Tom Lawson’s The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania is a crucial demonstration that British imperialist claims to humanitarianism were entirely hollow, finds Dominic Alexander
The idea that there was anything remotely worthy about Britain’s imperial past has been steadily losing credibility, despite the Johnson government’s disgraceful and offensive insistence to the contrary. There is no shortage of well-known atrocities to which to point, from the horrific torture and killing of Mau Mau prisoners in Kenya in the 1950s, back through the Amritsar Massacre, the reprisals in the suppression of the Indian Rebellion or Mutiny of 1857, to the centuries of the slave trade. Yet the myth of imperial good intentions and even humanitarianism remains a carefully cultivated one.
Atrocities like the Amritsar Massacre are blamed on individuals, and the end of the slave trade and slavery presented as a victory of the humanitarianism of the British elite. That self-serving obfuscation was exposed some time ago by Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery (1944) where he unmasked the economic interests behind abolition. Most recently, another historian has exposed the cynicism and racism of the British establishment in its long resistance to the eventual abolition of slavery.i In this account, most of the leading abolitionists, particularly those in parliament, do not come out well, having used racist arguments, and been all too keen to conciliate with the establishment.
Imperialism and genocide
The position that there was some kind of progressive or humanitarian element to British imperialism does not hold up under serious scrutiny, but the pose was itself an important part of the self-justification of Empire. It turns out that it can even be shown to have played an integral part in an actual genocide, that of the indigenous people of Tasmania. The British authorities tacitly accepted colonial violence, and in policies wrapped in supposed concern for the indigenous survival, sealed the destruction of their society, alongside a 99% reduction of their population (p.2).
Lawson’s preface to this paperback edition notes some criticisms that have been made of his argument, but defends his use of the term ‘genocide’ as entirely appropriate to what happened in Tasmania from 1803 through to the 1830s, and beyond. The danger seen by some in this terminology is that it is equated with extinction, thereby effacing the voices of the indigenous community of Tasmania in the present (p.xviii). So, genocide should not be taken to mean complete annihilation, or otherwise ‘the passivity and surrender of the victims’ (p.xix). The original Tasmanians did indeed resist colonisation, and some survived on smaller islands off Tasmania and through the mixed population. It was the victors’ story that they had been entirely exterminated.
At first sight, the controversy over the use of the term ‘genocide’ might seem a surprising one, but there is a context in the later nineteenth-century imperialist discourse about the ‘extinction’ of the Tasmanians. Lawson discusses later in the book how this was used to justify what had happened in terms of a notion of inevitable progress. In a material way, this shaping of history did contribute to the further marginalisation of the surviving community. The way in which the destruction of indigenous society was remembered in Britain thus is a significant part of the subject.
Enabling settler violence
The story of the genocide has been detailed before, and while The Last Man does provide the necessary narrative, Lawson’s main purpose is to investigate the role of specifically British policy, arguing against a prevailing view that the violence was essentially that of the colonists, leaving the authorities in London at a remove. There has been recently, Lawson notes, a rich historiography focused on localities, in some respects enabling the indigenous experience to be more visible, yet:
‘one of the unintended consequences of this assertion of the importance of the local is that the metropolitan centre can be almost written out of the history of colonial Tasmania and its impacts on the island’s original inhabitants’ (p.11).
The central theme is therefore how the metropolitan authorities enabled and encouraged the violence of the white settlers, against other interpretations which see London as an ineffectual but well-meaning voice of restraint. Niall Ferguson, in typically brazen style, goes so far as to make what happened in Tasmania as showing the good done by the Empire. Had Australia not been under British rule in the nineteenth century, goes the argument, the same would have happened to indigenous people there, without London’s restraining influence (p.12). Such dangerous apologetics could not survive contact with the evidence that Lawson presents.
To begin with, there is the notorious concept of ‘terra nullius’, which, whatever its exact status in legal history, certainly existed on the ideological level as a justification of colonisation. Since the aboriginal peoples did not, to European eyes, engage in agriculture or other ‘civilised’ economic activities, and did not have a concept of individual property, the land was open to colonisation. The Europeans in fact saw what they wanted to see in Australia, and not what was there. Indigenous Australians in fact engaged in extensive and sophisticated land and resource management, which avoided the ecological disasters capitalist exploitation has brought to the continent.ii
In Tasmania, there were clear demarcations of territory between different nations, themselves divided into numerous clans, but the arrival of British colonists immediately disrupted their access to and management of resources. Clashes inevitably followed, with ‘the killing of indigenous people in defence of the expanding settlements and farmlands … tacitly accepted by the colonial authorities’ (p.5). The original Tasmanians were reduced in population by 30% between 1803 and 1819, at least in part through violence, although the records of the colonist killing of indigenous people are patchy at best, in stark contrast to the documentation in the reverse.
