Canine Revolution: The Social and Environmental Impact of the Introduction of the Dog to Tasmania


Until 1803, the island of Tasmania was one of the rare places of human habitation where the dog was unknown. First introduced when British colonists established a penal settlement there, the dog not only completely transformed Aboriginal society but also greatly affected the emerging convict culture. The dog proved more important than guns for kangaroo hunting, allowing the Aboriginals (who soon possessed their own domesticates) to compete successfully with the Europeans in the hunting market. The hunting culture, in turn, greatly slowed down the process of agriculture development, giving rise to a colonial experience that was far different from the typical European pattern.

IN 1803, THE island of Van Diemen’s Land, known as Tasmania since 1856, was one of the few places of permanent human habitation where the dog was unknown. Rising sea levels permanently isolated the Tasmanian Aborigines from the Australian mainland around twelve thousand years ago so that Australia’s native dog, the dingo, which arrived some time after this, never reached the southern island. Dogs only came to Van Diemen’s Land when it was settled by the British as a penal outpost of New South Wales in 1803–1804. Of all the luggage brought by the invading Europeans, none was as significant as their canine companions. For two decades the dog was central to a rapid change in the way of life of both British and Aboriginal people. So productive were hunting dogs that the convict colonizers of Van Diemen’s Land abandoned most of the outward “advantages” of the industrial and agricultural revolutions to become semi-nomadic hunter-pastoralists. While intermittent conflict with Aborigines continued, this way of life facilitated two decades of shared land use, mediated by cross-cultural dog exchange. It was not until a few hundred wealthy free settlers were given exclusive private title over the best pasture-lands of Van Diemen’s Land during the 1820s that the British invasion became the brutal environmental and human conquest that is synonymous with Tasmanian history.


THE LONG ISOLATION of Tasmania before 1803 has been the subject of much interest to biologists, anthropologists, and historians. Jared Diamond has argued in Guns, Germs and Steel that Tasmania illustrates “in extreme form a conclusion of broad potential significance for world history…. A population of 4,000 was able to survive for 10,000 years, but with significant cultural losses and significant failures to invent, leaving it with a uniquely simplified material culture.” The comparative advantages conferred by domestic animals and farming are central to Diamond’s thesis, arguing (more recently) that “because domestication ultimately yields agents of conquest (for example, guns, germs, and steel)…. The peoples who through biographic luck first acquired domesticates acquired enormous advantages over other peoples and expanded.”[1] The Tasmanian Aborigines, almost uniquely on earth, had no domestic animals. Nor did they farm in the European sense.[2] To the extent that, as Alfred Crosby has argued, “the success of European imperialism has a biological, an ecological, component,” the British invasion of Van Diemen’s Land is, therefore, a template of European expansion in the New World.[3]

This conclusion is shared by influential environmental histories of Australia. Most have argued that the ecological tools of conquest were applied with particular brutality and explicit intent in Australia, not least in Van Diemen’s Land, because, to Europeans, the environment was incomprehensibly foreign. The standard assumption is that early settlers responded to environmental difference with vigorous attempts to tame and manage the land through the ruthless application of technology and the importation of the plants and animals of Britain.[4]

These themes are not unique to Australia. Thomas Dunlap argues in Nature and the English Diaspora, that “in the Nineteenth Century settlers made themselves at home on the land by making it like home. They used European plants and animals and the tools of industrial civilization—axes, rifles, plows, poisons and railroads—to transform the countryside with a speed and thoroughness never seen before and on a scale that will never be repeated.”[5]

Nevertheless, European response to Australia is frequently contrasted with the response to North America. William Lines has argued in Taming the Great South Land that, “in contrast to European preconceptions of North America, no antipodean invader ever entertained a sentimental vision of Australia as nature’s garden, a prelapsarian Eden—quite the opposite. To the British, Australia stood in need of redemption.”[6] For Tim Flannery, the difference between North America and Australia is that North America has an “almost unimaginable natural plenty, while the Australians found themselves facing adversity almost from the moment they entered the continent.”[7]

This difference is linked, in part, to the later settlement of Australia, meaning “that the full power of the industrial revolution, lacking any sense of ecology, was brought to bear on the land.”[8] Australian settlement is seen to have “advanced under the guidance of the modern outlook, a uniform way of thinking devoted to the simplification of life and thought and to the formulation of efficacious techniques for the conquest of nature.”[9]

Some balance has recently been restored in scholarship on the early settlers’ response to Australia, although much work remains to be done to locate differences across class and geographic regions.[10] The focus on articulated conservation concerns has meant that the experiences of the poor, what Karl Jacoby termed the “moral ecology… a vision of nature from the ‘bottom up,'” has remained hidden.[11] Regional differences are equally neglected. While Van Diemen’s Land (or any other Australian region) cannot be studied except in the context of Australian and imperial history, it is a unique environment that has been populated for at least thirty thousand years by a distinct people. Detailed study of one feature central to this difference—the late arrival of dogs, highlights the complexity and difficulty of applying universal themes in a local context.


THERE IS NO doubt that British immigrants of all backgrounds found it very difficult to obtain food in the country around Sydney for many years after first settlement in 1788. Arthur Phillip, the first governor of New South Wales, wrote that “perhaps no country in the world affords less assistance to first settlers.”[12] One senior officer believed that “all that is contiguous to us is so bare and forbidding that it can in truth be said, here nature is reversed.” By 1790, the surgeon reported that “much cannot now be done, limited in food and reduced as the people are, who have not had one ounce of fresh animal food since first in the country; a country and place so forbidding and so hateful as only to merit execration and curses.”[13] David Collins, later to be lieutenant governor of Van Diemen’s Land, left a detailed account of the “great despair” that led to 450 deaths in 1792 alone and necessitated a partial evacuation to Norfolk Island.[14]

As late as 1803, when Van Diemen’s Land was first settled, hunting, fishing, and farming proved difficult in New South Wales and settlers remained reliant on imported food. The bush was a dangerous place, with longer sojourns (except for those of a few bushrangers who formed connections with Aborigines) run like military expeditions.

The British experience in Van Diemen’s Land was, however, dramatically different. Tasmania is a well-watered island about the size of Ireland, with a temperate climate. In 1803, grasslands largely clear of trees and rivers with fertile flood plains were adjacent to the estuaries and ports of first settlement. The island therefore provided more familiar conditions for pioneer settlement for the pastoral people of Britain than, arguably, any other locale in the New World. Certainly, the differences were far less significant than what the English confronted in the forested country of the Atlantic seaboard of North America.

Given the island’s geographical advantages and the virtual absence of any native predators, it is not surprising that sheep and cattle soon did very well in Van Diemen’s Land. By 1817, Van Diemen’s Land had nearly 200,000 sheep (bred for meat not wool), double that of New South Wales. Cattle, by then self-sufficient wild animals that were rounded up at the most once a year, were geographically dispersed over vast areas of the island. Domestic demand for wheat was met by about 1810, and recurrent shortages in neighboring New South Wales were eased by supplies from Van Deimen’s Land from around 1815. Nevertheless, the ease of farming was not the main comparative advantage experienced by the first settlers of Van Diemen’s Land. What primarily shaped British settlement, and changed the British themselves, was neither domesticated herbivores nor agriculture, but the dog.

Van Diemen’s Land was settled both in the south along the Derwent River (Hobart Town) and in the north (Port Dalrymple) during 1803–1804. All parties had British hunting dogs with them because the limitations of inaccurate guns in killing the wary and generally nocturnal Australian animals were, by then, well-known from New South Wales experience.[15] Kangaroos and wallabies were notoriously difficult to shoot: “so watchful is that gentle, inoffensive creature,” it was reported, ” that it is almost impossible to get within gun-shot of it.”[16]

The British response, presumably on the basis both of observation of Aboriginal hunting methods and their own cultural legacy, had been to import hunting dogs. They were fortunate indeed that colonization had proceeded in the last days of the widespread use of these animals in the British Isles.[17] Various large hunting dogs, used mainly at this time to kill deer, were employed, including the Deerhound, the Irish Wolfhound, the Irish Greyhound, the Highland Deerhound, and the Scottish Greyhound.

