Concept: Identity


Tasmania is a much loved place. People from all walks of life express their affectionate identification with the Island without embarrassment, often without reservation. They do so in conversation and in print. Their enthusiasm immediately strikes the outsider. Such easy identification is not new and can, in fact, be traced back to the first half of the nineteenth century. It is the product of both history and geography.

Strong regional loyalties can be found in many parts of Australia. That is only to be expected in such a large continent where the political units, be they colonies or states, are themselves the size of many nations. But nowhere else did regionalism have boundaries as fixed and formidable as Bass Strait and the two great oceans. Tasmania was, indeed, girt by sea.

Over the years many regions have given birth to separatist movements which aimed to achieve political autonomy, and draw power away from distant metropolitan centres. In this sense Tasmania presented an attractive model for mainland separatist movements. Despite a small population it had a high degree of autonomy from the very beginning of European settlement. It gained de facto independence from New South Wales in 1824, responsible government in 1856 and statehood in 1901. Important areas of legislation and administration have been in local hands for 180 years.

But for much of that time Tasmania has shared the grievances of dissatisfied regions - that amalgam of peripheral discontent and injured local pride - the sense of not being noticed, the universal hostility to presumed metropolitan condescension. In Tasmania, as in many other parts of regional Australia, a timeworn staple of political rhetoric is the condemnation of distant decision-makers and desk-bound bureaucrats.

While Tasmanian identity must be considered as part of the story of continent-wide regionalism and endemic local loyalties there is much about it which is distinctive and needs to be understood in its own context. Perhaps the most striking feature is how quickly Island patriotism emerged, how precocious it was, how enduring it has proved.

Writing of his experience in Tasmania in the early 1820s Edward Curr observed that there was 'already a degree of nationality in Van Diemen's Land' and referred to the affection that colonists displayed towards their own local nomenclature which they associated with their own experience with what had already become 'the good old times'. Writing in the Hobart Town Courier in 1829, James Ross declared that: 'The Amor Patria [love of country] we already know, operates here as powerfully as in the old world'. The 'native Van Diemener', he believed, would pine away in exile, longing for the magnificent mountains and the verdant plains of his own island. In 1831 the Colonial Auditor and assiduous diarist GTWB Boyes wrote of the Island's 'rising generation' of native youth who thought nothing of England and could not bear the thought of going there. It was, he noted, 'extraordinary the passionate love they have for the country of their birth'.

The transfer of allegiance to the new world among the first generation of settlers was outlined by the surveyor George Frankland in a speech delivered to the inaugural meeting of the Van Diemen's Land Philosophical Society in January 1830 which culminated in the toast: 'Prosperity to the land we live in'. Frankland reminded his listeners of their common experience of exile from their homeland:

We all remember, said he, that melancholy day, when standing upon the poop of the good ship, that danced beneath our feet, we strained our eyes to catch a last glimpse of our native land; and not less so the many succeeding hours, which were occupied in looking over the bulwarks, and recollecting the many joys, from which we were quickly sailing away.

It was, up to this point, a classic example of the exile's lament. But what made Frankland's speech memorable was the enthusiasm of his identity with Tasmania. 'Our hearts filled with these recollections,' he declared:

we then thought it impossible, that we could ever feel a permanent interest in any land but that of our early love. But these fears were changed to hopes, when we came and saw the richness and beauty of the country for which we had left our homes, we found the soil productive of abundant harvests, the climate most congenial to our constitutions, the scenery magnificent and new, and the land altogether full of the most interesting curiosities. Who will deny, that his sensations, in making these discoveries, were joyous, and at the same time preparatory to those of permanent interest in the place of his new residence.

Frankland's speech reflected the ease and speed with which attachment to Tasmania became apparent. It confounds conventional accounts of settler alienation from their new environment and an enduring sense of exile. Frankland also provided some clues as to what was involved and these should be further explored.

Tasmanian colonists wrote enthusiastically about the local climate referring to 'this delightful and salubrious climate'; 'a climate perhaps the finest in the world'; 'a salubrity of climate which no country can supass [sic]'. Such praise was commonplace but it needs some explanation.

Situated at 42° south the Island has a cool maritime climate dominated by the weather systems embedded in the prevailing westerly winds. Much was familiar to settlers from Britain - distinct seasons, regular rainfall, mountain snow, rapid changes of weather, long summer twilights, slanting silver light. But because the Island was almost 1000 kilometres closer to the equator than the south of England it was warmer and brighter than their homeland with a shorter, milder winter. It was an enhanced Britain while at the same time being much more familiar than mainland Australia. All the old world flowers, fruits and cereals flourished in the benign climate. Time and again observers wrote approvingly of the rosy-cheeked children.

The Island was blessed, with a climate whose summer equals that of London - whose winter is not more severe than the south of France - whose autumn possesses two months more growing weather than England - with an equal fall of rain throughout the year.

