That’s right – I visited Bagdag (not Baghdad). Sheer curiosity drove me to take a road trip through a little part of the Tasmanian Midlands where Bagdad and Jericho sit on the banks of a trickling, marshy creek called the Jordan. It’s a pretty modest road trip: think Sunday drive with your grandparents rather than Route 66 in Easy Rider. Bagdad is about half an hour’s drive north of Hobart with a modern primary school, combined petrol station, general store and post office, and a community centre with a Remembrance Wall mural (out the back under the air-conditioning units) of a slouch-hatted bugler playing the last post as the sun sets behind him. There’s a footy oval, which is also home to the Bagdad Cricket Club.
The settlement exists on paper in ways that it no longer exists in bricks and mortar: the Tasmanian Archives hold plans for a Bagdag courthouse and police watch house, but there is no evidence now that they were ever built. In survey maps from the mid-1800s the Bagdad Rivulet was lined with small farms of between 40 and 80 acres established under the closer settlement act, and surveys from 1921 show that soldier settlement blocks were offered in the area after the First World War.
The incongruous names of the area have a romantic origin: Quaker missionary James Backhouse wrote in his 1843 book A Narrative of a Visit to the Australian Colonies that he had stayed with Hugh Germain and his wife in their ‘neat cottage’ while in Tasmania. Germain had arrived in Van Diemen’s Land as a Royal Marine and had been a kangaroo and emu hunter, before being discharged with a land grant and taking up farming. As a marine, Germain had ‘penetrated into several parts of the colony’ and had named ‘Jericho, Bagdad, Abyssinia &c. Only one of the party could read; and his only books were a Bible, and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainment; out of which books the places were successively named’ (212-213).
What are we to make of this set of cartographic references? The Tasmanian settlements were named by men who lived imperial lives, moving with regiments around the British Empire. Bagdad is surrounded by English names - Oatlands, Kempton, Pontville, Richmond and Brighton - and also by those such as Mangalore, reminders of the many places from which Royal Marines travelled to Van Diemen's Land.
If Germain's story (as recounted by Backhouse) is true, that the Arabian Nights was the inspiration for the naming of Bagdad, then the settlement's name reminds us of the enormous popularity and longevity of Scheherazade's tales as literature. Indeed, even if the story is apocryphal, the importance of Arabian Nights and the Bible as staples of colonial reading is undeniable. Bagdad was the home of Sinbad, one of the most popular characters of the Arabian Nights. His many voyages might have been especially resonant for soldiers whose lives were also spent on the seas, travelling to far-off and strange places filled with extraordinary animals and bizarre flowers.