Formation and aboriginal inhabitants
Tasmania was formed about 12,000 years ago when sea levels rose and cut it off from the rest of Australia. Cut off also were the Aborigines, whose culture subsequently developed separately from that of the inhabitants of the mainland. Their numbers were never large, and when Europeans first discovered the island there were perhaps around 5,000 Aboriginal people there. By 1833 it is reckoned their number had fallen to just a few hundred, victims of disease and persecution, martyrs to the colonial ambitions of the British elite.
The last full-blooded Aborigine, a woman called Truganini, died in 1876. Mixed-blood Aborigines survived and today make up more than three percent of the population of Tasmania.
The area of Tasmania is 68,401 km2, making it just over half the size of the whole of England, which weighs in at 130,395 km². However, compared with Australia Tassie is tiny, making up less than 1% of the total area of the whole country.
Tasmania’s estimated population in 2016 is a little over half a million (518,478 to be precise). England’s estimated population in 2016 is just over 55 million. So Tassie’s population is around 1% that of population England.
Tasmania is sparely populated, with just 7.6 inhabitants per square kilometre, as against 422 people per square kilometre in England. Approaching 44% of all Tasmanians live in and around the capital, Hobart.
The highest mountain in Tasmania is Mt Ossa, at 1,617 metres. It is in the northern heart of the island, within a World Heritage Area in the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park which has four of Tasmania’s five highest peaks.
The naming of Tasmania
The first European to see Tasmania was Abel Tasman, on 24 November 1642. He named his discovery Van Diemen’s Land in honour of Anthony van Diemen, the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, who had sent Tasman on his voyage of discovery. It is ironic therefore that, despite this magnanimous gesture, in 1856 Van Diemen’s Land was renamed Tasmania in recognition of Tasman’s achievement. By the mid-nineteenth century Tasmania, as the foremost penal colony in Australia, had become notorious as the sin-bin of the British Empire, a place with which no decent person would want to be associated. Changing the island’s name to honour its European discoverer was, therefore, a cynical attempt to sanitise a tarnished image
Inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land were known as Vandemonians. Changing the name to Tasmania both drew a veil over the colony’s unfortunate origins and removed the unwelcome reference to the Devil in the name given to the good folk who lived there.
From colony to state
Van Diemen’s Land began life in 1803/04 as an offshoot or territory of New South Wales, but it swiftly developed its own identity and was proclaimed a separate colony in December 1825. In 1901, the Colony of Tasmania united with the five other Australian colonies to form the Commonwealth of Australia.
Tasmania’s seat of government is Hobart. The first European settlement in the Hobart area began in 1803 as a defensive response to fears that the French were taking an unseemly interest in the South Pacific, but also doubled – inevitably, given the British obsession with exporting the bad guys – as a penal colony. Within a year the settlement was to its present location, which was judged to be a preferable site. Hobart is, therefore, the second oldest city in Australia
The name of Hobart comes from the first Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, David Collins, who named the new settlement in honour of Lord Hobart, who was at that time British Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. Initially it was referred to as Hobart Town (or Hobarton), but by 1842 it had grown large enough to officially be recognised as a city. In 1881 the ‘Town’ was formally dropped from its name, leaving the modern name of simply ‘Hobart’.
The city of Hobart is situated on the estuary of the River Derwent, 19km from the river’s mouth. The stretch of the river on which it sits forms an excellent deep water port. Hobart’s population in 2016 is estimated at 226,750. To put this into context the English city of Derby, which coincidentally also plays host to a River Derwent, is 254,274.
Early History: Convicts, Whales and Timber
Tasmania was first settled by the British in August 1803, when New South Wales Governor Philip King sent Lieutenant John Bowen, to establish a small military outpost on the eastern shore of the Derwent River in order to forestall any claims to the island by French explorers who had been seen in the area. Bowen established Camp Risdon with a party of 49, including 24 convicts, named the camp Risdon. Several months later a second settlement was established by Captain David Collins, with 308 convicts, 5 kilometres to the south in Sullivans Cove on the western side of the Derwent, where fresh water was more plentiful. Thus was Hobart born, with convicts present from day one.
At the outset Tasmania had three uses for the British in addition to keeping the French in their place: as a penal colony, as a source of timber and as base from which to hunt whales.
Over a fifty-year period 74,000 convicts were shipped to the island, with Port Arthur and Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour being probably the most notorious. Convict transportation to Van Dieman’s Land ended in 1853 and the colony’s name was changed in 1856 to make a clean break with the colony’s murky past. For generations thereafter the island’s history as a penal colony was a source of embarrassment, even shame, but now it more fully embraced with a number of the former convict stations having become UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Port Arthur is now one of Tasmania’s top tourist attractions, suggesting that the island has come to terms with its past.
Whaling was big business in the early years of the colony. By 1836 Hobart Town had nine whaling stations which employed 400 men, and a station at Launceston employed another 50. In 1979 Australia ended whaling and committed to whale protection, but not before whale populations in the southern oceans were decimated. Now, very slowly, they are recovering.
Inevitably the new settlers of Tasmania needed timber to build their fledgling settlements, and with convicts on hand to do all the heavy work the impact on the thickly forested island was soon noticeable.
Convicts on Sarah Island worked in chains and in terrible conditions provided Huon Pine logs for Hobart Town until 1833, when Sarah Island was closed and the convicts moved to Port Arthur. The first 150 convicts at Port Arthur worked in harsh conditions to establish a timber industry in the surrounding woodlands. Soon the timber industry grew at Port Arthur grew into shipbuilding just as it had at Sarah Island, with many whaling vessels being built there from Huon Pine.
As Hobart Town began to expand, the forest were cleared for agriculture and further settlement, with expansion of the settlement the local demand for timber also grew as did shipments to Britain, and the other colonies. Tasmania’s forests were disappearing at an alarming rate, with very few signs of regenerating. The introduction of a State Forests Act, in 188, was a first tentative step towards regulating the industry, with further legislation being passed in 1920.
first apple tree planted in Tasmania dates from 1788 when William Bligh anchored in Adventure Bay on Bruny Island and planted a selection of fruit, including three apple seedlings, the first apple trees planted in Australia. Apples soon became a major crop of Tasmania, from its first commercial developments in the mid-nineteenth century through the main productive period from the early to mid-1900s. Tasmania became known as the “Apple Isle,” but the UK’s successful application to join the Common Market in the 1970s was a major blow to the industry