Review | Tuesday 05 July 2011
Henry Reynolds, in his review in The Age, called James Boyce’s Van Diemen’s Land ‘a fresh and sparkling account of the first generation of British settlement in Tasmania’. The Australian’s John Connor was more circumspect, while acknowledging that ‘it [was] a solid and significant addition to Australian colonial history’.
Arguably one of our most interesting historians, Boyce turns his eye to the settlement of the grasslands of South Eastern Australia and the ultimate dispossession of the original inhabitants. The accepted orthodoxy is that there was little the colonial authorities of the day could have done to stop the wholesale occupation of the lands. Convicts (escaped and emancipated), sealers and sailors – who all crossed Bass Strait to escape the strictures of the Tasmanian colony – were the ones to make the first inroads to Victoria. There, they coexisted with the indigenous population.
The prevailing myth is that it was entrepreneurial farmers who occupied and opened up the native grasslands, in spite of colonial authorities and the disapproval of London. Boyce, controversially, argues that the authorities used this argument to mask their real intentions, which were to open up the fertile plains to the squatters from the sheep industry. Boyce argues that it didn’t have to be this way – and that by allowing squatters to seize vast tracts of land, the colonial authorities not only aided the decimation of the local indigenous people, but led to poor uses of the land and inefficient investment.
This book is an important contribution to the understanding of our history and has relevance to contemporary Australia. ‘Could there be a connection between the ingrained assumption that the squatter conquest of Australia could not have been slowed down and regulated, and the national difficulty in imagining that governments might do the same to coalminers today.’
Mark Rubbo is Managing Director of Readings.