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Reading Robinson: Companion Essays to George Robinson’s Friendly Mission


Recording the Human Face of War: Robinson and Frontier Conflict


I FIRST ENCOUNTERED GEORGE AUGUSTUS ROBINSON’S diary when I was a part-time student in Canberra writing a Masters thesis on the weapons and tactics used by Aboriginal warriors and British soldiers in frontier warfare in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. Friday was my study day and, for about a month, I ended the week with a day at the National Library, diligently working my way through Friendly Mission. Each time, Robinson’s vivid descriptions of his journeys would transport me from a reading room looking out on the crisp blue sky and bright sunshine of a Canberra winter to the wet dark forests and soft green pastures of Van Diemen’s Land. For the military historian, Robinson’s detailed observations of indigenous and settler attitudes and actions bring a human face to the frontier conflict in Tasmania. As all records of this war are from the British side, Friendly Mission is especially important because Robinson records the words and deeds of Aboriginal men and women. The intrusion of Robinson’s own opinions and prejudices, as well as his imperfect knowledge of indigenous languages, mean that Friendly Mission is a flawed account of the Aboriginal side of the conflict. Nonetheless, it remains a vital source for anyone trying to come to an understanding of the bravery, brutality and tragedy of the Tasmanian frontier war.

From the foundation of the colony of Van Diemen’s Land in 1803 to the mid-1820s, relations between the Tasmanian Aborigines and the British had been relatively peaceful. There were however sporadic incidents: on 3 May 1804, the British garrison at Risdon panicked at the sight of a hunting party and fired a cannon at them; Aboriginal men sometimes enforced traditional law on settlers with ritual spearings; and sealers and shepherds more often abducted Aboriginal women and children to work as forced labour. Nonetheless, the small size of the British enclaves around Hobart and Launceston meant the two sides were able to co-exist.1

The frontier war began in earnest in Van Diemen’s Land when the British attempted to occupy all the arable land on the island. By 1823, land grants stretched in an unbroken line from north to south.2 Jorgen Jorgenson recorded the wry comment of Monpeliatta, a man of the Big River tribe, that if Aborigines ‘left any place to go ahunting elsewhere … when they returned in the course of eight days, they found a hut erected’.3 As NJB Plomley points out in his study of Aboriginal-settler clashes in Van Diemen’s Land, the competition for land meant the number of violent incidents increased sharply in 1827.4 In that year, Jean-René Quoy, who was visiting Hobart with Dumont d’Urville’s expedition, wrote: ‘A sort of war to the death … has broken out between the English and the natives’.5

This conflict was not considered ‘war’ by the British government as to do so would undermine the basis on which they had occupied their Australian colonies. Unlike New Zealand and elsewhere in the Empire, the British did not sign treaties with the Tasmanian Aborigines and did not acknowledge their ownership of the land. The British government contended that establishing the colony of Van Diemen’s Land meant that all Tasmanian Aborigines automatically became British subjects. This meant that any Aboriginal armed attack was defined as the criminal activity of British subjects rather than the warlike activity of a foreign enemy. As a soldier who killed a British subject could be tried for murder, Colonel George Arthur, the governor of Van Diemen’s Land, declared martial law in the colony from 1828 to 1831 to provide legal protection for any soldier who killed an Aborigine.6

While British authorities refused to define the conflict as ‘war’, this term can certainly be used to describe the situation on the Tasmanian frontier. Claus von Clausewitz, the nineteenth-century Prussian military thinker, defined ‘war’ as ‘an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will’. Jeffrey Grey, in his Military History of Australia, has convincingly argued that Clausewitz’s definition of ‘war’ should be applied to the fighting between Aborigines and settlers on the Australian frontier.7

The small size of Tasmanian and other Australian Aboriginal groups meant that their raiding tactics could be matched by equally small numbers of settlers, police and soldiers. The Tasmanian frontier war, along with the wars in the other Australian colonies, was therefore fought on a much smaller scale than the conflicts in other parts of the British Empire. However, while the number of casualties may have been comparatively few compared to other wars, the casualty rate was proportionally high with devastating effects for these small indigenous groups.

