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Author Q&A :: Hobart by Peter Timms

From time to time, we’ll be talking to great Australian authors about their local history and what inspired them to start researching and writing their stories.

This week we talk to Peter Timms, author of Hobart. In this updated edition, Peter Timms leads us on a journey through his adopted city of Hobart, Australia’s smallest, most southerly, least prosperous, but arguably most beautiful state capital. He reveals a city in transition, shaking off its dark and troubled past to claim its special place in the post-modern world.


IHM: Q. What inspired you to start researching and writing?

Peter: The book wasn’t actually my idea. The publisher, NewSouth, wanted to produce a book on each of the capital cities and approached me to do the one on Hobart. At first, I was a bit reluctant, having lived in Hobart for just ten years or so, but friends here said they thought the observations of a relative newcomer would be interesting. Once I got started, I enjoyed doing it immensely.

IHM: Q. Which resources did you find most helpful?

Peter: The best resources were people. I interviewed local politicians, a poet, some recent immigrants, social workers, unemployed people, artists, businesspeople, historians, even a bell-ringer, along with many others. Then I weaved my narrative around their stories. It was they who determined the form of the book. The State Library of Tasmania was also a very important source, especially for historical information.

IHM: Q. What resources did you come across when researching your books that haven’t been widely used?

Peter: I don’t make any claims for originality. I’m not a professional historian. What I do best is combining things, making connections, drawing out parallels. So, although there is very little original research in the book, it does bring together a whole lot of information that would not normally be combined in one text. It’s a compendium. I range freely over many topics, including commerce, the weather, local history, fashion, food, literature and the arts, buildings and town planning, bringing them into contact with one another and looking at how everything influences everything else and how the past determines the present. I like complexity, and the more you learn, the more complex things get.

IHM: Q. Was there any information you uncovered that stopped you in your tracks?

Peter: What affected me most were the stories of convicts and Aboriginal Tasmanians. I knew that Tasmania had been a convict colony, of course, and that the original inhabitants had suffered massive disruption as a result of English settlement, but I hadn’t understood the moral complexities of these stories. I still don’t fully understand (who does?), but I have a much more subtle appreciation of such issues than I did before. I was amused by the various perceptions of Tasmania expressed by outsiders, especially writers. How many people know that Gulliver (of Gulliver’s Travels) was shipwrecked off the coast of Tasmania, for example? (Although Swift got the co-ordinates hopelessly wrong) Throughout history, Tasmania has been seen either as a dark, forbidding place of murder and cannibalism or, alternatively, as a bit of a joke. I say in the book that Tasmania was to Australia as Ireland was to Britain: the butt of cruel jokes. I don’t think that’s the case today, however. Perceptions have changed.

IHM: Q. If you could track down one thing what would it be?

Peter: Where do I start? There are so many things I don’t know. I’m learning new things every day. But that’s the joy of it, isn’t it?

IHM: Q. What’s your best tip for people wanting to write a history book of their own?

Peter: I’m not sure I’m qualified to give advice, but one important thing for me is to start with a clear overall idea of what I want to say, but no idea of how I’m going to get there. It has to be a challenge. It has to be a bit scary. I need to be making discoveries (and mistakes) as I go along so I can take the reader with me on an adventure. If I were to get all the research done first, then sit down to write, I’d get bored, and then the writing would be boring too. I always try to keep my readers in mind: to have a conversation with them rather than imparting facts. Who am I writing for? What do I think will interest them?

IHM: Q. How did you go about bringing the characters and stories to life?

Peter: I suppose it has to do with getting to know the people I’m writing about, finding them interesting and wanting to know more about them myself. For example, the individuals I interviewed were fascinating. One would tell me a story and that would either mesh or clash with something someone else told me, so gradually a picture would be built up in my mind. It was a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle. I was continually making new discoveries, getting fresh perspectives and contrary views. For example: I talked to a former alcoholic who lives in one of Hobart’s poorer suburbs and he had a lot to say about crime in his area. Later, I interviewed the Assistant Commissioner of Police, who gave me a completely different perspective. Both were accurate, but each represented a completely different view.

