Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 13, 2012

Tasmanian Aborigines: A History since 1803 (2012), by Lyndall Ryan

Tasmanian Aborigines, A History since 1803Aboriginal readers are advised that this review contains the names of deceased persons.

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.

Update: 10/2/17 The YouTube video has been removed.  But if you follow this link to the ABC, and then click on the recording link about half way down the page, you can hear Fanny’s song, which has now been inducted into the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register.

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[1]  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.

[1] 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
ISBN: 9781742370682
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


  1. just shows how much us white people have to answer for Lisa ,all the best stu


    • Yes, but I don’t think that Ryan is on a mission to make us feel bad. She just wants the truth out there, and so do I. I mean, we all know that colonialism was detrimental to indigenous people and many people suffered. The important thing is not for our generation to feel guilty about that but to make sure that whatever justice can be done now, is done. I’m not comfortable with enjoying the benefits of dispossession without genuine attempts at reconciliation and recompense.


  2. Thanks for the comprehensive review of an important book, Lisa. John.


    • Hi John, I’m also looking out for other reviews online to link to, but I haven’t found any yet. I’m surprised The Australian, well-known champion of The History Wars hasn’t come out yet with theirs!


  3. Sounds well worth reading Lisa. I had heard of the black line … I think the first time might have been in Matthew Kneale’s The English passengers. It’s a novel that has stuck with me for its wonderful evocation of early Tasmania. I feel I came across it in another novel too … Perhaps Flanagan’s Wanting?


    • It’s a very powerful book, I hope it’s widely read.


  4. Lisa, Thanks for posting such a comprehensive review.


    • Hi Julie, thanks for dropping by:)


  5. I wish there was more about Truganini and Truganini’s sisters and Black Tom, and our family tree could be traced back to then but we need more information for our family tree, our aboriginal heratige can’t be proven yet! For myself, my children and there children and for further generations to come it would be nice to have the family tree complete and known as aboriginal descendent’s


    • Hello Vicki, welcome, and thank you for taking the time to comment. I am sure it is very frustrating not to have the information that you need. Good luck with your search, Lisa


  6. […] like so many other claims about them, this was wrong in conclusion. For far from disappearing, the Tasmanian Aborigines actively resisted settler colonialism from the outset and have consistently cam…. Lyndall Ryan tells the story of the Aboriginal people of Tasmania, from before the arrival of the […]


  7. A great review and an extraordinary account, it is an often repeated pattern, a people seeking refuge or new shores encounters local inhabitants and eventually concludes that oppression and/or annihilation is the only way forward.

    Today people’s resistance to this is often labelled as terrorism (for example in Palestine), making the victims out to be deserved of their oppression. Documenting how things really were, if it ever gets written is too often many generations later, when newer innocent generations discover with regret how they ended up where they are. It’s an uncomfortable wake-up call and easier for governments and many people to deny or claim innocence to, than to face up to.


    • Hello Claire, and thank you for your comments. I think we in Australia have a fair way to go before these events are properly acknowledged. The PM today unveiled yet another military memorial, well-deserved I have no doubt, but … there are still no memorials to Aboriginals who lost their lives fighting for their homelands.


  8. Sadly, the book also contains historical errors, which doesn’t do the process of reconciliation any good at all.


    • Hello Scott, Could you give an example that verifies what you say please?


      • Hi Lisa, yes certainly, here is an example.
        Lyndall Ryan, in the book titled, “Tasmanian Aborigines – A History Since 1803” on page 49, say’s –

        “Confused and in shock, the Big River people appear to have retrieved the bodies and then retreated to the hill on the other side of Risdon Creek, directly opposite Jacob Mountgarrett’s recently completed stone cottage. At this point, it seems, Mountgarrett persuaded Lt.Moore to make this cottage the centre of military operations”.

        “Archaeological evidence suggests that Moore stationed fifteen armed soldiers and about the same number of male convicts together with perhaps two armed settlers around it and then brought up one of the carronade loaded with grape shot as further protection. This weapon of mass destruction that Matthew Flinders had sent to Risdon as protection against the French was now put to another use”.

        To the casual reader, this is one hell of a powerful story of just some of the horrific treatment towards Aborigines. But is it ‘fact’?……

        First of all, lets get one small error out of the way, Matthew Flinders never sent the carronade’s to Risdon Cove. They were from his ship, “Investigator”, and when it was having some repair work done, Gov. King had two carronade taken from the ship, and sent them to Bowen at Risdon. Not for the purpose of using them against the Aborigines, but firstly as protection from the French should they turn up at Risdon and try and claim land for France, and secondly, in case there was an uprising from the convicts, which did on occasion happen.

        The rest of this scenario has never been heard of before. It is totally made up by Ryan. For starters, there’s a great book by Angela McGowan titled, “Archaeological Investigations At Risdon Cove Historic Site 1978-1980” of which I have a copy. Items found at the site of Mountgarrett’s cottage include, –
        A steel cannon ball from the fire place, a group of nine irregular shaped flints, “probably” from gunspalls from the ashy fill of the fireplace, a blade gunflint heavily chipped from the fill below the floor level. Two lead balls for a long arm rifle, lead casting waste from a bullet mold, group of thirteen hand made lead bullets probably for a pistol, and a group of 33 hand made lead shot and a second group of 13 lead shot.

