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Adrift in a strange land

JAMES BOYCE’S BOOK, Van Diemens Land, is a tale of how geography and environment can influence culture.

The culture in question is that developed by convicts who were landed at the time that the colony was founded in 1803. Until the 1820s, when things changed to become harsher for convicts, they formed the majority of the population of Van Diemens Land (VDL), now known as Tasmania. Their story during that period has largely been ignored by historians who have focused instead on the repressive post-1820 period which saw lands used in common handed over to the free settlers.

The story of how the geography of VDL and those convicts co-evolved starts on the extensive grasslands behind what is now Hobart and extends north to Port Dalrymple, now known as Launceston. How those grasslands got there is open to conjecture, but the practice of burning the country, used by the VDL Aborigines, probably had much to do with it. Convict herders adopted burning from the Aborigines, with whom they seem to have had generally good relations. Boyce reports that sheep runs were burned every three years, on average. The result was grassy open country punctuated by open woodland.

The frequent burning discouraged the erection of permanent housing, which did not start to appear in quantity until the 1820s.

It was on those grasslands that convicts grazed sheep owned by free men in the town and hunted the Tasmanian kangaroo for meat to feed the colony, and for their furs. Other animals were hunted and the Tasmanian emu was quickly driven to extinction.

At the time, there was a small agricultural sector because, unlike the settlements on the mainland, Tasmanian soils were of high quality and there was an abundance of fresh water. Wheat was grown and some was exported to the settlement at Port Jackson (now Sydney) in 1816 to make up for shortages there. Grapes and hemp, used for rope and sail making, were other early crops.

Despite the presence of an incipient agriculture, those open grasslands and forests constituted a common, shared resource that lasted until they were given to free settlers in the 1820s.


Unfree workers free to wander

Convicts working as herders in these places more remote from the towns were like unfree workers free to roam the grasslands. They were the colony’s early economic pioneers, providing essential services in feeding the colony and in supplying other needs.

They worked as stockmen, shepherds, hunters and acacia bark collectors (used for tanning leather) in the isolated areas beyond immediate government control. Their way of life converged to some degree with that of the Aboriginies, with whom good relations were generally maintained. Almost all settlers, including convicts, had access to unallocated land and this provided resources and opportunity for bush-based production and trade. This provided an opportunity for a degree of economic independence and convicts were encouraged to engage in employment after completing their government hours.

The development of this wandering herdsman existence was aided by the fact that there was little immigration to the island during those formative years. Isolation and the economic needs of the colony crated a culture not seen since in Australia.

How different was that culture?

It was a culture that grew out of the geography of the undulating landscape today known as the Midlands – those rolling, grassy plains that occupy the space between the heavily wooded tiers that form the western horizon and the rugged, eucalypt clad ranges to the east.

Boyce goes into some detail, describing how the convict herdsmen lived in impermanent bush huts such as the A-frame, thatched with branches or grass, that was adopted from the Aboriginies. Some lived in caves of in the hollow bases of large trees.

Their clothing, too, reflected the generosity of the environment. Convicts and others living in the isolated areas made their clothes from roo skin. Characteristically, this consisted of coat, trousers, caps and moccasins. The materials to make this were easily obtained and the garments were more waterproof and warmer than European clothing, at the time rarely seen outside the town. Knapsacks were made from roo skin and sleeping rugs were sewn from skin, including that of possum.

A contemporary described the appearance of people so-clad as “semi-barborous” and, according to Robinson – who would later round up Aborigines for relocation – “A subculture developed in the persons who found a hunting and wandering way of life to their taste”. MC Levy chipped by describing the culture as “A breed of folk as wild as the wastes around them”.

Boyce writes that the first settlers to VDL brought with then an essentially pre-industrial worldview that included inherited traditions and beliefs.

