Van Diemen's Land

'Up stream Upper Nile Bridge' by John Glover, 1840 (ALMFA, SLT)

Tasmania's cultural history was pre-determined for more than a century by its colonial origins and, in particular, by the whole emotive package conjured up by its former name, Van Diemen's Land. In 1642, in the manner of the time, the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman had innocently bestowed this name to honour, and perhaps accrue favour from, a powerful figure in his world, Anthony van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies. For English convicts, however, and indeed for free settlers, it resonated with more sinister suggestions. In a colony where transported felons often outnumbered free settlers, where law and order were fragile and relative concepts, and brutality the resort of prisoner and gaoler alike, 'demons' were in plentiful supply, augmented by a lurking fear of those shadows in the bush, the original inhabitants.

After a false start at Risdon in 1803, Hobart Town was established the following year by Lt-Governor David Collins as Governor King's proposed solution to two perceived problems – French expansionism and English felons. Its dual purpose was to deter the French exploratory expeditions from laying claim to any part of New Holland and to act as a supplementary gaol for excess contingents of convicts shipped to New South Wales. The first of these roles was short-lived: the French departed the scene leaving the island characterised not only as a prison but as the place of most severe and soul-destroying punishment. A stanza from 'The Female Transport', an anonymous street ballad of the time, encapsulates the dread associated with the name that was soon to become synonymous with a convict hell.

Every night when I lay down I wet my straw with tears,
While wind upon that horrid shore did whistle in our ears,
Those dreadful beasts upon that land around our cots do roar,
Most dismal is our doom upon Van Diemen's shore.

The immediate and acute problem confronting the free settlers and convicts alike was survival. By 1806 the colony was starving. Few ships visited and for eighteen months everyone from Collins down was without bread, vegetables, tea, sugar and alcohol. In these circumstances the longer-term need to clear, till and plant an allocation of land was by-passed in favour of securing the one plentiful food source – kangaroos. Even convicts were armed and sent out to hunt, initiating a lawlessness that could only be checked, too late, by the most draconian measures. Shooting kangaroos was simple: the consequences were complex and prolonged. Convicts soon realised that, armed, they could survive very well beyond the settlement and escaped prisoners formed bands of bushrangers, terrorising outlying farms and travellers. The unprecedented slaughter of the kangaroos also had a dramatic effect on the local Aborigines whose traditional hunting grounds had been summarily appropriated. The struggle for land rights had begun.

The starvation problem was soon solved as, especially in the Midlands, cleared land proved highly productive. Under Lt-Governor Arthur the economy soared. Exports rose from £45,000 to £540,00 and by 1830 wheat and wool production along with land values were booming. But the first decade of struggle for survival spawned consequences that plagued Van Diemen's Land for half a century and haunted it for a century more.

Initially the colonists were sustained largely by necessity. Having poured their life savings into emigrating from Britain, few could have afforded to return. Yet once the starvation years were past these mostly working-class immigrants had many advantages over their counterparts in England and mainland Australia; ticket-of-leave men were better off here than in the highly-competitive, criminal underworld from which they had been transported; and the prospects for most convicts were far rosier than for felons aboard prison hulks on the Thames. In most areas there was adequate rainfall, the climate was more conducive to growing the crops they were used to and, overall, the land was not only fertile but in many areas already cleared by the fire-stick burning practices of the Aborigines. The temperature was also considered more invigorating than the heat and humidity that enervated settlers in the other Australian colonies. Van Diemen's Land was soon marketing itself as the 'Sanatorium of the South', famous for its flowers, fruit and healthy inhabitants. In addition, assigned convicts provided many free settlers with a source of labour that in England was the prerogative only of the rich. For these 'free' farm hands, builders and servants they were required to supply only food and necessary clothing. Convict labour also constructed the elegant public buildings and private mansions, the graceful bridges and excellent roads that so impressed visitors as the outward sign of an established, civilised society.

