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Frontier conflict in Van Diemen's Land


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Clements, NP 2013 , 'Frontier conflict in Van Diemen's Land', PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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Eastern Van Diemen’s Land was the site of the most intense frontier conflict in Australia.
What is known today as the Black War (1824-1831) produced at least 450 colonial casualties
and all but wiped out the Aborigines. This thesis examines the attitudes and experiences of the
men, women and children – black and white – who were involved. It asks: How did each side
perceive the other? What motivated them to violence? What tactics did they employ? How did
each side cope with being hunted? And what was the emotional cost? These questions are long
overdue. Historians have almost invariably examined the War from the ‘top down’, poring
over ethical and legal questions. These are important concerns for posterity, but they were not
those of Aborigines or frontier colonists. Their beliefs, desires, behaviours and emotions
constituted the human side of the Black War, and they have been all but ignored.
The alternating white/black chapters of this thesis juxtapose the perspectives of colonists and
Aborigines. Close attention has been paid to the minutiae of frontier life, which were a chief
determinant of behaviour and experience. Drawing on a range of methods, the cultures, voices
and actions of participants have been sifted from Tasmania’s vast archive. To verify and
contextualise this anecdotal evidence, a catalogue of all recorded violent incidents and their
details has been appended.
The Black War was a guerrilla war consisting of hundreds of ambushes on Aborigines’ camps
by night, and on colonists’ huts by day. Exceptions to this day/night pattern were rare, which
meant the War was fought and experienced according to a solar rhythm. A key source of white
violence was sex deprivation. European women being extremely scarce, so frontiersmen
sought black females any way they could. Later, revenge and self-defence also motivated them
to kill. Aborigines attacked whites to resist invasion, avenge mounting insults, and to plunder
food and blankets. Both lived in suffocating fear, terrified of their enigmatic foes. Likewise,
both saw themselves victims, and both felt justified in victimising the other. It was not a battle
between good and evil, but a struggle between desperate human beings.
This thesis challenges a range of long-standing assumptions about the War, while also
providing new evidence and perspectives. Its attitudinal and experiential analysis illuminates
the War in a new light, while its quantitative analysis indicates a larger-scale conflict than
previously imagined, with distinct and telling patterns of violence. Moreover, a systematic
examination of frontier conflict at the ground level and from both is all but untried in
Australian history.

Item Type: Thesis - PhD
Authors/Creators:Clements, NP
Keywords: Black war, Black line, Tasmania, Van Diemen's Land, Aborigines, frontier warfare, experience, attitude, Nicholas Patrick Clements
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