British hunting dogs found Australian animals to be formidable prey. Killing a full grown kangaroo or emu by the neck was difficult and dangerous. Speed was essential, which led to the wolfhounds being crossed with greyhounds. One Van Diemen’s Land immigrant reported on the outcome of such breeding: “the dogs used here to hunt the kangaroo have the shape and general character of the greyhound, but are very much larger in size, and coarser all together, uniting great strength with speed.”[18]

Even with such genetic refinement, until the mid-nineteenth century, hunting on the Australian mainland remained challenging. Eric Rolls has argued that few kangaroos were killed because the dingo and the Aborigines kept the number of these animals comparatively low.[19] The other reason is that, since the native animals had long adapted to the dingo, the British achieved little or no comparative advantage by introducing new canine breeds. The difficulties of hunting, even with dogs, was shown by the experience of a settlement party, led by David Collins, at Port Phillip, on the southern coast of mainland Australia (near present day Melbourne) in 1803. Collins reported that he had been “much disappointed in my hope of saving the salt provisions by the issuing of fish and kangaroo occasionally.” With no vegetables, fruit, or fresh meat, scurvy remained rampant.[20] There were never fewer than thirty people under medical treatment, and eighteen people died before Collins decided in early 1804 to evacuate to the recently established British settlement in Van Diemen’s Land.[21]

Arriving at the Derwent River, the mainland evacuees obtained abundant fresh meat immediately. The first reason for this was the geography. Risdon Cove had been chosen as the site of the first permanent British settlement on the island in September 1803 because of what were described as the “extensive valleys laying at the back of it.” The commanding officer described the area as “more like a nobleman’s park in England than an uncultivated country… very little trouble might clear every valley I have seen in a month.”[22] Risdon and its environs were open country, described today as grassy woodlands. Although Collins soon moved the settlement to the western shore of the Derwent River, the site of present-day Hobart, where there was a more reliable water supply, native pastures remained easily accessible. The British were to experience nothing comparable in New South Wales until the crossing of the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney in 1813. Control of the country discovered there was soon sought for the grazing of sheep and cattle by a small elite. But the major advantage of settling near native grasslands in Van Diemen’s Land had more to do with kangaroo and emu than domestic animals. This country abounded in game, especially the Forester or Eastern Grey kangaroo (Macropus giganteus), the larger Bennett’s or Red-necked wallaby (Macropus rufogriseus) and the distinctive Tasmanian emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae diemenensis). The Sydney Gazette noted in its first report on “that settlement which the Commandant has named Hobart,” on October 16, 1803 that “close to the settlement are abundance of Emues, large kangaroos, and Swans.”[23] One of the convicts (as the prisoners who had been sentenced to transportation were termed) recalled “there were hundreds and hundreds of kangaroo about Risdon then.”[24] An officer wrote on arriving at the Derwent that “the woods abound with kangaroos and emus” and that “six or seven kangaroos have been killed in a forenoon with greyhounds by the surgeon at Risdon Cove.”[25]

The second reason hunting dogs were so successful in Van Diemen’s Land is that the dingo’s absence from the island meant that the herbivores of the grassland plains quickly succumbed to the powerful, and unfamiliar new predator. The dogs’ speed distinguished them from the largest native carnivore, the thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger, which relied on endurance to hunt down a faster foe: In open country dogs almost immediately killed in vastly greater numbers than was possible on the mainland, although they were less effective hunters than their marsupial competitor in more rugged terrain.

The rich hunting grounds surrounding the infant settlement were not a wilderness. They had been created and maintained by regular seasonal burning by Aborigines. The first kangaroo reported killed after Collins’s arrival reminded the new settlers that this was not an “empty” land.[26] The Sydney Gazette reported that the governor’s gamekeeper, Henry Hacking, and the “Sydney native” who “attended him” had successfully hunted a kangaroo only to be confronted by Aborigines who “made use of every policy to wheedle Hacking out of his booty… Although they treated him with much affability and politeness, yet they regarded his competition with jealousy and indignation.”[27]

Most of the civil and military officers administering the new penal settlement soon had one or more hunting dogs. The dog owned by the chaplain and diarist, Robert Knopwood, secured his first kangaroo on March 13, and on March 26 it caught six young emus. By April, Knopwood was eating kangaroo regularly. The meat was considered excellent. One convict thought that kangaroo flesh was “equal in quality to most foreign—not English—roast beef.”[28] Kangaroo was compared to venison more often.

Control of this food source was recognized as essential for ensuring social control. The native animals of the new land were, as in England, assumed to be “game” that was “owned” by the Crown. English laws restricted hunting to those with an annual income of one hundred pounds from a freehold estate, and a modified expression of this principle seems to have been carried to Van Diemen’s Land, where only the civil and military officers and their designated “gamekeepers” were permitted to hunt.[29] While convicts could obtain fresh meat, it was to be earned, not freely taken. One officer wrote in August 1804 how he was building a little place at a farm “about a mile from the town which I build myself by employing workmen (convicts) after the Government hours and paying them in salt or fresh provisions which I easily do at no cost to myself, in kanguroo flesh, having a couple of dogs that catch me one or two from 30 to 60lbs. weight five or six times a week.”[30]

After the flurry of settlement activity during 1803–1804, Van Diemen’s Land was largely forgotten by its imperial masters in London. The resumption of the French Wars in 1804 following the short interregnum associated with the Treaty of Amiens meant that no supply ships were sent to the new colony. Sydney also had little food to spare. The lack of imported supplies meant that for the officer class and for convicts who could work, kangaroo, as well as swan, shellfish, and other indigenous foods, formed an ever-increasing part of the diet. Scale fishing, alone, disappointed. This traditional British pastime yielded such poor results for the energy expended that the vast majority of the population followed the example of the Aborigines and abandoned it.[31] Fortunately for the colonists, hunting had become so reliable that by September 20, 1804, Knopwood described it as “bad luck” when only one kangaroo was caught by his hunters.

The impact of the abundant fresh food was a rapid improvement in health. One convict wrote that “our health has been continued beyond calculation… it’s being so contrary a life to that which we have been used to, that I am—as must anyone be—astonished at it.” He noted that his boy “grows, is fat and more healthy than when he left England.”[32]

Collins faced a policy dilemma, however, in relation to those who remained ill and who therefore had access only to the poor quality salted foods that comprised the official ration. The medical returns for November 1804 show that twenty-one people still had scurvy and that between July 1804 and the end of the year, eighteen died.[33]

To avoid further deaths, Collins made what proved to be a momentous policy decision on September 10, 1804. The lieutenant governor ordered the first purchase of kangaroo meat by the government for the benefit of patients in the hospital. This measure had an immediate impact, and on September 27 Collins advised that “the Scorbutic patients… have considerably benefited by the fresh animal food” and requested “that all those gentleman who have dogs will exert themselves in procuring an ample supply of kangaroo for the hospital.”[34]

Collins probably understood that there were dangers in creating an ongoing cash market for kangaroo and advised on December 27 that with the “number of patients at general… so reduced… fresh animal food is no longer required.”[35] Scurvy had, in fact, been comprehensively beaten and was unknown in Van Diemen’s Land during the next twenty years. Such was the remarkable impact of the heath revolution associated with the ready availability of fresh meat that the most detailed study of this period has concluded that there were only six British deaths in the following three years and none were caused by poor nutrition.[36]

At the British settlement in the north of Van Diemen’s Land, hunting success was not so immediate. Two months after the establishment of a settlement at Port Dalrymple by William Paterson in November 1804, the commandant wrote that “although the kangaroos are here in numbers, there has not been more than four large ones killed; and the smaller sort is hardly worth the expense of keeping a dog.”[37] But this changed quickly after the settlement was moved to what Paterson described as an “immense tract of one of the most beautiful countries of the world.”[38] The land extended “on both sides into considerable plains without a tree, and in many places farther than the eye can reach.”[39]

So successful was hunting with dogs in these environs that many colonists abandoned their early attempts at farming. In late 1805 Paterson wrote to Governor King in Sydney that “I am sorry to observe that such a spirit of buying and selling dogs exists, and hunting kangaroos, if a stop is not soon put to it, it will in the end be the cause of much idleness, and consequently the neglect of cultivation.”[40]

King, concerned to preserve limited salted supplies, dismissed these concerns and ordered that kangaroo be issued in the government ration (which virtually every member of the settlement was entitled to), suggesting it be purchased only from “individuals who have leisure to hunt that animal.”[41] But the prospect of the officers doing their own hunting on Aboriginal territory rather than sending convicts servants to do it for them or purchasing it cheaply off men living in the bush for profitable resale was unlikely.[42] Convicts were prepared to risk danger for freedom. The more privileged, however, usually stayed closer to home.

From July 1805, with imported supplies virtually exhausted, Collins also purchased kangaroo for use in the government ration. An officer’s letter home in October that year provides a vivid description of how essential this was to British survival in the period before farming had become established:
We have lately and are now almost in a state of starvation having been on the allowance of 4 lb bread, 2 lb of pork per man per week, owing to not having had any supplies from Sydney, but as we have such abundance of Kanguroo here we can never want—from two to three thousand [lbs] weight a week having been turned into the store … I have a pack of Kanguroo dogs as good as any in the whole country—namely Lagger, Weasel, Lion, Boatswain, Brindle etc etc—& with those dogs I scarcely ever go out or send out (for I have two huntsmen) but get three, four, five or sometimes eight kanguroos in a day or two… Sometimes we get emus, a large bird (species of the ostrich) which are hunted in the same manner as kanguroo and make a worse resistance. They frequently weigh 80 or 90 lb and run (for they cannot fly) amazingly swift, so that only the swiftest greyhound can get up with them— They are much coarser food than the kanguroo, which when young, is nearly as good as venison—it only wants fat.[43]

Kangaroos supplied more than food. Their skin was tanned using the bark of the blue gum and the black wattle. By the end of 1804, Collin had issued a pair of shoes, locally made with kangaroo hide, to every prisoner. The visiting American sealer, Amaso Delano, believed it made the “handsomest leather for boots and shoes that can be found and is durable.”[44] For emergency bush travel, moccasins, modeled on Aboriginal footwear, were made. Clothing and rugs also were made from kangaroo. And within a few years, as a result both of the shortages and the inadequacy of imported clothing (the poorly made cotton clothes issued to convicts were particularly ineffectual, and dangerous when wet), warm, water-resistant, jackets, trousers, caps, and rugs made from kangaroo fur provided the main garb for the majority of the population.

