Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged Van Diemen's Land

  • The Subtle Colours of the Western Tiers

    The Subtle Colours of the Western Tiers

    For about one hundred kilometres across northern central Tasmania, a protrusion of Jurassic rock emerges, overlooking the agricultural landscapes around townships like Deloraine, Westbury and Longford. These form the north-western boundary of the Central Plateau: they are the Great Western Tiers, or, in an Aboriginal term, kooparoona niara: ‘home of the mountain spirits’.

    British transplants arriving in Tasmania in the early 1800s began spreading their claims of land ownership to the inland districts beneath the Western Tiers within several decades. By the middle of the nineteenth-century, landowners had pushed their way through to the forests at the foot of the mountains.

    The earliest known track up onto the Tiers was cut in 1879, and is known as Higgs’ Track. Today it remains one of the most efficient, popular and enjoyable routes into Tasmania’s high country. Higgs’ Track was cut by the father and son team of Joshua and Sydney Higgs; the Higgs family had arrived from London’s West End in 1853, and their track led from the Western Creek sawmill to the plateau’s edge,
    where they had a grazing lease near Lake Lucy Long.

    Subsequent tracks began braiding their way up the slopes, through a tangle of snow gum and sassafras, mountain pepper and kerosene bush: Parsons Track, Warners Track, Yeates Track, Mole Creek Track and Staggs Track form, among others, a network of routes that made journeys to the lakes and peaks of that region. When trout were released in the waterways of the Central Plateau in 1895, these tracks became more and more popular; fishing became a serious attraction for visitors to the region, and locals offered their services for hospitality and guiding.

    The Higgs family house was built with American architectural influences, and each of the twelve children helped to raise their accommodation. Joshua Higgs would move to Launceston to become an early architect in the fledgling city. He was also a gifted artist: significant works that survive include a sketch of the early Kings Bridge tollhouse in Launceston, and a beautiful painting of the Western Creek sawmill from which Higgs’ Track led.

    His son Sydney Higgs would travel around Australia and New Zealand as a young man, earning a reputation as “a noted shearer” according to his 1934 obituary in the Examiner. But Sydney would return to live at the foot of the Tiers, in Caveside, where he met and married Lydia Stone. Sydney had a wealth of experiences from which to draw stories and was consequently “widely known as a brilliant storyteller who could hold an enraptured audience for hours,” according to local historian John F. Pithouse.

    Hoofing it up the track he cut to fish his favourite streams, Sydney Higgs would be found in a dinner jacket and bowler hat. A photograph exists of this gentlemanly figure on the rocky edges of a tarn with a fishing rod in hand.

    Higgs’ history continues to live in the towns beneath kooparoona niara, and elsewhere: Sydney Higgs jnr. was also a renowned watercolour painter, and his own daughter, Avis Higgs, remains one of Wellington’s treasured textile designers and watercolour artists at nearly 100 years of age.

    Dairy pastures follow the road until I turn off the tarmac; an old timber signs points towards the tracks, as well as a ‘Big Tree’, which, according to local knowledge, is now just a big stump. My old car grumbles as I pull in to park at the trailhead. The serrated leaves of sassafras shine with a young green, while the trunks of eucalypts seem antediluvian; ferns sprout from damp corners; rills of water sprint across the path and plunge into creeks; some recently- and beautifully-constructed walls of pitched stone push back the dark earth.

    Lady Lake Hut sits perched on the plateau, a rebuilt version of what Sydney Higgs once erected here. Welcome swallows neurotically wave around their nest in the eaves. I am nearly a kilometre above the low mosaic of farms and towns, and here, as much as anywhere, the subtle colours of rugged country remain much the same as they did for thousands of years after the glaciers melted away from it. Soggy sphagnum, well-lit layers of distant dolerite, the springtime maroon on mountain rocket: these all offer a restful impression on my eye.

    For a pioneer and bushman with artistic inclinations, there may be no more wonderful place.

  • Stolen Spoons

    Stolen Spoons

    That was all it took to change the course of Felix Myers’s life: a handful of spoons, perhaps silver, or perhaps merely of foreign provenance. Some table spoons and some tea spoons.

    Felix Myers, also known as Carl Kernetzki, and also known as Peter Sinclair, was born in Prussia – who knows precisely where – but ended up in Leicester with a sweetheart he’d met at the charmingly-named landmark of Gallowtree Gate. This was in Leicester, where Myers worked as a
    surveyor, musician, and German teacher – but he was evidently interested in supplementing his income in the trade of goods stolen from his mistress’s abode.

    A bunch of spoons.

    He was sentenced, at a court session in the dog days of 1837, to seven years’ transportation. He would be exiled along with an accomplice, Joseph Brant. Myers was 27 and Brant was 21.

