Media Hasn’t Really Changed: Colonial Tasmania


I am currently reading The Vandemonian War by Nick Brodie. As always, when I learn more about Australia’s history involving the Indigenous peoples, I grow more and more disappointed with the shallow understanding that our education system throws at countless disinterested students. But I’ve written about that already, and there was a small point Brodie made about the press coverage that made me chuckle – rather cynically – at the parallels to today.

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum….” – Noam Chomsky.

This is a quote by Chomsky, an avid media critic, in reference to the propagandistic nature of the media in society. It is a sad indictment on the state of the “mainstream” media, which people nonchalantly refer to as “left and right”, whilst in reality their goals have remained consistent and conjoined for decades. I’m a few chapters into Brodie’s book, about the invasion of Tasmania (or Van Diemen’s Land, as it was known then) by British colonial forces, and while the idea of “left and right” doesn’t really apply in this context, Brodie does reference the differences in some papers’ stances.

Hobart Town Courier and Colonial Times are the two used in the example that reminded me of today’s media landscape. They are noted as “doves and hawks” respectively – a spectrum from “peaceful” all the way to essentially warlike destruction. I put quotations around the word peaceful as anyone who has read any history would understand that doves are usually just warmongers in nicer suits – Obama is the most obvious recent example, as a President.

Brodie writes:

“While the Hobart Town Courier hoped ‘that a subsidiary colony of these Aborigines, will be shortly formed in some convenient place or island’, the Colonial Times rather bluntly looked forward to the successfully ‘extirpation’ of the Aboriginal population of the interior.”

As Brodie succinctly comments, the approach of the papers is irrelevant given that the result of each is the same: “a landscape cleared of the tribes.” I obviously can’t comment on the exact political leanings of the papers in question, although one can’t expect much from colonial papers – quite pro-British and inherently racist, I imagine – but the parallel with today’s media is clear. Whether you believed in extermination or relocating, the debate is narrowed down to only options that result in the settler’s taking more control.

A rather striking parallel could possibly be made with Israel and Palestine, a colonial force (built up initially by the British) against the inhabitants of the land who were, and are, much less technologically advanced. Israeli crimes are either forgotten, warped, or excused in certain segments of the media, while Palestinian resistance – whether peaceful or violent – is always inextricably tied to Hamas and some militant conspiracy to destroy Israel. Hardly any context is given as to why those dirty Arabs might dare to think such vile thoughts, we just need a few more bombs…

Tasmania’s Indigenous population were often portrayed as violent in the media at the time, or at least “lesser” than the colonists. Accounts of various attacks were reported, and while there was the occasional concession that the settlers or the military may have acted “criminally”, the retaliatory actions undertaken by the Aborigines was never viewed in the wider context of colonisation, of their land being taken forcibly from them. Who are they to strike out as we claimed what was rightfully ours?

Thankfully, today we have much more access to the voices of the Palestinians in this parallel. The Aborigines of Van Diemen’s Land had no such voice, and so the spectrum of thought remained within the realm of expulsion in one form or another. That is the likely scenario even if the media was not involved, given the time period, but it undoubtedly had some sway over public opinion in the more urban areas, disconnected enough from the frontier to be beyond their daily scope.

I have yet to see a colonial voice that talks about the Aborigines as equal people, as opposed to racist rhetoric or paternal domination and superiority. Unless shown otherwise, I doubt there were any notable ones for quite a long time.


Liked this? Read Dark Emu: A Reflection

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