Truganini: Journey through the Apocalypse
by Cassandra Pybus
Allen & Unwin
‘Follow the money’ is a precept as useful to the historian as the detective, especially when the history in question has anything to do with empire. Decades before Lenin identified imperialism as ‘the highest stage of capitalism’, the English economist Herman Merivale (1806-1874) recognised that colonial possessions functioned above all as fields for economic activity, spaces in which capital and labour could be employed to generate riches both for the encroaching settlers and for the homeland from which they came. However multifarious its legacies, colonisation is at its heart a system for transferring wealth, or the means of getting it, from the original residents and traditional custodians of a territory to its invaders and self-declared new ‘owners’. This is the essential nature and purpose of colonialism. Anything else that may follow – freedom, servitude, religious conversion, political transformation, genocide – is a consequence or rationalisation or side-effect of that core intention.
Cassandra Pybus’s Truganini: Journey through the Apocalypse illustrates all this in a striking fashion. An historical account of Indigenous and settler relations in colonial Tasmania, it centres on the experiences of the Nuenonne woman Truganini (c.1812-1876). Many Australians know, or think they know, who Truganini was. Her status as ‘the last Tasmanian’, which began to be publicised even before she died, gave her a degree of visibility in the historical record that few Indigenous figures have attracted. Truganini was the last Aboriginal Tasmanian with no European ancestry to die. It is a terrible reason to be famous, and Pybus argues that ‘Australians should know about how she lived, not simply that she died.’ How Truganini lived tells us a great deal about the transactions, trades and outright thefts through which British settlers took possession of the territory they called Australia.
Because of the author’s personal connection to the subject matter, Pybus’s book gets to the economic heart of imperialism in an unusually direct and specific way.
My great-great-grandfather was the biggest beneficiary of the expropriation of Truganini’s traditional country of Lunawanna Alonnah, renamed Bruny Island by colonial settlers. I owe Truganini and her kin my charmed existence in the temperate paradise where my family has lived for generations.
Economic exchanges within colonial systems are grossly unequal: hence colonisation’s extraordinary capacity to generate wealth on one side of the balance sheet, while the other side is stripped bare. In some historical instances, the fundamental inequality of the colonial exchange was veiled by a process of gradual infringement. Not so in Tasmania, where, in a matter of decades, the local people were ‘forcibly dispossessed of everything but mere existence’, as the the colonial surveyor James Calder wrote with dismay in 1855. (The dismay did not cause him to give up his own land grant.) In the case of the intersection between Cassandra Pybus’s and Truganini’s families, the transaction was not merely unfair to the latter, but annihilating. Newly arrived in the colony in 1829, Richard Pybus ‘was handed a massive swathe of North Bruny Island [as] an unencumbered free land grant’ from the government. Later, Pybus records, he was ‘rewarded’ (for what?) with a further, ‘equally huge land grant in the southern part of the island. For no payment whatsoever, he received well over 2000 hectares’, the original owners of which ‘were paid with anguish and exile’.
I started noticing how frequently Pybus draws on the lexicon of trade and accounting – ‘owe’, ‘handed’, ‘rewarded’, ‘received’, ‘paid’ – to tell this story. As the narrative expands beyond Pybus’s family’s history to that of the whole colony, the language of economic value and transaction continues to dominate, with words such as ‘stolen’, ‘given’, ‘granted’, ‘traded’, ‘salary’, ‘bonus’, ‘recompense’, ‘gain’, ‘loss’ ‘lucrative’, ‘selling’, ‘grabs’, ‘free’, ‘return’ and ‘claim’. The story can’t be told without those words, and underlying them all is the belief Pybus attributes to Captain James Cook when he came ashore at Van Diemen’s Land in 1777, that the land he and his men were beginning to map and explore was ‘[a]ll for the taking’. Of course, that sense of material entitlement rested on an assumption of racial superiority.
So they took the land – not Cook and his men themselves, but the colonists for whom they prepared the way. They used violence to acquire it, rarely questioning the justice of their actions or doubting the inevitability of the process they were enacting. To take land they must take lives, either directly – the murder of its inhabitants being the quickest way to appropriate a piece of real estate – or indirectly, by denying the inhabitants the resources to sustain existence. Pybus also records instances of unpaid labour being extracted by force or fraud from Indigenous men, women and children, and many, many occurrences of women being stolen from their communities, to be used for sexual slavery.
