We were on our way across the nine nautical miles of Mercury Passage, to Maria Island.
I don’t know why we pronounce Maria the way we do – with the second syllable drawn out into a long i, like ‘eye’; it was named after Mrs. Van Diemen, the wife of the patron of Abel Tasman, who passed through here in 1642. On the other hand the Tyereddeme are said to have their name from a compound word meaning the ‘white cliff people’.
The Tyereddeme would have seen them. This band had arrived seasonally over the last millennia, building huts for shelter and enjoying the fresh water and seafood. Their dead are buried on the island and they have left their middens behind. They too covered the nine nautical miles often enough, on canoes made of rushes, across the calm waters of Mercury Passage.
In 1789, the Mercury came. John Henry Cox was its commander; a young Londoner, he had made a career for himself as a privateer, offering up his brig for services in North America, Scandinavia and Russia before making the long trek to Van Diemen’s Land. He charted the coastlines of both Maria Island and Oyster Bay, now both well-known and well-used, for shipping timber and woodchips, fishing, and transporting everyone from convicts to tourists throughout the two centuries of European occupation.
The French came here too, in 1802, for the purposes of science and possibly geopolitics – the latter is unconfirmed, but it seems likely that during the Napoleonic Wars they were looking at colonising Van Diemen’s Land themselves. Their captain was Nicolas Baudin, and he commissioned his voyage’s anthropologist, François Péron, to write a report on the Tyereddeme.
But also the French had to bury their own dead here: René Maugé de Cely, a zoologist, had taken ill with a tropical disease earlier on the journey and died upon the expedition’s arrival at Maria Island. He is remembered in nomenclature: here, in Point Maugé, but also in the scientific annals, in the names of a parakeet, a dove, and a carnivorous slug.
Later, boatloads of convicts would be brought here, with the station Darlington established from 1825 until 1832. Convicts were indentured to work as foresters, tanners and seamsters, with a water-powered textile factory as the island’s centrepiece. It was never an ideal convict station: behavioural problems persisted, supplies were often running short, and convicts would occasionally construct their own vessels for the purpose of escape across Mercury Passage.
Convicts returned in 1842, but again, the camp only lasted for a few years. William Smith O’Brien, the Irish political agitator, attempted escape from here. Five Maoris sentenced to transportation for life also arrived here, imprisoned for rebellion when they formed a resistance against violent colonialists in the frontiers of New Zealand. One of these was a whiskery labourer named Hohepa Te Unmroa. He was likely in his late 20s when he died of tuberculosis on Maria Island.
"At 4am visited the Maoris," wrote the prison chief. "Found Hohepa very nearly gone. At 5 am he breathed his last without a struggle."
He was buried on a hillside on the island until 1988, when his descendants returned to collect his body for reinterment in home soil by the Wanganui River.
Two Khoi convicts, from western South Africa, also made it to the island; and later, the Italian migrant Diego Bernacchi would try a variety of venturies on the island. This may seem an odd site for such a cosmopolitan history. It certainly did for the first Tasmanians. The resistance fighter Kickerterpoller told a journalist that he saw one of the early ships that came to Maria Island when he was a boy – perhaps the Baudin expedition. His clan members, terrified, fled from the coast. Kickerterpoller said that they were confused by the ship, which seemed to them like a small island. They could not “conceive how the white men came here first.”
Not the first, we came on a free boat, slept in the old penitentiary, and kicked the footy often. We also played cards with two young women: one, the daughter of an American astronomer; the other of Bulgarian and Macedonian descent. It’s all still a bit tricky to get your head around.
The French captain Nicolas Baudin came by here with a convict girl.