Let’s get past the ‘Black War’

May 11, 2018


The National Gallery of Australia’s just-opened ‘The National Picture: The Art of Tasmania’s Black War’ fills me with professional trepidation, although I’m yet to view it. Promising to ‘shine a light on two enthralling yet under-examined figures in Australian history’, the media coverage and advertising thus far suggests a close tacking to the antique narratives with which Australia is surprisingly familiar. The ‘Black War’ still blinds us.


Predictably, one of the key subjects of the exhibition is a white man, George Augustus Robinson. He is the old heroic protagonist of the ‘Black War’, saving Tasmania’s Aboriginal people from the guns of settlers and their convicts. But far from being ‘under-examined’ – as the exhibition’s promotional material suggests – Robinson is one of the most-examined figures in Australian history, a regular subject of theses and essays. His Vandemonian journals were transcribed and published in the 1960s and have already been reprinted this century. The originals are being digitised for public access, precisely because they are used by so many scholars and students. Enthralling, maybe. Under-examined, no way.


Choosing to label the conflict in Van Diemen’s Land the ‘Black War’ also strikes me as a bit odd, a persistent relic of an old way of thinking that is increasingly out of touch with international conventions. New Zealand doesn’t use ‘Maori Wars’ anymore. Americans hesitate to talk of ‘Indian Wars’. Like the ‘Kaffir Wars’ of Africa, such terms are rightly considered both racist and historically inaccurate – broadly products of the same time periods and thought patterns that gave us the science of phrenology. And, like phrenology, those old stories don’t stand up to the test of evidence over time. The ‘Black War’ is as much a narrative formula as an infamous historical event.


Less well known than Robinson is Nicholas Fortosa who does not appear in the ‘Black War’ of popular memory. An ex-soldier, Fortosa was sent by Colonel George Arthur into the same territory as the ‘conciliator’ Robinson, but with more weapons and promises of payment for Aboriginal people killed during capture operations. Unlike Robinson, Fortosa’s exploits remain under-documented. He is not part of the kindly-hearted and mildly inept government of the ‘Black War’ narrative replicated for nearly two centuries. He probably won’t be in the exhibition.


But the exhibition’s timing is serendipitous, if only to reveal how our national memory works – or doesn’t. While several pictures will be displayed that are routinely – and inaccurately – called ‘Proclamation boards’, a real proclamation has been overlooked. Last month marked the 190-year anniversary of one of colonial Australia’s pivotal frontier war moments. The anniversary, ten days before Anzac Day, generally passed unnoticed.


On 15 April 1828, in his capacity as Lieutenant Governor, Colonel George Arthur segregated the colony of Van Diemen’s Land by Proclamation. This was, as he put it, ‘to bring about a temporary separation of the coloured from the British population’. Whatever the justifications, it was a blatant act of dispossession, and the legalisation of segregation in an Australian colony. 


To enforce the Proclamation Arthur used the military. He established ‘a line of military posts … along the confines of the settled districts’. He ordered the Aboriginal people ‘to retire and depart’ and sanctioned their ‘forcible expulsion’. He instructed civilians ‘to aid and assist the military power (to whom special orders, adapted to situations and circumstances will be given)’. And chillingly, he alluded to ‘whatever means a severe and inevitable necessity may dictate and require for carrying the same into execution’. Let’s not kid ourselves any more. This was war, soldiers and all, and a genocidal one at that. The soldiers didn’t just do the hanging like they do in those pictures – they did a whole lot of shooting too.


The complexities of a real Proclamation probably won’t get much detailed treatment in the exhibition. Fair enough, as the collation of these objects is an achievement, and it’s about art not law. But worryingly, primary investigation of the historical context does not seem to have been high on the agenda either, at least in so far as some preliminaries suggest. After all, the curators have reportedly described the sequence of their ‘Proclamation Boards’ in an order reverse to the usual – reading the famous picture upside down. In the absence of any wider evidence such an approach may be considered a useful (if curious) thought experiment for understanding a work of colonial art. But there is no such evidentiary void. A contemporary newspaper description of this picture from 1830 – which, by the way, helps us know it was current in 1830 – describes it top-to-bottom, exactly as one would expect. It seems strange to contradict the very source that allows you to date the thing.


But perhaps this will be the lesson of the exhibition. Maybe it is a work of modern art itself, an exercise in provocative object placement. It certainly provoked me to think how desperately we need a revision of the ‘Black War’ narrative and to abandon the terminology and storytelling patterns of the nineteenth century. I hope that visitors will be similarly provoked and buy a copy of The Vandemonian War on their way out.

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