Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged Aboriginal

  • To Enjoy the Earth

    To Enjoy the Earth


    At 216 metres it’s not the most impressive of mountains, but wukalina / Mount William affords a fine view of the north-eastern tip of Tasmania, and the islands of Bass Strait beyond it. “Them islands are very special to us,” Ben said as we crouched on a rounded lump of granite for lunch. Later – a little further south along the coast, yet with the islands still faintly blue on the horizon – he would tell me how his grandparents met there.

    I was working on the wukalina walk, an eco-tourism project run by the Aboriginal Land Council in that far corner of the island. They have built a most impressive shack on Cod Bay: called krakani lumi, ‘resting place’, the buildings’ design absorbs the features of the landscapes and Aboriginal architectural history in a stunning way.

    Mount William National Park was inscribed in the 1980s to look after the coastal heath ecosystems
    and preserve the last stronghold for the forester kangaroo (Macropus giganteus) – while we have in Tasmania a lot of smaller macropods, like wallabies and pademelons, there are very few kangaroos. This is dry country, as thirsty for fire as it is rain. Along the gravel roads, bracken wears brown dust. Acacias, black peppermints, banksias and xanthorrhoeas stand out above the low shrubs. The beaches, meanwhile, glisten; the sea heaves itself onto the shore in dull crashes.

    As Ben finished explaining his people’s heritage on the Bass Strait islands, I added some geological insight: the islands were formed by an event known as the Tabberabberan Orogeny, which involved an intrusion of igneous rock which stretches from what is now Wilsons Promontory in Victoria, through to the Hippolyte Rocks off the coast of the Tasman Peninsula.

    Those islands were mountains when the first Tasmanians crossed Bass Strait; then, the strait was in fact a stretch of lowland plains, before the end of the last Ice Age flooded it and rendered them islanders. It was the longest isolation of any human culture in history: the cutting-off of that granite chain meant that the Tasmanians had 10,000 years to develop a completely unique way of being. Those were the ancestors of today’s palawa, three of whom were my colleagues for that weekend at wukulina and larapuna. They are also the descendants of white seafarers, who were part of wreaking the complex of rapid changes that mutilated so much of what the Tasmanian cultures would have been.

    Much is lost, but contrary to what we may have been taught, not all. The purpose of the wukalina walk is to ensure that palawa culture is lived and shared. In many cases, it is a matter of relearning, and perhaps the most exciting facet of the trip was making three new palawa friends, each of whom is rediscovering what it means to be Aboriginal, in their own idiosyncratic ways.

    And in my own idiosyncratic way, I am trying to work out how to be a Tasmanian without having any known Aboriginal heritage. I listened intently, then, to an elder telling a story from the old people, about the creation of first palawa man – how the spirits formed him, and, in the elder’s words, ensured that he “could enjoy the earth”. It had a poetic insight into human interactions with the Tasmanian landscape that I find very valuable. But I’m also reluctant to borrow the poetry from a people with a voice to which we listen too poorly, knowing that this can carry the same vibes as colonialism.

    Yet my identity is tangled up with the landscapes of the island, and there is no understanding the bush here without understanding the 40,000 years of human history within it. I have read much of the ethnographic material on the Aboriginal Tasmanians – that is, the stuff that whitefellas wrote. We know it is flawed, but many times, these same sources are being used by the palawa community to reconstruct their identity.

    It was a real treat, then, to work alongside three palawa who are learning the same craft as me. To sit on the edge of a shell midden, to watch Ben put his thumb into the worn groove of a stone cutting tool that his old fellas made. To listen to them stumble over the words of their euphonious language, palawa kani, the syllables of which seem to me to take in the rhythm of the land and sea and stars here. And to explore that curious space, of unknowing and relearning, of both our shared heritage and the vast differences in history – a space that swells the imagination, and from which I am sure a great deal of good is coming.

  • Some Crucial Materials

    Some Crucial Materials

    What was I ever taught about the first Tasmanians? Bugger all, as it happens. A lot of what I was taught wasn’t true. How is it that so few people find the humans of this landscape’s history as fascinating and important as I do?

    Today’s indigenous Tasmanian communities are able to tell of their own histories and traditions. Much, however, has been lost. Of course, any mob in modernity has jettisoned past practices, but for the original Tasmanians, a lot of loss came about because of force. One can only be stunned by how swiftly and savagely any sense of normalcy was destroyed by colonists and visiting seamen in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Nevertheless, the Tasmanians survived.

    (I don’t recall exactly what I was taught, but certainly phrases like ‘the last Tasmanian Aborigine’ were familiar to me when I first started my own lines of inquiry into what Aboriginal life here.
    Even when I went to primary school this was outdated, and yet I’m quite sure it was still taught.)

    Scientists scratching through the layers of soil – through the bones and discarded shells of old campsites – are able to tell us more.
    A midden is a remnant of a significant part of original Tasmanian economy. These are some of the crucial materials of life on this island. The Tasmanians survived several periods of glaciation. They were, for thousands of years, the most southerly people on Earth.

    The truth is that, like many around me, I probably didn’t much care about history. Not for a long time. Perhaps I’d never have really bothered, if I didn’t come to be so obsessed with the Tasmanian landscape. Suddenly I wanted to know the human history of the land.

    I recognised that I had invested the world around me with meaning, and it became clear that Aboriginal communities would have done the same. Don’t we always blend practical matters with spiritual or social values? It made me think anew of the mystique of rock and fire, to wonder at the hidden meanings of native cherry and abalone and pigface. The curved emblems of Tasmanian rock carvings and body art provoked me to look for patterns in the world around me. Wallaby sinew and bull kelp took on new meanings for me. So too did the loop-di-loop of a grey fantail in flight. The whole bush became alive with inspiration, living presences and processes.

    Chancing upon a midden, a scattered bed of the shells of mud oysters and abalone, can be poignant for me. I don’t believe that these people were my ancestors genetically, but they were my predecessors in this place; if ever I am going to have home country, it is here, and I can only have any sense of belonging on this island by trying to comprehend what the first Tasmanians have been like throughout history, and today.

    The archaeological sites of the Tarkine area are among the most important in Australia. They tell us about the huts, traps and campsites of those who have lived here for millennia. Much of the Tassie they knew is irretrievable.

    Some readers may have overheard the public conversation about the reopening of four-wheel-drive tracks on the Tarkine coast. Many representatives of Tasmanian Aboriginals, as well as ecologists, are deeply concerned what this means.
    The planned tracks are said to avoid shorebird nesting sites, and middens will be covered with some sort of protective mat. I hope I don’t seem cynical when I say this sounds, to me, like an afterthought.

    I should say that not all Aboriginal groups are worried: the Circular Head Aboriginal Corporation, whose neighbourhood is the Tarkine coast, is in support of the tracks’ reopening. They suggest that inclusive access to these places will promote their value. The state government reckons that they can manage these places better with the tracks officially opened and licenses given out.

    Perhaps I am wrong, but I don’t trust my fellow Tasmanians to look after our landscape and our cultural heritage. So few people seem to care that we live in the midst of a swirl of vibrant ecology; that we are ourselves are creatures bound to our ecosystems; and that the history of this landscape, and its peoples, readily inspires us to wonder.

    Not enough Tasmanians love this place in all its complexity. If they did, they would love the old people, the ancestors, the ones who came before us, the first Tasmanians. If so, these middens, which are accessible on all stretches of coastline around the island, could be places of contemplation for us all.



    We consider more Aboriginal folklore from western Tasmania in 'the Land of Sweet Forget'.

  • Figures and Textures: Waves, Fences, Fantails, Skyscrapers

    Figures and Textures: Waves, Fences, Fantails, Skyscrapers

    I find myself a spot on the point and watch. Gravity lifts mounds of water from the seemingly endless expanse. On a shaped plate of fibreglass, a surfer waits. He is in thick foam. He wants the waves to lift in a certain shape: his eyes are trained to see the first hints of this phenomenon. When he does, he’ll lay flat on the board, beleaguered as a turtle, kicking his legs in the surf before hoisting himself to his feet.

    I’ve never surfed. The ocean is not my realm. I swim, of course, and I love swimming. But I don’t feel the confidence that my surfer friend does. Perhaps it’s because I was caught in a rip off King Island when I was a teenager (how to describe the shape of a rip?) and almost found myself wrecked on the rocks like so many ships have on that island’s coastline.

    On land it is a different matter. I have great trust in my feet, my balance, in the strength of my legs. Often enough I possess an awareness of my legs; they seem to inhabit the entirety of my body sometimes. As a child, I had five acres to stretch them out into: no wonder they have grown so long and skinny.

