Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 26, 2017

Unearthed, the Aboriginal Tasmanians of Kangaroo Island, by Rebe Taylor

A new book is on my TBR: it’s called Into the Heart of Tasmania: A Search for Human Antiquity and it’s by historian Rebe Taylor.  But as soon as I started reading it, I knew I wanted to read her first book, so I reserved that at the library… and lo! it was available the very next day.  This promptness made me think I could read the book at my leisure and renew it if necessary, but no, *pout* somebody else wants it now and I’ve ended up having to dash through the last half of it because it’s due back tomorrow.  So Unearthed, the Aboriginal Tasmanians of Kangaroo Island is not going to get the review it deserves from me, because I now don’t have time to read it all.

(But actually what Unearthed really deserves is a proper review from a proper historian and there seems not to be one online, only an archived Hindsight program about it on the ABC, and one lonely 4-line review at Goodreads. How has this happened to a book nominated for the 2003 Dobbie, that tells such an interesting story?)

Maybe it’s because Kangaroo Island doesn’t seem so very important in the national consciousness?  Yet it’s our third-largest island (after Tasmania and Melville Island), and it’s a bit bigger than Majorca and Long Island.  It’s also the site of first European settlement in South Australia – a settlement which followed an Indigenous settlement that predates the loss of the land bridge about 10,000 years ago when sea levels rose, creating the body of water now known as Backstairs Passage, separating Kangaroo Island from the Fleurieu Peninsula.  Its Aboriginal name was Karta, ‘Isle of the Dead’ and there is a Dreaming story which tells the story of the people who did not get away in time from the flooding.

The fascinating aspect of this island’s settlement history is that modern day descendants of the sealers and Aboriginal women who re-settled Kangaroo Island in the early 19th century had – until recently – no idea of their ancestors’ existence.  The simplistic explanation for this seems to be that the sealers, their Aboriginal ‘wives’ and their way of life had been given such a bad press that their story was suppressed both by their embarrassed descendants and by the victors in the land-grab.  It was not until the 1950s and 60s that snippets of information made their way to contemporary descendants, and not until 1991 that the Kangaroo Island Pioneers Association unveiled a plaque to recognise the arrival of Nathaniel Thomas and his (unnamed) Aboriginal wife in 1827.   The story of the Aboriginal ‘wives’ and their children had to wait even longer.

Not all of the pioneers’ descendants appear to have been pleased about renewed interest in their family history.  Unearthed begins with the information that most of the names in the book are pseudonyms because descendants did not want their ancestors’ real names used.

Sifting complex layers of sometimes conflicting evidence, Taylor tells the story of a successful Islander society that was nevertheless vilified in contemporary sources of the time.  Taylor says that whatever the circumstances of the women leaving their original homes for life with the sealers (and perhaps not all of them were abducted, some may have been ‘traded’), there was cultural interchange between the sealers and the women.  The women soon learned to use the men’s tools and the men depended on the women to find water sources, to hunt for wildlife, and for the making of clothes and traps.  Both learned each other’s languages, and their children knew both.  Yet although the sealers were successful traders and soon established productive farms, they were described elsewhere as savages who had abandoned civilisation. And although there is no evidence that the men were escaped convicts, they were assumed to have criminal backgrounds anyway.

Since these Islanders had never had official authority to settle on Kangaroo Island, their community was not sanctioned by the Colonial Office.  Keen to establish a colony without convicts, the authorities made it seem like an urgent priority to sort matters out on Kangaroo Island so that they could continue with their sleight-of-hand dispossession of the Indigenous people in South Australia:

“The colonisation of South Australia by industrious and virtuous settlers, so far from being an invasion of the rights of the Aborigines, is a necessary preliminary to the displacement of the lawless squatters, the abandoned sailors, the runaway convicts, the pirates, the worse than savages, that now infest the coast of New Holland, and perpetrate against the defenceless natives crimes at which humanity revolts”.  (p.78)

Taylor demolishes this lands rights policy for what it was:

This is hyperbole whipped to its most ludicrous.  There were no hordes of pirates along the coast in 1836, only about eight middle-aged European men on Kangaroo Island.  If the Commissioners did not know the precise number and ages of the Islanders at the time of writing, they at least knew that the sealers had never formed a pandemic of pillagers.  (p.79)

Their source of information, a report from a Captain Sutherland, acknowledged that the sealers had never ‘molested’ Sutherland when he was there, and the report also includes a letter from Commissioner John Morphett describing the Islanders as intelligent, quiet men who were cultivating the land.   Taylor then goes on to say that:

The Islanders had become puppets in a game of textual borrowing.  The Commissioners’ First Report undoubtedly has a flavour reminiscent of the Hobart Town Gazette.  It is interesting how texts borrowed for new reasons can contradict their original uses.  Where the Van Dieman’s Land press viewed Kangaroo Island as the ‘ultima thule’, the furthest known and least desirable place, the Plan of a Company described Kangaroo Island as a ‘point of great importance’ and ‘a very desirable place.’  The colonisation of this ‘desirable’ place was justified in the same language that had made Kangaroo Island undesirable.  These textual contradictions were born out of geographically different perspectives.  From Sydney or Hobart, Kangaroo Island seemed habitable only to a savage, but from faraway London it seemed a fresh place for a civilised new settlement.  (p.80)

The new settlers on four ships who arrived to ‘displace’ the Islanders in 1836 had a mindset that justified their claims:

As the new, official settlers, they interpreted the Islanders’ lack of culture as a lack of legitimacy.

