At 11 o’clock this morning I was staring at this very piece of paper, which then had not even a squiggle on it, and I was panicking.  I had no idea how I could possibly do justice to James Boyce’s revolutionary work of Vandiemonian history.

Every historian stands on the shoulders of those who have gone before, even when producing work that is thoroughly revisionist.  In James’s case Michael Roe and Alex Castles and possibly others have produced variants of the Vandiemonian culture thesis that James develops in this book, and there have, of course, over the last 50 years or so, been other ground-shifting contributions to our understanding of the historical forces that have made us who we are.  I do not wish to diminish such achievements, even by implicit comparison.  But if I ask myself: how is our understanding of ourselves different now, today, since the publication of this book, the answer must be – very, very different indeed.

No longer can it be credibly sustained that the over-riding story – the myth, the dream that shaped the actions of our forefathers – was the envisioning of a Little England here in the island at the end of the earth.  No longer can it be credibly sustained that the invaders found the island hostile, inhospitable, ugly, unproductive.  Only those who wrote the histories subscribed to those myths; saw the island through those eyes. But these were people who were never at home here, even if their descendants are now.  These were people for whom Van Diemen’s Land was an instrument for almost instant enrichment, the fruits of which were to be enjoyed not here but back ‘home’.  Precisely the people, we might say with hindsight, who should not have been granted exclusionary title over the island’s great productive grasslands.

Whatever.  What James dramatically demonstrates – and he needs no abstruse Marxism for this – is that there were two Van Diemen’s Lands – the official one of priggish, snobbish Little England and land rorts and privilege – and the Van Diemen’s Land of convict and ex-convict resourcefulness, the Van Diemen’s Land of those who adapted to the new environment rather than seeking to adapt the environment to accord with a set of social aspirations rigidly English.  These were the true Vandiemonians – our real pioneers – and though they were numerically by far the larger cohort, and though they forged a distinct culture, the convicts and emancipists did not, in the main, keep diaries or write memoirs or histories.  Their activities, moreover, frequently eluded the official records – as they were designed to.  Thus it is that the convicts have been trivialised, caricatured, stereotyped, ignored and traduced by history – in both its official and literary constructions.  Thus it is that our understanding of our past has been extraordinarily deficient – we have not acknowledged our real pioneers, these not being well-heeled, patronage- and property-endowed, quill-in-hand free settlers, but convicts.  It is a major deficiency, and it has now been rectified, thanks to the forensic, clear-eyed scholarship of James Boyce.

And just as there was no one Van Diemen’s Land in space, neither was there in time.  The Van Diemen’s Lands of 1807, 1817, 1827 1837 and 1847 differed vastly from each other, as we should expect, given that rapid change is always characteristic of a new social phenomenon – such as a new, post-invasion settlement.  And so, if we take the perennial question of convict history:  was the convict experience a living hell, or was it to be much preferred to the hopelessness, the starvation, the squalor and the disease of the raw industrial slums from which most convicts had been taken, the answer would seem to be – it depends on when in the 50 years in which the island was Van Diemen’s Land, you’re talking about.  If it’s 1817, and the rich grasslands of the midlands are yours for the roaming in, with, as yet, no land-hungry aspirant gentry class to take your commons away from you, and with comparatively amicable relations prevailing with the Aborigines whose prime hunting terrain this is, and with your kangaroo dogs there to make the hunting easy, then it’s no contest – you wouldn’t swap this for the slime and degradation of the Jago or the Gorbals for quids.

But if it is 1834, with Arthur’s machinery of spirit-breaking repression, and its chain gangs, its public works gangs, and its rigid penal discipline firmly in place, the answer to the hoary old question would almost certainly differ, especially as it seems to have been government policy to ensure that most convicts would be given a taste of the new terrors.  “While the majority of convicts were still assigned servants, and another 10 per cent or so had tickets of leave”, James tells us on pp169-170, “convicts were regularly moved up and down the punishment/reward hierarchy so that the terrors of the new punishments were widely experienced and universally feared.  Even ticket-of-leavers could quickly find themselves back in a public work gang for a minor breach of regulations”.

Arthur’s Van Diemen’s Land was a totalitarian society – indeed, any society organised as a penal system is bound to be so – but if a totalitarian society, it was a very leaky one.  As the environmentally-dysfunctional, socially-gated landed elite achieved control of the pasturelands, and as the crush of Arthur’s penal infrastructure robbed the convict free-rangers of their political and economic assets, instead of bowing to the logic of domination, the large convict underclass moved from the open plains to the forests – the new frontier of the late 1830s and the 40s – and so, James tells us, resilient Vandiemonianism survived, its heartland now in the newly-accessed country in the west, the north-west and the north-east.

I’m reading all this, people, in James’s book, and everything falls into place.  None of the Little England discourse ever rang true to this boy from the North West Coast – all that forelock-tugging hankering after the social rigidities of Victorian England – this was entirely foreign to the world in which I grew up.  And, of course, before finding their way to the frontier, my convict forebears wandered the roads in intact social groups.  When my Point Puer ancestor’s children started marrying at New Ground near Sassafras in the 1860s and 70s – and New Ground was the forest frontier when my great-great grandfather fetched up there – the witnesses on the official documentation were, without exception, fellow ex-Point Puer inmates or members of their families.  They arrived on the island together, they were incarcerated together, they were released together, they roamed the roads together, and they fetched up on the north-west forest frontier together.  On p.224 James quotes Mrs. Nixon, the wife of the island’s first Anglican bishop, who laments:  “how melancholy and deplorable it is in travelling up the country to see large bodies of men wandering about in total idleness.  God only knows when the present system will end or what will become of the free population if this fine country is to be thus swamped”.  I can well imagine that, when she wrote this, Mrs. Nixon might have just witnessed John Frimley and his mates from the Point Puer boy’s prison wandering the roads as a tight-bonded group on their eventual way to the bush frontier at New Ground, and well away from the likes of Mrs up-in-the-stirrups Nixon.  But of course, she was right.  ‘God only knows’ indeed what evils portended.  For here I stand, launching James Boyce’s book in 2008, this book that restores John Frimley to his rightful place in our island’s story.