    In cities they feel cramped. I do not like running up against the confines of urban design. One can only imagine how much more this version of claustrophobia affected Aboriginal Tasmanians, who had lived in a semi-nomadic style until Europeans arrived and claimed large areas of land for themselves.

    For the first time, fences came into the landscape. A surreal form, I suppose, to see strung along Tasmanian country, between bulky stringybarks and bendy wattles, with skinks and wrens breaching it. Even today, to see a grey fantail launch off a wire strand and make its circular forays in the air is one of the strangest collision of forms that I can think of.

    Sometimes I find creative inspiration from these weird incoherences. Other times, they are ugly in the broadest sense of the word: not only are the forms themselves aesthetically bothersome, but the ideas behind them are dull-witted, ill-conceived, authoritarian, and motivated by nothing more interesting than shallow greed.

    In this unappealing category I place the high-rise buildings proposed for Hobart’s waterfront. These are the designs of Singapore-based Fragrance Group. Unfortunately, they are awful designs, which fail to correspond to any of the landscape’s native figures. Anything in Hobart must match the beautiful forms and textures of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel and kunanyi/Mount Wellington: these do not. As Richard Flanagan has written recently, these forms are not contiguous to Hobart. They have no relevance to this island. “They do not come out of Tasmanian culture,” Flanagan writes. “Their immense height and bulk do not respect or complement a cityscape where the tallest building is 14 storeys.

    Skyscrapers dominate and bully the small island of Singapore; they ought not in Tasmania.
    This is not only a contest between economics and aesthetics: when cities are designed in discord with their use and history, locals are alienated from their own places.

    Aboriginal Tasmanians would have worried more about the frontier conflict than the frontiers themselves, but, perhaps, with their nuanced understanding of the meaning of forms (as evinced by their artwork), they would have recognised that the straight lines of fences represented a barrier and a boundary in time.

    These Tasmanians had their own architecture, from simple east coast shelters to semi-permanent shacks on the west coast. That we have no interest in designing like this shows the perpetuity of a colonial “perceptual faultline” that we need buildings which are tall and straight.

    We turn to such buildings as a reflex, trying to prove to the world that we are relevant to them. Instead, we arbitrarily import irrelevant ugliness, when we could come up with something that imaginatively embraces the history and landscape of an island that is like no other on Earth.



    Last week I looked at other forms, comparing a west coast mountain to a Cretaceous dinosaur.

  • Figures and Textures: Mountains, Yards, Moons, Dinosaurs

    Figures and Textures: Mountains, Yards, Moons, Dinosaurs

    I am increasingly compelled to pay attention to the figures and textures of Tasmania, and to wonder what impression they have made upon my brain and our society as we each pass our time within their midst.

    For example, as the years go on, I become more familiar with such forms in the mountains where I work. It is not only the silhouettes of massifs and gendarmes that affect me. I recall last patches of light on the summits, the rock changing colour as the sun disappears behind a hill or forest. There is the coarseness of dolerite’s crystals against the soft pads of my hands, or the sharp contortions of quartzite under the thick leather of my boots’ soles, or the slippery grains of wet sandstone.

    Artists have a keen eye for these things. I am not an artist, but I admire someone like Peter Dombrovskis, a photographer who spent incredible amounts of time and care during his forays into the bush. A cursory look through Dombrovskis’ catologue is enough to tell us that he knew these forms intimately: the curl of the pandani, the burled bark, convulsions of kelp, ice-encrusted flower petals.

    But even those who are considerate and attentive will today arrive with the aesthetic prejudices of Europe. We must remember that straight lines are rarely found in the Tasmanian bush. Maybe there are rectilinear forms in geology, but very rarely are they truly straight. Even the horizon may have taken on a different meaning for the original Tasmanians: this line, I am told, is not the crux of much Aboriginal art, unlike what we have been handed down from the classic painters of Europe.

    Tasmanian art, as far as we can know, was most often in the media of bodily scarification and petroglyphs. Here at preminghana or Mount Cameron West, in the island’s north-west, is said to have some of the mesmerising and memorable examples of art in the latter medium. (Today it is concealed and only accessible to some members of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community.)

    Stylised circles, moon-shapes, dots, crosses and bird tracks were recorded by early European observers; similar motifs appear in the descriptions of the cicatrices cut into the flesh of Tasmanians. The “curved emblem” was also found at Aboriginal gravesites, and in their temporary huts. The full meanings of these figures are not shared, but commentators have remarked on the potential symbolism – “an awareness of a spiritual dimension within the land”, says Roslynn Haynes.

    Probably, they had a range of possible meanings, a beautiful and complicated polysemy.

    I grew up on a bush block in the Tamar Valley and there are countless forms that have unalterably changed me. Perhaps the open land we had is the most obvious: my gait, I think, corresponds to the yards in which I strode as a youth. But there are many more,
    most of which I do not yet comprehend. But I am spending a lot of time trying to unravel it all.

    For example, when I came to look at preminghana, I found myself comparing it to a Pachycephalosaurus, in a certain unlikely posture. I was very fond of dinosaurs as a lad.


  • Track Work

    Track Work

    Incredibly, I am writing this from a bushwalkers’ hut on the Tasman Peninsula. The Three Capes track has now been open for a bit over a year, after five years of track construction, and over a decade since it was conceived by the Parks and Wildlife Service of Tasmania.

    The stonework and boardwalk of the track is not insignificant. In areas, it is beautiful. It is the result of hard labour, and a stunning amount of money. But it is perceived as an investment: walkers who wind up on this track and spend four days wandering this end of the Tasman Peninsula pay a fee that is not insubstantial. Recreational bushwalking is part of the mosaic of eco-tourism “products” that the Tasmanian economy is increasingly reliant upon. It is hard to believe that the Three Capes walk won’t be a roaring success.

    The track wends its way through a sclerophyll forest, its species adapted to dolerite soils – this igneous rock provides the spectacular nature of the coastline, high columnar cliffs that tower over the sea. An array of eucalypts, hakias, banksias and casuarinas sprout from the dusty dirt, habitat and home to various marsupials, birds, bats and creepy-crawlies. This is the bush – one aspect of it at least – and it is beautiful.

    Tracks facilitate human movement; they have existed in Tasmania for millennia. Presumably, the first humans who made a foot-pad through the landscape borrowed their ways of passage from the animals who had come before them. Wombats make obvious clearings through heath country; the native broad-toothed mouse chews runways through the moorlands. Colonial arrivals in the early 1800s found Aboriginal tracks in each quarter of the island, and often followed them. These later became the major vehicular roads of the island.

    The cutting and laying of track, of course, inhibits the natural growth of vegetation. But tracks often go easily disappearing into scrub: the prospectors’ ways on the west coast are overgrown with rainforest. Other courses have gone in bushfires. Parts of at least one hill country route are submerged under a dam. The stone paths of the Three Capes won’t easily vanish, but should bushwalking go the way of (say) the construction of hydro dams or various mines, disuse would remove their smoothness. The sclerophyll would happily form a tangle over them. We would need old maps to follow them.

    Some of my mates work as track-builders. Their work is strenuous, and they are usually stationed in remote environs. They often rough it. They love it. They are intimate with their materials: stone chafes the skin of hands, timber is known by grain and knot. In their work, they follow the track-cutters and builders of two centuries. Alexander McKay was well-known as the vanguard for many significant colonial expeditions. Jorgen Jorgenson went into the scrub wielding a cutlass.

    You find tracks in urban areas as well. These are often unofficial by-ways, known to urban planners as ‘desire trails’. This alluring term simply signifies that the concreted footpaths in parks or edgelands aren’t the most efficient route for pedestrians: they trample a new path across grass, getting from one place to another.

    Tracks, of course, are all about desire. Aboriginal tracks led to places that were significant to them, such as ochre quarries. Why do people freely choose to walk the Overland Track or the Three Capes? They are searching for beauty, or for a certain sensation that seems to come with being on hoof and independent. Economies are constructed around desires. With that come tracks that are, in fact, ruthlessly practical.

    Which leads me to the metaphorical meaning of a track. It is not uncommon to perceive ourselves on a network of pathways through the amorphous nebula of all that life could be. We string together tracks, often mapless, assuming we are on the route we ought to take. Frequently these tracks are interrupted – let’s say, playfully, that they land us in some of Tasmania’s notorious horizontal scrub – but a track appears in its midst, leading us elsewhere. Sometimes it begins as a faint pad, but soon, we find it gets wider, that it firms up, and that it will bear us for a few kilometres, a few years, before some other way emerges.