Survival may have been the immediate challenge but it was not the only one. To these settlers from the crowded towns of industrialised England, the real horror of the new land was the experience of successive absences. With so few people (Indigenous people and convicts did not qualify), the island itself seemed a terrifying immensity of meaningless space and loneliness 'at the furthest extremity of the world'. Scottish playwright David Burn, whose fulsome descriptions of his overland trek to Macquarie Harbour witness to his eloquence, nevertheless complained, 'It is a difficult task to paint the scenery of a tenantless wilderness, where no landmarks, no spot of terror or renown, not even a shepherd's cot is to be found to give an impress to the features … whereby succeeding tourists may call identical localities to immediate recognition'.1

Worse, there was no shared history, no cultural framework within which the country could be understood, no basis for interacting with it except in terms of hostility, exile and brute conquest. In emotional terms, the land was indeed 'without form, and void'. The process of relating to it imaginatively required an acceptable context and the creation of 'stories' to provide unique cultural resonances.

Inevitably, at first, it was an ill-fitting, hand-me-down culture that was imposed on the land by means of comparisons, often more ingenious than obvious, with the established cultural norms of Britain and Europe. Acculturation programs saw deciduous trees and fruits transplanted to this southernmost colony with such success that English novelist Anthony Trollope declared, 'Everything in Tasmania is more English than is England itself'.2 Artist-writer Louisa Meredith certainly agreed, applying the word 'English' liberally to the landscape, to trees, flower gardens, fruit, houses, rivers, lakes and rosy-faced children. For more spectacular scenery, Meredith had recourse to the Scottish Highlands, the Gulf of Genoa and the Swiss Alps for comparisons.3

Yet visual similarity was not enough to embed the new surroundings within a cultural matrix. Irish political prisoner John Mitchel, exiled in the Midlands, was 'willing to believe that no lake on earth is more beauteous than [Lake] Sorell' and asked himself 'Why should not Lake Sorell also be famous?' Pondering on the intimate connection between the emotional appeal of Old World lakes and their celebration in poetry and story, he looked forward to the day when 'some sweet singer shall berhyme thee yet … and the glancing of thy sun-lit, moon-beloved ripples shall flash through the dreams of poets yet unborn'.4 Later travellers, surveyors and artists constructed colonial scenes in terms of European aesthetic models – the Romantic, the picturesque and the sublime.

In opposition to the focus on similarity was a fascination with novelty, beginning with the island's unique flora and fauna then spreading gradually to landforms. In 1792 Admiral Bruni d'Entrecasteaux, moored in Recherche Bay, had been charmed by his first encounter with an old-growth forest and reflected on its implicit judgment on human interference. 'Nature, in all its vigour, and at the same time in decline, offers to the imagination something more imposing and picturesque than the sight of the same nature, embellished by civilised man's industry. In wishing to conserve only its beauty man has managed to … ruin its exclusive character – the one of being always old, and always new'.5 Forty years later the Austrian Baron von Hügel was similarly over-awed by the unique tree ferns and by the experience of forest wilderness: 'The ground itself is covered with an infinite variety of mosses, small ferns and liverworts, revealing a new world to the wanderer. Here in this primeval forest, in this realm of Creation … there is an indescribable stillness and solitude. It is as if one were under a bell-jar, cut off from the outside world'.6 Van Diemen's Land was soon being ransacked for specimens to augment British collections at Kew and the Natural History Museum. Under the aegis of Sir John and Lady Franklin the struggling natural history societies were united as the Tasmanian Society, which they also supported financially. The esteem with which the Tasmanian Society and its Journal were regarded paved the way for the next governor, Sir John Eardley-Wilmot, to initiate the Royal Society of Van Diemen's Land for Horticulture, Botany and the Advancement of Science, the first Royal Society for scientific studies outside Britain. Lady Franklin also instigated the colony's first botanical garden of endemic flora around the elegant building, inspired by a Greek Doric temple, that she had constructed to house Australia's first museum.

The Franklins attracted explorers, geophysicists and artists and promoted education, and the intrepid Jane Franklin insisted on accompanying her explorer husband overland through dense scrub and across flooded rivers to Macquarie Harbour. But the Franklins fell foul of colonial society. Sir John's habit of consulting his highly intelligent lady and his wife's penchant for expressing her very definite views publicly were intolerable to the factional interests of Hobart Town. Steps were taken; they were recalled.

Art also played an important role in creating a cultural context for appreciating the land, though more in retrospect than at the time. The paintings of John Glover, arguably Australia's greatest colonial landscape artist, might have given his fellow settlers an identifiable pictorial documentation of aesthetic response to this antipodean land, but unfortunately Glover knew where his market was and nearly all his work was shipped off to England. Nevertheless art flourished during the Van Diemen's Land years, from the topographical recordings of the new colony by Harris, Lycett and Costantini to the interpretative landscapes of Skinner Prout, de Wesselow, Gritten and Knut Bull and the detailed natural history art of Louisa Meredith and Mary Morton Allport.

