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Nicholas Clements, Tongerlongeter, speculative history and the right to write

Published: Wednesday, 13 July 2022

Tongerlongeter, the leader of Tasmania’s Oyster Bay nation and ‘principal chief’ of the exiled survivors of the Black War, was until recently virtually unknown, even to most Aboriginal Tasmanians. So how did one of Australia’s most significant resistance fighters go under the radar for so long? In large part, the problem is one of sources – Tongerlongeter is not mentioned by name until four days before the armistice that ended the war in 1831. Even in exile, he is referred to just a few dozen times. And while Tongerlongeter’s centrality to the final stages of the war and its aftermath is beyond doubt, only two retrospective accounts survive of wartime actions. As for the specifics of his role in the resistance, we will never know with any certainty. So where does that leave the historian? How can such jigsaws be responsibly assembled when so many of the pieces are missing? Should they even be attempted? This talk summarises my interpretation of Tongerlongeter’s story and lays bare my methods for giving colour to the missing jigsaw pieces. And lest methodology prove too dry, I conclude with some musings on the fraught question of non-Aboriginal historians writing about Aboriginal people.

Nicholas Clements is an Adjunct Researcher with the University of Tasmania. His PhD research and 2014 book, The Black War: Fear, Sex and Resistance in Tasmania, explored the motivations and experiences of both Aborigines and colonists during that conflict. His most recent book, co-authored with Henry Reynolds, is Tongerlongeter: First Nations Leader and Tasmanian War Hero – a biography of the southeast Tasmanian chief and an account of the incredible resistance he and his allies mounted against the invasion of his country by British colonists.