by Carmel Bird
© all rights reserved
Tasmania, formerly Van Diemen’s Land, is a small island about the size of Sri Lanka at the south eastern tip of the continent of Australia. It’s shape, some say, is like a heart; others call it a cunt. It is, in any case, the butt of many an Australian joke, known in legend for incest, bestiality, birth defects and freaks. I recently saw a report of a young Tasmanian woman who has a thriving business making and selling two-headed Tasmanian dolls.
The most violent and unrestrained prisoners in the penal settlement at Port Jackson on the Australian mainland were transferred to Van Diemen’s Land in 1803. The commander was John Bowen who was only twenty-three, and he pitched the first camp in the colony on the banks of the Derwent River at Risdon. Risdon is now the site of the Hobart jail where the man accused of shooting the thirty-five people is being held.
In 1830, Port Arthur was established as a prison settlement with thirty-four prisoners and fifteen soldiers. This company arrived by sea, as the place was then inaccessible by land. The ocean is treacherous, and tall cliffs of dark stone, marked by vertical breaks to resemble monstrous organ pipes, provide the first grim sight of Port Arthur.
I saw those cliffs from a boat when I was a child. I was with my father and uncle and cousins, and we were fishing for barracuda. It was cold, rough and misty, and I remember feeling very, very small and lonely and sad, out on the water, beneath the cliffs.
By 1996 Port Arthur was a highly developed tourist facility sixty kilometres by road from Hobart, with all the comforts of a modern theme park in a most beautiful sea-side setting, spiced by the frisson of the convict past.
Enter, the gunman.
This word ‘gunman’ is actually quite old, from 1624. A lawless man who uses fire-arms. Whenever I see ‘gunman’ used in the press, it looks so blunt, so correct, so very much up to the minute that I think it must be a modern, made-up word, but it isn’t. Perhaps we use it more often than we used to. It certainly fits the mood of the times. Lone gunman.
In the Broad Arrow Cafe a young, blonde, lone gunman took a military assault rifle from his large tennis bag and shot and killed twenty people. He had two assault rifles, the kind of guns that blow off limbs, blow large sections of people away. He left the cafe and killed four people in the car park. He drove to the toll gate and shot a woman and her small daughter. Her other daughter he hunted down, and he shot her where she was hiding, behind a gum tree. He shot four people in a car, took the car and drove to a gas station where he killed a woman and took a man hostage. He drove to a guesthouse where he remained throughout the night with his hostage and the two owners of the guesthouse.
All the dead bodies were guarded where they lay, by police, during the long, cold night until they could be officially examined and removed in the light of day. Port Arthur must have been drenched with blood and reeking; Tasmanian devils are carnivorous. Two months later, and I often find my imagination flickers with the vision of the dead child behind the tree, watched over all night like a sleeping baby. I try to imagine being the watcher.
The next morning the gunman ran burning from the burning house, leaving the three other people to die, and was captured.
I saw the strange, brief, televised television hook-up between the man accused and the court of law. I read a lot of reportage and speculation about the man’s life and state of mind and motives. Did he really share his bed with a pig? Perhaps. Some newspaper stories said he did. In any case, the story of the man and his pig chimes perfectly with the legendary Tasmania where brothers and sisters are lovers, and where strange creatures are born from the union of man and beast.
Alongside the historical dramas of Tasmania runs a colourful theme of sexual repression and violence. One of the most telling modern debates in Tasmania rages around the laws forbidding homosexuality.
In the vigorous national debate about gun control which has developed from the massacre at Port Arthur, there has been little mention, at least in the press, of the sexual meanings of guns. Perhaps it is so obvious nobody needs to say it; perhaps we are weary of the clear and inescapable nexus between sex and violence, and are keen to place sex in the background for a time. The man with the gun at Port Arthur killed thirty-five people and he effectively raped the collective imagination of Australia.
As the story unreeled on television, people (helpless, gasping, clutching for a hold on something they knew they had lost) people spoke of ‘Tasmania’s loss of innocence’. If Tasmania was ever innocent, it was innocent a long, long time ago.
Let us never forget that the people who lived in Tasmania, when John Bowen and company first camped at Risdon in 1803, were Tasmanian Aborigines, a unique and distinct race, separate from any of the native people who lived on mainland Australia. By 1876 there were so very few of them left alive that it became possible for the official history to say they had completely died out.
Plenty of Tasmanian Aborigines are living to this day, and yet they must still fight to be recognized for who they are. Last century they were hunted down, humiliated, gunned down, massacred. The official history betrays a kind of pride that a bunch of white men with guns were able to exterminate a whole race of black people.
And never far from Tasmanian consciousness is the Thylacine, the Tasmanian Tiger, a small, unique species, last seen in the Hobart zoo in 1937. The Thylacine was effectively hunted into extinction, but some Tasmanians passionately believe it is breeding in secret, believe they have seen it. It is a kind of emblem of a collective guilt about the past.
For the Aborigines we have the myth of extinction; for the Thylacine we have the myth of survival. Must we be so perverse? One of my uncles used to call my brother ‘Tige’, short for Tasmanian Tiger. And if you go to a grog shop and ask for six Tigers you will get six bottles of Tasmanian beer.
In a spurt, a spree of proud and narcissistic violence, the man with the Armalite AR-15 and the Simonov SKS-46 opened the way to many old wounds which have been suppurating beneath the surface of Tasmania for years, concealed, but active. Guns, violence, sex, racism, secrecy, lies. If the aftermath of 28 April 1996 is to provide a path to healing and sanity, then those are some of the issues that must be addressed.
Carmel Bird is a leading Australian novelist and essayist. Her latest novel is The White Garden (UQP). This piece is extracted , with permission, from Meanjin, no 3, 1996
Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore, Collins Harvill, 1987
Cassandra Pybus, Community of Thieves, Heinemann, 1991
Lloyd Robson, A History of Tasmania, Oxford University Press, 1991
Lyndall Ryan, The Aboriginal Tasmanians, Allen & Unwin, 1996
J.R Skemp, Tasmania Yesterday and Today, Macmillan, 1958