Reynolds commences his re-examination of the Tasmanian Wars with a close explication of a petition to Queen Victoria of March 1847, signed by eight Tasmanian Aborigines living at Wybalenna settlement on Flinders Island. The matter of the petition - to prevent the return of Dr Henry Jeanneret as superintendent of the settlement, where he had been vastly unpopular - has tended to be swamped in the dismissals of the matter by subsequent historians as 'natives being quaint'. Reynolds instead uses this petition as the pint from which to rework a radical perspective on Aboriginal occupation of Tasmania, their subsequent military defeat and the surrender of their land.
There are seven chapters, each framed from an equally fresh perspective, and deftly arranged in chronological sequence. After examining the petition and its signatories, Reynolds back-tracks a little to the white colonisation of Tasmania, and redresses the balance on the side of the whites by discussing contemporaneous accounts of Aboriginal courage and humanity. This is the more remarkable for happening at a time when the audiences for these opinions consisted of people who believed the Aborigines to be 'a race which forms the link between men and monkeys'. The third chapter, 'Those Days of Terror', is a devastating account of guerilla warfare, in which source after source yields white admiration for Aboriginal military skill and shrewdness in the field of battle. Reynolds then examines British policy towards the Aborigines in Australia, revealing inconsistencies and failures of implementation, and moves to George Augustus Robinson's founding of the Friendly Mission.
The next chapter - 'Why Do You Make Us Work Like Prisoners?' - is possibly the most enjoyable and radical part of the book, as it offers a study of the complexity of black-white relations in microcosm. It provides an intriguing revision of the role of Trugernanna (Truganina), and an analysis of the real rather than imagined impact of Christianity upon the settlement. Robinson, dogged by guilt, apparently told the people they would not have to work at the settlement and would not want for anything; they accordingly deeply resented having to work when they got there, and instead regarded the stores, as the Reverend Thomas Dove put it, 'as a contingent stock to which they can advance at pleasure a claim of right.' Because of the convict presence at the settlement, Reynolds also uses black-white relations to illuminate white-white relations - the split into bond and free that stamped itself upon early colonial society in Tasmania.
Reynolds has achieved a rare sense of balance in this work. He does not patronise his subjects by portraying them as 'noble savages', a danger inherent in this sort of re-examination, and which he has strived to avoid at all costs. The merging of white and indigenous culture is captured appreciably, especially in the description of Walter Arthur. Arthur, as Reynolds says, is not nearly as well-known as Trugernanna - she represented 'the transcendence of the primitive past'. Walter Arthur, Aborigine, Christian, chief signatory of the petition around which Reynolds constructs his thesis, is a different matter, and a far more challenging one - 'His career pointed the way to the possibilities of the future rather than the past, the politics of rights rather than those of guilt. He appealed to the principles of British and colonial society - he wanted justice not pity, he wanted to activate the colonist's political ideals, not their consciences.'
Finally, Reynolds closes with a plea for the recognition of Aboriginal military service in defence of their own country - for their commemoration on Anzac Day as Australians who died in active service. Reynolds posits Anzac Day as a possible future national day which bypasses the controversy of Australia Day, and does so with conviction. It ruffled my feathers considerably, which is what revisionist history is supposed to do. This is what makes this book so interesting - a combination of conservative respect for the things held dear by white society, asking for a balance in respect for those held dear by black society. Reynolds also avoids the pitfall of translating the Tasmanian Wars into a general representation of How It Was on the mainland; the diversity of Aboriginal cultures and the diversity of their response to the white presence must be respected in this case.
This lively account of the Tasmanian Wars has been written with a great deal of scholarly empathy and obvious interest in the subject, but there are some distracting typographical errors and grammatical slip-ups, which were minor irritations. In the narrative, there are moments of great pathos, but this is genuine revisionist history - Reynolds does not hesitate to knock down previous versions of the Tasmanian Wars with aplomb and considerable evidence to support his claims. I hope it ruffles a great many more feathers.
Dr P J Martyr studied History at the University of Western Australia,is a recent immigrant to Tasmania from the Mainland, and lectures at the University of Tasmania, Launceston.