Consequences of imperial policy
While in itself genocide was not designed by the British government, the policy of colonisation approved in London had no place in it for the aboriginal society. Between outright violence, European disease, and declining resources in ever smaller lands, the ‘colonial project had a genocidal logic’ (p.19). Further, Lawson argues that the policies which envisaged Australia and Tasmania ‘free of indigenous peoples and their culture’ satisfy the strict definition of genocide (p.23).
The racist assumption in London was that aboriginal people would benefit from colonisation as they would learn to exploit the land as Europeans did, but it is not clear in what capacity they would enjoy this new economy, except as labourers. This premise, together with the practice of removing indigenous children from their families to be ‘Europeanised’, had at its core an assumption that aboriginal culture and society was to be annihilated. A British government report of 1819 by John Thomas Bigge concluded that ‘there is no reason to presume that the black natives are numerous or that they will oppose any serious resistance to the extension of future settlements’ (p.39). Resistance was much greater than Bigge imagined it would be, but these are the kinds of parameters which London set for the colonists. Lawson comments that this report was ‘an indication of the degree to which government behaved as if the island’s original population either did not matter or indeed was not even really there.’
The consequence was an ever rising scale of conflict, with the colonists under the strong impression, which was not unwarranted, that they had carte-blanch to inflict whatever violence on the original Tasmanians as they deemed fit. The result was what they termed the ‘Black War’ in the 1820s, culminating in a declaration of martial law by the Lieutenant Governor George Arthur. It is clear that despite ‘the rhetoric of conciliation and protection’ of the indigenous people from the authorities in both Hobart and London, if they resisted the taking of their land, then force was sanctioned (p.63).
London approved Arthur’s plan to confine indigenous people to a restricted corner of Tasmania ‘until their habits become civilised’ (p.50). Any found in the settled districts were to be ‘expelled by force’, which since this amounted to the forcible theft of their land, would necessarily provoke resistance, and therefore retaliatory settler violence. The Secretary of State, George Murray, clearly approved the use of force to confine indigenous Tasmanians into the designated reserve, while acknowledging that they ‘were convinced that they had prior claim’ to the land (p.51). In official communications such as this, it is well demonstrated that the ultimate responsibility of the British government cannot be escaped, whatever claims were made that its policies were designed to protect the aboriginal population:
‘They were committed to a path that continually sanctioned a greater and greater use of force, while arguing that force should be avoided … The British government preached protection, while contrarily approving of measure after measure that would escalate violence. It was, at the very least, a form of self-deception’ (p.54).
The final phase of this war was an operation called ‘The Line’, in which the settler population was militarised in order to comb the island for the surviving indigenous people:
‘Although it was surrounded, in terms of the proclamations from the governor at least, with the usual rhetoric of conciliation and humanity, it is difficult to escape the view that for at least some of the colonists the time for their war of extermination had arrived. Even the government was using existential rhetoric …’ (p.58).
This operation was a dismal failure as those indigenous Tasmanians who remained were largely able to evade the settlers. In one major account, this event represented a clear break with the policy advocated by London, but Lawson disagrees, pointing out that the Secretary of State ‘retrospectively approved both of “the Line” and of Arthur’s decision not to prosecute Goldie’, a settler who had murdered an injured indigenous woman (p.60).
Abolitionism and colonialism
It is notable that at least two of those concerned with these events, James Stephen, the permanent undersecretary of the Colonial Office, and George Arthur, the governor, ‘had emerged from the campaign against the slave trade, and both would have considered themselves evangelical reformers’. The nature of British imperial ‘humanitarianism’ is revealed by the events in Tasmania, as well as by Stephen’s later reflection that his policy was for Australia to be ‘built up from sea to sea as a white man’s country’ (p.43). It was precisely this commitment that made all the protestations, that the British state intended to protect indigenous people, entirely valueless.
