History Wars

The spoils of war

John Owen on the desecration of the Risdon Cove historic site, in which the state government of Tasmania is complicit:

At the turn of the twentieth century the Risdon settlement site was generously signed over to the people of Tasmania by the then owner Mr G.B. Alberry to commemorate the founding of the first British colony. In 1995, Ray Groom who was then Premier of a Liberal Party government, handed the area together with real estate worth millions of dollars to the descendents of the Tasmanian Aborigines. He was hoping to achieve a measure of reconciliation and no doubt political favour in future elections. As it happened, he achieved neither. The State Liberal Party has since been out of office and is a rump of its former self. And from the tone of the commemorative plaque now erected adjacent to Bowen’s memorial, the attitude of the new owners is far from conciliatory.

Rather than leading to reconciliation, the site disseminates propaganda about the alleged massacre and hints at similar atrocities across the state. Visiting groups of school children are encouraged to read a plaque, the wording of which selectively quotes part of Edward White’s discounted testimony, inflates the numbers killed and ignores any evidence to the contrary.

Many of the claims of racial violence to which the commemorative plaque alludes were recorded by George Augustus Robinson. One such account, describes the murder of several Tasmanian Aborigines near Eddystone Point on the northeast corner of Tasmania in 1827. According to Robinson, one of the four men responsible for these murders was the sealer Edward (Sydney) Mansell, who was also later arrested for shooting two other aborigines on Flinders Island in 1832. Edward Mansell shares the name of one of those recently responsible for the wording of the plaque at Risdon, which blames the ancestors of white Tasmanians for the demise of the Tasmanian Aborigines as a distinct race. Apart from the devastating effects of European diseases, a main contributor to this demise were the stockkeepers and Bass Strait sealers like Edward Mansell who took native wives and so became the earliest European ancestors of today’s Tasmanian Aboriginal people. By doing so, these ancestors deprived the Aboriginal community of its women, and some ill-used and murdered the native men.

After 200 years, some 17,000 Tasmanians now claim to be descended from these common-law marriages. Unfortunately, some of these descendants have adopted a self-imposed form of apartheid demanding privileges and benefits not available to the rest of the community. Until it is acknowledged that the Tasmanian Aboriginal people are Tasmanians who can be proud of their Aboriginal background in the same way that other Tasmanians are proud of their particular heritage, such demands for special status on the basis of race will likely continue.

Finally, it can only be hoped that, rather than the Risdon settlement site continuing to be flaunted as some kind of war reparation, the area will one day be returned to public ownership as a true gesture of reconciliation, where all Tasmanians can unite and celebrate the many things we have in common. This is unlikely to happen, however, while rumour and fabrication take precedence over reason and historical research.

Source: Risdon Cove, 3 May 1804

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