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Review: ‘Wanting’ by Richard Flanagan

Wanting’.Richard Flanagan

Britain’s Tasmanian Aboriginal Genocide

The historical novel “Wanting” by civilized and progressive Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan is a work of faction (fact-based fiction) that exposes British racism and in particular the Tasmanian Aboriginal Genocide. “Wanting” links on the one hand the merciless, near-comprehensive, 19th century British Tasmanian Aboriginal Genocide (the “full blood” Aboriginal population dropping from perhaps 10,000 before first settlement in 1803 to zero in 1876 with the death of the Aboriginal woman Truganini (circa 1812-1876), and on the other the obsessional sexual and pecuniary desires of British writer Charles Dickens (1812-1870).

The historical linkage between the Tasmanian Aboriginal Genocide and famous British novelist, albeit Charles Dickens, is via the humane and liberal Lady Jane Franklin, wife of Sir John Franklin the Lieutenant Governor of Tasmania (originally known as Van Dieman’s Land until 1856) between 1836 and 1845. In 1841 Lady Jane and Sir John Franklin adopted an Aboriginal girl Mathinna (1835-1852), one of the several hundred Tasmanian Aborigines collected by the so-called Protector of Aborigines, George Robinson (1791-1866), after the Black War and confined to the settlement at Wybalenna on Flinders Island in the stormy Bass Straight (that separates Tasmania from the Mainland of Australia). Lady Jane was childless but Sir John had a daughter Eleanor born of his first wife, the poet Eleanor Porden (1795-1825) in 1824. However on their return to England in 1843 they left 8-year-old Mathinna behind at Queen’s Orphan School in New Town, Hobart. Mathinna drowned in a puddle in Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, in 1852.

Sir John Franklin, the nephew of famous explorer of and circumnavigator of Australia, Matthew Flinders, had a distinguished naval career that came to a tragic end when his final expedition to find the North West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific came to a disastrous conclusion. Testimony by Inuit (Eskimo) observers transmitted by Scottish physician and Arctic adventurer Dr. John Rae (1813-93) that the British sailors, fatally trapped in sea ice, had resorted to cannibalism were rejected by Charles Dickens in an article in his journal Household Words and thence in a play “The Frozen Deep”, essentially co-authored by Dickens and Wilkie Collins and in which Dickens performed. Dickens also performed in the 1857 Manchester performances of the play together with his future mistress, actress Ellen Ternan. Dickens’ wife Catherine Hogarth (1816–1879; the daughter of George Hogarth, editor of the Evening Chronicle), bore Dickens 10 children but separated in 1858 after she accidentally received a bracelet meant for Ellen Ternan (1839 – 1914) who was Dickens’ mistress from about that time until his death in 1870.

“Wanting” is a very appropriate name for this novel about Victorian English racism, imperialism, exploitation, genocide, and remorseless, legitimizing mendacity and self-deception. Flanagan fleshes out the historical characters and applies a poet’s license to the wants of his characters. Thus:

Lady Jane Franklin wanted a child of her own and her liberal desire to improve Mathinna spilled over into attempts to improve the culture of the violent penal colony of Van Dieman’s Land (officially “Tasmania” after 1856).

Sir John Franklin wanted to earn a reputation as a noble and courageous hero of the British Empire and ultimately died in this very successful endeavor in the Arctic. According to Flanagan’s novel, Franklin became increasingly obsessed with Mathinna and then, appallingly, evidently commits something unthinkable: “Sir John could not help it. Nor could he help himself … It was her touch, he thought with a shock as abrupt as the sensation of her fingers, her hand. Her body touching his (Chapter 7, p139, Knopf 2008 edition) … [after Mathinna dances at the ball, collapses and is taken to the captain’s cabin] the child said not a word. Far away, the ball continued, the band played on. He was all things and all things were him. Looking down on Mathinna, her diminutive body, her exposed black ankles, her dirty little feet, the suggestive valley of her red dress between her thin legs, Sir John felt thrilled. And after, was thrilled no more” (Chapter 7, p152).

Mathinna wanted to be innocently happy with her kinsfolk, wild plants and wild animals in her previously idyllic Tasmanian Arcadia. She is discarded by the Franklins and shuttled between abuse on Flinders Island, abuse ay the Orphan School , abuse at Oyster Cove and thence abuse as a prostitute before in Flanagan’s; version strangled and left dead in a puddle.

Ellen Ternan wanted and secured the financial security and personal achievement as the secret mistress of a great man.

