Governor Arthur’s Proclamation Board – one-sided law

No. 37

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From the very beginning of British colonisation, in 1803, settlers in Van Diemen’s Land generally viewed the Aboriginal people as uncivilised. In spite of successive government proclamations to treat the indigenous population kindly, and with respect, the abduction of Aboriginal women and children and the encroaching European style of culture and agriculture brought continued conflict. Sporadic skirmishes became increasingly violent and eventually developed into the Black War (1824–1831), when Aboriginal people waged successful guerrilla warfare against the British. The colony fell into a state of panic, leading to Lieutenant Governor Arthur declaring martial law in 1828.

In 1829, George Frankland proposed to Arthur to nail a number of illustrated story boards (later known as proclamation boards) in an attempt to overcome the language barrier and help the Aboriginal people to understand the government laws. These boards were intended to show that British law was equal to black and white alike, however it proved to be one-sided.

Captain Matthew Forster was given the task of distributing them throughout the colony. Some were nailed to trees, while others were given to parties of Aboriginal people. There is a tragic irony in the underlying assumptions of the universality of European pictorial conventions, and of the authority of British law. We have no idea how – and indeed, if – these picture boards were understood by the Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Regardless, by 1830, the resistance had been largely quelled.

Several of these proclamation boards are known to have survived, with only two remaining in Tasmania.

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