    The Leicester Chronicle, which never failed to describe Myers as ‘a German Jew’, and reported the messy details of the case (although quickly forgot the fate of the mistress), also records a ‘pathetic appeal’ Felix Myers made to the jury, in which he described himself as ‘an unfortunate foreigner’. He would become even more foreign still, a German Jew shipped off to Van Diemen’s Land.

    But his behaviour was generally good, and he was assigned as a ‘sub-overseer’ on the road gangs completing works in the Southern Midlands of the island. Occasionally he would make a transgression of the harsh rules of convict life: this would earn him a bit of time on the treadwheel, one of the classic devices of punishment that the penal regime had invented.

    Felix Myers worked on building the highway through Bagdad and Green Ponds – now Kempton, and pictured here with the historic Wilmot Arms hotel on the left, erected some four years after Myers left the region.

    Mary Hickson (or Hixon) had been born in Hobart in 1821, one of the first of a generation of colonial children – the currency lads and lasses – who grew up as Vandemonian kids. Probably the child of a convict, she was acquainted early with the fresh Southern Ocean air and the antipodean birdsong, which had been such an affront to many of the first generation of colonial settlers, prisoner or otherwise.

    She was not yet 20 when she met Felix Myers, the bilingual Prussian who had previously charmed the young dame of Gallowstree Gate on the other side of the world. Mary too was sufficiently taken to be swayed into taking the spoon thief’s red hand in marriage.

    It is regrettable that for so many lovers in our local history, we don’t know what it is that drew them to one another. Was Felix Myers dashing, with dark features and a glint in his eyes? Did Mary Hickson have a eucalypt twang in her voice, already freckly and confident on horseback? Was there some pragmatic reason that brought them together? Did Felix have a ready smile? Would Mary sing? Did they share some dream that hovered cloud-like above them in Van Diemen’s Land?

    The records, muddled as they are, seem to suggest they had two children shortly after their Hobart wedding in 1840. It also looks like they moved to Launceston. The name ‘Myers’ – already probably fictitious – became morphed to ‘Meyer’ or ‘Meyers’.

    Perhaps the tale of this family’s lives exists somewhere buried in some record I’ve not laid eyes on. Probably not the narrative of their love. There is no field guide for this. Unless it exists in unseen ripples, through the subtle realms of ancestors’ minds, woven through their interactions down the line, across history, around the island.

  • A Compendium for New Town, Hobart

    A Compendium for New Town, Hobart

    David Burn jr. had followed his mother to Hobart Town; in May 1826 he arrived with his daughter Jemima. He had left his wife back in Edinburgh and his infant son had died. While his mother had received a land grant, Burn would not qualify; eventually, though, he would be able to buy his own property at New Norfolk.

    Burn was a skilful writer, if we accept the flowery style of his day. He would write a sort of emigrant’s guide about Van Diemen’s Land, published in the Colonial Magazine of 1840-41. It compares interestingly to Thoreau’s Walden, as Burn’s Van Diemen’s Land has a similar style and mood. He describes the D’Entrecasteaux Channel as more favourable than Killarney, and the Huon River as an antipodean Loch Fyne. He does not exactly shy away from descriptions of the island’s ‘rude wilds’, the vicious cruelty of the transportation system, or the threatening behaviour of the original inhabitants, whose ‘sable hue has afforded a theme for naturalists and philosophers’. But it is clear that he writes from a moment in history in which the colonists, regardless of their professed humanitarianism (and many, like Burn, were professed humanitarians), could speak with some relief on the topic of the Aborigines at least.

    For the Black War was in its final days, and the end result was becoming clear: British colonial policy had ensured that Aboriginal existence would not restrain the growth of its Vandemonian settlement.

    So David Burn could enthuse prettily on a place like New Town, with its villas, its race-course, its vibrant gardens and the delicious jam that came from them. “New Town also boasts a pottery, and one or two breweries,” wrote Burn.

    In the early days of British reconnaissance here, this area just north of Hobart’s centre was named Stainforth’s Cove for an East India Company man who would never see the island. The early migrant settlers were the Pitt family, who had come on the
    Ocean in 1803. Richard Pitt would be granted 100 acres on the New Town Rivulet; his daughter Salome is said to have been the first white woman to climb Mount Wellington, following the rivulet’s course upstream with an Aboriginal girl who is remembered in nostalgic history as ‘her companion Miss Story’. Salome Pitt would become a “kind-hearted and firm” schoolteacher who fed her students bread and honey but wasn’t beyond boxing them in the ears if they misbehaved.

    There was a wattle-bark tannery here too, for a couple of years in the 1820s, until the deep colour it imparted to leather went out of fashion.

