The Memory of Genocide in Tasmania is a daunting, exhausting and devastating book that examines genocide and modernity and the attempt to desecrate Aboriginal culture in Tasmania. It looks at the delusions that have led generations of Tasmanians to consider that the palawa people were extinct and sharply interrogates how Tasmanians interpret the island and its myriad cultures.
The only thing this review can do though, is to skim the surface and to over-simplify the hard wrought arguments. This book, as a result of the dense academic language, is destined for a small readership. Despite that, it is an incredibly important book. It includes a consideration of Tasmania as a collective noun, a challenge to “imaginary imputations of islandness,’ and a thorough exploration of the theories of genocide. There are moments of deliciously acerbic turns of phrase and it is shot through with profoundly detailed analysis. It is often the most difficult books that afford us the most change.
Shipway questions why we believe we should have a history that we should feel good about, he names Tasmanians as having an “exorbitant frontier privilege,” an “unjustified belief in our own innocence,” and a “a schmaltzy fondness for cozy smallness”. There are close readings of Richard Flanagan’s novel Gould’s Book of Fish, which he slices through a Freudian filter, explaining how the novel echoes a move towards modernity. He challenges the notion of modernity as being endemic to larger, progressive cities and he closely examines the 1978 film, The Last Tasmanian. This is a film whose offense has rightly endured, as its conveys the archaic belief that there was no living aboriginal culture in Tasmania.
There is a rigorous intellectual debate around whether genocide occurred in Tasmania and much of this is around semantics and technical definitions. It is also the site of what appears to be an academic stoush, where Shipway takes on Henry Reynolds and Nicholas Clements and their interpretation of the history of this island and their claims that it was not genocide. While the extent of Reynold’s work is considered and lauded, there are some fairly acute barbs.
It is lamentable that we must have the conversations this book forces on us, though it is necessary. Tasmanians must face the past to move on, and face it with a fearless and honest desire to probe and question. I also lament that this book is so densely theoretical and at times, difficult to read, as it is seminal. While it may be an insult to the author, I sincerely hope he can bring these deeply considered and researched notions to a more general readership, with the same succulent writing that often shines through.
Tasmanians still have a long journey ahead in terms of true reconciliation, especially with the incumbent generations of leaders having grown up being fed misinformation by the education department, heirs to a lazy acceptance of the 18th century historians who presented the traditional owners as past, whereas the reality is they have been present on this island for around 2000 generations.
The Memory of genocide in Tasmania, 1803 – 2013,
Scars on the Archive
Scars on the Archive