    Or perhaps a series of ways emerge, and you have to make a choice. I sit in a hut on the Three Capes Track, as a pademelon nibbles on the sedge outside the door. In two weeks, I am leaving this island. I am going somewhere far from the dolerite endemics of the Tasman Peninsula, far from the landscapes I know from the high country by Cradle Mountain, far from the wet west coast and its wealth of history, far from my home and my family and the rivers and cliffs to which my kin has belonged for 150 years now.

    It is good luck to have myriad tracks before you. It will be great sorrow to someday look back and know that so many tracks have been left behind, that they are smothered with vegetation, and that they are no longer accessible. Now I am moving from metaphor to cliché, but so it is.

  • Diego Bernacchi's Imagination

    Diego Bernacchi's Imagination

    Diego Bernacchi was charming, persuasive, loquacious, and daring. Born in Lozza, Italy in 1853, he married a local lass in Brussels, and moved to English to work as a representative for silk merchants. Then, Diego and Barbe and their three young children moved to Tasmania. Diego Bernacchi was 30 years old.

    They were quickly smitten with Maria Island, on Tassie’s east coast. Within a year of his arrival, he had convinced authorities to lease him the entire 115 square kilometres of the island for the peppercorn rent of just one shilling a year. With this land, he was to introduce sericulture and viticulture – silk and wine – to Tasmania, neither of which had been seriously attempted here. He had borrowed a significant amount of money for these ventures and invested it all into his dreams for Maria Island.

    One can do little but admire the Bernacchi imagination. Upon what had been an old convict colony, the Bernacchi family saw a future of free enterprise. Penitentiary buildings were redeployed as workers’ accommodation. The colonial hop kiln was converted to a grape press. He built a coffee palace, and a hotel. Darlington was to become a city: it was renamed after Bernacchi’s patron saint, San Diego.

    Indeed there seemed to something miraculous happening on this far-flung island. Politicians and investors were welcomed with no expense spared, but would depart utterly convinced by Bernacchis’ vision. 250 people lived in Darlington by 1888, from a variety of nationalities. Bernacchi became a councillor for the region.

    Bernacchi loved the landscape of Maria Island, and knew it could produce what he needed. Beyond silk and wine, he imagined farms, fruit production, fisheries, limestone quarries and cement production. It was “a Tasmanian Eden,” “the Ceylon of Australasia”. And the entrepreneur himself was dubbed King Diego.

    In 1892 the Maria Island Company went bust.

    Nearly three decades later, Diego Bernacchi returned to the island that charmed him as much as he charmed its locals. He was the new director of the Portland Cement Co. and once again returned to old Darlington. But he became sick just as production began, and died shortly before his last venture failed once more.

    This past week I was fortunate enough to go for a guided tour of Maria Island with a new tourism outfit called See Tasmania. This mob is actually just a couple of mates of mine who have started their own business. So Simmy and Brenton took a group of us walking to the cliffs on either side of the island, serving up their knowledge as well as local food and drink in between. The coffee palace has been converted into a museum, but we had a plunger full of the stuff on the beach; Simmy cooked up a pot of mussels in an Italian-style sauce, in a bit of a tip of the hat to their predecessors, the Bernacchis.

    Bernacchi had the temperament of a gambler and lived on his wits,” writes Margaret Weidenhofer in a biography of the entrepreneur. It’s almost the perfect summary for David Walsh, too, whose Museum of Old and New Art continues to be the centre of Hobart’s cultural life, even if its financial viability has occasionally been in question. But it’s always a gamble to start any business. There are so many variables, and so many calculations to make: so many risks that must be taken. An entrepreneur fixes their fortunes firmly upon the future – but who of us can say where the future is going? To invest your money, time and imagination like these gentlemen have is to make a statement of belief that there are good days ahead in eastern Tasmania.

    Like Diego Bernacchi, the young fellas of See Tasmania are drawn to the resources of Maria Island. The Tyreddeme people were too, some thousands of years ago. Aboriginal economies centred around shellfish, game, shelter, certain types of stone; just like ours, they were subject to environmental conditions, to demographic pressures, and to changes in societal fashions.

    At the end of
    an utterly perfect east coast day, taking a ride back to Triabunna, it’s hard to imagine See Tasmania could ever fail. But whether it is silk, wine, ochre, art, meat, cement or tourism, we cannot control many of the various forces that shape our communities’ decisions on how to spend their capital – only guess which way they’ll go.

    Nevertheless, I am grateful for those Bernacchi types whose imaginations lead them to have a crack at their own ventures. They make me believe in the future.



    "I don’t know why we pronounce Maria the way we do..." - learn the multicultural history of Maria Island.

    Read two very different accounts of Marions Bay, on the east coast of Tasmania.

  • The Land of Sweet Forget

    The Land of Sweet Forget

    “In the west beyond the sunset lay the fabled Noia Poeena, which meant Land of Sweet Forget. No wars or troubles – a land of complete rest. It was said that a warrior could pick up his spear [there] and, as likely as not, immediately lay it down again, having forgotten why he had picked it up.”

    So it says in 'the Cotton Papers', an enigmatic collection of stories of a family of free settlers on the east coast of Tasmania, and their interactions with Aboriginals from the area. These stories were handed down through the generations of an east coast family, and published only a few years ago.

    The Cottons were sympathetic with the first Tasmanians. And although their biases on ideas of property, work and religion were a part of the system of supplanting the indigenous population, there is something quite heroic about these pacifists, and something pioneering about their way of recognising the Aboriginal as a fellow-traveller.

    But how well
    they came to understand Aboriginal languages remains uncertain – and it’s extremely unlikely they were able to accurately interpret Aboriginal spirituality.

    The Cottons were not the first whitefellas to take a stab at wrapping his head around a unique and complex worldview, which was doubtless disrupted when European boats came from afar to Tasmania.

    Harry Govier Seeley would have us believe that Aboriginals were looking towards the source of their ancestral home when they stood on the western shoreline and gazed upon the thumping of the Southern Ocean. He argued that Tasmanians had originally hailed from Madagascar, and travelled to Borneo on a land-bridge that is now covered by ocean, before heading south. (Another anthropologist, Hyde Clarke, claimed that the language of the Nyam-Nyam in the Congo was “remarkably similar” to Tasmanian languages.)

    Human communities have been shifting and migrating for a long time. The latest whitefella narrative about the arrival of people in Tasmania is that crossed a land-bridge over Bass Strait during the late Pleistocene – around 35,000 years ago – and ventured along the west coast of the Tasmanian peninsula, up its river systems and into caves.

    Who knows what these families remembered of their previous homelands.
    What stories were passed down about what became mainland Australia, or their lives through the Ice Age? When the British and French foisted themselves onto the island in the late 1700s and early 1800s, they made amateurish efforts to comprehend the Tasmanians’ lives – but of what was doubtlessly rich a body of stories and cultural practices, little was known by the European interpreter.

    This through naivete,
    prejudice and incompetence, as well as reluctance on the behalf of the Aboriginal storytellers to pass on everything.

    At the end of the last century, J.A. Taylor worked on a Tasmanian Aboriginal etymology, particularly surrounding place-names. This is an astounding document, an
    other one born from a respect for Aboriginal lives and regret at what is not known about this island. Yet again, while there is no doubt Taylor was a knowledgeable linguist, the text smacks of guess-work.

    Taylor tells us that an Aboriginal name for Woolnorth Point, in the far north-west of the island, was MA-AN-DAI. “The meaning is obscure, but speculatively the name may have been derived from a cognate of manuta meaning a long way (time) away,” his entry reads.

    There, up on Cape Grim, occurred one of the cruellest massacres the British colonists ever perpetrated against the original Tasmanians.

    Beyond that site lies Noia Poeena: a white Quaker’s dream of peace, over the slate-grey Southern Ocean, vicious and seemingly endless, stretching all the way to South America.

  • Comedy and Anthropology

    Comedy and Anthropology

    On an October morning in 1800 Captain Nicolas Baudin led his expedition out of the port at Le Havre, aiming for the southern seas.

    Their journey would be harrowing and arduous, and Baudin’s wish, expressed in a toast before setting out, that all his crew would return to France to someday be in the same room together again, would certainly not come true: even Baudin himself would die on the way home.

    His reputation would be somewhat disgraced the expedition’s return, despite the fact that it was one of the most successful voyages in the history of European science. Knowledge of marsupials and eucalypts would arrive in France to be disseminated throughout the continent.

    And here on Maria Island, Nicolas Baudin would
    ask his anthropologist to prepare a report on the Tyereddeme, the Tasmanians who seasonally lived on the island. This man was François Auguste Péron. He was the son of a tailor who had given up his plan to join the priesthood fighting during the Revolution. Péron applied for the Baudin expedition after the demise of an unhappy romantic liaison. For an succinct idea of his character, see a description of him as “ambitious and bumptious”.

