There’s nothing like a gruesome massacre story to get our woke folk writhing in white guilt, even if the “massacre” is sheer malarkey. The 1804 “massacre” at Risdon Point near Hobart is a case in point.
On Australia Day January 26, 2011, called “Invasion Day” by its detractors, Michael Mansell of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Land Council stood outside Hobart’s Parliament House and made a fiery speech. He said many Australians sorrowed for the 35 killed by Martin Bryant at Port Arthur in 1996. “But not one of those Australians can even remember that a whole tribe of people, men women and children at Risdon Cove, were slaughtered by the cannons of the people, the pioneers, who came to Tasmania.” (At 3.30 minutes in. Audience members cry “Shame! Shame!” at any whites present).
Risdon Cove is 7km north of Hobart. In 1803 Lt John Bowen led a group of 49 there from Sydney to become the first white settlement in Van Diemen’s Land. In February 1804 Lt-Col David Collins arrived at Hobart, leaving some troops, settlers and a dozen convicts at Risdon Cove.
Three months later, on May 3, 200 or so Aboriginals arrived on a kangaroo round-up drive. They seized two dead kangaroos, and harassed a settler who’d built a hut on their tribal ground. The commander Lt Moore sent troops to rescue the settler, with orders to fire only as a last resort, but one trooper shot dead one of the Aborigines. Things worsened and Moore ordered a shot to be fired from one of two 12-pounder ship’s cannons to “intimidate”. The presumption is that a blank produced only sparks, flame and smoke, since the cannon was sited 1km from the action and the white community was mid-way in the line of fire. There were no reports of dismembering from canister shot. But the earth-shaking explosion was heard even in Hobart.
The official accounts by Moore and Collins, compiled just after the affray, reported three Aborigines killed, some wounded, and the rescue of an orphaned black two-year-old. Governor King in NSW replied with alarm about the “unfortunate event” with concern for the welfare of the Aboriginal population.
THIS does not add up to what Mr Mansell calls the slaughtering of an entire tribe by cannon fire. Nor does it add up to what’s on the Massacre Map of Newcastle University historian Lyndall Ryan, an expert on Van Diemen’s Land. Ryan puts the “massacre” deaths in her error-riddled Risdon map account at a definite 20 and possibly 30-50.
Why and how the “massacre” accounts? Because on March 16, 1830, 26 years after the event, there was an inquiry in Hobart into deteriorating relations with blacks. An old convict lag Edward White , who claimed to be an eye-witness to the Risdon Cove affray, gave compelling and detailed evidence of a “great many” unarmed natives killed and wounded during a three-hour all-out battle.
Because of his credible recorded testimony, historians thereafter treated the official stories as self-excusing lies. (Actually the inquiry did not even access the official accounts, only a diary of a church minister which included a transcription of a surgeon’s brief first-hand account). The inquiry, remarkably, produced its findings within two days of hearing the last witness. With each re-telling of the story based on convict Edward White’s account, new colourful and horrific details appeared, turning the “massacre”. into the opening shots in Tasmania’s shameful “Black War” that climaxed with the late-1830 “Black Line” campaign.
In 2004 Professor Lyndall Ryan re-told “one of the best-known massacres in Australian history.” Drawing on Edward White’s evidence plus hearsay, she added that at least one barrel of Aboriginal remains, perhaps already dissected by the Risdon surgeon, was sent to Sydney on the ship Ocean after the massacre. Her upper death toll of 50 came from a boy, James Kelly, who was 12 years old at the time and living in Hobart, not Risdon, and not an eye-witness. Ryan’s account has delighted woke museum curators.
Those at the Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery came up with a fanciful “bones in the barrel” exhibit with explanations about the 1804 surgeon “stripping of the flesh off the bones of these two Aboriginal bodies”, for study by Sydney and possibly London medicos. The curators have cooked up a realistic-looking sealed barrel addressed to “Colonial Surgeon, Sydney, May 1804”, a macabre exhibit currently sending shivers up the spines of schoolkid groups.
A decade earlier, in 1995, Tasmania’s Liberal Premier Ray Groom sought to atone for all the white guilt. He handed the 79-hectare Crown site to Aboriginal descendants of the “massacre” represented by Michael Mansell and the Tasmanian Aboriginal Land Council. It’s all heritage-listed and I’ll detail later what happened to it.
NOW for the reality check on the “massacre” attested by convict Edward White. A trio of amateur historians, Scott Seymour, George Brown and Roger Karge, after a decade’s research, have proved that the convict White was a con-man who arrived in Van Diemen’s Land between 1808 and 1811, considerable years after the 1804 Risdon affray and not an eye-witness by a long shot. Probably seeking government rations and slops (clothing) in his old age, he concocted his massacre gossip.
