Like everyone else my age, I learned at school that Tasmanian Aborigines were extinct. We learned that they died of diseases inadvertently introduced by White settlers and that the name of the last Aborigine was Truganini. In the 1970s, when Tasmanian Aboriginal activists came to national prominence, I became aware that this information was wrong. Lyndall Ryan’s new book, Tasmanian Aborigines: A History Since 1803 tells the history of the indigenous people of our island state, and consigns the myth of their extinction to the dustbin. It’s a book every Australian should read.
The Preface gets the stuff about the History Wars out of the way. Let me say as a non-academic, that the sooner this tacky episode in our cultural history is dead and buried, the better. As a non-indigenous Australian, I am interested in the history of the indigenous peoples of this country, and I’m keen to learn from scholars of integrity whose work is accessible to the general reader. Professor Ryan’s book fits my criteria admirably.
The book begins with a biographical sketch of the woman whose portrait is on the front cover: Fanny Cochrane Smith (1834-1905), from the Wybalenna Aboriginal Establishment on Flinders Island. She was the only Tasmanian Aborigine from Wybalenna to leave descendants: she married William Smith, a sawyer and former convict and they had eleven children, six boys and five girls. In 1854, in recognition of her claim as a Tasmanian Aborigine, the colonial government paid her an annuity of £48, increasing it to £100 in 1876 after the death of Truganini, and granting her 300 acres of land. From 1854 to 1857 she ran a boarding house in Hobart and after that she and William took up land at Oyster Cove where she hunted and gathered bush foods and medicines, wove traditional baskets and maintained religious practices. In 1899 and 1903 (more than 20 years after the death of Truganini) she recorded Tasmanian Aboriginal songs on wax cylinders, preserving her people’s musical culture for posterity.
How on earth did the myth that Truganini was the ‘last’ Tasmanian Aborigine ever gain any credence? The answer to that comes late in the book when Ryan explains how her remains were desecrated and put on display in the Hobart Museum: it was populist myth-making backed up by ‘science’. It was also because Tasmanians wanted to believe that their island’s troublesome indigenous people were extinct. It has taken a very long time indeed for this disinformation to be overturned.
Even this recent (presumably) well-intentioned clip of Fanny’s recordings from YouTube perpetuates the ‘Last of her Race’ concept. You can hear her clear, confident voice and (from 1:48 onwards) her song.
(I don’t know why this video occasionally vanishes, click this link instead!)
Part I of Tasmanian Aborigines begins with the prehistory of Tasmania, in the Pleistocene era when it was joined to the mainland by sea The Tasmanian Aborigines were then the most southerly peoples on the globe, and, along with their creation myths, the stories that have come down to us from this time tell how they came by land but that water later covered the land-bridge. These stories are confirmed by modern archaeological and geological research which establishes that the waters of Bass Strait rose about 10,000 years ago. Over the 40,000 years of their occupation, the Tasmanian Aborigines adapted to significant changes in climate, expanding their territories and developing new technologies such as fire-stick farming and stone traps for fishing. By about 2000 years ago, the island was called Trouwunna by some of its people, a name I rather like.
Ryan consistently uses the term ‘invasion’ to describe the arrival of British settlers, and that’s what it was. Ryan has used the work of archaeologist Rhys Jones and copious documentary sources to detail the range and sophistication of the Tasmanian occupation of Trouwanna: there are maps and tables which show that the Tasmanian Aborigines had clearly established prior ownership of the land. They built dwellings (as anyone would, in Tassie’s brisk climate); they had grazing lands and mining sites; they made artworks and sophisticated tools; they had a complex cosmology underlying their spiritual practices; and they had a clearly defined social organisation consisting of family, clan and nation. There were four major languages spoken, which have similarities to the languages spoken in Victoria and parts of South Australia.
At the time of the fiercely resisted invasion the population was somewhere between the contemporary conservative estimate of 6000 and colonial estimates of between 6000 and 10,000 people. Sifting the evidence, Ryan concludes that there were probably about 7000 people and the population was probably growing. There were at least 48 clans as identified by the anthropologist Norman Plomley, and there may have been as many as 100. Their political grouping into nations was recognised and named as such by the colonial ethnographer G.A. Robinson, who also noted their patriotism as ’a distinguishing trait in the aboriginal character’ (p207). Rhys Jones’ research indicates that there were nine nations in Trouwanna, six of them in the north and east and three in the less hospitable south-west. (You only need to do a quick circuit of the island by car to understand why.) A table on pages 15-16 lists the nations, the names of the clans and the clan locations. The South East Nation, for example, included the Mouheneener at Hobart; the Nuenonne at Bruny Island; the Mellukerdee at Huon River; and the Lyluequonny at Recherche Bay.