George Augustus Robinson wanted money and fame as the Protector of the very last few hundred Tasmanian aborigines. However he died with neither in Bath, England, and was buried there on Beechan Cliff where Catherine Moreland, Henry Tilney and Eleanor Tilney walked and discussed Art, Literature and Life in Jane Austen’s novel “Northanger Abbey”.(submitted and rejected as “Susan” in 1803 but published posthumously in 1818).

Charles Dickens wanted money, fame, power and gratification (like other British Imperial enthusiasts). In Flanagan’s novel, Dickens takes up the cause of vindicating Sir John Franklin out of racist contempt for the “cannibalism” testimony of Eskimo “savages” and a desire for patronage by Lady Jane Franklin. Dickens wants to discard his increasingly disturbed and childbirth-damaged wife Catherine and does so via other women and most notably by taking the young Ellen Ternan as his mistress for the last 13 years of his life. As Flanagan writes (Chapter 12, last paragraph, p241): “And at that moment, Dickens knew he loved her [Ellen Ternan]. He could no longer discipline his undisciplined heart. And he, a man who had spent a life believing that giving into desire was the mark of a savage, realized that he could no longer deny wanting”.

The entrenched racism of the English colonists and of Charles Dickens and his contemporaries is exampled in the novel. Thus Flanagan correctly reports Dickens’ estimation of the Eskimos (Inuit) as “savages” and suggests that their accounts of the “mutilation” of the corpses of British sailors as lies or indeed done by the Eskimos themselves. Thus Dickens in "The Lost Arctic Voyagers”: “Lastly, no man can, with any show of reason, undertake take to affirm that this sad remnant of Franklin's gallant band were not set upon and slain by the Esquimaux themselves. It is impossible to form an estimate of the character of any race of savages, from the deferential behavior to the white man when he is strong. The mistake has been made again and again; and the moment the white man has appeared in the new aspect of being weaker than the savage, the savage has changed and sprung upon him. There are pious persons who, in their practice, with strange inconsistency, claim for every child born to civilization all innate depravity, and for every savage born to the woods and wilds an innate virtue. We believe every savage to be in his heart covetous, treacherous, and cruel; and we have yet to learn what knowledge the white man — lost, houseless, shipless, apparently forgotten by his race, plainly famine-stricken, weak, frozen, helpless, and dying — have of the gentleness of Esquimaux nature”.

Dickens was a racist as revealed by his portrait of Jewish character Fagin in “Oliver Twist” and a genocidal racist as revealed by these comments he made in response to the Indian Rebellion of 1957, the so-called Indian Mutiny in a letter to Emile de la Rue on 23 October 1857: “I wish I were Commander in Chief over there [India]! I would address that Oriental character which must be powerfully spoken to, in something like the following placard, which should be vigorously translated into all native dialects, “I, The Inimitable, holding this office of mine, and firmly believing that I hold it by the permission of Heaven and not by the appointment of Satan, have the honor to inform you Hindu gentry that it is my intention, with all possible avoidance of unnecessary cruelty and with all merciful swiftness of execution, to exterminate the Race from the face of the earth, which disfigured the earth with the late abominable atrocities [2,000 British killed in the 1857 Indian War of Independence aka the 1857 Indian Mutiny].

Of course, words come easy but Dickens’ compatriots put their racism into practice after the 1857 Indian Rebellion. Indian historian Amaresh Misra claims in his 2 volume work “War of Civilizations: India AD 1857” that the British killed 10 million Indians in reprisals for the 2,000 British killed in the 1857 rebellion (the so-called Indian Mutiny). Amaresh Misra: “It was a holocaust, one where millions disappeared. It was a necessary holocaust in the British view because they thought the only way to win was to destroy entire populations in towns and villages. It was simple and brutal. Indians who stood in their way were killed. But its scale has been kept a secret". However British writers in a process of continuing, holocaust denial put the number of Indians killed at about 100,000.

The British-imposed Indian Holocaust was not confined to the decade after the 1857 Indian rebellion. It is estimated that avoidable deaths from deprivation under 2 centuries of merciless British rule have totaled 1.8 billion with this carnage terminating in the 1942-1945 Bengali Holocaust (WW2 Indian Holocaust) in which the British with Australian complicity deliberately starved 6-7 million Indian to death and Partition in 1947 in which 1 million Indians died and 18 million fled mass murder as refugees.

