The first European to spy Tasmania was Dutch navigator Abel Tasman, who bumped into it in 1642. He named this new place Van Diemen’s Land after the Dutch East Indies’ governor. European contact with Tasmania increased after the British arrived at Sydney Cove in 1788 – Van Diemen’s Land was a convenient pit-stop en route to New South Wales. In 1798 Matthew Flinders circumnavigated Van Diemen’s Land, proving it was an island.
In 1803 Risdon Cove, on the Derwent River, became the site of Australia’s second British colony. One year later the settlement moved to the present site of Hobart, where fresh water ran plentifully off Mt Wellington.
Convicts accompanied the first settlers as labourers, but penal settlements weren’t built until later: on Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour in 1822, on Maria Island in 1825 and at Port Arthur in 1830. In subsequent decades, Van Diemen’s Land loomed apocalyptically in British convicts’ minds – the most fearsome, terrible of destinations. By the 1850s, every second islander was a convict, and Hobart Town and Launceston festered with disease, prostitution and drunken lawlessness.
In 1856 convict transportation to Van Diemen’s Land was abolished. In an effort to escape the stigma of its horrendous penal reputation, Van Diemen’s Land renamed itself Tasmania, after the Dutchman.
Gold was discovered in the 1870s, fevered prospectors exploring much of the state in search of glimmering wealth. So began the exploitation of Tasmania’s natural resources, a pattern locked on a collision course with environmental concerns. In the 1960s and ’70s bushwalkers and conservationists fought unsuccessfully to stop the hydroelectric flooding of Lake Pedder. In the 1980s this issue flared again – this time the fledgling Green movement successfully campaigned against flooding the Franklin River for similar purposes. The tug-of-war between conservation and industry (especially logging and mining) remains the most divisive issue on Tasmanian political, economic and social agendas.
The story of Tasmania’s indigenous people since European settlement is a tragic one. Isolated when the land bridge to Victoria drowned beneath rising sea levels 10, 000 years ago, the island’s Aborigines developed a distinct, sustainable, seasonal culture of hunting, fishing and gathering.
When European pastoralists arrived, they fenced off sections of fertile land for farming. As the Aborigines lost more and more of their traditional hunting grounds, battles erupted between blacks and whites, the so-called ‘Black Wars’. In 1828 martial law was declared by Lieutenant-Governor Arthur, and Aboriginal tribes were systematically murdered, incarcerated or forced at gunpoint from districts settled by whites. Many more succumbed to European diseases.
Between 1829 and 1834, a misguided attempt to resettle, ‘civilise’ and Christianise Tasmania’s remaining indigenous population on Flinders Island occurred. Most of them died of despair, poor food or respiratory disease. Of the 135 taken to the island, only 47 survived to be transferred to Oyster Cove in Tasmania’s south in 1847. Within 32 years, the entire Aboriginal population at Oyster Cove had perished.
European sealers had been working in Bass Strait since 1798 and, although they occasionally raided tribes along the coast, their contact with Aboriginal people was mainly based on trade. Aboriginal women were also traded and many sealers settled on Bass Strait islands with these women and had families.
By 1847 an Aboriginal community, with a lifestyle based on both Aboriginal and European ways, had emerged on Flinders and other islands in the Furneaux Group. Although the last full-blooded Tasmanian Aborigine died in the 19th century, the strength of this community helped save the race from oblivion. Today, thousands of descendants of this community survive in Tasmania.
For more information contact the Aboriginal Heritage Office (1300 135 513, 03-6216 4471; www.tahl.tas.gov.au), or see the excellent Deep Time: Continuing Tasmanian Aboriginal Culture brochure available at the Hobart Visitor Information Centre.