    This was also the home of the King’s (and later, the Queen’s) Orphan Asylum, where hundreds of children of convicts or deceased settlers would be housed over fifty years until the orphanage was converted into a home for the elderly and infirm.

    Perhaps the most significant figure to pass through the orphan school was Walter George Arthur, who had been given a British education on Flinders Island under the tutelage of George Augustus Robinson and others. Walter George Arthur and his wife Mary Anne identified themselves as Christians; they read and wrote well, and had a keenly developed political awareness. Walter George Arthur would petition the colonial and British governments to their highest office.
    There is perhaps no more interesting couple in recorded Tasmanian history.

    And there is no one bigger in New Town’s history than Thomas Dewhurst Jennings, a Yorkshireman who took over the lease of the popular Harvest Home Inn on New Town Road in 1881. Jennings was reputed to have been the biggest man in Australia, tipping the scales at over 200 kilograms. His own report suggests that Jennings was far from gluttonous – despite owning a public hotel, he rarely drank, although he thought that it ‘reduces his bulk’ when he did.

    The same newspaper report suggested that he was worried by neither his weight nor his age – he was then 60 years old – and intended to get married again. The reporter stated bluntly that this was “the only instance of a fat man who has preserved his health and his bulk together.” Jennings died in 1890.

    What would a contemporary field guide to New Town boast about? The coffee roasters, I suppose; the New Town Greenstore, where you can buy organic teas and gluten free baked goods; the Jackman & McRoss bakery, with its well-known croissants; or the popular Hill Street grocers; or perhaps the Video City, soon to become a relic of history as well.


  • Love Letter from the Pieman River

    Love Letter from the Pieman River

    To the same tangled forests, tenebrous rivers and towering mountains, two Sprents were sent, three decades apart.

    James Sprent was perhaps an unlikely candidate for bush exploration. The son of a Glaswegian publisher, he arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1830 with an exorbitant quantity of books, engravings and stationery. His first endeavours on the island were in education, and they were very ambitious: he opened schools and ran classes on everything from philosophy to astronomy. He wasn’t even 25 years old yet.

    But he was soon employed as a surveyor and began venturing into the rough Tasmanian terrain. A decade into his career, as one of only two permanent surveyors employed by the Colonial Office, he would be sent on a major project marking out roads in the north-west. Around the same time, in 1842, James Sprent would launch himself into another serious enterprise: love. He married a currency lass from mainland Australia named Susannah Hassall
    Oakes, the daughter of Parramatta’s chief constable.

    So this well-read, industrious man cut and burnt his way into the treacherous environs of north-western Tasmania. Aboriginal Tasmanians had inhabited that quarter, of course, but even they had little practical use for the dense wet sclerophyll, rainforests, and mountains, exposed to buffeting westerlies and fecund with harsh horizontal and bauera scrub.

    No doubt he often thought of Susannah, as he hacked his way into leagues of trackless country, his canvas clothes shredding in the constant press of spiky plants and coarse rocks. Even with a party of other explorers, this was lonely work. His betrothed, he worried, was left in the hands of “drunken ruffians” at Circular Head, near the north-western tip of Van Diemen’s Land. Broad dark rivers of doubt criss-crossed his mind as it did this land, so far from where he had been born.

    James Sprent would erect a trig point on the summit of nearby Mount Bischoff. He did not realise that within the jagged quartzite and dolomite beneath his feet, mineral dykes had lay waiting to be discovered.

    But his only surviving son, Charles Percy Sprent – born in 1849 – would become well aware of this. In 1871, two years after his father’s death, Charles became the District Surveyor of north-western Tasmania. In that same year, Mount Bischoff’s immense wealth of tin was revealed by the pick of a hardy prospector. For a time, it was said to be the world’s richest tin mine.

    Charles Sprent also went on pioneering exploratory journeys to western Tasmania. He too opened up unused tracts of land, with blaze and axe, devising maps that would be crucial for further prospecting and settling throughout the next decades.

    C
    harles Sprent also made himself familiar with that Tasmanian vegetation, which so vigorously resists human passage; and the boisterous weather, which threatens to billow into squalls and storms at every moment of the day, rising to violence after its long traverse of the ocean, all the way from Patagonia. Whatever his motivations, he accepted the conditions of hunger, exhaustion, dampness, soreness and solitude. Of wet boots and leeches.

    In 1878, Charles Sprent was on
    the banks of the Pieman River, this tremendous broad waterway which tours 100 kilometres of western forest, from pre-Cambrian high country to the Southern Ocean. From its mouth at Hardwicke Bay, on a January afternoon, he thought of his own fiancée. Her name was Elizabeth Jane Rudge. Charles looked upon the tumult as the dark river pushed its way into the churning grey surf, and in its background, the romantic beauty of the aeons-old forest had mountains folded sharply in their midst. Some had been the basis of his father’s calculations. Tasmania had been mapped by him, using them. Current maps bear the surname of these men on townships, roads, rivers and mountains.