Scrub out White’s account and our knowledge of the Risdon Cover “massacre” comes back to the two official accounts of three killed, regrettable of course but unplanned in a sadly typical case of cultural confusion.
The research by the amateur trio is laid out in a beautifully-presented book “Witness? Truth-Telling at Risdon Cove.” ($44.95, Risdon Cove Publishing, April 2022). It describes each step in the complex job of “outing” con-man White via the archives. In addition it provides on its pages facsimiles of the hand-written documents for the reader to cross-check. This professional treatment is a huge embarrassment to the black-armband historians whose work has substituted myths for history.
The amateur trio were inspired simply by a craving to get at the truth. Their opening illustration is a statue of the female Roman god Veritas, with a caption, “Truth is Mighty”. Their expertise includes state-of-the-art data-base software capable of sifting and analysing vast historical archives in London, Ireland and Australia, nailing the lying convict.
The trio’s professional rivals are also no slouches and their own “history” appears well-rooted in documentary evidence for White being on-the-spot.
Apart from Lyndall Ryan, the major player is Tasmanian historian Phillip Tardif. Tardif managed apparently to document how Edward White got to Sydney and then Risdon Cove prior to the “massacre” . The only problem was that Tardif focused on the wrong “Edward White” – a common mistake with common names. Tardif’s 2003 book John Bowen’s Hobart : the beginning of European settlement in Tasmania,[i] claims that Edward White did embark from Cork, Ireland. for Sydney on the ship Atlas in 1801. The amateur trio prove however that he never disembarked, having died during the voyage. (The voyage death toll was 63 out of 151 convicts).
Tardif’s (deceased) Edward White somehow got from Sydney to Risdon Cove with a reinforcing party before the 1804 “massacre”. Tardif’s thesis cries out for a document naming “Edward White” among the dozen convicts left at Risdon Cove by Lt-Col Collins. White would thereupon become a potential eyewitness to the May 3 conflict.
In his history, for the first time, Tardif was able to cite despatches from Lt-Col Collins to NSW Governor Philip King naming the convicts at Risdon Cove as “mostly useful Mechanics, Sawyers and Carpenters”. On the list, Tardif writes, is “Edward White”. Eureka! That’s verification of White’s eye-witness claims 26 years later. As historians do, Tardif footnoted his important discovery (p163) for verification:
Port Jackson, Despatches, Original Correspondence, Colonial Office (CO 201/33 pp 240-42) Collins to King, 31 July 1803[sic – read 1804], in HRA Series 111 Vol 1, p254.
Only the first reference (“p240-42”) is relevant for Tardif’s case. All three pages are in facsimile in Witness. The listing of what historian Tardif says are “13” convict names reads “George Clark, John Jackson, Wm Wright, Wm Garratt, Edwd Barnes, Dennis McCarty, John Jones, Joseph Parnell, Richd Wright, Wm Cole, John Harris, Mary Lawler.” The amateurs count 12 names, not 13, and there is no “Edward White” listed. They write,
“We have tried to contact Phillip Tardif for clarification on this discrepancy but he has not responded. The Australian newspaper has also reportedly sought comment from Tardif, but “Mr Tardif could not be contacted”. Failing a forthcoming explanation for this discrepancy, we believe Tardif’s book misleads its readers into believing that Edward White’s name was on Collins’ list, when clearly it was not. Readers are led to believe that documentary evidence exists that places an Edward White at Risdon Cove in 1804, when the sources cited in the book do not support this at all.”
Co-author Scott Seymour tells Quadrant he was initially delighted that Tardif had confirmed White was at Risdon Cove in 1804. He went to Tardif’s reference to see Lt-Col Collins’ own handwriting and had to do a double-check and triple-check: why wasn’t White’s name there? He became perplexed but not surprised, since there is no record of an Edward White being shipped from Sydney to Risdon Cove in 1803 or 1804.
The three authors then set out to solve the enigma, “Who was the convict Edward White who gave his bogus testimony to the inquiry in 1830, 26 years after the affray?”
For history buffs, their research is better than a detective novel. They are able first to track some of his post-inquiry adventures. He petitioned the authorities, with support from respectable citizens, four times from 1831-35 to get government sustenance. His case was that he was too ill to support himself. His four preambles are shown to be less than truthful, while he harps on how he came forward with important evidence to the inquiry.
Lt-Gov George Arthur, unconvinced, never granted the free rations. The Witness authors say an Edward White died of a fever in Hobart on February 13, 1840, and was probably the same man.
They then embark on tracing his origins prior to the 1830 inquiry, while ruling out confusion with various other “Edward Whites”. The records were often themselves faulty, with convicts lying to shorten their terms. These errors are then repeated in standard data bases used by families and scholars to research convict lives. The trio’s vital need is to establish on what vessel this Edward White (among another half-dozen similar names), came to Sydney and thence to Hobart.
