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When Settlers Dream

A look back at the subjection of Tasmania shows that while Israel’s settler colonialism is brutal, it’s hardly without precedent.

Some weeks ago, Greg Shupak noted how the extremity of the violence unleashed during Operation Protective Edge led some to describe Israel’s actions as “irrational.”

They were wrong. A settler-colonial state, Israel’s existence depended first on the forced exodus of Palestinians and then the repeated destruction of their attempts at self-organization.

Israel isn’t unique in this respect. The so-called Black War between colonists and indigenous people in Eastern Tasmania offers another example, one that makes a productive (though obviously not exact) comparison with Gaza, both because it’s less well known to those in the Global North, but also because a raft of recent historiography has thrown fresh light on what settler colonization meant for the island the British originally called Van Diemen’s Land.

Nicholas Clements’ new book The Black War provides a definitive yet accessible account of the conflict. Clements chronicles the war in chapters that alternate between the perspective of the settlers and their indigenous opponents, a conceit, as he explains in the introduction, borrowed from The Palestine-Israeli Conflict: A Beginner’s Guide. It’s a particularly effective mode of exposition for settlement narratives because, rather than attempting to adjudicate between the differing claims of the combatants, it shows how both perspectives arise from the process of colonization itself.

When the Tasmanian landowner George Hobler organized a party of men to fire on a local tribe, he saw himself as responding to the unprovoked spearing of one of his servants. Likewise, when two Aborigines attacked sawyers at a farm near Ben Lomond in March 1831, they seem to have intended to rescue an indigenous girl living on the property. But the Black War cannot be understood as simply an accretion of these individual exchanges. Rather, we need to situate episodic clashes in their historical context: the establishment and maintenance of a settler colony that, by its nature, renders the life of indigenous people unbearable.

Think of the usual presentation of the recent Gaza incursion. The crisis began, we are told, with the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers. Of course, that’s an entirely arbitrary starting point. Why not say that it started the day before that, when an Israeli airstrike killed a Palestinian man and a ten-year-old? But that too would be inadequate. As Gabor Maté says, “There is no understanding Gaza out of context — Hamas rockets or unjustifiable terrorist attacks on civilians — and that context is the longest ongoing ethnic cleansing operation in the recent and present centuries, the ongoing attempt to destroy Palestinian nationhood.”

The conflict in Tasmania, like the conflict in Gaza, only makes sense as a totality.

With the condescension of posterity, it’s easy to dismiss the British colonists in Van Diemen’s Land as monsters, genocidal racists carrying out atrocities for reasons unfathomable to liberal-minded folk of the twenty-first century. Yet, precisely as Israeli officials explained the assault on Gaza as a defensive reaction to Hamas’ rockets, the Tasmanian settlers saw themselves as victims, driven to violence by the terror inflicted by the natives.

In December 1827, the land commissioner Roderic O’Connor wrote a personal letter to the government: “Can we live in a wilderness surrounded by wretches who watch every opportunity and who take delight in shedding our blood?” The next year, settlers near Swanport sent “a statement of the danger . . . of being ultimately exterminated by the black natives.”

To an outsider, the notion that the whites were in danger of extermination seems as perverse as the Western media’s portrayal as the Gaza conflict in terms of the supposed threat to Israel. But, rather like Israelis today, the colonists explicitly condemned the assessments of such outsiders, who, they said, could not grasp the reality of their situation. In 1830, a Clyde Valley settler explained:

We in the interior are in the most imminent daily danger of our lives and property — of having our houses and barns burnt about our ears in all directions, and our families butchered by these savages and are we to be smoothly informed how we are to act, and that, on the defensive, by a few comfortably seated Gentlemen in their well-furnished and well-protected houses?

Isaac Deutscher famously described Zionism through a parable about a man who jumped from a burning house only to injure the person he landed on below. The analogy accepts Israel’s self-presentation as av refuge from Nazism, a claim that historically simply isn’t true. But it’s less often recognized that Deutscher’s fable applies with equal force to other settler colonies. Many of those arriving in Van Diemen’s Land — the convicts, but also the soldiers — had no choice of their destination. Of course, from the perspective of the natives, the intentions of the settler colonizers scarcely matter.

In Tasmania, convicts and ex-convicts were responsible for much of the bloodletting, so that many of the respectable colonists were able to disavow any direct involvement in killing Aborigines. But the convicts, James Boyce concludes in his magisterial Van Diemen’s Land, “can never be charged with the same level of responsibility as those whose interests they served, and their scapegoating by both the government and the free settlers is too obviously self-serving to be taken as seriously as it often has been.”

After all, as the historian of genocide Patrick Wolfe puts it, settler states “typically seek to distance themselves from the activities of the ostensibly unofficial frontier mavericks on whose depredations they depend.” Think, for instance, of the Israeli government’s relationship to the right-wing settlers in the Occupied Territories, whose activities they both disavow and encourage.

