Australians shaped by the spirit of place

Van Diemen's LandBoyce, James. Van Diemen's Land. Black Inc. Books, Melbourne, 2008. RRP $49.95

'The floral mead — the pearly stream — the goodly grove, however they delight the eye or ravish the imagination — what are they all? — a worthless waste, until the genius and industry of man converts and fits them all for the welfare and enjoyment of his kind.' (David Burn, 'A Picture of Van Diemen's Land', the Colonial Magazine, 1840)

Landscape has long been acknowledged as central to the colonial history of Australia. Yet over centuries historians have reduced its significance to that of a passive canvass inscribed progressively with the actions of its peoples. In so doing they have continued to re-enact conceptually the very process that their histories so vehemently denounce.

James Boyce's Van Diemen's Land, which Boyce defines as an 'environmental history', seeks to redress this, focusing instead upon what Manning Clark has described as 'the influence of the spirit of place in the fashioning of Australians'.
Happy birthday Andy! Love Tim and Nic.
While historians such as Clark and Tim Flannery have pioneered this focus on the reciprocal relationship between the colonisers and their environment, Boyce goes one stage further by stressing the diversity within the landscape, which renders generalised conclusions inadequate. Emphasising the geographical contrasts between Tasmania and other colonial sites in New South Wales, Boyce makes a compelling revisionist case not just for the origins of Tasmania itself, but for the way in which we write and conceive Australian history.

The history of Tasmania, Boyce argues, is characterised by a fundamental paradox arising from 'the tension produced by siting the principle gaol of the empire in what proved to be a remarkable benevolent land'. In contrast to the harsh and often desperate conditions endured by settlers in Sydney Cove, those encountered by the Tasmanian convicts were of a 'veritable Eden' complete with fertile grasslands and plentiful food.

The abundant supply of kangaroo in particular, and the unfamiliarity of native animals with the swift European hunting dogs, meant that for the first time in the colonial history of Australia any individual equipped with such a dog could reasonably expect to survive outside the restrictions of the penal colony. Even those within it might enjoy a quality of life vastly superior to the penury most had come from. This effectively destroyed the English vision of Australia as a prison without walls, and reinvented the landscape as a source of hope and sustainable life for its enforced inhabitants.

Boyce stresses the singularity of Tasmania's 'convict community'. Over 42% of convicts transported to Australia were brought to Tasmania. The majority of its original population were convicts and remained convict-descendents. While many histories have discounted the role of these undesirables, 'too often assumed to be without culture or enterprise', in shaping Tasmania, Boyce would have us embrace them. He argues that while free-settlers often viewed the land as a temporary source of wealth, the convicts were truly invested in its development, irrevocably connected as it was with their own survival.

It is notable in a book of Tasmanian history that discussion of the wars of 1827-38 is placed in the appendix rather than the body of the work, a decision that clearly articulates Boyce's unusual approach to his subject matter. While engaging with the ongoing debate of the 'history wars' and committed to overturning the theories of Windschuttle's ubiquitous The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Boyce characteristically reconstructs the debate on his own terms, arguing that while documentation of the official conflict has been exhaustive, what it has failed to take into account is the piecemeal destruction of the Aborigines that was taking place on a day-to-day basis with official government sanction. Such occurrences may not have been systematised, he argues, but when sustained over 20 years they did nevertheless constitute a program of ethnic cleansing.

What is striking above all in Boyce's compelling history is his account of the role played by individuals. Even the 'tainted nomenclature' of the state hints at the actions of the men that lay behind its development at every stage; portraits emerge of figures as diverse as the visionary Lieutenant Governor David Collins, 'ever more ready to pardon than to punish', who guided the settlement in its earliest stages, and outlaw bushranger Michael Howe, so powerful a dissenting force that the government was forced to negotiate with him.

On every side of the divisions of colour, gender, and creed, remarkable figures emerge. Boyce's work is no chest-beating self-mortifying exercise in public apology, but rather a sincere and enquiringly honest investigation into the history of a people whose very strength surely lies in the blights and challenges of their origins.

Black Inc Books


Alexandra CoghlanAlexandra Coghlan graduated from Oxford University in 2006 with BAs in English Literature and Music, and completed an MPhil in Criticism and Culture at Trinity College, Cambridge. She returned to Oxford in October 2008 to complete her DPhil.

Topic tags: Boyce, James. Van Diemen's Land. Black Inc. Books, Melbourne, 2008. RRP $49.95, ISBN: 978-1-86395-41



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