Poster issued in Van Diemen's Land in 1816 prior to the height of the Black War depicting Lieutenant-Governor Davey's policy of friendship and equal justice for settlers and Aborigines
|British Empire||Tasmanian Aborigines|
|Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur|
varied; normally at strength 500-1000 men
|Tasmanian Aborigines: approximately 2,000-6,000 (including non-combatants)|
|Casualties and losses|
|188||Official figure was 327. Estimates range from a few hundred to many thousands.|
Mass killings of Tasmanian Aborigines were reported as having occurred as part of the Black War in Van Diemen's Land. The accuracy of some of these reports was questioned as early as the 1830s by the British Government's Commission of Inquiry, headed by Archdeacon (later Bishop) William Broughton and in the 20th century by historians, such as N.J.B. Plomley in the 1960s. The controversy has continued, as historian Keith Windschuttle in his book of 2002 has questioned the accuracy of accounts of massacres and high fatalities.
Added to epidemic fatalities due to introduced Eurasian infectious diseases, to which the Aborigines had no immunity, the conflict had such impact on the Tasmanian Aboriginal population that they were reported to have been exterminated.
Small remnant groups' surviving the Black War were relocated to Bass Strait Islands. Their descendants continue today .
The descriptions of the Black War differ, ranging from a series of small conflicts and massacres, to assertions that the methods used during the conflicts constitute genocide. The Black War was one of many conflicts used as an example to define the term genocide as it began to be used in the 1940s.
The use of the term "war" is also sometimes disputed as no official war declaration was made, and only the colonists' side was fully equipped for war. Furthermore, some historians suggest terms such as civil war, occupation, murder, or genocide, would be more appropriate to describe what happened. Nonetheless, the term Black War has stuck. The inclusion of the term "war" is used loosely.
As the Black War was never officially declared, historians vary in their dating of the extended conflict. Some date the conflict to the very beginning of European settlement on the island in 1803. Some historians date the conflict to 1826, when the Colonial Times newspaper published an announcement about self-defense; and 1828, when the colonial government declared martial law.
On December 1, 1826, the Tasmanian Colonial Times declared that:
We make no pompous display of Philanthropy. We say this unequivocally SELF DEFENCE IS THE FIRST LAW OF NATURE. THE GOVERNMENT MUST REMOVE THE NATIVES -- IF NOT, THEY WILL BE HUNTED DOWN LIKE WILD BEASTS AND DESTROYED!
–Colonial Times and Tasmanian Advertiser, 1826 original scan
Governor Arthur declared martial law in November 1828 in a declaration beginning:
"Whereas the Black or Aboriginal Natives of this Island have for a considerable time past, carried on a series of indiscriminate attacks upon the persons and property of divers of His Majesty's subjects: and have especially of late perpetrated most cruel and sanguinary acts of violence and outrage; evincing an evident disposition systematically to kill and destroy the white inhabitants indiscriminately whenever an opportunity of doing so is presented."
He ordered what were called “roving parties” to patrol the settled districts and capture Aborigines there, authorizing the patrols to shoot any Aborigines who resisted. At the same time, Arthur instructed the military officers and magistrates in the area that the use of arms was to be a last resort.
In February 1830, the government offered a bounty of £5 per adult and £2 per child, for Aborigines captured alive. On 20 August 1830, Governor Arthur's office issued a clarification that rewards were only for Aborigines caught whilst engaged in aggression in the settled districts, and that settlers or convicts who went out and captured “inoffensive Natives in the remote of the remote and unsettled parts of the territory” would not receive a reward. Instead, “If, after the promulgation of this Notice, any wanton attack or aggression against the Natives becomes known to the Government, the offenders will be immediately brought to justice and punished.”
During the same year, Governor Arthur called upon every able-bodied male colonist, convict or free, to form a human chain, later known as the Black Line, to perform a sweep of the area. As in game hunting, the men swept across the settled districts, moving south and east for several weeks, in an attempt to corral the Aborigines on the Tasman Peninsula by closing off Eaglehawk Neck, the isthmus connecting the Tasman peninsula to the rest of the island. Arthur intended to have the Aborigines live together on the peninsula where they could maintain their culture and language. The government and historians consider the Black Line to have been an excessively costly action. It was unsuccessful in capturing more than a few Aborigines. Even though the tribes managed to avoid capture during these events, they were shaken by the size of the campaigns against them, and this brought them to a position whereby they were willing to surrender to George Augustus Robinson and move to Flinders Island.