The mainstream consensus about Israel-Palestine holds that peace must begin with the Palestinians accepting Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. But the Tasmanian example shows how, in fact, that very demand renders peace — or, at least, any kind of just peace — impossible.

Settler colonization, by definition, must deny the legitimacy of the native population. The settlement of Australia rested on the doctrine of terra nullius, which held the land to be legally empty — and Zionism, of course, depends on the same concept.

The Zionist slogan of “a land without a people for a people without a land” did not literally mean that Palestine lacked people, any more than the British settlers believed Van Diemen’s Land was empty. In both cases, the absence was not of people but rather “civilized people,” for, as Land Commissioner Roderic O’Connor explained in 1827, it would be “a disgrace . . . to the human race to call [indigenous people] men.”

The Australian founders saw the settlement of the colony as an established fact, with indigenous people relegated to the margins of society. But the Australian constitution still signaled (albeit in passing) the fundamental identity of the new nation with the discriminatory Section 127, which stipulated that “aboriginal natives” be excluded from official censuses. (In 1967, a referendum deleting that section passed with overwhelming public support, an event rightly considered a milestone in the struggle for indigenous rights.)

What would it mean, today, to insist that indigenous people accept Australia as a white or a Christian state? The very question sounds both absurd and offensive, precisely because explicitly chauvinist definitions of nationality are so discredited. That’s why Judah Magnes, the first Chancellor of Israel’s Hebrew University, opposed in 1942 the idea of a Jewish state because “the slogan ‘Jewish state’ (or commonwealth) is equivalent, in effect, to a declaration of war by the Jews on the Arabs.”

Likewise, when apologists claim that a state defined by the settler identity remains necessary to prevent a native massacre, they merely reveal how deep-seated the colonial mentality remains.

In the dying years of apartheid, some liberals opposed the attempts to break down the structures of the South African colonial regime, arguing the end of a racially defined state would mean the destruction of the white minority. William Safire, for instance, complained that “real political equality” entailed

. . . majority rule, and nonwhites are the overwhelming majority in South Africa. That means an end to white government as the Afrikaners have known it for three centuries; that means the same kind of black rule that exists elsewhere in Africa, and most white South Africans would rather remain the oppressors than become the oppressed.

Today, in the context of a multiracial South Africa, that position seems grotesque.

Let’s recall that, in Tasmania, though some of the colonists favored military action, the head of the settlement, Lieutenant Governor Arthur, was an early advocate of what today might be called a two-state solution.

In a January 1828, Arthur explained, “The measure which I rather incline to attempt, is to settle the Aborigines in some remote quarter of the island, which should be strictly reserved for them, and to supply them with food and clothing, and afford them protection . . . on condition of their confining themselves peaceably to certain limits.”

He gave this plan official status in a notice published a few months later entitled “Proclamation Separating the Aborigines from the White Inhabitants.” In other words, as Boyce says, “the goal of colonial government policy from April 1828 was thus to reach an agreement with the Aborigines on the division of Van Diemen’s Land.”

What were the results of Arthur’s efforts? The most immediate effect of the supposed partition of Van Diemen’s Land was the intensification of violence against those indigenous people unfortunate enough to be on the wrong part of the island. As Boyce writes, the proclamation “provided the first official sanction for the use of force against Aborigines for no other reason than that they were Aboriginal.”

In other words, it enabled settlers to ethnically cleanse the rest of the land, since, as Chief Justice Pedder put it at the time, “the object of this proclamation is their expulsion wherever they may appear in the settled districts and however harmlessly they may be conducting themselves.”

Moreover, official hopes in a negotiated settlement were largely abandoned by October 1828, with the colony’s executive council claiming that the Aborigines’ “treachery” and “lack of government” made them doubt “if any reliance could be placed upon any negotiations which might be entered into.” Had Mark Regev been present, he might have declared that, of course, the council wanted peace but it lacked a suitable partner.

Yet the war did, in fact, end with a two-state settlement, a result that was disastrous for the indigenous people.

George Augustus Robinson arrived in Hobart in 1826, where, as the Australian Dictionary of Biography explains, he became “secretary of the Seamen’s Friend and Bethel Union Society, joined the committee of the Auxiliary Bible Society, visited prisoners and the condemned in the gaol, and helped to found the Mechanics Institute.” When the government advertised for a “steady man of good character” to attempt a negotiation with the Aborigines, Robinson stepped forward.

Over the next years, Robinson, known as “the Conciliator,” embarked on a series of “Friendly Missions” to induce the Aborigines to cease fighting.