Literate colonists also left many accounts of their appreciation of the Tasmanian landscape. They wrote again and again about its beauty - about the mountains and forests, rivers and lakes, waterfalls and fern glades. More than anything else it was the landscape which fostered a sense of belonging. Why was this so?

The settlers, arriving in the 1820s, had grown up at a time when the cult of the picturesque was at its height, when travellers sought out wild and rugged scenery in north Wales and the Scottish Highlands and lakes. The sensibility of this generation in particular was prepared in advance to respond to the Tasmanian landscape and find it beautiful. Hence their descriptions contain constant references to grandeur, to the romantic and the picturesque. Writing of the Derwent, Charles Jeffreys explained how the scenery was 'exquisitely beautiful, and, in some places highly romantic and picturesque'.

But other parts of the island appealed in a different way. The open grasslands of the midlands, created by generations of Aboriginal firing practices, looked like the romantic landscapes created by Capability Brown and his many imitators. Time and time again comparisons were made between the Midlands and a gentleman's park in England. The country, Widowson wrote, presented an 'interesting clear prospect and moderately wooded by small clumps of trees, as if planted by the hand of man to ornament an estate'.

Tasmania, then, was both pastoral and picturesque. It was both Turner and Constable.

Another manifestation of Tasmania's colonial patriotism was rivalry with New South Wales in which the Island's presumed superior climate played a prominent part. 'We can discover no advantage which Sydney has over us', a correspondent in the Colonial Timesdeclared in 1825, apart from certain half tropical products of little value, while Tasmania enjoyed an atmosphere best suited to the health and constitution. A writer in the Hobart Town Courier in 1829 compared the Island, where it was possible to retain English habits and English farming, with New South Wales where the settlers would 'mellow into Asiatic softness'.

But local pride was confined to the climate and the landscape. The society of the penal colony was a cause of anxiety, embarrassment and shame. It became a commoplace of local rhetoric to compare the purity of nature with the degradation of the settlements. It was a local, exaggerated variant of the contrast between nature and urban, industrialising Britain which could be found in the literature and painting of the Romantic movement. The contrast, Joseph Syme wrote in 1845, was between the 'natural beauties of these districts' and the 'moral turpitude of their inhabitants'. The Irish exile John Mitchel was one of those sojourners who fell under the spell of the landscape and compared place and society. The charm of the lakes on the central plateau was enhanced by their being elevated 'high above all the odious stations, and townships, and the whole world of convictism and scoundreldom'. They were two thousand feet 'nearer to the stars than the mob of gaolers and prisoners that welter and wither below'. The air itself was purer and 'untainted by the lungs of lags'.

The juxtaposition of a pure natural environment and a corrupt and degenerate society became a central feature of the campaign to end transportation in the late 1840s and early 1850s. One of the leaders of the crusade against the convict system wrote:

I have always thought that of all the British colonies, the beautiful island of Van Diemen's Land is the last which ought to have been subjected to this cruel degradation: from its climate, its scenery, and its whole physical character, it is calculated more than any other to maintain in all its vigour the character of the race from which we are descended - it is one of the lands of the mountain and the flood, which have ever been distinguished for their love of independence, their hatred of tyranny, and their efforts in the cause of freedom.

The Anti-transportation movement both politicised and entrenched attitudes which had been developing over the previous twenty years - fusing Tasmanian patriotism with landscape on the one hand and shame about the convict system on the other.

Identity with place was, then, well established by the middle years of the nineteenth century. Economic and demographic conditions assisted its survival. Slow growth limited in-migration. The native-born population became increasingly important. Intermarriage knotted a dense web of kinship. The sense of being left behind by the mainland colonies nurtured a resigned, defiant patriotism. In 1887 a farmer campaigning for protective tariffs remarked: 'We have no chance against the people in the other Colonies. Its all hard work here. I am sure I don t know what we stop here for at all, unless its because we love the old island'.

Intermittent proposals urging amalgamation with Victoria called forth patriotic responses. A correspondent wrote to the Sydney Bulletin in 1898, reacting to an article advocating such a reform, arguing that the mainland writer had overlooked the facts of geography which made Tasmania the 'only naturally separate province of Australia'. In fact the '250 miles of dividing sea' along with distinctly different terrain andclimate would

inevitably tend to produce in the future a people of more virile temper and stronger physique than the people on the other side of the strait, and it is these differences which go to make a separate nationality.

The nationalist slogan 'Australia for the Australians' underwent a sea-change when it crossed Bass Strait in the 1880s to become 'Tasmania for the Tasmanians' which was the motto of the Tasmanian Natives Association founded in 1885 by a group of prominent Launceston business and professional men. Though clearly modelled on the Australian Natives Association of Victoria the local society maintained its independence. A delegate from the ANA addressed the second meeting and a 'great deal of discussion ensued as to whether it was desirable to co-operate with the ANA but it was decided to make it purely Tasmanian'.

