TASMANIA WILL ALWAYS be a prisoner of its Vandiemonian past, hostage to its ugly penal and ethnocidal histories. It may be an exaggeration to say that you can see the blood running down Macquarie Street (no, Virginia, it's just the log trucks), but the consensus is that there is a certain feel of dark, colonial gothic to the place. It is therefore all the more important that this history be perceived and understood accurately, empirically.
For example, in 2001 a raft of antiquated legislation was repealed, including the Tasmanian Police Offences Act 1935, Section 8 (l)(d), which made it illegal for a male person to dress in female attire between sunset and sunrise. To use a phrase much beloved of stand-up comedians in the 1990s, 'what was that all about'? At the time, for the transvestite and trans-gender community, it was clearly 'all about' the denial of sexual and personal expression and of individual civil rights. But for the original framers of the legislation, it was probably more a matter of preventing drunken sailors being rolled by cross-dressing muggers, evidently a not uncommon offence within the rough-and-tumble pre-1853 Tasmanian convict community.
A less comic, more chilling cautionary tale is that of Martin Bryant. This seriously unhinged individual maintained at the time of the 2001 massacre that he focused his killing spree on the Port Arthur penitentiary because 'a lot of violence has happened there, it must be the most violent place in Australia; it seemed the right place.' In making this statement, Bryant was only echoing the popular and touristically profitable notion that (as Robert Hughes put it) 'Port Arthur was…our Dachau'. Yet Port Arthur, however psychologically oppressive its Benthamite regime of confinement and surveillance may have been, was actually remarkably free of systematic physical violence, certainly when compared with the earlier place of secondary punishment, Macquarie Harbour, or with the more notorious of the Probation Stations of the 1840s.
What I am getting at is this: that history is not always, or often, or even occasionally what you want it to be. It is not an ideological construct, or not exclusively, at least. Behind all the disagreements and arguments and negotiations of academic or popular consensus lie certain truths, certain artefacts that continue to elude or to resist interpretation, that defy even the motives of their own making.
LET ME GIVE the example of a couple of pictures – a painting and a drawing; the former a loan, the latter a relatively recent purchase – held at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.
The drawing is one of two known sketches (the other is in Sydney) of a specific historical event: an Aboriginal attack on 'Milton Farm' at Great Swanport, on the east coast of Tasmania, on 14 December 1828. These two pencil studies were probably used as the basis for a curious but powerful little oil painting, a work originally lent to the museum by one Solomon Allen in 1935. When I was senior curator of art at the museum in the late 1990s, I found the painting in the plan press, saw there was an old loan label on the back and attempted to make contact with the descendants of the original lender. 'Oh yeah,' said the bloke who answered the phone, when I finally managed to track him down, another Mr Allen several generations on: 'Yeah, we knew you had it at the Museum.' You see, they never forget, the Tasmanians.
In 1826, young John Allen applied for and received a grant of land on Tasmania's east coast: four hundred acres on the west bank of Cygnet River. He named the property Milton, after his home village in England. A west country farmer's boy, Allen worked hard to establish himself. In her regional history The East Coasters (Regal Publications, 1990), Lois Nyman describes how 'sleeping with his musket beside him, for nine months the only time he (took) off his clothes, other than his smock, was when he…changed on Sundays for his day of rest.' In February 1828, he reaped his first harvest, but in that same month, an Aboriginal raiding party attacked the (undefended) property, after previously harassing Allen's neighbours John Lyne and George Meredith. Allen's house was robbed and torched and his wheat stack burnt; damage was estimated at £300. Subsequently awarded a two hundred acre extension to his land grant 'as a remuneration for the Aforesaid Loss', he set to work rebuilding, this time a two-storey house of stone.
By the late 1820s, the pitifully few and increasingly desperate remnants of the Aboriginal population of Tasmania had begun a final effort of concerted armed resistance against the invaders. Through 1828 black-white conflict escalated dramatically across the island. On the east coast, settlers laid an ambush at Moulting Lagoon, the end point of the Aborigines' annual coastal migration; ten Palawa were killed and three taken prisoner. On 28 November, Chief District Constable Gilbert Robertson captured another five, including two chiefs, one of whom was the much-feared Eumarrah (Kahnneher Largenner), leader of the Tyereernotepanner tribe.
Still the black raids on isolated settlers and properties continued, and on 14December the Aborigines attacked Milton Farm again, this time surprising Allen, who was there alone. The young man's defence of his life and property is commemorated in the painting now in the Tasmanian Museum. According to a 1935 letter from Jack Allen preserved in the Art Department's files, his ancestor sketched the picture from memory, and had it painted in England when on a subsequent visit there.
The artist of the oil is unknown, and from the wonky perspective and figure drawing, evidently without training; perhaps a jobbing portraitist or coach painter from Allen's native Somerset. Then there are those two source sketches, both in pencil, whose stylistic similarity suggests they are quite probably by the same hand: either Allen himself, or perhaps his neighbour Francis Cotton (1801-1883). One of these original sketches is that in the Mitchell Library at the State Library of New South Wales; the second was acquired by the Tasmanian Museum in September 2000.
