Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged Flinders Island

  • 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.

  • 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.