    Péron was actually employed as a junior zoologist, but had aspirations to be an anthropologist. And with the other savants and scientists perishing throughout their time in the southern hemisphere, Péron received a series of promotions. With the other naturalists, he collected 100,000 specimens, but he did so in between stints of anthropological observation on the Aboriginal people of Tasmania.

    The burgeoning science of anthropology was gathering momentum back in France, and these interactions between Europeans and Tasmanians were significant occasions. Under Baudin’s commission, Péron had eight days to make his observations, at the end of that year’s summer, which he would then turn into a paper for the Société des Observateurs de l’Homme. Péron was among the first scientists to do some research

    Back in eighteenth-century France, Jean-Jacques Rousseau – driven by cynicism about events in ‘civilisation’ (i.e., urban Europe) – had developed the theory that primitive societies were less corrupted, simpler and more egalitarian. Péron arrived in Australian waters with this view on the Aboriginal populace; this perspective would be metamorphosed throughout the journey, as across Europe, where the ‘noble savage’ would be “demystified” and become a scientific specimen itself.

    The Frenchmen joined a dozen or so Tasmanians on the beach. Rapport was established, wrote Péron, by having two Frenchmen showing off their juggling. Péron began trying to construct a lexicon of the language spoken by the Tyereddeme. Given how little we know of this tongue, his comments are frustrating and tantalising. “I
    t is impossible...to distinguish their pronunciation with any degree of precision: it is a sort of rolling sound, for which our European languages do not furnish any expression of comparison or analogy.”

    Péron found the Tasmanians intelligent and good-natured. “Intermingled around the remains of their fire, we all seemed equally pleased with one another,” he reported.

    The Tasmanians had often wanted to inspect the private parts of the Frenchmen, confused that they had no beards and seemingly no women with them. The youngest and most baby-faced of the sailors, one Citizen Michel, was persuaded to strip for the Tyereddeme. They were convinced. Michel “suddenly exhibited striking proof of his virility”.

    In a poignant moment that may seem to us the only imaginable event of this incredible cross-cultural encounter, the ill-timed erection made everyone, black and white, fall to hysterical laughing there on that white-shored beach.

    But Péron interpreted this with a hefty dose of ethnocentricism: he chose to believe that the Tyereddeme were impressed by the virility of the Frenchman, not in a condition to experience this as often as the French were. Likewise, based on his brief lexicographical survey, Péron reckoned the Tyereddeme had no words for kissing or caressing.

    But everywhere in Tasmania the French had this bias, and one suspects the interest was not strictly scientific.

    For example, Péron spent a spontaneous afternoon with a party of twenty female swimmers on Bruny Island. One young lady was particularly referenced in Péron’s journal: “
    Fifteen or sixteen years of age...pleasant features, with a round well formed bosom, though the nipples were rather too large and long.”

    And the sailor Jacques Hamelin thought that two Tasmanian women he had met made “
    suggestive signs which in Paris would not be ambigious.”

    But ambiguity was everywhere in these encounters, with both sides superstitious and bewildered by the other; thousands of years of cultural heritage separated Maria Island from Paris. Aboriginal flirtations surely looked somewhat different to those of the French. There was no field guide to any such interactions for either party. No wonder seemingly peaceful scenarios suddenly blew up into violence. There was no shared language or technology. All that these two cultures had in common was what they could see – but even these things, the ocean and the stars, wallabies and wattle trees, had different meanings.

    We only European accounts of these early meetings between Tasmanian and European communities. Events were certainly perceived very differently. I truly hope, though, that the diarists are telling things accurately when they say that when a French sailor’s member stiffened in the sea breeze at Maria Island one February day in 1802, it provided a moment of unanimous intercultural comedy.

    We can see clearly now that François Péron’s science was flawed by prejudice and ignorance. Two centuries from now, a future historian will likely look back on our views and scoff at how outdated we were. All we can do is to aim to be among the most curious and humble thinkers of our own age.

  • Multicultural Maria Island

    Multicultural Maria Island

    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 Umuroa. 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.

  • On the Cyprus Brig Convey'd

    On the Cyprus Brig Convey'd

    A party of forty had been camped here for two weeks in August 1829. Their situation was desperate; they were marooned and starving. Three pocket-knives were the only tools they possessed. With these they built a tiny boat from wattle timber, and put two men in it. They sailed for help in this “crazy little craft”.

    This was Recherche Bay in Tasmania’s far south – named after one the early French scientific vessels, it is still pronounced locally as ‘Research’ Bay. Ever since Europeans became aware of its existence, it had served as a useful harbour for voyages departing from Hobart Town to Macquarie Harbour on the west coast.

    The two score stranded on this beach had been on the same route, on a brig named the
    Cyprus. The colonial government had, in 1826, purchased the vessel from John Briggs, a notorious sailor and sealer in Vandemonian waters during the early part of that century. It had been bought for £1700. The Cyprus was then used for these south coast journeys: usually bringing supplies and convicts to the penal station at Macquarie Harbour, and returning to the capital with Huon pine and other convict-manufactured goods.

    So on August 6, 1829, under the charge of Lieutenant William Carew, the
    Cyprus left Hobart with 62 passengers. Exactly half of them were convicts, “a pretty bad lot all in double irons”. Lt. Carew was with his family; they would be moving to the Macquarie Harbour convict settlement.

    They had reached Recherche Bay on a still night when mutiny suddenly broke out. Lieutenant Carew had been off on a small boat, fishing for provisions. The soldiers’ quarters on the boat were blocked by the tactical positioning of a hencoop. The captain was knocked out. A shot fired produced smoke and added to the confusion. The pirates took command of the brig, and took two sailors hostage; the rest were sent off to shore with minimal rations.

    William Swallow, a former sailor and the alleged instigator of the mutiny, took command along with seventeen other convicts. The two sailors managed to escape and swim ashore. Regardless, the
    Cyprus then took an incredible voyage: through the South Seas, by the southern islands of Japan, and to China, arriving the significant trading post of Canton, now Guangzhou. Here, they destroyed their stolen brig, and came ashore pretending to be the shipwrecked sailors of a different ship, the Edward – somehow they had come into possession of property belonging to this ship, including a rowboat, her sextant, and logbooks.

    After some investigation from the authorities, most were given freedom to leave. William Swallow and three others were given passage to London. The others joined a Danish vessel and went to Mexico.

    For some reason, two of the pirates had arrived separately, on the coast away from China; Chinese authorities took them in as British subjects, and by the time they made it to Canton, news had arrived of the convicts’ mutiny. These last two were arrested; they made a confession; and they were taken to trial.

    In the meantime, the handmade coracle had reached another vessel departing Hobart Town, and the stranded party were saved. A convict with the superb name of John Popjoy
    (or Pobjoy) had become a hero. He had been fishing when the mutiny occurred; he had rowed their boat, and led the efforts to be found. Eleven years old when he was convicted and transported to Van Diemen’s Land, he was given his liberty when the party returned to Hobart.

    Popjoy’s descriptions of his fellow-convicts made it possible to identify William Swallow and the other pirates when they landed in London, just six days after an express voyage from Hobart. They were arrested. Those with him were executed; somehow, William Swallow managed to avoid responsibility for the mutiny, claiming he was ill and taken against his volition. He was returned to Hobart as a convict, and died at Port Arthur in 1834.

    The Bruny Island man Mangana told that his wife had been kidnapped and taken on the Cyprus, never to be heard from again.

    John Popjoy married in 1832, but continued his sailing career; in 1833 he drowned off the coast of France. Three months later his child, Elizabeth Sarah, was born.

    The convict mutineers who boarded the Danish trading vessel for Mexico are lost to history, but we know at least that they were not punished for their crimes.

    Convict poet Francis MacNamara recorded all of this in verse for posterity.

    "The morn broke bright, the wind was fair, we headed for the sea
    With one cheer more to those on shore and glorious liberty.
    For navigating smartly Bill Swallow was the man,
    Who laid a course out neatly to take us to Japan."


      
    Last week we took a trip down the west coast's Savage River.
    A maharajah arrived unexpectedly in the early days of Launceston.

  • Edward Curr of the Van Diemen's Land Company

    Edward Curr of the Van Diemen's Land Company

    The Van Diemen’s Land Company was established in London in 1825, and that November an advance party headed for the island.

    Their mission was to respond to demands by English manufacturers for better fine wool; raising sheep for wool was considered one of the best hopes for the economies of both New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. Around Australia, “large blocks of territory in the colonies” were given to such private enterprises for this purpose.

