Tasmania's short written history is bleak and powerful. But, like the rest of Australia, it has a much longer story – that of its palawa (first man), the term some Tasmanian Aboriginal people use to describe themselves. Though they can be seen as a people all but wiped out in an attempted genocide, their culture survives today despite the fact that their home became Britain's prison island in the first half of the 19th century.

Tasmania's Aboriginal Peoples

The Land Bridge & the Ice Age

Tasmania was part of the super-continent Gondwana until it broke away and drifted south some 160 million years ago. Aboriginal people probably migrated across a land bridge that joined Tasmania to the rest of Australia at least 35,000 years ago. Sea levels were much lower then and the Tasmanian climate much drier and colder. Aboriginal peoples settled in the extensive grasslands on the western side of Tasmania, where they hunted wallabies. When the last ice age ended between 18,000 and 12,000 years ago, glaciers retreated, sea levels rose and tall forests became established on Tasmania's western half. In the east, rainfall increased and new grasslands developed. Cut off by the rising sea, Tasmania 'floated away' from mainland Australia, and a distinctive existence began for the people, animals and plants of the island.

Life on the Smaller Island

The culture of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people diverged from the way people were living on the mainland, as they developed a sustainable, seasonal culture of hunting, fishing and gathering. The islanders produced sophisticated boats and used them to hunt seals and muttonbirds on and around the offshore islands.

Those who remained in the west lived mainly on the coast. Aboriginal women collected shellfish (mussels, abalone and oysters), the remains of which comprise the enormous middens still found around Tasmania's coastline. Both men and women wore necklaces of shell. They sheltered in bark lean-tos and protected themselves from the island's cold weather with furs and by applying a thick mix of ochre, charcoal and fat to their skin.

Sails, Guns & Fences

European Impact

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. It's estimated that there were between 5000 and 10,000 Indigenous people in Tasmania when Europeans arrived, living in 'bands' of around 50 people, each claiming rights over a specific area of land and being part of one of nine main language groups.

European sealers began to work Bass Strait in 1798, raiding tribal communities along the coast and kidnapping Aboriginal women to act as forced labour and sex slaves. The sealers were uninterested in Aboriginal land and eventually formed commercial relationships with the Aboriginal people, trading dogs and other items so that they could take Aboriginal women back to their islands.

The Black Wars

In 1803 Risdon Cove, on the Derwent River just north of Hobart, became the site of Australia's second British colony (after Sydney). One year later the settlement relocated to Sullivans Cove, the site of present-day Hobart, where the Hobart Rivulet offered a reliable water supply.

Despite initial friendly exchanges and trade, things soon turned hostile as European fences and farming encroached on Aboriginal hunting grounds and significant places. In return, Aboriginal people began to carry out their own raids. In 1816 Governor Thomas Davey produced his 'Proclamation to the Aborigines', which represented settlers and Indigenous Tasmanians living together amicably – in direct contrast to the realities of a brutal conflict.

By the 1820s these territorial disputes had developed into the so-called Black Wars, as Aboriginal people increasingly refused to surrender their lands, women and children without a fight. In 1828 martial law was declared by Lieutenant-Governor Arthur. Aboriginal groups were systematically murdered, arrested or forced at gunpoint from districts settled by whites – arsenic on bread and steel traps designed to catch humans were used. Many more people succumbed to European diseases, against which they had no immunity.

Meanwhile, around Bass Strait, a disapproving Van Diemen's Land establishment contemptuously termed the descendants of sealers and Aboriginal women 'half-castes', applying continual pressure on Bass Strait islanders to adopt European farming ways and assimilate with mainlanders.

The Black Line

As the Black Wars continued, the British were growing concerned about how it might look to the world if their actions led to the extinction of an entire race of people. In 1830, in an attempt to contain all Aboriginal people on the Tasman Peninsula for their security and to preserve their culture, a human chain of 2200 men known as the Black Line was formed by settlers and soldiers, moving through the settled areas of the state from Moulting Lagoon, through Campbell Town to Quamby Bluff. Three weeks later this farcical manoeuvre had succeeded in capturing only an old man and a boy, and this confirmed settlers' fears that they could not defeat the Aboriginal people by force of arms. The Hobart Courier mocked the exercise: it had cost half the colony's annual budget. In turn, it must have given the Aboriginal people an awful sense that their time was running out.

