Terror Nullius: the tale of Tasmania

May 15, 2023
Close-up on a brick wall with the flag of Australian Aboriginal painted on it. Image: iStock

England invaded Australia in 1788, releasing a terror of death and dispossession on first nations’ peoples, particularly in Tasmania. Now 235 years later, Aboriginals, through the Statement from the Heart and the Constitutional Voice, say that it is time that this terror ceased.

SBS On Demand is showing an excellent drama series, ‘The War of the Worlds’. It is an update of HG Wells’ classic story from 1897 of the invasion and occupation of Earth by alien forces from Mars. A frightened earth is pitched against an advanced civilisation which can block human nervous systems en masse, destroying whole populations at whim. The show is gripping – as a viewer you are struck by hopelessness as our modern world, its electricity supplies, communications, transport and food delivery, all what we accept as normal and necessary, is entirely curtailed by the invading force. Let alone your despair at feeling being a rare survivor, watching events unfolding after the mass murder of most of your society, including your family.

What is remarkable about Wells’ story is not that he created an entirely hypothetical horror story, inventing popular science fiction. No, what is remarkable is that the germ of his idea was the English invasion of Australia and its effects on first nations’ peoples.

English writer Philip Ball tells of Wells’ account in his article ‘What The War of the Worlds means now. ‘He had been walking through the Surrey countryside with his brother Frank: “Suppose some beings from another planet were to drop out of the sky suddenly,” said he, “and begin laying about them here!” Perhaps we had been talking of the discovery of Tasmania by the Europeans – a very frightful disaster for the native Tasmanians! I forget. But that was the point of departure’.

Ball writes the aptness of Wells’ analogy could be easily missed by Empire builders and apologists of colonial violence who were blind to its horrors. But the self-criticism in Wells’ tale was understood by politicians such as Winston Churchill, who wrote and spoke frequently against mistreatment of colonial subjects by the British military. Speaking of British rule in Uganda in 1907, Churchill commented on how the British were “as remote from, and in all that constitutes fitness to direct, as superior to the Baganda [the country’s majority ethnic group] as Mr Wells’s Martians would have been to us.” Ball thought, ‘It is almost as if Churchill could suppose Martian governance would have been a good thing!’, like John Howard’s celebration of Australia’s settlement, while dismissing its effects on aboriginals as wearing ‘a black armband of history’.

Cassandra Pybus’ remarkable new book, ‘Truganini’, details the history of the terror imposed on Tasmania’s indigenous peoples by an invading scourge of English colonial governors, soldiers, police, land-grabbers, loggers, escaped convicts, sealers and official aboriginal protectors, a violent, murderous alien force, similar to Wells’ invocation in The War of the Worlds. Camping indigenous families were murdered at night, their exposed, decaying bones could be found all across Tasmania. Women were abducted as sex slaves, forced to toil for sealers, loggers and shepherds. The Van Diemen’s Land Company of aristocracy-linked London investors had native people across northern Tasmania destroyed, to stop molestation of their enormous sheep flocks. Genocide was practiced in Australia a century before Hitler conceived his fascist rampages in Europe.

The resistance and resilience of Tasmania’s first peoples was heroic, it is only when a poisonous gas from Europeans was released upon them – laced with germs causing influenza, measles, syphilis and other alien infections, that their fate was sealed. Truganini was a remarkable figure, resourceful under all challenges, but ultimately she was just a priceless skeleton, sold in death by government agents to London’s mercenary men of science for their macabre collections.

Now, there are our Coalition parties – their leader Peter Dutton is relegated to proving himself by having the Albanese government fail, if he can cause it. He believes that tricking Australia from endorsing a Constitutional Voice for first nations’ people will be a mighty political victory, which will seal the Coalition’s popularity.

Here, we are still enacting an essence of first Governor Phillip’s colonial policies. Australia’s ‘Justice and Welfare’ agencies continue to practice mass incarceration, dispossession, starvation, and even death in captivity of indigenous peoples, terrible unconscionable events that we still read of in today’s newspapers. Dutton’s mentor, John Howard had over 700 soldiers intervene before the 2007 election in some 73 NT indigenous communities, a trick to convey the libel of rampant sexual and physical abuse by Aboriginals on their own children to the Australian electorate.

Dutton’s opposition plan is sly, use the strident opponent of the Voice, Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, to present his No Case for him. Confuse Australians into believing the first nations do not want the Constitutional Voice at all. Senator Price also makes claims of frequent child sexual abuse in indigenous communities, tarnishing the morality of all aboriginals by implication, and presenting them as ‘other’. Not surprisingly, her local compatriots deny she represents them, or their true desire for a Yes vote for the Voice.

Senator Price seems unaware that if the vote for the Constitutional Voice is lost now, there is no chance that Labor, or the Coalition, will put her version of reality to a new referendum. Then the Aliens will have finally won our War of the Worlds, and the terrors inflicted on first nations peoples will be allowed to quietly continue.

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