Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged Aborigines

  • What They Hated

    What They Hated

    Many years ago, it was proposed to make a certain southern hemisphere island a prison colony for the wayward souls of gin-soaked London. It was an idea not without its complications. Ships would lug the new population over the waters of several oceans, before spilling out those grimy contents on the shores of the strange land. They would share the colony not only with horrible rambunctious birds and creatures with pockets in their bellies, but mobs of natives, who had inhabited the place for not a few years, had adapted a culture completely at-odds with those idealised by the Empire, and were not really satisfied about giving the land up to the visitors.

    In short, everyone loathed the new arrangement, save for a few observant folks in London alleyways. But what to do but make a go of it? In the crucible of conflict of every variety, something unique was forged. Half-castes, bushrangers, drunks, piners, explorers, whores, loners, poets and painters, fisherfolk, gardeners, apiarists, brewers and distillers all popped up like mushrooms in black soil. Eclectic and idiosyncratic governments ruled. Much was lost, too much. An eerie peace settled like a gel on the island, limned with absence, heavy with the echoes of 40,000 years of human history. All of it created a new culture, a new topos with new ideas and legends and slang words and ways of falling in love.

    I suppose that all happened a while ago, and these days it's easy to imagine it was always this way. But it wasn't. There was once a time when people arrived in Tasmania and didn't like the food, the songs, the romantic options, the scrubby trees, the ominous mountains, or the bloody fucking birds.

    There are dangerous waters on every side of the south-dwelling island I am writing about, and for most of the people who came here those many years ago, it was a treacherous journey to something about which they had few nice things to say. What they hated, I couldn't love more. And when I think about certain mornings when I have crossed those waters to return home, and seen the coast rise like the crest of a green-and-tan wave, I am pleased to come to what for me is home.

    When my ancestors saw it, their hearts sunk. Mine couldn't be more buoyant.

  • The Ancient Grief

    The Ancient Grief

    Mt. Olympus was the home of the Dodekatheon, the twelve gods – the principle deities, such as Zeus and Athena, lived there. At the foot of the mountain’s north sat the nine Muses, Zeus’ daughters with Mnemosyne and patrons of the Fine Arts.

    Olympus is the second highest mountain in Greece, standing between what are now Thessaly and Macedonia. At its peak, it is just less than 10,000 feet in elevation. But this isn’t Mt. Olympus in Greece. This is Mt. Olympus in central Tasmania, overlooking Lake St. Clair, Australia’s deepest natural lake.

    It was named so by George Frankland, who arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1827 as an assistant surveyor after some years in Pune, India. Within a year he became the Surveyor-General of the island.

    The Lieutenant-Governor assigned him to begin a ‘general trigonometrical survey’, but Frankland believed that an important aspect of his role was exploration. His boss wished he’d stay in the office more frequently. He was particularly bent on finding a lead mine somewhere, and over the coming years he would make significant journeys in the wildernesses around the upper Derwent, the upper Huon, and the central highlands of Lake St. Clair.

    Frankland was a proud man. He loftily believed the duty of his office was ‘to observe and record every remarkable fact connected with the Natural history of the island whose surface and native production have, in a manner, been placed so peculiarly in his custody.’ That being said, he was never very popular in the colony. It wasn’t only his squabbles with the Lieutenant-Governor over the time he took to do his work. Frankland seemed to have never felt quite at home in Van Diemen’s Land.

    He planned to leave, in 1835, and then again attempted to sell his Battery Point home in 1838. But it didn’t sell, and on the second-last day of that year, George Frankland died. He was survived by his wife Anne, two daughters, and a son.

    Frankland also named Mt. Ida, Mt. Pelion, and Mt. Rufus in his mythical mood; his precedent spawned a series of Greek names in the area. Today, around Cradle Mountain and Lake St. Clair, you’ll find dozens of names honouring the gods and heroes of Greek myth.

    Although it doesn’t seem that these areas were frequently inhabited by Aboriginal populations, there is no doubt that over the millennia these features – like everywhere in Tasmania – had other names. They were not the names of personae from the epics of a continent on the other side of the world, but we don’t now know what indigenous stories sprung from these mountains. Unlike our scholastic understanding of Greek literature, there is no philosophy that we can comprehend from our Mt. Olympus.

