- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006

in tasmania

By Nicholas Shakespeare


$32.50, 374 pages, illus.

Even before British novelist Nicholas Shakespeare discovered that he had colorful relatives who were part of the early settlement of Tasmania, he was — like many searching souls before him — someone who was drawn to the gorgeous and remote island off the coast of Australia. He decided to make a home there, and before very long mysteries of family ties and island myths began to reveal themselves.

One can easily imagine that the seeds for writing “In Tasmania” were planted at the moment Mr. Shakespeare’s father said to him, “‘I believe we may have a relative who went to Tasmania in the nineteenth century … A bit of a black sheep.’” That black sheep was Anthony Fenn Kemp, the “feckless businessman” and pioneer who “became in fits and starts ‘the Father of Tasmania.’”

In other words, what might have been a somewhat ordinary travel tale about Tasmania’s fabled terrain becomes in Mr. Shakespeare’s deft telling, a more layered personal history in which the author’s discovery of distant kin is set against the history of Tasmania itself.

The book begins on the heels of a paper trail. Mr. Shakespeare writes: “One day I open a bag filled with letters which my father had given me at his house in England, and which he had unearthed from the basement of my grandmother’s house. Her father had left the letters to her and she had never, as far as my mother knew, read them. My grandmother was now 96.”

As Mr. Shakespeare builds the narrative of “In Tasmania,” it is the letters — specifically correspondence between two tobacco merchants William Potter and Anthony Fenn Kemp — that give his story its steam. Potter, it turns out, was the author’s great-great-great grandfather; Kemp his great-great-great-uncle.

Mr. Shakespeare writes: “Their letters had revealed that they were more than business partners: they were brothers-in-law. To me their story was about two ways of being in the world. On the one hand there was Kemp, roistering, opportunistic, peripatetic, corrupt (The name Kemp, I found out, derived from a Saxon word meaning combat, competitive drinker, ‘a contemptible, rascally fellow’). On the other hand was the sedentary, abstemious Potter.

“Separated from the Australian mainland by 140 miles of the treacherous pitch and toss of Bass Strait, Tasmania is a byword for remoteness. As with Patagonia, to which in geological prehistory it was attached, it is like outer space on earth and invoked by those at the ‘centre’ to stand for all that is far-flung, strange and unverifiable.

“Tasmania is in myth and history a secret place, a rarely visited place. Those few who did make the journey compared it to Elysium, or sometimes to Hades.”

Despite the hardships, in 1804 the 31-year-old Anthony Fenn Kemp made it ashore at Hobart, Tasmania’s capital and a port of entry. At that time, Tasmania was called Van Diemen’s Land, a place of deserted roads that at night teemed “with strange nocturnal creatures: wombats, wallabies, quolls, Tasmanian devils and the ubiquitous possum — plus three varieties of snake that are all lethal.”

Mr. Shakespeare writes of Hobart: “In its direst days as a penal colony, the Irish rebel John Mitchel refused to let his daughter be baptised here, not ‘till she reaches Christendom.’ A perception lingers even to this day that Tasmania floats in a latitude outside the jurisdiction of normal religious and civic laws.”

It is difficult to glean from this narrative exactly how Tasmania’s laws were set down, who exactly held the reigns of government together or how the tempestuous Kemp lived up to his moniker, if he did at all. However, one issue Mr. Shakespeare does not dodge is the abject cruelty of Tasmania’s penal colony. A graphic episode in which escaped convicts were driven to cannibalism will linger with readers after the pages of the book are closed.

But so too will Mr. Shakespeare’s encounters with everyday Tasmanians. An old fisherman who when learning the author’s name inquires: “‘Shakespeare?’ Not Shakespeare? You could not possibly be related to the family who make fishing tackle?’”

Later on, after zig-zagging through more of Tasmania’s hard-to-pin-down history, Mr. Shakespeare once more hears from a parent with some news of ancestry: His mother telephones him and says, “You may have other relatives in Tasmania.”

Without a doubt, the most charming aspects of this book are those that concern the odd and lively people living on the island. One only wishes that readers could hear more from them. Of these, none are more captivating than Maud and Ivy, Mr. Shakespeare’s distant relatives whom he found living on Tasmania’s north-west coast.

The author describes them as “two tiny old women … in unbuttoned hand-knitted, turquoise cardigans and fluffy slippers” who kept a silver framed photograph of Lady Diana “in pride of place beside the telephone.”

Hearing from them and about them makes for considerably easier reading than does the plight of the Aborigines on the island, a subject Mr. Shakespeare examines with considerable care.

“At the time of Kemp’s arrival … it is thought that there were nine tribes of Aborigines in Tasmania, with between 250 and 700 members each. It is impossible to know accurately their total population, but educated estimates range between 3,000 and 5,000. There were some 400 alive in December 1831 … When Kemp died in October 1868, there were 103,000 Europeans on the island, but only one full-blooded male Aborigine.”

There are, however, “mixed identity” aboriginals, a community today that, according to some, embodies both the invaders and the invaded. It is a point about which there is considerable disagreement, to say the least. Mr. Shakespeare does an admirable job of trying to navigate all sides fairly.

In the end, though, when faced by a local man who asked not to be called “part-Aborigine,” the author is forced to concede: “we saw there was an impasse … and went on talking in an amicable way, one of us a white colonising bastard, the other an Aboriginal warrior from the Trawluwuy nation, who had lived here for 2,000 generations.”

In this long and thoughtful book about a charmed and not-so-charmed paradise, maybe it is Kipling’s line about Tasmania that captures the island best: “Last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart …”

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