Traditional Aboriginal warfare

Robinson noted in his diary several conversations he had with Tasmanian Aborigines regarding the traditional warfare fought between Aboriginal groups. These notes can provide only a glimpse of this complex subject, but are significant for being one of the few sources on this important aspect of Tasmanian Aboriginal culture. Traditional Aboriginal warfare was both constant and limited. It was constant because each group continually attempted to assert its authority over its neighbours, and it was limited in two ways. The warfare was limited in duration because hostilities always had to stop so the groups could return to food gathering. The fighting was limited in scale because cultural restraints deliberately contained the number of casualties and so ensured the groups’ survival.8 Robinson wrote of Tasmanian Aboriginal groups being bound in their relationship to other groups by a network of agreements or treaties. Reciprocal gift-giving was part of these agreements. A man called Kickerterpoller told Robinson of one time when his group, the Paredarerme, gave beads to another group, the Luggeremairrerner, and expected to receive red ochre in return. When the ochre was not given, this led to a series of skirmishes which included taking women and a night attack on a campsite. Tasmanian Aborigines had become expert in raiding and counter-raiding tactics. In the campsite attack, the opposing group chose to attack at night because it offered the element of surprise and a camp could be found in the dark by looking for campfires. However, Kickerterpoller’s group realised they could be attacked and had hidden themselves away from the campfire. When the Luggeremairrerner raiding party converged on the fire they found, to their surprise, that there was no one there. To this surprise was added another as the Luggeremairrerner had a wave of spears thrown at them by the Paredarerme men. The raiding party realised they had walked into an ambush and were forced to flee.9

Spears and muskets

Friendly Mission also includes details about how Tasmanian Aborigines manufactured and used weapons. The main traditional weapon used in Van Diemen’s Land was the spear. One of the reasons for its popularity was, as Robinson observed, the ease with which it could be manufactured. The Tasmanian spear was a simple design: a tea-tree branch straightened by fire with one end sharpened to a point.10 Another advantage of a simple design was that if an Aboriginal group was being pursued they could always abandon their weapons to aid their escape, knowing they could quickly make replacements.11 The main disadvantage of the Tasmanian spear was that it was not a particularly lethal weapon. This was for two reasons. The first was that it was possible to evade a spear if one could see it coming. Robinson records seeing one Tasmanian Aboriginal dance about fighting in which the dancers moved in ‘the shifting attitude to avoid the spear in fighting; sometimes they call out “the spear is coming”’.12 The second reason was that the Tasmanian spear had a plain point and did not produce the dangerous lacerating wounds of the barbed spearheads used by Aborigines in other parts of Australia.13 In December 1831, an Aborigine told Robinson of one occasion when a warrior speared a settler. The settler pulled out the spear, then speared the warrior who ‘fell down apparently lifeless’ before recovering and escaping. While the story was being recounted to Robinson, the rest of the Aborigines laughed ‘heartily’ at the incident.14

Muskets and other forms of firearms entered Tasmanian Aboriginal life around the turn of the nineteenth century with the arrival of sealers and whalers and the establishment of the British colony. Robinson’s diary makes several references to Aborigines possessing muskets. Unlike indigenous people in other parts of the world, Tasmanian Aborigines were unable to gain a steady trade in muskets, gunpowder and ammunition. Britain was the only colonial power in Van Diemen’s Land and was therefore in a position to prevent firearms passing across the frontier. This was unlike eighteenth-century North America where Native Americans, especially the Iroquois, gained a constant arms supply by playing the British off against their French colonial rivals. As well, the traditional Aboriginal economy did not produce any commodities in sufficient quantities to establish a trade in weapons. This was significantly different from, for example, New Zealand, where Maori had sufficient bargaining power to force visiting whalers to trade muskets for foodstuffs and other goods.15

To gain firearms, Tasmanian Aborigines therefore had to raid settlers’ huts and take them. Robinson records hearing an Aboriginal song that told the story of one of these forays.16 Tasmanian Aboriginal women who had lived with sealers, including Tarenorerer (also known as Walyer), played an important role in transferring knowledge of how to load, fire and maintain muskets.17 On several occasions Robinson was shown Aboriginal muskets and observed that they were carefully stored so as to prevent rust.18 Other eyewitnesses confirm this, and even saw muskets where the flint, which provides the spark to ignite the gunpowder, had worn out and had been replaced by a new flint of Aboriginal manufacture.19

Friendly Mission offers less detail on how Tasmanian Aborigines used their muskets. As Plomley has commented elsewhere, the main indigenous use of firearms was for hunting birds,20 and Robinson noted that the Aborigines’ well-trained eyesight meant they were excellent shots.21 Muskets were rarely used in Aboriginal traditional conflict or against the settlers in the war on the frontier. Robinson reports one example where the Tommyginny people had two muskets and would threaten to use them against other Aboriginal groups.22 The only recorded occasion where an Aborigine fired a musket that led to a settler’s death took place in an incident in September 1831 when some Big River men attacked and killed James Parker near Port Sorell.23 This lack of use in warfare led Plomley to suggest that the main reason Aborigines took firearms was ‘to prevent their use against them’.24 However, this does not explain why Aborigines kept their muskets in working condition. Robinson records that when one group showed him their muskets they told him that they had ‘obtained those firearms for the purpose of making use of them against the whites as soon as they should have got ammunition’.25 This lack of ammunition and gunpowder may have been the reason Aborigines did not make more use of their muskets.