    Edward Curr was in favour of north-western Van Diemen’s Land, which the current Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur had offered “under certain conditions as to the expenditure of capital.” It was unlikely, Curr said, that the relatively unexplored north-west would have a total dearth of good pasture land. Born in Sheffield, England, Curr had travelled to Brazil and then Hobart, where he made acquaintances in high places. He returned to England with his father’s death, published An Account of the Colony of Van Diemen’s Land, Primarily Designed for the Use of Emigrants, and was appointed the chief of the Van Diemen’s Land Company. He was only 27 years of age.

    After a difficult voyage, the Cape Packet – bearing the VDL Co. party – arrived in Hobart in March 1826. Aside from Curr, on board was Stephen Adey (superintendent of the land grant); Henry Hellyer (chief surveyor, and architect); Alexander Goldie (agriculturalist); and Joseph Fossey and Clement Lorymer (surveyors).

    The land allotted by the Lieutenant-Governor had been limited due to his wish to maintain the freedom of further settlement for Vandemonian farmers. Curr was not satisfied with this (there was a run-in with a farmer named Smith, on the Rubicon River, who had settled on what Curr believed was VDL Co. land), but sent his surveyors off on numerous journeys into the hinterland of north-western Van Diemen’s Land. This included journeys along the north coast between Port Sorell and Cape Grim, down the west coast to the Pieman River, and into the mountainous area around Cradle Mountain.

    The surveyors Hellyer, Lorymer and Fossey (and their convict companions) were the first Europeans to visit and name some of these places. Much of it was rainforest or wet sclerophyll forest, with dense undergrowth; the journeys were taken throughout the winter, in wet and cold, and in completely foreign conditions to these surveyors newly-arrived from England.

    From a commercial perspective, the journeys were ultimately futile. The only land, more or less, suitable for grazing sheep was around Circular Head, now the town of Stanley.

    Here Edward Curr laid the first stone of his house ‘Highfield’, designed by Henry Hellyer. Vivienne Rae-Ellis says that the Tasmanian woman Trugernanna was present, along with other Aboriginals from Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales, with George Augustus Robinson, the missionary-diplomat whose ‘Friendly Mission’ had begun.

    Another possible site for raising sheep was proposed at Cape Grim, rated as “good sheep land” by Joseph Fossey. Here, the Van Diemen’s Land Company (described as "the nation's largest dairy" nowadays) still has its headquarters – it is in the process of being taken over by a Chinese consortium, making national headlines.

    Edward Curr of the Van Diemen’s Land Company was given the authority as the only official in the north-west. In the meantime, of course, there were others there: the Aboriginal bands of the north-west, who moved seasonally between the coastline and its offshore islands, into the hunting grounds of the Hampshire and Surrey Hills. They collected swan and duck eggs in the river mouths and lagoons in spring, and went in for mutton-birding and sealing in summer. This was their economy: it was in conflict with the VDL Co.’s economic strategy, which had the tacit support of the official British-controlled regime of the island.

    And although the London-based directors of the Van Diemen’s Land Company exhorted the young manager Curr to avoid confrontation with the indigenous population, Curr was “[e]litist and arrogant” and used violence whenever it was convenient, both against the north-west Aboriginals and the company’s indentured convicts.

    Within eight years, a population of up to 500 had been reduced to less than 100, according to Ian Macfarlane.



  • Poplar Parade

    Poplar Parade

    There were many afternoons during my teenage years in which I came upon this view. Not always were the mountains set against a blue sky; in winter, the grass and trees were greener, the yellow blossoms absent. In those days, there were fewer houses wedged into the landscape.

    Usually I had taken the bus from school, although sometimes I was just returning from a mate’s house. Often I had a skateboard under my arm and I was ready to hurl myself down the hill. (Once or twice I toppled off.) Just where the slope levelled off, on the left, after the roundabout, I would tumble into my home.

    After some time away, I return to this hill. These are quiet streets – the edges of an urban space, where a regional city meets its bucolic background – but for me the neighbourhood is pullulating, populous with ghosts. It is a cluttered scene, years layered on top of each other. I see the Vollmers’ and Masters’ houses. I wonder if Ben’s grandmother is still alive, where Matt has moved on to by now. The austere brick house that the Lucases lived in for a while reminds of the tethers of their stories, which we have heard mostly through the avenues of gossip. There is a certain house to which I snuck on cold nights, in my pyjamas, to rendezvous with Miss A., also in her pyjamas.

    Where the road has its elbow at the bottom of the hill, my brother once threw off his left shoe in a fit, and appeared to be dancing. He ran back to the house cursing the wasp that had crawled into his Vans and stung him.

    Coming back to my mother’s house (once, both parents shared it), I feel as though I’m making a similarly ludicrous return.

    There are all sorts of relics here too. As I write this, I look up at a photograph of two young Spinkses with the larrikin footballer Billy Brownless. There are other images: the grandfather who died before I was born, my old dog who is buried in the yard, clippings from my occasional appearances in the local newspaper. In the bathroom: the pot plant a girlfriend gifted to Mum more than half a decade ago.

    Venturing away from the house, I am equally ensnared. Somehow I can’t help but hear of the corruptions and collusions of local politics, business, and media. The local Member for Parliament refuses to address his constituents. A hideous giant supermarket is being erected near the centre of town. The flags of another town’s football team flap all around Launceston in the early afternoon winds. The letters to the newspaper make me cringe, wince, want to cry.

    I fear that the people who live in my town secretly hate it. That beneath the odd gesture of civic pride there is a deep concave of shame in our guts. That we wish we were something else, somewhere else, with more cheap shopping and football games.

    Perhaps this has something to do with our origins, with the way some of our ancestors stole the landscape from the first Tasmanians. These rolling hills I have come upon so many afternoons of my life were once the hunting grounds of the largely-forgotten tribes of the north of the island. Beneath that banner of blue sky (or silvery-black, on the gloomier days), there were spirits and stories in amongst the black wattles and bluegums, in with the echidnas and snakes and wallabies.

    If there is a horror at this, I do not discourage it. But there is a sense in which this is simply an era, a landscape, an urban arrangement, an historical moment which we have inherited. Which I have inherited. And if I wander through the streets of this town and feel grumpy for knowing it is lined by the houses of too many greedy or ignorant or complacent fellow-citizens, and then trudge down this hill into a home where all the change across two decades of my life manifests itself, without trying to resist a sense of hopelessness or sentimentality, without putting a hard shoulder against it, then I have lost home altogether. And there can be nothing worse than that sort of exile.

  • Roege A Coraggree Loggeener

    Roege A Coraggree Loggeener

    They are dead.

    One of the first stories George Robinson recorded in his diary while working as a storekeeper on Bruny Island is that of the death of a wife of an Aboriginal known as Joe. This is, for us, her life story: that she was one of Joe's two wives, that she had been previously sick, and that she was now dead in April. And that her last words were: 'ROEGE A CORAGGREE LOGGEENER.'

    Joe's other wife, Morley, died shortly after. Mangana had a story of his wife being abducted and his son dead. Joe and Mangana would die too. Mannalargenna died at the Flinders Island settlement that Robinson had co-ordinated, like many others.

    Robinson records the names of five women who were kidnapped in one of the many raids by sealers: Troepowerhear, Niepeekar, Moondapder, Larpeennopuric, Reetarnithbar. Just names, and a traumatic event of their lives. Nothing more to be said.

    While Robinson was bush-bashing his way through the Vandemonian forests, he received a letter from his wife, saying she was ill, and that their abode had become 'a house of morning' for their youngest child, Alfred, 'departed this life 21 February'.

    Mrs. Robinson - born Maria Amelia Evans - also died, in September 1848, near Melbourne.

    George Robinson died in England two decades later.

    But even for George Augustus Robinson, we cannot say we know him, even though he wrote so freely and frequently about himself and left a narrative of his life for us. We can know that he did this or that, that he experienced much 'mizzling rain', that he was profoundly here at a profound time. But the vast majority of his thoughts and deeds are lost, and we must read between the lines to understand his various motivations. Needless to say, his life has been interpreted a hundred different ways, each reader or researcher coming up with their own evaluation.

    Trugernanna outlived Robinson. She is even more enigmatic, suffers more gossip, elicits more various reactions.

    For many more - for most people throughout most of history - we don't even have their names. Their sentences were not overheard and marked down. Their rituals went unobserved. Their body parts were not measured. Their languages murmured off into extinction, idiosyncratic expressions lost for all time.