Largely through the efforts of George Augustus Robinson, known as "the Conciliator", by 1833 about 220 Tasmanian Aborigines were persuaded to surrender with assurances that they would be protected and provided for by the government. They were moved to Wybalenna Aboriginal Establishment on Flinders Island. Nonetheless, contact with introduced Eurasian diseases continued to reduce their numbers. In 1847, the last 47 living inhabitants of Wybalenna were transferred to Oyster Cove, south of Hobart, on the main island of Tasmania. One of the last of the full-blooded Palawa, a woman named Trugernanner (often rendered as Truganini), died in 1876.
During the Beagle survey expedition, Charles Darwin visited Tasmania in February 1836 and noted in his diary that "The Aboriginal blacks are all removed & kept (in reality as prisoners) in a Promontory, the neck of which is guarded. I believe it was not possible to avoid this cruel step; although without doubt the misconduct of the Whites first led to the Necessity." His Journal and Remarks published in 1839 (now known as The Voyage of the Beagle) noted that Hobart town, from the census of 1835, contained 13,826 inhabitants and the whole of Tasmania 36,505. He gave the following account of Tasmania's Black War:
All the aboriginals have been removed to an island in Bass's Straits, so that Van Diemen's Land enjoys the great advantage of being free from a native population. This most cruel step seems to have been quite unavoidable, as the only means of stopping a fearful succession of robberies, burnings, and murders, committed by the blacks; but which sooner or later must have ended in their utter destruction. I fear there is no doubt that this train of evil and its consequences, originated in the infamous conduct of some of our countrymen. Thirty years is a short period, in which to have banished the last aboriginal from his native island,—and that island nearly as large as Ireland. I do not know a more striking instance of the comparative rate of increase of a civilized over a savage people.
The correspondence to show the necessity of this step, which took place between the government at home and that of Van Diemen's Land, is very interesting: it is published in an appendix to Bischoff's History of Van Diemen's Land. Although numbers of natives were shot and taken prisoners in the skirmishing which was going on at intervals for several years; nothing seems fully to have impressed them with the idea of our overwhelming power, until the whole island, in 1830, was put under martial law, and by proclamation the whole population desired to assist in one great attempt to secure the entire race. The plan adopted was nearly similar to that of the great hunting-matches in India: a line reaching across the island was formed, with the intention of driving the natives into a cul-de-sac on Tasman's peninsula. The attempt failed; the natives, having tied up their dogs, stole during one night through the lines. This is far from surprising, when their practised senses, and accustomed manner of crawling after wild animals is considered. I have been assured that they can conceal themselves on almost bare ground, in a manner which until witnessed is scarcely credible. The country is every where scattered over with blackened stumps, and the dusky natives are easily mistaken for these objects. I have heard of a trial between a party of Englishmen and a native who stood in full view on the side of a bare hill. If the Englishmen closed their eyes for scarcely more than a second, he would squat down, and then they were never able to distinguish the man from the surrounding stumps. But to return to the hunting-match; the natives understanding this kind of warfare, were terribly alarmed, for they at once perceived the power and numbers of the whites. Shortly afterwards a party of thirteen belonging to two tribes came in; and, conscious of their unprotected condition, delivered themselves up in despair. Subsequently by the intrepid exertions of Mr Robinson, an active and benevolent man, who fearlessly visited by himself the most hostile of the natives, the whole were induced to act in a similar manner. They were then removed to Gun Carriage Island, where food and clothes were provided them. I fear from what I heard at Hobart Town, that they are very far from being contented: some even think the race will soon become extinct.
In a later edition he added that "Count Stzelecki states, that 'at the epoch of their deportation in 1835, the number of natives amounted to 210. In 1842, that is, after the interval of seven years, they mustered only 54 individuals; and, while each family of the interior of NSW, uncontaminated by contact with the whites, swarms with children, those of Flinders' Island had during eight years and accession of only 14 in number.'
The conflict has been a controversial area of study by historians, even characterized as among Australian history wars. Keith Windschuttle in his 2002 work, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume One: Van Diemen's Land 1803–1847, questioned the historical evidence used to identify the number of Aborigines killed and the extent of conflict. He stated his belief that it had been exaggerated and challenged what is labelled the "Black armband view of history" of Tasmanian colonisation. His argument in turn has been challenged by a number of authors, for example see "Contra Windschuttle" by S.G. Foster in Quadrant, March 2003, 47:3.