HALF BURIED IN the sand, uprooted stalks of kelp are like splashes of dark blood against the white quartzite, ground fine as talc. In the translucent shallows, tendrils flounce lazily as the water gradually turns to turquoise then a deep Prussian blue at the horizon. Behind the crescent of beach, matted tentacles of spongy pigface disguise accumulated detritus of crayfish, oyster, abalone and scallop shells, rubbish middens that have been thousands of years in the making. This beach reclines at the far end of an exquisite table-shaped body of water in the far south-east corner of Tasmania that is known as Recherche Bay, so named by the French explorer Bruni D’Entrecasteaux, who rested his ships Recherche and Esperance in the bay during April and May 1792.
Before the French arrived, this place was called Lyleatea. It was an important ritual site for the Nuenonne people, who journeyed in bark canoes from Bruni – the long offshore island to the north they knew as Lunawanna Alonnah – to meet with the Needwondee and Ninine people, who travelled overland from the west. For millennia they made this trip: the same seasonal migration; the same ritual feast.
Not any more. Not since Ria Warrawah was loosed among them.
In the cosmology of the original Tasmanians, Ria Warrawah was the intangible force of evil that could infest all things. Since the beginning of time, Ria Warrawah was held in check by the great ancestor who lived in the sky as a star, maintaining the world in precarious balance until two avatars of evil fashioned by Ria Warrawah as clouds pulling small islands floated in from the ocean. Wooredy, the last elder of the Nuenonne, told how he saw the evil apparition with his own eyes. When he was a small boy on a seasonal trip to Lyleatea with his family, he had been transfixed by the sight of the French ships that floated in from the ocean, coming to rest in the bay. Strange creatures, just like the returned dead who had been drained of colour by the rigours of their journey, came onto the land and walked about to collect water before returning to their floating islands.
For many days, while these dead men remained in the bay, Wooredy and his family kept well out of sight and watched as they came ashore to look about and make a fearsome sound with a stick that spat fire. Then one day they floated away, leaving behind a head carved into a tree that the Nuenonne believed to be Ria Warrawah given form.
Wooredy never saw those ships again, but when he was a young man on a hunting trip to the northern tip of Lunawanna Alonnah he observed two more such apparitions float into the river estuary on the mainland opposite. This time the dead men came ashore and remained there, cutting down the trees to build huts and disturbing the ground all about. Plenty more of them arrived. And the Nuenonne began to die.
In 1829, thirty years after he watched the ships Lady Nelson and Ocean enter the estuary of the Derwent River, Wooredy was still hunting on his traditional country, now called Bruni Island by the pale newcomers. A renowned warrior in his mid-forties, Wooredy went about naked and wore his hair in the traditional fashion – long greased ringlets coloured with ochre that fell over his eyes like a mop. Wooredy was a cleverman, so knowledgeable in ritual and healing that the white men who came to his island called him ‘the doctor’. But even he proved no match for the epidemic illness that swept away nearly everyone of his clan within the year. When he died in distant exile from his country in 1842, Wooredy was not the last of the Nuenonne. That terrible distinction belonged to his second wife, Truganini, a woman whose name is vaguely familiar to most Australians, having achieved undesired celebrity as ‘the last of her race’.
MOST OF MY adult life I have been compelled by the story of Wooredy and Truganini. They lived through a psychological and cultural transition more extreme than most human imagination could conjure, both witness and participant in a process of apocalyptic destruction without parallel in modern colonial history. This is a narrative of colonial experience that has invariably been told through the prism of regretful colonial imperative, a rueful backward glance at the collateral damage of the last tragic victims of inexorable historical forces. That is not a narrative I wish to perpetuate. My engagement with the colonial experience of Wooredy and Truganini is not because of their dubious status as ‘the last’. They compel my attention and emotional engagement because I owe them my charmed existence in this temperate paradise where my family has lived for generations.
MY GREAT-GREAT-grandfather was fresh off the boat from England in 1829 when he was handed a massive swathe of Bruni Island as an unencumbered free land grant. For no cost, Richard Pybus received well over a thousand hectares of Nuenonne hunting grounds while the traditional owners, Wooredy and Truganini, were repaid with exile, anguish and despair.
My ancestor may have been the first white man granted freehold title to a large part of Bruni Island, but other grant holders followed soon enough. Next came George Augustus Robinson, an ambitious tradesman and self-styled missionary who had migrated to the colony from London some years before, hoping to secure a more comfortable social niche for his wife and family. To the derisive surprise of fellow settlers, Robinson threw over his successful business as a builder to take a government job dispensing food to the displaced Nuenonne. He had lofty ambitions to create a self-contained Christian settlement where these ancient people would shuck off their heathen beliefs and savage ways and learn to be good Christians. Under his benign tutelage, they would learn basic skills so they might to be incorporated in settler society as a simple peasantry.
Claiming to be motivated by nothing more than his urgent desire render help to the original Tasmanians, Robinson was canny enough to negotiate to double his salary before he began his good work. Being an envoy for the Governor also enabled him to get a two-hundred-hectare free grant that would not have been available to him as a mere artisan. His grant, adjacent to the larger grant of Richard Pybus, meant the two neighbours became good friends, sharing their evangelical commitment and a love of literature. Richard Pybus’s extensive library contained a copy of Thomas Macaulay’s Critical and Historical Essays, with the inscription on its flyleaf: ‘To Mr Pybus in token of Geo. Robinson’s friendship and esteem.’
My ancestor’s friend and neighbour was a most problematic fellow. Tempting though it is for me to despise the man, I remain immensely grateful for his voluminous daily journals that have given me a glimpse into the lived experience of Wooredy and Truganini, his close companions for twelve years. I actually believe he loved them in his own selfish fashion.
Reading his journals leaves no doubt that Robinson was motivated by a strong desire to protect the both of them from the terrible injustice inflicted by colonial settlement. To him they were not objects of pity or disgust, but fellow humans suffering grief and loss as profound as he might feel. Given that most colonists saw the Indigenous people as troublesome vermin, debased beyond any recognition on a scale of humanity, he invites my admiration, except for the unmistakable sense I get that Robinson saw the original Tasmanians as the key to the upward mobility he desperately craved. For all of the empathy he tried to feel, Robinson’s genuine humane impulses were continually subsumed into his more potent drive for personal advancement and economic gratification.
Robinson’s documentation of the day-to-day activities over the twelve-year period he spent with Wooredy and Truganini make it possible for me to recover these individuals as proactive historical subjects engaged in an excruciating process of negotiating the end of their world, and refusing to be passive victims or dupes. Thanks to Robinson’s journals, they are the most carefully documented Indigenous actors in Australian colonial history. True, I have no diaries or letters, and next to no direct speech from them. There is no way I can truly know what they thought or how they felt. They are only available via the paternalistic gaze of a pompous, blinkered, self-aggrandising white man who controlled and directed the context of their recorded action.
The challenge I have set myself as a colonial historian and a micro-biographer is to attempt to recover these individuals from their entrapment in Robinson’s narcissistic narrative and to establish them as significant historical actors with their own volition, making personal choices about the apocalyptic disaster that has engulfed them.
IN APRIL 1829, Robinson established a rudimentary mission near a small inlet beside his land grant that he named Missionary Bay. From here he dispensed potatoes to the depleted Nuenonne. Truganini was his first point of contact. She was a lovely young woman – about fifteen or sixteen, by his reckoning – he found living with convict woodcutters on the mainland, just across the channel from Missionary Bay. Impressed with her obvious intelligence and grasp of English, Robinson took it upon himself to bring Truganini back to Bruni and reunite her with her father, Mangerner, the Nuenonne chief whom he wished to make his ally. On returning Truganini to her country, Robinson hoped teach her to be a chaste Christian woman, and to this end he encouraged Mrs Pybus to donate some muslin dresses to cover her nakedness.