    In Tasmania these topics - names like Trugernanna and George Robinson, phrases like 'the friendly mission' or 'the black war' or 'genocide' - excite a lot of emotion. The study of the history of that island has become a matter of conflict. 'The History Wars'. As if we haven't had enough of that.

    I am no historian. I am just a bloke who has his brow wrinkled, trying to remember. But it's not easy when I wasn't there and when every human being from the past seems as inscrutable as the phrase ROEGE A CORAGGREE LOGGEENER.

    Maybe if we were a different mob, we would employ the ancient forests and mountains of Tasmania to bridge the historical abyss. Because they were there - dolerite and granite, pencil pine and huon pine. It would not be methodical history, but it would be a gauze of memory over the gaps, a patch of story. I am not trying to say that this would be better than the rationalism and empiricism of moderns, but that I suspect many different cultures would have done this. Yet when I go bush, and I try to hear the stories from the forests, the old stoics remain dumb. Or I remain unable to hear.

    'To my mind,' W.G. Sebald once said, 'it seems clear that those who have no memory have the much greater chance to lead happy lives.' But I keep trying to remember.


     
    This is the last piece in a series on George Robinson and Trugernanna, beginning with Trugernanna's death, looking at their curious relationship, and heading to the site of Robinson's final years.

  • The View from Widcombe Hill

    The View from Widcombe Hill

    At the end of a career and a life that surely warped beyond the bounds of whatever he could have imagined or hoped, George Augustus Robinson ended up here, on Widcombe Hill, above the city of Bath in England.

    After the rediscovery of the ancient Roman bath there in 1780, the town flourished, becoming one of England’s most fashionable towns in quick time. When Robinson toured through there after returning from the Antipodes in the 1850s, it had several colleges, cultural and literature societies, and about 50,000 inhabitants.

    Robinson chose a home here, overlooking the town as it sat on the banks of the Avon. He was with his second wife, Rosie, the daughter of an accountant, and their five children. The house was paid for with a pension Robinson had earned from his work in Australia. He named it ‘Prahran’, the name of his home on the Yarra River, in the Port Phillip protectorate where he worked for eleven years, overseeing the interactions of the area’s new colonial settlers and the indigenous population of Victoria.

    This, a promotion after his work in Van Diemen’s Land. For a decade Robinson had worked tirelessly at a dream: to save the Aboriginal Tasmanians from extinction. The means: civilization, teaching them the British religion and custom. The method: arduous excursions into the bush, learning Aboriginal dialects, and forming diplomatic relationships with clan leaders.

    He would have the remaining populations removed to a mission camp on Flinders Island. It was a miserable place, full of sad and slow deaths, mismanagement, seasons of cruelty and apathy.

    Robinson had already been sent to the mainland by the time it was written off as an utter failure.

    Back in 1822, as a young father trying to scrape by in London, George Robinson had signed up to migrate to the Poyais settlement in Nicaragua. Poyais, as it turned out, was a fraudulent invention of Scottish rogue, who lured investors into the false republic; Robinson’s gaze shifted to an even further-flung colony, which was not a fiction, despite its fantastical elements – the ancient trees which Robinson slept beneath, the swirl of the southern constellations, the song and dance of peoples who had millennia separating their beliefs from his own.

    No, Robinson entered into a place that was all too real, all too true. Although at times he must have felt that he had stepped into a dreamscape, or that the reverie of dancing and playing the flute by the fire with these Tasmanians who had become his unlikely companions, so many miles away from London.

    When he returned to his native city on the Medway in 1853, his first wife dead, his children grown up, his wallet swollen and his reputation cemented, perhaps this place seemed like the dream. But not for long. Because G.A. Robinson had come home three decades later exactly what he had wanted. Important. Memorable.

    So when he looked from Widcombe Hill down into the spill of sand-coloured buildings in the valley, or passed his neighbours on Prospect Road as he went back to ‘Prahran’ and had them recognise him, he must have felt pretty chuffed.

    But what did he tell those neighbours about Wooraddy, Mannalargenna, Trugernanna?

    When he sat by the hearth of his Victorian fireplace, did he hear an echo of the songs about wombats and snakes come back to him?

    When he fell asleep at night, did he sometimes squirm, recalling betrayals, murders, kidnappings, occasions of unspeakable cruelty?

    Did George Augustus Robinson look through those journals he wrote - later to be the core of Tasmanian historicity - and feel his heart sink, reading between the lines (as we have since) that to ascend to his charming home on Widcombe Hill, he had trampled the people he reckoned he might save? 

    Could he foresee that although he would be remembered, he might not entirely be remembered well?


     
    Trugernanna was afraid of what would happen when she died.
    Last week, one side of Trugernanna and Robinson's relationship was wondered about.


  • Their Story

    Their Story

    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.


  • Sealing and Whaling

    Sealing and Whaling

    In the December 1815, James Kelly set off with four convicts from Hobart to complete a circumnavigation of Van Diemen’s Land.

    Born in New South Wales, Kelly was apprenticed as a junior mariner at the age of 12, and had made several voyages out of Sydney by his adolescence. He was employed as a sealer, and then served on a  trading vessel to Fiji. When was 18 and his apprenticeship was over, he sailed to India.

    Kelly returned to sealing for a voyage to Macquarie Island in the Campbell Macquarie, which was wrecked; Kelly was rescued, and taken back to New South Wales. Shortly after he was married and became a master mariner, in 1812, commanding the sealing boat Brothers to the Bass Strait. He is said to have been the first white Australian-born master mariner.

    His lasting connection to Van Diemen’s Land came through employment by Dr. Thomas Birch, who had him as master of the Henrietta Packet, a schooner which sailed between various colonial ports. Now, Kelly and his family relocated to a house on the Hobart Town Rivulet.

    While Kelly’s nautical career continued, his circumnavigation of the island over the summer of 1815-16, in the whaleboat Elizabeth, is well-remembered for its accounts of contact with Aboriginal Tasmanians. The day after they set out, attempting to pull into Recherche Bay, they were met with ‘a tremendous volley of stones and spears’. Kelly’s narrative of the journey, published five years later, offered insights into the life of the first Tasmanians that could only have been witnessed by that small party journeying around the ragged coastline of Van Diemen’s Land in the early years of the young British colony.

    Of course, anthropological concerns were not Kelly’s primary motive. His ‘official discovery’ of Port Davey and Macquarie Harbour on the west coast gained his employer a monopoly contract over the trade of the endemic huon pine. And Kelly’s own knowledge of sealing and whaling waters increased dramatically as he spent a year around the Vandemonian coast.

    James Kelly would be known as the ‘father and founder’ of whaling in Van Diemen’s Land, with his official duties on the Derwent River including pilot and harbourmaster. He also inaugurated the Derwent Whaling Club, and developed agricultural interests on Bruny Island. His ‘Kelly Steps’, built to connect waterfront Salamanca Place with the houses of Battery Point, are a picturesque feature of the Hobart streetscape today.

    But Kelly’s fate ended poorly - much like the industry he was involved with, and, for a time, its product. His wife died in 1831, his ship Australian was wrecked in 1834, his eldest son was killed by Maori in 1841, and the economic depression of the 1840s left him flat on his back. He died at age 68, suddenly. His funeral was well-attended.

    Of course, there is no whaling or sealing industry in Tasmania today, and the numbers of these creatures in Tasmanian waters is thankfully growing. If you look closely, you will see seals - dozens of them - on the rocks of the Friars in this photograph. These are just south of Bruny Island in the Southern Ocean. An easy target for James Kelly and his band of sailors in the 1800s, today that threat is gone.


    Daniel Cowper and his Hawaiian wife were also connected to the sealing trade.

  • Winter Customs

    Winter Customs

    There are those who hate winter in Tasmania. It is, they say, too cold, or too wet, or too windy, or too dark. It is as bleak as Siberia. It is the most depressing place on Earth.

    But there are others who cherish these days when the sky hangs low like a big-bellied whale over the towns, and some days the mountains rise like white-capped waves. It is good, they contend, to see the grass turn bright green, to don the thick woollen socks and down jackets, to feel frost crunch beneath your feet, to smell the spice of woodsmoke in the air and to sit by the fire yourself with a cosy over the teapot.

    The change in weather is a chance to cultivate new habits. Some of them are idiosyncratic: one gentleman I know takes to boiling eggs on winter mornings and putting them in his pockets as he walks to his place of vocation so they warm his hands.

    Other customs may seem familiar. For instance, one winter when I was short of money, I spent my spare hours scrounging around for good firewood. And on those crisp, starry nights when the weather has cleared but the air is still cold, I would feed sticks and logs into my pot-bellied stove and sit around it with an Irish coffee, sometimes with friends, watching the embers pulsate like melting caramel and tinkling like thin glass cracking in the changing temperature.

