Tasmania's Reputation

Tasmania's reputation varied according to outsiders' perceptions of three attributes: the island's isolation, scenery and inhabitants. Before 1642 outsiders knew nothing of Tasmania, but Tasman's report of his voyage described this part of the great unknown southern continent unpromisingly, as a mountainous land with no valuable products such as minerals, but possibly peopled by giants. Swift probably knew of this, as in his Gulliver's Travels (1726) he located the imaginary land of Lilliput, inhabited by pigmies and giants, 'to the north-west of Van Diemen's Land'. Such mythical connotations were swamped when the island became a penal colony, and gained a reputation as a hell, inhabited by criminals, its original population slaughtered. Tasmania, the blood-soaked island where man's misery is echoed by towering gloomy crags, has been a recurring theme since, encouraged particularly by Marcus Clarke's His Natural Life (1874).

At the same time, the island was becoming known for its similarity to England and its natural beauty (depicted in novels by Jessie Couvreur and Marie Bjelke Petersen) and, in the voluminously wool-clad nineteenth century, it gained fame as a temperate and healthy haven, the 'Sanatorium of the South'. But holidays apart, Tasmania, small, remote and not particularly prosperous, was becoming seen as a backwater, 'Sleepy Hollow', while other areas of Australia developed rapidly, and this image dominated the twentieth century especially as warmer climates became popular for holidays. Tasmania was so remote that the film star Merle Oberon, seeking to hide non-Aryan blood, claimed she was born here, presumably thinking that Tasmania was so faraway and isolated that no one would challenge her statement. More recently, outsiders confused Tasmania with Tanzania or, if they thought about it at all, saw it as a separate country from Australia.


Capitalising on Tasmania's reputation: a postcard by My Word,
which provides 'uniquely Tasmanian' items for tourists (My Word, Hobart)

Muckraking articles in the Melbourne newspaper Truth describing incest in Tasmania an activity sometimes found in isolated communities encouraged an even worse reputation, with many jokes by mainlanders about Tasmanians' two heads. Other offshore islands, like Newfoundland and Ireland, have also suffered in this way. This view was challenged from the 1970s by the growth of tourism based on appreciation of Tasmania's scenic beauty, and from the late 1990s by Tasmania's booming economy and burgeoning production of fine food and wine; the kindly pity mainlanders once showed to Tasmanians began to disappear. Some novelists and poets still describe Tasmania as tainted by cruelty to convicts and Aborigines, crushed under resulting gothic gloom, but this is not apparent generally. Tasmania's dominant image overseas arises from the popular Warner Brothers cartoon character, Taz their imaginary Tassie devil: strong, ravenous, and mainly interested in eating.

Alison Alexander