    Yet perhaps – as we burst through the sclerophyll and onto a buttongrass plain just metres from Lake St. Clair, with spiny Olympus now protruding into the sky – the name of this mountain can clue us into something common, something that unites Tasmania and Greece. In ancient Greece, they called it palaiòn pénthos, ‘ancient grief’, and it “persists undiminished across time and demands that men take some liberating action… For we live surrounded, in the invisible air, by wandering avengers who never forget…”1

    The strange spirits of memory.

    1  Calasso, Roberto, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, p315.

  • Wauba, known as Wauba Debar

    Wauba, known as Wauba Debar

    In those days, it was common for the sealers and whalers to kidnap a few ‘gins’ to take with them – the black women weren’t only kidnapped to be used as paramours, but they were hunters and fishers and divers too. But late at night, they could escape from beneath the blankets they shared with the seafaring drunks who had taken them, and they could steal the kangaroo-dogs too. It was said that the Aborigines had a singular power to win the loyalty of the dogs: no small advantage in those days.

    Wauba had been taken, I suppose, in the same way – not by her own volition, and not without violence. What possesses a slave to save the life of her master, then? Is it love when a native girl is married against her will, and then goes and rescues him?

    There were three of them on that sealing vessel when the squall appeared on the east coast waters. The boat went under; the two men were poor swimmers, and looked set to drown beneath the mountainous grey waves. Wauba could have left them to drown, and swam ashore on her own. But she didn’t. First, she pulled her husband under her arm – the man who had first captured her – and dragged him back to shore, more than a kilometre away. Wauba next swam back out to the other man, and brought him in as well. The two sealers coughed and spluttered on the Bicheno beach, but they did not die. Wauba had saved them.

    Only a couple of years later, in 1832, Wauba died in another storm near Flinders Island. In 1855, ‘a few of her White friends’ erected a gravestone for Wauba Debar at Bicheno (pictured above), in memoriam of her heroic deeds. The surname is of the man she saved: her husband. Wauba’s bones are not beneath the gravestone, though. Her skeleton was taken for science, like those of many Aborigines, and is now probably lost.

    This is all that is known of Wauba Debar’s forty years of life.

  • French Explorers Observe A Family of Tasmanian Aborigines Having Dinner

    At the beginning of the 19th century, Captain Nicolas Baudin led two ships of scientists, sailors and
    explorers to
    Terres Australes. This crew included the impetuous zoologist François Péron, and the Freycinet brothers, Henri and Louis, who gave Baudin great trouble even unto his death by tuberculosis in the Indian Ocean, and later rewrote the account of his expedition with complete injustice.

    The French voyage returned with one of the most outstanding collections in the history of natural science. They also had made observations of the Australian Aborigines that were more detailed than what their enemies, the English, had compiled at the time. This including Péron's account of meeting an attractive young native woman (whom they believed was named Ouré-Ouré) on the shores of Bruny Island.


    FRENCH EXPLORERS OBSERVE A FAMILY OF TASMANIAN ABORIGINES HAVING DINNER
    We brave Frenchmen came upon the beach, Ouré-Ouré:
    Me, François, and he, Henri.
    A family was baking fish on an open flame, on the shore, Ouré-Ouré:
    They were native Diemenese.

    A young femme came and joined her clan, Ouré-Ouré:
    she was dark as coal.
    The shellfish swelled in the heat and smelled of salt, Ouré-Ouré:
    but we explorers watched the girl.

    She was as naked as a blackbird on a branch, Ouré-Ouré:
    and without a single care.
    Her nipples were long and shaped like cones, Ouré-Ouré:
    her backside shapely and bare.

    She peered and prodded and tried to start a conversation, Ouré-Ouré:
    In our manners, she was truly curious.
    It was clear to see that she was mystified, Ouré-Ouré:
    the girl had never seen people like us.

    Oh, they marked our faces with charcoal, Ouré-Ouré:
    to make us seem as them.
    To them our whiteness was a disfigurement, Ouré-Ouré:
    our clothes as well, a shame.

    For her body shone with grease and ochre, Ouré-Ouré:
    Smooth and limber and light.
    Young enough that she’d not yet been married off, Ouré-Ouré:
    But soon she’d be a bride.

    Oh, we’d yield the palm of beauty to you any day!, Ouré-Ouré:
    What more could we say?
    If only I could have been your lover, Ouré-Ouré:
    We’d have spawned a whole new race.

    And the fate of the natives would have been different, Ouré-Ouré:
    so too the future of the world.
    Long live the savages of Terre de van Diemen, we cried, Ouré-Ouré:
    long live the beautiful girls.