Tasmania's Black War

Privacy Level: Open (White)
Date: About 1825 to about 1832
Location: Van Diemen's Landmap
Surnames/tags: Indigenous_Australians Australia Van Diemen's Land
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Group of Natives of Tasmania, 1859 by Robert Dowling


The "Black War" - The Violent Conflict Between British Colonists and the Indigenous People of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania)


"We make no pompous display of Philanthropy. We say this unequivocally SELF DEFENCE IS THE FIRST LAW OF NATURE. THE GOVERNMENT MUST REMOVE THE NATIVES—IF NOT, THEY WILL BE HUNTED DOWN LIKE WILD BEASTS, AND DESTROYED!" – Colonial Times. (1826, December 1). Colonial Times and Tasmanian Advertiser (Hobart, Tas. : 1825 - 1827), p. 2. Capitalisation as published.

A New British Colony

The British colonisation of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) began around 1803. At this time, VDL was populated by a dynamic and probably growing society of indigenous people, who resisted the colonists' take-over from the beginning. [2]. The same land wanted by colonists for farming and grazing, principally to produce wheat and wool for export [3], supported the kangaroo and other wildlife hunted by the aboriginals, whose numbers were between 6,000 and 8,000[4]. The colonists did not seek any kind of treaty or agreement with them for use of their land.

The British transported shiploads of convicts to Van Diemen's Land to serve their sentences. As the number of colonists increased, so did the scale and frequency of conflicts. The indigenous people attacked with spears and clubs, setting fire to buildings in the hope of driving the intruders away. The colonists counter-attacked with muskets; the military also had small canons. Killing the natives was considered sport by some, a necessary defence by others.

A Shortage of Women

A significant part of the tensions between aboriginals and colonists was the shortage of women in the colony. In 1822, white men outnumbered white women six to one, or sixteen to one among convicts. Violent seizure and rape of native women by whites was distressingly common, as was seizure of children to be trained as servants (also in short supply). As well, a small number of willing relationships developed between settlers and aborigines, causing distress when the latter were ordered out of settled areas.

Governor Arthur

Governor George Arthur, on arrival in the colony in 1824, proclaimed that the indigenous people were under protection of British law and promised punishment for anyone who "wantonly detroy(ed)" them. But the number of attacks by natives doubled every year from 1825 to 1828, terrifying the settlers. Arthur declared Martial Law, setting a boundary line around the settled districts which the natives must not cross and made it legal for soldiers to shoot on sight any that were found in the settled districts. At the same time, Gov. Arthur planned to round up aboriginals and contain them on Tasmania's largest islands or on the Tasman Peninsula.


The more settlers moved onto their hunting grounds, the more difficult it was for Indigenous Tasmanians to find food, particularly kangaroo, which was their main source of protein. As well, they had a spiritual relationship to their traditional lands and they suffered from being away from them. Driven away from settled land, they found themselves intruders on the lands of other indigenous groups. Raiding the settler's livestock was often the only way to get meat. Homes were also raided for edibles, and vegetables taken from gardens. Some on the coast made arrangements with whalers and sealers, who promised to bring meat, or hand over guns or hunting dogs if the aboriginals would allow some of their women to go with the mariners. The women's ability to trap and skin small animals, forage for food, track and navigate by the stars and generally survive in the wild was invaluable to these sea hunters. (See WikiTree:Straitsmen and Straits Women).

The concentration of aboriginals in the remote areas, and the rising problem of hunger only made attacks on settlers in the north of Tasmania more frequent and determined. The former were desperate for food and for the colonists to go away. Settlers responded with mass slaughter, mowing down whole groups as they sat around their camps. While the settlers thought mass killings were justified, the death toll of aboriginals was much higher than that of white settlers; around 3 or 4 to 1.

The Black Line

In 1830 the official Aborigines Committee (made up of white men) seemed baffled that the natives had not perceived the "superiority" of the white colonists, or wanted to adopt their "civilisation". Further strategies were considered, including poisoning rations or inviting Maori from New Zealand to round the aboriginals up and take them away. In October 1830 Martial Law was extended to all of Van Diemen's Land and every able bodied male colonist was ordered to join a massive sweep of the main settled areas, forcing all the remaining indigenous people onto the Tasman Peninsula. 2,200 formed a line, moving south and east. Weather, terrain and poor management meant the Line had to be abandoned a few weeks later.

George Augustus Robinson

Meanwhile, a deeply religious man, G. A. Robinson, had his own plan to save the remainder of the Indigenous Tasmanians. He had spent time among the aboriginals and learned some of their language. Governor Arthur authorised him to make conciliatory efforts to persuade all of the remaining aboriginals, about 700, to surrender and be taken to islands in Bass Strait. Robinson recruited about 14 Indigenous people, including Bulrer, Mannalargenna, Tanlebonyer and Woretemoeteyenner and set out to tour Van Diemen's Land on a "friendly mission" to persuade the native inhabitants to choose survival over looming extermination. He intended to teach them Christianity and skills that would get them employment as servants and manual labourers, and promised them food and housing.

By 1835, about 300 natives had surrendered to Robinson, but by this time Aborigines all over VDL were dying from white man's diseases like influenza. This was the fate of many whom Robinson had sought to save. The settlements at Wybalenna on Flinders Island and at Oyster Cove are notorious in Tasmanian history as the places of incarceration of the last full-blooded Indigenous Tasmanians.


Fanny Cochrane Smith-149029 had been recognised as the last surviving full-blooded Tasmanian Aboriginal by the Tasmanian Government in 1889[5], before she died in 1905. She was born in the Wybalenna Aboriginal establishment on Flinders Island in 1834. This is still disputed by 'supporters' of Truganini-1, who was born on Bruny Island in 1812 and died in Hobart in 1876. No-one, it seems, took into consideration the many Palawa (Tasmanian Aboriginal Women) who had gone to distant parts with whalers and sealers, and not returned to Van Diemen's Land. One such was Truganini's sister, Makekerledede, known as Sal, who lived on Kangaroo Island and was still alive at the time of Truganini's death. [6]

Many descendants of the First Nations people of Van Diemen's Land survive today and are active in preserving their culture and languauge.


It wasn't until 2016 that The Tasmanian government amended the preamble to the Tasmanian Constitution Act to formally recognise Aboriginal people as "Tasmania's First People and the traditional and original owners of Tasmanian lands and waters"' [7], although the return of land had begun in 1995. The Tasmanian government was also the first State government to apologise, in August 1997 after the publication of the "Bringing Them Home" report published in April 1997 [8], which describes "The Stolen Generation", and is still the only Australian government to provide financial compensation [9]. The strength and unity of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC), founded in 1975, was a key factor, with Michael Mansell a leading figure from the beginning, who undoubtedly played a leading role in the successes achieved for the descendants of the First Peoples of Tasmania.


  1. Wikipedia - Black War - The Black War refers to the period of conflict between British colonists and Tasmanian Aborigines in the early nineteenth century
  2. (see Ryan, Lyndall, 2012, Kindle e-Book version, Location 903)
  3. (op cit, Location 202)
  4. (Ryan, Lyndall, Location 229)
  5. http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-fanny-cochrane-8466
  6. Taylor, Rebe, Unearthed: the Aboriginal Tasmanians of Kangaroo Island (Kent Town, 2002)
  7. (Korff, Jens, 2018, aboriginal-culture-essentials, p.104)
  8. (Korff, Jens, op cit, p.14)
  9. (Ryan, Lyndall, 2012, e-Book, location 5611)

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Cheers, Anne

posted by [Living Turner]