    And we should not forget that for thousands of years, this is what people have done in Tasmania during the months of June, July and August, these lunar cycles when the night seems to have more strength than day, when it is cold and wet and windy and dark, and Rowra hovers in the silhouettes of the eucalypts just beyond the room of firelight.

    Yes, for millennia, Tasmanians have had their rituals, their customs, their diets, their ideas, their politics and their dreams flex and change with the weather.

    So as you wipe the hoar off your car window, get a soup going in the slow-cooker, pull out your stripy longjohns, or invite the girl you flirted with all summer over to watch a movie on your laptop beneath a patchy quilt, remember that these details are part of what it is to be a human being in your time and your place. And that though customs have changed dramatically, at times with violence and force, the little behaviours that you share with your contemporaries are significant, full of memory and therefore full of meaning.

    Even the boiled egg hand-warmers. (They will end up in an Ethnographic Museum sometime, somewhere.)

    Perhaps in these months you will look out your window and see the European trees that have dropped all their leaves, and it will makes you feel something of a sense of loss.

    Perhaps you will stand over the Liffey or the Clyde in full flow, and know the trout are spawning, and feel hopeful for what is next, maybe even to the point of impatience.

    Perhaps you will see snow on Mount Wellington or Ben Lomond and long to feel the mist clinging to your hair and your shoes fill up with slush.

    Whatever it is you do and feel from now until the wattles are in blossom, this is the Tasmanian winter to which you belong.

  • On a Moonlight Night

    On a Moonlight Night

    “Memory takes me back to the scene of the Tamar in the hop grounds of Mr. Barnes of Trevallyn where on a moonlight night in 1829…”

    Upon arrival to Van Diemen’s Land, William Barnes was given a 30-acre block of land at the confluence of the Tamar and South Esk Rivers. It was the summer of 1824, and Barnes was 33 years old, unattached, and ambitious.

    On the Triton, which had brought him from his native Cheshire to Hobart Town, he had befriended a Scottish brewer who was also migrating to the colonies. Making his way overland to the north of Van Diemen’s Land, it suddenly dawned on Barnes that although the town had grown to a population of more than a thousand people, it had no brewery.

    Described as ‘a young man in a hurry’, it is little surprise that Barnes used another allotment of land to build his own brewery. It was not the first on the island – a Mr. Gatehouse had begun brewing in Hobart in 1823 – but it was certainly the original brewery in the north. He called it the Port Dalrymple Brewery.

    The allotment of land was on the corner of Margaret and Paterson Streets, between the barracks and the windmill. Today, a bottle shop stands there.

    Using water from the Tamar, and barley at four shillings a bushel, Barnes’ beer was well received. Convict labour helped with the brewer’s investment.

    For three years he was without a competitor. By the time John Fawns began the rival Cornwall Brewery – collecting water from the Cataract Gorge by punt – William Barnes was an exceedingly wealthy man.

    So much so that he managed to acquire further land along the Tamar and South Esk Rivers. What is now the Cataract Gorge, as well as the entire suburbs of Trevallyn and Riverside, belonged to William Barnes. With his passing in 1848, it became the property of his and his wife’s only child together, William Barnes jnr.

    Barnes jnr. and his wife donated the Cataract Gorge grounds to the city of Launceston.

    But what was it that the letter-writer to the newspaper remembered from that moonlit night in 1829? (Actually, it was 1830.) It was a scene where the author saw missionary George Robinson and his assembly of ‘sable friends’ camping out on Barnes’ land. While the correspondent spoke with Barnes, Trugernanna was cooking a possum over the coals.

    “I observed the conversation and saw the flashing eye of the black girl, then a few years older than myself,” he wrote to the newspaper, on the occasion of Trugernanna’s death, nearly five decades later.

    Memory takes us back to the scene indeed.

     
    What does it mean to propose to make changes to the Cataract Gorge?

  • Tarenorerer the Warrior

    Tarenorerer the Warrior

    Tarenorerer was born around 1800 and belonged to the region near Table Cape on Tasmania’s north-west coast, from a people known as either the Tommeginne or Plair-Leke-Liller-Plue. As a teenager, she was abducted by a neighbouring bands and sold to sealers in Bass Strait. They named her Walyer.

    The sealers of the Bass Strait islands were rough and crude men for the most part, and it was not uncommon for Aboriginal women to be taken as unwilling wives. Tarenorerer lived through this a decade before returning to the Tasmanian mainland. When she came back in 1828, she spoke English, and knew how to use a gun. These two skills – plus an overwhelming urge to achieve revenge – made her a force to be reckoned with.

    Two centuries’ distance – and the agendas of those writing the accounts of her life – may have distorted the record of Tarenorer’s life, but it seems that her enemies were both black and white. Tarenorerer renewed conflicts against old Aboriginal enemies, but also said that she hated the white Europeans as much as she did black snakes. Assembling a misfit guerrilla army of Aboriginals from a number of areas (including her two brothers and two sisters), Tarenorerer proved to be a wily general. Her attacks on both settlers and their livestock represented some of the most intelligent tactics in the Black War.

    Missionary-diplomat George Augustus Robinson saw Walyer as a threat to his relocation program for the Aboriginal Tasmanians. He described her as an ‘Amazon’ and bemoaned her ‘wanton and barbarous aggression’. Robinson had no love for the Bass Strait sealers, but may have colluded with them for the capture of the rebellious warrior. Tarenorerer returned to the sealers in 1830; whether by choice or force is uncertain, and historians have strong views on either side.

    Whatever the case, she was captured by a sealer that year, and handed over to Robinson. She was sent to a prison on Swan Island, in solitary confinement to counter her leadership, lest she inspire further revolt. Moved to Gun Carriage Island shortly after, she died of influenza in 1831, still a young woman.

     

  • History of a Perfect Miscreant

    History of a Perfect Miscreant

    The Richmond bridge is the oldest bridge still in use in Australia. The foundation sandstone was laid in December 1823, and with the aid of convict labour, the bridge successfully arched over the Coal River by 1825.

    Around this time, the Coal River became acquainted with Gilbert Robertson. Arriving in Van Diemen’s Land from Scotland, en route to Sydney, he wheedled his way into gaining 400 acres of land near Richmond, despite having no money. Still, Gilbert complained that he’d been gypped – not enough land, not enough servants.

    Pretty soon he lost his land, thanks to debt. He also made plenty of enemies. Magistrates, business partners, and even Lieutenant-Governors all came to loathe the “impertinence and swaggering” with which Gilbert Robertson carried out his affairs. In the end, though, Lt.-Gov. Arthur gave him his land back – plus the 600 additional acres Gilbert had moaned about – in 1829. Not much changed: Gilbert’s house burnt down and he was sued for assault. But just when it looked like his debts were going to catch up with him, circumstances changed curiously, and Gilbert saw his spot.

    It was the height of the Black War, and Lt.-Gov. Arthur had declared martial law. Gilbert Robertson applied for, and received, the position of chief constable of the Richmond district.

    The next few years at ‘Woodburn’, as Gilbert had named his estate, were eventful to say the least. In November 1828, he had captured five Aboriginal rebels, including the notorious warrior chief Umarrah. Along with Kickerterpoller, Gilbert’s off-and-on Oyster Bay Aboriginal servant, and a young Big River Aboriginal named Cowerterminna, Umarrah was a regular visitor to Woodburn.

    Gilbert and Kickerterpoller were particularly matey, and Gilbert tried to convince Lt.-Gov. Arthur that this was what Aboriginal and settler relations could be, given the right approach to conciliation. In fact, he had devised a whole model for conciliation, and suggested that he would be willing to put it into action - for the right price. The price, unfortunately, was too high. An idea similar to Gilbert’s was developed by missionary George Augustus Robinson, and Gilbert was high and dry again.

    Gilbert Robertson was born into an important Scottish family (his great-grandfather was the high chief of a clan), but he was also something inescapable in as sensitive a place as Van Diemen’s Land – he was half-black. His father had owned a plantation in Trinidad, and almost certainly Gilbert’s mother had been a slave. In Scotland, money and lineage had meant more than race. There were other stories being woven in Van Diemen’s Land, though, and the question of race was something that Gilbert was involved in – in more ways than one.

    “Here then in brief outline is a biography of someone who was almost pathologically inclined to get into trouble,” writes historian Cassandra Pybus. An assessment from Gilbert Robertson’s contemporary, Lady Jane Franklin, gave an equal description: he was “a perfect miscreant equally devoid of principle and feeling.”