The Tasmanian Aboriginal Genocide involved completely wiping out the full-blood Aboriginal population of Tasmania (the Parlevar or Palawa people) within a mere 73 years of first European settlement, although one notes that of the present Tasmanian population of about 500,000 there are of the order of 10,000 Aboriginal Tasmanians today who descend from the offspring of white men mating with Tasmanian and Mainland Australian Aboriginal women, forcibly or otherwise. During my schooling in Tasmania in the 1950s I was incorrectly taught that there were no more Tasmanian Aborigines but at Lenah Valley Primary School, located very close to the beautiful classical hall built for Lady Franklin, the Lady Jane Franklin Hall, there were a brother and his very pretty sister who were dark-skinned and who in retrospect were Tasmanian Aborigines. An enlightened teacher took us “up the bush” and got the Aboriginal boy to show us the exquisite orchids near the Lenah Valley Track. This boy also showed us how to “tickle” fish in the Lenah Valley Creek that is fed by water from Mount Wellington that looms over Hobart. I used to play in the remains of the Women’s’ Prison (in the Hobart suburb of Cascades) that eventually was to house the remains of Truganini, the supposedly “last full blood Tasmanian” (although Fanny Cochrane Smith (1834–1905) is also claimed to be the last full-blood Tasmanian Aborigine and her and her wax cylinder recordings are the only recordings of any of Tasmania's indigenous languages). Truganini’s remains were eventually dug up and put on display in the Hobart Museum.

Flanagan addresses the White attitudes to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Genocide in Chapter 9 of “Wanting” and has a character John Kerr quote comments from Charles Darwin who visited Hobart in January 1936 on “The Beagle”: “What was it that young naturalist Darwin said when he visited here a few years past and sat in this very dining room? “Van Dieman’s Land enjoys the great advantage of being free from a native population”” (Chapter 9, p180). It is useful to recall Charles Darwin’s views in context from the January 30th 1836 entry in his “The Voyage of the Beagle”: “All the aboriginals have been removed to an island in Bass’s Straits, so that Van Dieman’s Land enjoys the great advantage of being free from a native population. This most cruel step seems to have been quite unavoidable, as the only means of stopping a fearful succession of robberies, burnings, and murders, committed by the blacks, but which sooner or later must have ended in their utter destruction. I fear there is no doubt that this train of evil and its consequences, originated in the infamous conduct of some of our countrymen. Thirty years is a short period, in which to have banished the last aboriginal from his native island, - and that island nearly as big as Ireland. I do not know a more striking instance of the comparative rate of increase of a civilized over a savage people”.

One is compelled to query who were “civilized” (surely not the globally British invaders) and who were “savages” (surely not the peaceful, remote Indigenous Tasmanians, the full-bloods of whom were totally exterminated by the British).

Charles Darwin encountered horrendous genocide on his way to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania). Thus in Argentina he witnessed the ongoing genocide of the Indigenous Indian inhabitants by the Spanish under mass murderer General Rosas who Darwin praises thus: “He is a man of an extraordinary character, and has a most predominant influence in the country which it seems probable he will use to its prosperity and advancement” (July 24th 1833). An evidently squeamish Darwin describes aspects of the genocide and comments: “This is a dark picture, but how much more shocking is the unquestionable fact, that all the women who appear above twenty years old are massacred in cold blood. When I exclaimed that this appeared rather inhuman, he answered, “Why, what can be done? They breed so!” Everyone her is fully convinced that this is the most just war because it is against barbarians. Who would believe in this age, in a Christian civilized country, that such atrocities were committed? The children of the Indians are saved, to be sold or given away as servants, or rather slaves, for as long a time as the owners can deceive them; but I believe in this respect there is little to complain of”.

Before reaching ethnically cleansed Van Dieman’s Land from blood-drenched Argentina, Charles Darwin visited Sydney (January 12th 1836) where he comments thus: “It is a most magnificent testimony to the power of the British nation. Here, in a less promising country, scores of years have affected many times more, than the same numbers of centuries have done in South America. My feeling was to congratulate myself that I was born an Englishman… The number of aborigines is rapidly decreasing. In my whole ride, with the exception of some boys brought up in the houses, I saw only one other party; these were rather more numerous than the first, and not so well clothed. This decrease, no doubt, must be partly owing to the introduction of spirit, to European disease (even the milder ones of which, as the measles, prove very destructive). It is said that the numbers of their children invariably perish in very early infancy from the effects of their wandering life.

