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More than 1000 died in Tasmanian war, says historian

Date

Andrew Darby

Liffey Falls in Tasmania.

Liffey Falls in Tasmania. Photo: Conservation Volunteers

LIFFEY FALLS ranks high in the contest for Tasmania's prettiest. Veils of white water cascade over stepped rock benches as the river flows from the Great Western Tiers above to the grazing country below.

Liffey is believed to have been a meeting place for Aboriginal people for thousands of years, and it has a bleaker history. Research has revealed these falls as the forgotten site of one of the worst massacres of Aborigines in the island's ''Black War''.

Settlers on a reprisal raid for the murder of a stockman are said to have surprised the gathered Pallittorre people at Liffey Falls on a winter dawn in 1827.

They are reported in the Colonial Times to have killed ''an immense quantity''. About 60 died or were wounded and, in two further skirmishes in the next 18 days, perhaps 40 more Pallittorre died - as did three colonists.

These are some of the 1000-plus people killed on Tasmanian soil in the Black War, according to work by the historian Lyndall Ryan that reignites a critical dispute in Australian Aboriginal history.

Professor Ryan was a target of the revisionist historian Keith Windschuttle in his book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, which began the academic dispute known as the history wars.

Mr Windschuttle rejected armed conflict as a key cause of the devastation of Tasmanian Aborigines and discounted suggestions they could have mounted organised guerilla warfare. He found plausible records for 120 killings by settlers and counted 187 whites killed by Aborigines.

For her new book, Professor Ryan, of the University of Newcastle, scoured records including newly available settler diaries and digitised colonial newspapers to map the locations of 26 mass killings of Aborigines across the colony of Van Diemen's Land.

A specialist on Australian frontier conflict, Professor Ryan said Tasmania was the best place to understand the dreadful impact of settler colonialism on Aborigines across the country.

''In many respects it was a very public war,'' Professor Ryan told the Herald. ''In other states it was often out of sight.''

The arrival of free settlers in Tasmania after the Napoleonic Wars is said to have dramatically changed relations between Aborigines and colonists.

''The new settlers' ever-increasing demands for vast tracts of Aboriginal land to graze their sheep and cattle became the lightning rod for war,'' she said.

Tribal leaders such as Manalargenna, on the east coast, gave up attempts to deal with whites and became a feared resistance leader, Professor Ryan said. Such men led bloody raids by Aborigines on settler families as the conflict intensified.

They were met with attacks by hundreds of British soldiers as well as paramilitary roving parties. Melbourne's founder, John Batman, led one party in an ambush south-east of Launceston at Ben Lomond, where he said 17 Aborigines were killed.

Professor Ryan said many more Aborigines died than previously realised. She put the number at about 878, most in an intense three-year period to early 1832.

An estimated 201 colonists also died violently, a ratio far higher than elsewhere in Australia, because they often lacked horses to escape or the firepower later used on the mainland.

Professor Ryan is calling for formal recognition of the Black War with a memorial built for the fallen. ''I think people have largely been in denial about frontier violence,'' she said. ''There's a lot of puzzlement about it. There's a degree of embarrassment.

''It would signal a new understanding among Australians in general and Tasmanians in particular that violent bloodshed on home soil has been an important part of our history.''

Mr Windschuttle said he could not comment until he had read Professor Ryan's new book.

Tasmanian Aborigines - A History since 1803 is published by Allen & Unwin.

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