Wednesday, April 25, 2012

V is for Van Diemen's Land . . .

"Transported over the seas and far away . . . to Van Diemen's Land for a period of seven years." Van Diemen's Land was England's colonial dumping ground to solve the problem of bulging prisons. In fact, the early governors of VDL ran the colony as a vast prison. Lady Jane Franklin (1791-1875) was the first to attempt to remove the 'convict stain' by referring to the island as Tasmania, after Abel Tasman, a Dutch explorer who discovered this large island south of Australia.

Interesting what myths we build of our nation's beginnings and how these shape our national identity. In the United States, the earliest settlers came in search of religious freedom, that no government could tell a group of believers what to do, thus rebellion from the earliest days, culminating in separation from the homeland and a historical separation of church and state. Land was wrested from resident Indians, and this very rich land led settlers to move west in a stubborn, restless search for Nirvana, under no man's thumb.

In the Carribean and South America, successive waves of second sons of the Spanish and Portuguese dons (and other exiles) created vast sugar plantations, a slave-based extractive economy that would allow them to return home wealthy. Many never intended to stay.

And in Van Diemen's Land and Australia, begun with convict labor, men and women were exiled from home, denied their history, shamed to admit any ancestor had been a convict. Following World War II, this began to change. Robert Hughes, in The Fatal Shore (158), argues that the Australian working class, shaped by 19th Century battles with land or factory owners, remembered and retold stories about their convict forebears, these heroes who survived what seemed impossible conditions -- the whip, the fetters, the servitude, the 'convict stain.'

Today, having a great-grandmother or great-grandfather who was once a convict is a source of pride. For they survived.


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