This is one of a series of excerpts from older articles put online by John Ray as a public service. The articles concerned are in general otherwise available only by special request to a University or other major library. As this article is short and in a source not widely available outside Australia, I have reproduced it in full below.


The Bulletin, February 23, 1982, pp. 32-34.

Who really killed Tasmania's aborigines?


The descendants of the early settlers of Tasmania have been branded as the children of murderers who were responsible for the genocide of the Tasmanian Aborigine. Is this really true?

The Encyclopaedia Britannica Research Service says ". . . It is a reasonable assumption that had the island remained undiscovered and European settlement not attempted until the present day, the Aborigines of Tasmania would have already become extinct and their few relics mere bones of contention between differing schools of Pacific archaeology. Like the moa-hunters of New Zealand and the unknown race which erected the stone giants on Easter Island, the fate of the Tasmanians would have been just another Polynesian mystery instead of a colonial tragedy . . ."

What then was the cause of the extinction of Tasmanian Aborigines? Although the first people to settle in what was then called Van Diemen's Land were mainly convicts and soldiers there were some free settlers. These were peace-loving folks: farmers, bootmakers, shopkeepers and laborers who had been given free passage to Tasmania and land on which to settle. Only those of high moral character were given passage as settlers. They had to produce character references and be sponsored by some reputable person who had known them for many years. Few had used a gun or weapon of any kind and they knew nothing about hunting or fighting.

On the other hand, the Tasmanian Aborigines were war-like hunters. According to reports held at the Mitchell Library, Sydney, they were "fickle and unstable, and some unknown cause of offence would, in a moment, change their attitude from friendship to open hostility . ."

The reports of James Erskine Calder, who arrived in Tasmania on the Thames in November, 1829, and who remained in Tasmania for the rest of his life working as a surveyor, should he more accurate than the writings of moderns who have never lived there. (Calder said ... "the natives had much the better of the warfare . . .").

They had developed remarkable skill for surprise attacks. They would stealthily creep up on an isolated farm and surround it. After watching for hours, sometimes days, they would take the occupants by surprise, massacre them and burn their house and out-buildings. Then, they would move on to some pioneer family in another part of the island and repeat the massacre.

A trick frequently employed by the Tasmanian natives was to approach isolated settlers, apparently unarmed. They would wave their arms about in a friendly way and the naive settler, seeing no weapon, would greet them, often offering food or drink. When the natives were close enough to the house they would flick the spears from between their toes and plunge them into the hapless frontiersman and his wife and children. After that colonists learned to he wary of natives who walked through long grass, knowing that they could be dragging spears between their toes.

Naturally, after many of their neighbors had been massacred, settlers began to arm against attack but the superior fighting ability of the Aborigines was undeniable. More white people were killed in the so-called "black war" than Aborigines. The most Aborigines killed in any one melee was 41 of a force of several hundred who attacked the Royal Marines.

Reports of the number of natives living in Tasmania at the first white settlers' arrival in 1803 vary from 2000 to a mere 700. Some reports claim 700 would be the absolute maximum at the time of the first settlement and they were, even then, fast dying out.

The factors which killed the Tasmanian Aborigines become apparent after careful research. There were (1) their eating habits (2) hazards of birth (3) lack of hygiene (4) their marriage, or mating customs (5) dangerous "magic" surgery (6) exposure to the harsh climate of Tasmania.

The eating habits of the Tasmanian natives alone were enough to wipe them out. It was their custom to eat everything that was available in one sitting. George Augustus Robinson, an authority on Aborigines, described their diet as "astounding." They ate every part of the carcass of any animal they found. Not a bone nor an organ was discarded. The hunters would sit around the fire chewing the half-cooked brain, eyes, and bones as well as the flesh of animals. The women, who were treated as less important than dogs, were thrown the worst parts of hone and gristle. Only the fur or feathers were uneaten. These were singed away on the fire.

Robinson reported seeing two men eat a whole seal. On another occasion, an Aboriginal woman was seen to eat 60 large eggs followed by a double ration of bread which had been given to her by Robinson. Even the bahies consumed horrifying amounts of food. One baby of only eight months ate a whole kangaroo rat and then grabbed for more food.

Besides animals the Tasmanian natives ate mushrooms, birds' eggs, bracken, ferns, ants' eggs and shell fish of all kinds. But the eating of scaled fish was taboo to the Aborigines.

For the newly-born Tasmanian Aborigine and his/her mother life hung by a thread. When she was no longer able to keep up with the tribe the expectant woman was abandoned in the bush with a handful of food. If there was an old woman who could he spared she stayed with the mother-to-he and helped her at the delivery. Usually, however, the woman coped alone. When the child was horn she either chewed the umbilical cord or cut it with a sharp stone. The placenta was then reverently huried. The baby was cleaned with dry leaves or whatever vegetation was available and, as soon as she was able to walk, the mother slung the child over her shoulder and hurried after the tribe.

With such a primitive and undignified birth, the child often died before the mother could get up. If both mother and child survived it was fortunate but their troubles did not end with a safe delivery. It might take days or weeks for the mother and child to overtake the tribe and during that time there were many perils. Strange tribes coming upon the woman and her baby would kill and probably eat them. If she was able to avoid capture by hostiles there was still the problem of getting enough food to eat, with no hunter to provide and herself in a weakened state. More often, mother and child perished before rejoining the tribe.

Lack of hygiene was another hazard. Tasmania's climate is often cold and wet so bathing was something they never did. In spite of the rigors of the weather they went naked from birth to death, their bodies caked with mud, grease, charcoal and red ochre which was never removed.

Any cut or scratch would immediately become infected and the infection would spread. Lice and fleas multiplied. When seeing Aborigines picking fleas off their bodies and cracking them in their teeth, Europeans were horrified and Robinson and his well-meaning associates made the natives bath. This hastened the death of those in the mission as it was a great shock to bath a body that had always sheltered behind a coating of mud and grease.

The marriage customs were hardly conducive to the survival of the race because only the elders of the tribe were permitted to take wives. For this reason, the young men would try to steal wives from another tribe and many met death in this way if caught. Naturally, the old men were not so fertile as the young bloods and few children were born to their women.

Charms and superstitious practices, although not so prevalent among these primitive people as with the more advanced Aborigines of the mainland, did exist and caused many deaths. Wounds caused by ritual slashing with stones to protect the person from harm often became infected.

Exposure to the weather was a common cause of death before the coming of the white man. As these Aboriginal people built no shelters and wore no clothes they were always battered by the weather. Some scientists believe that many died because of the exposure alone but others claim it was mainly a kind of melancholy death-wish due to an absence of strong religious beliefs to keep them going when life became intolerable.

Contrary to cherished beliefs held by modern society, the white men did not introduce venereal disease. This was already making inroads on the natives of Tasmania as well as the mainland when Europeans first landed. Professor Manning Clark in his Short History of Australia says of the mainland ... "Like their predecessors in the interior, Sturt's men found the effect of syphilis amongst native tribes truly disgusting: many had lost their noses and all the glandular parts were considerably affected . ..". This sort of thing obviously existed in Tasmania also and was the cause of many deaths as well as sterility among both men and women.

So we return to our original question: Who killed the Tasmanian Ahorigines? My research has shown that the only massacres that were carried out were those on white people by the natives. The killer that stalked the Tasmanian Aborigine tribes was the traditions and customs of the race, its face was not while.

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