For each nation, assembling irrefutable evidence from a plethora of sources, Ryan describes their shelters, their diet, their hunting and gathering practices, their tools and their crafts. She notes their political relationships with other nations. She names their languages and the names of some of the chiefs that were known to the colonial interlopers.
Take a moment to consider that. Just over 200 years ago, there was an ordered, thriving, well-established population of about 6000-7000 people in Tasmania. And then - within about 30 years – that society was destroyed by colonial settlement and the people almost wiped out.
This is not ancient history like the Assyrians or the Persians or the Babylonians…this is recent. Contemporary descendants of these Tasmanian Aborigines can trace their family histories back to this time through oral histories confirmed by the documentary record, just as I can with my family history. It’s about time Australia dealt with this issue, starting with learning the Black History of our country.
Ryan pulls no punches. She tells us that the first massacre took place at Risdon in May 1804. The perpetrators were able to act with impunity because of a court judgement in Sydney which had overturned the legal status of Aborigines from British subjects with legal rights, to ‘savages’ with none. Judge Advocate Richard Atkins had ruled that ‘it was impossible to bring an Aborigine to trial for a crime committed against either a colonist or another Aborigine’ thus justifying sanctions without trial and violent reprisals. Determined to settle the island to ward off any potential French claims, Lieutenant-Governor David Collins implemented a policy of ‘distance and fear’ to clear Aborigines out of the new settlement and adjacent hunting grounds, and Ryan is unequivocal about the effects:
There is no doubt that the Mouheneer clan, whose territory included Hobart, experienced a massive population decline in this period, and the absence of any information about any clan around Launceston suggests a similar outcome. (p17)
Ryan documents the sorry history of events, including well-meant attempts to educate orphaned Aboriginal boys such as George van Dieman in England so that they could become leaders. She explains the emergence of a Creole society between 1808 and 1820, noting how some women were abducted by sealers and others traded by their own chiefs. She distinguishes between conflicts: while the over-zealous hunting practices of sealers and whalers compromised the sustainability of the catch, they did not encroach on land with permanent settlements because the work was seasonal. She names resistance fighters: Musquito, Mannalargenna, Kickerterpoller (Black Tom) and William Lyttleton Quamby; Montpeliater, Tongerlongter and Petalega; Umarrah and Wareternatterlerhener. She names some of the numerous orphaned children taken into domestic service, notably Mahinna (about whom Richard Flanagan wrote most movingly in his novel Wanting. She observes that the basic human rights of these children were mostly ignored and that even after the 1833 Abolition of Slavery in the British Empire, ‘many colonists still considered that blackness was synonymous with slavery’ (p69).
It’s ironic that I remember learning about the Napoleonic Wars at school but nothing about their impact in Tasmania. When the wars ended, discontented returned officers and gentlemen who felt they were owed recompense for their war service were (like soldier-settlers after WW1 in Australia) fobbed off with grants of land in remote places. In both cases, that land granted to them was falsely held to be terra nullius, land belonging to no one. The Napoleonic veterans fared better than their WW1 counterparts, however, because their grants of land were accompanied by a convict labour-force. It was this massive invasion of pastoral settlers that effected the transformation of Tasmania from a creole small-scale agricultural society – with some accommodation between roughly equal numbers of indigenous people and the settlers – to a pastoral society. The colonial population surged from about 2000 to 23,500 by 1830. There was bound to be resistance, and there was.
Attacks, reprisals, and atrocities against unarmed women and children on both sides led to martial law being declared from 1828-1830. Pursuit and roving parties, of the type depicted in Rohan Wilson’s novel The Roving Party were despatched by Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur whose policy it was to effect a surrender in what was by then open warfare. Arthur understood clearly what the settlers were up against: the remnants of the Tasmanian Aboriginal nations were determined to expel the encroaching pastoralists from their kangaroo hunting grounds. (There are several useful maps which show the rapid extent of settlement across the island, and 17 places where mass killings of Aborigines took place between 1826-28).