    Th
    e scene at Pieman Heads impressed itself upon Charles Sprent. He was moved to write to Elizabeth:

    This is a wild, desolate looking coast; the sea has a hungry rattle about it as it roars on the beach. Savage rocks stick up in all directions and the surf goes flying over them. The vegetation is stunted and low. Coming down the river we had some lovely sights; trees down to the water’s edge every shade of green, and immense clusters of flowers.”

    He added of the Pieman, “It is a noble river.”


    I visited the banks of another noble river with an old friend.
    The fascinating Charles Gould was Tasmania's first geological surveyor.

  • 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.

  • History of a Highway

    History of a Highway

    A road is not like a railway, built mile by mile, inching along to an inevitable goal. No, a road begins with tracks, either of men or animals; it is improved haphazardly as occasion demands.”

    So wrote George Hawley Stancombe, in his self-published history of the Midlands Highway, History in Van Diemen’s Land (1968). Anyone making the journey between Tasmania’s two urban centres today would notice that the haphazard improvements continue. The earth along the highway’s sides scoured and graded, big boulders broken, lanes added, and (for the meantime) vehicles being slowed down to a grinding halt at certain sections.

    But we presume that in the end it will make the journey between Hobart and Launceston smoother, quicker, and safer. We chip away gladly at the amount of minutes spent on that road as it glides amidst the farmlands and villages of Tasmania’s eastern interior.

    In doing so we dismiss the efforts of Lieutenant Laycock, who on February 12th 1807, accompanied by four men and three weeks worth of provisions, staggered bedraggled into Hobart Town, having hoofed it from the Tamar to the Derwent.

    Their route was not identical to our highway’s, and the landscape is not the same. They spoke of thick forests – now all the land is cleared for agriculture – and they seem to have been in the vicinity of New Norfolk. Their adventure, along with those of several other parties that followed theirs, may have involved encounters with Aboriginals and bushrangers, and required that they overcome swollen rivers and tough terrain, not to mention the transport of their possessions.

    The first vehicular passages occurred in 1824, with two mail carriages relaying, meeting centrally at York Plains on Friday afternoons. Rendezvousing at the White Hart Inn, they quickly toasted one another, and then returned from whence they came with the other man’s cargo. (Mr. Presnell, proprietor of the inn, is said to have served “good mutton, indifferent wine and very poor bread.”)

    The name of York Plains, along with Ross, Epping Forest, and anything with his or his wife’s name in it came from Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who, with Elizabeth Macquarie and other dignitaries, traversed the island in the early days of the colony. But was Antill Ponds named after one of his men, one Major Antill, or a bushranger whose head was bashed in by one of his colleagues? And who is responsible for the naming of Jericho, Jordan and Bagdad – and were they really reading from the Bible or the Arabian Nights?

    Each traveller in Tasmania has their impressions from the road. Many have a story of accident, or more often, a near-accident. The weather has come and gone on us, hazing up Ben Lomond or the Western Tiers on either side; Mount Wellington, either ahead or behind, looks stern and foreboding, or glorious and inviting. On a recent trip down, there was snow down to about 500 metres in the midlands.

    We have had a good toasted sandwich in Kempton or a kick of the footy at Oatlands. Sometimes the two hours have passed too quickly, and sometimes, they’ve dragged on forever. Everyone has had a coffee at Campbell Town – but do you prefer Zep’s or Red Bridge?

    Poor old Brighton, bypassed a few years back: who knows what happens in Brighton now? These days, in and out of Hobart we pass the former Pontville Detention Centre. This was an army barracks, and then for a short while, housed asylum seekers. It is back in private hands now, and its history, shadowy, may just disappear as we familiarise ourselves with it as a benign, unregistered, fairly bland landmark along the highway.

    Just as we ignore the silhouettes in steel commissioned, I am told, to help drivers keep their attention as they head through the Southern Midlands. The gunpoint mugging of a gig, the surveyor’s strained efforts, the emus and thylacines, and the forlorn figure of the hangman at the turn-off to Stonor all blend into the hedgerows, the sloping fields, the solitary gums, the homesteads and so on, as we mostly move hastily between the urban centres.

    But I have missed too much out! History and anecdote crowd my attempts to write this brief account of the Midlands Highway. There are those who have lived along the highway, who have seen it snake towards and away from them, and those people and animals who formed its basic route before Europeans ever dragged their sheep to the fields or planted a radiata pine or poppy. There are truly funny stories to tell, and miraculous moments, and maybe I could even muster up something romantic. I am sure there will be many readers who feel the same.