Working-class gatherings also heard speeches which took up many of the issues familiar to the union movement all over Australia while ending with the parochial peroration: 'Let us have Tasmania for the Tasmanians'.

The federal movement gained considerable support in Tasmania and Island voters gave the cause overwhelming endorsement in the 1898 referendum, although there was considerable regional variation. Those who cast their ballot for the new nation no doubt had numerous things in mind. It seems likely that many voted because the federal constitution allowed for shared sovereignty and continued, if impaired, Island autonomy. They favoured federation for what it would bring Tasmania. The prominent Hobart Quaker JB Walker noted in his diary on the eve of the 1898 referendum that although many people realised that federation was in many respects 'a leap in the dark thoughtful men looked at the other alternative - what would be Tasmania's position if she was left alone outside the Federation with united Australia bonded against her'.

Walker epitomised the complex loyalties of the fin de siècleTasmanian in a letter of 1890 written to his sister who had been patronised as a colonial while visiting England. He wrote: 'I am glad you stood up for your country and declared yourself an Australian - Don't let the haughty English - or German - lord it over a free born Tasmanian'.

Islanders were loyal to Crown and to Empire. They dispatched a small contingent to the Boer War and demonstrated mass enthusiasm for the famous victories at Ladysmith and Mafeking. They rallied to the flag again in 1914 with as much ardour as other Australians. Such overlapping loyalty and complex identity was easier to accommodate because Tasmanian patriotism was attached to place, to the physical environment and not to institutions, political ideals or a constitution. It could sit comfortably with a political engagement with federal Australia and imperial Britain.

The landscape continued to provide inspiration to Island artists. The native-born WC Piguenit depicted and celebrated the

lofty and rugged mountain ranges, deep ravines, great valleys - more or less precipitous and covered for the greater part with dense forests - almost impenetrable scrub and rivers liable to frequent and sudden flood.

The central role of landscape in Tasmanian painting has continued up to the present.

There is an equally strong tradition running through the history of Island photography from JW Beattie to Olegas Truchanas and Peter Dombrovskis. Beattie wrote lyrically:

I love the bush, and nothing gives me greater delight than to stand on the top of some highland and look out on a wild array of our grand mountains. I am struck dum, [sic] but oh! My soul sings.

The development of tourism in the twentieth century has helped cement the link between identity and landscape. Early promoters of travel to the Island drew on an established tradition of guide-books preparedfor immigrants which lauded both climate and country. Visitors were enticed by images of mountains, lakes and wild rivers. It was place, not people or Tasmanian society, which made the Island worthy of visiting. Contemporary wilderness tourism is merely the latest manifestation of an old tradition linked to the first settlers' enthusiasm for the picturesque. Images prepared for outsiders reflected back on Tasmanians confirming what it was that made the Island distinctive.

Tasmanian patriotism has been historically related to place. It has been more closely related to pantheism than to politics. This continued to be the case during the long era of two-party class based politics. Political loyalties and party commitments were not directly affected by the patriotism of place, which was often common ground shared by left and right, by boss and worker alike.

All this changed with the dramatic emergence of the environment as a central political question from the early 1970s. Tasmania's identity with place, with the wilderness, suddenly became politicised. But clearly green politics had been latent in the Island for generations. This was the reason for its precocious development, its great strength and momentum which enabled it to crack open the two-party system. New concern for conservation and bio-diversity merged with ancestral attachment to country.

Green politics was linked to the tradition of Piguenit and Beattie and their many disciples. There was a fusion of art and advocacy which found expression in the highly effective employment of dramatic landscape photography to promote the campaigns concerning Lake Pedder, the Franklin, the Tarkine and the old growth forests.

Richard Flanagan, one of the most prominent and outspoken exponents of green politics, related his initiation into the cause to a protest made on Mount Wellington by Bob Brown in 1976. To the young Flanagan:

The action seemed to make all the connections I had not found in Tasmanian art, connections between the personal and the political, between the natural world and the human world, between what was and what could be, between my place and myself. This action seemed to suggest that a love of place could be a powerful and commanding moral and creative force. Most of all it spoke of the possibility of hope in my world. Looking back now, I can see that it was part of the beginning of a politics of place in Tasmania the full potential of which is still to be realized.

Island patriotism developed early and has been a constant feature of Tasmanian life for more than 150 years. The pioneer settlers identified with and transferred their allegiance to the physical environment rather than to colonial society and its infant institutions.

Contemporary Tasmanians relate to place - to what was here when the Europeans arrived rather than to what has subsequently been achieved by human endeavour. It is a patriotism of geography rather than history. They rarely celebrate political or social achievements and the creation of an accomplished and admirable society. This may be due to modesty or disdain. On the other hand it may indicate the continuity of traditions established during the convict era. Many old buildings remain from that time. So too, it seems, do patterns of thought and feeling.

Henry Reynolds

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