Gilbert Robertson [who led a large roving party] told Arthur that the Aborigines were fighting for their country:
They consider every injury they can inflict upon white men as an act of duty and patriotic, and however they may dread the punishment which our laws inflict upon them, they consider the sufferers of those punishments as martyrs of their country … having ideas of their natural rights which would astonish most of our European statesmen. (p111)
What really shocked me in reading this book was the Arthur’s ‘Black Line’ of 1830-31. I had never heard of it, and I bet most other Australians haven’t either.
Arthur bowed to the inevitable. On 9 September he called on every able bodied male colonist to assemble on 7 October, at one of seven designated places in the Settled Districts, to join in a drive to sweep the Aborigines from the region. The levée en masse quickly became known as the ‘Black Line’. The war which had now been raging for nearly four years was taking its toll on both sides. In the twenty-three months between the declaration of martial law on 1 November 1828 and the announcement of military operations on 9 September 1830, at least sixty colonists, including five women and four children, had been killed in the Settled Districts. It is estimated that 300 Aborigines were killed in the same period, with at least 100 of these killed in mass killings of six or more. (p130)
Let’s be clear about this. This was not a case of some redneck settlers ‘overstepping the mark’ on the frontier. This was a military operation coordinated by the military commander of the colony. Ryan quotes Charles Esdaile, who she says is the ‘leading historian of the Peninsular War’:
the Line was more like ‘a very large scale’ Scottish Highlands shooting party: the soldiers and colonists were the beaters and the Aborigines were the prey waiting to be flushed out of the bracken’. (p133)
By the time the Black War was over an estimated 1000 people had died, an Aboriginal to colonial death ratio of 4:1 . In a country littered with war memorials, there is none commemorating the Fallen in this war.
So, what became of the remnant Tasmanian Aboriginal population? They came under the protection of G.A.Robinson, ethnographer and humanist, and Ryan is insistent on the point that whatever the tragic consequences of his attempts, this man was the first to try to learn about the Tasmanian Aborigines, and without him they would certainly have been exterminated, probably by 1835. His journals reveal just how hard the settlers tried to do just that.
But it is chilling reading; Ryan documents Robinson’s search parties to locate the pitifully small numbers still surviving in the bush and his attempts to persuade them to surrender. But as fast as he brought them in to ‘sanctuary’ at Wybalenna, they died. They died for all sorts of reasons but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that many died of a broken heart. It must have been ghastly for them to witness one death after another.
Still, the resilience for which Aborigines are noted reasserted itself. They paid only token attention to expectations of ‘civilised’ behaviour. They hunted mutton-birds, initiation and religious ceremonies were held, languages were retained and customary ways were practised as best they could. In time, they demanded return to the mainland and it was then that Fanny’s Cochrane’s claims were recognised. However her death soon led to the denial of Aboriginal existence, and it took a long, long campaign and sophisticated leadership in the 1970s before there was any recognition of the existence of Islander Aboriginal communities and their claims.
I think it’s important to note that Ryan’s tone is calm and measured. While occasionally the reader can sense her disgust about what happened, she is not making a case for guilt or shame, she is setting the record straight and making a compelling case for honesty about our history and restitution for past wrongs. She notes in the preface that the Tasmanian government responded positively to the Mabo Judgement with the return of some land to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community in Australia and was the first government to apologise to the Stolen Generations. But there is more, much more to be done on the path to Reconciliation and Justice.
It’s up to those of us who read this book to advocate for that.
As well as copious maps, tables and illustrations, there are comprehensive notes, references, a bibliography and an index. I hope that in summarising what I’ve read I haven’t distorted any facts: my intention in this review is to encourage others to get the book and read it for themselves.
 David Collins is described in the Australian Dictionary of Biography Online as having (in Sydney) a ‘compassionate interest in the Aboriginals’. The only reference to the Tasmanian Aborigines in his profile is a terse reference to the ‘hunting [which] led to much trouble with absconders and Aboriginals’.
Author: Lyndall Ryan
Title: Tasmanian Aborigines: A New History
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2012
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library, courtesy of Josie, who delivered it personally to my place when I wasn’t well enough to collect it myself. Thank you, Josie!
Fishpond: The Tasmanian Aborigines: A History since 1803