Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land)
Down Home is an erudite and imaginative meditation on the meaning of home and the nature of displacement by Tasmanian-born expatriate author and academic, Peter Conrad. Part memoir, part travelogue, the book documents Conrad’s return to his home state, in middle age, as he searches for traces of himself and for his place in the world. ‘Could,’ he writes, ‘Tasmania after all tell me where it was, where I am?’ (11)

Conrad concludes that Tasmania, perhaps more intensely than anywhere else, reminds us of the realities of human existence. He puts this down to its past and to the place it has become, it being, in his view, a ‘prison, a castaway . . . a sundered, solitary, disowned infant’ (230). Home, Conrad suggests, is a fantasy both combining and embodied in person and place (232). (Annotated Bibliography)

‘It’s your doing, actually,’ Roy said, sitting back. ‘I stopped at a stationer’s shop this morning to buy you a ribbon. For your machine,’ he added. ‘There was a map of the world in the window, and Tasmania was up at eye level. It was tiny, of course, but as I stood there I saw myself in it, my face reflected in the glass, in the island.’

‘Magic mirror in my hand,’ Sylvie murmured, ‘Who’s the fairest in the land?’

‘The fairest land, you mean. Or not, as the case may be.’

She looked at him, quizzically.

‘People have always seen things in Tasmania,’ he said, warming to his subject. ‘Reflections of themselves and their ideas – perhaps because of its size and shape, its place in time and space. It’s haunted by faces and fancies.’ (Thesis)

In its relatively short European history, Tasmania has been perceived in various ways. For its first fifty years, Van Diemen’s Land was viewed as a open-air prison, a hostile hellish place, beautiful but bleak. This perception gave rise to and was reinforced by a famous novel: Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of his Natural Life.

Later this view was reversed. The advent of the environmental movement in the 1970s gave rise to a vision of Tasmania as a wild ancient land, an Eden free from the taint and constraints of contemporary culture, a place where people experience freedom and release rather than servitude and captivity, as do the characters in the novels of Nan Chauncy.

In the intervening period – the century or so that started in the 1850s when transportation ceased and ended in the 1960s when cultural ties to Britain began to weaken – a different perception of Tasmania prevailed. At that time the island was viewed as a ‘little England’, a comfortingly familiar place whose scenery and culture soothed the soul. (Presentation)

They went straight on to the first chapter, which Roy set in Tasmania.

‘“The Prison Island?”’ Sylvie squawked, glancing at the title on the topmost page. ‘That’s no way to write about your childhood playground. Isn’t Tasmania an Antipodean paradise?’

‘Read on,’ Roy said, grimly. ‘This part is set a hundred years ago, when the island was a gaol, and a brutal one at that.’

‘Goody. It sounds every bit as gruesome as the rest.’ (Thesis)

Like the silver mirror, Tasmania – the birth and burial place of Bridges and the setting of so many of his stories – has shown many faces. The scholar, C.A. Cranston, has written about the “protean and often ludic nature of the island,” observing that Tasmania has been variously “portrayed as the source of psychic distress, cultural disenfranchisement, intense disappointment, a land scape-goat for social evils” (“Rambling” 29). Beliefs such as these are rarely benign; like the faces seen in the mirror of silver, they have the power to influence actions, actions that alter people’s lives, livelihoods and legacies.

[I]mages of Tasmania have “haunted” the island and its inhabitants since colonisation. In many ways, Tasmania makes an ideal mirror. Viewed on a map, the island is compact and self-contained, its edges well-defined. Its proximity, too, is perfect. Located on the periphery of the world, an arm’s length from mainland Australia, its configuration neatly fits a face: near enough for some features to seem reassuringly familiar and yet far enough away for others to appear alluringly alien, like an image only partly in focus. A “convenient nowhere,” Peter Conrad has called it (6).

Reflections are enriched by the island’s façade: its ornate silver frame, bluish-green depths, rust-coloured stains and indelible “black cloud” (Johnston 18) – culture, nature and history melded and made visible. Tasmania’s age, too, is an asset. Viewed on a timeline, its history – European, of course – is sensible and short, topped and tailed by Port Arthur: its consecration in the early 1800s and its desecration in the late 1900s. A neat two centuries of “human” history halved by Federation; a past near enough to the present to feel real and recognisable but far enough away to excite the imagination. As the historian, Alison Alexander, has observed, “Tasmania has attributes which give it an unfair advantage in the utopia stakes” (3).