Misguided Conciliation

Following the failure of the Black Line, Lieutenant-Governor Arthur consented to George Augustus Robinson's plan to 'conciliate' the Aboriginal people. In effect, Robinson enticed and cajoled virtually all of the Aboriginal people in mainland Tasmania to lay down their arms, leave their traditional lands and accompany him to new settlements. In doing so he became the first European to walk across much of the state, adding the title of explorer to that of missionary. There is strong historical evidence that the people of Oyster Bay, including their prominent chief Tongerlongetter, whom Robinson regarded as 'a man of great tact and judgement', followed him to a succession of settlements in the Furneaux Islands based on the promise of sanctuary and land. Instead, they were subjected to attempts to 'civilise' and Christianise them, and made to work for the government.

After enduring a number of moves, including to Sarah Island on the west coast, Tasmania's Indigenous inhabitants were finally settled at Wybalenna (Black Man's Houses) on Flinders Island. One by one the people began to die from a potent mixture of despair, homesickness, poor food and respiratory disease. In 1847 those who had managed to survive petitioned Queen Victoria, complaining of their treatment and referring to the 'agreement' they thought Robinson had made with Lieutenant-Governor Arthur on their behalf. Wybalenna was eventually abandoned and the survivors transferred to mainland Tasmania. Of the 135 who had been sent to Flinders Island, only 47 lived to make the journey to Oyster Cove, south of Hobart. The new accommodation here proved to be substandard and the Aboriginal people once again experienced the criminal neglect of the authorities, and growing demoralisation. Within a decade, half of the 47 were dead.

Mapping Van Diemen's Land

Nearly 130 years after Abel Tasman's efforts, Tasmania was visited by a series of other European sailors, including captains Tobias Furneaux, James Cook and William Bligh. Between 1770 and 1790 they all visited Adventure Bay on Bruny Island and believed it to be part of the Australian mainland, rather than an island off an island (off an island).

In 1792 Admiral Bruni D'Entrecasteaux explored the southeastern coastline more thoroughly, mapping and naming many of its features. Many major landmarks in this area still bear the French names he gave them.

In 1798 Lieutenant Matthew Flinders circumnavigated Van Diemen's Land and proved that it was indeed an island.

Australia's Second European Settlement

In the late 1790s Governor King of New South Wales decided to establish a second settlement in Australia, south of Sydney Cove. Port Phillip Bay in Victoria was initially considered, but the site was rejected due to a lack of water on the Mornington Peninsula and, in 1803, Tasmania's Risdon Cove was chosen. A year later, the settlement was moved 10km south to the present site of Hobart on the other side of the Derwent River. The threat of French interest in the island suggested the need for a settlement up north; a site called George Town was proclaimed on the Tamar River in 1804.

That same year 74 convicts were shipped out to Van Diemen's Land, with 71 soldiers, plus their 21 wives and 14 children. Penal settlements were built in the island's most inhospitable places. Macquarie Harbour, on the harsh west coast, became Tasmania's first penal site in 1822, and by 1833 roughly 2000 convicts a year were sent to this end-of-the-earth colony as punishment for often-trivial crimes.

The community quickly developed a very particular character: lawlessness and debauchery were rife. Nascent Van Diemen's Land was dominated by a mentality of 'If it grows, chop it down; if it runs, shoot it'. Yet it was also defined by great pioneering innovation and courage.

Exploring Coast to Coast

The establishment of George Town in 1804 attracted new settlers, resulting in a demand for more land. Settlers initially spread along the island's southeast coast towards Port Arthur, along the east coast and around the Launceston area. By 1807 an overland route from Hobart to Launceston had been forged. Stone was readily available for construction work and many early stone buildings still survive. Some of the best examples of these buildings can be found in Richmond and in Ross and Oatlands along the Midland Hwy.

To the settlers, Tasmania's big unknowns were its rugged western and central hinterlands, where difficult, mountainous country barred the way. The first Europeans to cross the island were escapees from Macquarie Harbour – many escaped, but only a few survived the journey to Hobart Town.

