Lest we forget a leader who fought for his people and Country

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Review: Tongerlongeter: First Nations Leader and Tasmanian War Hero, Henry Reynolds and Nicholas Clements, New South Press, $34.99

Hobart, Van Diemen’s Land, January 7, 1832. Twenty-six survivors of the “Black War” that had raged across the island for the previous eight years, marched down Elizabeth Street in “battle order”, trailed by a large pack of dogs. Each male carried three spears in his left hand and one in his right. Accompanied by their “conciliator”, missionary George Augustus Robinson and 13 of his “Aboriginal associates”, they “shrieked their war song” as they advanced towards Government House, where Governor George Arthur waited to meet them.

Crowds of curious onlookers rushed to witness the scene. At the head of the march strode the imposing figure of Tongerlongeter, the Poredareme warrior whose country stretched north as far as Oyster Bay, south to the Tasman Peninsula, and inland “almost as far as Oatlands and the Coal Valley”. He was one of the most feared leaders of the loose confederation of Oyster Bay – Big River nations that had launched more than 700 attacks since 1824, killing or wounding more than 350 white settlers and terrorising the colony. It was little surprise that Hobart’s residents saw the marchers’ presence as a hopeful sign that the war was over.

The full drama and tragedy of
 Tongerlongeter is revealed by Henry Reynolds and Nicholas Clement.

The full drama and tragedy of
Tongerlongeter is revealed by Henry Reynolds and Nicholas Clement.
Credit:Thomas Bock (1832), Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery

As Henry Reynolds and Nicholas Clements argue in Tongerlongeter, their compelling and harrowing account of his troubled life and blood-soaked times, Tongerlongeter led “Australia’s most effective Aboriginal resistance campaign” in its “most significant war”. More people lost their lives in the Black War “than in any other conflict on Australian soil”.

Tongerlongeter – forgotten and unacknowledged like so many Indigenous warriors who resisted the invasion of their Country – also led the first march of war veterans in Australian history. Long before the first Anzac Day on April 25, 1916, Australians died defending their homeland on their own soil. Yet two centuries later, as we eulogise the men and women who died serving Australia in overseas conflicts, we fail to honour our Indigenous patriots in the same field of vision.

In his landmark book The Other Side of the Frontier (1981), Henry Reynolds asked when Australians would “make room for the Aboriginal dead on our memorials, cenotaphs, boards of honour and even in the pantheon of national heroes”. In a series of publications over the next 40 years – most notably his history of frontier conflict in Tasmania, Fate of a Free People (1995) and more recently in Forgotten War (2013) – Reynolds has continued to ask the same question, honing his arguments on the anvil of contemporary politics and memory as he insists that we apply the “sacred, ubiquitous phrase”, “Lest We Forget” to those who “bled on their own soil”.

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Both Reynolds and Clements, author of The Black War: Fear Sex and Resistance in Tasmania (2014), know this history (and the lie of the land) intimately. Clements, who writes most of Tongerlongeter, provides the “finer grained story” while Reynolds, who writes the opening chapters and conclusion, reveals its broader national and international significance. Their decision to reframe a history they’ve both written about before through a biographical lens pays extraordinary dividends.

Now we can see the experience of invasion and war through Tongerlongeter’s eyes and the various roles he played throughout his life – father, husband, diplomat and warrior – and we catch glimpses of his character: a “jocular” man who was at once fierce and defiant, clever and kind, brutal and revengeful. By focusing the “horror film” of the Black War’s history through the experience of one man, Reynolds and Clements powerfully reveal the personal and collective trauma wrought by war and dispossession.