Formal and informal expropriations of Indigenous lands and bodies were the foundation of the new colony’s money economy. Pybus recounts a spectrum of transactions, from the ‘royal charter’ by which 200,000 acres were granted to the London-based Van Diemen’s Land Company for ‘massive sheep runs’ that exploited the grazing potential of a terrain brought to pastoral perfection by millennia of Aboriginal land management practices, to the ‘rapacious land grabs by settlers’ from Van Diemen’s Land in the new colony of Port Philip across Bass Strait. Of course, the first was no more legitimate than the second, despite its veneer of official approval, and in neither case was any purchase price, rent or recompense paid to the traditional owners of the land. Not that any monetary payment would have constituted a meaningful equivalent to what was stolen: the European view of land as a mere asset to be exchanged for gold falls far short of the richly endowed plenum of stories, journeys, lifeways and spiritual meanings signified by the Indigenous concept of Country. Still, to have paid something would have been to acknowledge, however unsatisfactorily, the Tasmanians’ prior use and occupation of the island. Yet when we follow the money generated by expropriated land we find it went straight back to England or into the pockets of the more successful settlers – never, in any instance, to the people whose stolen land created the profit.
Pybus follows the money carefully with regard to the central European figure in her narrative, George Augustus Robinson. A builder, colonial landholder and ‘self-styled missionary’, Robinson was the architect of the 1830s plan to collect the remaining Aboriginal people of Tasmania and remove them to an island in Bass Strait (Flinders Island being eventually selected). The plan had the dual intentions of protecting the surviving members of various Tasmanian tribes from those settlers who wanted to ‘extirpate’ them from the land, and of ‘clearing’ the island for full occupation and exploitation as a British colony. Pybus does justice to the range of motives that actuated Robinson to lead this arduous ‘mission’, but does not lose sight of the financial incentives that came to dominate his thinking and the racism that underwrote it. The five-year project earned him a government salary, bonuses, cash rewards, a lifetime pension, gifts paid for by public subscription, and land grants for himself and his sons.
Robinson would never have succeeded in clearing the colony of its original inhabitants without the help of Indigenous people who acted as guides, defenders, provisioners, translators, mediators and negotiators while he traversed the island, seeking out the remnants of the various clans and persuading them to accompany him to what he represented as safety. Most important of these were Truganini, a young woman from the Nuenonne people of the South-East Nation whom Robinson found ‘living with a gang of convict woodcutters’ when she was just a teenager, and her first husband Wooredy, a Nuenonne warrior and cleverman. Over time, Robinson enlisted guides from many other parts of Tasmania, including Dray from the South-West Nation, Kickerterpoller from the Oyster Bay Nation, Peevay from the North-West Nation and ‘Black Bob’ from the Big River Nation. Their co-operation was essential to the success of his plan.
Why did they help him? Probably because, in the new world order that had been catastrophically thrust upon them without warning or consultation, this looked like the best deal they were going to get. In the short term, accompanying Robinson on his peripatetic ‘mission’ gave them the chance to spend weeks or months at a time away from other whites, following an approximation of their traditional lifestyle, with days spent hunting or fishing and nights devoted to ceremonial dances and storytelling. In the long term, Robinson promised that if they helped him and refrained from attacking settlers or their stock, they could ‘stay in their country, protected by “a good white man” who would live with them and go bush with them so they could hunt. He offered himself as an example of just such a person.’
This was a ‘firm promise’, Pybus asserts, and it was attractive enough to draw more than one powerful clan leader into Robinson’s orbit, bringing their kin with them. Of course, it was a lie. Pybus’s account of the despair felt by Mannalargenna, one of Tasmania’s greatest Indigenous leaders, when he ‘absorbed the magnitude of Robinson’s betrayal’, is powerful. ‘Mannalargenna had come to the end of the line in his attempts to find accommodation with the invaders. He had lost his two wives, his four daughters, and now he had lost his country.’ Faced with a final proof of what the writer Robert Louis Stevenson once called ‘the world-enveloping dishonesty of the white man’, Mannalargenna, a leader formerly regarded in his own world as ‘invincible’, relinquished all hope and died soon afterwards.