The significant internal and reliable market of the government store, combined with intermittent demand from visiting South Sea whalers, meant that significant profits were made through dog ownership. Even Knopwood more than doubled his annual income in 1805 through sales to the government of kangaroo and emu. One military officer, Edward Lord, was to become by far the richest man in Van Diemen’s Land thanks to the kangaroo, and the dog.

The officer’s monopolistic claims over the right to hunt kangaroo were soon contested. Dogs were too easily stolen and bred too fast to remain a restricted possession for long. As early as March 24, 1805, Knopwood was “fearful that my kangaroo dogs should be taken away. It was the intention to rob me of my dogs.” After discussing with Collins the fact that there was no kangaroo in the store in October 1805, Knopwood observed that “it is generally believed that the prisoners which are in the bush had taken many of the gentleman’s dogs.” Knopwood’s own dog was stolen on December 6, by “one of the bushrangers.” On December 15 Knopwood’s assigned convict-hunters were again sent after the stolen dog Miss, as were those of the surgeon, who had also had a dog “taken from him by the bushrangers.”

Freedom, not profit, was the main motivation for canine theft. By possessing a dog, the convicts could live independently in the bush away from the discipline and deference of servitude. On June 18, 1805, Knopwood recorded the return of the first convicts to successfully live in what he described as the “the bush” for more than a short sojourn. By November 1806, bushrangers were living beyond the settlements even through the cold and wet winter months.

Bushranging soon became a preferred way of life for many convicts. One of the officers told a British Government Commission of Inquiry, conducted by John Thomas Bigge in 1820, that “it originated from a practice that prevailed as far back as the time of Governor Collins, who, when provisions were not to be had, allowed the convicts to repair into the country and hunt for the kangaroo… By this means they got habits of wandering and obtaining subsistence. No outrages were committed by these men, but still the government could not call them in.”[45]

The association of the bush with freedom was a dramatic, if unrecognized, moment in Australian colonization, and it was a freedom based on the dog, not the gun. Collins had only been stating the facts when, at Port Phillip, he had pointed out that the armed runaways “must soon return or perish by famine.” Even in the first year in Van Diemen’s Land, the five prisoners that, “got off into the woods” with muskets and gunpowder, surrendered quickly.[46] Without dogs, the bush was a place of likely death. But with dogs, the open grassy woodlands of Van Diemen’s Land had, within two years of settlement, become a place of refuge. With no man-made walls to keep the few hundred prisoners contained (there was not a secure jail on Van Diemen’s Land until the early 1820s), many convicts simply wandered off to live a life of quiet freedom in the bush well away from the subservience, labor, and harsh punishments associated with servitude in a penal colony. With what seems extraordinary speed, a motley collection of British criminals had made the bush home.

In 1806 another change as important as the sharing of dog ownership became evident. The kangaroo available within a day’s walk of both settlements had been greatly reduced through over-hunting. On October 11, Knopwood visited Collins and reported that “he complained very much for the loss of kangaroo, none being in the store.” Paterson reported to London that “such was the slaughter of kangaroo necessary… to preserve the lives of the people” that kangaroo “were daily driven to… increasing distances from our camps.”[47]

The situation was serious. The progressive evacuation of almost the whole population of Norfolk Island ex-convicts and their descendents to Van Diemen’s Land from November 1805 more than doubled the numbers to be fed. Almost all of these immigrants were dependent on the government ration.[48] Yet domestic animals and agriculture were, as yet, making only a small contribution to total food needs while imported supplies remained precarious. 37
To maintain food supplies, Collins and Paterson had no option but to encourage convicts to hunt in remote territory far from official control. In April 1807, after Port Dalrymple had existed for some time “on the precarious chance of the chase,” Paterson notified his imperial masters of the social consequences of sending no supply ships to Van Diemen’s Land: “Kangaroo was the only food they depended on. In consequence labour stood still, and the inhabitants became a set of wood-rangers; and I much fear it will be some time before they are brought to the industrious habits which an infant settlement requires.”[49]

Collins and Paterson were not able to police the increasingly remote territory visited by kangaroo-hunters. The British military were, in numbers and training, up to their task of supervising convicts within the boundaries of settlement. But beyond this restricted task and range, the troops were largely irrelevant and were to remain so for many years. Securing meat from remote hunting grounds required convict–hunters to negotiate land access for themselves—in the context of serious white and black threats to imperial pretensions.

Bushrangers presented the most immediate threat to the supply of kangaroo. The high purchase and replacement cost of a hunting dog meant that the economics of kangaroo hunting increasingly required deals to be done with bushrangers to ensure that game was had and that dogs were protected.[50] The basis of the negotiations between the bushrangers and the convict game keepers of the officer-elite was that the officers could offer access to the one large cash market, the Government Store, while the bushrangers offered protection, land access, and a guaranteed meat supply. The officers (or convict hunters working on their behalf) who purchased or hunted kangaroo with bushranger sanction then became direct beneficiaries of the new order through the elimination of less savvy or corruptible competitors. They shared the benefits of the price increases caused by the reduction in supply. No direct proof of such negotiations exists, but there is little doubt that the increasing concentration of supply and profit in the hands of only a few officers reflected such arrangements. Men like Edward Lord became rich, while others, like Knopwood, soon stopped supplying meat to the government store entirely.

This deal making was the foundation of Van Diemen’s Land kangaroo economy. In September 1807 Collins advised he was “determined to punish in the most rigorous manner any prisoner, officer, servant or otherwise, who shall be known to procure kangaroo or emu from any of those miscreants now at large in the woods, or from any employed in hunting, or who shall supply the above with provisions.”[51] But the convicts who were living for extended periods in the bush, hunting kangaroo with official sanction, were in contact with bushrangers, and the incentives for private arrangements were great. While the authorities depended on convict hunters accessing hunting grounds well beyond official control, there was little that Collins could do to control sources of supply.

Aborigines were the other threat to the authorities’ control over the increasingly remote food source of the colony. Aborigines had attempted to remove kangaroo from British hunters from at least March 1804, when Collins’s gamekeeper was challenged to share the bounty of his first kill. Such comparatively peaceful actions continued, but as the unauthorized British plunder escalated, so did the Aboriginal response. The threat posed by the Aborigines became serious from mid-1806, directly corresponding with the expansion into Aboriginal hunting grounds distant from the British settlements. In the context of gaps and omissions from official documents, no local newspapers, and few surviving letters, it is again the diary of the colonial chaplain that provides the best record of the conflict.

Knopwood reported that a hunter was speared on June 16, 1806, two dogs were killed, and the hunter’s kangaroos were taken. On December 27, 1806, the chaplain reported that three prisoners returned from five months in the bush after “the natives took from them nine kangaroos while they were hunting.” On February 14, 1807, a kangaroo hunter was killed by Aborigines in a manner that appears to have been a formal punishment. The Aborigines first took him some distance from his hut “and one of the party throwd (sic) a spear at him.” In turn he shot one Aborigine. Four days later the Aborigines remained “very troublesome to the men out a-kangarooing” and later in February another hunter was speared. Knopwood’s men retaliated and on March 2 killed two Aborigines, because “the natives have been very troublesome for a long time but not so desperate as lately.”

The fighting continued through the autumn of 1807. On May 19, Knopwood’s gamekeeper reported that he and the chaplain’s dogs had nearly been killed and, after a battle, the “Governor’s people … killed one of the natives. The natives killed one of the dogs.” The situation was so precarious because the Aborigines had lost their fear of guns. “It is very dangerous to be out alone for fear of them,” Knopwood reflected, “they are so hardened they do not mind being shot at.”[52]

The conflict with Aborigines represented a significant challenge to the British given their dependence on kangaroo from comparatively remote regions and their incapacity to conquer this territory by force. The musket could only deter those Aborigines still unfamiliar with its limitations and the underlying ability of the Aborigines in bush warfare was well demonstrated over subsequent decades. The isolated white hunters, still learning their bush-craft, would have been no match for the Aborigines in any ongoing conflict. While some in the more deranged end of the bushranger spectrum (and the brutal backgrounds of many convicts meant that there were always some of these) undoubtedly attacked Aborigines indiscriminately, most who did so probably suffered the fate of William Russell and George Getley who, according to contemporary testimony, “ill used the blacks,” before being killed by them.[53]

Despite the inadequacy of British arms to achieve ongoing access to Aboriginal hunting grounds, the supply of kangaroo increased and prices fell. By 1810, the price paid in the northern and southern settlements had dropped from eighteen pence to four pence a pound, even though demand had significantly increased because of population growth. Moreover, to supply the quantity of fresh meat and skins sought, white hunters by this time accessed almost all the main Aboriginal hunting grounds of the island, including all of the Midlands region, which stretched 120 miles from the northern to the southern settlement. Yet, while intermittent conflict continued, the decade from 1808 to 1818 was generally peaceful and saw fewer deaths from violence than the years before and after. Indeed, many British hunters abandoned guns completely during this period.[54] How was this ample supply of kangaroo, and the land access necessary to guarantee it, achieved?

