An Encounter with the First People of Northern Van Diemen’s Land
A Particularistic Mindset
Ian Pattie, July 2021
When Lieutenant-Colonel William Paterson brought a group of white settlers – soldiers, convicts, and farmers – to Port Dalrymple, Van Diemen’s Land, the English were in a mindset of domination or mastery over other races.
Britain was the world’s naval power, the coming industrial power, the greatest empire builders and affectionately described amongst themselves as the chosen people and the Protestant Protectors.
They were the great slave traders, the continuing justifiers of slavery, the explorers, and indefatigable claimants of territory and in all egotistical senses, the masters, even though they had lost part of North America to a group of rebels disparagingly called Americans.
Despite this loss, they had, in Hegelian terms, a concept of Self as superior, and a concept of Others as inferior and, in order of inferiority there were other Protestants, Roman Catholics light-skinned coloured races and black races.
The extension of the Master – Other mindset was that even white convicts of British birth, must be masters of black aboriginal people, wherever they were.
The political, theological, and commercial mindset of the British Master created the disturbing thesis called Terra nullius, not only in Australia but also in North America.
The failure of the British to fulfill the Hegelian ‘Self and Other’ contract was not only an unjust imposition on the First Australians but a lost opportunity to discover how to live at ease in a new land.
Read More Understanding how First People’s viewed their world
On the 18th February 1802 the Botanist, Leschenault, of the French exploration expedition led by Nicholas Baudin while at Maria Island, came across a small mound with a tent like “wigwam” of bark over it.
Dutch, French, and British explorers set foot in Van Diemen’s Land from 1642 bringing with them a range of preconceptions and prejudices about what and who they might find.
Hunting by men was often one of a fortuitous meeting a quarry and resulted in a lack of success having to return to camp empty handed, but not to worry, the ever-reliable women filled the void with smaller fauna, possum and edible flora.
The Tasmanian Aborigines occupied their island home for at least 40,000 years but it is only the last 2,000 years that is considered here and only mainland Tasmania and offshore islands.
When William Collins sailed down the waterway now known as the Tamar, but which he called the Main Head in January 1804, he eventually reached and entered an Arm to the East, the North Esk, and wrote in his logbook1 that “the water is perfectly fresh and good”, it flowed over a flood plain and “the Soil on its banks is very good and there is a great extent of it.”
British settlements, based on the traditions of British farming and shipping, needed arable land and protected anchorages for long-term survival. Well-watered farmland was not to be found easily near the mouth of the Tamar, near York Town or George Town, where the best port facilities were available. In contrast, good port facilities were not to be found at the head of the Tamar where well-watered farmland was available.
When William Collins sailed down the waterway now known as the Tamar, in January 1804, he eventually reached and entered a river to the East, the North Esk, and wrote in his logbook.
It is tempting to apply modern terms like ‘sustainability’ to Indigenous practice however the key to understanding First People’s attachment to country is adequacy.
First Peoples did not expend energy on wasted accumulation but on a vast Estate that provided the needs of a robust population using minimal exertion. “It depended on preferring to reduce rather than increase material wants.”
Europeans have always had difficulty in grasping a concept of religion in Indigenous practice and even denied until the mid 20th century that you could apply the term ‘religion’ to Aboriginal practice – magic and sorcery but not ‘religion’.