Robinson was profoundly disturbed by the prevalent carnal exchange between white men and Indigenous women, and obsessive about documenting stories of abductions and brutality, yet nowhere in his journal did he suggest Truganini was with the woodcutters under duress. It was two years later that she told him how one of them had brutally beaten her as the others held her down. Long after her death, a story with no verifiable source took hold of
the colonial imagination stating the convicts had kidnapped and raped her. The story went that they had also thrown two Nuenonne men out of their boat, chopping off their hands as they clung to the gunwales. This was just the kind of story Robinson was eager to hear, and certainly would have recorded if it had been spoken of at the time.
As Robinson had hoped, Truganini’s presence encouraged her father Mangerner to set up camp at Missionary Bay, where he was followed by a group of demoralised and often sick Nuenonne who straggled into the camp to eat the potatoes and seek rudimentary shelter. Within the confines of his own evangelical understanding, Robinson did his best to make sense of the narrative of calamity they presented to him. He was immediately struck by the Miltonian parallel in the competing forces of the good and evil that ruled their world. It was no surprise to him the evil force of Ria Warrawah was omnipresent in the worldview of benighted souls he regarded as sunk into darkness and savagery.
Robinson held the original people of Tasmania very low in the hierarchy of creation – yet in his eyes they were not irredeemable. His self-appointed mission was to lift them from their state of ignorance. He was quick to appropriate the name Ria Warrawah to refer to the Devil, determined to show how the malevolent force that had delivered the apocalypse could be defeated by the Christian God. They must put their trust in God and, by extension, in him, George Augustus Robinson, the good father sent to save them from obliteration.
TRUGANINI WAS AT first delighted by the dress she had been given, but she did not wear it for long. Nor did she stay put at Missionary Bay. Almost immediately she was off to seek the company of white men at the whaling stations on the ocean side of the island, much to Robinson’s disgust. He was enraged by this threat to his authority from lower-order white men. In contrast to his own lofty purpose, this despised riffraff encouraged the women with gifts of flour, tea and sugar. Robinson railed that they dispensed these gifts in order to make the women ‘subservient to their carnal appetites’. His greater concern was that if the whalers provided the Nuenonne a more attractive food source then their dependence on him would be reduced, and so would raise an insurmountable barrier to his civilising mission.
A steady stream of haughty directives flowed from his pen, ordering the whalers to immediately cease their vile inducements. When this vainglorious bluster was met with scornful resistance, he attempted several times to personally recover Truganini, as well as several other women who were living with the whalers. He was insulted to his face by the men, and doubly humiliated when Truganini and her friends deliberately ran away and hid from him. The mutually exploitative association between the whalers and Nuenonne women was well established. Robinson’s moral outrage cut no ice with either group.
Ultimately, it was not the carnal appetites of the whalers that proved the insurmountable barrier to his mission. It was the influenza virus. Instead of dispensing the fruits of civilisation, Robinson found himself reduced to an impotent bystander in an apocalyptic nightmare. ‘Death hath visited with dire havoc,’ he confided to his journal on 23 September 1829, ruefully noting that only fourteen Nuenonne remained to receive the benefit of his proselytising. These traumatised survivors were slashing their faces and bodies in grief, and were in no state to heed his Christian exhortations. His evangelical commitment was sorely tested by daily burial rites, in which he was expected to participate. Traditionally, the Nuenonne burned their dead, and then collected the ashes with a relic of bone to wear as a ritual keepsake. With so few able-bodied survivors, the cremation rituals were kept to a brutal minimum. Missionary Bay became littered with charred remains – some only partly consumed by fire and subject to the ravages of the many abandoned dogs.
By October 1829, only a handful of people survived. Mangerner barely clung to life, a broken man. Some years before he had endured the murder of his first wife by renegade white men, and in the previous year a party of sealers from Kangaroo Island had forcibly abducted his two older daughters. Further disaster struck in the spring of 1829 when he took his second wife and son on a seasonal trip to his home country at Recherche Bay. There they encountered convict mutineers from the brig Cyprus, who abducted his wife and sailed away to China. Attempting to follow them in a canoe, he was blown far out to sea where his young son died. Eventually rescued by a passing whaleboat, Mangerner was returned to Bruni Island in a shocking state. His distress was compounded by the discovery that in his absence almost all of his clan had succumbed to disease, as had all but one of the Ninine people who were visiting from Port Davey under his protection. His sole remaining child was living with the white men. Before the year was out Mangerner, too, was dead.
WOOREDY WAS THE only male capable of decisive action. In this very able fellow Robinson recognised an indispensable ally, and Wooredy was in turn bound to Robinson by ties of obligation (and not just to the food and shelter he provided). After the death of his wife, Wooredy was desperate to find a new spouse, and set his sights on Mangerner’s adolescent daughter, Truganini, who plainly preferred the attention of the men at the whaling station. This was a pragmatic reality that Wooredy acknowledged, as his wife was often at the whaling station before she got sick. He insisted that Robinson secure Truganini for him, making it clear that his support was contingent on Robinson exercising authority over the whalers.
Truganini was openly disdainful of Wooredy, but she showed no such aversion to white men. She had been subjected to horrendous violence from these men throughout her sixteen years, and was surely profoundly traumatised by the experience. As a child she saw her mother murdered by a white man, and later watched the abduction of her two sisters. Her predilection to seek out white men as sexual partners, no matter how violent they might be, appears to have been a psychological adaptation to trauma that modern psychiatry would describe as Stockholm syndrome.
Wooredy was not alone in his desire for Truganini. Many men found her desirable. She was beautiful. Diminutive and fine-boned, she usually went naked with her hair close-cropped to her skull in the traditional manner, which emphasised her lively black eyes and generous mouth. Undoubtedly, Robinson was very taken with Truganini from the first time he set eyes on her, yet whatever desire he felt for her was powerfully tempered by his visceral horror of the venereal disease she had contracted. He would express righteous resentment at the sexual liberties taken by other white men, but his journals provide no suggestion that Truganini ever became his sexual partner. The role he cast for himself was even more intimate and binding than a lover – he was the good father who would protect and save her. In turn, Truganini fixed on Robinson with a fierce determination that he would be the agent of her survival.
Robinson understood that it was much to his advantage for Truganini to be partnered with Wooredy – and more haughty letters were delivered to the whaling station demanding her return. Eventually it was Mangerner who had to shoulder the humiliation of recovering his reluctant daughter from the whalers’ embrace. She would not hide from her father. Mangerner was also able to retrieve the recently widowed Pagerly, whom he took as his new wife, and a young woman known as Dray, who was the sole survivor of the Ninine visitors from the west coast. None of the women were fit to travel to Missionary Bay as they were debilitated with ‘the loathsome disorder’, Robinson recorded – probably gonorrhoea.
When Truganini did reappear in early October, Wooredy was ecstatic with gratitude, attributing her return to the awesome power of Robinson’s magic paper. Notwithstanding the encouragement of Robinson and her father, Truganini was not about to transfer her psychosexual attachment to her ageing suitor. Scornfully, she declared Wooredy to be Ria Warrawah personified and she vociferously rejected his sexual overtures with tears of rage. In no way discouraged, Wooredy vigorously renewed his attentions until she resentfully submitted, in ‘dread apprehension’, so the voyeuristic Robinson recorded, of violating the cultural norms that required her to accept a suitor who had chosen her with the support of her father.
CONFIDENT THAT HE had secured the fidelity of Wooredy, Robinson took a boat to Hobart to cajole the Governor into supporting his ambitious new plan. He was desperate to get away from the charnel ground that was Missionary Bay, and had conceived a much grander civilising mission. Inspired by the Ninine people – who had walked from the west coast to Recherche Bay and then travelled by canoe to Bruni – his plan was to lead an overland expedition to contact the various clans along the remote west coast and bring them under his protection. Dray was pining to be reunited with her Ninine kin so he could use her to guide the way, while Wooredy and Truganini had kinship connections and spoke the language so could be his intermediaries in his process of ‘conciliation’. This audacious project he called ‘the friendly mission’.