One possibility is, as seems to have occurred in some parts of mainland Australia, that the pasture-lands were emptied by disease. But no direct evidence supports this hypothesis and sufficient recorded observations of large groups of Aborigines, comprising a full demographic, including the infants and elderly, suggest that before 1820, Aboriginal deaths from disease were limited.[55] The question remains, therefore, why didn’t the white hunters continue to be punished, or at least have their meat confiscated by the indigenous owners, as had occurred from 1805 to 1808?


PERHAPS IT WAS again the dog, so enthusiastically embraced by the Aborigines, that explains the largely peaceful access to Aboriginal hunting grounds most bushrangers and convicts achieved. The implications of the dog’s previous absence of the island may have been much more profound than unparalleled British hunting success. It provided Van Diemonian Britons with a second major advantage over their mainland Australian contemporaries, possession of a product actively sought by the Aborigines. Aborigines used other British goods, including sugar, tea, tobacco, flour, blankets, and even potatoes as they became available. By the early 1820s, there is evidence from the second wave of British settlement—the post Napoleonic War immigrants who were given free grants of land in proportion to the capital they possessed—that Aborigines believed they had an established right to receive such products from those living on their country. But in the early years the supply of these products was limited and their appreciation by Aborigines not obvious. Dogs, however, were another matter. While the dogs commonly still were being speared in 1807–1808, they quickly became the main method of hunting used by Aborigines living in the grassy woodland regions, and they proliferated. Some dogs were stolen, but it is likely that as numbers built up, puppies and even adult dogs would have been readily given up in return for peaceful relations and land access. Dogs certainly seem to have “entered the traditional exchange systems,” their adoption by Aborigines so rapid that “the process would seem to have been instantaneous.”[56] Dogs are, therefore, the most likely catalyst among Aborigines for land-access arrangements with the British, although over time other desired goods may have become more important.

By the 1820s, many Aborigines actually had, through trade and breeding, accrued surplus dogs. The Big River people, for example, entered Hobart Town to meet with Governor Arthur in 1831 with over one hundred dogs—about four for each person. That sort of human/canine proportion was common in the East Coast and Midlands. It is not surprising that by this time steps were being taken to restrict breeding.[57]

Even on the rugged west coast, where large hunting dogs were of little use and were a novel sight to Aborigines as late as 1819, dogs were adopted during the 1820s.[58] The government emissary to Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson, reported in 1829 that smaller dogs were being used to flush out and kill game. Robinson later reported that dogs were being specifically bred for the different environmental conditions of this part of Van Diemen’s Land.[59]

The documented role of dogs in the political negotiations conducted through Robinson in 1832 may be a demonstration of what occurred in woody grassland regions a generation before. Robinson, who was ever careful with his purse, spent four pounds buying three dogs to cement a new relationship with the Aborigines. Dogs were also invariably allowed to accompany their owners to Flinders Island. During Robinson’s final expedition in 1834, when his well-remunerated work of removing Aborigines from the main island of Tasmania had been almost completed, the last recorded dog-claim on the British is documented. One unnamed Aboriginal woman traveling with the emissary asked a white settler “for a dog. On his refusing she sharply told him, ‘what he took her country for?'”[60] The answer is not recorded, but the question echoes in Tasmania to the present.

The adoption of the dog by Aborigines was not only functional. Dogs were individually owned and the ties enduring. In the devastation wreaked on Aboriginal families and communities by the British invasion, especially during the widespread fighting after 1824, dogs provided a source of emotional comfort. Robinson documents the joy of reunification with animals believed lost, and the despair when dogs were willfully killed.[61]

It was not only Aboriginal culture that was changed by the introduction of the dog into Van Diemen’s Land. The cultural impact on the British of living an isolated bush life in Aboriginal territory with their canine companions were equally profound.

By 1810, two quite distinct ways of life had emerged among British immigrants to Van Diemen’s Land. The first, still essentially English, was confined to a small area around the two white settlements under the control of the British authorities. The second was in the vast grassy woodland regions that were still part of Aboriginal Tasmania. Here white vagabonds—stockmen, itinerant hunters, and bushrangers lived. These convict and ex-convict bushmen were distinctive in their clothing (based on native animal skins), food (largely fresh meat, supplemented by flour and tea) and shelter (ranging from temporary bark constructions to somewhat longer-term huts made with split logs).[62]

Dogs remained the key to the bushrangers’s freedom, ensuring food, a source of cash, and warmth, and the capacity to obtain all these on the move. The most powerful bushranger to ever roam Van Diemen’s Land, Michael Howe, was reported to have been loyal to only two objectives, and well chosen they were: his Aboriginal partner, Black Mary, and his kangaroo dog, Bosun.[63]

Understandably, the authorities attempted to undermine the economic foundation of this alternative and threatening way of life as soon as they had other supplies of food. By 1813, cattle numbers had increased to a sufficient level for Governor Macquarie in Sydney to order the new lieutenant governor of Van Diemen’s Land, Thomas Davey, to end the purchase of kangaroo meat for the government store, explicitly as an anti-bushranging policy. Davey, on his own initiative, went further, trying to ban the ownership of kangaroo dogs and the sale of skins. However, such measures had little impact. The semi-wild cattle and even the tough sheep breeds were soon integrated into the kangaroo economy. With no significant natural predators, these animals bred rapidly with little supervision or management. Shepherds and stock keepers both continued to have kangaroo dogs and to spend much of their time hunting, although skins supplanted fresh meat as the main trading item.

The new lieutenant governor, William Sorell, in his Christmas Day message for 1819, asked “owners of stock” to “limit or to get rid entirely of the dogs, which are now generally kept at the interior stockyards and which induce the men to employ almost all of their time in hunting.”[64] Commissioner Bigge was told in 1820 that Van Diemonian stockmen and shepherds “derive subsistence from killing kangaroos, and they derive a profit from the sale of the skins” and that the temptation to hunt kangaroo caused stock-keepers to “desert flocks” regularly.[65] In 1821, Sorell threatened to withdraw convict labor from any “stock owner (who) should allow his detached stock-men to keep hunting dogs” as “neglect of the stock and habits of vagrancy, which are dangerous to the community, must be the consequence of the stock-men being suffered to hunt.”[66] But as long as flocks multiplied, owners, who usually lived in the town, allowed even convict employees autonomy. At any rate, their power to impose any contrary regulation, was, in practice, limited.

This situation did not change significantly until the late 1820s, when the more valuable and vulnerable merino sheep, bred for wool, supplanted the older meat breeds. Merinos required more intensive supervision and management, and were grazed on recently granted “private” lands. Nevertheless, Robinson’s journals, which chronicle his five-year wander across much of Van Diemen’s Land between 1829 and 1834, records that he often got frustrated running into white hunters in what was meant to be “empty” country. Inevitably, these men were “accompanied by numerous dogs.” Robinson ranted against “the folly of masters to allow their servants to keep dogs, who only employ themselves in hunting when they ought to look after their master’s business.”[67]

Some of the men Robinson confronted, however, knew no master and moved onto the crown lands without authorization. Before 1830, these men often had stock, owned by others but farmed under what was called the “thirds” system (whereby they kept a third of the natural increase in lieu of a wage). A free settler, the first to be granted land in the Shannon River district in 1822, purchased “a small flock of excellent sheep” from an ex-convict who had been resident there some years. In addition to his pastoral pastimes, “Dennis,” according to “the common custom of the country… occupied several hours of the day in hunting and killing kangaroos with his dogs.”[68] But by 1831 , when the free land grant system ended, most of the best pastoral land had been alienated, without payment to Aborigines or crown, to a few hundred wealthy settlers. The result was that the landless poor were pushed into more marginal areas to hunt and the thirds system was abolished. Without stock, the reliance on hunting in remaining public lands, was, for many, only compounded.

The slaughter associated with the skin trade had a massive impact on kangaroo numbers. One author warned as early 1820 that the dogs “destroy great quantities… 26 kangaroos have been killed in one morning, and persons have been said to have filled two bullock carts before nine o’clock with these animals and emus.” He hoped that “this lavish system of butchery will be laid aside… if some measure of this kind is not adopted, a total extinction of these valuable animals in this island will be the consequence.”[69] This prophecy was, in part, fulfilled. By the mid 1830s, the range of the forester kangaroo was greatly restricted, its only remaining stronghold, as now, in the northeast corner of the island. By this time the Tasmanian emu was also very rare and, in the 1860s, it became extinct. Other smaller dog-prey, including wallabies, seem to have been less affected because of their capacity to take refuge in less open, less dog-friendly country, except on a number of off-shore islands, where no escape was to be had.[70]

