‘The subject of this book, the warrior chief Tongerlongeter, is first named in the records four days before the end of the Black War – the vast frontier conflict that consumed eastern Tasmania from 1823 to 1831.’
When I was a school child in Tasmania in the 1960s, I was taught that Truganini, the last Tasmanian Aborigine, had died in 1869. The how, the who and the why was not part of the curriculum. It was not until the 1970s that I learned this was untrue. Since then, I have been trying to learn more.
Who was Tongerlongeter, and why is he a war hero? Firstly, while I understand that Indigenous names often have different spellings according to who recorded them, I understand that members of the Paredarerme Nation prefer the English spelling of his name as ‘Tongelongeta’. Except for direct quotes from the book, I will use that spelling.
This book is both the history of a war (The Black War of 1823-1831) and of Tongelongeta. Colonial records tell us more about the war than the individuals. I read that Tongelongeta and his ally Montpelliatta embarked on 710 attacks during this period, killing 182 colonists and wounding a further 176. So exact, so precise. While we have no numbers of the Indigenous people killed, we are told that the ‘casualties were up to three times greater, and their population plummeted.’
‘The most important lesson driven home by the war was the central importance of the ownership and control of land.’
The British established their first settlement at Risdon Cove, opposite today’s Hobart, in 1803. From the 1820s settlement accelerated along the fertile valleys of the southeast. While Tongelongeta initially restricted his warriors to targeted retribution, the violence against his people continued to grow resulting in accelerated attacks.
By night, Tongelongeta and his people were vulnerable to ambush. They did not attack at night because they were wary of evil spirits. Tongelongeta ’s first wife was taken in one of these ambushes. But during daylight hours, Tongerlongeta and his warriors were formidable foes. They would typically surround a hut, kill the occupants, take what they wanted and then set fire to the hut. They would then vanish. And so, the war continued until an armistice was brokered.
‘After eight gruelling years, the fighting was over.’
On Saturday 7 January 1832, Tongerlongeta and the remaining 25 men, women, and one child, walked down the centre of Hobart with their hunting dogs, spears, ‘shrieked their war song’ to meet the Governor. They were exiled to Flinders Island where Tongerlongeta died in 1837.
I’ll leave the history there. History is usually written by the victors and often not questioned by those on the ‘winning’ side. Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is that it invites us, uncomfortable as it is, to reconsider what we think we know and mourn what has been lost.
‘There is nothing in the Tasmanian landscape to remind locals or visitors that once an island of patriots fought a desperate war against an invader.’
Book 3 in my 2023 Nonfiction Reader Challenge. I’ve entered as a ‘Nonfiction Grazer’ and this book should be included under the heading of ‘History’.