TO SIFT the evidence they applied their SAT software, crunching data about Spatial (where), Associates (which friends and contacts were involved) and Temporal (timing).
They picked up that he won a 30-acre farmland grant in 1823 which he sold or quit in 1828. This enabled them to track him in court cases back to 1818, and his probable freedom from 1815. This rearward-facing trail then ran cold.
The authors decided to change tack and start their search for White back in 1800, scanning court records and convict ships from Ireland and England for traces. With luck, this search would join up with their 1815 discovery, like tunnellers meeting in the middle of a mountain.
They found 11 potential convict “Whites” and to cut an intricate story short, finally established that their Edward White, also called “Edmund White”, was transported from Tipperary via the ship Tellicherry in 1805. His arrival in Botany Bay was recorded in 1806.
To their surprise, they found he’d been sentenced to death in Tipperary, later commuted, for “running away with” a Judith Prendergast. He might have abducted or kidnapped her, or was framed by relatives over an elopement.
In Sydney, court records show him getting 200 lashes for an escape attempt, and absconding again in 1808. This second offence likely had him sentenced down to Hobart, but they couldn’t find records of it. They conjecture that those records were in the nine and a half tons of documents deliberately burnt or pulped by the authorities from 1863-70 to save money on storage, a horrendous loss to all historians.
The best the authors can do is to place their Edward White at a Hobart muster in 1811. He was claiming falsely to have been transported from England on the Hercules in 1802 with a seven-year sentence, not on the Tellicherry in 1806 as a ‘lifer’. The lie would have got him his liberty on or after 1811.
The researchers were amused to find that in their final sifting of three Edward or Edmund Whites, all arriving on different vessels, they turned out to be the one Edward White pulling identity scams. The authors conclude,
“It means that his  testimony should be expunged from the historical record of Tasmania. Whenever the topic of the Risdon Cove affray arises, the words ‘convict eye-witness’ or the name ‘Edward White’ should never be seen or heard. His name and testimony should only appear as a footnote in the History Wars, and even then, only when teaching students critical thinking, archival research or the perils of ‘presentism’…”
Professor Lyndall Ryan of the “massacre map” and Michael Mansell of the Land Council were indignant when contacted by The Australian in February. Ryan was quoted,
“To claim that Edward White was not a witness to the massacre is ridiculous. None of the 19th century historians query White’s testimony. If White was a fake, he would have been exposed long ago. This is the latest in a long line of massacre deniers.”
Mansell insisted the official accounts were a cover-up and White’s evidence was credible. Neither provided evidence to rebut the book, “because they couldn’t”, the authors say.“Why have they devoted decades of scholarship and activism to shoring up White’s story and this particular massacre? Is it a case of intellectuals ‘liking’ genocide?” they ask.
They note that the Risdon “massacre” story has helped trash our global reputation, Ryan writing that it is “part of the national and international literature on the colonial encounter.” Her version is also taught to students and is leant on by journalists as remote as The Wall Street Journal. Among today’s Tasmanians (black and white) some are labelled as assassins and others as victims. The authors claim an increasing number “are wondering whether this whole sorry tale is just one big shakedown.” They conclude,
“Hopefully this book will provide the basis for a reckoning and an end to this divisive madness that has pervaded Tasmania for a generation. It is in every Tasmanian’s interest that we wake up and begin the slow but steady path to true reconciliation.”
End-note: I mentioned above the 1995 Liberal government handover of Risdon Cove’s 79 hectares to the Aboriginal Land Council. The Tasmanian Government, which acquired the site in the 1950s for a reserve, has always found the Risdon settlement embarrassing because of the ‘massacre’. They were only too happy to declare the grounds no longer a historic and tourist site. It had been a popular historical interpretative centre with signage, replica huts, a monument to founder Lt John Bowen and pamphlets for visitors on soldiers and convicts. The interpretative building has now been converted to a small school for Indigenous children.
Soon after the 1995 handover, signage disappeared, one hut burnt down, others were vandalised and levelled, the Bowen monument destroyed, plaques wrenched off with crowbars, relics sent to the tip and archaeological trenches filled and covered. The grounds are now overgrown with grass.
“This is another outcome of con-man White’s false evidence in 1830 about a massacre,” says co-author Seymour. “We’ve lost the oldest colonial-history site in Tasmania. It’s unique because it’s remained in the original state as a farm with no urban-sprawl encroachment. The only road through it is the one marked on the 1804 maps. What a tragedy, based on a convict’s lie.”
Tony Thomas’ latest essay collection “Foot Soldier in the Culture Wars” ($29.95) is available from publisher ConnorCourt
[i] Tardif won funding from the Tasmanian
Historical Research Association for his settlement history in the bicentennial year 2003.