The rapid spread of hunting dogs in Van Diemen’s Land among both Aborigines and whites also must have had a significant impact on its principal indigenous marsupial competitor—the (almost certainly) extinct thylacine.[71] The dog has received little attention in thylacine research, except for the fact that many, or even most, of the sheep killings blamed on thylacine (which justified government and company bounties in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) likely were committed by wild dogs. This is surprising given that the thylacine’s decline and eventual extinction on mainland Australia has been widely linked to competition from the dingo. The neglect of the dog in research on the thylacine has been justified by the capacity of the thylacine to nearly hold its own in the few documented examples of direct confrontations with dogs. There seems little doubt that the number of thylacines directly killed by hunting dogs was limited. Nevertheless, the dog’s impact on the thylacine may have been much more than this documentary evidence suggests. It is commonly stated, on the basis of early settler reports, that thylacine numbers were low at the time of British settlements. Certainly it was “news” when one was seen. But what has not been taken into account is that all farms, stock-huts, and travel in the bush by the British in this period involved hunting dogs. These large, noisy, aggressive new mammals may well have caused the thylacine to vacate the more open country favored by the dogs and their owners, even if few were killed by them. Robinson saw a number of thylacines in more rugged and forested country in the north and northwest of the island between 1829 and 1834 where dogs were rare. The thylacine could not match dogs in speed, but its greater endurance meant it was able to more successfully pursue prey through forest, and thick understory. It was, therefore, probably saved, like many other marsupials, by Tasmania’s diverse topography. Paradoxically, more intensive settlement of woody grassland regions probably enabled the thylacine to repopulate these areas as merino-farming restricted the use and range of hunting dogs and encouraged the control of wild dog populations. This may explain why thylacine sightings seem to have increased in the second half of the nineteenth century. One settler recalled that “when the dogs had gone, native tigers took over, notably in the east and around Tooms Lake.”[72] An unfortunate consequence, however, was that the vilification and killing of thylacines then intensified.[73]

The slaughter of kangaroos by hunting dogs in the 1820s had more drastic implications for the Aborigines. Robinson was told that the loss of kangaroo, a favorite food with profound cultural and spiritual associations, was a major Aboriginal grievance. And the Aborigines Committee, established by the government in 1830 to review the causes of Aboriginal hostility, strongly supported the “prohibition against all convict servants keeping dogs” to prevent hunting in Aboriginal lands.[74] The over-hunting of kangaroo was, in fact, generally accepted by informed contemporaries to have been an underlying cause of the outbreak of sustained conflict between the British and the Aborigines after 1824. One rare attempt was even made to record an Aboriginal perspective in one of the now lost Aboriginal languages: “Malathana, mena, Tackay Mulaga, Pooty nara pamery, Locogana, Lee, Calaguna, Cracky, Carticata, Ludawinny Parobeny nara Moogara nara Coiptya, Mena locugane, Reethen, Tratyatetay, Tobantheelinga nara Lawey, Relbia, Mena Malathina, Mobily, Woiby, Puayunthea (When I returned to my country I went hunting but did not kill one head of game. The white men make their dogs wander, and kill all the game, and they only want the skins.)”[75]

The only historical study to question the importance of the “competition for game” to the increased conflict with Aborigines in the 1820s is Keith Windschuttle’s much publicized text, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Van Diemen’s Land. Windschuttle claimed that while “in the early days of the colony the white settlers themselves supplemented their supplies by hunting native game, mainly kangaroo,” this “only lasted until January 1811 when more reliable supplies of traditional British food became available.” The assumed end to white hunting, combined with the Aboriginal population decline, apparently meant that kangaroo and game numbers increased in the subsequent years as, “a decline in the number of hunters, other things being equal, will always cause an increase in the number of the hunted.” Windschuttle was unaware not only of the principle occupation of the white population outside the main settlements, but, more disturbingly, of the many contemporary records in which this is described.[76]

From 1823 to 1831, over a million acres, over 95 percent of all land granted, was given a private title. This land comprised almost all the best Aboriginal hunting grounds of the island. Aboriginal defense of land, resources, culture, and family (many Aboriginal women were forcibly abducted in the 1820s) led to eight years of sustained and systematic resistance to the British invasion by the Aborigines after 1824. Around two hundred whites and a high, but unknown, number of Aborigines, were killed before almost all the few hundred surviving Aborigines were exiled to Flinders Island.[77]

No historian disputes the impact of the Aboriginal resistance on the British against overwhelming numerical odds. Even Windschuttle, who sees Tasmanian Aborigines as a “profoundly mal-adapted population,” paradoxically emphasizes their ability to fight, arguing that they killed nearly two whites for every one of their own lost. He exaggerates, but there is little doubt that Tasmania, largely because of topography (ideally suited to a guerrilla-type campaign and one that limited the advantages provided by horses) and technology (the inaccuracy of guns), was a far more equal arena of struggle than what occurred later in most other places in Australia. It also is clear that the dog was essential to the success of Aboriginal resistance.[78]

With dogs, the Aborigines could obtain food while moving quickly and in small groups, enabling established seasonal migratory routes to be abandoned in favor of irregular, unpredictable movement. Dogs were also an essential warning devise, countering attempts to surprise the Aborigines at night and fire musket volleys around their fires.[79] The dogs also were not afraid to die in the defense of their owners when direct confrontation occurred. One settler wrote to his brother in February 1827 that in an encounter with Aborigines, his party had killed two of them as well as fifty of the Aborigines’ dogs: “it would have astonished you to have witnessed the dogs when the attack was first made how they bravely defended their masters.”[80] The dogs with the Aborigines attacked by John Batman (later to be one of the founders of Melbourne) in September 1829, were reported by Batman to have been equally heroic: “At about 11 o’clock PM we arrived within 21 paces of them. The men were drawn up on the right by my orders intending to rush upon them before they could arise from the ground, … but unfortunately as the last man was coming up, he struck his musket against that of another party, which immediately alarmed the dogs (in number about 40) they came directly at us.” Batman’s estimate was that about fifteen Aborigines had been killed or would die from the wounds they sustained in the attack. He also reported that twenty-one dogs were shot.[81]

Dogs also were crucial allies of the British. What one writer called the “bushmen’s inseparable companion, a brace of noble framed kangaroo dogs,” was ever at hand in those bloody times. Another commentator noted in 1832 that any “individual, who quitted his hut but for a few yards, required both to be armed and to be accompanied by a dog. The muskets constituted but a poor protection without one of these useful animals, indeed it was only when assured of their guardianship that the settler or stockmen at the out stations, could lay their heads on their pillow; secure of warning of the insidious approach of their persevering enemies.”[82]

The importance of dogs to safety meant that there was incredulity when “a heavy duty” was “laid on them” in 1830. The “dog tax” of five shillings per head was the first major colonial tax beyond import duties. Given its implications for safety, why, apart from the ever present political temptation of taxing first the powerless poor, was it introduced?[83]

The most cited reason for the introduction of the dog tax was the threat posed by wild dogs to merinos. By 1830, wild dogs were killing enough sheep to be a problem. Later, the thylacine often was blamed for deaths caused by dogs, but, at this time, the wild dog was rightly recognized as the most serious of the “vermin.”[84] But an equally important motivation for dog regulation was reducing stock theft and achieving a more disciplined labor force. Dogs were the foundation of an alternative Van Diemonian social and economic system which threatened the interests of the landowning elite.

License systems and regulatory frameworks for dog ownership and kangaroo hunting were progressively refined in the 1830s to further restrict hunting rights.[85] However, landless dog-owning ex-convicts seem to have been difficult to police. In the late 1830s, it was noted that on the east coast “so many idle vagabonds have been in the constant habit of roaming about with packs of 20 or 30 dogs each, to procure kangaroo skins for sale, that the forest species is now very rarely seen.” These “vagabond kangarooers” were holed up in the bush all over the eastern half of the island, despite a license system supposedly controlling those able to legally kill kangaroo.[86]

Nevertheless, those who continued kangarooing on the best hunting grounds, the granted lands, generally had the permission of the landowners. Thomas Tombs, by then 63 years old and one of the most experienced kangaroo hunters of all, was one of these men. Toombs, who came out as a convict with Collins in 1804, said in a statement dated May 3, 1835, that “I have no property whatsoever, except some kangaroo dogs. I now reside—with Mr Anstey’s permission—in Michael Howe’s Marsh, and I gain a living by hunting kangaroo and selling the skins.”[87]

Many convict shepherds assigned to work for the new landowners also continued to have dogs and achieve a small level of economic independence as a result. One convict wrote to his father in 1835, that “I have dogs and a gun of my own, thank God for it, to make me a few shillings.”[88]

Dogs also remained the key to mobility around unsettled districts of the island throughout this period. Robinson’s journal makes clear how important the dog was to obtaining food when moving quickly over long distances, even for the Aborigines traveling with him. Only when they had no dogs, such as on September 19, 1830, does Robinson report that “we were unable to procure game.” A decade later a pioneer of the northwest reported that “It was my custom to take long excursions on foot in those early days, with my knapsack and kangaroo dog for companions…. I wanted to explore new country.”[89] The dependence on dogs was such that their loss could have fatal consequences. In April 1827, the surveyor to the Van Diemen’s Land Company was reported drowned in tragic circumstances: “he had been for two days past extremely uneasy; he reflected that had he not shot the dog (in a moment of anger), the party would not now have been in a state of absolute starvation…. He therefore at low water, with the blanket around his waist, went into the river…. he contended he could swim a little.”[90]

But as the numbers of forester kangaroo and emu declined, and the grasslands were more intensively occupied by merinos, the place of the kangaroo dog in Van Diemonian life was reduced. By the 1830s, hunters were killing few of the larger animals and the return on kangaroo dogs, given the dogs’ own meat needs and registration costs, became marginal in most areas.[91] Trapping, particularly as technology improved, was often more effective and cheaper than dogs for hunting smaller animals, especially in less open country. Remnant wild kangaroo dogs were shot and poisoned, although it was probably disease that ultimately controlled them.[92]

Even though hunting dogs kept a place in some regions of Tasmania through the 1950s, they largely became forgotten history. Perhaps, after the export of convicts ended in 1853 and the island’s penal past became a shameful stain little talked about for the next hundred years, dogs were too closely associated with convict masters to be recognized for the bounty they had once provided. Merino sheep, owned by the privileged and free, were a much more fitting animal to begin the story of the development of “Tasmania” (as the colony was renamed from 1856) into a loyal, self-governing British colony, than the hunting dogs once owned by the prisoners of Van Diemen’s Land.


