A British Genocide in Tasmania

The British colonial policy towards the indigenous people of Tasmania in the first part of the 19th century amounted to ethnic cleansing, a part of its history that Britain still hasn’t confronted, argues Tom Lawson.

Aborigines fishing by torchlight and cooking fish by the convict artist Joseph Lycett, Van Diemens Land c.1820. Bridgeman/National Library of Australia CanberraThe question of whether indigenous Australians were victims of genocide has caused great angst in Australian politics and culture. Wide-ranging public debates – known as the History Wars – took place throughout the country in the 1990s and early 2000s about the historical treatment of indigenous peoples, which centred on whether that treatment amounted to genocide and, crucially, what that would mean for current community relations. In Britain such debates were viewed with curiosity, a society on the other side of the world going through a process of coming to terms with its past, as if that was somehow nothing to do with us. Yet perhaps the clearest case of genocide in Australian history, which saw the destruction of the vast majority of indigenous peoples in what the British called Van Diemen’s Land (today the island state of Tasmania), largely occurred between 1804 and 1876, before that colony was awarded self-government and when it was still under direct control from London. In fact, in 1830 the Secretary of State for the Colonies, George Murray, warned the colonial government from Downing Street that, if it was revealed that the indigenous peoples of Van Diemen’s Land had been deliberately targeted for extermination, then it would leave an ‘indelible stain’ upon the reputation of the British Empire. Yet the indigenous islanders were deliberately targeted for ‘extirpation’, to use the words of the day, with the full approval of the British government.

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