Van Diemen’s Land – war lords, liars, thieves and murderers

“… quas vento accesserit oras; qui teneant, nam inculta videt, hominesne, feraene, quaerere constituit, sociisque exacta referre”

“to seek out what regions he has reached by the wind, to seek out who occupies the land (for he sees it is uncultivated), whether humans or wild beasts, and to report his discoveries to his companions.” – Virgil in the Aeneid

A review of Van Diemen’s Land by James Boyce Black Inc 2018 Edition

I first visited the island in 1974. I caught a plane from Melbourne to Burnie using a student concession. I think the fare was $24. Since then I have maintained an interest in the island. My mother, Bettina Curr, worked in Launceston after leaving school before World War II. However I would like to go back to the early 1800s when, according to a census and some estimates, ten thousand (10,000) indigenous people lived on the island. There were many industries there prior to colonisation.

Maintenance of pasture by fire by first nations people opened up the central grasslands for grazing by kangaroo and emu sustaining a hunting culture for millennia. Sealing, run by aboriginal women in the north-east was appropriated by ‘straitsmen’ to become the colony’s first industry long before sheep and cattle. Ironically this first industry ensured the survival of the first inhabitants, even beyond the ruthless White War (sic) conducted by Governor Arthur from 1828 till 1831.

Van Diemen’s Land was colonised by the British in 1803 as a land grab and an attempt to establish a wool industry for export to the UK. Convict labour was used extensively to extend empire to this southern land so rich in forest and grassland and with a temperate climate than suited the English.

A census in 1818 showed that settlers were still heavily outnumbered at least 3 to 1, perhaps even more because of difficulty in estimating the number of aboriginal people. The wholesale killing had already begun in earnest long before. So much so that, by the time governor Arthur sent George Augustus Robinson to round up aboriginal people in 1830 there weren’t many clans left. According to Boyce, most had already been murdered in the first 20 years of colonisation. Robinson performed his task of exiling the remnant population to Islands in Bass Strait promising it was for their safety and they would soon return. He didn’t keep his word and stood by watching them die each day until none were left.

By 1825 Van Diemen’s Land, named by Dutchman Abel Tasman in the 17th century, was a separate British colony with Governors wielding extraordinary power. Governor Arthur probably had more power than any political figure in Australian history. He gave out massive land grants to members of his class and ruled the convicts with a rod of iron, establishing at Port Arthur, the most brutal gaol in the empire.

1824 map of Van Diemen’s Land

There was a speedy transition from a kangaroo and fishing economy to that of cattle and sheep resulting in the destruction of magnificent grasslands in the southern and central parts of the island. These grasslands cultivated by aboriginal people over thousands of years soon reverted to forest and weeds once the British took over, often lamented by the early settlers. One of my forebears, Edward Curr Snr, had this to say about the speedy transition to a pastoral economy:

… (during) the early 1820s “it was really astonishing how fast the latter [sheep] increase: you may calculate on five young lambs in two years from one ewe.” Curr observed that a single shepherd could supervise over 1000 animals.” Given this it was not surprising that many older colonists remained loyal to the traditional breeds long after the wool trade was developed and your newer breeds were introduced. The land commissioners observed in May 1828 that the lower order of Settler consider the merinos as a curse to the colony, that they are eternally scabby, require much attention, and that they diminish in size. They therefore keep up the blood of the Bengal and Tesswater sheep.”

Excerpt from Van Diemen’s Land by James Boyce p68

Governor Macquarie visited Van Dieman’s Land (VDL) from Port Jackson (New South Wales) in 1811 and 1821 and set about changing place names attributed by the early settlers and bushrangers (the war lords). The plain spoken Curr, a critic of Governors Arthur and Macquarie, made these remarks. The place names …

remain confined almost to the proclamations which published them. There is already a degree of nationality in Van Diemen’s land; people begin to talk of the good old times with which the old names are connected; and the governor might as well abolish the English language by proclamation, as the names which are associated with former days. We still talk of the Fat Doe river, Gallows Hill, Murderers Plains, and Hell’s Corner. These names were principally bestowed upon them by bushrangers and the hunters of the kangaroo, who in fact have been the discovers of all the good districts of the island.”

Excerpt from Van Diemen’s Land by James Boyce p139

Ecological Disaster
Colonisation of VDL was an ecological disaster. British colonial ignorance destroyed a thousand years of land management in the space of fifty (50) years. Even before the island was proclaimed Tasmania, settlers had made the native emu and forester kangaroo extinct. Not to mention the killing of native birds, marsupials, rosellas, eagles, devils and thylacines. Sometimes, as Louisa Meredith observed, their destruction was done on the basis of nothing more than prejudice. Over grazing depleted native perennial and annual grasses and introduced weeds which soon compacted and eroded the soil. Scotch thistle was a plague on the land along with blackberry, docks and sorell. Rabbits and feral cats multiplied and the introduction of the English hunting dog reeked havoc among the emus and local kangaroos who had no natural enemies because the devils and tigers jaws weren’t strong enough.

