Concept: Episodes of Thought


There do not exist materials from which to postulate the nature of Aboriginal social thought. However the Aborigines did provoke speculation from European explorers. Most of this was sympathetic, ready to see the Tasmanian as a 'noble savage'. The Baudin expedition of 1802 provided for deliberate anthropological enquiry. This came to little however. Such interest has continued over the past 200 years, but with greater effect in terms of pre-history and physical anthropology, than in more speculative mode. However the latter has had some place. Various earlier thinkers argued that the Tasmanians were low in the evolutionary scale; and latter-day variation of such ideas is that by 1800 their society was scarcely viable. The angry counter-argument has been that the Tasmanians had developed a remarkably simple and effective response to their habitat's challenges.

The 1820s saw some political assertion from the colonists against the strictures of Lt-Governor George Arthur's rule. Giving most depth to this was the journalism of Robert Lathrop Murray, a convict of upper-class background, and a committed freemason. One whose writing appeared in Murray's Colonial Advocate(May 1828) was Mary Leman Grimstone, her essay showing values that on her imminent return to England carried her into high literary and radical worlds; Grimstone became an ardent feminist in the manner of Mary Wollstonecraft, and she celebrated Tasmanian consciousness in a way that complemented her allegiance to Mazzini-style nationalism. Meanwhile in Hobart Arthur's opponents had linked their cause with Europe's ideological ferments by showing the tricolor, May 1831.

The following months saw publication of a pioneering Australian essay in political economy. By the remarkable adventurer and convict, Jorgen Jorgenson, these Observations on the Funded Systemurged that Britain extinguish its national debt and the snares of 'paper' credit. Various Americans transported for abetting protest against British rule in Canada in 1837 in time produced essays protesting at their treatment in Tasmania. Little other convict protest made print, although doubtless it existed. Francis MacNamara, balladeer of such outrage, lived in the island from 1842 to the 1850s, and probably composed much of his work then.

Arthur himself was a thoughtful man, as became most pertinently evident when he upheld his mode of convict management. Conservative and authoritarian, Arthur yet aspired not only to diminish criminality among the convicts, but to use the latter to develop an effective social economy within the island. Among others to address penological issues was Alexander Maconochie, who went to Van Diemen's Land in 1837 as private secretary to Arthur's successor, Sir John Franklin (Lt-Governor, 1837-43). Maconochie at once analysed convictism in terms of the day's philosophic radicalism, arguing that convicts were generally victims of society and could be redeemed through sympathetic care. Maconochie had a complementary interest in Aborigines, proposing redemptive work among them (on the Australian mainland). He soon left Van Diemen's Land, but applied his penology at Norfolk Island, 1842-44.

Sir John Franklin and his wife Jane sought to infuse Van Diemen's Land with a spirit of uplift and endeavour. Their fostering of intellectual interests among the elite included development of superior schools under Anglican aegis; the couple had ties with Thomas Arnold, and one of his disciples, John Philip Gell, was their aide in the colony. As well, the Franklins boosted state provision of broader-based education, and encouraged popular attachment-to-place. The years around their sojourn saw others assert the liberal faith that through education and self-improvement the common people could achieve a well-ordered, moral, and comfortable life. One outstanding figure in this story was John Lillie, a Presbyterian cleric whose further activity included leadership of Hobart's Mechanics' Institute, a vehicle for adult education (although overshadowed in the longer term by its Launceston counterpart). Another was James Bonwick, a young schoolteacher, influenced by Enlightenment pedagogy. Among Bonwick's commitments was the temperance movement, which waxed strong in the 1840s.

All the major Christian denominations had by now established themselves. One remarkable element was the Society of Friends, here as elsewhere to the forefront in general reformism. The first Anglican bishop (Francis Russell Nixon, in office 1842-63) showed the influence of the Tractarian movement in his resistance to state interference in church affairs, while otherwise of conservative style. The first Catholic bishop, Robert William Willson, has more interest, establishing a social commitment that has continued in the church's Tasmanian history. Willson long had been interested - even at the level of personal engagement - in the treatment of those mentally deranged. In Van Diemen's Land he continued this interest by working for better conditions for those afflicted.