    I won’t tell it all now. But someday I, like Lieutenant Laycock, will stroll from the Tamar to the Derwent – and then there will be time to unravel the stories. Even a highway journey ought be taken on foot sometime.

  • 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.

  • Steering South by South-East

    Steering South by South-East

    On board the Norfolk two friends from the Fenlands sailed along the northern coast of the island.

    George Bass had thirty-three years tucked under his belt; Matthew Flinders was only twenty-four. They had become dear friends on their early journeys around Australia, beginning on their voyage out in 1794, and now the waterway that would become known as Bass Strait, with eight volunteers and no timepiece.

    It was from a note in Flinders’s journal, on November 4, 1798, that Low Head, like so many features observable by boat, received the name it would bear on maps from then on.

    Six years later an expedition of four ships would make their attempts into enter the Tamar River to settle at Port Dalrymple with Lieutenant-Governor Paterson in charge. These vessels were the Buffalo, the Lady Nelson, the Integrity and the Francis: but as the gale blew up at the mouth of the river, one ship – the Buffalo – was separated from the others, and Captain William Kent was forced to make landfall for a time on that eastern headland Low Head; shortly after, attempting again to enter the river, the ship was hammered by the weather and was washed aground.

    At last they all reconvened at Outer Cove. Were there locals at hand to watch the flag-raising ceremony, the beastly watercrafts stalking down the river that was known as kanamaluka or Ponrabbel?

    Some had no doubt seen Bass and Flinders “steering S. E. by S. up an inlet of more than a mile wide” one late spring afternoon in 1798, in that handsome colonial sloop. A giant white swan swooping onto the placid waters of the widening river.

    The colonists quickly set about establishing their colony at Outer Cove, now George Town, with two prefabricated huts from Sydney. Bricks were laid and vegetables were planted. The destinies of the northern colonies were to unfold sporadically, progressing uncertainly, struggling against natural elements and without the wisdom of those peoples who had seen “Bass’s Strait” when it was indeed not filled with water at all.

    But the purpose of Low Head was more clear. The broad river they called the Tamar, flowing out of the confluence of two further long rivers that tumbled down from the high dolerite slopes of Ben Lomond to create the significant hydrographical systems that had created life and meaning for the north of the island for so long, was difficult to navigate where it met the Strait. There were many hazards to contend with, and Low Head was a suitable place from which to address these.

    So early on beacons were established there, beginning with a simple flagpole of Captain Kent's construction. A pilot’s station was manned from 1805, by one William House, but he absconded after two years - sent to Sydney in 1807 to seek assistance as the fledgling colony verged on starvation, he did not return.

    The first lighthouse was built by a gentleman dubbed “Bolting Dick” or R.M. Warmsley. It was erected in 1832. The famous colonial architect John Lee Archer designed a more permanent fixture, built by convicts from stone and rubble and armed with a revolving light at considerable expense. It was finished in 1838.

    This had to be replaced five decades later by the brick building that stands today. By this time, cottages for coxswains and crewmen had been constructed; school houses and workshops were added; the pretty Christ Church was holding services; farmhouses stretched along the river; cows and sheep grazed in paddocks; couples raised their children; and roadways to Launceston had been cleared.


    Recently on the Field Guide, we remembered explorer Henry Hellyer.
    Further along Bass Strait lived Tarenorerer, a freedom fighter, born around 1800.

  • Henry Hellyer of the Van Diemen's Land Company

    Henry Hellyer of the Van Diemen's Land Company

    We can imagine Henry Hellyer on the deck of the Cape Packet in March 1826, after six long months at sea, seeing Hobart Town come into view. Young, talented and courageous, but prone to melancholy, he was the chief surveyor and architect for the newly-established Van Diemen’s Land Company. Much of the future of Van Diemen’s Land hung on this company. His job would be one of the most challenging in the colony. It would kill him.

    Company superintendent Edward Curr and his London backers were unimpressed with the tracts of land given them by colonial officials, so he sent out his surveyors and their convict servants into the forests and mountainous regions of north-western Van Diemen’s Land. Henry Hellyer was the leader of this band, which included other Cape Packet arrivals such as Joseph Fossey, Alexander Goldie and Clement Lorymer. The convict workers were more experienced bushmen, “intelligent active men used to the bush,” in Hellyer’s words, such as Isaac Cutts, Richard Frederick, Jorgen Jorgenson, and Alexander McKay.

    Wet myrtle forests, spiky and stringy thickets of bauera and horizontal, rushing rivers, mosquitoes and hunger plagued their every day of exploration. They slept “like mummies, rolled up in blankets” after days of “violent bodily exercises” and such privations that “we were obliged to go on, or starve”.

    Ah, but what joy when they emerged into a clearing, when the sun came out, or when they returned to the Van Diemen’s Land headquarters!