The English were hell bent on developing a pastoral industry at the expense of nearly everything else.

Yet, according to Boyce, historians still fail to recognise this dismissing early efforts as no more than a rum economy:

” … as with the animals they watched over, the pioneer pastoralists in Van Dieman’s Land were a very different breed from those, like John MacArthur, who were to develop the industry in New South Wales. Given that they were the first to run sheep on a larger scale, these men merit a central place in the history of Australia. Yet in Tasmanian historiography, credit for the development of the pastoral industry is given to later free settlers. The distinguished economic historian R. M. Hartwell did not even include the period before 1820 in his classic account of “The economic development of Van Dieman’s Land“; before this, he reasoned, the colony was merely a prison farm on a subsistence basis.” Lloyd Robson similarly dismissed early Van Dieman’s Land as “a rum economy”.

Excerpt from Van Diemen’s Land by James Boyce p69

William Kay’s Circular Head from the Park of the Commissioner of the VD Land Company with a rare sight of the Tasmanian emu (circled) in 1843.

“stored in the vaults of the bird collection of the British natural history museum since 1838 have been to Tasmanian emus, the only complete specimens of what was the islands largest land animal. Like the distinct King Island and Kangaroo Island subspecies, the Tasmanian emu fell victim to a predator unknown before British settlement: the dog. The eggs, chicks and adult birds provided food for the human invaders and their canine companions who settled that Demons land and its offshore islands from 1798.

Excerpt from Van Diemen’s Land by James Boyce p251

Perhaps the most damning part of this book is James Boyce’s account of the colonisation contained in the appendix of Van Diemen’s Land. This section is titled “Towards genocide: government policy on aborigines 1827 to 1838″. The key aspect of Governor Arthur’s program was the speed with which he alienated land. Not armed with the enclosure laws of feudal England Arthur said about getting over 1,000,000 acres to free settlers between 1824 and 1831. Arthur made no apology for this theft of land from the aboriginal inhabitants. At no stage did he justify these zealous handouts by the myth of terra nullius. This crime has never been rectified by Australian governments.

Neither Wik nor Mabo decisions in the High Court of Australia address the conflict between native title and pastoral leases in Tasmania. Keating’s native title legislation gave rise to a number of determinations where aboriginal clans In Queensland and New South Wales have received native title over their lands. Not one native title decision has been granted in Tasmania. This oversight appears to have been rationalised by the erroneous acceptance that the White War of 1828-31 wiped out the original inhabitants. The killer clause in the native title act states that the claimants must demonstrate that ‘the Aboriginal peoples or Torres Strait Islanders, by those laws and customs, have a connection with the land or waters’. If all were murdered, there can be no claimants seems to be the cold logic of native title.

During his reign, Governor Arthur appears to have been torn between partition or exile of aboriginal inhabitants. He wrote to the colonial office secretary stating:

the measure which I rather inclined to attempt, is to settle the aborigines in some remote quarter of the island, which should be strictly reserved for them, and to supply them with food and clothing, and afford them protection.”

Van Diemen’s Land p262

At the same time Arthur legislated for the Black (White) War through an executive council meeting on 30 October 1828 ‘that the outrages of the aboriginal natives amount to a complete declaration of hostilities against the settlers generally and that to inspire them with terror will be found the only effect effectual means of security for the future.’

Using this declaration (by Arthur), settlers were given not only legal immunity but active encouragement for the campaign against the aborigines and official roving parties were formed to pursue capture or kill them.

Van Diemen’s Land p266
George Augustus Robinson

At roughly the same time, Arthur sent George Augustus Robinson on a mission to coerce, by trickery and use of force, aboriginal clans to leave their homelands for the islands. Patsy Cameron in her book Grease and Ocre questions the motivations of George Robinson. In Aboriginal Society in North West Tasmania – Dispossession and Genocide, Ian McFarlane paints Robinson as a person who may have ‘begun with noble motives but who, ultimately was motivated by self-interest, which in its simplest form, was a bounty for each aborigine rounded up and imprisoned and a land grant of 3,000 acres by governor Franklin (a grant of land originally refused by Arthur)’.

Boyce reserves his harshest condemnation for governor Arthur and the colonial office that he represented.

Why then was the policy of removal pursued? Robinson’s personal agenda is certainly one part of the answer. He seems to have insisted on a reward of £900 (along with a smaller upfront fee salary land grant and pension), to be paid if he could bring in every aborigine during his negotiations with the Aborigines Committee in early 1832. There was also the lure of fame: “I did well to engage with the government for the capture of all the natives by taking the whole again not only the reward but the celebrity.”

