Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged language

  • The Land of Sweet Forget

    The Land of Sweet Forget

    “In the west beyond the sunset lay the fabled Noia Poeena, which meant Land of Sweet Forget. No wars or troubles – a land of complete rest. It was said that a warrior could pick up his spear [there] and, as likely as not, immediately lay it down again, having forgotten why he had picked it up.”

    So it says in 'the Cotton Papers', an enigmatic collection of stories of a family of free settlers on the east coast of Tasmania, and their interactions with Aboriginals from the area. These stories were handed down through the generations of an east coast family, and published only a few years ago.

    The Cottons were sympathetic with the first Tasmanians. And although their biases on ideas of property, work and religion were a part of the system of supplanting the indigenous population, there is something quite heroic about these pacifists, and something pioneering about their way of recognising the Aboriginal as a fellow-traveller.

    But how well
    they came to understand Aboriginal languages remains uncertain – and it’s extremely unlikely they were able to accurately interpret Aboriginal spirituality.

    The Cottons were not the first whitefellas to take a stab at wrapping his head around a unique and complex worldview, which was doubtless disrupted when European boats came from afar to Tasmania.

    Harry Govier Seeley would have us believe that Aboriginals were looking towards the source of their ancestral home when they stood on the western shoreline and gazed upon the thumping of the Southern Ocean. He argued that Tasmanians had originally hailed from Madagascar, and travelled to Borneo on a land-bridge that is now covered by ocean, before heading south. (Another anthropologist, Hyde Clarke, claimed that the language of the Nyam-Nyam in the Congo was “remarkably similar” to Tasmanian languages.)

    Human communities have been shifting and migrating for a long time. The latest whitefella narrative about the arrival of people in Tasmania is that crossed a land-bridge over Bass Strait during the late Pleistocene – around 35,000 years ago – and ventured along the west coast of the Tasmanian peninsula, up its river systems and into caves.

    Who knows what these families remembered of their previous homelands.
    What stories were passed down about what became mainland Australia, or their lives through the Ice Age? When the British and French foisted themselves onto the island in the late 1700s and early 1800s, they made amateurish efforts to comprehend the Tasmanians’ lives – but of what was doubtlessly rich a body of stories and cultural practices, little was known by the European interpreter.

    This through naivete,
    prejudice and incompetence, as well as reluctance on the behalf of the Aboriginal storytellers to pass on everything.

    At the end of the last century, J.A. Taylor worked on a Tasmanian Aboriginal etymology, particularly surrounding place-names. This is an astounding document, an
    other one born from a respect for Aboriginal lives and regret at what is not known about this island. Yet again, while there is no doubt Taylor was a knowledgeable linguist, the text smacks of guess-work.

    Taylor tells us that an Aboriginal name for Woolnorth Point, in the far north-west of the island, was MA-AN-DAI. “The meaning is obscure, but speculatively the name may have been derived from a cognate of manuta meaning a long way (time) away,” his entry reads.

    There, up on Cape Grim, occurred one of the cruellest massacres the British colonists ever perpetrated against the original Tasmanians.

    Beyond that site lies Noia Poeena: a white Quaker’s dream of peace, over the slate-grey Southern Ocean, vicious and seemingly endless, stretching all the way to South America.

  • 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.

  • A Human Comet

    A Human Comet

    A sailor's life leads many places.

    I have spent part of this year visiting certain locations that bear the memory of a man named Jørgen Jørgensen (1780-1841). Jørgensen's frenetic behaviour and multiplicity of careers led Australian novelist Marcus Clarke to describe him as 'a human comet'.

    It was a life that saw him visit Iceland twice, once as a merchant, and a second time as a would-be revolutionary, in 1809.

    It would also have him wind up in Tasmania as a convict, where he lived his final days, trying his hand at everything from clerical work to police work, farming to exploring.

    Jørgensen also spent considerable time in London, particularly at a certain pub named the Spread Eagle Inn, on Gracechurch Street.

    As part of his nautical career, he had stopped in ports in the Baltic Sea, South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

    He sailed the South Seas on a whaling vessel, and wrote a treatise on the work of missionaries in Tahiti.

    He may have even worked as a pirate in the Americas.

    Briefly, he went to Spain and Portugal to escape his gambling debts; and later was employed by the British Crown to operate as a spy in continental Europe, making a colourful journey on foot. He lost almost everything (including, literally, the shirt on his back) in Parisian casinos, and accidentally committed to a marriage in Frankfurt - a vow that he was never to fulfill.

    But what of Jørgen Jørgensen's hometown? The son of the official watchmaker to the Danish Crown, Jørgensen grew up on the street in this photograph, Østergade, just by one of the city of Copenhagen's main squares.

    It was from this vantage point that an adolescent Jørgen witnessed a great conflagration in the harbour city. King Christian VII, considered a madman, had to be removed from his burning palace. Unfit to rule, tension brewed between the Queen, the Prince, and the King's physician over the issue of power.

    Jørgensen left Copenhagen to work on British ships from the age of 14, but returned when he was 27, in December 1807, to find 'my native city bombarded'. The Danes had sided with Napoleon Bonaparte against the British. It was a painful time for the returning sailor. In Jørgensen's words, 'a considerable portion of the best city in Europe was destroyed'. He was put in charge of a vessel, the Admiral Juul, which was captured in short time off the east coast of England.

    He would never return.

    His compatriots came to consider him a possible traitor. Jørgensen himself seemed to hint at this in some writings, but passionately denied it in others.

    During his time in Iceland, his lack of a national identity was attacked. 'Avoid Denmark, there you won't find a grave,' one of the prefects from the south of the island wrote to him, abandoning mildness. 'Every
    where you will be cast away, hated, banished, cursed. In the end you will be suffocated in an ocean of hate.'

    He would sporadically write letters to family members, and described an intense suffering at being far from them, especially his mother. His Danish fell into disuse. Roaming the wildernesses of Van Diemen's Land, where he did indeed find a grave (although in the cemetery of a religion he did not belong to; and these days a school as been built upon it) he must have felt as far as possible from where he was born.

    One can only hope that as he married, and bounced between occupations, and came to know different parts of Van Diemen's Land better than most colonial settlers of his day, that he felt somewhat at home in that land where Aboriginals, convicts and bushrangers mingled beneath the forest canopies and mountain silhouettes.

    But perhaps, at times, he felt regret: having left his family, their trade, his language, and that elegant city.

    One can get sentimental about home, though, especially after having seen so many places in this world.