Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

15 August 2009

The Last of the Aboriginal Tasmanians

Tasmania: a delightful travel destination, an island the size of Ireland with a population of less than half a million , good roads, excellent accommodation, a treasury of Georgian architecture, rolling farmlands and herb-fields, romantic wildernesses, mountain lakes, picturesque coastlands and a sinister history of convict settlements. There is an even darker side to Tasmania’s past if you care to look deeper…

THERE ARE NO aboriginal ‘Tasmanians’ left but it’s been estimated that there might have been as many as 4000 natives when the white man first arrived in what was at first called Van Dieman’s Land. For about twenty years, from 1804, when British soldiers at Risdon Cove, near newly settled Hobart, massacred local tribespeople for no good reason, the aborigines were systematically hunted down and murdered by people whose leaders would have considered themselves the cultured and civilized fathers of the colony. It’s hard to imagine that Britons could have practised genocide as a matter of policy but it’s well-documented.

Robert Hughes, in ‘The Fatal Shore’ wrote that by 1830 there were 2000 natives left in Van Diemen’s Land and that the settlers, who thought nothing of killing blacks with clubs, muskets, cutlasses and axes, demanded of Governor Arthur that they be cleaned out once and for all - the sort of ‘Final Solution’ that my generation is all too aware of from the Nazi era of Jewish ‘ethnic cleansing’. The governor called out the military and able-bodied settlers in 1830, lined them across the island and set out on one great ‘pheasant-drive’ to herd the aborigines on to the Tasman Peninsula in the south-east where they hoped to keep them bottled up in a sort of reservation for ever afterwards. The drive failed. The brave beaters managed to catch only a man and boy; the rest had either slipped through the net or never actually existed in great numbers.

The administrators having realized that there were probably far fewer aboriginals than previously thought, re-shaped official policy to one of pacification within which a certain Mr Robinson, a builder from London - who rather felt he’d like to help the natives - set out to collect the straggling tribespeople from the south and beyond the western tiers and re-settle them on Flinders Island in Bass Strait. To do this he needed bell wethers to convince the natives that white folk were not all bad.

Enter Truganini; she was less than 130 cm tall, eighteen years old, bright, cheeky and good looking ‘for an abo’ they said! She had suffered more than most in a heartless world: she’d seen her mother murdered by raiding whites, her sisters had been kidnapped by sealers, her stepmother abducted by convict mutineers and she herself, in 1828, had been raped by convicts after seeing them chop off the hands of her companions and letting them drown. Her self esteem was so low and her dependency so great that she hung around the whites’ work camps, selling her little body for tea and sugar; she was so abused that she was, it is said, sterile from venereal disease.

Mr Robinson, house builder and Governor Arthur’s appointed instrument of aboriginal salvation, enlisted Truganini’s aid to convince her kinsfolk that they could safely put their futures in his hands and so, after five expeditions, the last of the first Tasmanians - the blacks of Van Diemen’s Land - were settled on Flinders Island, lured there by Truganini - not so much a bell wether as a Judas goat - and subjected to all the misplaced zeal that arrogant British missionaries were accustomed to dumping on ignorant natives: bible-bashing, Christianization, reverence for property, learning to read and write - and in the process also learning to forget who they were. Twenty-one years later only sixteen aborigines were left. Truganini was one of them.

She finished her tragic life as something of a public curiosity. She was as interesting, I guess, as today’s endangered species, who only become noticeable when it’s too late. In the case of the Tasmanian aborigines it was far too late and Truganini, and with her her race, died in 1876.

The sanctimonious ratbags of the day gave her a government funeral. But they buried an empty coffin; her remains were actually interred in a vault in Hobart Penitentiary, the official reason being that they ‘feared some public disturbance and didn’t want her tiny corpse demeaned’.

To quote from ‘The Fatal Shore’: ‘In 1878 they dug her up again and sloughed the flesh off her bones, then boiled them and nailed them in an apple crate, which lay in storage for some years. The crate was about to be thrown out when someone from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery read the faded label. The bones were strung together and the skeleton of Truganini went into a glass case in the museum where it remained’… until 1947 when ‘humanitarian sentiment’ caused it to be placed in the basement. In 1976, 100 years after she died, Truganini was cremated and her ashes were scattered in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel west of Bruny Island, her birthplace.

She had a sister, Moorina. I don’t know what happened to her but at least she has an old tin mining village named after her in north-east Tasmania.

Neither Moorina nor Truganini suffered quite the ignominy of the last male Tasmanian aborigine known as William Lanne (who knows his native name?), the putative husband of Truganini. He died in 1869, whereupon a Dr. Crowther, local agent of the Royal College of Surgeons of London, stealing a march on Tasmania’s Royal Society, crept into the mortuary, cut off Lanne’s head, skinned it, removed the skull, put another (white man’s) skull in the skin, substituted it and snuck out.

The no doubt upright and decent members of The Tasmanian Royal Society were naturally upset about all this so they foiled any attempts to steal the remainder of the skeleton by chopping off Lanne’s feet and hands and disposing of them. What was left was then buried but exhumed the next day and dissected. Meanwhile the skull, which the good doctor had sent by sea to London, never arrived. He had packed it in a seal skin and it came to stink so highly that it was tossed overboard.

All in the name of science.

Thomas Hardy wrote ‘If a way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst’. I wonder if we’re any better or whether we’d behave just as savagely today as then, given similar circumstances? And I wonder where Truganini ranks in today’s apologies list?

© DON DONOVAN (text only)

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By Don Donovan