Is it now the moment for Britain to face up to its own history of genocide on Holocaust Memorial Day?
Reflections On Holocaust Memorial Day
Today, Britain, along with the European Union and the United Nations, observes Holocaust Memorial Day, a solemn occasion commemorating the profound impact of the Holocaust on human civilization. Initially, the focus of this remembrance predominantly emphasized the unprecedented nature of the Holocaust.
However, as contemporary instances of genocidal violence persist globally, this narrative has become increasingly challenging to uphold. Presently, Holocaust Memorial Day serves as a platform not only to honor the victims of the Holocaust but also to acknowledge and remember other instances of genocide.
Through this commemoration, we portray genocide as the ultimate form of atrocity and transgression, representing an assault not just on specific communities but on the fundamental essence of humanity itself. Consequently, we urge recognition of genocide as a universal issue that demands collective remembrance and action.
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Confronting Britain’s Genocidal Past: The Tragic History Of Tasmania
The prevailing discourse surrounding memorialization often neglects to address Britain’s own history of genocide, which deeply intertwines with its global interactions. A stark example of this lies in the colonial outpost established by the British on Tasmania, then known as Van Diemen’s Land, in 1803.
At that time, Tasmania was home to an indigenous population of several thousand individuals comprising distinct cultural and linguistic groups. However, by the conclusion of the ‘Black War’ in the 1820s, a campaign marked by frontier violence largely perpetrated by individual settlers and colonial troops, only a few hundred indigenous survivors remained.
By 1835, authorities subsequently relocated these survivors to Wybalenna, a settlement on Flinders Island. While their relocation was ostensibly voluntary, it came after a sustained campaign against them, which settlers interpreted as an extermination attempt. Despite the authorities allowing indigenous inhabitants limited freedom to leave the settlement, they effectively confined them to the island.
By 1847, fewer than 50 survivors were returned to Van Diemen’s Land. The last known indigenous man, William Lanne, passed away in 1864, followed by the last woman, Truganini, in 1876. Following her death, Tasmania’s indigenous population was tragically declared extinct.
Challenging The Myth of Extinction
The notion of indigenous extinction in Tasmania, though widely propagated, remains a myth, as evidenced by the existence of a resilient Aboriginal community in Tasmania today. Thus escaping the targeted ethnic cleansing of the 1830s.
However, regardless of the myth’s veracity, the scale of genocide perpetrated in Tasmania is staggering, with all functional communal units demolished and a staggering 99% of the population perishing. Moreover, the concept of total extinction underscores a crucial aspect of the genocide in Van Diemen’s Land: its widespread recognition and documentation in Britain itself.
The reverberations of this tragedy within Britain emphasized the depth of understanding and awareness surrounding the atrocities committed rather than confining them to the distant corners of the Empire.
The Continued Legacy Of The British Genocide In Tasmania
The narrative of the British ‘extirpation’ of indigenous Tasmanians persisted well into the 20th century, remaining a prominent topic across various mediums. Even comic books for children and museums displayed across Britain often portrayed indigenous Tasmanians as inferior people out of step with their time. Primarily because they were perceived to have allowed themselves to be exterminated.
Displaying human remains, including skulls, was a common practice until the 1950s when the aftermath of the Holocaust challenged the validity of such racial characterizations. Since the 1990s, human remains have been gradually returning to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community.
The Destruction Of Indigenous Communities In Tasmania
The devastation inflicted upon indigenous communities in Tasmania diverges from conventional perceptions of genocide, as shaped by the Holocaust. Unlike the meticulously planned extermination outlined in events like the Wannsee Conference, Tasmania’s tragedy lacked a unified strategy or industrialized killing technology.
However, certain settlers in Tasmania were resolute in their mission to eradicate an indigenous population perceived as a threat to their colonization efforts. While the British government discouraged the violent treatment of indigenous peoples, it concurrently sanctioned lethal force to defend the colony. Moreover, it endorsed the deportation of surviving indigenous communities as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign.
Additionally, on Flinders Island, the government supported efforts to eradicate indigenous culture, a policy later extended to other Australian colonies. Although physical destruction ceased for the captive indigenous peoples on Flinders Island, they endured treatment tantamount to cultural genocide.
British Attitudes Towards Indigenous Populations
Within British culture, a prevailing belief existed that indigenous populations in Tasmania and throughout the British Empire were destined to fade away in the wake of imperial expansion.
This notion of extinction drew partly from observations in Tasmania and celebrated the perceived power and progress of the British Empire over what it deemed as inferior or primitive cultures.
Furthermore, it sought to normalize a process that, in reality, involved significant violence, both directly through conflicts and indirectly through the displacement of land essential for the cultural and economic sustenance of indigenous communities.
Acknowledging British Genocide: A Reckoning With History
When reflecting on instances of genocide, it is crucial to recognize that the British have also perpetrated this devastating scourge in various parts of the world. Genocide does not solely stem from foreign ideologies distinct from our own, such as the Nazi regime. The case of Tasmania starkly reminds us that genocide and the effort to redefine humanity have become ingrained within British history. This dark chapter underscores how the British Empire intertwined acts of genocide with notions of progress. It continues to shape many mainstream concepts of historical advancement.
Tom Lawson, professor of History at Northumbria University, is set to release a new book “The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania.” It presents the first comprehensive exploration of Britain’s involvement in the decimation of the Tasmanian Aboriginal population.
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