THE UNCERTAINTY OF authorship arises from the inscriptions, which are both in ink, and probably postdate the original sketches. Indeed, the text on the TMAG work is not even on the same paper as the drawing, but on the secondary support on which it is mounted. The Sydney sketch is inscribed 'The Aborigions [sic] of Van Deimonds [sic] Land endeavouring to kill Mr John Allen on Milton Farm in the District of Great Swanport on the 14th December 1828.' The Hobart work's inscription would appear to support the Cotton attribution, stating that it was 'Drawn at Swansea Town in 1828 – to record the events as dictated by John Allen [my emphasis] after successfully holding off an attack by 18 natives for a whole day, with a brace of pistols; on his grant of land which he named Milton.' My (admittedly unprovable) personal view is that the works are by Allen himself. I do not trust the inscriptions, particularly given that there are only thirteen Aborigines [in both pictures], and that the rifle [again in both pictures] directly contradicts the 'brace of pistols'.
Whatever the case, there are significant differences between the eye-witness drawing or report and the later, genteel(ish) parlour painting. The drawing style of the sketches is naïve, primitive, haptic. Scale and perspective are erratic, but observation is intense, impressions vividly rendered. Allen maps his territory emotionally and proprietorially. The weird, spiny, skeletal trees and the nervous halo of pencil marking the edge of the clearing (in the Mitchell drawing) describe a boundary of fear. Allen describes himself emerging from the safety of the homestead to fire on his attackers, and his sense of isolation and vulnerability makes him small in comparison to the Aboriginal figures. At the same time, the proud farmer is still concerned to enumerate his achievements, and each individual stalk of wheat, each enclosing fence, each laboriously laid course of stones is drawn in obsessive detail.
He carefully describes the Palawa's darkness, their nakedness, their scarified or painted torsos. He remembers their attitudes and tactics: arms-wide and whooping in feints and charges, taking cover behind fallen trees, advancing with a spear in each hand, or shaking a waddy in the air. Such closely-observed 'otherness' is rare and powerful; in many ways the artist whose work these drawings most closely resembles is Murray River Aborigine Yackaduna, or Tommy McRae (c. 1836-1901).
The oil painting is in its way as remarkable as the original drawings. To begin with, there are the charming mistranslations: Allen's home paddock becomes a rustic sheep fold, his carefully-hatched masonry (even that of the chimney) reappears as Robinson Crusoe thatch.
More significant are the more conscious, deliberate re-workings. Here, first-hand experience is recast as mythic encounter; vision enters the service of ideology.
Faced with the task of describing a strange and distant landscape, the painter shows the Tasmanian bush as a generalised imperial frontier, with the palm trees in the background exotic signifiers borrowed from British discoveries and conquests in Africa, India, the Caribbean, the Pacific.
Faced with a complete ignorance of Tasmanian Aborigines and their culture, the painter shows the attackers as generalised niggers, black silhouettes in ennobling loincloths. Commissioned to commemorate an inconclusive skirmish in a guerilla war in a God-forsaken corner of a distant island colony, the artist shows the fight as altogether more heroic, more noble, more classical-biblical, as more of a battle, in fact.
Allen moves from the shelter of the house to sunlit centre-stage, where he swings his weapon around like Horatius holding the bridge against the armies of Lars Porsena, or Samson slaying the Philistines. He becomes the hero of a work of art that, however modest, is nonetheless clearly identifiable – within the academic tradition of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – as a History Painting.
YET THERE IS something odd about this particular work. While precedent and contemporary works in this most elevated of genres more often than not depict heroic deaths – of Major Pearson, of General Wolfe, of General Warren, of Marat, of Sardanapulus, even – here we have an antipodean antitype, an Anti-History Painting. Attack on Milton Farm is a representation not of someone dying nobly and calmly in a tragic but morally uplifting way, but of someone surviving – luckily, freakishly – when they had no right to expect that they would.
Still, it should always be remembered that the remembering and retelling and remaking and enlarging and refining of stories is not merely a function or product of ideology. It is deeply embedded in the structures of our brains and of our societies. The attack on Milton Farm was one of the defining moments of John Allen's life. In his drawn accounts of the raid (and the painting which is based on them) there are thirteen Aborigines. Yet the inscription on the TMAG drawing either mistranscribes or deliberately inflates the number to eighteen. At his death, the event became larger still, and somehow tidier, more abstract, more historical; his gravestone in the Bicheno cemetery records that he 'Fought a tribe [my emphasis] of Aborigines singlehanded on the 14th December 1828.'
This curious painting and its precedent drawings tell small and particular, but compelling and actually rather important, Tasmanian truths. Through them, we can still track back through the tangle of power and culture and vanity and memory to that summer day at Milton Farm in 1828, and the fear, the shouting, the watching, the wind in the wheat, and the circle of blackness and death.