Well-satisfied, Robinson returned to Missionary Bay on the sloop Swallow on 29 January 1830. Negotiations with the Governor garnered abundant support for his friendly mission – including ample stores, approval to access additional assistance from the penal settlement at Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour, plus a supply vessel and team of five convicts to provide logistical support. In addition, the Governor released into Robinson’s custody six Indigenous men who had been languishing in gaol. Months earlier, Robinson had rejected the Governor’s request that he take these men at his mission, reporting that it would be ‘impossible to keep hold of any number of natives within a certain space…unless proper means of confinement were put into effect’. This principle of ‘proper means of confinement’ would guide his modus operandi for the next five years.
His primary objective in calling at Missionary Bay was to collect Dray, as well as Wooredy and Truganini, who were indispensible to his mission. Disturbed that they were not at his mission site, he sent the party of convicts to find and deliver them to a nearby embarkation point. The next day, four adults and two children were taken aboard the Swallow. They went willingly enough. Dray desperately wanted to be reunited with her brother and was keen to make the journey. Mangerner’s widow, Pagerly, could see more life-affirming possibilities with the Tasmanian men in Robinson’s expedition than a precarious existence with the whalers. Wooredy was looking to Robinson for his own survival and that of his two young sons, Myunge and Droyerloine. His recalcitrant young wife was unwavering in her attachment to Robinson. He was her father now, and wherever he went, Truganini would go.
Heaven only knows what sort of excursion they thought they had embarked upon as the Swallow sailed away from Bruni, heading for Recherche Bay. Since the beginning of time the Nuenonne had taken this journey in their bark canoes – nomadic treks through the south-west were part of the timeless, seasonal pattern of their traditional life. For the Nuenonne the purpose of a journey was the journey itself, a ritual interaction with the land over which they moved, recorded and re-created in stories and songs. A journey encompassed return, a completion, in accordance with the natural cycles of the environment. A journey for the purpose of reaching a destination was entirely new. Not to return would have been unthinkable.
TRUGANINI WAS BORN at Recherche Bay, and she reacted joyfully to her return to that place. Running up the beach, she gathered armfuls of the fleshy pigface that she considered a great delicacy before diving off the rocks to retrieve a feast of mussels and oysters. Playing in the creek with Pagerly and Dray, they caught a platypus. Everyone was in high spirits, except, perhaps, Wooredy. For more than forty years, he had made trips to and from this idyllic place, yet he knew it held the malevolent spirit of Ria Warrawah, embodied in the carved tree left by the French visitors. When he went hunting on the second day, Wooredy came across a decayed body of a woman that showed no sign of violence, nor any attempt at cremation. Ria Warrawah had caught her there, he was sure of it.
On viewing the body, Dray identified the woman as her kin, one of a small group of Ninine who had left Bruni months earlier to return to their own country. She must have shown evidence of the fatal illness, Dray explained, and was abandoned to die alone at Recherche Bay. Robinson was dismayed that all the Tasmanians were strangely unmoved by this apparent callousness. It was yet another display of their belief ‘that no human means can avert the doom to which they are consigned’. This stubborn fatalism about the irresistible force of Ria Warrawah deeply rankled him, even though Wooredy had given him a potent lesson in the awesome power of Ria Warrawah as they were sailing to this tranquil bay. During the trip, Wooredy identified all the land that passed before his eyes as the country of three interconnected clans – the Mellukerdee of the Huon River, the Lyluequonny of Southport and the Needwondee of Cox’s Bight – all of them gone within the span of Wooredy’s adult life. This land was empty, he explained. Nobody left.
The survivors of that same holocaust were the men accompanying the expedition at the Governor’s pleasure. There was a young man in his early twenties from the vanished Paredarerme clan from Oyster Bay named Kickerterpoller. He had been stolen from his people when he was about nine, given to a settler as a farmhand but then ran away in his youth to join in a guerrilla war before being captured in 1824. Eumarrah was the chief of the Tyerernotepanner from the Midlands, and a famous guerrilla fighter who had been captured by a roving party in 1828. Parwaretar and Trepanner were from dislocated bands in the Midlands who had been captured with Eumarrah, while Maulboyheenner, a youth of about fourteen, had been taken from the north-east corner and somehow fetched up in Hobart. Another youth named Robert did not even know his clan or real name, having been raised by settlers, but probably belonged to the Mouheneenner who had once lived around the Derwent River. Robinson had in his charge all the Indigenous men known to be living in south-east Tasmania – all seven of them.
Robinson considered the steady, reliable Wooredy to be his ‘loyal and trusted companion’, and next in line for that role was the ‘respectful and compliant’ Kickerterpoller, whose command of English and knowledge of European customs made him an ideal negotiator in Robinson’s eyes. He considered Eumarrah the third key member of his team because his status as pre-eminent chief commanded the loyalty of all the other men. All three had superb tracking skills. Eumarrah and Kickerterpoller had previously been co-opted as trackers for the roving parties sent out to capture the Indigenous people still living in the Midlands.
Mid-morning on 3 February 1830, Robinson set out with his Tasmanian guides and convict retainers to walk overland to the west coast. The sun was shining and he had great expectations. He estimated the distance to Port Davey to be about sixty miles, and that it would take them three days to cover the distance. No white man had ever attempted this trek, and nothing was known of the territory before him. Robinson had no idea what he was getting into. He was relying utterly on Dray’s desire to be reunited with her brother to get the party to the destination. She was more than anxious to get going and so, too, was Truganini, who had relatives among the Ninine. Wooredy was not so keen. He was inherently hostile toward the toogee – his collective name for people from the west coast – despite his strong cultural ties.
This enmity was shared with the other men who were aliens in this country, where they did not know the language or customs. As roving party veterans, Kickerterpoller and Eumarrah were very familiar with this kind of expedition and knew only too well the coercive, violent ways of white men. This made them suspicious of Robinson’s intentions. His expedition was not a paramilitary organisation like the roving parties. No one was openly armed, although the convicts all carried guns and the brace of pistols Robinson had hidden in his knapsack revealed to them that his mission was not so friendly. Suspicion aside, they all had reason to cleave to Robinson, at least in the short term. Instead of being confined in a fetid jail, they were at large in empty country where they could hunt freely. And no one was shooting at them.
Kickerterpoller had another reason to stick with the expedition. He wanted to be around Truganini and was angling to take her from her ageing husband. It did not take long for Kickerterpoller to observe that Wooredy was a consummate warrior. Despite his age, Wooredy was jealously protective of his status. Adroitly, Kickerterpoller transferred his amorous attentions to Pagerly – although to Robinson’s persistent disapproval, he was never satisfied with just one woman.
ANOTHER MAN WITH his eye on Truganini was the foreman of the convict support team, Alexander McKay. Technically still a convict, McKay was an experienced bushman who had assisted in survey explorations throughout the north-west of the island, where he had many interactions with Indigenous people. Instinctively, Robinson saw McKay as a rival. Even as he was forced to rely on McKay’s exemplary bush skills, he despised and distrusted the man. Robinson never found a good word to say for McKay, nor for any of the convicts. The antagonism was mutual. The convicts were openly contemptuous of him and furious that he should make them walk to the west coast rather than travel by boat.
An enduring perception had taken hold among the colonists that the south-west was a terrible place, a geographical extension of the inhuman horrors of the penal settlement at Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour. Everyone knew the stories of convicts driven beyond endurance by the cruelties of the penal system who had escaped into the hinterland never to be seen again. One convict bolter who survived his encounter with this terrible land was sustained throughout his ordeal by eating the companions he murdered. If the rigours of this hellish environment could drive a Christian white man to cannibal depravity, why would any white man willingly set foot upon it?
George Augustus Robinson was no ordinary white man. He had a hankering to venture into the heart of darkness and immerse himself in the challenges offered by the vast wilderness of the new world. The new colony at the end of the world presented him a Janus face: at once a place where he could climb the hierarchy of civilised society and at the same time a place where the modifying impact of man was barely evident. He would reason to himself that his object in plunging into in the wild was to shine the light of God into the darkness, while his wholehearted embrace of untamed nature revealed a passion for elemental experience much at odds with his evangelical posturing. All along the rugged way his steps were driven by a voracious ambition to be feted and admired by the settler elite who had showered derision upon his enterprise. He was determined to return to their small world as a conquering hero.