        This is how Ryan comes up with the above story. Because these items were found at Mountgarrett’s cottage.

        What Ryan doesn’t mention is that a lot of these are described as “approximately spherical”, and “unevenly spherical”, which could just as well indicate shot he found while eating meat at his table and threw in the fire place, or poor attempts at casting his own shot from time to time, as it could anything else, but from that, Ryan has a centre of military operations, and numbers of soldiers etc that were stationed around the cottage.
        I would have expected a find of shot like this in the ground somewhere on the settlement to indicate a massacre, but archaeological work didn’t find anything like this, nor had all the years of farming turned up anything like this.

        It’s also worth noting that a cannon ball in a fire place is not all that unusual, they were great for keeping the contents of a pot hot, rather than risk burning it over a fire. The canon ball would remain hot for a considerable length of time, and could be rested against a pot of water or stew for example to keep it hot
        There were also brass like pins, copper wire thread, buttons and an embroidery ring found at Mountgarretts cottage ruins, but does that mean he was also the settlement’s seamstress?? Of course not.

        To top that off, Ryan has the convicts or soldiers dragging one of the carronade, from one end of the settlement to the other, on wet ground, to get it to Mountgarrett’s cottage. Remember, these carronade were not on wheels, they were sent ‘unmounted’.

        It’s a great story that Ryan has written in respect to Risdon Cove, but I’m afraid the historical records don’t exist to back it up.


        • Thank you, Scott, for your detailed reply.
          Do you mind if I ask you about your qualifications in respect of these matters? Are you an historian, or archaeologist, or something similar?


          • Your welcome Lisa. I’ve been researching Risdon Cove for almost three years now, some aspects of that work has uncovered previously unknown details concerning Risdon Cove, and has attracted interest locally as well as interstate. I’m passionate about history, but I’m not a qualified ‘historian’. You might find it interesting to know that ‘Edward White” who was an ‘eye witness’ to the ‘massacre’ at Risdon Cove, doesn’t exist in historical documents relating to Van Diemens Land 1803/1804, there is more evidence to show White wasn’t a witness than evidence to show he was. So why did he give testimony in 1830 saying he was an ‘eyewitness’?…..we’ll never know, but there’s a good chance that it may have had something to do with his application for Government assistance that he applied for afterwards. Sadly, he wasn’t successful. Does Edward White exists in musters, rolls, persons victualed from Gov. stores, or convict lists in 1803/04 Risdon Cove and or Sullivans Cove?….no…he doesn’t. Yet this has received no press in relation to the ‘massacre’ at Risdon Cove. Odd?


          • There are so many aspects of what happened at Risdon Cove that are not written about or explored, my biggest question is why? There were most certainly Aborigines killed on that day, but there is absolutely no evidence at all to show that it was more than four or five, certainly not 50 or 100, or a whole tribe of men, women and children, that is often talked about. And what happened to perhaps cause the settlers to fire on the Aborigines? that seems to be left out of all history books. I find it very interesting.


            • Well, Scott, given that there has been so much controversy about Tasmania’s Black History, I’m sure you can understand that I am not keen to start up another one here. I have contacted Professor Ryan to ask her to respond to what you say, and in the meantime, until she has had time to reply, I’ll hold off on any further discussion for the time being.


  9. […] their children stolen, their land and human rights taken away, most of their population wiped out (most cruelly in Tasmania), but even today, various Australian state governments owe Aboriginal Australians millions […]


  10. […] see my review of Lyndall Ryan’s Tasmanian Aborigines, a History since 1803 for an overview of indigenous life in this period and how the myth of extinction came to be […]


  11. […] as the state pension paid to Fanny Cochrane Smith paid after the death of Truganina shows.  (See my review of Tasmanian Aborigines by Lyndall Ryan for further details if you are not familiar with this part of Tasmania’s history).  But I […]


  12. […] Tasmanian Aboriginal Australian’ was peddled, swamping the story of indigenous businesswoman Fanny Cochrane Smith who died in 1905 and left numerous descendants, and ignoring the Aboriginal women living on Bass Strait Islands and […]


  13. […] of non-fiction by authors who must surely be considered as honorary Tasmanians: Lyndall Ryan, for Tasmanian Aborigines, a History since 1803; and Rebe Taylor for Into the Heart of Tasmania which won the 2017 Tasmania Book Prize.  And […]


  14. […] about the continuing existence of Tasmanian existence, see my review of Lyndal Ryan’s Tasmanian Aborigines).  So Tiffin writes (as ‘Colin Johnson’ did) that the novel is about  … the […]


  15. […] the Indigenous population on Australian soil during the frontier wars, notably in Tasmania.  See here, and […]


  16. […] got a long way to go to catch up with my most popular post ever for an Australian title: Tasmanian Aborigines: A History since 1803, by Lyndall Ryan (15,406 views since 2012) and Voss, by Patrick White with 11,124 views since 2009. and the ANZLL […]



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