IHM: Q. How do you know when you’ve written a good book?

Peter: I don’t. That’s for others to decide. If I were to write it now, it would no doubt be completely different. But you reach a point where you think that’s as good as I can do and you send it out into the world and hope for the best. The fact that the book has sold so well and has generally been reviewed favorably is very encouraging. Best of all, for me, is that many people I know who were born in Hobart and have lived here all their lives tell me they think I’ve made a good job of it. They are the final arbiters.

Image courtesy of NewSouthBooks. Click to look inside or buy

The extract from Hobart below is printed with the permission of the author and publisher:

Truganini’s mother was murdered by sailors, her uncle was shot by a soldier, her sister abducted for sex by sealers, and her fiancé killed by timber workers. Tricked into moving to what was in effect a death camp at Flinders Island in 1835, then to another at Oyster Bay, she witnessed the slow passing of all those around her, remaining as the sole survivor. Truganini saw out her old age in Hobart, dying there in 1874. Her terrible fears that her body would be desecrated proved well-founded. She was cut up and her skeleton put on display in the Tasmanian Museum, where it remained until 1951.

Henry Jones’s mortal remains, on the other hand, were interred at Cornelian Bay Cemetery with great ceremony and respect, attended by some ten thousand mourners. His career began in the year Truganini died and, by the turn of the century, he had become one of Hobart’s most powerful businessmen, with fruit-growing, preserving, timber, mining and shipping interests spanning five continents. His jam company was called IXL because, he boasted, ‘I excel in whatever I do.’

Truganini and Henry Jones are just two of the Tasmanian identities (almost all of them men) commemorated in bronze on a Memorial Wall just off Hunter Street, next to the Henry Jones Hotel. Others include David Collins, Hobart’s first lieutenant-governor; Robert Knopwood, its first clergyman and magistrate; composer Peter Sculthorpe; and, inevitably, Errol Flynn.

The inscriptions are crisp and to the point. Their aim is to encourage interest in Tasmania’s achievers, perhaps in the hope that we will be moved to emulate them. Henry Jones is lauded for his ‘hard work and enterprise’, George Muir for being ‘a fervent advocate of Tasmania and its fisheries and restaurants’. Truganini alone is not accorded any accomplishment. She is present as victim – a remarkable survivor. White people do things, Aboriginal people have things done to them. All the same, the horrors of her story are tactfully passed over. Had you never heard of her before, you might wonder why this woman was being honoured here at all.

Although the memorial wall is a well-intentioned attempt to inspire and inform, it assumes a great deal. When former arts minister Paula Wriedt officially opened it in November 2007 she made all the right noises, but how many in the small gathering that day were left wondering about the actual function of these plaques. What do they tell us? Why are they here? Why these people and not others?

In effect, these soothing inscriptions present what one of Michelle de Kretser’s fictional characters, pondering similar memorials in Melbourne, calls ‘the willed creation of a sense of the past: a municipal mythmaking… Cloaked in virtuous intention, these signs functioned insidiously. They displaced history with heritage, plastering over trauma with a picturesque frieze.’ Hunter Street’s Memorial Wall not only ignores the vital distinctions between the material successes of the Henry Joneses on the one hand and, on the other, the enormities of what was done to the Truganinis, reducing both to bland points of interest, it fails to show how the one is connected to the other in a fatal loop of cause and effect. In short, despite the best will in the world, it is a memorial that flattens out history, stripping it of meaning and purpose.

History is something Tasmanians have always had trouble with. A great deal of it weighs down on them, after all, and it has sometimes been difficult for them to know what to do with it all.

Some commentators have been hard on earlier generations for their willful forgetting. Peter Hay, for example, has advocated that ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ be restored as the state’s name, ‘at the expense of the prettifying, shame-derived, “Tasmania”.’ Yet poor old Tasmanians in the mid-nineteenth century did have a lot to forget and, however destructive it now seems in hindsight, they can hardly be blamed for wanting to put their ghastly past behind them and start afresh with a new name.