It is a complex pattern that James weaves.  Complexity, not simplicity.  “For every complex problem, the geneticist, H.L. Mencken has famously said, “there is always a simple answer.  And it’s almost always wrong.”  So it is with history.  As we have seen, the period that James covers in his remarkable history is one of cross-currents, and one in which even the dominant currents rapidly change.  He delineates a reality for this year, only to have it shapeshift dramatically in the next.  Thus it is that the very heirs of resourceful Vandiemonianism, up on the North-West Coast, came, in the post-transportation 1860s, 70s and 80s, to most determinedly deny their convict wellsprings – even convictism’s heirs have collaborated in the fictional obliteration from personal and communal histories of convicts as a structural and family fact, an amnesia that, to my mind, sits at the heart of the civic malaise with which we are blighted today.

History must cease to be a marginal occupation.  The past must become alive, and sit at the front of all our minds, there to be perpetually pondered, revised, enriched with fresh nuance.  Were we to do that we would recognise that the legacy of the culture of resourceful adaptation born in the Van Diemen’s Land commons is an ambiguous one.  It is ambiguous now and it was ambiguous then – no more so than in the destruction of Aboriginal society, a largely undocumented process that began in the early 1820s (as James persuasively argues), and only brought to a culmination in the records-rich late 1820s and early 1830s.  This was done at the behest of, and in the interests of, the pastoral elite that wanted clear and unambiguous title to the lucrative grasslands that had been the Aboriginal tribes’ prime hunting grounds.  It may have been done at the behest of the rich and powerful, but, James tells us on p.205, “almost all of the killing of Aborigines was done by convicts and former convicts”, necessarily so, since these were the people who knew the bush, who knew the Aborigines’ trackways and meeting places, and who knew their customary ways of being and living in the bush.

The Aboriginal peoples, as well as the land itself, how it moulded and was inturn moulded by the Europeans who came here, loom large in this book.  And this is the period, of course, of which Keith Windschuttle writes.  The shadow of Windschuttle looms over this book.  And yet, you turn to the index and Windschuttle rates three mentions – and two of these are in the endnotes.
AT 11 O’CLOCK this morning I was staring at this very piece of paper, which then had not even a squiggle on it, and I was panicking.  I had no idea how I could possibly do justice to James Boyce’s revolutionary work of Vandiemonian history.

I’m going to ponder Windschuttle briefly.  In a largely favourable review of James’s book in last weekend’s Weekend Australian it was argued that, while Boyce nails his main thesis, he doesn’t, in the three-chapter Appendix, win the history wars.  I don’t agree, but even were it true it would signify nought, because James exorcises Windsdchuttle’s baleful presence in a single, 23-page chapter of utter potency – Chapter 14, “Fighting the Aborigines”.  And the genius of it is that he does so without a mention of Windschuttle – save only a single footnote.  Had this book been a consciously-written riposte to Windschuttle it would have been a much diminished project.  Thus, I can observe that the ideologically-driven, selectively evidenced, dishonest scholarship of Windschuttle has been thoroughly exposed.  I can say that.  James, to his very great credit, does not.  He simply goes about his business, forensic, painstaking, ruthlessly honest – and he presents us with a most compelling truth.

Ruthlessly honest.  This book is just that, because James is a ruthlessly honest man.  You can look, but you won’t find any human being of such an uncompromised, fine-honed sense of the just and the unjust – and this pervades all aspects of his life, for it is a renaissance man we’ve come together to celebrate today.

The insights of this book merit certain official responses.  The convict namings should be restored.  It is time the Clyde River again became the Fat Doe.  Let Gallows Hill, Murderers Plains, Killman Point, Dick Brown’s River appear once more on the maps.  Let York Plains lose its pathetic cringe to dead and distant loyalty and again mark the violent death of an early convict bolter – to again become Scantling’s Plains.  Let Aboriginal names be restored to the land.  Let – I will even urge – let the sanitising, prettifying preferred nomenclature of the gentry for our very island be done away with:  let us again become Van Diemen’s Land, the land of the convicts who truly made it home.

Theirs is an ambiguous legacy, but it is a more honest one than Little England.  I thank James for restoring to my ancestors, to me, our own, our real, history.



Pete Hay

6 Feb 2008

Pete Hay

Whatever.  What James dramatically demonstrates – and he needs no abstruse Marxism for this – is that there were two Van Diemen’s Lands – the official one of priggish, snobbish Little England and land rorts and privilege – and the Van Diemen’s Land of convict and ex-convict resourcefulness, the Van Diemen’s Land of those who adapted to the new environment rather than seeking to adapt the environment to accord with a set of social aspirations rigidly English.  These were the true Vandiemonians – our real pioneers – and though they were numerically by far the larger cohort, and though they forged a distinct culture, the convicts and emancipists did not, in the main, keep diaries or write memoirs or histories.  Their activities, moreover, frequently eluded the official records – as they were designed to.  Thus it is that the convicts have been trivialised, caricatured, stereotyped, ignored and traduced by history – in both its official and literary constructions.  Thus it is that our understanding of our past has been extraordinarily deficient – we have not acknowledged our real pioneers, these not being well-heeled, patronage- and property-endowed, quill-in-hand free settlers, but convicts.  It is a major deficiency, and it has now been rectified, thanks to the forensic, clear-eyed scholarship of James Boyce.