    Hellyer was an optimistic and brave, and sensitive to natural beauty. He sketched vistas from the various mountains he ascended and named landmarks after European painters. If he had a fault in these early years of Vandemonian exploration, it was that he was too optimistic: all his geese, it was said, were swans.

    Having seen an unmapped range of mountains in the distance from St. Valentine’s Peak, Hellyer and Fossey led a team towards the northern edge of Tasmania’s central highlands in November 1828. They each carried a fortnight of provisions, bearing twenty-five kilograms each. From Mt. Block, they looked into the fearful river gorges that sliced the ranges in every direction.

    A week later, caught in a severe snowstorm on a plateau above the Fury River, Hellyer led his team into the “terrible gully” of its gorge to get shelter. “We saw we were in a worse predicament than ever,” Hellyer penned in his journal. “We made for the horrid ravine as our only refuge.”

    They descended some 600 metres the river, camped in buttongrass by its side, roasted a wombat, and slept uneasily. In the morning they escaped onto the plateau by Cradle Mountain. Either Hellyer or Fossey was the first white person to summit this mountain.

    But these physical hardships appeared to be nothing compared to the emotional turmoil occurring inside Henry Hellyer’s mind. Hellyer believed he had found good grazing land further north, around Surrey Hills. However, he was wrong: and the Van Diemen’s Land Company incurred great cost attempting to raise sheep and cattle there, and they perished in the winter. In 1832, after a very cold winter, Surrey Hills was “becoming the graves of all the sheep”. Hellyer tried to defend himself; he became oversensitive to criticism; he retreated into himself; and he let melancholy consume him.

    There was also a malicious rumour of some kind spread by a convict servant by the name of Harley, who had worked under Hellyer’s supervision previously. Harley had allegedly been a poor worker and was not paid upon the completion of the job. The slander may have been that Hellyer was a homosexual, or that he had been caught masturbating.

    In the early hours of September 2, 1832, Henry Hellyer committed suicide.


    Here is the story of the career of Edward Curr and its consequences.
    Jorgen Jorgenson was another Van Diemen's Land Company explorer.

  • 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.



  • A Colony of Fish

    A Colony of Fish

    This is the slender-spined porcupine fish, or southern porcupine fish, or the globefish, Diodon nicthemerus, first described to European science by Cuvier in 1818. You’ll find it in the southern waters of Australia, from Geraldton to Port Jackson, but it’s most common in Port Phillip Bay or the coastal waters of Tasmania. (This specimen was found near Beaumaris, on the east coast.)

    This is one of a number of fish illustrations done by William Buelow Gould during the Vandemonian convict era. The artist would later gain international fame after being fictionalised by Richard Flanagan in the well-reviewed Gould’s Book of Fish. His fish are made handsome in watercolour; the porcupine fish looks lonely and unloved, and it’s easy to sympathise with it. Perhaps Gould identified with it himself.

    William Buelow Gould was a chosen name. It seems he was born as William Holland on November 8, 1803; his father was a boatman on the Thames. He was literate and as a young man moved to London where he took up an apprenticeship with lithographer Rudolph Ackermann. His artistic skills were being developed and he married.

    But William fell in with a crowd of boozers and gamblers – always easy to stumble upon in London. In his twentieth year, one of his drinking mates was murdered, perhaps in shady circumstances; William fled to Staffordshire with his wife and their new child.

    But before too long he departed from there too, this time abandoning wife and child. And he ditched the name with which he was born as well.

    The name ‘Gould’ was a good association to make – John and Elizabeth Gould were gaining esteem as artists of natural history. So the runaway artist declared himself William Buelow Gould, “Portrait Painter and Drawing Master”, when he arrived in Northampton.

    But although he had left so many things in his wake, William Buelow Gould was not prepared to dispose of his bad habits. Drinking, gambling, and stealing marred his new career with a painter and glazier by the name of Thomas Smith. Within weeks he was charged with stealing his employer’s materials and suffered three months in prison, as well as a public flogging. And in November 1826, he stole someone’s coat, hankie and gloves; he was found guilty, and sentenced to seven years’ transportation in Van Diemen’s Land.

    On the Asia, the vessel that brought him to Van Diemen’s Land, he painted his first portrait of a ship’s officer. It was pretty ordinary, but Gould seemed to have been able to talk himself up. He was given convict employment as a potter – but was transferred to the chain gang for drunkenness. Then, he put his artistic ability to use in attempted to forge a banknote. He was to be sent to Macquarie Harbour, but after a storm forced the ship to pause en route, many of the convict passengers mutinied; Gould didn’t, and was rewarded for his good behaviour with an assignment to Dr James Scott. Here, he was put to work drawing specimens.

