Tasmania - the apple isle

Top 10 dates in Tasmanian history

I love Tasmania, and you will find that it offers a charming Australian contrast to the pace of life in Sydney and Melbourne. Each of those cities has many times the population of the whole of Tasmania. Compared to the hot Summers experienced of Queensland and Western Australia, Tasmania offers a milder climate, though still hot compared to mid-European standards. Tasmania is quite large as islands go, and many visitors find that it is ambitious to expect to see it all in just a couple of weeks. If you have limited time, we suggest that you take your time, stick to any one of our quite distinct regions and enjoy it fully. More information on the regions can be found at our sister site

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    Truganini, the last native Tasmanian
    Truganini, the last full-blood Aborigine in Tasmania, died in 1876.

    Aboriginal settlement

    Long ago

    The first Aborigines may have reached the Australian continent by seaand might not even have know it was there when they set out on whatever boats or rafts they used. From wherever it was they landed, they spread out by tribes and found ingenious ways to survive a challenging environment. Some, having migrated as far south as it was possible to go on land, found that at the end of the last ice-age about 9000 years ago, that they were cut off from the mainland and able to live in isolation on the islands of what would later be known as Tasmania. The only tradition of sea-faring was in the NW tribes who maintained some semblance of maritime culture to find food on the Bass Strait Islands, such as Trefoil Island off Cape Grim, and the Hunter Group off Stanley. Interestingly, there is little evidence that they consumed scale fish for food. They relied on shellfish, crustaceans and possibly seaweed and of course the small Tasmanian marsupials which were not abundant on the mainland because of the dingo. The Tasmanians did not use the boomerang, they were a distinct nation of between 3000 and 7000 in number immediately prior to Britich settlement. There is no doubt that the Tasmanian Aborigines owned Tasmania before we did, it was and remains their ancestral home.

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    Abel Tasman
    Abel Tasman

    Abel Tasman discovery


    Written records prove that Dutch explorer Abel Tasman was the first European to discover the island that would later bear his name. On 24 November 1642 Tasman, commanding two ships of the Dutch East India Company, sighted the west coast. He named his discovery Van Diemen’s Land, after his superior in Batavia. Tasman sailed south, then east, to the other side of the island and anchored off a spot we now call Blackman Bay. He found evidence of human habitation but made no contact with the Aborigines. Nevertheless, on 3 December 1642 he had a flag planted to claim formal possession of the land. He might as well not have bothered because he never returned, the Dutch made no settlement, and it would be more than 160 years before the next Europeans, the British, would set up camp in Van Dieman’s Land.

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    British settlement
    Capt Cook landing in Australia

    British settlement of Van Dieman’s Land


    Captain Cook claimed Australia for Britain in 1777. By proclamation, Van Diemen’s Land was included in 1788, although it would be another 15 years before the British colonists would move to settle on the island. Eventually, prompted by fear that the French would usurp their claim, the British sent a party, including convicts, from Sydney and landed at Risdon Cove, up the Derwent River estuary, on 7 September 1803. European settlement of Van Dieman’s Land was under way, with really no regard for the Aborigines who were there first. As the settlers took possession of more and more parcels of land the Aborigines were gradually hounded and killed. The last full-blooded Aborigine, a woman called Truganini, died in 1876. Mixed-blood Aborigines survived and today account for more than three percent of the population of Tasmania. There has been formal acknowledgement of the injustice done to the Aborigines and Tasmania has led Australia in efforts at reconciliation.

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    Medal commemorating end of transportation
    Medal struck to commemorate the end of transportation

    End of convict transportation


    Van Dieman’s Land was valuable to the British for timber and for whaling. They also decided that it was remote enough to be used as a penal colony for hardened criminals. Over a fifty-year period 74,000 convicts were shipped to the island. The ruins of Port Arthur, and the stories of the harrowing ordeals of the transported felons, are a reminder, a dual sadness, together with the ill-treatment of the Aborigines, of the unpromising start made in the modern culture of Tasmania. Convict transportation to Van Dieman’s Land ended in 1853. As more and more free settlers had arrived in the colony they saw the convicts as a poor influence for the new society. Their voice eventually grew too loud to ignore.