The later 1840s saw the burgeoning of the first major socio-political movement in Tasmania, that against the continued transportation of convicts. Behind it ranged forces for greater political independence, as well as most liberal, moralist, and Christian opinion. The free working class also supported the cause. It had affinities with campaigns against Britain's Corn Laws, and against American slavery. Its most famous publicist was John West, a Congregationalist cleric in Launceston from 1838. West's History of Tasmania(1852) is a supreme expression of the liberal/moralist creed. In splendid prose it offered many brilliant insights into the island's social and political experience. West proceed to write a series of essays on the idea of Australian federation that likewise touched upon fundamental issues of political thought and organisation.

An enthusiastic reviewer of West's Historywas William Smith O'Brien, transported for his part in the Irish nationalist rising of April 1848. Smith currently was working on his future book Principles of Government(1856) that pondered political theory in terms similar to West's. Another Irish nationalist and convict, John Mitchel, presented more general commentary in Jail Journal(1868).

Meanwhile the letters and despatches of William Thomas Denison, Lt-Governor 1847-54, had well expressed conservative social values, insistent upon the need for social hierarchy and leadership by an expert elite. This was all the more interesting as Denison belonged to an English family that derived its money from industrialisation, while linking to the older ruling class; as an army engineer, he further exemplified new styles of managerial dominance. During his clashes with the anti-transportationists, Denison received some support from an ex-convict 'party', expressing feeling never so militant before or later. Briefly upholding this viewpoint was Patrick O'Donohoe, another Irish rebel of 1848. To some extent it represented the antipathy of a 'new' middle-class to the dominance of early-established landholders and merchants.

There followed years of little innovation, but in 1874 there appeared in Hobart a remarkable magazine, Quadrilateral, produced by a group of young men who showed themselves aware of major world-wide currents in politics, science, and culture. Dominant was Andrew Inglis Clark (1848-1907), who expounded themes he was to maintain life-long - support for Australian nationalism and Federation, the superiority of the American structure of government as against the British, the promise of proportional representation to perfect democracy. Through the years ahead Clark, as both politician and ideologue, helped processes of political and social reform that had considerable effect. Like many radicals of the day, Clark looked askance at wealth derived from land-ownership. The contemporary Tasmanian most notable in developing such ideas was Arthur James Ogilvie, whose advocacy of land nationalisation won international publication. Ogilvie also was conscious of the danger that saving would restrict consumption and so economic activity at large; without such restraint, Malthusian pessimism would prove chimerical.

Among AI Clark's friends in the 1890s was William Jethro Brown, who from 1893 to 1901 taught law and history at the infant University of Tasmania. While echoing Clark's Australianism and support for proportional representation, Brown had a more organicist and sociological view of the state and community. His New Democracy(1899) remains one of the major works of political thought to come from Tasmania, although it was to be surpassed by Brown's later publications. Brown and Clark gave notable intellectual depth to the federation debate in Tasmania, the movement in its support having some echo of the anti-transportation movement.

The earlier twentieth century saw other significant work from men sensitive to such thought as influenced Brown. William Lewis Neale, Director of Education, was an enthusiastic disciple of 'New Education', with its emphasis upon a more sensate, pupil-centred, approach. John Simeon Colebrook Elkington, Public Health Officer 1903-10, sought to develop a vitalist consciousness of communal health and vigour, having most effect through a schools' health program. John Edward Mercer, Anglican bishop 1903-14, infused his theology with notions of 'creative evolution'. This led him to be ardent in urging social reform, an interest shared (if in less sophisticated way) by Patrick Delaney, coadjutor Catholic archbishop. From the political Right these years saw Frederic Augustus Wingfield Gisborne proclaim (importantly through Britain's Empire Review) the virtues of race patriotism, rural industry, social gradation, minimal government, and eugenic controls (including euthanasia).

Concurrently there developed the pattern of political parties that still substantially remains. Labor was slower to affect politics in Tasmania than elsewhere in Australia but the first federal elections saw west-coast miners give decisive support to King O'Malley, whose rhetoric was the most radical heard in the new Parliament. Important too in crystallising local organisation was the visit in 1902-03 of English socialist, Thomas Mann. Liberals, broadly in the Clark tradition, formed a government under William Bispham Propsting in 1903, but that ministry itself soon failed, as did later bourgeois-liberal efforts to maintain an autonomous role.