Settler attitudes

Robinson’s diary also includes details of the attitudes of settlers towards Aborigines during the frontier war. His record of the opinions of stockmen and soldiers is especially valuable as these views were often not preserved in other documents. Robinson talked to William Gunchannon, a Van Diemen’s Land Company employee who had attacked an Aboriginal group near Cape Grim, and was shocked by his ‘indifference’ to the killing of men and women.26 In contrast, a stockman called Punch told Robinson that a soldier of the 40th Regiment who had taken part in a punitive expedition had told him ‘never to kill the poor natives for ever since he has done he has been unhappy’.27


Friendly Mission provides a rare account of Tasmanian Aboriginal attitudes regarding horses in the frontier period. Robinson mentions several times seeing a dance which tells the story of a Big River man named Tarnebunner who was pursued by a mounted settler wielding a whip but managed to outrun him and survive.28 Robinson gave his most detailed description of the dance on 15 November 1830. He wrote:

Several men perform the part of horses: they stoop down and lean their hands upon the back of their companion and then walk round the fire singing; sometimes they run to imitate galloping. One man acts as driver and he has a bough for a whip, with which he strikes them and makes them go fast. Another man runs beside the horses in imitation of a dog—and performed his part exceeding well, shaking his head and appearing frightened, then stopping, then running &c.29

That the Big River tribe considered Tarnebunner’s feat in evading a mounted man such an achievement that it should be memorialised in a dance indicates the fear and awe in which Tasmanian Aborigines held horses. This fear was well justified. As Malcolm Kennedy has written, it was the British use of horses, rather than the use of firearms, that ‘tilted the balance’ on the Australian frontier. Aborigines who had never seen these large animals before were naturally intimidated at the sight of a man on horseback. A mounted settler could generally ride faster and further than a person could run on foot. It was this advantage in mobility that enabled the British advantage in firearms to be brought to its full effect. As the horse dance showed, a person on foot had to use all his or her knowledge of the country in order to escape pursuit. A settler on a horse had a height advantage over an Aborigine on foot and therefore had a greater field of vision. Finally, the bulk of the horse itself could be used as a weapon, especially when attacking an Aboriginal campsite.30

A letter written in 1827 by a settler named Michael Steel details the advantage horses gave to the British in frontier warfare. After hearing that Aborigines had killed and wounded workers on a neighbouring farm, Steel immediately organised an armed punitive expedition, ‘some on horseback and some on foot’, and pursued the Aboriginal raiding party. The extra mobility provided by the horses meant that the following day Steel and his men ‘fell in with them on the top of a mountain and poured a strong fire into them and killed their leader and one more’ before the Aborigines fled.31 Horses provided an undoubted advantage in warfare in the island’s terrain. As the Launceston Examiner would point out in 1860, when light horse units were being formed in the colony, mounted infantry was ‘invaluable’ in ‘a country like Tasmania, densely wooded and full of broken ground and mountain gorges’.32 Despite this, horses were rarely used in the frontier war because at this time these animals were few and expensive in Van Diemen’s Land.33


Robinson provides a detailed description of how settlers fortified their huts to protect them from Aboriginal raids. George Espie’s hut beside Lake Echo was, he wrote, ‘like most stock huts, a formidable construction. It is made by piling large solid logs horizontally upon each other, halved together at the ends, with portholes to fire out of. The roof is barked and covered with turf so as not to ignite.’ Robinson recorded both British and Aboriginal accounts of a raid on Espie’s hut that had taken place in August 1831. About twenty warriors from three groups combined for the attack. One stockman was speared and wounded, one Aborigine was shot, and the raiding party burnt down a nearby vacant hut.34

The Black Line

During 1830 the number of Aboriginal raids rose dramatically and resulted in the killing of at least fifteen settlers.35 Colonel George Arthur, the governor of Van Diemen’s Land, decided that he needed to take the initiative to end the frontier conflict or else the settlers would destroy the Aborigines in a ‘War of Extermination’.36 Arthur mobilised a force of soldiers, police and civilians numbering 2200 men (equivalent to ten per cent of the colony’s population), which assembled on the northern and western edge of the settled districts and marched across the colony with the objective of driving the Aborigines into the Forestier and Tasman peninsulas, which would become an escape-proof reservation.37

