‘In Tasmania’ by Nicholas Shakespeare

2004, 396p.

It was fitting that I should read this book so soon after finishing Ann Curthoy and Ann McGrath’s book “How to Write History that People Want to Read“.  Nicholas Shakespeare certainly can write and his book did quite well as I recall. So, two out of the three.  But I ask myself- is it history?  I suspect not, despite the “History/Travel” designation on the back page- or at least, it’s history in the same way and to the same extent that the television program  “Who Do You Think You Are?” is.

In fact, the “Who Do You Think You Are” television series came to mind several times while reading this book: there’s the quest story for an ancestor; the findings; and some sort of meta-narrative that ties it together.  As with the television show, there’s an emotional and partisan sympathy for characters solely on the basis of their blood-relation to the narrator:  a large and all-encompassing historical tragedy only becomes real once it can be centred on an individual who happens to be related.  And as with the television show,  the voice and perspective of a professional historian who weighs in with an objective, distanced observation rescues you as reader/viewer from the fug and too-close identification with an ancestor.

Shakespeare himself is a recent immigrant to Tasmania, and part of his own sense of belonging in Tasmania is tied up in the identities of two ancestors, from different branches of his family tree, whose destinies- as one might expect in a small island community- run parallel with occasional points of connection.  Anthony Fenn Kemp, the army officer and merchant is a linch-pin figure whose ubiquity enables Shakespeare to bring in Alexander Pearce the cannibal, Tasmanian Tigers and other riffs on Tasmanian history.  The other ancestor, Petre Hordern was a failed alcoholic from a wealthy family, who submerged himself in the bush and dragged his family into poverty.  These two characters form the book-ends of his narrative, and Shakespeare meanders throughout history and his current-day genealogical quest.

Shakespeare speaks to historians, and reads the histories they have written, but he cites only conversations.  His intent springs from the personal, and he excavates the primary material he has unearthed,  literature and other writers, and family lore as his richest lode. His eye is always on the story as story.  Nonetheless, it is beautifully written, human and textured- but it’s not necessarily history.

6 responses to “‘In Tasmania’ by Nicholas Shakespeare

  1. Author Martin Flannagan gave a talk late last year where he succinctly explained that there is a yawning gap between the evolution of history from convicts through to current day in Tassie and Vic.
    In Tassie they were totally crushed, banned from speaking in their native tongues or even singing their songs and such was the shame that everything was excised from the family tree in generations to come until no one knew the truth any more.
    In Vic the convicts had an easier time, they were part of the Eureka Stockade, their spirits were heartened by the Kelly Gang, etc.
    He also outlined the difference between Launceston and Hobart, the loathing felt towards southern Tassie from the north of the island, etc.
    Also, the debate (battle?) the Lia Pootah have with the Palawa is another bit of Tassie history being brought to light but not sufficiently studied.

    • I heard on the radio once, (and can’t remember who it was speaking or even if it was male or female) about the outcomes for Tasmanian convicts- that sometimes they “made good”, but there were many other families who just stumbled along, close to the poverty line, “known” to the police and pretty marginal- and that their families are still pretty much in that category today. Did Martin Flanagan say anything about that?
      There’s a terrific ARC-funded research project on Tasmanian convicts called “Founders and Survivors”.
      You can read about it at
      I’d LOVE to be working on that

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  3. Yes, he made a passing reference to the ‘stain’ a whole family obtained from a convict in the family but it was at the Ned Kelly discussion with Ian Jones who highlighted it more (Slow TV panel discussion).
    He explained how Red, Ned Kelly’s father (Tassie convict himself), had tried to distance himself and his children from the rest of the Kelly’s who’d become marginalised and known to the police but his death resulted in Ellen having to rely on the Kelly’s for support and who,in turn, were partly responsible for the birth of Ned Kelly bushranger due to their attitudes, law-breaking, behaviour, etc, which was on display each and every day to Ned from a young age.

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