Walking in single file, with the convicts bringing up the rear, the party followed the creek westward for a mile or so until they reached a flat plain that stretched for many miles, promising easy walking. To everyone’s dismay, they almost immediately sank into tepid water that rose to their calves. The pretty olive- and rust-coloured grasses that stretched as far as their eyes could see were growing in a porous layer of peat that sat on a hard quartzite base, trapping the voluminous rainfall into a watery bog. For hours the party pulled their legs through marshland that at times sucked them down to their knees. Reaching higher ground, they were only slightly less dismayed to find an almost impenetrable belt of thick eucalypt scrub.
It was almost dark when a viable campsite was located beside a freshwater creek. The whole party was completely exhausted, and they had only covered eight miles. Just after dawn, Dray located ‘the native track’ that led to the south coast. The track had not been used for many months, and in places was completely swallowed up by rainforest – which meant clambering over fallen trees that were slippery with moss, and a steep descent down a cliff face where almost every step caused a cascade of small boulders. After much slipping and stumbling they finally reached the shore, where they made camp for the night just as heavy drops of rain began to fall that persisted all through the night.
At sunrise, greatly disheartened and drenched to the bone, the expedition set off once more, climbing up and over rugged country covered with dense forest, punctuated by huge outcrops of barren rock with jagged edges sharp as knives. When they reached the coast they were sweating profusely under the baking sunshine as they walked for several hours along a wide arc of squeaky, shifting sand pounded by heavy surf. Lagging a mile or two behind Robinson and his guides, the burdened convicts stumbled and cursed. That night, camped at the bottom of a deep coastal ravine, Robinson was very apprehensive. They had covered no more than twenty miles, and supplies were running dangerously low. Robinson had set a cracking pace and allowed no time for hunting. There were no people around to render assistance. Along the way they had passed many bark huts of the Needwondee, all deserted. Wooredy explained these people were snatched away by Ria Warrawah.
The fourth day involved negotiating a passage across a daunting mountain range that consisted of a series of polished quartz summits. Much of the time they progressed on hands and knees, clinging onto the wiry tufts of grass or pitiful, wind-stunted trees. Even in these dire circumstances Robinson was reaching for the sublime. After painfully hauling himself up to a bare summit, he turned back to watch the line of convicts cautiously winding single file around the mountain opposite and was swept with regret that he did not have drawing materials to capture a sight that was so very romantic. His companions were not so uplifted. After persevering all day in this unforgiving terrain without any food, the guides were at the point of total exhaustion. Truganini could barely walk. Kickerterpoller was no longer compliant, boldly remonstrating that this was not the way locals travelled. Even a roving party that moved through cleared country on level ground did not go at such a pace.
THE INDEFATIGABLE WOOREDY was the only one not prone with exhaustion. Scanning the ragged, precipitous coastline, his sharp eyes located a schooner, which looked to be the Swallow, lying offshore in a bay about six miles ahead. White men called this place Louisa Bay, but Wooredy knew it to be where the creator spirit Droemerdeener fell from the sky into the sea. Like Recherche Bay, it was once a ritual meeting place for all the clans of the south-east, and it held extensive shell middens and hidden rock paintings. Here was where his father and grandfather built the sturdy canoes they took to distant Maatsuyker Island to hunt for seals. There was no more hunting for seals on Maatsuyker. In a few short years the seal colony had been wiped out by the same rapacious white men who had stolen so many of the Nuenonne women.
Re-energised by the prospect of food, Robinson followed his guides in a headlong scramble down the mountainside, reaching Louisa Bay by late afternoon. Two hours later the shattered convicts arrived. It was by sheer chance the Swallow was not at Macquarie Harbour, where Robinson had planned to rendezvous, having been driven by strong winds back to Louisa Bay. That random chance was lifesaving.
Watching Truganini gleefully diving for crayfish, Robinson ruefully acknowledged how perilously close they had come to starvation. The rigours of the journey convinced him that he would not survive the trip to Port Davey without reliance on indigenous food supplies and local knowledge of the bush. He would have to defer to their way of doing things. ‘My greatest confidence was in the natives,’ he confided to his journal. ‘They were well acquainted with the resources of the country and would not allow me to want.’
For the next six weeks Robinson kept to the meandering, leisurely pace of the Tasmanians, for whom travel was subordinate to the requirements of hunting and gathering. He was growing increasingly frustrated at his failure to make contact with the elusive Ninine. Although evidence of their fires and their grass-covered huts were plentiful, the people kept well out of sight. Truganini and Dray knew how to find their relatives, but they were in no hurry to do so. Slyly deflecting Robinson’s pursuit, they spent their time diving for crayfish, oyster and abalone or collecting small wild plums, sweet red berries and edible roots. The men went hunting for wallaby, wild duck and an elusive animal somewhat bigger than a dog, with distinctive stripes on its back. It was a kind of hyena, Robinson thought.
As the food became more plentiful, the difficulties of the terrain got greater. Moving further westward toward Bathurst Harbour meant pushing into mountainous country covered with almost horizontal forest. Beset by mizzling rain that never let up, they were forced to crawl along precipices or wade for miles through thigh-high water. Impervious to the brutal terrain and the perpetual rain, Robinson found the experience thrilling. Camped at the base of a deep ravine on 10 March, he surveyed his situation: ‘Perpendicular cliffs, immense chasms through which the water was heard to gush with a frightful roar, mountain tops hid in the clouds, and anon the piercing wind gushing up the ravines,’ he wrote. Terrifying and profoundly uncomfortable, he found it exhilarating.
ROBINSON WAS STICKING close to his guides, sleeping around their fires and sharing their provisions of abalone, crayfish and fresh wallaby meat. The scornful convicts made camp a considerable distance away and spurned the Tasmanians’ fresh food in favour of their ‘Christian’ fodder of spoiled potatoes and salted meat. Nor did they want any part of the heathen singing and dancing that went on every night at the Tasmanians’ camp, with Robinson a fascinated participant. He listened attentively as Wooredy told of the exploits of the creator spirits who made man from the kangaroo. The stories were sung with a repeated, chanted chorus, and Robinson cleverly inserted himself into these nightly rituals by joining in the chanting. And he played his flute, which was a great hit. The Tasmanians were all having a fine time. After years of terror and harassment they were back in the bush, reviving their traditional way of life that revolved around hunting and ritual. And Mr Robinson was there to make sure the surly white men with guns were kept at a safe distance.
So began a system of mutual support and protection between Robinson and his Tasmanian guides that for Wooredy and Truganini lasted twelve years. They might not have properly comprehended Robinson’s intentions, but they understood that their relationship with him had undergone a profound change since leaving Louisa Bay. In contrast to his earlier behaviour, where his efforts had been to make them like himself, in the wilderness it seemed as if he was in the process of becoming one of them. True, he did not strip off his clothes and go hunting naked as they did, but he did share the food they caught and was at pains to make himself part of their rituals and daily activity. He watched and listened, writing up copious notes in his journal.
Wooredy took the lead in an overt effort to induct Robinson into the Tasmanians’ way of life, leading the nightly ritual re-enactments of how animal spirits formed the world, how they left their recognisable mark on the landscape and how they emerged in the form of man and other species to inhabit that landscape. In Wooredy’s spellbinding stories, and in their song and dance, the Tasmanians asserted the palpable reality of their world, as opposed to Robinson’s abstract talk of God, heaven and hell. Only Kickerterpoller, who had been baptised by settlers and taught from the Bible, was ambivalent. On one occasion he challenged Wooredy to assert that Robinson’s version of creation was the correct one, earning an angry rebuke from Truganini: ‘Where did you come from? White woman?’
This reciprocal relationship between Robinson and his Tasmanian guides had all the elements of tragedy. In his detailed accounts of their interactions, Robinson revealed a genuine interest in Tasmanian culture and an affectionate regard for the people. He slept with them, sang with them, hunted with them, learned their language and marvelled at their mental and physical adaptation to the natural world. The hideous irony was that despite the intense pleasure he took in this elemental experience, which caused his impoverished puritan spirit to soar, Robinson sought to ingratiate himself to secure their trust so he could use them to entice the remaining Indigenous population into his custody. Fancying himself as an ethnographer, he was also making a study of the curious ways of the primitive Tasmanians in the wild for the book he intended to publish. His journal entries offer not a glimmer of awareness that his travel companions might think they were in a relationship of mutual obligation.