In 1828 George Frankland was appointed Tasmania's surveyor-general. Determined to map the entire state, he sent many surveyors on long, arduous journeys during the 1830s, often accompanying them. By 1845, when Frankland died, most of the state was roughly mapped and catalogued.

Building roads across the mountainous west was difficult and many were surveyed across all sorts of landscapes before being abandoned. But in 1932 the Lyell Hwy from Hobart to Queenstown was finally opened for business, linking the west coast and Hobart.

Convict Life

Sarah, Maria & Arthur: the Worst of the Worst

The actual site of the first penal settlement in Tasmania was on small Sarah Island, in Macquarie Harbour on the west coast. The prisoners sent there were those who had committed further crimes after arriving in Australia. Their severe punishment was hard manual labour, cutting down Huon pine in the rainforest. It's believed conditions were so dreadful that some prisoners committed murder in order to be sent for trial and execution in Hobart.

The number of prisoners sent to Van Diemen's Land increased in 1825. In the same year the island was recognised as a colony independent of NSW, and another penal settlement was established, this one off the east coast on Maria Island, where prisoners were treated more humanely.

In 1830 a third penal settlement was established at Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula. Shortly after its construction, the other two penal settlements closed – Maria Island in 1832 and Sarah Island in 1833.

Punishments meted out to convicts at Port Arthur included weeks of solitary confinement. The worst prisoners were sent to work in the coal mines of the nearby Saltwater River, where they were housed in miserably damp underground cells. A visit to Port Arthur evokes the terrible conditions suffered by prisoners during this era.

A Name Change & A New Image

In 1840 convict transportation to NSW ceased, resulting in an increase in the number of convicts being sent to Van Diemen's Land; there was a peak of 5329 new arrivals in 1842. In 1844 control of the Norfolk Island penal settlement (in the Pacific Ocean, 1610km northeast of Sydney) was transferred from NSW to Van Diemen's Land and by 1848 'VDL' was the only place in the British Empire to which convicts were still being transported.

Vociferous opposition to the continued transportation of convicts came from free settlers, who in 1850 formed the Anti-Transportation League to successfully lobby for change. The last convicts transported to the colony arrived in 1853.

Van Diemen's Land had been the most feared destination for British prisoners for more than three decades. During those years a total of 74,000 convicts had been transported to the island. The majority of these people had served out their sentences and settled in the colony, yet so terrible was its reputation that in 1856 – the year it achieved responsible self-government – it changed its name to Tasmania in an attempt to free its image once and for all from the shackles of its past.

Tasmanian culture has since undergone a transition from shame, and an increasing number of Tasmanians of European descent now identify with their convict past. There has also been an increase in pride in being Tasmanian and, driven by compelling tourism marketing and a burgeoning food-and-wine scene, the state's positive and cosmopolitan profile is far removed from the negative preconceptions of just a few decades ago.

Gold, But No Great Rush

In the 1870s gold was discovered near the Tamar River, as was tin in the northeast. These discoveries prompted a deluge of international prospectors. In the northeast hundreds of Chinese miners arrived, bringing their culture with them. The themed Trail of the Tin Dragon tourist path (www.trailofthetindragon.com.au) through the northeast highlights this aspect of the state's history.

Mining was a tough way of life and most people didn't make their fortunes. Individual prospectors grabbed the rich, easily found surface deposits, but once these were gone the miners had to form larger groups and companies to reach deeper deposits, until eventually these either ran out or became unprofitable to work. The Beaconsfield Mine & Heritage Centre north of Launceston is still operational and can be visited today.

Once it was realised that there was mineral wealth to be found, prospectors randomly explored most of the state. On the west coast, discoveries of large deposits of silver and lead resulted in a boom in the 1880s and an associated rush at Zeehan. In fact, so rich in minerals was the area that it ultimately supported mines significant enough to create the towns of Rosebery, Tullah and Queenstown. Geological exploitation went unchecked, however, and by the 1920s copper mining at Queenstown had gashed holes in the surrounding hills, while logging, pollution, fires and heavy rain stripped the terrain of its vegetation and topsoil. The environment has only begun repairing itself over the past few decades.

