There’s no way either could have imagined their meeting at the beginning of their lives.
George Augustus Robinson had come to Van Diemen’s Land as an ambitious labourer, and turned himself into the superstar of a desperate tour of the island, a missionary-conciliator trying to bring an end to the war between natives and settlers. Mannalargenna was the chief or ‘clever-man’ of one of the clans of the north-east, centred around what is now called Ben Lomond. He was a revered warrior, with thick dreadlocks smeared with ochre, a scarified body, and a matted beard.
He was capable of fearful courage, and violence. When a European landowner had four of his clan’s women and a child captive in his home, it was Mannalargenna who raided the house to restore them. But George Robinson had no desire to fight anyone. His task was to persuade the Aborigines that their best bet was to let themselves be removed from their traditional lands, and make their lives elsewhere. He had already convinced a number of chiefs. It was not without trepidation, though, that he approached Mannalargenna.
But Mannalargenna knew that the situation was dire anyway. The war had been going on for too long. There was too much misunderstanding. Never before had two peoples less alike ever met. The Aborigines were technologically and numerically outmatched.
It must have been quite a sight, to see them wandering through the bush together, a band of soldiers, convicts and blacks in tow. They had made a deal, although both would swerve the other on it. Mannalargenna was a fickle guide, and led Robinson on wild goose chases. And Robinson didn’t honour his end of the treaty: Mannalargenna never came back to his home.
Another commonality: both George and Mannalargenna had a wife and five kids.
But by the end of his life, everything Mannalargenna had ever cared for had been lost. Sealers had enslaved his sisters and three of his daughters. He saw one of these daughters, one last time, on Preservation Island, unexpectedly. Both father and daughter, Robinson said, were “suffused in tears.” Mannalargenna begged Robinson to get his daughter back for him. Robinson’s hands were tied.
It is said that Mannalargenna sat on the back of the boat as it headed for the Tasmanians’ place of exile, and cut his dreadlocks off. Ben Lomond – or whatever the mountain was known to his people as – disappeared in the thinning sky. He died within a month of reaching the settlement. George Robinson presided over his funeral. He couldn’t have spoken more highly of Mannalargenna.
Strange what can happen in a lifetime.
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