As the difficulty of procuring food increases, so must their wandering habits; and hence the population, without any apparent deaths from famine, is repressed in a manner extremely sudden compared to what happens in civilized countries, where the father may add to his labor, without destroying his offspring. Besides these several evident causes of destruction, there appears to be some more mysterious agency generally at work. Wherever the European has trod, death seems to pursue the aboriginal. We may look to the wide extent of the Americas, Polynesia, the Cape of Good Hope, and Australia, and we shall find the same result. Nor is it the white man alone, that thus acts the destroyer; the Polynesian of Malay extraction has in parts of the East Indian archipelago, has thus driven before him the dark-colored native. The varieties of man seem to act on each other in the same way as different species of animal – the stronger always extirpating the weaker”. Charles Darwin’s “more mysterious agency” was the well-documented deliberate violent extermination of Australian aborigines that only ceased in racist White Australia in the 1920s.

Charles Darwin was simply stating here in “The Voyage of the Beagle” (published in 1839), 20 years before publication of his revolutionary “The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life” (1859) his theory of natural selection as incorrectly and immorally applied to non-spectated human groupings (all humans can successfully interbreed unlike horses and donkeys that produce sterile mules). Unfortunately, Social Darwinism was used to “justify” the excesses of the British Empire and indeed of other European imperialists up to the German Nazis (30 million Slavs, Jews and Gypsies killed in the WW2 European Holocaust) (for a brilliant analysis of European colonialism see “Exterminate all the Brutes” by Sven Lindqvist .

Indeed the same “racial pride” and nationalism permitted the excesses of the Japanese in the WW2 Chinese Holocaust (35 million Chinese killed, 1937-1945) and of the British and Australians in India in WW2 (6-7 million Indians deliberately starved to death in the WW2 Indian Holocaust or WW2 Bengali Holocaust for strategic reasons). H.G. Wells in his acclaimed “The Outline of History” (published in 1919-1920) repeated the Social Darwinist line in relation to the genocide of the Tasmanian Aboriginals (and indeed a similar view was expressed in Tasmanian schools as late as the 1950s that “Stone Age people” could not survive in competition with “civilized” man. After the WW2 European Holocaust and particularly its constituent Jewish Holocaust (5-6 million Jews killed), European racism became much more muted and evolved into a politically correct racism (PC racism) in which, for example, in recent decades about 5 million Iraqis, 7 million Afghans and 12 million Muslims, half of them children, have been killed through violence or war-imposed deprivation because we “love” them and want to bring them “freedom”. This blatant public disingenuousness is coupled with extraordinary Mainstream media holocaust ignoring and genocide ignoring that is far, far worse than utterly repugnant holocaust denial and genocide denial because at least the latter admit the possibility of public debate. Thus, for example, the recently published “The Cambridge History of Australia” ignores Australian involvement in 30 genocides.

There has been great “controversy” termed the “history wars” in Australia about the Tasmanian Aboriginal Genocide and the ongoing Australian Aboriginal Genocide (2 million dead from violence or imposed deprivation since1788). The “history wars” have seen progressive academic historians line up against academic and non-academic historians denying that any genocide occurred, notably Keith Windschuttle and his book “The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Volume One: Van Diemen's Land 1803-1847” (2002), that nevertheless remains a useful documentation of appalling atrocities against the Tasmanian aborigines.

The Aboriginal Genocide and Aboriginal Ethnocide continues in White Australia. Some 2,000 Indigenous Australians die avoidably each year from imposed deprivation and of 350-750 tribes and languages/dialects in 1788 only 150 languages/dialects remain and of these all but 20 are endangered. The racist White Australian policy of forced removal of hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal children from their parents and/or kinsfolk (the so-called Stolen Generations) continues at an unprecedented rate, albeit under the PC name of “child protection”.

PC racism is entrenched in a racist, Apartheid Australia. Thus the Liberal Party -National Party Coalition Government and Labor Opposition (aka the Lib-Labs or Liberal-Laborals) are craven “best friends” with nuclear terrorist, democracy-by-genocide Apartheid Israel and its ongoing Palestinian Genocide (2 million Palestinians killed from violence or imposed deprivation since 1936; 90% of the land of Palestine ethnically cleansed; of 12 million Palestinians, 50% are forbidden to step foot in their own country and only 7% - the adults of 1.7 million Palestinian Israelis – are permitted to vote for the government ruling all of Palestine. Yet the Lib-Labs profess “even-handedness” and a desire for a “2-state solution” that is now impossible because of Zionist ethnic cleansing. The ugly racist reality has been exposed by a former Israeli Ambassador to Australia Naftali Tamir in advocating closer Australian-Israel ties (2006): “We are in Asia without the characteristics of Asians. We don't have yellow skin and slanted eyes. Asia is basically the yellow race. Australia and Israel are not - we are basically the white race”. UK-, US- and Apartheid Australia-backed Apartheid Israel remains the world’s only remaining Apartheid state and the only remaining race-based Western European colony in Africa and Asia.