‘Humanitarianism’ was, in any case, directly responsible for the final phase of the genocide, which was the plan run by the evangelically minded George Augustus Robinson to be deported to a special colony on Flinders Island. He toured Tasmania convincing the remaining indigenous Tasmanians to save themselves from extermination by the settlers by agreeing to this relocation. There, they were to be ‘improved’ by Westernisation. Again, the deportation plan was carried out with clear approval from London (pp.76-7, 83-5). In fact, the settlement on Flinders Island was held up as a model for ‘Christian colonialism’ in a select-committee report chaired by leading parliamentary abolitionist, Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, amid a turn of abolitionists towards the ‘moral problem’ of settler colonialism (p.91).
There is a class dimension to all this as well. The report of the select committee:
‘reflected the powerful, class-based discourse that suggested that the settlers, as the surplus population of Britain, represented its human dregs. Violence against ‘Aboriginals’ was not therefore understood as a consequence of the British Empire itself; rather, the Empire had created a means by which Britain’s own savages might be shipped abroad’ (p.97).
Thus the imperial elite could wash its hands of the violence of colonialism, by ascribing the problem to the nature of its own subordinated domestic population, while at the very same time maintaining the superiority of ‘white’ civilisation.
The elaborate hypocrisy of leading abolitionists can be further underlined when it is noted that these same people were simultaneously very concerned that the abolition of slavery should not threaten property interests more generally. They envisioned that slavery in British colonies should be turned into a wage-labour system.iii Thus, they not only acceded to, but championed, a settlement which entrenched the dominant position of the plantation elite in Caribbean society after abolition. A deeply exploitative system remained in place, while parliamentarians could congratulate themselves on their high moral standing. In relation to Tasmania, the same ideological perspective meant they could ignore the colonial property system which was the root of the destruction of indigenous society, and maintain their humanitarian self-image.
The settlement plan for Flinders Island can be considered genocidal from more than one angle. For one, the intention was to eliminate indigenous culture and society altogether, which is an integral part of the definition of genocide (p.93). Like any policy of reservations, it certainly would make the people dependent upon the government for food and other resources, with traditional means of subsistence put beyond bounds. However, in any case, the crowded settlement of Wybalenna on the island was ravaged by disease and failed, with few of the inhabitants surviving. Whichever way at which it is looked, this ‘Christian’ colonialism was imbued with a deeply racist view of the superiority of British society, and its logic necessitated the destruction of the indigenous Tasmanian culture. It should be noted however, that in this, the imperialists were less than successful, as indigenous culture was ‘the more notable feature of life at the settlement’ (p.107).
The lesson learnt by Robinson from the collapse of Wybalenna was not a critique of the deportation plan, but a resignation that ‘God’s will be done’ (p.104). This was typical of the reaction in Britain to all these events. The reported destruction of indigenous Tasmanians as a whole people became a confirmation of the might of the British Empire. The result was either God’s plan for British expansion, or a demonstration of the evolutionary superiority of the imperial race. The Tasmanians were doomed to extinction in this discourse, effectively excusing British responsibility for these monstrous crimes against humanity. The fact that an indigenous community did in fact survive and remain in Tasmania was ignored in this construction of imperialist historical memory.
Lawson works through the place of the genocide in the racist imperial culture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Britain, noting how thoroughly it has imbued the attitudes of very many figures. This has been so through to the present, as artefacts and remains of indigenous Tasmanians long remained in British museum collections, and still do, despite demands for their respectful return. Lawson notes that a growing consensus elsewhere in the world that such materials should be returned was slow to reach the UK (p.188).
Apart from this British internal reckoning, there is a wider moral legacy of the Tasmanian episode in the British example to other European countries. David Olusoga and Casper Ericson have shown how Germany’s genocide of the Herrero and Nama peoples in southern Africa had significant continuities, even down to the level of personnel, with the Holocaust in Europe during the Second World War.iv The Germans certainly had learnt from the recent practice of the British in Africa with the use of deadly concentration camps, but more widely, their self-justifications rested on the practices of the European imperialisms that preceded them. Olusoga and Ericson quote Karl Korsch on the final denouement of this European tradition that ‘the Nazis have simply extended to “civilised” European peoples the methods hitherto reserved for the “natives” or “savages” living outside so-called civilisation.’v Genocide is the true legacy of the British Empire, and it is very much past time this was recognised honestly.
i Michael Taylor, The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery (The Bodley Head 2020).
ii Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture (Scribe 2018).
iii Taylor, The Interest, pp.129-30.
iv David Olusoga and Casper W. Ericson, The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide (Faber and Faber 2010).
v Ibid. p.329.
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Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).
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