Remarkably, although Robinson’s ‘deal’ with his Indigenous helpers proved to be ultimately worthless, the process of deal-making in which he engaged with them for more than a decade was the most significant example of transracial negotiation in Tasmania’s history. Pybus records several attempts by Indigenous people in the early nineteenth century to draw the European invaders into networks of ‘reciprocal obligations’. These were efforts to enrol white men as participants in a different kind of economy, the currency of which was not cash and commodities, but actions, relationships and, at times, emotions. Brokering marriages was seen as one way of channelling the newcomers’ rapacious lust into the formation of alliances and exchanges that could make sense within traditional communities. Pybus explains Mannalargenna’s attempt, nearly a decade before he met Robinson, to create such alliances with the disreputable European sealers of Bass Strait:
When these strange men first arrived, he had seen the potential of incorporating the interlopers into his tribal power base. Trading sealskins for flour, tea, sugar and dogs, he had established a good relationship with them, and allowed women to go with the sealers for a season to harvest seals on the many islands in the Bass Strait. Seeking to bind the sealers to him, Mannalargenna had encouraged reciprocal obligations and involved them in tribal life. In 1810, he arranged for his eldest daughter, Woretemoeteyenner, to marry the dominant sealer, George Briggs, seeing this as a way of cementing the obligations.
But the arrangement collapsed when the newcomers reneged on the deal a few years later. Abandoning all ideas of reciprocity, ‘[t]he sealers took to stealing rather than trading. What had been a seasonal relationship became a lifetime of slavery for most of the women of the north-east.’ All four of Mannalargenna’s daughters were eventually taken in this way, without consultation, permission or return of any kind.
In the case of the many deals George Robinson made with Indigenous Tasmanians, the bad faith of the white man took much longer to come to light. Pybus acknowledges the unconventional and often creative means by which Robinson enmeshed himself in ‘a system of mutual support and protection’ with the Aboriginal people he aimed (at least initially) to save from extinction, a system ‘that for Truganini and Wooredy lasted thirteen years’. Robinson arranged the marriage between Truganini and Wooredy, which meant that ‘Wooredy was bound to Robinson by ties of obligation’. For the many services that Wooredy subsequently rendered him, Robinson later admitted that he owed him a ‘debt of gratitude’ (his words). It is not quite clear from Pybus’s narrative whether Robinson ever made an equivalent, explicit acknowledgement of his debt to Truganini, who – an excellent swimmer – twice saved his life, as well as the life of at least one other European man, by diving into surging rivers and pulling them to safety. In time, though, it became clear to Robinson’s ‘long-time companions’ that he had deceived and would eventually abandon them. Then ‘their sense of mutual obligation […] evaporated’ – to the surprise and annoyance of Robinson who seems, like so many colonialists and patriarchs, to have wanted to be loved by those he oppressed.
Excluded from the money economy that had been introduced by the European invaders, and ruthlessly exploited within the economy of reciprocal obligation in which it suited the colonists, for a time, to engage with them, the Indigenous people of Tasmania were left with nothing – not even, in the end, the integrity of their own bodies after death. The last part of Pybus’s book, titled ‘The Way the World Ends’, details the experiences of Truganini and her companions at the various stations in Tasmania – shall we call them detention centres? – to which they were confined after the definitive failure of the Flinders Island scheme and the subsequent collapse of their relations with Robinson during his stint as Protector of Aborigines in Port Philip. It is a miserable story of mismanagement, corruption, neglect, ill-treatment, poverty, disease and a death toll creeping ever closer to what Europeans regarded as the inevitable disappearance of the original Tasmanians. And here the cash economy of colonialism kicked in again in a final, cruel, dehumanising way, which not only violated common ideas of human decency, but also prevented culturally specific sacred practices of burial and mourning from being carried out. ‘The prospect of the imminent extinction of a race of people had the scientific community scrambling for memorabilia.’ Pybus recounts the unseemly race, first to get hold of the skulls of Indigenous people removed ‘surreptitiously’ from burial sites, then with increasing brazenness to take the skeletons of people who had not even been buried – all in the name of scientific inquiry and all in pursuit of profit. Now, the most highly valued part of these mistreated, unwanted people was ‘their skeletal material’ and there were plenty of white men who would stop at nothing to get their hands on it.
