Settlement of Tasmania: Early bushrangers: Hostile Blacks [chapter 39 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton]

[Editor: This is chapter 39 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton. Published in The Sunday Mail, 24 March 1935.]

The story of Australia — XXXIX

Settlement of Tasmania

Early bushrangers: Hostile Blacks

Colonel David Collins, the first Governor of Tasmania, died suddenly in 1810, and three years elapsed before his successor, Colonel Thomas Davey, arrived in the colony. He had been a colonel of marines, and fought under Nelson at Trafalgar. He was a jovial, “rough and ready” sort of man, but he had few of the qualities of a governor.

His official entry into Hobart was a defiance of all conventional rules. The weather being extremely hot, he entered the town with his coat and waistcoat over his arm, and listened to the address of welcome with careless indifference, and throughout showed little respect for himself or for the people he had come to govern.

The actual value of Davey’s work in Tasmania is much disputed. His private life was marked by profligacy, for which there was no excuse, but his administration of public affairs was on the whole marked by common sense, and the colony made good progress. He threw open the port of Hobart and encouraged farming, thus providing the settlement with two wide avenues to prosperity.

By 1816 there had been such an increase in cultivation that besides supplying all the necessities of the settlement they were able to export grain to Sydney.

Overrun by bushrangers

It was under Davey’s rule that the island was overrun by bushrangers. The love of the wild and the free life of the bush, and the wish to avoid the severity of the lash, caused many of the prisoners to effect their escape to the bush, where, collecting in gangs, they vied with one another in deeds of the most glaring and dreadful nature.

In some districts the inhabitants helped to conceal them, whilst in others the settlers assisted the authorities to suppress them. They even plundered Davey’s own barn and committed so many outrages that in 1813 Davey declared the whole colony under martial law, a step which Macquarie promptly vetoed, but which was the best plan to check the activities of the bushrangers.

In 1817 Davey was forced to resign, and he was succeeded by Colonel William Sorell, who for seven years administered the Government with great ability and vigour. He encouraged the immigration of free settlers, and under him both the pastoral and farming industries flourished. Tasmania exported cattle and sheep to Mauritius, wheat to Sydney and Brazil, and the export of wool began. It is said that “five years of Sorell’s rule had doubled the population and trebled the acreage of lands.”

Yet with all its progress Sorell’s term of office was very disturbed. In December, 1821, a penal station for hardened criminals was established at Macquarie Harbour on the west coast, and its history is perhaps the grimmest episode of the system. Dozens of convicts who sought to escape from it starved to death in the bush; others turned cannibal. Bushrangers prevailed on an even greater scale, and the colony was further vexed by the outrages of the Oyster Bay tribe of aborigines.

Sorell’s term of office expired in May, 1824, and his successor was Lieutenant-Colonel George Arthur, who reached Hobart in the same month. In 1825 Tasmania was proclaimed a separate colony, and a Legislative Council was formed.

Governor Arthur divided the island into districts, each with its own magistrate and an efficient police staff. The convict population was classified and the most dangerous moved to Port Arthur, where escape was almost impossible. This settlement became famous all over the world for its severity. Arthur mentions that prisoners often committed murder in order to be sent to Hobart for trial. Bushranging was put down with a strong hand, and the hangman had a busy time; in the first 15 months of Arthur’s rule there were over 100 executions at Hobart.

Hostility of the Blacks

The most serious situation, however, that confronted Arthur was the hostility of the blacks to the settlers. The aborigines had suffered from the shocking severity of the first settlers, yet up to 1820 they made little attempt at retaliation. Their first leader against the whites was Musquito, a New South Wales black, who made himself chief of the Oyster Bay tribe, and murdered several settlers and stockmen. He was eventually hanged, but the relations between the two races grew worse, and murders by the natives became more and more frequent.

Governor Arthur resolved in 1830 on a great “drive” with the object of capturing the Oyster Bay and Big River tribes, who were the settlers’ worst enemies. More than 3000 men took part, and marched down the eastern side of the island with the intention of driving the tribes on to East Bay Neck. The “black line” lasted seven weeks, and cost £35,000; but when the net was drawn there was nothing in it; one woman and a boy had been caught asleep under a log on the way down.

Last of their race

It was after this failure that a bricklayer and builder named Robinson offered to go out unarmed and persuade the alarmed hostile tribes to come in peacefully. By the end of 1834 he had brought in 187, who formed the remnant of the race. They were placed on Flinders Island in Bass Strait, and in 1835 put in Robinson’s charge, but though they were treated kindly their numbers gradually decreased, and before many years were over the entire native population of Tasmania became extinct.

In March, 1869, William Lanne, the last full-blood male, died in Hobart Hospital. Trucanini, usually regarded as the last of the race, died on May 8, 1876. Her last request was, “Bury me behind the mountains”; but her skeleton is in the Hobart Museum.

The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 24 March 1935, p. 33

[Editor: Corrected “Mosquito” to “Musquito” (the name of the Aboriginal leader, “Musquito”, was spelt differently to the similar name for the insect “mosquito”). Some obscured text in the original was corrected with reference to the same article published in The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 18 October 1931, p. 22, whilst the obscured sub-heading “Last of their race” was corrected with reference to the same phrase being used as a caption for a picture included with chapter 40 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton, published in The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 31 March 1935, p. 29.]

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