Launch Speech, John Tully, Robbed of Every Blessing
I would like to introduce this book to you by sharing some ideas that grew out of a couple of its most striking phrases.
The first phrase is “the incompetent in pursuit of the intangible”. It has, of course, echoes of Oscar Wilde’s description of fox hunting, “the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible”, but it refers here to an even less ethical and more degrading pursuit, that by the British military and armed civilians of the palawa, Tasmania’s indigenous inhabitants, in the first half of the 19th Century.
That the pursuers were incompetent, at least with regard to their knowledge of the land and their tracking skills, has been proven by the historical outcome of the infamous “Black War”, but, more importantly for our purposes, has been demonstrated artistically by John Tully’s vivid descriptions and characterisations. There is a difference between making an assessment based on a survey of the ascertainable facts and making a chapter in a novel which, while being based on those same historical facts, enables the reader to experience vicariously the human context of such an assessment.
John’s characterisation of the object of that pursuit, as “the intangible”, is what lifts his borrowing above mere paraphrase. At a first reading it appears nicely paradoxical; human beings are tangible but because those hunting them are so unsuccessful their quarry remains literally untouched. More widely, what is also intangible is the victory that the agents of empire are chasing. At a deeper level, however, there is a reference here to those qualities of all humans that are intangible, the human spirit, if you will: the resolve, the pride, the dignity, the connection with country. It is also these abstract concepts that are being subjected to attack, and now, nearly 200 years later, it is these qualities that, by their manifestly evident survival among the Aboriginal Tasmanian population, have demonstrated the failure of that pursuit. Oscar Wilde, armchair socialist that he was, would no doubt approve of the variant on his epigram.
The other phrase appears much earlier in the book, in the Prologue, in fact. It is “the tyranny of authority”. The early chapters illustrate this tyranny as the authority of the British Empire is exercised over the Irish. This is shown most brutally through the unprovoked violent acts of members of the military against innocent, unarmed civilians. The authority indicated by the wearing of a uniform gives a licence to act, not merely according to the laws from which that authority derives, not even necessarily in the interests of those who have bestowed the authority by delegation, but in a way that is both unconstrained and arbitrary.
This kind of tyranny ...
The British in Ireland were, of course, far from the first or last to exhibit this kind of tyranny. It has been displayed whenever and wherever authority has been delegated for the purpose of maintaining inequality. Ancient empires abound in examples, and this century has seen it in places as disparate as Abu Ghraib and Manus Island. Humans have an innate capacity for compassion and reason, but we do not operate in isolation from social structures, and those structures have historically tended to rely on and therefore to encourage the commission of violent acts in the name of authority.
Bashing people up and destroying their possessions are just the more obvious symptoms of the tyranny. The vivid and dramatic presentation of them is one of the strengths of this work. Authority also, however, exerts its tyranny through what we might call, with only a hint of irony, more “civilised” means. The justice system of early 19th century Britain was far from the harshest in the world; it compared favourably with most in terms of sophistication and lack of corruption. This is but lukewarm praise, however. The scene in the Waterford Assizes courtroom shows the due processes being carried out; there is the opportunity for evidence in favour of the defendants to be heard, the trial is open. And yet, even if the verdict was not decided completely beforehand, the sentences, by being so disproportionate to the offences proven, demonstrate that true justice has been trumped by authority.
A colonised and deliberately impoverished Ireland is only the first of the three main settings in which the novel demonstrates the tyranny of authority. Ships, of course, have traditionally been portrayed as microcosms of authoritarian society, and the convict transport here, the Adeline, is firmly and chillingly within that tradition: triply so, in a sense, with the authority of the captain over the crew, that of the officers over the soldiers, and that of all the above over the convicts. In Van Diemens Land the tyranny of authority extends to its being exercised over the indigenous population as a further substratum of victimhood.
Throughout human history, whenever and wherever the tyranny of authority has been exercised, it has been resisted, challenged and, on occasion, overthrown. One important element in this process of resistance and challenge has been the exchange of information and ideas through whatever communications media have been available. The character of Jack Catchpole, editor and publisher of the Hobart Town Clarion, provides another strand in this book’s treatment of the struggle. Allowing for technological changes, one could see him as a Julian Assange for his time, or at least a Lindsay Tuffin. In all probability the owner of today’s successor to the Hobart Town Clarion would have been somewhat less on the side of resistance. Progress is never uniform.
Bullying overseers of convict labour ...
From brutal child exploitation in the Lancashire cotton mills to the bullying by overseers of convict labour in the Antipodes, by way of the corruption involved in the provisioning of the convict transports, Robbed of Every Blessing covers the key precedents to the political, industrial and economic conditions of Tasmania today and weaves them into a pattern that is both fiction and political philosophy. This aspect of the book alone should make it essential reading for Tasmanians. It is always important to know the historical bases for present-day conditions.
For those of you who read books with a desire to follow a narrative, to “see how things turn out”, Robbed of Every Blessing will keep you turning pages. It would not be spoiling things if I told you that by the last page the British were still in control of this island and that the tyranny consequent on their authority was, among other things, ensuring the depletion of the indigenous population. In fact, if one includes the author’s “Afterword”, then by the very last page Tony Abbott is Prime Minister of Australia. I shall, however, refrain from giving away the details of the outcome of the novel’s dialectical contradictions, except to say that it could be read as a Marxist tragedy.
Perhaps the term “Marxist tragedy” is itself a contradiction. If that is conceded, what we have is more a Hegelian tragedy. Against the theme of the tyranny of authority are set those of the struggle for liberty and the imperative of physical and social survival. These themes are illustrated in a number of small details as well as in the overarching narrative strand. The resolution of the tension created by their mutual opposition is shown in personal rather than social or historical terms, with a coloration of romantic nihilism (although there is an interesting echo of a much earlier iconic episode from classic local historical fiction — but, as I said, I won’t spoil the ending, so no more hints.)
If Robbed of Every Blessing is a Hegelian tragedy, then I feel that it is necessary, in Marxist fashion, to turn it on its head. We need a sequel, but it will then also be necessary to create a bit more history in which to situate that sequel. The challenge facing us as readers of this book is to work towards the building of a society in which the incompetent are no longer pursuing the intangible (even in Forestry Tasmania) and in which there is no tyrannical authority to thwart and distort the aspirations of humanity towards freedom, equity and shared prosperity. I suggest that reading this book is a good starting point, so buy a copy and enjoy it in the knowledge that it is not only a small step towards human liberation, but also a damned good read.
15 April 2015