Pybus does not provide much detail about the contemporary scientific thinking that made the skeletons of Indigenous Tasmanians such highly prized commodities within the late nineteenth-century imperial knowledge-economy. Largely, the scientists who wished to study these skeletons were on what Antje Kühnast calls a ‘quest for racial markers’. In particular, they were looking for differences in size and shape that could be presented as evidence that the Tasmanians constituted a separate race from the Indigenous people of the Australian mainland. Such evidence could in turn support polygenist arguments that the species Homo sapiens had multiple points of origin and lines of descent – in short, that we did not all evolve from common ancestors and that all races are not part of a single ‘human family’, as earlier writers on colonisation such as Herman Merivale had taken for granted. Biometric craniology – the measurement of skull surfaces and cavities – was a strong area of focus, partly because skulls were easily transportable but also because they seemed to yield information about the capacities for intellectual development in different races. Such information could then be used to buttress specious claims about so-called racial hierarchies.
To follow the money that flowed into the pockets of those who controlled the late nineteenth-century trade in Tasmanian human remains is to reach high into the political and intellectual institutions of the day, both in England and Australia. The Royal College of Surgeons in London, the Ethnological Museum at Oxford in England, the Royal Society of Tasmania and many prominent Hobart citizens, including a future premier of the colony, were among those involved. Not only the wrongness of their actions, but also the wrong-headedness of their thinking, is breathtaking. Pybus records that after Truganini’s death in 1876,
[her] body was disinterred from its supposedly secret resting place at the disused Female Factory [near Hobart] at the request of the Royal Society. The society had mounted a two-year campaign to get this ‘unique’ specimen, asserting that it would be ‘disgraceful and discreditable to Tasmania were such type of a now extinct race allowed to be cast away.’
Blind or indifferent to all the many ‘disgraceful and discreditable’ things the settler-society of Tasmania had done to the island’s original inhabitants, the Royal Society was intent on doing to Truganini’s remains the very thing that should have seemed ‘disgraceful and discreditable’ in the treatment of another human being – desecrating them by unearthing them, removing the skeleton and exposing it to public view.
The shameful display of Truganini’s skeleton in the Tasmanian Museum for nearly half a century was brought to an end in 1947 by the efforts of concerned citizens and, in Pybus’s words, ‘a rising tide of public distaste’. The bones, having lain ‘jumbled and neglected in a dusty box’ in the museum basement for nearly thirty years, were finally cremated in 1976 and the ashes scattered over the D’Entrecasteaux Channel in accordance with Truganini’s reported wishes. What replaced the skeleton in the museum was a display less violently affronting to human decency but still deeply problematic: it included a photograph of the skeleton, Truganini’s death mask, some portraits (including one not actually of her), and a ‘scattering’ of objects including spears, baskets and grinding stones. Pybus provides the following gloss:
The purpose of this pitiful display of anthropological trophies was to register the original owners of the land as a long-gone people, as remote from the viewer as Neanderthal Man. The stone utensils, wooden weapons, shell ornaments and grass bags visually reinforced the essential argument for the rapid disappearance of the original owners of the island: these were people utterly unable to adapt. There need be no tortured questions about what debts might be owed them. Future generations could be comfortable in the knowledge that they possessed their property by virtue of natural selection.
That the debts owed to Indigenous Australians should not only be cancelled, but their mere memory erased, was the effect and, one can now see, the ideological aim, of such educational tools. It certainly was the effect of the curriculum unit on ‘Aborigines’ that was taught at my New South Wales primary school in the 1970s, a unit which reached no further forward in time than ‘the Stone Age’ and which presented Indigenous culture as a timeless, vanished entity. There was no mention of the processes by which that culture had been attacked and violated or of the means by which it was, despite horrific damage, surviving. Nor was there any recognition that Australia’s pastoral industry, the pride of the nation in those days, was not built on terra nullius but on terrain to which much economic value had already been added by Indigenous land management techniques.
Truganini: Journey through the Apocalypse is an important corrective to such mis-education – for I take it that non-Indigenous readers, like myself, are the book’s primary intended audience. In some ways, it’s not an easy book to read. First, it can be challenging for English speakers with no experience of Indigenous languages to get their heads and tongues around the polysyllabic Indigenous names of individuals, clans and places. I found names such as ‘Kickerterpoller’, ‘Pegernoberric’ and ‘Plorenernoopner’ a struggle to pronounce, even mentally, and had to work to keep ‘Manganerer’, ‘Mannalargenna’, ‘Maulboyheener’ and ‘Mannapackername’ clear and separate in my mind. But the effort is necessary if one is to make sense of the narrative, and becomes extremely worthwhile as the unique experiences of each of these individuals unfold. Learning to distinguish between and remember names is a fundamentally humanising experience, a small but important step in counteracting the limiting effects of a colonial education, among the many shortcomings of which was a tendency to present Indigenous Australians en masse rather than as individual people.