A very different response to the land was recorded by those whose livelihood demanded a long-term involvement with the wildest parts of the island. Surveyors and track-cutters, prospectors, miners and Huon pine cutters spent exhausting months struggling to cut tracks through almost impenetrable bauera and horizontal scrub, attempting to reach the west of the island across parallel ranges separated by deep ravines with raging torrents in their beds. Although the endurance and achievements of these men were at least comparable to those of the mainland inland explorers, they remained virtually unknown and failed to receive the triumphalist celebration of the folk heroes Leichhardt, Sturt, Burke and Wills. Nevertheless, they left much the same legacy: the implication that the land was the enemy that these gallant men had to overcome – or die in the attempt. Virtually all the land now declared World Heritage was vilified as hostile, violent and treacherous.

If the land in its natural state appeared evil, it was rendered infinitely more so by the convict presence. By 1822 convicts made up 58 percent of the population and confining and controlling them became a Herculean task. Grinding punishment and terror became the instruments of threat and retribution for repeat offenders and Lt-Governor Sorell hit upon what seemed the ideal place to enact them – Macquarie Harbour. The winds and waves that batter the west coast of Tasmania have by-passed South Africa, gathering force since leaving South America. A ship trying to enter the Harbour must wait for a suitable tide to lift it across the sand bar at the narrow entrance and align its course carefully to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of the treacherous Macquarie Heads. Yet worse, by far, awaited the convicts at the Sarah Island penal station within the Harbour. During the years of its operation (1822–33) the appalling conditions and punishments of many of the convicts and the sensational accounts propagated about the actions and fate of escapees driven to cannibalism to survive were widely circulated for their own purposes by both supporters and opponents of transportation. Even when the Penal Settlement was moved to the opposite side of the island, this reputation of endemic evil remained, in the popular imagination, associated with the west coast. Historian and abolitionist John West castigated Macquarie Harbour in terms that resonated for decades: 'Sacred to the genius of torture, Nature concurred with the objects of its separation from the rest of the world to exhibit some notion of a perfect misery. There man lost the aspect and heart of a man'.

Ironically, it was when the major site of convict incarceration moved to Port Arthur that Van Diemen's Land acquired its unique cultural mythology, anchoring it firmly in both the social fabric and the natural world. Unlike Macquarie Harbour, Port Arthur appeared not threatening but benign and beautiful, and the notion of a collusion between Nature and the systemic evil was replaced by one of macabre anomaly, an aberration that continues to disturb visitors seeing the sloping green lawns with their avenue of English trees and Tasmania's only picturesque Gothic ruin, the burnt shell of the handsome stone church. Quaker missionary Frederick Mackie wrote in 1852, 'I could not help contrasting the beauty of the outward scene with the moral wilderness and mental chaos that we knew existed here',8 and novelist Caroline Leakey, who lived there a year, described it as 'indeed a lovely spot; but alas it is a penal settlement, "where every prospect pleases, and only man is vile!"'9 Yet Lt-Governor Arthur, who devised this monument to his administration, had chosen wisely. Geographically the whole of the Tasman Peninsula is a natural prison surrounded by a shark-frequented moat, with the Forestier isthmus and the narrow Eaglehawk Neck providing a double set of 'locks' on the door, patrolled by a few soldiers and the notorious line of dogs. Of the 12,700 convicts incarcerated there over its fifty years of active life, few escaped and most who did starved in the surrounding bush.