Robinson could invest his companions with fundamental human feelings of sadness and pleasure, even affection and loyalty, but to grant them complex reasoning and intricate social relationships would have destroyed the whole rationale of his activity. The idea that Wooredy and Truganini might have regarded themselves as equal partners in his enterprise would never have entered his head.
IN THE MIDDLE of March the party reached the vast waterway of Bathurst Harbour. They had been walking for six weeks without making contact. The inhabitants of the south-west proved no more accommodating than the savage landscape, ‘fleeing before my approach as the clouds flee before a tempest’, Robinson wrote with heavy exasperation. At Bathurst Harbour he was able to make contact with the Swallow, and also to get a whaleboat to take them across the water so he could make camp at Kelly’s Basin at the head of the harbour. Crossing the water, one of the guides spotted a flag fluttering on the shore, causing Robinson to experience a surge of expectation. The flag was revealed to be a pathetic, desperate signal planted by three escaped convicts from the penitentiary at Sarah Island, many miles to the north. Their bleached skeletons, still wearing tatters of government-issue clothing, were an unsettling reminder of how inhospitable this place could be for white intruders.
Squatting on the ground to register this grim find, Wooredy suddenly pointed to smoke rising in the distance hills. The sight of smoke set Robinson’s heart racing all over again – at last the Ninine were in sight. Wooredy and Truganini set off with Dray in hot pursuit, and in the following days they made contact with the Ninine time and time again, but could persuade only two young women to come with them to meet Mr Robinson. The rest of the group simply melted away into the bush. These two women were entertained with the baubles Robinson gave to them, and were also utterly beguiled by the sound of his flute, but it took days to persuade them to take him to their hiding place. Truganini declined to go with them on yet another arduous trek, pleading exhaustion, though she may have had other reasons for staying back at the camp without her husband or her white protector.
Pushing through tough scrub, Wooredy and Robinson followed Dray and the two women for a very long way, until they reached a hidden clearing. Dray gave several loud hoots, and ten naked women emerged, with six children in tow. After some cautious discussion with Dray, they hooted to their husbands, and an equal number of men appeared, all of them standing over six feet tall, naked and carrying spears, with dead wallaby thrown over their shoulders. Wooredy told how he had walked all day to meet with them and how Robinson was constantly calling out gozee, meaning ‘make haste’, which caused great mirth. They kept repeating gozee to Robinson, then collapsing into gleeful laughter. Cautiously, they sniffed at the biscuit he offered, before handing it back, then they amused themselves stroking and prodding his pale skin and meticulously examining the blue coat he was wearing.
Robinson seemed to believe that seeing a white man was ‘an object of wonder’, yet the Ninine knew plenty about white men – and what they knew made them very wary. Dray described Robinson to them as nyrae num, by which she meant ‘good white man’, and it may have been her description that was the cause of their wonder. The pale-skinned men they knew as num were certainly not nyrae.
These ten families made an impressive group, with everyone in excellent health and high spirits. This jocular band agreed to accompany Robinson back to his camp, laughing and shouting all along the way, until they breasted the hill above Kelly’s Basin. Suddenly they stopped in their tracks and fell silent. Coming toward them were a group of white men in a boat.
Robinson was livid with anger at the curious convicts who had disobeyed his order to stay out of sight, and knew he had no hope of inducing the Ninine to take another step. Leaving Wooredy and Dray to stay with them that night, he went alone to his camp. Early next morning he anxiously climbed the same hill with Truganini and was distressed to see that the Ninine had slipped away. Wooredy and Truganini followed on their tracks for next two weeks, being led in a game of hide-and-seek, making sporadic contact with the Ninine, only to have them disappear at whim.
In pursuit of this elusive quarry, Robinson’s party was pinned to the coast. On one side was impenetrable mountainous forest, and on the other an ocean that stretched halfway across the world from Africa to smash onto the land with frightening vehemence, creating great hummocks of dun-coloured foam.
Palpably frustrated by his failure to effect ‘conciliation’ with the Indigenous population, Robinson was equally perplexed by the attitude of his guides. He was alarmed when the Tasmanian men told him they could round up the Ninine for him if only he would give them his pistols. Alternatively, his convict retainers advised that alcohol would be the most effective weapon, explaining ‘it would only be necessary to make them drunk and you could take them anywhere’. Robinson expected this kind of response from convicts, which is why he kept them from any possible contact. While he was alert to the potential antagonism from the men from other language groups, it was beyond his comprehension that Wooredy should want to capture a people to whom he was closely related. Robinson began to suspect his loyal and trusted companion could be causing the extreme wariness of the Ninine, especially when he heard Truganini warn that her husband ‘did not like toogee’.
It was a genuine shock to Robinson to realise that all his expedition team, white and black, thought the purpose of their travail in this rugged, wet and wind-ravaged landscape was to capture the Indigenous inhabitants. No one appeared to understand him when he reiterated that his friendly mission was merely to gain the confidence of the west-coast clans. Taking captives was not his intention, he insisted. To what end, his bemused companions might have wondered, if not capture and removal? What other motivation could there be for making this insane expedition through barely penetrable wilderness?
Breakthrough occurred on 25 March when two Ninine men were located hunting beside the mouth of a wide river. Seemingly oblivious to Robinson, the men enquired of Dray whether there were num in her party, meaning white men. Reassured there were no num, the hunters led the party a short way inland to reach a clearing with a fire pit. Some thirty people emerged out of the bush to extend a generous welcome. Robinson thought these people had never actually seen white men, though he could see they certainly knew about them. They had many dogs, and had somehow acquired an axe.
Well into the night the two groups of Tasmanians held an exuberant corroboree that caused the dense forest to reverberate with their pounding and chanting. The tall, stately Ninine men were superb dancers, Robinson wrote admiringly, describing them bounding from one position to another as they chanted, every part of the body in motion at the same time, even their eyes. Robinson himself did not attempt to dance, but he was persuaded to play his flute.
Not only was Robinson obliged to perform, he was also he was obliged to share his accommodation. As the temperature plummeted and heavy rain pounded the ground, several men and their dogs crawled into his tent and under his blanket. They were packed in so tightly he could barely move. If he wanted their trust, he knew he could not protest this intrusion, and he lay awake longing for the dawn.
Sunrise revealed his blanket and clothes were covered with lice. Disgusted, he stepped outside his tent to find a young woman standing guard in the pounding rain, as she had been all night. Dray told him that the woman had been put on guard to sound the alarm should he reach for the pistols in his knapsack. He was not pleased to hear that they knew about his guns, blaming his guides, thinking it was probably Truganini. Silently wishing the firearms gone, he determined never to take his guns with him on a search party.
When the wild weather cleared, the Ninine indicated they would swim across the river to move further up the coast. Against vociferous opposition from Wooredy, Robinson insisted his party must cross the river after them. None of the men, Robinson included, could swim. Straddling a narrow reed canoe, Robinson insisted that Truganini and Dray swim to push him across the river. Time and time again they were sent back for his knapsack, for his tent and for provisions. Begrudgingly, Wooredy agreed that the women could push him over on the canoe, followed by Kickerterpoller. The last to cross was Eumarrah, who had a terror of deep water.
For the next four days they stuck close to the Ninine. The Tasmanian men all went hunting together, while the women went diving off the rocks for abalone or foraging for mushrooms and wild figs. When they were not hunting, the Ninine men spent their time meticulously decorating their bodies with feathers and ochre. Every night was spent in energetic corroboree. Robinson always played his flute, and while he did not join in the dances he did submit to having his face painted. The two groups formed an amicable fellowship, except for Wooredy, who grumbled to Robinson that these savage people would spear them all, or else they would run away and leave him stranded. He pleaded with Robinson to take them captive and send them to Hobart. With evident scorn, Truganini interrupted him, telling Robinson that her husband made ‘too much talk’ because he ‘no like toogee’.