Beyond the challenge of having to grapple with unfamiliar words and names, this book is hard to read because the events it recounts are so harrowing and reveal such a difficult reality about the history of the settler state. All the more reason to read it. The themes are depressingly familiar, Pybus’s narrative showing that the national disgrace of Aboriginal deaths in custody, including juvenile deaths in custody, is not a modern phenomenon but one as old as settlement itself. Similarly, Indigenous families were broken up and their children stolen on an ad hoc basis long before such actions became official government policy. The story of one stolen child haunts me, perhaps even more than the story of Truganini’s long life of exploitation and dispossession. Mary, born on Flinders Island after her parents were captured and sent there by Robinson, was about four years old when she was sent to Hobart to live with Lady Jane Franklin, the governor’s wife, in 1839. Her father, Towterer from the Ninine clan of the South-West nation, had died two years previously, but her mother Wongenneep was still alive. Lady Franklin called the little girl Mathinna, which she understood to be an Indigenous word for the kind of shell necklace the local people wore. Mathinna remained at Government House for about four years as a kind of pet project for Lady Franklin and her teenage daughter Eleanor. When the Franklins returned to England in 1843, Mathinna, then aged about eight, was placed in the Hobart Orphan School. She was discharged from there at sixteen and sent to the Oyster Cove station, where the remaining Flinders Island survivors lived.
In the dysfunctional environment of the station she quickly learnt to make carnal connections with the itinerant workers in the neighbourhood, becoming a regular at a disreputable public house about four miles away. On 1 September 1852, seventeen-year-old Mathinna was stumbling back to the station in a drunken stupor when she fell into a puddle, passed out and drowned.
So much for protection, or removing children ‘for their own good’. It is a story to make one weep with rage and – as a member of Australia’s settler culture – with shame.
Shame can be a debilitating emotion, but it can also be a great motivator to call oneself to account. Cassandra Pybus acknowledges that the good life she enjoys is the direct consequence of the crimes committed against Truganini and her people, then invites other Australians to consider the historical basis of their own prosperous and peaceful lives:
While my family history provides an unassailable case for my being the beneficiary of stolen land and genocide, the deeper truth is that every Australian who is not a member of the First Nations is a beneficiary of stolen country, brutal dispossession, institutionalised racial discrimination and callous indifference.
She concludes her book with a call to action, a challenge to the reader to consider ‘what is owed’ by Australia’s ‘majority immigrant society’ to the country’s original inhabitants.
Some will argue that colonialism’s accounts can never be balanced, that what was stolen has been transformed and now has a different value, or that the pathways of property transmission are too complex to be unravelled. Others push for reparations. But these arguments only concern the money economy of cash and commodities. Another economy exists: one of action, emotion and gesture. Pybus’s narrative shows that in the century following invasion Indigenous people repeatedly but unsuccessfully tried to engage with Europeans in this alternative economy of mutual obligations, but the latter either ignored those attempts or exploited them for their own gain. Now, in our third century of our co-existence, it is surely time for all in the ‘majority immigrant society’ to start participating actively in that non-monetary system of mutual social engagement with the First Nations people of this continent. A first step would be to address the settler culture’s profound attention deficit towards Indigenous values and ideas, which belies the professed good intentions of our national turn towards reconciliation. Surely we can stop withholding consideration and respect from those who were robbed. We can pay attention; we can try to educate ourselves and take the time to listen, ask and remember. Reading the stories of individuals such as Truganini, Wooredy, Mannalargenna and Mathinna is a step on that path. At the very least, we can acknowledge their specific experiences, and learn to say their names.
Alison Alexander, ‘Mathinna (c. 1835–?)’, People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/mathinna-29655/text36623, accessed 4 January 2021.
Antje Kühnast, ‘The Utilization of Truganini’s Human Remains in Colonial Australia’, History of Anthropology Newsletter 39.1 (2012), Article 3.
Herman Merivale Lectures on Colonization and Colonies: delivered before the University of Oxford in 1839, 1840, and 1841, 2 vols (London: Longmans, 1841-2).
Robert Louis Stevenson, In the South Seas (1896), Part IV, Chapter 1.