Book review…

Adrift in a strange land

How geography shaped a short-lived and remote way on life in the early years of European settlement in Tasmania.

Russ Grayson
Nov 3 · 8 min read
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JAMES BOYCE’S BOOK, Van Diemens Land, is a tale of how geography and environment influence culture.

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

Geography and adaptation

The story of how those early convicts adapted to the geography of VDL starts on the extensive grasslands that spanned the distance from Hobart north to Port Dalrymple, now known as Launceston. It is likely that those grasslands resulted from the practice of Tasmanian Aborigines in burning the country to keep it open for hunting and movement. The convicts learned from the Aborigines. They adopted their burning, the so-called firestick farming, to maintain the land in a condition suitable to grazing the mobs owned by free men in the towns. Boyce reports that sheep runs were burned every three years, on average. The result was to maintain an ecosystem of grassy open country punctuated by open woodland. On those grasslands the convicts also hunted the Tasmanian kangaroo for meat and fur. Other animals were hunted. The Tasmanian emu was quickly driven to extinction.

The convicts’ frequent burning did something else. It discouraged the erection of permanent housing. That didn’t appear in quantity until the 1820s.

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

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

Unfree workers free to wander

In places more remote from the towns, convicts working as herders were 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. The pastoral-convicts worked as stockmen, shepherds, hunters and acacia bark collectors (used for tanning leather) in the isolated areas beyond immediate government control.

To some degree their way of life converged with that of the Aboriginies with whom good relations were generally maintained. Almost all settlers, including convicts, had access to unallocated lands which provided the opportunity for bush-based production and trade and a degree of economic independence.

The development of this wandering pastoral 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 created a culture not seen since in Australia.

A breed of folk as wild as the wastes around them

This 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 lower, eucalyptus-clad ranges to the east.

Boyce writes that the first European settlers to VDL brought with them an essentially-pre-industrial worldview that included inherited traditions and beliefs. He 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 or in the hollow bases of large trees.

Their clothing, too, reflected the generosity of the environment. Convicts as well as others living in 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 also made from ‘roo skin and sleeping rugs were sewn from skin, including that of possum.

A contemporary writer 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 in by describing the culture as “A breed of folk as wild as the wastes around them”.

A 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’ was 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 and 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 pasoralism as a way of life, and of Aboriginal culture. Fuel built up in forest and grassland. Fires became more intense. Extensive burning was reported on the Wellington Range, adjacent to Hobart, in 1847.

With the arrival of free settlers in the 1820s, 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 as life for the convict became harder. More convicts 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 repeated itself.

History repeats

Recession. Its onset forced many of the unemployed into the bush. Moving on foot and along rivers such as the Huon, they penetrated the dry schlerophyl forests of the ranges and the foothills of the tiers, the steep ramparts marking the edge of the highlands. Here, they lived rough.

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

A difficult survival

Life in the highlands was more difficult than in the lower woodlands and on the 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 4 to 8 hectares in size and were sometimes leased from an absentee landowner. Leases would include conditions such as clearing the land.

Crown and common lands provided a final refuge where people supplemented their lives as shepherds and stock keepers with hunting and trapping. The isolated Central Plateau was one such location where people overwintered in the cold, snowy and windy climate to trap possums and wildlife for its think winter fur. How self-sufficient, how tough they must have been. According to Boyce, unique customs and a regional dialect started to evolve.

Several decades on from the first settlement, hunting had severely reduced the numbers of ‘roos and emus. 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. Boyce lists the animal food sources documented at the time: echidna; wombat; swan (the native black 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.

An authentic backwoods culture

The econonic refugees who migrated to isolated bushland areas in the 1840s mixed with others already living there to form close-knit communities.

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

The value of new insight

Boyce’s is a book of 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 as well as on the relationship between those early convicts and Tasmanian Aborigines. While the convict past was something of an unspoken shame for generations of Tasmanians, 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 when compared 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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Ideas for and stories about a new version of the…

Russ Grayson

Written by

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.


Ideas for and stories about a new version of the permaculture design system for new times

Russ Grayson

Written by

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.


Ideas for and stories about a new version of the permaculture design system for new times

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