After the corroboree had concluded on the fourth night, Robinson had no visitors in his tent, and he slept well. Waking at first light, he was painfully aware that the Ninine were stealthily moving away. On seeking an explanation from Dray, he learned they were in fear of Wooredy, who had taken some of their spears. Apparently Truganini had also told them that Kickerterpoller and Eumarrah had worked with roving parties who were capturing people in the east. Despite Dray’s assurances to the contrary, they had decided everyone in the party was num and not to be trusted. Robinson’s rations were almost exhausted – and he knew he had no way to induce the Ninine to stay. It was best to let them go, he decided, to ‘shew them that my motives was pure and free of chicanery’. There would be another time.
Wooredy was having none of this high-minded talk about taking no captives, and he felt deeply humiliated by Robinson’s weakness in not asserting control over the Ninine. His vehement reaction was puzzling to Robinson, although Kickerterpoller and Eumarrah were just as resentful. As always, Robinson was oblivious to the implicit message he was giving. They were already his captives. Captivity was the new order in which they lived. It was apparent to them that even the white men he left back at Kelly’s Basin were Robinson’s captives. Why would he not capture the Ninine?
FROM THAT POINT Robinson’s daily journal entries revealed a steady deterioration in his relationship with his male guides. He feared that his trusted companion Wooredy was about to abscond, while Kickerterpoller was no longer being in any way compliant. Kickerterpoller he now thought ‘innately wicked’ for acting independently, walking off to go hunting whenever and however it suited. Eumarrah he continued to describe as a model of attentiveness for a few weeks, until he coolly gathered Trepanner and Parwaretar and took off, leaving Robinson almost apoplectic with disbelief.
The disgruntled Wooredy was despatched back to base camp at Bathurst Harbour to request Alexander McKay to bring up the convicts and all the rations. He was also instructed to give the skipper of the Swallow an order to sail to Hobart with Wooredy’s two young sons, and Maulboyheenner, who had proved physically unable to cope with the rigors of the expedition. When Wooredy returned with McKay, Robinson noticed he was ‘displeased’, but remained oblivious to the emotional impact of his decision to separate Wooredy from his children and send them to a fate he could not possibly know.
Seeing truculence rather than grief, he instructed Wooredy to go with McKay to the penal settlement on Sarah Island to get more rations. Robinson was also desperate to get the medicine he needed for the virulent skin infection he caught from a Ninine man who shared his blanket. He had applied a mixture of gunpowder and urine to the horrible rash, but that made his torment worse. Truganini was also sent with McKay. Had Robinson been aware that McKay was having a sexual relationship with Truganini, he might have kept her closer.
As long as Robinson still had Dray with him he could nurture a hope of making a successful conciliation with her people. Walking up the coast with her, they fell in with another group of Ninine who Dray knew well. Robinson was able to spend a night with them, and once again several men came to lie under his blanket. This night Robinson slept soundly, waking at dawn to find that everyone had disappeared. He was entirely alone. Dray was gone too. Thoroughly scared, he reflected that he had depended too much on Dray, ‘for which the Lord was humbling me’. Humbled indeed he was, as he struggled alone for days with his heavy pack, stumbling over razor-sharp rocks and wading through chest-high streams, fearing that at any moment he might be swept to a watery death.
Should any escaped convict have come upon Robinson at this time he would have had difficulty making out what kind of man this was. His skin blackened with a mixture of gunpowder and urine, and his eyes almost completely fused shut by disease, Robinson was half-starved, shoeless and wearing only tatters on his upper body, with two hessian bags bound with bark around his legs. Wooredy and Truganini came across him by a lucky chance, when they were returning from Sarah Island.
Despite being in pitiful shape, Robinson was determined to continue up the coast. Dray was gone for good. Wooredy was resentful and belligerent. Robinson was more than ever dependent upon Truganini, and she made an effort to entice people she saw in the distance – however, the suspicion that she had sown kept them out of reach. Wooredy managed to locate one small band, but they fled before Robinson and Truganini caught up.
A lone man remained on the hill above, anxiously watching his daughter who had leapt into the sea in terror. She was being buffeted by huge waves that were smashing against the rocky outcrop to which she clung. Over the din of the violent waves, Truganini implored the girl to come back to the nyrae num, but the girl was more afraid of Robinson than the rough sea. Plunging into the breakers, Truganini swam to the girl and pulled her back to shore, where she stood quivering in such evident terror that Robinson had to order Truganini to leave her. The very next day contact was made with this same family – a husband, wife and two children – and once again the daughter leapt into the sea to be dashed against the rocks, cutting open her breast. Truganini swam out to her one more time, but could not induce the girl to return to shore. Profoundly regretful, Robinson decided he had to leave them, as it was sadly apparent to him that they could not comprehend that a white man might appear among them ‘for the avowed purpose of doing them good’.
RESIGNED TO FAILURE, Robinson continued up to the north-west corner of Tasmania, home to the massive sheep runs of the Van Diemen’s Land Company, founded by a group of London merchants who had been granted a royal charter that claimed more than a hundred thousand hectares to raise wool. The company had been granted wonderful hunting country for their sheep, not dissimilar to Bruni Island, though wilder, with a more exposed aspect. A broad and extensive plateau of tussock grass and tea-tree copses stretched across to Cape Grim, where a majestic cliff face rose abruptly out of the sea. Along the deeply indented coast were numerous offshore islands, likewise covered with fine grasslands for game. This coastline, once the home of tens of thousands of fur seals, was now almost denuded by sealers, though still providing nesting sites for huge flocks of albatross, while the rock ledges and coves were ideal for crayfish and abalone.
For several days Robinson and his party rested at Cape Grim as guests of the VDL Company surveyor, Mr Fossey, an unusual colonist who held Robinson’s enterprise in high regard. While at Cape Grim, terrible stories were heard about the wanton killing of the local Pennemukeer people. A company shepherd blandly told Robinson how three years earlier he and three others had killed an unarmed group of about thirty who gathered to collect mutton-birds at the cape. They threw their bodies off the cliffs onto the rocks in retaliation for the Pennemukeer having similarly killed about a hundred of the company’s sheep. The shepherd explained that they had no wish to harm the blacks, except for their persistence in attacking the sheep. What was to be done, he asked Robinson, when attacked by blacks in the bush?
Confirmation of this massacre came from a Pennemukeer youth named Peevay, also known as Tunnerminnerwait, who was found living in the sealers’ camp on nearby Robbins Island. The sealers simply called him ‘Jack’. Even though the youth worked with the sealers, he suspected that they intended to kill him. He was well acquainted with the treachery and brutality of white men – he was a survivor of an ambush by sealers who killed all the men he was with and abducted seven women to Kangaroo Island. Like other survivors of the north-west, Peevay had been driven into a dependency on white men, which was fraught with apprehension. He learnt to speak English when he worked as a shepherd for the VDL Company.
Also at the camp were six Tasmanian women, all wearing ungainly dresses made of kangaroo skins, with red caps pulled down to their eyebrows. Only one woman was a local Pennemukeer – the other five had been abducted from the various clans from the east coast. They threw themselves on Truganini for the sheer joy of finding someone they could talk to. They were captives of the sealers who kept them in such brutal conditions that Robinson determined he must take them away. The sealers would not surrender the women, but they did allow Peevay to go with Robinson, to his undisguised pleasure.
Robinson was very impressed by this industrious and capable young man. He spent hours with Peevay, learning his language and personal history. Recognising a more promising dependency with Robinson than either the sealers or the VDL Company, Peevay demonstrated his loyalty by leading Robinson to his brother and three other Pennemukeer men who were his close friends. Robinson saw these four as superfluous to his mission, and without giving any proper explanation dispatched Peevay’s brother and friends to Launceston, to be forwarded to Hobart. Peevay was distraught as the ship weighed anchor, breaking into heartfelt tears as the wind filled its sails. ‘With them had fled his hopes,’ Robinson noted in his journal.
