History in Tasmania

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Priates Bay,Eaglehawk Neck, Tassie

Priates Bay,Eaglehawk Neck, Tassie


Pre-European History

Naval Exploration 1642-1803

Settlement and War 1803-1830

Colonial Expansion 1830-1901

20th Century Hydroindustrialization 1901-1960

Wilderness Conservation Battles 1960-1990

Recent History

Pre-European History

Human habitation in Tasmania may date back some 68,000 years, at which time a land bridge existed between Tasmania and mainland Australia, connecting Flinders Island to Wilsons Promontory in Victoria. This land bridge formed as a result of a global drop in sea level during the ice ages which occur every 20,000 years or so. During this ice age, and possibly subsequent ones around 39-23 and 27-13 thousand years ago, aboriginal people may have travelled back and forth from Tasmania to the mainland. However, due to the long periods of isolation including the most recent 13,000 years, the Tasmanian Aboriginal people came to be distinctly different from those in the remainder of Australia.

The Tasmanian aboriginals were almost entirely nomadic, but this should not characterize their society as simple. At the time of invasion by European settlers, There are thought to have been four to six thousand indigenous inhabitants, forming nine tribes that were further subdivided into eight or nine bands each. Each tribe was highly adapted to the spefic region they inhabited. The Tasmanians built rafts and catamarans to fish and travel, and had considerable skills in weaving and tool-making. Although they mainly travelled naked, the people used animal grease and ochre for adornment and to withstand the wet, cold winters, and made a variety of necklaces and sewn skins for further clothing nd adornment. Each tribe had well-defined territories and a unique language, and a complex set of trade routes connected the society as a whole.


Naval Exploration

The first European explorer to sight Tasmania was the Dutch seafarer Able Tasman on his voyage of 1642. Tasman noted the islands existence but made no real investigation of it's extent. He did however, coin the areas original name, "Van Diemen's Land" . Tasmania was visited by several other Captains, such as Captain Cook who landed on Bruny island, and the French explorer La Perouse at Great Oyster Bay, both of whom made contact with the local aboriginal communities.

After the 1788 establishment of a British colony at the site of present-day Sydney, the English government thought to establish it's presence elsehwere on "The Great Southern Land". There were two main reasons for establishing the second settlement in "Van Diemen's Land". From a strategic point of view, the English wanted a military presence to deter further French exploration. From a social point of view, the influx of free settlers to Sydney made it desirable to found a new, more isolated settlement for the establishment of penal colonies.

In 1803 Lieutenant John Bowen was sent to establish a colony at the mouth of the Derwent River, at the Southern tip of Van Diemens Land. Simultaneously, Captain David Collins was sent to establish a presence at Port Phillip Bay on the northern side of the recently discovered Strait (site of present day Melbourne). Collins disliked the site at Port Phillip, so he moved his expedition south to join Lieutenant Bowen. Upon arrival, Collins also disapproved of Bowen's chosen site at Risdon Cove on the eastern shore of the Derwent. Collins moved the settlement across the river to Sullivans Cove, now the center of present day Hobart.  Hobart is one of the oldest cities.


Settlement and War, 1803-1830

The colony teetered on the brink of starvation for its first few years. The settlement of the Richmond area and the cultivation of wheat there was crucial. Besides the difficulties of subsistence, the early settlement was little more than a frontier. The workforce was mostly convicts, either transported from England or relocated from other notorious parts of the colonies. Those that escaped led the life of bandits (the Australian term being bushrangers), and the government had little ability to control them. The settlement was not truly brought under control for several decades, until the sheer number of settlers and men-at-arms outnumbered and outgunned the bushrangers.

Elsewhere the expending settlement encroached on territory of the aboriginal tribes. Their logical response - hunting of settler's livestock - was greeted with harsh reprisal by the colonial authorities. Along the East Coast, whalers and sealers plied their trade, and also committed many attrocities upon the aboriginal people. Unwittingly however, their actions assisted the ultimate survival of the aboriginal people, for as the men took aboriginal wives for themselves they estblished communities that would continue to practice the traditional ways long after mainland tribes were permanently displaced.