And yet like the silver mirror, it is all an illusion. For, in reality, Tasmania is none of these things. It is not even an island, for a start. Geographically, it is many islands – an archipelago, in fact (Clarke and Johnston 2) – none of which began or will probably end as such. Nor is it a discrete entity located on the margins of civilisation (Cranston, “Islands” 219-221). Its past, too, is neither neat nor discrete. Beginning thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, it ends in the present, which is forever retreating into the future.

Various scholars – most notably Roslynn D. Haynes, as well as those already mentioned – have studied the history of ideas about Tasmania. Others (including Cranston, in Along These Lines) have approached the subject from a literary perspective. Ralph Crane and Danielle Wood, for example, have published two anthologies, Deep South and Island Story, which seek to convey the diversity of Tasmanian visions. Scholarship shows, then, that locals and onlookers, tourists and travellers alike have all seen certain things in the island. Some of these perceptions gained prominence in their day; later, a few came to represent periods in island’s history, periods which otherwise defy easy description and delineation. For, as Cranston observes, the “narrative between one island and another” is “discontinuous” (Along ii).

Tasmania, as an idea, existed long before colonisation. The Palawa people first occupied the area almost 40,000 years ago; 30,000 years later, their descendants became islanders, separated from the mainland by rising oceans. They lived in “harmony” with their environment, believing they were “carved out of the land” by their ancestral beings (Cameron). To them, there was little distinction between humankind and environment (Alexander 11); in European terms, their culture was nature. Henry Reynolds describes how the Aborigines who greeted members of Nicolas Baudin’s crew in 1802 viewed the sailors’ clothing with “wonder”, it not being clear to them “where the covering ended and the body began” (10). Here, then, is an early understanding of Tasmania: the (is)land at one with the self.

Most Europeans did not share this view. The first French and British to record their impressions of the island saw it as a place apart, other-worldly and remote (Haynes 18). Baudin wrote of the foreignness (to him) of the island’s forests, “composed,” as they were, “of trees unknown in Europe” (qtd. in Haynes 11). Initially, European seafarers saw and treated the island as a source of shelter, material sustenance and scientific knowledge (Alexander 7; West 13-25). Before long, though, it “became less a site of travel and more one of settlement” (Clarke and Johnston 4), as British officials began to regard it as a possession (Robson, A Short History 12-13; West 28), which it soon became.

The tendency to view one’s immediate surroundings as if from a distance – to rob them of an independent reality (or realities) by objectifying them – is a thread that runs through the visions of Tasmania that rose to prominence after colonisation. Thus, in its earliest European days, the island was perceived predominantly as a hostile space, beautiful but bleak, its “advantages of nature and art”, as Marcus Clarke puts it (374), supposedly making it the perfect “natural penitentiary” (Clarke and Johnston 6-7).

This view of the island – as a “convict’s hell” (Boyce 2) – is epitomised in Marcus Clarke’s famous novel and was shared by many Britons (Haynes 57-61). (Although not by all, as Alison Alexander [14-22] and James Boyce [2-3] point out.) This perception was appealing for its drama and pathos – and, after 1853, when transportation ended and Tasmanian became a self-governing colony, for its convenience. This transition brought about a change of mood amongst many islanders, the “energy and spirit of adventure” of the first fifty years giving way to a “sense of despair and a lack of confidence” (Robson, The Tasmanian Story 29). Respectability became the watchword, as many Tasmanians set about trying to become more British than the British themselves (31).

This was, as Anna Johnston argues, the “little England” era of Tasmanian history (17), when the island was commonly perceived (and presented) as a comfortingly familiar place (e.g. “Beautiful Historic Tasmania”) whose customs and character fit a “fantasy image of pre-industrial village life that underpinned Empire”, as Richard White puts it (56). According to this view and the “aesthetic colonisation” associated with it, nature was culture, little more than a scenic backdrop to human existence (Haynes 112).

This perception of the island prevailed for almost a century. In the mid-1900s, though, an alternative version of this vision arose, when writers such as Hal Porter and Christopher Koch represented the island as an unappealing backwater, an in-between place of exile (Haynes 231). Later, in the 1970s, the advent of the environmental movement spawned yet another vision of the isle: Tasmania as a wild ancient land, an Eden free from the taint and constraints of contemporary culture. “The Franklin River battle,” writes Cranston, “tipped the so-called narratives of shame from topophobia to topophilia.” (“Rambling” 37) (Exegesis)