HUMAN EMOTION SHOWN by an Indigenous man was of interest to Robinson. But money interested him even more. Each of these four men was worth five pounds, thanks to the bounty on captured Tasmanians that the Governor had just introduced. Of course, he had a self-justifying rationale that the Peenemukeer were so few in number that to leave them in their country would expose them to the dangers of being shot by the sealers or by a shepherd, or otherwise speared by a hostile Tasmanian clan. Sending them into the care of the Governor was ‘the greatest act of humanity’, he reasoned. Peevay did not recognise such a great act of humanity and ran away. He was captured four days later by a roving party. It was a hard lesson for Peevay and one he learnt well. In the Launceston jail, he refused the opportunity to escape with some other captives in the hope that Robinson would free him and extend his protection once more. Robinson did just that when his exhausted party limped into Launceston a month later.
By the time they reached Launceston, Wooredy and Truganini had covered more than six hundred miles on foot. The trek had taken a physical toll. Truganini’s legs were so swollen it was difficult for her to walk, yet the indefatigable Wooredy generously carried her heavy bundle as well as his own. Their epic trek was a remarkable achievement, but the burghers of Launceston were not about to hand out any accolades. The city bristled with hostility, and Robinson’s Tasmanian guides came close to being thrown into jail with the despondent Peevay. Tasmania was now under martial law, gearing up to rid the island of what remained of the Indigenous population. The Governor decreed that every able-bodied white man, settler and convict would form a moving cordon that would be reinforced by three military regiments to drive the remaining Tasmanians into the narrow Tasman Peninsula to be captured. Robinson was appalled by the whole concept and knew it could not work. Not that anyone paid him the slightest attention.
In early October, as the Governor’s ‘Black Line’ began its cumbersome sweep southward, Robinson set off in the opposite direction into the north-east corner on his second mission. This was not to be a friendly meet-and-greet. Robinson had determined that this time he would remove all the Tasmanians they encountered, and he had organised ‘proper means of confinement’ in anticipation. A temporary holding station was to be established on Swan Island in Bass Strait, just offshore from the north-east tip of Tasmania.
Wooredy and Truganini were Robinson’s closest associates and he trusted them absolutely, just as they trusted him. Still they had no idea of Robinson’s true reason for taking them and his other guides to tramp around the north-east corner. All they knew was that being with Robinson kept them out of harm’s way and allowed them to continue living a relatively unhindered nomadic life. The open forest, grassy plains and heathland of the north-east corner had attracted no white settlers and made for ideal hunting country. Wooredy relished the opportunity to hunt the larger kangaroos that were abundant in this part of the country, while Truganini and Pagerly gathered the prized delicacies of swan eggs. Every night Kickerterpoller and Peevay vied good-naturedly with Wooredy to tell the exploits of their respective peoples. Robinson listened avidly and took notes by firelight.
IN DECEMBER 1830, the Black Line was ignominiously disbanded. Several thousand men scrambling through the bush in disorganised fashion only managed to capture one man and a boy. In the same time period Robinson and his Tasmanian guides obtained custody of twenty-seven people. Fourteen of these were women whom Robinson had extracted from sealers’ camps on various Bass Strait islands. Another twelve from the Oyster Bay region were brought in by Wooredy and Kickerterpoller – nine men and three women led by Mannalargenna, legendary chief of the Leetermairremener, the most powerful Tasmanian on the east coast.
Mannalargenna, a warrior and cleverman, was believed to be physically invincible and gifted with special ways of knowing. He had slipped through the Black Line and sought out Robinson’s guides in the hope of getting revenge on the sealers who had stolen his five daughters. Robinson led Mannalargenna to understand that he would be taken to meet the Governor to negotiate a treaty and have his daughters returned. By inventing stories about saving them from an imminent threat from the soldiers of the Black Line, he lured the chief and his band onto a boat that took them to Swan Island. He was mightily pleased with himself: ‘Here was no force, no violence, no tying of hands, no muskets, etc. I said come and they came, go and they went.’
Swan Island had the initial attraction of a deposit of high-grade ochre that the Tasmanians could use to decorate their bodies and hair, but it was no place to stay, even for a limited time. Gale-force winds blew more often than not, throwing up clouds of sand-grit that caused inflammation of the eye, plus the water was unhealthy. Wooredy was delighted to find a profusion of penguin rockeries. When he set about pulling the birds out of the holes in order to snatch the eggs from under them he found the whole island was infested with venomous tiger snakes that also liked to hunt for eggs.
Truganini hated the place. She was terrified when she stood on a tiger snake, and when she went diving for crayfish she was driven from the water by a large shark. Peevay got seriously ill. This was an ominous start to the new life Robinson envisaged for the Indigenous people of Tasmania. That first evening on Swan Island he made a note in his journal that ‘the fresh natives seemed not disposed to mirth’. All night long his sleep was disturbed by the sound of a woman wailing.
Robinson did not intend to stay long in that awful place. New Year 1831 he left Swan Island to go to Hobart to meet with the grateful Governor. Peevay was still too sick to travel, but Wooredy and Truganini went with him, as did Kickerterpoller and Pagerly. It would not have been lost on these four Tasmanians that the great Mannalargenna was left behind, effectively a captive. What they had seen on miserable Swan Island reinforced their privileged relationship with Robinson. After all, they were not made to stay in such an awful place. Robinson’s star was riding high and if honour were due to him, it was due to them as well, as partners in his enterprise.
That was not how Robinson saw their relationship. He presented himself to the Governor strictly as a one-man band, to be rewarded with a land grant of over a thousand hectares, plus a substantial salary increase that was backdated to 1829 with a handsome bonus. Belatedly he recommended a small recompense for his guides. They were given some clothing and a boat, which Robinson hired out on the Derwent River to provide an income for the purchase of unspecified ‘luxuries’.
For the next two years, Wooredy and Truganini went everywhere with Robinson. Between his missions into the bush they slept and ate at Robinson’s house in Hobart, or the house of his friend in Launceston, where they were under his protection and sheltered from white hostility. In a world turned topsy-turvy by unprecedented trauma, their mutually supportive arrangement with Robinson offered some optimism for their future life, since the time spent in the hostile environment of the towns was so brief. Not that everyone in the town was hostile. Some were curious and admiring. Thomas Bock painted a fine set of portraits in 1832, and Benjamin Duterrau also painted their portrait in 1833.
Most of the time Wooredy and Truganini spent with Robinson was engaged in nomadic treks in the bush, where their companions were always Kickerterpoller, Pagerly and Peevay. Maulboyheenner was also added as a guide since he intimately knew the country of the north-east corner. Robinson slept at their camp, ate their food and relied utterly on their bush skills. Yet he wrote about them as if their skills at reading the country and gathering food were inconsequential to his success at staying alive. Whatever evidence his eyes and ears received to the contrary, he persisted with his notion that his Tasmanian companions were children, lost without his care and guidance as their good father. Any sign of restiveness, anger or independent action was interpreted as the innate wickedness and natural belligerence of simple beings.
Robinson entirely failed to grasp that his Tasmanian companions had a quite different view of their relationship. Reading the journals I find it terribly poignant that despite a long and intimate association, neither Robinson nor his companions ever managed to comprehend the other’s motives and expectations.
An inordinate amount of time during 1831 was spent tracking a guerrilla band known to terrified settlers as the Stoney Creek people. These were a dozen or so survivors from various bands, now led by Eumarrah. He would have seen the funny side of being tracked by his old compatriots, engaging in an elaborate game that only Robinson did not understand. ‘I cannot effect anything without these people and yet I am harassed and perplexed by them,’ Robinson wrote in exasperation, detailing how his once trusted guides were driving him crazy by dawdling or hunting. In his journal, he despaired at the stupidity they showed by making unnecessary detours or casually lighting fires that would warn of their presence. He had to admit that they appeared ‘less diligent, less assiduous, less obedient’, but he resisted the idea of collusion with the enemy.