Port Arthur acquired an international reputation as a place of ultimate cruelty and oppression, though it had been intended as a model penitentiary rather than a place of punishment; Arthur's aim was reform and by modern standards recidivism was low (25 percent). The adjacent Port Puer was established specifically to remove young offenders from the influence of hardened felons and to rehabilitate the boys by teaching them trades with which to earn an honest living on their release. It was only the second juvenile prison in the world and a landmark in prison reform. But facts counted for little against the power of the pen. Marcus Clarke's great novel His Natural Life (1870–72), with its graphic descriptions and emblematic characters, became 'history' for readers then and now. In a country where no wars have been fought on home soil except the undeclared war against the Indigenous people, Port Arthur provides the horror story we like to tell ourselves to claim a place in the tragic pantheon of world history. Its legacy produced a malaise that lingered long after the prison was closed in 1877. A name change to Carnarvon, having failed to lessen its notoriety, was revoked in the interests of attracting tourists to enjoy Gothic stories and ghost tours of the cells, for if there was one thing worse than the convict 'stain' it was poverty. From 1840 Van Diemen's Land had begun to sink into an economic depression that became more acute after 1850 when the gold rush in Victoria lured able-bodied men away from the island to make their fortune. Few returned. The 'convict stain' dyed deeper in Tasmania than in any other state because it was so widespread. By 1836, 75 percent of the population were convicts, former convicts or of convict ancestry. The subsequent fall in numbers of free immigrants meant that this ratio was slow to change.

Whatever the plight of the convicts it pales into insignificance compared with the treatment of the Indigenous Tasmanians or Palawa. The very word 'settler' falsely implies the notion of peaceful establishment and stability. Relations with the Aborigines were neither. Despite humane injunctions from Whitehall, duly transmitted by vice-regal proclamation, that the native people were to be treated with respect, they were regarded by the invaders, not as the legal owners of the land but as inconvenient relics of a primitive stage of Man. Tolerated as long as they did not hinder the spread of settlement they were, where possible, exploited. Originally hospitable, the desperate Palawa were soon driven to reprisals for the loss of their traditional hunting lands. They speared the sheep that now replaced kangaroos and thereby incited brutal retaliation by settlers and their convict shepherds, armed for the purpose. These violent measures and Arthur's 'Black Line' were followed by George Robinson's Conciliation process and exile to Flinders Island until there was only a pathetic group of 47 Palawa to be repatriated to the Tasmanian mainland in 1847. Belatedly, guilt moved the white population and the elderly and significantly childless Trucanini was declared the last of her race and feted as Queen of the Aborigines. For a century Tasmanians continued to believe that the Indigenous people were extinct, until their convenient regret was shattered by claims to Aboriginality by descendants of the women whom sealers had abducted to off-shore islands. The once-demonised original inhabitants have now been re-mythologised by writers and their presence indelibly reinscribed on their land, casting yet another shadow over the past.

Although the name Tasmania was used from the 1820s, it was not until November 1855 that the colony was officially renamed, in the hope that this would exorcise the ghosts of convictism. It failed to do so. The imagery associated with Van Diemen's Land was too deeply rooted in the history and the literary culture of the island. It lingered on as a malaise, as a sense of inferiority to 'the mainland', and few writers have been able to resist the quick and easy path to tragedy by revisiting the plight of convicts or Aborigines, if not both. The miasma associated with Van Diemen's Land was finally dissipated only 120 years after the name change by the fresh air of a new cause with a new name – Wilderness.

Ros Haynes

1. David Burn, Narrative of the overland journey of Sir John and Lady Franklin and party from Hobart Town to Macquarie Harbour, 1842, ed George Mackaness, Sydney: Historical Monographs, 1955, p 38.
2. Anthony Trollope, Australia and New Zealand, 2 vols, London: Chapman and Hall, 1873, vol II, p 169.
3. Louisa Meredith, Our island home: a Tasmanian sketchbook, Hobart Town: J. Walch & Sons, 1879, pp 22, 39, 9.
4. John Mitchel, The gardens of Hell: John Mitchel in Van Diemen's Land 1850–1853, ed Peter O'Shaughnessy, Kenthurst, NSW: Kangaroo Press, 1988, pp 71–2.
5. Bruny d'Entrecasteaux, Voyage to Australia and the Pacific 1791–1793, edited and translated by Edward Duyker and Maryse Duyker, Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2001, p 32.
6. Baron Charles von Hügel, New Holland journal, November 1833–October 1834, translated and edited by Dymphna Clark, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press in association with the State Library of New South Wales, 1994, pp 109–110.
7. John West, The history of Tasmania, vol 1, Launceston: Henry Dowling, 1852, pp 181–2.
8. Frederick Mackie, Traveller under concern, Hobart: Reports on the Historical Manuscripts of Tasmania No 8, University of Tasmania, 1973, p 41.
9. Caroline Leakey, letter to her sister, 1841, quoted in Emily Leakey, Clear shining light : a memoir of Caroline Woolmer, London: J.F. Shaw, 1882, p 41.