Tongerlongeter is the story of guerrilla warfare - in the Tasmanian bush

Nick Clements with the book he wrote with Dr Henry Reynolds, on Tongerlongeter. Picture: Phillip Biggs
Nick Clements with the book he wrote with Dr Henry Reynolds, on Tongerlongeter. Picture: Phillip Biggs
  • Tongerlongeter: First Nations Leader & Tasmanian War Hero, by Henry Reynolds and Nicholas Clements. NewSouth, $34.99.

This is the most outstanding work of Australian history I have read so far this year. It is an immensely sad book, well-written, deeply researched, with novelty on every page. Even Henry Reynolds conclusion, furiously written, should be chiselled on tablets of stone. Why, he asks, unlike so many other societies, are our heroes selected from such a narrow range of Australian experience?

A collaboration, of sorts, Reynolds tops and tails this book. Fair enough, he's a revered senior of the Australian historical tribe, a writer informed reader's treasure. The bulk of the book, however, is written by Nicholas Clements, an eighth-generation Tasmanian, a tenacious researcher, an articulate writer, and - thank God - a passionate historian.

This is a book about guerrilla warfare, with the invaded cleverly developing tactics against the invaders. Guerrilla warfare seems universal in its application, in the bush of Tasmania or the jungles of Vietnam. Please don't turn off. This is, really, thrilling and not the account of a superior force against a stone-age people.

Far from it. This war - a long war - hung in the balance for years. Tasmanian strategy evolved, knowledge of country pushed the balance towards the Tasmanians, and thousands of years of defending their own nation tilted the balance in favour of the defenders.

There is so much to admire in this book, insights that only determined study can bestow. Take the chapter "Coming of age" - a celebration of Tasmanian life before the invaders arrived. It is not starry-eyed. There was warfare among the Tasmanian nations even as they were fighting the invaders. There was constant vigilance and anxiety between the nations. Yet the dependence on country, the certainty of a cosmic understanding and a gentleness and civility within nations will charm most readers.

The terror of spirits at night is remarkable but unrelenting. And it plays right into the invaders hands - eventually. The hatred the Tasmanians learnt to have for the invaders accounts for the frightening savagery of this war. Both sides eventually learned that the exclusion of the frightful treatment of women and children was simply not working. Chaos and misery ensued.

Of course the weight of numbers, the might of the Empire, and the technological superiority of the invaders would eventually prevail. But Nicholas Clements' skill as a writer forces the reader to believe that the outcome is far from assured. Tongerlongeter is among the best military history I have read. Evolving strategy and tactics are slowly delineated, remarkable bush skills come to the fore.

Tongerlongeter comes slowly to his military leadership. We see him as an emerging leader, perhaps reluctant, as he slowly comprehends the threat to his people that the invasion involves. Like all guerrilla leaders, he develops his strategic skills on the battlefield. Clements describes these emerging skills: his warriors trust him, accept his leadership and follow his instincts. But also among them are the elderly who cannot fight, the women and children who must be fed and protected. The complexity of Tongerlongeter's tasks will dismay and perplex any close student of guerrilla warfare.

This masterpiece of military history would not even have been accepted as history 50 years ago. It is full of supposition, speculation and suggestion. Of course it is; the records from the side of the ultimately vanquished are non-existent. But using contemporary commentary and near-contemporary historical writing, Clements will convince most readers that this is what happened.

The book paints a kinder picture of George Augustus Robinson than some readers may have been expecting, but his own words are used as evidence in a way that may convince the most sceptical. Robinson was a vain main-chancer, yet Clements (almost) convinces me there was more to him than that. The last days of these guerrilla heroes in exile on Flinders Island will wring tears from even the hardest-hearted readers.

Reynolds' conclusion is almost a coda to his magnificent, nation-building career as one of Australia's greatest-ever historians. It is powerful, overwhelming, constrained, as all of Reynolds' writing is. But he is wrong. The last place I would wish to see these mighty, near-successful, empire-changing warriors (as Clements convincingly shows) commemorated is in the now debased and debauched Australian War Memorial. The argument is over. Once it was claimed that the memorial must discuss the "frontier wars". Conservatives resisted; nothing happened.

A memorial that will now celebrate the ADF achievement in our Black Summer bushfires is no place for these mighty warriors.

  • Michael McKernan is a former deputy-director of the Australian War Memorial.
This story Finding heroes in Tasmanian bush first appeared on The Canberra Times.