At first, most of the colonists reacted to him in the way the Likudists respond to Israeli peaceniks today. The Launceston Advertiser wrote: “Can it be that we are to thus suffer these people to destroy our Fellow Colonists, and is the Government to sit down supinely and view this destruction calmly and preach conciliation? No! rather let the sentence be extermination.”

The killing of Captain Bartholomew Thomas and James Parker by the Aborigines with whom they were seeking to negotiate fostered a hysterical clamor for reprisals. The Advertiser claimed the men were “victims of a mistaken faith in the sincerity of these blood-thirsty savages” and denounced the “barbarity of a race which no kindness can soften, and which nothing short of utter annihilation can subdue.” The Launceston Independent called for “retribution, deep and lasting, not only upon the perpetrators of the deeds, should they come within our power, but upon the whole race.”

Again, all very familiar. But Robinson did, much to the surprise of most of the colony, eventually convince the majority of indigenous people to accept resettlement on Flinders Island.

By 1830, indigenous society had been shattered. The population had been decimated while the number of whites grew by a thousand or more each year. The historian John West, writing within a few decades of the Black War, explained that the constant harassment by armed parties meant that “parents and children had been divided and families had been broken up in melancholy confusion: indeed, they had ceased to be tribes, and became what they were called — mobs of natives, composed often of hereditary enemies. Infanticide and distress, rapid flight, and all the casualties of a protracted conflict, threatened them with weedy destruction.”

Years later, Robinson himself noted in his diary that there was “not an aborigine on [the Flinders Island] settlement nor an aborigine that has been at the settlement but what bears marks of violence perpetrated upon by them by the depraved whites. Some have musket balls lodged in them . . . Some of the natives have slugs in their bodies and others contusions, all inflicted by whites.”

When he approached the surviving indigenous people, Robinson promised that if they accepted resettlement, their customs and culture would be respected; they would receive food, houses and blankets; and, most significantly, they would be able to return to their traditional lands once the violence had subsided.

It must have seemed like a decent offer — or at least the best one they would get.

Of course, none of the promises were kept. Whatever Robinson’s intentions, conciliation engendered less a homeland than a prison: as Charles Darwin noted during a visit in 1836, “the Aboriginal blacks are all removed & kept (in reality as prisoners) in a Promontory, the neck of which is guarded.”

The parallels with Palestine are not exact: partly because Israel confronts a demographic challenge not faced by colonists in Tasmania — where, from very early on, white settlers constituted a majority — and partly because, while the settlement in Tasmania was (at the time) relatively unimportant to the British, Israel plays a crucial role for the American empire.

Nonetheless, the similarities are instructive.

When, in 1847, forty-seven sick and elderly indigenous people petitioned to be allowed to leave Flinders Island, the settlers organized a petition to prevent them, explaining that those who hadn’t lived through the war could not appreciate what might happen when “uncivilised creatures with all their savage and bloodthirsty propensities are admitted [sic] to escape into the bush to perpetrate all sorts of depredations and atrocities.” The whites might have been paranoid, but they were not prepared to risk any manifestation of indigenous independence, which might have sparked further resistance.

Likewise, as Shupak says, Israel cannot allow an independent Palestinian state, because a successful expression of Palestinian nationalism represents a continuing threat to the project of an ethnically defined settler colony. Netanyahu has made that explicit, saying “that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan” — something that effectively rules out a sovereign Palestine.

Which is not to say that a two-state solution is entirely impossible. But if it takes place, it will be akin to Robinson’s “Conciliation”: the creation of a kind of guarded reserve, a Bantustan or blockaded open-air prison like Gaza rather than a nation exercising real sovereignty.

Or, put another way, the kind of state acceptable to the Israelis (and, for that matter, to the Americans) will be one to which the Palestinians will only agree if, like the indigenous Tasmanians in 1831, they’re convinced no other choice remains.

Hence the increasingly violent rhetoric coming out of Israel. Unlike the Tasmanian settlers, the Israeli authorities do not think they can get away with physically annihilating their enemies. They do, however, believe sustained violence can sufficiently cow the Palestinians so that they can be “conciliated,” induced to accept the twenty-first century of a Flinders Island reserve.

For Israel, this is both necessary and urgent, a response to the so-called demographic time bomb that will bring a Palestinian majority in “Greater Israel.” That’s Shupak’s point: the current crop of atrocities is neither an accident nor the result of ill-advised policies but a logical response by the Israeli regime to the situation in which it finds itself.

In the course of the Gaza incursion, Henry Siegman, former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, was moved to comment:

When one thinks that this is what is necessary for Israel to survive, that the Zionist dream is based on the repeated slaughter of innocents on a scale that we’re watching these days on television, that is really a profound, profound crisis — and should be a profound crisis in the thinking of all of us who were committed to the establishment of the state and to its success.

That crisis is necessary and long overdue. The Black War provides a chilling illustration of how settler colonialist dreams end.