THE EARLY SETTLEMENT of Van Diemen’s Land provides a case study of the effects of European expansion in the New World. The complete absence of domestic animals prior to 1803 makes it both a striking example of their subsequent impact and highlights the complexity of applying broader thematic studies to a local context. The one human society where domestic animals never had been known proved to be remarkably resilient and adaptable. The convict colonizers of the imperial power found little use for “guns and steel,” abandoning most of the outward advantages of the industrial and agricultural revolutions in favor of a semi-nomadic life in the bush. Aboriginal and British culture both changed with remarkable speed in Van Diemen’s Land in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Central to this process was neither farming nor technology, but the one Pleistocene domesticate, the dog.

The early settlement of Van Diemen’s Land also provides a poignant illustration of how class and wealth shaped the experience and impact of colonization. In Van Diemen’s Land, it was not until the arrival of free settlers, with property, privilege, and the capital to back up their pretensions, that the British invasion became brutal conquest. Furthermore, only among the elite was change largely one way. Its survival was not dependent on adapting to the new land, nor were its aspirations constrained by the existing human and natural environment. Capital and privilege buffered them from Van Diemen’s Land’s environmental realities. By contrast, almost all convict exiles had modest expectations and little wealth. Their impact on the Aborigines and the environment were significant, but forms of shared land use were, nevertheless, possible with colonizers who were largely barred from land ownership and hoped for little more than to obtain life’s essentials free from subservience and degradation.

A focus on the distinctiveness of Van Diemen’s Land enables productive comparisons with European imperialism elsewhere. Van Diemen’s Land, for obvious and sound reasons, usually is considered in the context of Australian colonization. But the environmental differences with mainland Australia are such that comparisons with British settlers of temperate well-watered fertile lands elsewhere, including Jordan and Kaup’s concept of the “frontier backwoods pioneers” of the North American frontier also may be fruitful.[93] The growing body of North American research on “the importance of class and other distinctions among the people of European descent which influenced views on the use of natural resources,” may also be enriched by comparisons with Van Diemen’s Land.[94] The British are still generally assumed to be a homogenous presence in Australian environmental history, but the 67,000 convicts exiled to Van Diemen’s Land (about 40 percent of the Australian total) were among the poorest and most disadvantaged Britons to migrate to the New World.

The early settlement of Van Diemen’s Land also highlights how important the distinctively local features of European imperialism are in making connections between environmental history and contemporary environmental concerns. Simon Schama argues in Landscape and Memory that the fact that “our western sensibilities carry a bulging pack of myth and recollection” provides the best hope that the current environmental crisis can be met. “It is not that we are any more virtuous or wiser than the most pessimistic environmentalist supposes,” Schama suggests, “just that we are more retentive. The sum of our pasts, generation laid over generation, like the slow mould of the season, forms the compost of our future. We live of it.”[95] The most productive memories, I would add, are likely to be local ones, not because they are most recent, but because they are most connected. While respect is owed to the cultural memories of the Old World, none are likely to have the same resonance or political impact as those formed in the earth where we now dwell.

Van Diemen’s Land, like other regions settled before ordinary people had their “needs” and “expectations” revolutionized by the Industrial Revolution, has particularly rich loams of memory. As E. P. Thompson writes: “We shall not ever return to pre-capitalist human nature, yet a reminder of its alternative needs, expectations and codes may renew our sense of nature’s range of possibilities.”[96]

This is not an argument to celebrate pioneer achievements, or a denial of the appalling impacts of colonization, but an affirmation of the need to enter more deeply into the experience of conquest. The early convict hunter-pastoralists of Van Diemen’s Land and their canine companions forged a distinct life on the Van Diemen’s Land plains in the early nineteenth century. Their experience is but one chapter in the settlement of Tasmania, and marginal to the main themes of Australian colonization and British imperialism. But it is important nevertheless. For, in an increasingly standardized world, it will surely be with those on the margins of history that we are most likely to re-awaken long-lost memories of home.

James Boyce is a PhD applicant at the Centre for Environmental Studies, University of Tasmania. Besides a number of publications in his other profession of social policy and research, Boyce’s recent works include God’s Own Country: The History of the Anglican Church and Tasmanian Aborigines and ‘”Fantasy Island’,” the overview essay for Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History, which was short-listed for the 2004 Victorian Premiers Literary Awards.


I am grateful to colleagues at the School of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Tasmania, for their constructive comments on drafts of this article, especially Roger Kellaway, Aidan Davison, Andrew Harwood, and my supervisor, Pete Hay. Many of the arguments contained in it were first presented at a meeting of the Tasmanian Historical Research Association and subsequently published in THRA’s papers and proceedings.
1. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies (London: Jonathan Cape, 1997), 313. Jared Diamond, “Evolution, Consequences and Future of Plant and Animal Domestication,” Nature 418 (2002): 200.

2. The term “fire-stick” farming was coined by the archaeologist Rhys Jones to describe the sophisticated burning regimes of Aboriginal people that ensured favorable habitat for game.

3. Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe 900–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 7.

4. For example, Eric Rolls argued that “the Nineteenth Century Britons who settled… were not only unwilling to change any of their ways, they self righteously tried to change both Aborigines and country into Britons in Britain”: Eric Rolls, Running Wild (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1973), 23; and Elim Papadakis noted that early settlers found the land “strange, alien and intractable,” and that “the prevailing attitude among the white settlers was that of conquest, of dominating the natural environment”: Elim Papadakis, Politics and the Environment: The Australian Experience (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1993), 45, 49.

5. Thomas R. Dunlap, Nature and the English Diaspora: Environment and History in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 19.

6. William Lines, Taming the Great South Land: A History of the Conquest of Nature in Australia (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1991), 48.

7. Tim Flannery, The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2001), 291.

8. D. N Jeans, ed., Space and Society (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1987), 6–7.

9. Lines, Taming the Great South Land, 26.

10. See, for example, Tim Bonyhady, The Colonial Earth (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2000).

11. Karl Jacoby, Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves and the Hidden History of American Conservation (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001), 3.

12. Frank Crowley, A New History of Australia (Melbourne: William Heinemann, 1974), 10.

13. Alec Chisholm, Land of Wonder: The Best of Australian Nature Writing (Angus and Robertson).

14. David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, 1788–1801 (London: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1910), 77, 169.

15. Gun inaccuracy was such that up to the mid-nineteenth century, “firing at ranges much over one hundred yards was usually a waste of shot and powder. Even at this range the musket was unreliable”: A. M. Low, cited by Glen McLaren, Beyond Leichardt: Bushcraft and the Exploration of Australia (Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1996), 46.

16. David Burn, A Picture of Van Diemen’s Land (facsimile, Hobart: Cat and Fiddle Press, 1973), 134.

17. Stonehenge wrote in 1867 that this animal “claimed his descent from the most ancient race in Britain,” but reported that they were then little used. W. Beilby, The Dog in Australasia (Melbourne: George Robertson, 1897), 125.

18. Louisa Meredith, My Home in Tasmania (New York: Bunce and Britain, 1883), 171–72.

19. Bonyhady, The Colonial Earth, 133.

20. Marjorie Tipping, Convicts Unbound: The Story of the Calcutta Convicts and Their Settlement in Australia (Melbourne: Viking O’Neill, 1988), 172.

21. David Collins to Sullivan August 3, 1804, Historical Records of Australia: Series 3, Volume 1, (Library Committee of the Commonwealth Parliament, 1921), 264.

22. Margaret Glover, History of the Site of Bowen’s Settlement Risdon Cove (Hobart: National Parks and Wildlife Service, 1978), 10.

23. Phillip Tardif, John Bowen’s Hobart: The Beginning of European Settlement in Tasmania (Hobart: Tasmanian Historical Research Association, 2003), 65.

24. Van Diemen’s Land: Copies of All Correspondence between Lieutenant Governor Arthur and His Majesty’s Secretary of State for the Colonies on the Subject of the Military Operations Lately Carried on against the Aboriginal Inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land (Including Minutes of Evidence Taken before the Committee for the Affairs of the Aborigines, 1830), (Hobart: Tasmanian Historical Research Association, 1971), 259.

25. Barbara Hamilton-Arnold, ed., Letters and Papers of G. P. Harris, 1803–1812: Deputy Surveyor-General of New South Wales at Sullivan Bay, Port Phillip, and Hobart Town, Van Dieman’s Land (Victoria: Arden Press, 1994), 61.

26. Mary Nicholls, ed., The Diary of the Reverend Robert Knopwood, 1803–1838 : First Chaplain of Van Diemen’s Land ([Hobart]: Tasmanian Historical Research Association, 1977), entry for February 28, 1804.