Recalling the Argentinian Indian Genocide witnessed by Charles Darwin, one notes that Theodor Herzl, the evilly racist founder of Zionism, suggested ethnically-cleansed Argentina as an alternative to Palestine as a site for race-based Zionist colonization (1896): “Shall we choose Palestine or Argentine? We shall take what is given us, and what is selected by Jewish public opinion. The Society will determine both these points. Argentine is one of the most fertile countries in the world, extends over a vast area, has a sparse population and a mild climate. The Argentine Republic would derive considerable profit from the cession of a portion of its territory to us. The present infiltration of Jews has certainly produced some discontent, and it would be necessary to enlighten the Republic on the intrinsic difference of our new movement… Palestine is our ever-memorable historic home. The very name of Palestine would attract our people with a force of marvelous potency. If his Majesty the Sultan were to give us Palestine, we could in return undertake to regulate the whole finances of Turkey.

We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral State remains in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence. The sanctuaries of Christendom would be safeguarded by assigning to them an extra-territorial status such as is well-known to the law of nations. We should form a guard of honor about these sanctuaries, answering for the fulfilment of this duty with our existence. This guard of honor would be the great symbol of the solution of the Jewish question after eighteen centuries of Jewish suffering. For Europe we shall constitute there [in Palestine] a sector of the wall against Asia, we shall serve as the vanguard of culture against barbarism” [35]. Race-based Zionist colonization of 20 regions around the world, including Australia, have been explored over the last 2 centuries. If the plan for race-based Jewish settlement of NW Australia had not been finally vetoed by WW2 Australian PM John Curtin in 1944, White Australians may have ended up like the oppressed and dispossessed Palestinians (and indeed like the oppressed and dispossessed Indigenous Australians).

Similarly, the late Australian magnate Lang Hancock starred for the wrong reasons in the beginning of John Pilger’s important humanitarian film “Utopia” about the appalling conditions of Australian Aborigines, arguing openly for Aboriginal assimilation and the sterilizing of those who refused to give up their land, language culture – a position redolent of Nazi German eugenicists and of the genocidal racists exposed in “Wanting” from the invaders of Van Dieman’s Land to racists like Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin. Lang Hancock advocated that “[unemployed indigenous Australians] the ones that are no good to themselves and who can't accept things, the half-castes [to collect their welfare cheques from a central location] and when they had gravitated there, I would dope the water up so that they were sterile and would breed themselves out in the future, and that would solve the problem”. 

Richard Flanagan’s novel “Wanting” is an important addition to Australian literature about the Aboriginal Genocide and shines a light on British racist attitudes and racist actions of circa 2 centuries ago that continue, albeit in a politically correct (PC) fashion today. Racist crudity of the past and present can shock decent people to stand up for decency. What can decent people do? Decent Australians should (a) inform everyone they can about the ongoing Aboriginal Genocide and Aboriginal Ethnocide, and (b) vote 1 Green and put the Coalition last. Decent folk around the world should urge and apply Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against all those complicit in the ongoing Australian Aboriginal Genocide and Aboriginal Ethnocide, just as they successfully applied BDS against UK-, US-, Apartheid Australia- and Apartheid Israel-backed Apartheid South Africa, and currently urge and apply BDS against Apartheid Australia-backed Apartheid Israel’s ongoing Palestinian Genocide.

The definitive word on genocide comes from outstanding Jewish American scholar Professor Jared Diamond who in his best-selling book "Collapse” (Prologue, p10, Penguin edition) enunciated the "moral principle, namely that it is morally wrong for one people to dispossess, subjugate, or exterminate another people" – an injunction still grossly violated today by racist Zionist-run Apartheid Israel and its racist, genocide-committing and genocide-ignoring US Alliance backers, including Apartheid Australia, a racist nation created through the forcible dispossession and untimely deaths of 2 million Indigenous Australian inhabitants. Lest we forget – and “Wanting” by Richard Flanagan helps us remember.

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