The establishment during the First World War of the Electrolytic Zinc refinery near Hobart presaged the most substantial of several Tasmanian exemplars of 'welfare capitalism' - provision of services by the employer, combined with a measure of listening to employee complaints and suggestions, all designed to maximise harmonious efficiency. Ardent in this cause was EZ's first general manager (to 1926) Herbert William Gepp. Such ideas had a long history elsewhere, and as Cadbury's developed a confectionery factory in outer Hobart through the early 1920s, it followed welfare models already deployed in the firm's British works. In the later 1930s another notable essay in such ideas proceeded at the Burnie plant of Associated Pulp and Paper Mills; the master-mind was Gerald Mussen, long an upholder of welfare capitalism and himself one of APPM's entrepreneurs.

From 1917 to 1924 the chief teacher of economics at the University of Tasmania was Douglas Berry Copland, his associates including James Bristock Brigden and the government statistician Lyndhurst Falkiner Giblin. The Copland approach to economics eschewed any grand reformative theory, but stressed the capacity of economists to assist governments in achieving optimal results. Copland's argument to this effect won publication in Britain's Economic Journal(edited by John Maynard Keynes) in 1924. Such liaison between economists and governments formed in Tasmania during the 1920s, and the trio named above were to be crucial in making this a national mode through decades ahead.

The economic depression deepening around 1930 prompted some working-class militance, even some Communist Party presence developing. With the strengthening of international fascism, counter-attitudes most vigorously expounded by communists won further credence. Still more widespread among Labor people was sympathy for Douglas (or Social) Credit, ideas, hostile to deflationary, restrictive policies on the part of governments and banks. Its influence appeared in Albert George Ogilvie's government (1934-39), more positive than any Tasmanian precursor or than most Australian contemporaries. Official advisers to government 1936-41 were the University's current Professors of Economics, Frank Richard Edward Mauldon and Edward Ronald Walker; both upheld sympathy for government intervention in Keynesian style, Walker being an Australian pioneer in disseminating such ideas. The later 1930s also saw re-strengthening of liberal faith in culture, especially through the New Education Fellowship and the Free Library Movement. Writing brilliant polemical prose, undergraduate Geoffrey Alleyne Edwin Reading now made Tasmania's one notable contribution to the anarcho-libertarian creed that always and everywhere has sustained student ultra-radicalism.

The most important inter-war contributor from the higher academy was Edmund Morris Miller. In youth an ardent federationist, his philosophic training at Melbourne led Miller towards ethical idealism (not unlike Bishop Mercer's stance). In the 1920s he pioneered applied psychology in Tasmania ; an interest importantly developed apropos educational theory by Henry Thomas Parker, a one-time pupil of Miller's. However the latter's own great work came to be his Bibliography of Australian Literature(1940), a major contribution to the nationalist ideal. Another Tasmanian of pertinent interest was Noel Wilson Norman, whose novels expressed a passion for inland and Aboriginal Australia akin to that currently being advanced by the Jindyworobak nationalists. Miller himself had some association with the Jindyworobaks, as too did LF Giblin.

Expansionist ideas of 'post-war reconstruction' had particular vogue in Tasmania, perhaps because of the lingering influence of social credit. This merged into the economic buoyancy of the 1950s, when waxed strongest long-prevalent hopes of Tasmania's hydro-electric power transforming the state into an altogether modern, industrialised society. Premier Ogilvie had upheld that idea, in this followed or even surpassed by his successors Robert Cosgrove and Eric Elliott Reece. Under their leadership Labor held office until 1969, an indicator of community support for this style of developmentalism.

While the 1950s was a time of unusual prosperity, it suffered tensions, some of which echoed echoing world-wide issues. Contests within the Labor movement between Leftists, sympathetic to Communism, and their enemies had a dramatic local exemplar, peaking in 1958, as watersiders Frank and Dennis Hursey refused to pay a political-party levy imposed by their pro-Communist union. Now too became active in local Labor affairs Brian Harradine, a Catholic vehement against Communism. The current Catholic Archbishop, Guilford Clyde Young, was able and forthright in expressing his Church's abhorrence of Communism in particular and of other aspects of mainstream liberal-secular society. In time Young became less acerbic, while in # 2004 Harradine was senior member of the federal Senate, an upholder of Catholic principle and a questioner of many government policies.