The rich belt of land from Queenstown to the north coast is still being mined in several places, but this is now being done with a little more environmental consideration and fewer visible effects than in the past.

Tasmania in the 20th Century

Although it was ignored in the initial federal ministry, Tasmania officially became a state when Australia's Federation took place in 1901. For Tasmanians, as for mainlanders in the new Commonwealth of Australia, the first half of the 20th century was dominated by war, beginning with the dispatch of a contingent of 80 Tasmanian soldiers to South Africa to fight in the Boer War, through WWI and WWII, with the Depression of the 1930s thrown in for bad measure.

The state's post-WWII economy was reassuringly buoyant, with industrial success embodied by Bell Bay's aluminium refinery and the ongoing developments of the powerful Hydro-Electric Commission. However, by the 1980s it had suffered a worrisome decline. Subsequent years saw economic unease reflected in climbing 'brain drain' levels to the mainland (especially among the under-30s) and falling birth rates.

A Disputed Wilderness

Since the early 1970s the key influence on Tasmanian history has been the ongoing battle between pro-logging companies and environmental groups. Tasmania is poorer and has fewer employment opportunities than mainland states, but it's also an island with world-class wilderness and scenic beauty. With these two contemporary markers of Tasmanian society, the ideological fault lines often evident in Tasmanian history are not difficult to trace back and understand.

In 1910 Austrian Gustav Weindorfer reached the summit of Cradle Mountain. Throwing his arms out, he declared that the magnificence of the place, 'where there is no time and nothing matters', was something the people of the world should share. It later became a national park. In the 20th century the extinction of the thylacine and the flooding of Lake Pedder led to the birth of Australia's environmental movement in 1972, when concerned people formed the United Tasmania Group. Ten years later, thousands of people acted to stop the damming of the Franklin River. Leaders in these movements became a force in Australian federal politics: the Greens Party, under the leadership of Tasmanian Bob Brown, who was a senator from 1996 until 2012.

Tasmania in the 21st Century

Backed by strong tourism campaigns, vocal supporters in mainstream media, a respected arts scene and the emergence of some excellent local brands that wind up in shopping trolleys across the country, Tasmania's image change is crystallising as it fosters its reputation as a 'pure' holiday isle, artisan food producer and lifestyle haven.

The long-running debate between pro-logging groups, pro-pulp-mill corporations and conservationists keen to protect Tasmania's old-growth forests and wild heritage continues. In 2010 a breakthrough was achieved with the signing of the Statement of Principles agreement – a 'peace deal' between pro-forestry and pro-environmental groups. Following this, in 2011 the Tasmanian Forests Intergovernmental Agreement was signed by Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, Tasmanian premier Lara Giddings and conservation and forestry groups, creating new areas of forest reserves while guaranteeing ongoing native- and plantation-timber access for the forestry industry. In 2012 the key actor on the pro-logging side of the debate – forestry company Gunns Ltd – was placed in voluntary administration.

The Tasmanian Forests Intergovernmental Agreement was passed into law by the Tasmanian parliament in 2013 but was repealed by a new conservative state government in 2014. A six-year moratorium period then came into effect, after which the impact of resuming logging in Tasmania's old-growth forests is to be re-examined.

Indigenous Rights

Of course, Truganini and Suke and Fanny Cochrane were not the last Tasmanian Aboriginal people. They may have been the last 'full-blooded' representatives of their race, but countless Tasmanians of mixed heritage survived.

Over recent decades the state's Indigenous population has found a new voice, sense of community and identity. Tasmanian Aboriginal people continue to claim rights to land and compensation for past injustices. Acknowledgement of the treatment meted out to Indigenous peoples by Europeans has resulted in the recognition of native titles to land. In 1995 the state government returned 12 sites to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community, including Oyster Cove, Risdon Cove, Kutikina Cave and Steep Island. Wybalenna was added to this list in 1999, and areas of Cape Barren and Clarke Islands in 2005. The Tasmanian government has also launched an Aboriginal Dual Naming Policy, with 13 places now officially known by both Aboriginal and European names. These include kunanyi (Hobart's Mt Wellington), kanamaluka (Launceston's Tamar River), yingina (Great Lake in the Central Highlands) and takayna (the Tarkine).