Although the settlers had known from Sutherland’s report that there were sealers and Aboriginal women living on Kangaroo Island, they still believed they were the first settlers in a new country.  They did not realise that this island had placenames and a known geography.  They did not seem to remember it had once been an important part of a prosperous industry, that it had older relationships with Bass Strait and other colonies, and with the indigenous communities of the mainland.  They did not regard this as a place that other people called home.  (p.77)

Well, of course there was trouble. Although the new would-be settlers received a hospitable welcome from the Islanders, the official settlement lacked the survival skills that the Aboriginal women had brought to the unauthorised settlements.  The new settlers couldn’t find water, and they couldn’t find food, and they were not best pleased to find themselves indebted for these basics to the black and white inhabitants that they’d labelled ‘savages’.   It wasn’t long before there were serious tensions.  Eventually the official settlement failed, packed up and went elsewhere, but some stayed.  Descendants of these people, interviewed by Taylor, still consider themselves the legitimate pioneers, (even though at least one of the original first settlers was eventually granted official title to his land.  These descendants are proud of their heritage and have passed on their family stories to the next generation.  Taylor found that descendants of the original first settlers didn’t even know their family stories…

Elsewhere the myth of Trukanini as the ‘last 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 Kangaroo Island, at least one of whom, Suke, was still drawing rations from the Destitute Board of South Australian in the late 19th century.

The book goes on to tell the stories of the descendants of those very first settlers: Mary Seymour, the elder daughter of Nat Thomas and Betty; and Emma Barrett and Hannah Simpson, Mary’s daughters. Taylor notes the unedifying story of male descendants who despite achieving many middle-class distinctions in Kangaroo Island society, could not marry any of the local girls – and the reason was said to be their part-Aboriginal heritage. Eligible white males from the local ‘gentry’ chose not to marry at all, rather than marry Aboriginal women.  And so Aboriginal ancestry came to be hidden, and kept secret.

The Kangaroo Island story, it seems to me, is a microcosm of the Australian story.  And even now Rebe Taylor felt she couldn’t use the real names of some of the people involved…

Author: Rebe Taylor
Title: Unearthed, the Aboriginal Tasmanians of Kangaroo Island
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2002
ISBN: 9781862545526
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Unearthed: The Aboriginal Tasmanians of Kangaroo Island or direct from Wakefield Press.


Responses

  1. What an interesting sounding read, not an area I know anything about. Personally i would have no qualms about keeping it a day or two and pay the fine if you have enjoyed reading it so much.

    • I’d be tempted if I thought it were just an admin thing… you know… you can only renew twice and you’ve used up your time. A day or two extra wouldn’t upset anyone and the fine is negligible. But somebody is waiting on this- it could be a student who needs it, but even if it’s not, the whole library concept depends on people being fair, I think. It’s a remarkable (free) system that works entirely by people sharing which is a beautiful thing in today’s world.

  2. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  3. Sounds like a great read that would flesh out another part of our history. Kangaroo Island is on my visit hit list. Will try to remember to read this before we go.

    BTW about fifth time lucky, but I think I’ve solved the gravatar problem. You won’t believe it but my current gravatar was rated PG (my previous ones were G – I now see on the gravatar site). So any sites that only accept G-rated gravatars wouldn’t accept it. I’ve now rated it G and I think it’s displaying, here and on Bill’s site. How funny! But I think that’s it!

    • LOL KI is about the only place you haven’t been, surely!
      PS That gravatar rating is hilarious!

      • I wish ! But I still have places to visit Lisa! I do love exploring Australia though.

        Haha, it is hilarious isn’t it. So simple. I’d been seeing all this complex incomprehensible to me coding stuff for gravatars and saying to myself that surely it wasn’t that! Then giving up … and all it was was a rating. It really is funny.

    • Yep. You’re now a delicate little flower on my site, WG.

      • And I thought I was a robust gum blossom!! But, however, you see it, I’m a happy one!

      • And, I’ve now changed the ratings on Gravatars accepted on my site to PG: Settings – Discussion, scroll to Avatars section. I figure PG is fair enough.

  4. Interesting books. The second one you mentioned has been flogged at our local indie book store for some time. I really should have a closer look at these. Have not been to Kangaroo Island yet but would like to visit. Good review and I like your ‘be fair’ library comments. I have so many books at home I have not read but still get a library book regularly just to support them.

    • Hi, thanks for stopping by… I’ve been reading your blog but mostly from my email so I haven’t touched base for a while…
      I forgot to mention in my review that the writing is not overly scholarly. Rebe Taylor has a PhD but this book is for everyday readers like me.
      Yes, my guess is that your local Tassie bookshops would always have Lyndall Ryan’s book Tasmanian Aborigines, and now Taylor’s new one.

  5. Interesting that families still wish to hide any Indigenous ancestry. I had KI friends when I lived on that side of the Nularbor. They’re very insular (as you would expect) but more so than other comparable remote, small towns, partly because there’s not – or didn’t used to be – much new blood.

    • Yes, it says that in the book, that they tended to marry each other.
      There are some – a-hem – “interesting” attitudes to be heard on that Hindsight program…

  6. A comprehensive review Lisa, despite your suggestion of otherwise!

    • Ta muchly! But I do hope one of my historian friends picks it up and reviews it as a historian would.

  7. Fascinating.

    See what I meant the other day about learning things about Australia and Aborigines on your blog?


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