concentrates on the next thirty years. Three themes dominate this popular and scholarly interest; indeed, in national histories and in the wider world, little else is heard of Tasmania.
The convict system provides abundant scope for moral speculation and the materials for more serious analysis. The Aboriginal question, or, more precisely, the concerted violence of the late 1820s and the subsequent institutionalisation of the Palawa people, has provoked a diverse and extensive literature. Lastly, the architecture of the period, especially in official buildings and private mansions, exhibits an elegant formalism; its celebration, beginning with Michael Sharland's Stones of a century (1952), has ensured popular recognition.
The achievements of the first half-century of British settlement are exemplified in John West's History of Tasmania (1852). Although in reality this extraordinary feat of scholarship deals with the past of Van Diemen's Land, West has clearly in view the island's future as a self-governing colony, free from the ills of convict transportation. Indeed, as Patricia Ratcliff's biography (2003) explains, West was a prophet of federation.
The century from West to the 1950s saw little such visionary use of the past, but there were lesser achievements. James Backhouse Walker published careful antiquarian papers with the Royal Society of Tasmania, and Henry Button in Flotsam and jetsam , an autobiographical miscellany, reminds us of the high quality of the Launceston press. J Fenton's History of Tasmania (1884) has a wide coverage, while the Cyclopaedia of Tasmania (1900) is useful, but needs checking. Melodramatic novels have been highly influential: the most notable are Marcus Clarke, For the term of his natural life (1874–75) and William Hay, The escape of the notorious Sir William Heans (1919).
Since the 1950s, there has been sustained interest in Tasmania's past, both locally and beyond, though still often emphasising the early nineteenth century. Lloyd Robson's two-volume History of Tasmania (1983–91) devotes almost as much space to the period up to 1856 as to the subsequent years. By contrast, WA Townsley begins the second volume of his Tasmania (1991–94) at 1945 and concentrates on modern politics. Lyndall Ryan's The Aboriginal Tasmanians (1981, second edition 1996), the best guide to early contact and conflict, also brings her account up to the present. Recent work on convicts escapes official views by concentrating on the experience of individuals. Novelists' interest in early Tasmania appears unflagging.
New themes and approaches have emerged. The most noticeable is a flood of family, local and business histories, including biographies and autobiographies. EA Beever's Launceston Bank for Savings 1835–1970 (1972), for example, covers a key economic institution, while Tim Bowden's The way my father tells it (1989) gives many insights into twentieth-century society. Prehistoric archaeology has demonstrated, despite official vandalism, the great antiquity of human occupation. Historic sites, such as Port Arthur, Woolmers, the blacksmith's shop at Inveresk, Highfield or the Abt railway, present the past to many. Concern for the written record is seen in the development of state and other archives, and the publication of original documents. NJB Plomley's editions of GA Robinson's papers and the revived Historical records of Australia are particularly valuable. While some of this new work comes from academic and professional historians, such as Michael Roe, local historical societies have also contributed much beyond mere antiquarianism.
An informed interest in history is now, somewhat ironically, at least as important to modern Tasmanians as awareness of the natural environment, itself the subject of historical interest. Recent public acrimony around Keith Windschuttle's The fabrication of Aboriginal history volume one (2002) serves to demonstrate the significance of the past for present identity.