There were three subjects they were anxious to avoid: the shameful way the indigenous inhabitants had been treated, the dreaded ‘convict stain’, and their own economic woes.

The harrowing story of what happened to the original inhabitants after the British arrived in 1803 is only now being pieced together by historians such as Henry Reynolds and James Boyce. That it was for so long neglected speaks volumes about settler society’s unwillingness to acknowledge a large slice of its past. In a postscript to his influential book, Van Diemen’s Land, Boyce writes: ‘With the death of Truganini in 1876, “full-blood” Aborigines were widely thought to be “extinct” and their story deemed over. The fact that Truganini’s death was contemporaneous with the takeover of the last remaining Aboriginal lands went unnoticed. Colonists could both publicly ponder the tragic consequences of the British conquest and allow its final chapter to proceed almost without comment. Questions about the invasion of Van Diemen’s Land were now deemed to be of purely historical interest.’

Today, despite Aboriginal political and social issues being so prominent in the news (or perhaps partly as a result), neither the way these people lived before European settlement nor the epic tale of their clash with European civilisation have succeeded in firing the public’s imagination in the way convict history has. Unlike the convicts, indigenous peoples left few traces on the landscape that look interesting from the windows of a passing bus. Tasmania has the world’s best collection of Holocene middens, for example, but a midden is just a heap of shells to the uninformed. It does not signal any event and it cannot be connected to any individual names, and events and names are what tourists need to latch on to when they seek out connections with the past. While you might admire baskets and shell necklaces, you must go to a museum or gallery to do so, which presupposes a certain level of prior interest and knowledge. It also presupposes a museum. Although that shrine to the convicts, Port Arthur, is Tasmania’s most visited tourist attraction and one of its biggest money-earners, there is no major institution devoted to indigenous history and culture. On the face of it, this is astonishing in a city that virtually lives off its history.

When you think about it, however, Port Arthur, just over an hour’s drive from Hobart, was already there, with drama and turmoil oozing from every stone. As spectacle its ruins are hard to beat. So making it accessible was easy. Furthermore, the convicts exist solely in the past, safely out of contention, leaving tourists free to imagine them in any way they like. A centre for Aboriginal history and culture, on the other hand, would have to be built from scratch and would be subject to the labyrinthine intricacies of modern indigenous politics.

Sadly, therefore, this large and crucial chunk of Tasmania’s history remains fairly much the preserve of ideologues and academic historians. The rest of us must read books and try to imagine. It is enough that civic functions begin with the guests piously ‘acknowledging’ the Mouheneenner people, serenely confident that no Mouheneenner will appear unexpectedly in the doorway brandishing a spear to spoil their evening.

If Aborigines remain peripheral to the tourist industry’s reinvention of the past, convicts occupy centre stage. In one of those dramatic reversals mentioned earlier, Tasmanians have now decided to bring them back from the dead – with a vengeance. Convicts have become almost an obsession.

In the early 1850s, some three quarters of adult males in Van Diemen’s Land were convicts or ex-convicts.’ In comparison to New South Wales, it was a huge proportion, and it set the mood of Tasmanian society for generations. Long after transportation had ended, and military dictatorship had blossomed into a free democratic state, this continued to be overwhelmingly a prisoner society. ‘Because every constructive innovation to improve society was brought up short against the problems persisting from the penal settlement,’ writes Peter Bolger, ‘it was difficult to avoid morbid obsessions with criminality and moral stain. Behind all of the glorious and satisfying social activities of a free community, the Institute classes, the Royal Society discussions of Aboriginal languages, the pride in new steamships and new gas lighting, there still lay the canker of convict kingdom.’