Owing to the confined geopgraphy of the state, the Tasmanian aboriginal people put up significantly more resistance to invasion by white settlers than elsewhere. Tasmania was the only state whose government effectively dclared war against the indigenous inhabitants, who mounted successful guerilla warfare against the encroaching settlement. This conflict peaked in the years 1823-1824, during which tiem the governmnent devised such desparate strategies as "The Black Line", in which every able-bodied man walked in line with others across the entire settled territories, in an attempt to capture all native inbatiants between the sea and the settlement at Port Arthur. The actual operation was an overt failure - it captured one old man and one young boy - but it did represent a turning point in which the aboriginal tribes were finally displaced from the settled areas.

Also in 1824, the new Governor Arthur gave permission for a pastor named Augustus Robinson to travel the state in an attempt to reconcile with the remaining indigenous tribes. Of the several thousand thought to live on the island at the turn of the century, Robinson counted 300 left. He made an agreement with those remaining whereby the indigenous tribes relocated to Flinders Island and gave the English access to the remainder of the state. Presumably the aboriginal people believed that they would be left in peace on Flinder's Island, but the arrangement turned out to be one of incarceration, and the indigenous community was housed in a mission at Wybelena under white stewardship.


Colonial Expansion, 1830-1901

Settlement in Tasmania continued to be driven by convict labour, men and women were leased to settlers as labourers and servants, and the government organized work gangs for quarrying stone, building roads, cutting lumber, etc. The construction of Port Arthur in 1830 made Tasmania a premiere destination for English convicts, as well as the occasional political prisoner.

Port Arthur developed a fearsome reputation, owing to its gothis vantage point on the precipitous Tasmana Peninsula, surrounded by dense woodland, and with the only land bridge to the main island a narrow strip at Eagle Hwak Neck, which was guarded by men and dogs. All the same, life at Port Arthur was nowhere as bad as the settlement established at Macquarie Harbour on the West Coast. This site, reserved for the most hardened criminals, was by all accounts as close to hell as the English Judicial System could devise.

However, Tasmania was developed by free settlers as well as convicts, and their numbers grew faster. Launceston was established as Port Dalrymple not long after the original settlement of Hobart, and the North of the state quickly developed as an agricultural centre. Meanwhile, the Huon Valley developed as a major apple-growing region and the forests were plundered for exceptional timbers, especially the ancient Huon Pines, whose timbers were highly prized as ship lumber. Towards the end of the century mining also appeared as a prominent source of wealth, with the Mt Lyell Copper Mine established in Queenstown on top of the richest copper lode ever discovered.

As the settlement became established, the convict presence was seen as increasingly undesirable, and after vocal lobbying transportation of convicts ceased in 1853. Tasmania had been a separate colony since 1825, but its legislative and judicial institutions were squarely under the Governer control. This was also seen as undesirable, and in 1855 the British Government passed the Constitution Act, giving Tasmania all the trappings of a constitutional monarchy. Tasmania was also a supporter of Austrlia's move toward Federation in the 1890's, both as an opportunity for increased commerce, and because it could not afford to be left out.

Meanwhile, European diseases and an uncaring attitude of government had taken their toll on the island's indigenous communities. In 1847 forty-six individuals were transferred from Flinders Island to a former convict probation station at Oyster Cove. The last surviving male, King Billy Lanne, died in 1869, his head removed by the colonial surgeon. With the passing of the last female Trugganini in 1876 the full-blooded Tasmanian aboriginal people ceased. However, a strong aboriginal community persits today, and in recent years has won increasing recognition, both in the return of sacred lands, and the remains of ancestors previously sequestered in British scientific institutions.


20th Century Hydroindustrialization, 1901-1960

In the early part of the twentieth century, Tasmania was an enthusiastic supporter of the British Empire, sending 14,025 men to fight in World War I, and persecuting those Germans that were residents of the state. The early part of the century was also typified by the continuing battle in Parliament between the conservative voice of business and church, and the emergence of the Labour Party. In Tasmania this distinction was blurred, as both sides of politics were preoccupied with the states advancement over ideology. This is typified by the example of Joseph Lyons, a Catholic and anti-conscriptionist, who rose to lead the Labour Party into State Government, but became Australia's Prime Minister as a Conservative.