    But interestingly, having moved late in life over to Geelong, he made quite a respectable name for himself. Working in the papers again, he died in 1851, of a heart attack during a particularly intense political campaign.

     

    Richmond is also home to Australia's oldest Catholic Church.

  • Christmas in Big River Country

    Christmas in Big River Country

    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.

  • Naming Mathinna

    Naming Mathinna

    Mathinna never came here, to the town that bears her name.

    ‘The girl in the red dress’, as she was later painted by a convict artist, was born at the Aboriginal settlement on Flinders Island in 1835. Her parents were from the south-west of Tasmania; Towterer, her father, was a chief of the Lowreenne people. Towterer and his wife Wongerneep were convinced by the enterprising ‘conciliator’ G.A. Robinson, on his ‘friendly mission’, to go into exile when he kidnapped a daughter – Mathinna’s sister – on a west coast expedition.

    That daughter died anyway, her name unrecorded, at Sarah Island. Towterer and Wongerneep received new, grandiloquent names at Robinson’s behest: Romeo and Queen Evaline. They quickly passed away too, leaving Mathinna an orphan on Flinders Island.

    But Mathinna wasn’t the name she was born with anyway. She was Mary, like five other Aboriginal girls at the Flinders Island camp. It wasn’t until she was sent to Hobart that she became Mathinna.

    She had been adopted by the ruling powers of Van Diemen’s Land in that day: the Franklins. John Franklin, the Lieutenant-Governor of the island, had previously been a famous Arctic explorer; his wife Jane was an enthusiastic and active woman, who dreamed of making the colony a haven for art and culture. Part of her liberal agenda for Van Diemen’s Land was to prove that the Aboriginal population could be taught to embrace British values and customs. Mathinna was supposed to be the exemplar of this.

    So they gave her a red dress and had a portrait done; they gave her pen and paper, and taught her to write. She was raised alongside the Franklins’ daughter Eleanor.

    But then, less than two years later, John Franklin lost his job and was recalled to Britain. (He went off and froze to death in the Arctic.) Mathinna went to the appalling conditions of the Queens Orphan School in Hobart in 1843, where scarlet fever ran rampant. Finally, she was transferred to a new Aboriginal settlement at Oyster Cove, a station of derelict buildings where abject neglect created insurmountable poverty.

    Alcoholism and prostitution – largely with dodgy settlers who chose to live near to the Aboriginal camp for this reason – was rife. Mathinna got caught up in it, and the only report of her death declares that she drunkenly passed out in a creek and drowned. She was not yet 21.

    This gold mining town was first called Blackboy, then Reedy Marsh, and finally became Mathinna in 1882. Why was it named after this young woman of tragedy? What stories did the miners here tell over a beer, when it was the third-largest town in Tasmania, that made them want to call their town this way?

    Then again, where did the name Mathinna come from anyway? When she was born, she was called Mary; Mathinna an invention, something for the Franklins’ sake, because they wanted something exotic. Funny to be remembered in a town you never went to, with a name that wasn’t really yours.

     

    Later in Mathinna: a mystery surrounding the death of William Mullins.

  • The Man Who Died on Goulburn Street

    The Man Who Died on Goulburn Street

    People like to tell the story of what happened to William Lanne after he died. He was, they say, only 34 years old when he passed away from cholera. With his body in the hospital morgue, the chief medical scientists of the day came and hacked off his body parts. Buried the next day, he was dug up again and dismembered further. He was, after all, a significant scientific novelty: William was the last captured Aboriginal man left on the island.

    In his early days, he was moved around like a pinball. Born in the north-west of Van Diemen's Land, he was first removed with his family to Flinders Island in 1842, when he was seven; then, his parents having died like so many other Aborigines at the Wybalenna camp, they sent William to Bruny Island. After that, he was enrolled at the orphan school in Hobart. He left the school at 16. Rootless, without a family, his race disintegrating around him, William got himself a job on a ship. He sailed out onto the Pacific Ocean as a 'whale spotter'. They say he had the best eyes on the whole ocean; if anyone could spot a whale, it was William Lanne. He spent a lot of long days looking on that water, out to the horizon.

    He came back to Hobart and lodged at the Dog & Partridge on Goulburn Street. By that point, the island was no longer called Van Diemen's Land; it had a new name, a more euphonious one (if that's possible), one that wasn't so inextricably linked to acts of grisly violence, like those that happened in the early days of the colony. Sickness had a grip on him already. He coughed and spluttered, but did not give up smoking his pipe. A burly man, dressed now in heavy jackets and ragged pants, William had the face of a rugby player, but the eyes of a marsupial. His shipmates, and the Hobart locals, called him King Billy. It is not recorded how he responded. From the photographs of him, you might guess he took it gently, stoically.

    Nowadays the Dog & Partridge has been turned into some kind of backpackers' hostel. The Church of Christ up the road still stands in all its sandstone glory, but it's become a private residence. There's an art gallery, a laundromat, and the Pigeon Hole cafe has good coffee. That's what it's like now: a tumult of change, jarring and jolting shifts that you either have to adapt to or be abandoned by.

    Sometimes life just gets pulled out from under you.

  • George and Mannalargenna

    George and Mannalargenna

    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.

  • The Black War at Liffey Falls

    The Black War at Liffey Falls

    On Sunday afternoon in twenty-eight-degree heat with two girlfriends, Liffey Falls is perfect. Every so often the white curtains of running water occasion into still, cooling pools for recreation. Giant manferns lean over the water as if to see their own reflections, Jurassic versions of Narcissus.

    But the water is cold in winter. And on a winter morning in 1827, according to historian Lyndall Ryan, the Pallittorre people were rousing from their sleep in the caves at the bottom of the cascades, when a mob of stockmen bustled through the bush and attacked. The Colonial Times reported the death of “an immense quantity” of Aborigines. Maybe as many as sixty were killed in this skirmish. Within two weeks, the number had risen to around one hundred dead blacks.

    It was the middle of the Black War: although it was winter, the friction between Aboriginal Tasmanians and colonial graziers was at its hottest. The conflict was over land: the stockmen wanted to live in the traditional hunting grounds of the native Tasmanians.

    Nowadays, no-one sleeps in the caves at the bottom of the falls, and camping is prohibited.

  • The Twenty-Seventh Birthday Party of Charles Darwin

    How they loved a party in Hobart Town! As soon as he arrived, on February 5 1836, they told him of a fancy-dress ball that he'd just missed: 113 guests, all in costume. 

    "Well we may as well do something for my birthday," he said.
    "Don’t you worry Mr. Darwin," they informed the young scientist, "we already have something in mind."

    It was a funny place for Charles Darwin to spend such an anniversary and no doubt he remembered it in a strange light, many years on. Hobart was not quite as charming in its aspect as Sydney, Darwin felt, but the climate was damper, and the land was agreeably fertile. Agriculture flourished. The bright yellow of corn cobs and the dark green of potato leaves shone on the banks of the Derwent as Darwin approached. Fruit-trees leaned over the ramshackle houses. It almost resembled some parts of home, wrote Darwin in his notebook. Perhaps one could imagine someday wanting to emigrate there. This colony – all of Australia – shall be one of the jewels of the Empire, a grand centre of civilisation, he scrawled between scientific observations.

    Nevertheless there was disappointment when Darwin joined a party in climbing up Mount Wellington. After it almost defeated him, Darwin labelled it a squat, ugly mountain, and the view from the top was, to him, flat and tame. Cloud and rain besieged them. It wasn’t a wasted day, though. The slopes of the mountain were well-furnished with magnificent fern trees and eucalypts. Darwin made an excellent collection of local insect specimens: over 100. There was not a shortage of geological observations to be made there either: basalt (which surely once flowed as lava), unstratified greenstone deposits, fossiliferous strata, yellow limestone or travertine.

    The Aborigines there, believed Darwin, were a few degrees higher in civilisation than the natives of Tierra de Fuego - for example. Far from being the utterly degraded people they were sometimes described as, they are fine hunters, nimble, more astute than given credit for. But when two races of men meet, they do so like two different animal species – it is a deadly struggle, and contact between these varieties inevitably conclude with the stronger pinning down the weaker. Such would be the case, he predicted, in Van Diemen’s Land.

     But the party was wonderful! There were a number of distinguished guests, all impeccably attired; one could expect nothing more even in England. The finest classical music was played for entertainment. There were several quite beautiful women in the colony, and their dancing was something to behold - as it was with ladies in all of the Empire.

    'This voyage has been by far the most important event of my whole life,' wrote Charles Darwin on board the Beagle, as he was leaving two weeks later.