It was not wise to mention convicts in case the person you were talking to had a skeleton in the closet, which was actually quite likely but no less embarrassing for all that. In every second family there lurked a shadowy great-uncle or grandmother who was never to be mentioned. Respectable Hobartians were embarrassed and annoyed that tourists showed so much unhealthy interest in convict history. ‘[T]he abandoned Port Arthur became, entirely against the wishes of the Tasmanian establishment, the seed from which the island’s historical tourism grew.’ Even as this was occurring, attempts were being made (in 1889, 1901 and 1913) to demolish Port Arthur’s buildings and obliterate the memories they held.

‘It’s a very strange thing, isn’t it,’ observes the historian Alison Alexander, ‘for everyone just to forget a whole slice of their common history: and for everyone to agree to it.’ The 1950s and 1960s, she thinks, were a turning point. ‘Tasmania was doing well and Britain had lost its influence. People didn’t care so much any more what the British thought of them. Also, the convicts were by this time three or four generations back, so it wasn’t as if it was your grandmother or something. In the seventies, there was a huge world-wide interest in family histories, and it became easier for people to do the research because of microfilm. And, once people started doing the research, they found that most of the convicts’ crimes were minor, like stealing handkerchiefs and so on, which was not really anything to be ashamed of… People, when they write their family histories, will gloss over anything awful their ancestors might have done … So the convicts’ story could be made into a happy story of larrikins and beating the odds… Their crimes were completely understandable, they were treated terribly by the authorities, and when they came out here they were so brave, so pioneering… Remember that this was a time of general anti-establishment feeling in the community, a time of rebellion against propriety and respectable middle-class values.’

To continue the thought: the convict story might also offer a response to those who would reduce history to a black and white conflict between innocent victims and guilty oppressors. In its inchoate way, it says, ‘Look, our ancestors suffered too. They were not murderers and invaders but helpless victims’. At a time when competitive victimhood has become a means of validation, that thought, paradoxically, gives strength.

Whatever the psychological motivations may have been for this sudden flowering of interest, in the 1960s and 1970s air travel provided the means by turning tourism into a major money-earner for Tasmania, which, apart from its natural beauties, had little else to sell but its past.

But how to sell it – and to commemorate and elucidate it – without cheapening, exploiting or vulgarising the convicts’ suffering? It is a problem that dogs the creators of Holocaust memorials. While you want people to understand what happened to these unfortunate souls and, perhaps, to experience something of what they experienced, you must at the same time try to head off any unseemly fascination. Tales of floggings, solitary confinements, leg-irons and forced labour have a reckless tendency to veer off into ghoulish entertainment: another, even more insidious, form of forgetting that Port Arthur, for all its attributes, has not entirely managed to avoid.

One approach is the poetic one that tries to evoke emotions allusively. The art installations in The Port Arthur Project in 2007, for example, used abstract means to suggest feelings of confinement, loneliness or abandonment. Unfortunately, in their efforts to avoid anything lurid or sensational, the artists drifted instead into languid melancholy, which made the exhibition a strangely limp and bloodless experience, lacking any sense of anger or outrage. Nor were any overt parallels drawn with the injustices of today, suggesting that cruelty and violence are a thing of the past. That distancing is what convict tourism also tends to encourage, whether intentionally or not. It is only the assurance that such horrors could not happen today in civilised countries such as our own that makes our experience of them bearable. The dramas of the past are cordoned off, each carefully composed scene framed by an elaborate proscenium arch and selectively lit. They are rarely allowed to extend far into the world we inhabit today.

Unfortunately, reality has a way of intruding, sometimes catastrophically. In 1996, Port Arthur was unexpectedly revisited by real horror when a disturbed young man named Martin Bryant opened fire randomly on visitors, killing thirty-five. ‘In Tasmania, where so many people, from paramedics to pilots, had been drawn into the vortex created by the shooting,’ observed Margaret Scott, ‘where everybody knew somebody involved, the disaster became inescapable.’ Bryant himself, with a cold logic at once twisted and curiously perceptive, claimed that ‘a lot of violence has happened there. It must be the most violent place in Australia. It seemed the right place'”.

Featured image of Hobart Town, 1879 is courtesy of Irene Schaffer’s Website

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