    Coincidentally, the inspirations for his pseudonym arrived in Tasmania during this convict apprenticeship: John and Elizabeth Gould were friends of the Lieutenant-Governor John Franklin and his wife. One wonders whether they were shown the work of the convict Gould, and what they made of his impressive images, which would later be credited by UNESCO as valuable enough to enter their historical registers.

    Gould’s work throughout the rest of his convict career would include still-life images of fruit, flowers, game and fish. Finally a free man, he was given a job painting coaches in Launceston, although he almost sabotaged that immediately; given tools and material to do his work, Gould absconded, only to return shortly enough afterwards to not lose his job.

    “His last years were spent in some comfort,” writes a biographer, but no doubt his life was shortened by the years of hard living. He died in his home in December 1853, joining the great ocean of dead things that surrounds us all.

    Yet he was later resurrected, and reimagined, by Flanagan; in it, he belongs to “a colony of fish masquerading as men”; and the surgeon to whom Gould is assigned turns into Diodon nicthemerus.

     

    Previously on Field Guide, a German baron goes into the Tasmanian mountains.
    On another east coast beach, a French captain takes a convict lover.

  • Nowhere Valley

    Nowhere Valley

    Beneath here is Nowhere Valley. There, the bushranger Lucas Wilson set up his utopia. “What I’ve done in establishing Nowhere Valley,” he said, “is to escape the world which is too much with us…Here in this beautiful place, we’re in a territory that’s never been spoiled: one that’s just as it was at the beginning of time.”

    Fiction: from the last novel of Tasmanian author Christopher Koch, Lost Voices, published in 2012.

    Nowhere Valley is Collinsvale, a hamlet hidden in the northern bumps and folds of Mount Wellington. By the mid-nineteenth century, when the invented scholastic woodsman and his followers had established their society in Koch’s novel, British settlements had begun to creep up the creeks from Glenorchy and New Norfolk into this valley. Sorell Creek was the region’s first name.

    And then came the first immigrants from Germany and Denmark. These Lutherans were drawn by cheap land and good water supplies to start a township there, centred around agriculture, from 1870. They planted vines and potatoes, and worked as carpenters and blacksmiths and bakers. The relative isolation provided by the valley allowed the migrants to maintain their identities. Their names were Neilsen and Fehlberg, Tötenhofer and Appeldorff. In 1881, the town was gazetted with the name of Bismarck, after the Prussian statesman.

    But a few decades later, with the Great War invoking anti-German sentiments around Tasmania, a letter-writing campaign sought to change this name. Collinsvale, after the first Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, David Collins, was proposed. “We are quite unanimous in believing that Collinsvale is a far more suitable name for a Tasmanian township than Bis-marck,” wrote one W.F. Andersen in December 1914. “The only ones who do not think so are Germans, and a couple who are probably under obligations to Germans.”

    The latter’s oppositions included the claim that the brand name of Bismarck was associated with high quality produce. This was quashed: the town was renamed Collinsvale.

    Names can change with extraordinary ease: mountains and hills less so. The utopia of Nowhere Valley failed. The bushranger Lucas Wilson perished. His final exhortation was, “Keep faith with the hills.” His author, Christopher Koch, who grew up in the town of Glenorchy beneath the mountain summits now known as Collins Cap and Collins Bonnet, narrates: “Though I’ve lived most of my life outside the island, my native hills have figured very often in my work. Back here again, perhaps to stay, I wander outside the town and study their rhyming outlines: olive green; deep green; blue. Familiar, unchanging and apparently static, they nevertheless have a look of illusory fluidity, and are constantly renewing themselves.”

    And indeed they are. Lucas Wilson was wrong: this is not how these places have been since the beginning of time. “And the beauty that Lucas had so often spoken about was mere fancy – something he’d grafted onto this landscape.”

  • 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.


  • 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.


  • The Complicated Life and Death Story of Thylacinus Cynocephalus

    The Complicated Life and Death Story of Thylacinus Cynocephalus

    The last thylacine to die in captivity came to its demise here, at this former zoo site in Hobart’s Domain park, in 1936. Its name was – possibly – Benjamin. It may have been a female and died of neglect; after a hot day, the animal was locked outside of its shelter overnight in suddenly freezing temperatures. Her body – known to be the last captive specimen in existence – was thrown in the rubbish.

    Colloquially known as the Tasmanian tiger for distinctive black striping along its spine, the thylacine looked more like a wolf, but was in fact a marsupial related to neither. It evolved on the Australian continent and in New Guinea to fill a niche fitted by dogs and wolves elsewhere, although was made largely extinct through the impact of humans and/or dingos about 2000 years ago. Its survival on the island of Tasmania, however, made it the largest carnivore there, and its apex predator.