The Black Line, as the operation became known, began its advance along a 120-mile (195-kilometre) front on 7 October 1830. By 24 October the force had converged along a thirty-mile (fifty-kilometre) front stretching from Richmond to Spring Bay. Heavy rain led Arthur to order a halt for three weeks. The advance recommenced on 17 November, but the Line reached the Forestier Peninsula having only captured a man and a boy.38

Robinson travelled across the path of the Line a few weeks after its conclusion and his description gives an idea of the vast scale of the operation:

The ground was torn up by the trafficking of carts, horses, bullocks &c in conveying supplies. Shoes of a light description, worn out, was strewed about. It had all the appearance of a great assemblage of persons having met, and vast destruction was effected among the trees of the forest. Stripped of their covering they were left to droop and die, a monument of a well intended but ill-devised plan.39

The large number of discarded shoes that Robinson saw were evidence of the massive amounts of food and supplies that Arthur had been required to provide for the Black Line.40 Advancing across rough terrain quickly wore out footwear. Only one week into the operation Arthur ordered the government Commissariat to urgently provide several hundred shoes. Soon afterwards, the chief commissary officer in Hobart, Affleck Moodie, placed a tender for 2000 extra pairs. George Hill, the Launceston commissary officer, bought ‘all the Shoes in Launceston’, about 800 pairs at ten shillings each.41

While the Line was advancing, Robinson outlined his doubts that the operation would achieve its goal. He wrote:

The Line: The question is, if the lines are to be so close that a native can’t get out, what way will they get rid of the lagoons, the rivers, the tea-tree swamps, the impervious forest through which a native will pass, the fallen timber, the craggy precipices along which the natives can crawl, the deep gullies and ravines? The answer might be that a strict watch is kept up, but no guard could prevent the escape of these people even by day; they would pass at night.42

Robinson clearly identified the reasons why the Line would fail. The Aborigines were able to pass easily through the Line undetected. The British parties could not form an effective cordon either on the march or when camped for the night. When the Line was stationary for three weeks, Arthur ordered the construction of fences and obstacles to prevent breakouts. However, when Robinson came across one of these wooden barriers,43 the Aborigines travelling with him ‘laughed heartily’ at the idea that this could have prevented people getting through the Line.44

Most importantly, Friendly Mission provides an Aboriginal perspective of the Black Line. Robinson records a conversation he had with a woman called Luggernemenener in which she tells how she and five young men had passed through the Line and back out again. She said the Black Line parties were extended over a long distance, and reported hearing the constant discharge of firearms and seeing bonfires burning on the hills.45 Arthur had allocated each party a number and ordered that they regularly confirm their relative position in the line of advance by shouting their number, blowing bugles and firing muskets.46 The hilltop fires guided the parties through the thick bush to their next planned halting point and supply depots.

On 26 November 1830 Robinson informed a group of Aborigines near Launceston about the Black Line. He wrote that once they heard the news, ‘the whole of them was in tears throughout the whole of the day’.47 Soon afterwards, Robinson told the Committee for the Care of Captured Aborigines that he had ‘no doubt they were very much intimidated by the operations which were carried out against them’.48

While the Black Line failed in its objective to clear Aborigines from the settled districts, the reaction to the Line recorded by Robinson suggests it must have been one of the contributing factors in the decision of each of the various Aboriginal groups to negotiate with Robinson, come out of the bush and go onto the Flinders Island reservation.


Friendly Mission remains an important source for military historians writing about the Tasmanian frontier. Robinson recorded British reactions, both heartless and sorrowful, to killing Aborigines, as well as indigenous responses, both amused and alarmed, to the Black Line. His account of the emotions created by the Tasmanian conflict is vital for constructing what military historians have termed the ‘the face of battle’.49 Friendly Mission is also important for its account of what military historians have called ‘the other side of the hill’.50 Robinson provides a rare Aboriginal perspective on a war generally only known from the settler point of view. It must always be remembered that the Van Diemen’s Land frontier was a place of cooperation between Tasmanian Aborigines and British settlers as well as a place of conflict. Nonetheless, frontier fighting is an important part of Tasmanian history, and, because few historians have approached it from the viewpoint of military history, it has often been poorly understood.51 Robinson’s diary of his travels along the frontier continues to be a vital starting point for historians wishing to redress this imbalance and come to a better understanding of the Vandemonian frontier war.

Reading Robinson: Companion Essays to George Robinson’s Friendly Mission

   by Anna Johnston and Mitchell Rolls