Wells’ colonial disaster visited upon Earth

H.G. Wells in 1890, three years before the publication of his first book (a science textbook). Wells' writing career spanned more than sixty years, and over one hundred books.

H.G. Wells in 1890, three years before the publication of his first book (a science textbook). Wells’ writing career spanned more than sixty years, and over one hundred books.

The War of the Worlds remains one of our best-loved science fiction narratives. At the time of its publication in 1898, it reflected the pre-war anxieties of Victorian England in a gripping novel of invasion. It was also one of the first novels to describe malevolent contact with extra-terrestrials. In Wells’ mind aliens do exist, and worst of all, they don’t like us. But for all Wells’ futuristic predictions about technology and outer space, The War of the Worlds actually found root very close to home. Wells came up with the idea for his novel during a conversation about a period in Australian history known as the “Black War of Van Diemen’s Land” which lasted from 1804 to 1830.

The book was begotten by a remark of my brother Frank. We were walking together through some particularly peaceful Surrey scenery. ‘Suppose some beings from another planet were to drop out of the sky suddenly,’ said he, ‘and begin laying about them here!’ Perhaps we had been talking of the discovery of Tasmania by the Europeans – a very frightful disaster for the native Tasmanians.

It should come as no surprise that the colonial “invasion” of Tasmania by European settlers would inspire Wells’ famous novel. The “Black War” more closely resembled a genocide. Ever since the first colonists began settling on the island known as “Van Diemen’s Land”, hostilities erupted. The kidnapping, rape and murder of Aboriginies by Europeans was commonplace, and martial law was declared in 1828. By the early 1830s, virtually all indigenous Tasmanians had been systematically eradicated from the island, with the last remaining few having been relocated to tiny Flinders Island, north of Tasmania. Truganini, the last-surviving full-blooded Tasmanian died in 1876, when Wells was 10-years old.

Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur's Proclamation of c.1828-1830

Posted illustration intended to communicate Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur’s proclamation of 1828-1830 to the Aboriginies of Van Diemen’s Land. Produced towards the end of the Black War, these images were meant to convey a message of friendship and equality between colonists and Aboriginal tribes. Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales.

Modern readings of Wells frequently make reference to his socialist ideals and dislike of social inequality. He was also pervasively pessimistic about the future of the human race. In his writings, he predicted all the horrors of modern warfare: robots, tanks, lasers, the aerial bombing of cities, and the use of gas and nuclear weapons against humankind. He is not the “father of science fiction” for nothing. But Wells was ahead of his time in another subtle, but no less significant way: he looked upon the destruction brought about by colonization, and saw a story about the end of the world.

And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals such as the vanished bison and dodo, but also upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit? (The War of the Worlds, Book 1 Chapter 1)

Without a doubt, Wells reads anachronistically for our modern tastes, describing the Tasmanians as “inferior”. But I believe what is important here is Wells’ view of human history as one of universal conflict and suffering. We are no better than animals battling over resources or territory. Wells imagines the Martians to be no better than us:

The intellectual side of man already admits that life is an incessant struggle for existence, and it would seem that this too is the belief of the minds upon Mars. Their world is far gone in its cooling and this world is still crowded with life, but crowded only with what they regard as inferior animals. To carry sunward is, indeed, their only escape from the destruction that generation after generation creeps upon them. (The War of the Worlds, Book 1 Chapter 1)

Did colonization trouble Wells? Possibly, in that he saw it as destructive and barbaric. Did he see the fate of Tasmania’s Aboriginies as inevitable? Most likely. He probably felt that most colonized peoples, didn’t stand a chance against the technologically-advanced Europeans. But Wells pitied the colonized man all the same. In The War of the Worlds, he imagines the colonization of England at the hands of a more superior race, and he writes it as a terrifying, dehumanizing experience.

Beyond Science Fiction

H.G. Wells’ most famous novels include The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897) and The War of the Worlds (1898), all of which were written at the beginning of a very lengthy and prolific literary career. However Wells’ “scientific romances” make up a fraction of the more than one hundred books published in his lifetime. He wrote on a variety of political and ideological issues related to science and technology’s impact on human culture. He also championed gender equality, women’s rights and nature conservation before it became popular to do so.

The BBC has made available online a number of clips from Wells’ radio broadcasts, along with other archival documents in the “HG Wells on the Future” collection. You can hear him discuss the invention of the motor car and the printing press, among other topics.

Orson Welles (1938)

Orson Welles caused widespread panic when he broadcast a live radio play adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” to American audiences on October 30, 1938.