But Robinson was a colonial government employee whose actions were sanctioned directed and rewarded by the government. In this case, the government had become Lieutenant Governor George Arthur. Arthur’s motives remain uncertain. It is clear that he knew that his superiors would regard the forced removal of non-hostile aborigines living outside to settled districts as both illegal and wrong, since he went to considerable efforts to disguise the truth of what occurred. Even today we would know almost nothing (were it not for Robinson’s private journal) … Arthur personally determined the councils agenda, and fully controlled the issues that came before it. Why would Arthur have kept the aboriginal policy of the councils agenda? His authority would not have been compromised by debate about the aborigines – the council was, after all, only an advisory body – but council minutes were forwarded to the Secretary of State in London. The fact that the council never discussed the removal of the aborigines, and that no matter concerning the aborigines came before it when Pedder (the Attorney General who oposed their removal) meant that Arthur was able to control the information passed to London.

Van Diemen’s Land p306-307
Colonisation in the North-West of Van Diemen’s land. The drawing depicts Highfield House, Stanley, on the hill in the distance.

“Well may we say God save the Queen, because nothing will save the governor-general” – Gough Whitlam, 11 November 1975.

At whose feet lies the horrific genocide that followed colonisation? Certainly some blame must fall on the shoulders of the governors of Van Diemen’s Land carrying out the wishes of Crown.


Lieutenant John Bowen – September 1803 to February 1804

Colonel David Collins – February 1804 to March 1810

Captain John Murray – July 18 10 to February 1812

Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew Geiles – February 18 12 to February 1813

Colonel Thomas Davey – February 1813 to April 1817

Colonel William Sorell – April 1817 to May 1824

Colonel George Arthur – May 1824 to October 1836

Lieutenant-Colonel K, Snodgrass – October 1836 to January 1837

Sir John Franklin – January 1837 to August 1843

Sir John Eardly-Wilmont – August 1843 to October 1846

CJ Latrobe – October 1846 to January 1847

Sir William Denison – January 1847 to January 1855

Sir Henry Fox Young – January 18 55 to December 1861

Ian Curr
26 July 2021

One thought on “Van Diemen’s Land – war lords, liars, thieves and murderers

  1. John Curr says:

    I have finished reading the Van Diemen’s Land Book now. I understand and agree with your emphasis on the fact the dispossession and nearly successful genocide was unlawful and it was achieved by Lt Gov Arthur’s fraud. The fraud went in two directions, to his superiors the British Colonial office and, through his agent, the despicable , opportunist, hypocrite, James Augustus Robinson, to the Aborigines.

    My understanding of the crime perpetrated on the Aborigines of Van Diemen’s land was best communicated to me on a visceral level in the excerpt from Aboriginal Society in North West Tasmania: Dispossession and Genocide by Ian McFarlane B.A. (Hons).

    “The Tamar set sail for Flinders Island on the 1 October 1835. For Pevay and most of the Friendly Mission Aborigines on board, this was the last time they would set foot on their homeland. Pevay’s brother Penderoin died while they were in Hobart leaving eight adult Aborigines to make the journey. Mannalargenna seemed acutely aware of the significance of this voyage, no doubt realising that Robinson’s earlier assurances that he would be allowed to remain in his traditional lands were now worthless. On the 8th October as the vessel passed Swan Island, Robinson’s journal described Mannalargenna’s grief and pain as he bade farewell to his country:

    … When we were off Swan Island Mannalargenna the chief gave evident signs of strong emotion. Here opposite to this island was his country; Swan Island was the place I brought him to when I removed him from his country. He paced the deck, looked on all the surrounding objects, fresh recollections came to his mind. He paced to and fro like a man of consequence, like an emperor. Round his head he had tied a slip of kangaroo skin, which added greatly to his imperial dignity. At one time he took the map in his hand and looked on it intently, took the spyglass and looked through it. It was amusing enough to see him. He allowed that I was equally great with himself, that I had travelled in all directions.” – James Augustus Robinson.

    It showed that Robinson had a clear understanding of the harm he was inflicting on the Aborigines. It also shows the depth of his scorn for the people whom he pretended to befriend and protect but most of all, it communicated to me better than anything I have ever heard or read, Mannalargenna’s and the Aboriginal peoples connection with the land which was stolen from them.

    So far as the responsibility of our forebear, Edward Curr, is concerned; he was one of the landholders whose pressure on Arthur (as well as Arthur’s allegiance to his class) persuaded him to go all in on the genocide.

    John Curr
    23 Aug 2021

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