He was nothing more than a tradesman, really, when he showed up on the island. A man with an aquiline nose, a small pouty mouth, and wavy hair that was well-kept – maybe too well-kept. Another visitor from far away.
Another one, but not the same as all the rest.
The young lady on the island had seen boats coming up and down the channel all her life now. At first, they were tourists, arriving for a quick look and then moving on. But then the white folks started settling, clearing land, building hamlets, growing crops, and taking over. Loggers and whalers had started to settle on the island; they were often monstrously violent, and they brought strange sicknesses to the local population. Her sister died of some unknown disease. Her mother and her uncle were killed. Then, her husband-to-be was murdered too.
But later – much, much later, when the history of the Aboriginal Tasmanians had reached its tragic nadir – Trugernanna told a biographer that when she first laid eyes on the man who would call himself the Conciliator, she could see that he wasn’t like the other white men. “Mr. Robinson was a good man and could speak our language,” she said.
And even later still, when Trugernanna was long since dead, historians would slur her name, calling her a ‘moll’, ‘a white man’s doxy’, and the ‘betrayer of her own people’. Other historians say that she perhaps wasn’t this ‘mindless black bimbo’. They suggest that perhaps she was an insightful diplomat, a negotiator who believed that her race would come to its end if they didn’t get away from the invading European settlers and their muskets and diseases.
She joined Mr. Robinson and his campaign to end the frontier conflicts between white and black on Van Diemen’s Land. Her role as emissary was invaluable; without her and other Aboriginal negotiators, Robinson could not have succeeded. Instead, the Friendly Mission led the Tasmanians to their exile on an offshore island. It was not the end of the story, but it still brought suffering for Trugernanna and her people.
Were Trugernanna and George Augustus Robinson lovers? Did they, indeed, ‘share a blanket’? The historians may never agree, on this and on a number of matters. Incredible, really, how the lives of these two individuals have touched so many others – how they have aggravated and aggrieved and sparked academic stoushes and bar-counter blues, camp-fire confessions as well as wintry silences.
When all the ink is spilt and our teeth will gnash no more, we still cannot comprehend fully the eclectic and complex motivations of either Trugernanna or Robinson. Yet their story remains perhaps the most significant in all of Tasmania. For what happened through them changed the island for everyone.
Last week, we looked ahead to Trugernanna's last days.
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