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Response to Review of Into the Heart of Tasmania: A Search for Human Antiquity

I would like to thank Tom Lawson for the time, thought and generosity of his review. How exciting to read that my book has made him ‘think long and hard about’ about the very essence of his own work! He asked: ‘what right do I have, ultimately, to impose a conceptual mechanism [genocide] around the past which the victims of that history themselves may reject?’ To answer: I think it is appropriate to frame Tasmanian colonisation as a history of genocide if it allows for recognition of the endurance of Tasmanian Aboriginal people and expands the focus of debate beyond Australia to consider the responsibility of past British governments. The Last Man achieved this, offering a very important intersection into a longer debate about genocide in Tasmania and Australia more widely.

While this response is sounding problematically like a review of Lawson’s work, I write this in order to bring to light the ways our two books mirror each other from each side of the world: Lawson’s history of Tasmanian Aboriginal genocide written from Britain, my history of Tasmanian Aboriginal endurance from Australia. One might except contradiction and opposition, but the reverse is true. Together the two books do what one book might struggle to achieve, making the opportunity for this conversation especially rewarding.

Equally rewarding is to receive a review from a British scholar. Lawson is able to see the connections between Westlake, Tasmania and Britain clearly, and not only at the broad level of science, Empire and collecting but in the seeds of the British youth movement in the Hampshire New Forest! Indeed, I was helped by Lawson’s work as I illustrated how the British public, and therefore Westlake, understood the Tasmanian Aborigines around the time of his departure. I originally had more material on the youth movement, but I think the British scholarship in that field is excellent, and my contribution in connecting Westlake’s Tasmanian work to his pioneering educational ideas is hopefully sufficient to bring to light what Lawson observes is the ‘connectedness’ of the past.

I do, however, have two minor points of correction. First, Ernest Westlake established the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry with his son, Aubrey in 1916, not the Woodcraft Folk. Second, Lawson’s comparison between Westlake and Rhys Jones deserves some examination foremost for the sake of Rhys Jones’ memory. It is true that Westlake did not look for an Aboriginal past in Tasmania, but it is not correct to state that ‘Jones, was not altogether interested in the Aboriginal past or present – but was concerned to indict the criminality of European colonialism’. Jones’s primary interest as the first professional archaeologist to work in Tasmania was to determine Aboriginal antiquity in Tasmania. Jones was also interested in the recent past. He mined colonial era texts to learn about traditional cultural practices and populations, and to this end he brought to life some important sources and offered a picture of traditional life that have been very useful to historians. But Jones did present a history of Tasmanian colonisation in Tom Haydon’s film The Last Tasmanian that not only equated extinction with genocide, but offered up an archaeological thesis that, over millennia of isolation, the Tasmanian Aborigines had slowly regressed. Viewers left the film thinking the Aborigines had been ‘doomed to die out anyway’. This astounded and offended the Tasmanian Aboriginal community who were striving for rights to land, ancestral remains and for recognition of their very existence. They called Jones ‘the FWC’ (‘the Fu**ing White C***’). Jones response was a mix of outrage and confusion. As he said to me: ‘I gave them their history!’ This is the context for the quote from p. 197, which is worth quoting in full: ‘As the emblematic “FWC”, Jones did not give Tasmanian Aboriginal people a history, he denied them a presence and a future’. There is some value to reiterating here the contrasting words of late Australian Archaeologist John Mulvaney, also quoted on p. 197: Jones ‘did more than any other non-indigenous person to demonstrate the antiquity, cultural significance and humanity’ of the Tasmanian Aborigines’ ancestors.

The relationships between archaeology, history, anthropology and Tasmanian Aboriginal communities has long been fraught and difficult, and no wonder. Their ancestors’ bodies have been stolen, their culture denigrated as being the world’s simplest, and their existence repeatedly denied. Lawson’s states my book brings to light the ‘sheer messiness’ of this history. His book does too, but hopefully we both do so in ways that also bring understanding and clarity to 21st century readers.