Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged Robinson

  • The Last Days of the Old Woman

    The Last Days of the Old Woman

    As her old friends died around her – King Billy, Mary-Ann – the grief of Trugernanna was terrible. And with her bereavement came the fear of what would happen to her body when she was gone. One day, she asked the reverend to sew her up in a bag with a rock inside it and have it thrown into the deepest part of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel when she was gone. Just to make sure.

    Mr. and Mrs. Dandridge had become friends with Trugernanna at Oyster Bay and when the Aboriginal settlement closed there, they took her in. The year was 1869. Trugernanna suffered from chronic bronchitis, although she still smoked about a solid amount of tobacco. The Dandridges served her two pounds of meat per day, along with bread and vegetables. She drank the occasional ale, particularly savouring hot ginger beer in the evenings before bed.

    Trugernanna had some degree of celebrity thrust upon her in these days. She met the Governor of the day, Charles Du Cane, who described her as ‘a very quaint looking little old lady’ who was shorter than four feet high ‘and much the same measure in breadth’. Trugernanna had a laugh at the expense of Governor Du Cane’s girth too, though. One day she laughed gleefully at him and announced to anyone listening, “This fellow, he too much jacket!” 

    Folks later remembered her from these last days sitting on the steps of the Dandridges’ house, turning the pages of illustrated London newspapers, or simply smoking her pipe and watching the world go by. But what Trugernanna’s true pleasure was to make excursions across the channel to her country, the north of Bruny Island, where she grew up. The childhood gambols on the beach – occasionally interrupted by the auspicious occasions of white sails drifting across the water – must have seemed like a dream, perhaps in another life; but Trugernanna was transported back to those times as she walked in the sand, collecting shells and seaweed on the isthmus or around Adventure Bay, camping in the bush there. 

    The physical transportation was the responsibility of John Strange Dandridge, who learned how to row in order to get the little old lady to her country. Mr. Dandridge had been the empathetic superintendent of the mission – a rare breed. Rowing was not his usual vocation. He was the son of an Oxford minister, who had married Matilda Prout, the daughter of one of Tasmania’s most significant artists. 

    It was Mrs. Dandridge who was with Trugernanna when she died. On May 3 1876, Trugernanna told Mrs. Dandridge that her family had appeared to her in a dream and that this meant she would soon die. The old woman had been crook for a while; for a few days she slipped in and out of consciousness, but on the evening of May 8, she cried out, “Rowra catch me!” Rowra was one of the powerful spirits of Trugernanna’s country. The end was near.

    But on that day, she regained consciousness again for an hour or two; and in that final conversation with Mrs. Dandridge and her doctor, Trugernanna made one more plea for her body to be treated respectfully once she had died. “Don’t let them cut me, but bury me behind the mountains,” she begged.

    She was instead buried in Hobart, and her body was exhumed after two years and placed on display at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. 

    It was only a century after her death that her ashes were at last scattered in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, which she had looked upon as a girl, too many years ago.


    One writer remembers a night with Trugernanna by the river.
    Last week we recounted 1982's famous World Ploughing Championships.

  • 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.


  • What Lies in the Middens

    What Lies in the Middens

    Dr. Rhys Jones was the first professional archaeologist to work in Tasmania. Born in Wales and educated at Cardiff, he arrived in Australia to do his doctorate in Tasmanian archaeology.

    His research began in the north-west of the island, particularly around Rocky Cape. Using radiocarbon dating techniques on various cave middens, Jones reported that Rocky Cape had been continuously occupied by Aboriginal Tasmanians for 8000 years or more.

    This was the least contentious of Jones’ claims. He also entered into a long-running question about the Tasmanians: could they make fire? Much of this question was based on observations (or, perhaps, a single observation) made in the diary of George Augustus Robinson, who travelled with Aboriginal populations in the 1820s and 1830s. Fire, Jones suggested, was carried “in smouldering slow burning fire-sticks”, but if they went out, the Tasmanians had no way of relighting it.

    The archaeologist also suggested that some 3000-4000 years before now, the Rocky Cape middens revealed that Aboriginal consumption of scale-fish completely stopped. He concluded that the Tasmanians had forgotten how to catch fish. Bone awls were also no longer being produced.

    Rhys Jones concluded that with the relatively small population stranded and separated from Australian Aboriginals following the post-Ice Age flooding that created Bass Strait, the Tasmanians had been struggling to adapt. He described it as a “slow strangulation of the mind”.

    Later archaeologists tend to disagree. They refer to other references, by both French and English observers, of pre-colonial Tasmanians using fire-making implements. These Tasmanians would have struck chert (a flint-like stone), sending its spark into dry bark, moss or grass, these archaeologists say. This stone – myrer, Robinson writes that the Bruny Islanders called it – was possibly considered special, and fire-making may have been the responsibility of leaders within a band or kinship group.

    In fact, there may have been a variety of techniques for fire-making: in the early 1900s Quaker observer Ernest Westlake recorded conversations detailing the use of grass-trees, banksias, stringy-bark, tea-tree and fungi, in a variety of methods, for Aboriginal fire-making.

    The change of diet to exclude fish is still mysterious, but recent research tends to suggest that a cooling of the climate occurred at a similar time. In fact, evidence from 3000-4000 BP presents a series of dramatic adaptations across Tasmanian populations. Settlements changed, artistic practices developed, and Tasmanians began to manage the land through seasonal burnings and honed their hunting techniques accordingly.

    “These developments, and their concurrence with similar developments in south-east Australia, contradict the strangulation view,” writes Shayne Breen.

    Tang Dim Mer is one of the names the original Tasmanians had for Rocky Cape; the more prosaic name comes from Matthew Flinders, who spied it from the strait as he circumnavigated Tasmania in 1798. At that time, there were Aboriginals living amongst the banksias and wildflowers, beneath the jagged cliffs, facing out on that notorious stretch of water.

    We are still trying to work out what we lost when Europeans destroyed their lifestyles.

    And although Rhys Maengwyn Jones may be most remembered for its controversies (he died in 2001), much of his work helped to support Aboriginal populations, especially in evidencing for their antiquity. Jones himself hoped to introduce to a wider audience the brutality with which Aboriginal populations around Australia were treated. In Tasmania, he said he saw a history of genocide.


     
    George Robinson's tours with Aboriginal Tasmanians were hugely significant in Tasmanian history.

  • 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.

  • 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.