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    Order-in-Council approving replacement of the name Van Diemen's Land by Tasmania
    Document changing the name Van Diemen’s Land to Tasmania

    Renaming Tasmania


    Those who had opposed the transportation of convicts to Van Dieman’s Land wanted to go further in closing the door on the past. In 1854 the Legislative Council wrote to Queen Victoria requesting that the name of the colony be changed to Tasmania. For at least the previous thirty years the colonists had been using this name, in obvious recognition of Abel Tasman, the first European to have discovered the island some 200 years earlier. On 1 January 1856 the change of name to Tasmania was formalised.

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    Federation Flag
    Sample ballot paper showing how to vote for Federation

    Federation – Tasmania a state of Australia


    In the second half of the 1800s there were six British colonies in Australia – New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. A popular movement began to join the separate colonies, to create a federation, to form a new and more economically powerful nation. As with all change, it had its supporters and its opponents, and the debate and details took many years to outwork. However, on 1 January 1901 the Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed. Tasmania was one of the six states of the new nation.

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    Black Tuesday Bushfires
    Black Tuesday Bushfire

    Black Tuesday Bushfires


    The Black Tuesday bushfires that ravaged southern Tasmania on 7 February 1967 were one of the worst natural disasters in Australian history. More than 120 fire fronts, feeding on high temperatures and strong winds, caused devastation, particularly in the Hobart area. In total, in the space of a few hours, 62 people lost their lives, more than 900 were injured, tens of thousands of animals died, and more than 1200 homes, 1500 vehicles and 80 bridges were destroyed. White skeletons of trees, burnt on that day, can still be seen standing high among the eucalypts on the slopes of Mt Wellington. It is fair to say that, on a heavily forested island, people are cautious about any possibility of fires, especially near populated areas, during the summer months.

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    Tasman Bridge collapse, Hobart
    Cars teetering on the edge after collapse of the Tasman Bridge

    Tasman Bridge collapse


    On the night of 5 January 1975 a 7000-ton ship, the Lake Illawarrah, travelling up the Derwent River, struck two pylons of the Tasman Bridge bringing down the concrete central spans. The ship sank and seven crew members were killed. Four cars on the bridge went over the edge and five occupants were killed. The accident was an economic catastrophe. Eastern-shore residents and businesses were dislocated from the services of the city centre. It took nearly three years to repair the bridge. Good came out of it. The bridge was widened and a second bridge was built upstream. However, for many years the eastern shore was thought of as a less desirable place to live, a short drive but always a world away. Today, the memories have faded and the eastern shore is booming.

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    Memorial stone at Port Arthur
    Memorial plaque to the massacre at Port Arthur

    Port Arthur massacre


    Australia has some of the strictest gun control measures in the world, in no small measure because of the massacre that took place at Port Arthur on Sunday, 28 April 1996. On that day a deranged young man armed himself with three automatic guns and went on a rampage through the township and historic site of the colonial prison. He murdered 35 people and injured many others before he was captured. Today he is serving life in jail, with no possibility of parole. Tour guides at Port Arthur, almost all of whom lost close friends in the disaster, cannot bear to talk of the event. Tasmanians can hardly mention the name of the killer and it would not be overstating the case to say that many are still in shock.

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    Todd Russell and Brant Webb free at last

    Beaconsfield Mine disaster


    On 25 April 2006 there was a collapse more than one kilometre underground at the Beaconsfield Mine in northern Tasmania. One miner, Larry Knight, was killed. Two other miners, Brant Webb and Todd Russell, were trapped for 14 days while frantic rescue efforts were made in the full gaze of the Australian and world media. The men survived the first five days on one muesli-bar and groundwater that seeped into the cramped space where they were trapped in total darkness. When they were located, and known to be alive, the nation was in suspense for more than a week as the delicate rescue operation slowly proceeded. There was an outpouring of emotion when the two men were finally freed. Tasmanians take a particular pride in the way that their fellow miners undertook the dangerous rescue operation and in the fortitude and wry humour shown by Brant Webb and Todd Russell throughout their ordeal. It is fitting that the last date recorded on this list ends on a high note of courage, mateship, endurance and hope.