27. Sydney Gazette, March 18, 1804.

28. Benjamin Bensley, Lost and Found or Light in the Prison: A Narrative with Original Letters of a Convict Condemned for Forgery (London: W. Wells Gardner, 1859), 143–44.

29. Bonyhady, The Colonial Earth, 34.

30. Hamilton-Arnold, ed., Letters and Papers of G. P. Harris, 64–65.

31. It seems that Aborigines stopped eating scale-fish about four thousand years ago, concentrating on the readily available crayfish and shellfish, including scallops, oysters, and abalone. Until hunting was restricted by land alienation, ordinary British people also largely abandoned scale fishing, as with such readily available alternatives, it was not worth the effort. Perhaps the “mystery” of the Aborigines change of diet is as easily explained.

32. Benjamin Bensley, Lost and Found or Light in the Prison: A Narrative with Original Letters of a Convict Condemned for Forgery (London: W. Wells Gardner, 1859), 145, 152.

33. Tipping, Convicts Unbound, 112.

34. HRA 3/1, 526.

35. Mitchell Library, A1341, GGO, December 27, 1804.

36. Tipping, Convicts Unbound, 112.

37. William Paterson to King January 8, 1805. HRA 3/1, 629.

38. William Paterson to Castlereagh August 12, 1806, HRA 3/1, 661.

39. William Paterson to King March 10, 1806, HRA, 3/1, 658–59.

40. William Paterson to King, 14 November 1805, HRA 3/1, 645.

41. King to William Paterson 20/11/05, HRA 3/1. 648 This “solution” was another reflection of the spirit of the English game laws.

42. Robert Knopwood, for example, did his own hunting of kangaroo initially but this seems to have stopped by July 1804. After this he concentrated on shooting birds and fishing occasionally–both activities of which could take place near or within the settlement.

43. Hamilton-Arnold, ed., Letters and Papers of G. P. Harris, 1803–1812, 72–73.

44. Tipping, Convicts Unbound, 112.

45. HRA 3/3, 252.

46. Mitchell Library, AK 341, GGO, December 31, 1803; Glover, History of the Site of Bowen’s Settlement Risdon Cove, 20.

47. William Paterson to Windham, 29 18 08, HRA 3/1 672–3.

48. By the end of June 1806 465 people out of the 475 in the colony were on the ration. Archives Office of Tasmania CO 201/43.

49. William Paterson to Sullivan, April 21, 1807, HRA 3/1 668.

50. On December 17, 1806, the Norfolk Island settler William Williams claimed the ten pounds reward for the return of Knopwood’s stolen dog. This was significant money, a year’s income for some poor English laborers and about a fortnight’s wages even for the chaplain. Many had been transported for stealing less. The value of dogs also was shown by the fact that eight “greyhound” pups, still nursing, were sold for eighty pounds in 1805. On January 18, 1807, Knopwood paid twenty-five pounds for a dog, although as more were bred, the price inevitably dropped. A replacement dog purchased in October 1807 cost the chaplain “only” eight pounds.

51. Mitchell Library, GGO, September 15, 1807.

52. In the context of a concerted public campaign in Australia (as a central tenet of the so-called “history wars”) to downplay the level of conflict between whites and Aborigines in Van Diemen’s Land, it is important to note that it is likely that more than the four Aborigines recorded by Knopwood were killed by the British in 1807. Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Volume One, Van Diemen’s Land, (which has received unparalleled levels of media exposure) is contemptuous of the conclusion that a significantly higher number of Aborigines were killed than is definitively documented. The conflict during 1807 is highlighted as an example of the politically motivated “fabrication” supposedly purported by historians: Keith Windschuttle, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Volume One Van Diemen’s Land 1803–1847 (Sydney: Macleay Press, 2002), 48–50. However, when considered in context, this period illustrates as well as any the dangers of Windschuttle’s reductionist methodology. The only available account of the specific deaths that occurred during 1807, including the killing of an Aborigine by the lieutenant governor’s own gamekeeper, is in Knopwood’s private journal. In turn, with one possible exception, Knopwood recorded only killings done by, or in the presence of, his own servant. To assume that this represents a comprehensive record is to assume that the many gamekeepers assigned to other officers avoided the Aboriginal resistance witnessed by Knopwood’s man, that at Port Dalrymple there were no violent encounters at all, and that contemporary observers who documented, in general terms, high levels of conflict with kangaroo hunters, were mistaken. These episodes vividly illustrate the enormous gaps in the government record, in which Windschuttle shows such confidence. The quiet acceptance of convicts sometimes killing Aborigines (required to protect the interests of their masters)—rigorously denied by Windschuttle, also is confirmed in the incidents discussed here. Knopwood was both a magistrate and priest, but showed no inclination to investigate or even report the death of two British subjects at the hands of his own servant. (No white was to ever be prosecuted for the death of an Aborigine in Van Diemen’s Land, despite another of Windschuttle’s fictitious claims to the contrary.) I have reviewed the limitations of Windschuttle’s methodology, and his many errors of fact, in detail—see James Boyce, “Fantasy Island,” Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History, in Robert Manne, ed., (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2003); and James Boyce, “Better to Be Mistaken Than to Deceive: The Fabrication of Aboriginal History and the Van Diemonian Record,” Island 96 (2004).

53. M. Fels, “Culture Contact in the Country of Buckingamshire Van Diemen’s Land 1803–1811,” THRA Papers and Proceedings 29 (1982), 60.

54. Edward White, for example, lived near the Great Western Tiers for three years without ever carrying a gun. Van Diemen’s Land, 53.

55. No British observations of Aboriginal death by disease exist in Van Diemen’s Land before the late 1820s, even though cross-cultural contact increased and a temporary hospital for Aborigines was opened in Hobart Town in 1819. While this does not mean that a significant number of Aborigines did not die from disease, given the increasing level of cross-cultural contact, and the number of reports of large groups of Aborigines containing infants and the elderly, the available evidence suggests that Van Diemen’s Land was free of large-scale epidemics until at least the mid 1820s. The lack of mobility, the low population, the long sailing time (meaning most diseases had been burnt out on the voyage), and a comprehensive small-pox vaccination program seem to have moderated the overall impact of disease on Aboriginal people until the late 1820s. At any rate, there is no direct evidence to the contrary. See Boyce, “Fantasy Island,” 42–44. For a discussion of this issue, including the fact that Windschuttle, who believes that no claims about the number of Aborigines who died from violence can be made beyond those definitively documented, concludes that almost all other Aborigines died from disease, without providing one piece of direct evidence of this.

56. Rhys Jones, “Tasmanian Aborigines and Dogs,” Mankind 7 (December 1970): 263, 270.

57. The Hobart Town Courier of January 14, 1831 reported that the Aborigines “walked very leisurely along the road, followed by a large pack of dogs.” On Aborigines deliberately restricting breeding, see Robinson’s journal of November 3, 1831; N. J. B. Plomley, ed., Friendly Mission: The Tasmanian Journals of George Augustus Robinson 1829–1834 (Tasmanian Historical Research Association, 1966), 501.

58. Phillip King, Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical Coasts of Australia (Adelaide: Library Board of S.A, 1969), 160. On January 25, 1819, on the west coast, King recorded a meeting with the Aborigines and noted that “our dog being a subject of much alarm was fastened to the stem of our boat.”

59. Robinson reported that the five dogs he saw with a group of west coast Aborigines in March 1834 were “the best native dogs I had ever seen. They are betwixt a greyhound and a brindle terrier”; Plomley, ed., Friendly Mission, 859.

60. Ibid., 644, 836.

61. An example of the individual nature of dog ownership is provided in Robinson’s journal of December 4, 1831. Robinson asked the Aboriginal leader Mannalargenna “if the two dogs he had with him when I met him were the son’s dogs, and he said no, they were Karnebutchers and that Watterinten was Karnebutcher’s dogs.” Regarding the emotional connections with dogs heightened by dispossession and war, one of the most tragic episodes in Tasmanian Aboriginal history is the imprisonment, through Robinson’s deception, of west coast Aboriginal people in the British Empire’s most feared prison, Macquarie Harbour, in 1834, where many died. While a ship was waiting with the surviving Aborigines on board to sail out of Macquarie Harbour to exile, Robinson records that on September 24, 1834, “The people on board the Tamar threw one of the native dogs overboard willfully during the night. All the natives very uneasy about it. Jock the woman who owned the dog was in tears all the day in consequence of it” (pp. 538, 798).

62. The inference should not be made, however, that kangaroo dogs were a feature only of the frontier life. One account from 1817 notes “the surprising number of dogs that kept us awake for some nights after we arrived in the town with their incessant barking. At that time everyone had a kangaroo dog who could contrive to keep one, and first one dog set up a growl, then another caught up, and he was, of course answered from another part of the town, so that presently hundreds of dogs, watch-dogs, kangaroo-dogs, and mongrels of all sorts and types, all would set up such a barking and tearing that we thought to be sure something dreadful must be the matter: that the convicts had risen, or that the natives had fired the town”: See W. Thornley, The Adventures of an Emigrant (Rigby, 1973), 6. Van Diemonian culture is discussed in more detail in James Boyce, “Journeying Home: A New Look at the British Invasion of Van Diemen’s Land 1803–1823,” Island 66 (1996).