The matter of food

According to Boyce, little use was made of indigenous plant foods although the ‘native potato’, Gastrodia sessamoides, and a head-sized tuber known as ‘native bread’ were harvested. Tea was made from tea tree and sassafras; there was fern root and the mildly intoxicating sap of the cider gum – Eucalypt gunnii – which grows in the highlands, was tapped by stockmen and shepherds.

After 1820 and the allocation of land to free settlers, mutton and beef became the main foods, replacing kangaroo. By then, black swan, emu and the Forester kangaroo populations were in decline due to overhunting. Things were changing with tree dieoff in some districts attributed to possums, which were also reported as raiding the wheat fields. Dogs were deployed as a defence.

English birds and bees were introduced and bees had gone feral by 1840. Regular burning of the grasslands ceased with the ending of convict herdsman and Aboriginal culture, and fuel built up in forest and grassland. Fires became more intense, with extensive burning reported on the Wellington Range, adjacent to Hobart, in 1847.

In the 1820s, with the arrival of free settlers, the herdsmen-hunter convicts were displaced from the grasslands as title was given to the new immigrants. A socially respectable society of farmers and townspeople evolved but life for the convict became harder. More had arrived by this time and the deplorable condition they were kept in, in places such as Sarah Island and Port Arthur, became part of the Tasmanian legend.

Then, in 1841, recession struck and history began to repeat itself.

History repeats

What happened is this. The onset of recession forced many of the unemployed into the bush. Here, people lived rough, moving on foot into the dry schlerophyl forests of the ranges and the foothills of the tiers. Rivers provided access into wet schlerophyl forest, such as those along the Huon.

As the hills, highland plains, forests and mountains became the refuge of the poor, people became isolated from the settlers on the plains and the towns with their culture and society. In these regions of economic refuge, a local culture started to evolve again.

A difficult survival

Boyce reports that survival in the highlands was more difficult than in the lower woodlands and grasslands where people survived through seasonal work on the estates or in the towns, and by the sale of bush products.

There, homesteads were between 10 and 20 acres in size and were sometimes leased from an absentee landowner. Leases would include conditions such as the clearing of the land.

But it was the crown and common lands that provided a final refuge. Here, people lived as shepherds and stock keepers supplemented by hunting and trapping. The isolated Central Plateau was such a location and people over-wintered in that cold, challenging climate to trap possums and wildlife for its think winter fur. How self-sufficient they must have been. According to Boyce, unique customs developed and the start of a regional dialect in these isolater areas was noted.

Roos and emus had, now several decades since first settlement, been severely reduced in number by hunting. There was little value in keeping roo dogs as there had been during the pre-1820 period when dogs became a valued hunting possession, firearms of the time being too limited in effectiveness as hunting tools.

Potatoes became an important crop and Boyce lists the animal food sources documented at the time: echidna; wombat; swan; native hen (skinned and stewed); large white grubs extracted from timber (tasted like almond); oysters; fish; black currawong; rabbit; bronzewing pigeon; white cockatoo; small green parrot (made into dumplings); wallaby; mutton.

The formation of an authentic backwoods culture

Those who migrated to the more isolated bushland areas in the 1840s mixed with others  already living there to form close knit communities.

At the time, horses were too expensive for these people and a great deal of movement was on foot. This took place over a network of foot trails, some probably used earlier by Aboriginies. The author describes these areas as “human wildlife corridors“.

A book of new insight

Boyce’s is a book on fresh insight into the formative years of the VDL colony.

His is a work of scholarship and considerable research which shines the  light of knowledge into the island state’s dark and long-lost past. While the convict past has been something of an unspoken shame in Tasmania, Boyce’s book reveals those years as something unique and intriguing. He shows how geography, climate, environment, changing economic conditions and human ingenuity brought into birth local cultures that provided a sense of freedom to the often stultifying society of the better off townspeople.

What I like is Boyce’s statement that ”Too many Tasmanians had grown up accustomed to living in bark huts“.

Boyce J, 2009; Van Diemens Land; Blak Inc, Victoria. ISBN 978 186395  424 2.

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