‘The long shadow of remembrance’: Remembering the debate about massacre in the Black War in Tasmania

Lyndall Ryan


The Black War in Tasmania 1823-1834, is widely accorded by historians as one of the best documented of all Australia’s colonial frontier wars. Yet debate still rages about whether massacre was its defining feature and whether it accounted for the deaths of many Aborigines. As Keith Windschuttle pointed out in 2002, this is an important debate because it reflects on the character of the Australian nation and the behaviour of its colonial forbears in seizing control of Aboriginal land.

To understand how the debate took shape and where it stands today, this paper reviews its origins in 1835 and then shows how it was played out over three historical periods: 1835- 1870; 1875-1939; and 1948-2008; by focussing on the key protagonists and how they used the available sources and methods and explanatory frameworks to make their case.

The paper finds that in the first period, the belief in widespread massacre dominated the debate, drawn from oral testimony from the victorious combatants. In the second period, the belief in massacre denial took hold, based on the doctrine of the self-exterminating Aborigine. In the third period however, the protagonists engaged in a fierce contest for control of the debate. One side argued for massacre denial, based on the belief that more settlers than Aborigines were killed in the Black War while the other argued for the opposite case, based on the belief that the evidence for massacre was now too overwhelming to be dismissed. The paper concludes that the massacre debate today is a microcosm of the wider debate about the impact of settler colonialism on indigenous peoples; and in particular about the humanity of the Tasmanian Aborigines as a hunter gatherer people. Above all it reflects the reluctance of many white Australians today, to come to terms with incontrovertible evidence about our violent past and to seek reconciliation with the Aboriginal survivors.


Tasmania; massacre; memory; historians; aborigines

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1344/co2009351-59


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