    Aboriginal Tasmanians are believed to have called the thylacine ‘corinna’, among other names. It is believed that it was hunted and eaten by Aboriginal bands. Diplomat-missionary George Robinson recorded some mythology surrounding the thylacine – namely that dramatic weather events were ‘attributed to the circumstance of the carcase of the hyaena being left exposed’.

    Dutch sailor Abel Tasman reported seeing footprints like those of a tiger’s on the shore in 1642. Upon European settlement, the thylacine was treated as an enemy. Known also as a ‘hyena’ and exclusively carnivorous, thylacines did indeed attack sheep flocks and disturbed agricultural practices implanted by the migrants. A bounty was put upon the thylacine as early as 1830, and between agriculturalists and the Tasmanian Government, over 2000 bounties were claimed over a number of decades.

    Benjamin was caught in the Florentine Valley by Elias Churchill in 1933 and given to the Hobart Zoo. The manager of the zoo was Alison Reid, who said that the animal had no pet name; debate over the animal’s gender continues to simmer.

    Since, though, the thylacine – Thylacinus cynocephalus – has come to adorn the logos of cricket teams, beer bottles and local councils. It’s on the Tasmanian number plate. The tragic history of the thylacine has been depicted in books and films, and used as an example to promote the conservation of other rare and endangered animals.

    Was Benjamin truly the last thylacine on Earth? There are believers and sceptics on the topic. Conversations about the thylacine sound much like religious debate. The dramatic level of loss in Tasmania adds to the weight of the discussion: for there have been extinctions, as well as the erasure of huge amounts of indigenous knowledge and culture, all throughout the island since Europeans arrived.

    The outcome is a matter of eternity too. For after all, if there are no more tigers in the forests, they are gone forever.

    Or is it? Can scientific methods recreate Thylacinus cynocephalus? If we can, should we? Can we repopulate the forests with this poorly-understood and much-maligned creature? Or can we simply let go, own up to our sins, and let dead wolves lie?

    In Tasmania, it seems even life and death isn't clear-cut.

    There is, as well, the story of a man named Bert, who is said to have once upon a time snared a tiger in the forests of Tasmania’s north – but that’s a yarn for another time.


     
    The King family say they saw a thylacine in the south-west in the 1950s.
    Last week, we celebrated the great characters of Hobart Town.

  • 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.

  • Blow My Skull

    Blow My Skull

    At one point, the biggest drunk in the colony was also the man in the highest position of authority.

    
Thomas Davey was appointed as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land in 1812. When he got the job, he tried to leave England without telling his wife; she found out, and Davey became so furious that he ‘threw his wig at the wall in temper’. It was a strange appointment. Davey was in a Gentleman’s Prison for Debtors at the time, and wouldn’t have the means to pay off his debts until after he returned from Van Diemen’s Land.
 Lachlan Macquarie, the Governor of Australia – after whom so many landmarks are named – instantly took a disliking to Tom Davey when the latter arrived in Sydney. Davey had suffered the misfortune of losing his luggage, somehow, on the voyage from London. (Long after he left the antipodes he would be claiming he was owed thousands of pounds for the loss.) Macquarie would later describe Davey as a drunk who showed “an incredible degree of frivolity and buffoonery in his manners.”


    Was this fair?

    Definitely. In February 1813, when Davey arrived in Hobart Town, he lurched across the ship’s gangway, surveyed his new dominion, took off his jacket and said, “It’s hot as Hades here!” He then opened a bottle of port and poured the entirety of its contents all over his wife’s hat, in some kind of unexplained personal ritual.
 (The poor lady: her name, in a shameful coincidence, was Temperance.)

    Davey wasn’t an overly competent administrator. His policies ended up allowing the art of bushranging to flourish – even two of his own officials ended up becoming part of a gang. At one point, Davey declared martial law, an act deemed illegal by London and stupid by Macquarie. In fairness, Lt.-Gov. Davey also made Hobart a free port, and encouraged the proper treatment of the Aboriginal population. But the fact is that his legacy is largely to do with the consumption of alcoholic beverages.


    On royal birthdays, Tom Davey gave out free rum, doling it out from a keg in front of the Governor’s House. It was not uncommon to find him in the pubs, drinking with the lower classes, especially at a bar called Stocker’s; he would explode out of Parliament House in a fit of frustration - sick of his job, or his long-suffering wife, I suppose. Many of Van Diemen’s Land elite thought he was responsible for the dissipation of morals and etiquette. So they started calling him Mad Tom.


    He also invented a cocktail, named ‘Blow My Skull’. Simply dissolve 165g (¾ cup) of brown cane sugar into a litre of water, then add the juice of six limes (about 180ml), and 500ml each of porter and navy-style rum (57% alcohol content), and 250ml of strong brandy. It’s not bad!