The 1930's depression struck Tasmania as everywhere, and at this time a number of government capitalization projects changed the course of the state. In Hobart a road was constructed to the pinnacle of Mt Wellington (also known as "Ogilvie's scar") and in the Central Highlands the country's first hydroelectric schemes were built across the Derwent River. These developments naturally inclined people to consider the opportunities of Tasmania's many rivers for power generation. The doctrine of hydro-industrialisation was born: by damming rivers for hydro-electric power generation, Tasmania could attract large industries to set up shop, thus overcoming the state's natural disadvantage due to it's isolated world position.

In the post WWII era the doctrine of hydroindustrialisation, coupled with increased mining and forestry, served Tasmania well, with companies such as Pasminco Electrolytic Zinc Co. and Comalco (Aluminium production) establishing operations in the state. However, the same success bred a strong belief in state officials that industrial development and extraction of primary resources was the only means by which Tasmania could achieve it's goals of increased wealth, and the doctrine of hydro-industrialisation, as interpreted by the bureaucratic authority the Hydro-Electric Commission, went unchallenged. At the same time, the increasing penetration by the HEC and Forestry companies into Tasmanias wilderness led to a new breed of people, those who were astounded by the beauty they discovered, and felt a desire to share it with others and conserve it for future generations.


Wilderness Conservation Battles, 1960-1990

These two ideologies finally clashed in the late 1960's over the damming of Lake Pedder. This lake, set in the heart of the South-West, was a true jewel of the wilderness, complete with a beach of fine pink quartzite sand a quarter-mile wide. It was proposed to flood the lake and surrounding valley in order to construct Tasmania's largest hydroelectric scheme of all. Those in power were quite unprepared for the public outcry by the new class of conservationists, who took their protest as far as the Federal government in attempts to save the lake. Eventually the scheme went ahead, and Lake Pedder is now "enlarged", but this conflict was significant as the beginning of environmentalism in Tasmania, and to some extent, Australia at large. It also resulted in the formation of the United Tasmania Group which can lay claim to being the world;s first environmental political party.

In the late 1970's the Tasmanian government brought forht it's next proposal, the "Gordon-below-Franklin scheme" to carry forth its mission of cheap power generation. This time experienced campaigners along with new initiates gathered to defend "Australia's last Wild River", the Franklin. When worker's moved to start construction, they were met by hundreds of protesters blockading the river in yellow rafts. A small guerilla war ensued with police and local residents searching the wilderness for protesters to be arrested, sometimes hundreds in a day, while in parliaments and courts the government and protest groups duelled back and forth over the scheme itself. The campaign went national, where a new Labour government was voted in on 1983, among other things promising to stop the dam by declaring the area World Heritage, thus bringing under Federal Authority. Ultimately the river was saved by a decision of Australia's Highest Court, which found by 4-3 majority that the Federal Government's actions were within Australia's constituion.

The Franklim Dam debate was a defining moment for the state, and the nation. It represented a loud challenge to the doctrine of hydro-industrialisation and development-at-all-costs. It also produced a national environmental organisation called The Wilderness Society, which is one of Australia's major players in green politics today. Finally it brought to Tasmania's parliament the first "Green Independent", Bob Brown, who has gone onto lead a green party to Australia's Federal Senate.

Tasmania in the 1980's continued to be dominated by environmental politics, with other green indipendents joining Bob Brown, while theLiberal/Conservative Government was led by the soft-spoken but determined Robin Gray. In a windfall election in 1989, the green independents gained the balance of power in Tasmania's parliament, the first green party in the world to hold sway in such a body. They entered into an accord with the then Labour Government under Michael Field. This accord ultimately failed, and in subsequent elections the Greens have lost much of their power, but they remain an active force in Tasmanian politics, despite all predictions to the contrary.


Recent History

A visitor to Tasmania is well to be aware of this recent history, especially if they are coming to see the Wilderness itself. It should be realised the strength and determination of those who fought to save the wilderness that is there today. It should also be realised that conservation has a price, and many rural areas of Tasmania can employ fewer people due to the restriction of their ability to plumb the resources of the wild.

Today Tasmania faces a certain level of uncertainty. Traditional industries no longer provide the same security, and many areas of Tasmania are feeling the pinch of low commodity prices and company closures. At the same time the island is discovering new areas of wealth in tourism - especially in the wilderness that now attract people from across the globe - and high quality agricultural products such as wine, cheese and aquaculture. However, these new industries alone cannot support the state, all sides of the current political triangle - business, labour and conservation - must seek to cooperate for the island's future


September 11, 2006 change by giorgio

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