Back in the later 1950s Cold War echoes had further sounded as conservative influences blocked the appointment to the University of an extremely able, but Communist historian, George Frederick Elliot Rudé. Concurrently the University was being wracked by the aftermath of the dismissal Professor of Philosophy Sydney Sparkes Orr for allegedly having had sexual relations with a female student. The case, widely publicised, involved issues of natural justice and of academics' standing as against lay influence within the University. A notable feature was that the major Christian denominations, including the Roman Catholic church, gave support to Orr. In further respects the period saw marked ecumenical action, itself a complex indicator both of Cold War threats to the west and of ever-diminishing Christian influence within western societies. Yet the 1960s saw a peak in the life of James Phillip McAuley, poet and academic now resident in Tasmania, and especially through (Sydney-based) Quadrant magazine upholding conservative beliefs based on traditional Catholicism.

McAuley was among those who defended American-led action in Vietnam, but as the war there developed so did agitation against it. Students were active in this story, and otherwise there were some further echoes of the youth-centred turbulence that swept world-wide in the later 1960s. That particular story remained modest, but such was less the case with other aspects of post-modern attitudes that developed strength in these years. The post-modern questioning of earlier standards of progress and of relations between centre and periphery had a natural appeal in Tasmania, by those standards negligible if not pathetic. As a remnant of the erstwhile imperial world, Tasmania was an appropriate site for a critique of that world's fundamentals.

Crucial in this story was the emergence of environmental issues as a dominant political concern. The flooding of Lake Pedder for purposes of generation of electricity provoked much feeling in 1967, and continued a potent influence long thereafter. At the 1972 election a world-pioneering environmental party, the United Tasmania Group appeared; its guiding spirit was Richard Jones, also a pioneer of a department of environmental studies at the University, whence was to come crucial support for the movement. The United Tasmania Group espoused an environmental ethic which advocated uniting man with nature, an important precursor to Robert (Bob) Brown's ecological arguments. Environmental concerns (forestry practices coming increasingly to the fore) continued constant on the State's political agenda, and determined the fate of governments. Tasmanian environmental issues attracted world-wide attention. Brown became the national leader of environmental politics, attracting deep emotional support. Indeed the cause was as much a matter of feeling, often of a religious style, as of politics. Important contributions to environmental thought came from the University, including work by Robyn Eckersley and Peter Hay.

The second phenomenal transformation in later twentieth-century was that of its Aboriginal derived (or Palawa) people. From the physical and social margins of society where they long had resided, and from a limited cultural base, the Palawa acquired force and numbers (by some official statistics giving Tasmania the highest Aboriginal population of any State). Micheal (sic - according to 2000 electoral roll) James Mansell became a national spokesman of militant Aboriginal opinion; there was probably less interest in 'reconciliation' in the Tasmanian Aboriginal community than its counterparts elsewhere. Many Caucasian Tasmanians were sympathetic to the Palawa, and still more were forced by the latter's assertion to reconsider the history and values of their own culture. A graduate of the University, Henry Reynolds (not resident in Tasmania during his most active years) was to the fore in writing new-style history of race relations in Australia.

Even gender issues had their particular local emphases. Formal political participation increased vastly, perhaps the most dramatic statistic being that the House of Assembly elections in 1996 returned ten women members out of thirty-five. Other elites showed some such indicators, if less markedly. Changing behaviour and standards ended the longstanding pattern of Tasmania having higher birth-rates and lower divorce-rates than the rest of Australia. Likewise was reversed traditional discrimination against homosexual behaviour and claims. Like Henry Reynolds, Marilyn Lake and Dennis Altman were graduates whose academic careers in mainland Australia saw them make major contributions to new modes of thought - Lake in feminist/gender studies, Altman apropos the homosexual experience.

The vigour of environmental studies at the University was part of a post-1980 pattern whereby the biological sciences enjoyed greater growth than physics, chemistry, mathematics, and geology. Within the humanities/social sciences some parallel lay in the development of sociology as a major teaching and research discipline. Some areas of the academy bore persuasive witness to the virtues of traditional styles and standards; others strove with varying result to follow latter-day fashions.

Post-modernity's effect doubtless contributed to energising Tasmania's more general socio-cultural life around 2000. In many ways the sum was impressive, but some commentators exaggerated the achievement, and how far it broke from the past. Van Diemen's Land/Tasmania had ever been a true community, and by that fact a place where social issues received serious, sometimes even profound, consideration.

Michael Roe

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