Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged French

  • One Sunday Morning in Ranelagh

    One Sunday Morning in Ranelagh

    I. Riddell, 1819.

    The country along the Huon River had been known to Europeans for a couple of decades. The French had come up the river under Bruni d’Entrecasteaux. He had assigned the river’s name in honour of the commander of one of his vessels, Huon de Kermadec. That was 1792.

    Pre-eminent naturalist Robert Brown led a journey down the Huon in 1804, before declaring it unsuitable for settlement. But there was now knowledge of the country’s geography and the first scattered settlements appeared.

    In 1819, for example, I. Riddell came and scratched his name into a tree.

    In the 1820s, an absconded convict with the surname of Martin was found at a makeshift campsite at what is now the township of Franklin. As was so often the case with the bolters of colonial Van Diemen’s Land, this Martin had escaped into a location with a wealth of resources. The river, the wetlands, and the hinterland of eucalypt forest were full of life; here it was possible for an outcast to find shelter,
    find food, make fire and survive.

    However, as elsewhere in Tasmania, these colonial outposts required ingenuity and bravery. New settlers would live in bark huts and work long hours. Everything was home-made. Conflict with the original Tasmanian population was also prevalent in this period of history, and these remote settlements were exposed.

    After the development of a bridle track the following decade, the Huon Valley became one of the most fecund agricultural areas on the island. Even Lady Jane Franklin acquired a large block of land and put it to use.

    The Huon River came to have over 70 jetties; even with the bridle track, it made more sense to use the water as a road. Vessels without engines were replaced by steamers and soon enough, a Huon resident would be able to take an early-morning boat ride to Hobart.

    Like many others, George Lucas shipped timber upstream. He felled the trees on his property Ranelagh, today the name of a village of about 1000 people.

    It was here I woke up about this time last year. Not quite in the cemetery, amongst the tombstones of my predecessors, but in the adjacent park. Sometimes after midnight, I had arrived from the Huon Valley Midwinter Feast, the local wassailing festival. (It is genuinely one of my favourite festivals and I’m sorry to miss it this year). Giddy with cider and bock, I’d sort-of put up my tent and slept in it. When I woke up, the sun was melting the frost. The resonant voices of the Sunday morning flock rose from the Anglican church-house, joining the mist lifting from the Huon. Some children were hunting for Pokémon – now that’s history.

    What makes a person try and mark their time and place in the world so definitely, to scribble their name on a wall or scratch it into a tree? If ever I needed to fix myself somewhere, it may have been that morning in Ranelagh. I was completely untethered for the day – no car, no mobile phone,
    no plans, no companions. I went and found a wallaby pie for breakfast, and wandered off, unregistered, with the other old souls of the Huon Valley.

  • 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.

  • Two Accounts of Marion Bay

    Two Accounts of Marion Bay

    I.
    At the turn of the New Year, thousands of revellers can be found at Marion Bay, on Tasmania’s south-east coast, for a music-and-arts festival called Falls Festival. I haven’t been there for a few years. It was the end of the decade: in the lengthening evening, Grizzly Bear played, and a teenage girl from a Catholic school in Hobart, drunk on gin, put her head wearily on my shoulders. The bay gleamed beyond the stage, replete with small and bothersome jellyfish. As the last minutes of 2009 unravelled, lightning crackled over the water. A deluge of silver rain was unleashed, briefly. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs played in the new calendar.

    II.
    In 1772, the French explorer Marion Dufresne became the second French captain to bring his ships to Terres Australes. He landed in a bay in the south-east of Van Diemen’s Land. In an attempt to make a good impression on the natives, Dufresne made a strange mandate for his crew. He made them strip naked before going ashore. They were the first Europeans to meet the indigenous people of Van Diemen’s Land. A flurry of spears greeted them: but they survived nevertheless. However, the good captain was killed and eaten by the Maori of New Zealand shortly after.