Into the Heart of Tasmania by Rebe Taylor

Into the Heart of Tasmania by Rebe Taylor

‘Ernest Westlake had spent his life dedicated to stones.  He grew up and lived in Victorian rural England, but he occupied a more ancient world.’

In 1908 Ernest Westlake packed a tent, a bicycle, multiple notebooks, plenty of pairs of socks and forty tins of food.  Ernest Westlake then travelled to Australia by ship, on the White Star Line.  He was 56, widowed and left his two children Margaret and Aubrey behind while he spent 18 months travelling around Tasmania.

Why?  Ernest Westlake wanted to study the flint tools used by the Australian Aborigines.  Years earlier, he had found chipped stones in the Auvergne region of central France.  He believed that these stones had been deliberately fashioned as tools and thought it likely that the tools used by Australian Aborigines were fashioned in the same way.

In this book, Dr Taylor describes Ernest Westlake’s journey of discovery.  While he used his notebooks, much of what he discovered comes out in his letters to his children.  Ernest Westlake spoke to more than 95 Tasmanian Aboriginal people and their descendants, asking them what they knew of Aboriginal culture. He thought he was gaining ‘secondhand’ insights into the past, without realising that at least some of the culture being described to him was still extant.

‘Westlake was blinded by what he wanted to see.  The Aboriginal people of Tasmania were not missing.’

Reading about Ernest Westlake’s experiences, and Dr Taylor’s observations of the present, provides an uncomfortable reminder of how incomplete and how inaccurate our retelling of history has become.  In 1908, Ernest Westlake thought Tasmanian Aboriginal people were extinct.  In the 1960s, when I attended school in Tasmania, we were taught that there were no Aboriginal people left in Tasmania. Wrong.  And in the present day, as Dr Taylor shows (in her writing about the Brighton Bypass) our ability to ignore the significance of Aboriginal heritage continues.

I knew nothing about Ernest Westlake and his journey before reading this book. I found this an interesting, and at times uncomfortable, book to read.  Interesting because although Ernest Westlake collected a large amount of information he seemed unaware of the significance of at least some of it.  Uncomfortable because we are still not treating Aboriginal culture with respect.

‘His search for an Eolithic anachronism meant he could not see what he had unwittingly found: both the Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples’ deep past and their continued endurance.’

Ernest Westlake’s entire archive was digitally published in 2013, thanks to the efforts of Dr Taylor and archivists Michael Jones and Gavan McCarthy.  Hopefully, this will encourage others to look into Ernest Westlake’s life and work.  And, perhaps, to question some of the assumptions we’ve made about the past.

Note: My thanks to Melbourne University Publishing and NetGalley for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith