A people of love - Forty South (2023)

A people of love - Forty South (1)

Part 2: How the gothic has corrupted and silenced Tasmanian experience

In James Burke’s Life and Adventures of Martin Cash, the famous Irish-born bushranger of the book’s title recalls encountering a party of constables at Bridgewater in 1837 soon after his arrival in the colony. They were escorting the coffin of an executed highwayman and murderer to the place of his crime, where his body was to be hung in gibbets.

That place was Gibbet Hill north of Perth where the same corpse was subsequently encountered swinging in the breeze by the entrepreneur and evangelical, Henry Reed. As I described in the first half of this essay, Reed spent the night struggling with Satan at the foot of the gibbet, finally overcoming him at first light and being filled with God’s grace as the sun rose. More than a century later, Reed’s grandson, Hudson Fysh, wrote about this encounter, but not as a tale of Christian hope. He amended the original tale so that it became an unremitting horror story about a brutal, benighted and unredeemed Tasmania.

Cash’s perspective was very different. Like the coffin party, he was also travelling north and saw the gibbetted corpse at its final destination. Of its fate he wrote, “In a few weeks … it was became so offensive that the inhabitants petitioned to have it removed, averring that the large flies, after leaving the body, flew into their dwellings and let upon their provisions, and that the thing had become a dangerous and disgusting nuisance.”

For Cash the deepest horror was not the corpse itself, or ghoulish stories about it, but the petty, selfish interest local residents had in its removal and the callous indifference to human brutality and suffering this implied. This kind of sharp social commentary is what makes it a tragedy Cash is not more widely read. But the fact that today we are much more likely to see the brutalities of colonial Tasmania through the gothic lens of Hudson Fysh rather than the satirical one of Martin Cash speaks to a bigger tragedy.

I have already put the case for why the Tasmanian gothic is a counterfeit version of Tasmania, a literary fraud in the case of Hudson Fysh and others, where words are added or omitted and their meanings misconstrued to show Tasmania in an especially bad light. But the gothic does something far worse. It overshadows other ways of seeing Tasmania, obscuring the truths other perspectives carry and sometimes deliberately obliterating them.

The Tasmanian baroque

Martin Cash’s memoir is one of the best examples of a Tasmanian genre too little studied and understood: the picaresque. This episodic, satirical, deliberately over-written style of 18th prose was Tasmania’s founding literary style, preceding neo-classicalism, romanticism and romanticism’s monstrous child the gothic, surviving and adapting in Tasmania when those other styles had replaced it elsewhere.

I call it a Tasmanian style because its survival here was not the result of some supposed isolation from later literary developments. The picaresque served a useful local purpose. As a late baroque style, it was able to express the swirl, asymmetry, unpredictability, variety and violence both of early colonial life and of Tasmania’s landscape. As with the disorienting flourishes of a gilded baroque altar piece, nothing in the Tasmanian picaresque makes sense in itself. Meaning arises from the relationships of the parts and in light of the fundamental truth they all point to. For the same reason, the 18th century music style known as Scottish manorism, a combination of Scottish folk music and Italian baroque, survived in Tasmania in the works of convict composer Alexander Laing long after it had faded in Scotland. It expressed something authentic about life in Van Diemen’s Land.

Indeed, in some cases we can only understand the Vandemonian experience through the picaresque lens. Colonial figures like Cash, Jorgen Jorgenson, Henry Savery, Robert Knopwood, Michael Howe and Alexander Laing are not only more at home in a novel by Fielding or Swift than Dickens or Brontë, it can seem they lived their lives as if to be Tom Jones or Lemuel Gulliver.

A people of love - Forty South (2)

The hated stain of convictism submerged the picaresque for more than a century and a half. The Tasmanian gothic, as a reprove and a repudiation of the convict past, took its place. The little we know of the short plays elderly and institutionalised convicts performed in the Paupers’ Mess at Port Arthur in the years before the prison’s closure suggest they were short episodes mixing tragedy, comedy and pathos in a typically picaresque way. If so, one occasional audience member, Marcus Clarke, threw this style out. Instead, in For the Term of His Natural Life, he reinvented the convicts’ stories as tales of human brutality in a hostile place, and that is how they have come down to us.

Fortunately, the picaresque was not purged entirely. It was revived in the novels of Richard Flanagan and, through those works, has become familiar to entire generations of young Tasmanians. It is no coincidence that Flanagan has condemned Tasmanian gothic for obscuring the complexities of Tasmania and caricaturing it as a freak show.

Love and death on Mt Misery

The stories I heard as a child and adolescent were also overshadowed by the gothic, even though it seemed to me when I was introduced to them they were not horror stories at all.

Growing up, as I did, over the mountain from Mole Creek, I heard of Mrs Miles waiting for years for the return of her trapper husband who, unknown to her, was dead. As I heard it, this story was about fidelity in the face of doubt. That was not what I saw when I first watched the film based on her story, The Tale of Ruby Rose.

Having many friends in the Huon Valley I heard the cycle of stories that explain the naming of Mt Misery. In several written works about Tasmania, the name is ascribed to early white settlers’ fear and loathing towards the landscape, especially the prevailing westerly weather. But local folklore speaks instead of a young man who died visiting his lover who lived on the other side of the mountain. The wry “misery” was that he died on his way up the mountain, not on the way back down.

My grandfather, who travelled the western tiers buying skins from trappers, spoke about being the first to come across a murdered snarer at Moina in the 1930s. I have read that story retold as a dark tale of poverty and vengeance in Tasmania’s unforgiving forests, with the motive for murder being one snarer encroaching on another’s turf. But the way my grandfather told it, the murder was the result of a love triangle.

Can you see where I am going? Each of these stories, transformed into tales of gothic horror in their retelling, is actually, in origin, a story about love. In every case, love is adjacent to death, as is often the case in the love stories we remember because that is how love proves itself. But death, exaggerated as the defining feature of life in Tasmania, has come to overshadow love and shove it aside. As a result a fundamental truth is lost: as Tasmanians, love defines us.

As if man and wife

Where the gothic has most poignantly and tragically obliterated love is in stories of same-sex love.

Let’s return to the Paupers’ Mess in 1870 where a young, ambitious Marcus Clarke, was scribbling down the stories told by old lags. His time in Tasmania inspired two of the famous episodes in For the Term of His Natural Life: the escape of Alexander Pearce from Macquaire Harbour became Clarke’s story of the mad convict cannibal, Gabbett; and the Cooking Pot Riot on Norfolk Island (then part of Tasmania) became Clarke’s tale of resistance to a commandant whose brutality towards the convicts knew no bounds.

Both of those famous episodes are, at their core, gay love stories. The escape from Macquarie Harbour which Alexander Pearce joined was initiated by Robert Greenhill and Matthew Travers. Pearce alluded to Greenhill and Travers’ intimacy in his confession. Later historians like Paul Collins concede they were lovers. It seems when they planned their escape, Greenhill and Travers expected to be the last men standing. It was only thanks to Travers’ unexpected death that fortune awarded Pearce with both survival and naming rights to the narrative.

The evidence of same-sex love couldn’t be clearer for the Cooking Pot Riot. Tasmanian convict, Denis Prendergast, who was hanged for his role in the riot, wrote a letter to his male lover from death row that is the only same-sex love letter we have from convict times. The revolt was because the authorities clamped down on the male couples tilling plots of land and cooking for each other. One outraged clergyman reported there were 300 male convicts living in couples on the island “as if man and wife”.

There is no denying these stories are grisly and shot through by cruelty and horror. But they are not entirely those things. They are also stories of devotion and faithfulness between men. Like the other love stories I’ve cited, the love in these tales sits next to death. But as with the other love stories, the presence of death is not love’s failure or demise, it is love’s vindication. Prendergast’s letter shows this clearly:

“Dear Jack,

"I hope you won’t forget me when I am far away and all my bones is moldered away. I have not closed an eye since I lost sight of you. Your precious sight was always a welcome and loving charming spectacle.

"I value Death nothing but it is in leaving you my dear behind and no one to look after you …

"The only thing that grieves me love is when I think of the pleasant nights we have had together.

"I hope you won’t fall in love with no other man when I am dead and I remain your True and loving affectionate Lover.”

I’m hardly the first to note that the Tasmanian gothic’s retelling of such tales as these obscures the homosexuality at their core. Others have written better than me about how the gothic served the purposes of post-convict Tasmania because it was so adept at suggesting but never stating the unmentionable, in much the same way as it artfully hinted at but then repressed the truth about racial genocide and ecological destruction. If, as writers like Babette Smith and the late Robert Hughes have argued, fear and hatred of sodomy was at the core of the shame Tasmanians felt about convictism, gothic story telling is the ideal way to talk about the convict past without mentioning the crime that could not be named.

But what has been lost because of the sexual silences Tasmanian gothic suited and sustained? We lost testimony to the resilience, commitment and faithfulness in same-sex relationships. If this had not been erased from our identity for a century and a half, maybe it would not have taken so long for Tasmania to decriminalise same-sex relationships and Australia to recognise the marriage-like qualities in those relationships.

More than that, we lost an understanding of ourselves as a people. The love between convicts of the same-sex, male and female, sometimes ran so deep it was the only form of confederacy that survived the many repressive, divide-and-rule strategies of the penal authorities. Same-sex devotion became the most solid foundation upon which rebellions against that repression could be built.

Whether it was Macquarie Harbour, Norfolk Island, Maria Island, the Cascades Female Factory, the Coal Mines or any number of probation stations, where there was trouble there were more often than not same-sex couples. What the Tasmanian gothic stole from us was an understanding that at the heart of our mythology of egalitarianism, disdain for authority, the thirst for fairness lies the love between men and between women. On more than one occasion I’ve heard Richard Flanagan speak about the debt a hypocritical Australia owes those disparaged, long-forgotten couples. Martin Cash might too if he was still with us.

A people of love - Forty South (3)

Can the Tasmanian gothic help us reclaim the truths it suppressed for generations? The “yes” case is made by Jonathan auf der Heidi’s stark, gothic-inflected film about Pearce’s escape, Van Diemen’s Land, in which Greenhill and Travers duck behind a bush for a quickie and Greenhill later mourns Travers’ demise. But most Tasmanians I know who watched the film missed all that. The love between Greenhill and Travers was only hinted at, not explored. Plus most viewers simply don’t have the shared language, history and cultural context to make sense of what they saw.

The “no” case comes from the memory of Truganini. For many white Tasmanians of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, the dominant image of her was as “the last of her race” buried at midnight in a decrepit convict prison by black-clad officials who threw rose petals on her coffin, or later, as a skeleton in a dusty museum cabinet. What rescued Truganini’s memory, and the memory of her First Nations contemporaries, was not more of the same. It was a concerted effort by First Nations writers and their white counterparts to show Truganini as nuanced and many-faced, and as an agent in her own destiny. That’s how we rescue all the Denis Prendergasts and Robert Greenhills from gothic oblivion.

From tautology to oxymoron

We have allowed too much of ourselves to be devoured by the Tasmanian Gothic, too much genuine insight into who our forebears were and who we are today; too much satire, humour, nuance, and too much raw, not suggested, horror and violence. Most of all, we have allowed the gothic to corrupt too many stories of love and of the truth assembled from those stories, that we are a people of love.

I can’t slay this monster. That will take many hands, for it has many heads. Audiences have come to expect gothic representations of Tasmania, writers resort to its stock ideas, producers can always find money for it. But if I’m right that the Tasmanian gothic misrepresents and suppresses who we are, it will slowly wash away in the gentle rain of our genuine experience.

The term “gay Tasmanian”, like “Aboriginal Tasmanian”, is no longer the oxymoron it once was. As these terms are accepted for expressing an uncontested reality, my hope is that the tautology “Tasmanian gothic” will decline into a phrase that only really makes sense to antiquarians. Come fast that day. When it does, we will be freer than we knew possible.

Part 1 of this article, "Counterfeit", can be read here.

Rodney Croome grew up on a dairy farm in Tasmania's north-west and studied European history at the University of Tasmania. He worked on the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality in Tasmania, was a founder of Australian Marriage Equality, and currently serves as the spokesperson for the gay right and equality advocacy groups Just Equal and The Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group.

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