George Augustus Robinson was a religious man, whose sympathy for the Tasmanian Aboriginal people was motivated by a belief that God had created all people equal. His ‘Friendly Mission’ – a diplomatic journey on foot throughout the entire island of Van Diemen’s Land – was driven by other political and personal forces as well, but the influence of Robinson’s working-class Calvinism is not to be underestimated.
By December 1831, the self-proclaimed Conciliator was in his third year of his expeditions. His journeys had truly taken to him all corners of the island. Now, he was tracking the Big River people – led by the enigmatic chief Montpeilliatter - in the southern highlands. With white settlements expanding, the violence of frontiersmen and stockkeepers increased and foreign diseases killed more and more of the native population. Robinson’s diplomatic project seemed more urgent than ever.
Come Christmas Day, Robinson woke up by the “Big River” – the Ouse. The weather was pleasant. He and his party were out of tea and sugar. His companions were mostly Aboriginal recruits to his mission. Among others these were the north-east chief Mannalargenna and his wife Sall; the irascible Kickerterpoller and his wife Pagerly; the revolutionaries Peevay and Umarrah; and, ever faithful to Robinson’s mission, Woorrady and Trugernanna. A handful of convict servants – who often did not get along with Robinson – were with them too.
There was no holiday from the mission. The party continued in the trail of the Big River tribe. Fording the river, some of the natives had a swim. They crossed the plains south-east, kangaroo bounding away at their approach. Peevay speared one to take for dinner. From a hilltop in the hot afternoon, they could see the peak of Mt. Wellington, which loomed over the township of Hobart. But they were far away from that.
“As I journeyed along various reflections crossed my mind connected with this day: the comfortless situation I was placed in compared with those in towns,” he wrote in his journal, perhaps sparing a thought for his wife and their many children. “The service I was engaged in, however, bore me up as it was that service which him whose memory is perpetuated on this day delighted in.”
Perhaps Robinson wanted to enter into that wondrous old story of the deity who chose to be born as a baby in a Palestinian stable in order to bring conciliation to the world. He was an English bricklayer expeditioning among an ancient and suffering race, learning their languages and customs, hoping to bring peace on the island at the bottom of the world. The results were all too human and ugly.
George Robinson and Mannalargenna were an unlikely duo.
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