63. K. R. Von Stieglitz, Tasmanian Bushrangers (Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1951), 28. Michael Howe’s power was virtually unchallenged between 1814 and 1817 beyond the immediate confines of the main settlement, eventually negotiating his armistice terms, as the self proclaimed lieutenant governor of the woods, direct with the British governor, in letters written in kangaroo blood. Only when Mary was betrayed, and joined his pursuers, did Howe’s power falter.

64. Hobart Town Gazette December 25, 1819.

65. HRA 3/3, 250.

66. Government Order of June 30, 1821, listed in Edward Curr, An Account of the Colony of Van Diemen’s Land : Principally Designed for the Use of Emigrants (Hobart: Platypus publications, 1967), 154.

67. Plomley, ed., Friendly Mission, 557–8.

68. James Ross, The Settler in Van Diemen’s Land ( facsimile, Melbourne: Marsh Walsh Publishing, 1975), 66.

69. Charles Jeffreys, Van Dieman’s Land: Geographical and Descriptive Delineations of the Island of Van Dieman’s Land (London: J.M. Richardson, 1820), 100–101.

70. For example, Robinson recorded on Hunter Island, that “at one time the island abounded with kangaroo, but they are now very scarce, the sealers having killed them; at one time they had sixty dogs.” Wild dogs inhabited many islands, including East Hunter Island, now known as Three Hummock Island. The fauna of Bass Strait islands where no humans had lived for thousands of years, such as King Island, were particularly devastated. Plomley, ed., Friendly Mission, 176–77.

71. The last captive animals died in the 1930s, and there have been no definitive sightings since, although a number of credible reports or sightings have been made.

72. Alfred Burbury, “Alfred Burbury Memories from the Chronicles of the Burbury Family,” 2 Oatlands District Historical Society Chronicle 1 (December 2000): 29.

73. Comprehensive discussions of thylacine research are contained in Eric Guiler, Thylacine: The Tragedy of the Tasmanian Tiger (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1985); Robert Paddle, The Last Tasmanian Tiger: The History and Extinction of the Thylacine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); and David Owen, Thylacine: The Tragic Tale of the Tasmanian Tiger (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2003).

74. James Bischoff, Sketch of the History of Van Diemen’s Land (London: J. Richardson, 1832), 224.

75. N. J. B. Plomley, Jorgen Jorgenson and the Aborigines of Van Diemen’s Land : Being a Reconstruction of His “Lost” Book on Their Customs and Habits, and on His Role in the Roving Parties and the Black Line (Hobart: Blubber Head Press, 1991), 63.

76. Windschuttle, Fabrication of Aboriginal History, 88–89. Windschuttle’s analysis of this issue is analysed in Boyce, “Fantasy Island”, 47–51.

77. The documented figure of around 187 white deaths does not account for killings of whites living unofficially in the bush beyond official observation or record, so that the likely overall death toll is in excess of two hundred. Windschuttle documents a figure of 120 Aborigines whose killings have been documented. Given that, except for a period of martial law from 1830 to 1832, these killings were illegal under British law, all historians, have always assumed many killings were not recorded. Even apart from the issue that Windschuttle did not consult any private letters or diaries in compiling his figure, for all but Windschuttle, 120 would seem, as Alan Atkinson has put it, to be a minimum rather than a maximum figure. In terms of the negotiations with Aborigines, as far as can be gauged by Robinson’s journals, the unwritten understandings reached involved the temporary removal of the Aborigines to Flinders Island. The terms were not honored and the exile was for all intents and purposes permanent: By the time return was allowed in 1847, most were dead. The political negotiations between the British and the Aborigines are considered in Henry Reynolds, Fate of a Free People: A Radical Re-Examination of the Tasmanian Wars (Penguin, 1995). Reynolds does not, however, consider the high number of Aborigines, mainly from the west coast, who were captured and subsequently exiled through deception and arms.

78. Windschuttle, Fabrication of Aboriginal History, 382. Reynolds, Fate of a Free People, 87–119.

79. The British were surprised at the Aborigines’ ability to keep their dogs quiet. Robinson noted in November 1830 in the northeast that “when I set out I had hoped to have found the natives by their dogs, but the tact these people have in quieting their dogs is truly surprising: they had 30 dogs and we never heard the least noise of them until we approached them”: Plomley, Friendly Mission, 264

80. G. Dow and H. Dow, Landfall in Van Diemen’s Land: The Steels Quest for Greener Pastures (Footscray: Footprint, 1990), 45.

81. A. H. Campbell, John Batman and the Aborigines (Melbourne: Kibble Books, 1987), 32. Windschuttle reduces the Aboriginal death tally from this incident to two, on the basis that these were the only people Batman saw die.

82. John Henderson, Observations on the Colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, (facsimile, Adelaide: Libraries Board of South Australia, 1965), 76.

83. James Bonwick, The Last of the Tasmanians; or, the Black War of Van Diemen’s Land (London: Sampson Low Son & Marston, 1870), 113.

84. Wild dogs were a major concern between the late 1820s and 1860s. Outside of the northwest they, rather than the thylacine, were seen as the main threat to sheep. As early as January 10, 1828, Arthur listed the spread of wild dogs as one of the major threats posed by the Aborigines, telling London of “the nuisance of their dogs, which originally [were] purloined from the settlers, have increased to such a number as to threaten to become a lasting pest to the country.” Arthur instructed Robinson in October 1833, prior to setting off for his last expedition, that he was to enlist the Aborigines’ help in the capture of wild dogs, which they pretended to do for some weeks in the Eastern Tiers near Campbell Town in December: Plomley, ed., Friendly Mission, 823–24.

85. For example, the Hobart Town Gazette on July 25, 1834 and September 25, 1834 gave details of “An Act to restrain the increase of dogs,” which included compulsory registration, the seizure of unregistered dogs, the shooting of dogs at large, and rewards for killing or seizing unregistered dogs. The reward was to be between five and forty shillings at the discretion of the police magistrate. Registration costs were increased to ten shillings for male kangaroo dogs and twenty for females, although the dogs needed by the wealthy—watch dogs and sheep dogs—cost about a quarter of other dogs. The 1846 Dog Act caused a constitutional crisis in 1847 when the chief justice deemed it illegitimate. See Lloyd Robson, A History of Tasmania Vol.1. Van Diemen’s Land from the Earliest Times to 1855 (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1983), 471–72. In 1851, Fenton reported that the dog tax was the main source of revenue for making or mending roads, and that it was still collected and authorized by the police magistrate (James Fenton, Bush Life in Tasmania Fifty Years Ago (1851;A reprint, Launceston: Mary Fisher Bookstore, 1891), 77.

86. Meredith, My Home in Tasmania, 172–73.

87. Eustace Fitzsymonds, Mortmain : A Collection of Choice Petitions, Memorials, and Letters of Protest and Request from the Convict Colony of Van Diemen’s Land (Hobart: Sullivan’s Cove, 1977), 50.

88. Henry Tingley, convict, Apsley Lagoon, Great Swanport, to father Thomas Tingley, June 15, 1835 in C. M. H. Clark, Select Documents in Australian History (Angus and Robertson, 1966), 131.

89. Fenton, Bush Life in Tasmania, 35.

90. James Calder, The Log: Circumnavigation of Van Diemen’s Land by Captain James Kelly and Other Accounts of Early Exploration of the West and North West Coast of Tasmania from Parliamentary Papers (Hobart: Government Printer, 1986), 50.

91. As Robinson noted on February 26, 1834, “The great difficulty I have always experienced with too many dogs is the feeding them.” On July 9,1834, he drowned ten of his dog’s thirteen pups. Plomley, ed., Friendly Mission, 850, 896–98.

92. Alfred Burbury’s “Memories” from the mid nineteenth century provide an excellent summary of the damage caused by wild dogs and their eventual control: “Packs of wild dogs… became so bad when I was a boy that we were quite unable to put sheep on some of the runs for fear of them… Eventually distemper wiped out the wild dogs and most of the domesticated ones as well.” Burbury, “Memories,” 29.

93. Jordan and Kaups see a distinctive culture emerging among the back woodsmen which included mixing with Indians, dependence on nonagricultural, open-range livestock, “simple high protein diet containing unusually large amounts of meat,” the importance of hunting, and an appreciation of freedom. As in Van Diemen’s Land, contemporary observers seem to have been critical of housing, farms, the lack of order, and regularity, morals and the “slovenly cultivation.” Comparisons with the convict-hunters of this paper are obvious: T. Jordan and M. Kaups, The American Backwoods Frontier (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1989), 3–6.

94. Sean Cadigan, “Are Common Property Rights and Open-Access Exploitation Two Sides of the Same Coin?: A Historical Perspective on Coastal Resource Management in Newfoundland,” in Retrenchment and Regeneration in Rural Newfoundland, ed. Reginal Byron (Swansea: University of Wales).

95. Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (London: Fontana Press, 1996), 574.

96. E. P Thompson, Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (London: Penguin, 1993) 14–15. Thompson believed that “too many of our growth historians are guilty of a crass economic reductionism, obliterating the complexities of motive, behaviour and function, which, if they noted it in the work of Marxist analogues, would make them protest. The weakness which these explanations share is an abbreviated view of economic man” (p. 187). The same argument could be made about some environmental history.