ANXIOUS THAT HE would miss out on the big reward promised for the capture of the Stoney Creek people, as well as another renegade band known as the Big River people, Robinson decided his only hope of success was to get help from Eumarrah’s great rival, Mannalargenna. The grand old man was lured into Robinson’s service by blatant deception, a promise that his people would be brought back from their enforced exile and allowed to live in their country where they could hunt as they always had done. Mannalargenna readily took the bait. After nine months on a barren offshore island, he was delighted to be back in his own country once more – but in no hurry to gratify Robinson’s desires.
A powerful spirit dwelt within Mannalargenna, communicated through a twitching muscle in his left breast. Under direction from this spirit, he led the party hither and thither for three weeks. Robinson was scornfully uneasy that he had entrusted his mission to ‘satanic delusion’, and persisted in regarding this behaviour as superstitious stupidity, although he was concerned enough to remind the chief that staying in his own country was dependant upon capturing the Stoney Creek people. Probably that message was relayed to Eumarrah, who emerged out of the bush quite unexpectedly in the company of Mannalargenna and Kickerterpoller. Eumarrah was in high spirits and extended Robinson a jovial handshake. He had come to get the same deal as Mannalargenna: an assurance that he could stay unmolested in his own country.
Eumarrah and Mannalargenna made a formidable team when their constant competition could be subordinated to their mutual enmity for the remnant Big River people. Robinson was hopeful this would work to his advantage. As it happened, the two chiefs displayed a remarkable unity of purpose: they were equally determined not to find the Big River people. Going hunting and telling stories was much more to their liking than tracking a dangerous enemy. For several months the party meandered all around the central plateau without making a single sighting.
Night after night, Wooredy competed with Eumarrah to tell the longest, most epic stories, keeping the mesmerised group awake until the morning hours. Robinson likened the experience to being trapped in The Arabian Nights. During the day the Tasmanians played and hunted, cheerfully indifferent to Robinson’s daily lectures that ‘the Governor did not want kangaroo, but wanted us to look out for the natives’, as he told them after one especially trying day of misadventures. To admit that he was being played for a fool would have undermined his cherished image of his Tasmanian companions as helpless children. Bitter frustration always gave way to solicitude for their simple-mindedness. ‘I still found that my feelings were getting the better of my understanding,’ he confessed on 7 December 1831.
On New Years Day 1832, the Big River people appeared out of the blue: sixteen men and nine women, with more than a hundred dogs. They agreed to accompany Robinson to Hobart for a meeting with the Governor to discuss their many grievances, and a week later they were paraded through the streets of Hobart with their great army of dogs for the jubilant populace. Later, they staged a spear-throwing competition on the grass under the trees at Government House, but there was no meeting with the Governor.
Instead, the Big River people, plus the Stoney Creek people (except for Eumarrah), were put on a boat and sent to the distant Flinders Island in the Bass Strait, which had replaced Swan Island as the site of permanent settlement.
The fate of the these people might have caused Eumarrah and Mannalargenna disquiet – more evidence of Robinson’s bad faith – but it could also be taken as proof of their own special standing. They were not on the boat to Flinders Island; they remained safely ensconced with Robinson. None of the guides could have known that Robinson had negotiated an appointment for himself to become the commandant at Flinders Island, and that he was to take up his position just as soon as he had cleared Tasmania of all Indigenous people.
IN APRIL 1832, Wooredy and Truganini were in Launceston preparing for a new mission to the remaining people of the north and north-west. This time Robinson’s mediators were to be Peevay, Maulboyheenner and another youth named Lacklay, originally of the Punnilepanner from Port Sorrell. Three other couples – Kickerterpoller and Pagerly; Eumarrah and Polare; Mannalargenna and Tanleboneyer – made up the Tasmanian party. They had all made a brief stopover at Flinders Island, and everyone was ill with influenza or dysentery as a result of their unhappy sojourn in that place of exile. The brief exposure to institutional life proved fatal for Eumarrah. He was dead within a fortnight, while his wife Polare died six weeks later, closely followed by Kickerterpoller, making Pagerly a widow for the third time. It was a foretaste of what was in store for the people of
The first point of contact in the north-west was Peevay’s brother Wymurick, chief of the Pennemukeer, a very impressive man who stood a good six and a half feet tall, with the same handsome, expressive face as Peevay. Wymurick had gathered around him a band of twenty-three Pennemukeer and Peerapper people from Cape Grim and West Point, and was currently engaged in a debilitating war with the Tarkiner from the Arthur River. Peevay persuaded Wymurick and his band that they should seek protection with Robinson, but it proved to be a fractious arrangement. Wooredy was forever stealing their spears, and Mannalargenna had daily skirmishes with one or another of them. All the while Robinson was feverishly hatching a plan to lure the band into custody before they disappeared, possibly taking Peevay and Lacklay with them.
By the end of the month Robinson had Wymurick and his band holed up on nearby Hunter Island, waiting to ship them into permanent exile at Flinders Island. Wymurick was reassured that when the mutton-bird season arrived, a boat would take his band to the huge rockeries on Flinders Island so they could hunt the birds. ‘I practice no deception, nor indeed have I at any time,’ Robinson told himself defensively, ‘to my having acted faithfully toward them I attribute under God my success.’
Robinson himself did not wait for the mutton-bird season. In August he took his usual guides, except for Pagerly, down the west coast looking for the Tarkiner. Mannalargenna went also, even though Robinson was thoroughly exasperated with the old man whose dire premonitions greatly unsettled the others. For his part Mannalargenna had been appalled to find that his people were still detained on Flinders Island, and was sorely disillusioned that Robinson proved impotent in dealing with the sealers. Their relationship grew increasingly tense. ‘These poor creatures imagine that I possess power to redress their grievance,’ Robinson moaned in response to the chief’s demands for action, ‘but alas I have no such power, I can only listen to their complaints and promise to enquire about it.’ Mannalargenna perfectly understood that in order to gain his assistance Robinson had boasted that he had just such powers and this present timidity did not please him one bit.
Mannalargenna’s spirit was now offering dire premonitions, in particular a vivid vision where he saw the Tarkiner killing Robinson on the banks of the Arthur River. This was the last straw for Robinson. In early September, the chief was deliberately left behind at the camp, so was not present when Robinson encountered a large group of Peternidic, Tarkiner and Ninine people. This group was very friendly to the Robinson party because it included a relative of Truganini, as well as Peevay’s sister. Robinson fell into step with them, carrying one of their children on his shoulders back to the camp near the banks of the Arthur River. Once they were all settled around the fire, Robinson was surprised to see the Tarkiner men beginning to sharpen their spears. ‘If they meant to go with me they did not require spears,’ he reflected, uneasily.
A secret warning was given to Peevay that he should keep watch that night because the Tarkiner intended to kill Robinson and his guides, except for Truganini. They wanted her for themselves. With much agitated whispering this warning was communicated to Robinson. There was also a second dire warning from Truganini’s relative. Robinson cursorily dismissed both warnings, determined he would not to be made to look a fool by Mannalargenna’s satanic delusions. That evening the corroboree was the usual inclusive, high-spirited affair, and as a mark of his confidence Robinson rolled out his blanket and prepared to go sleep, even as the dances continued. Wooredy remonstrated that Robinson must not sleep because he would be speared, but Robinson merely smiled and replied that his old friend was speaking nonsense. Wooredy snapped back: ‘You see by and by.’ With half-closed eyes, Robinson lay on his bed observing as a very tall warrior sat down at his feet and started to harden his spear in the fire. Occasionally he turned to look at Robinson ‘with a strange savage grin’.
The attack happened just as foretold in Mannalargenna’s vision. At dawn the Tarkiner warriors surrounded Robinson with raised spears while all the others disappeared into the bush. Wooredy implored Truganini to go with him, but she would not and ran instead in the opposite direction toward the river. Utterly defenceless against the Tarkiner, Robinson sprinted after her, assuming that she was intending to escape across the water. He was ‘compelled not to lose sight of this woman as I could not swim’. It was a dangerous tactic, he knew, because ‘she was the woman they were anxious to get’. She begged him to leave her and hide in the bush, telling him Wooredy and the other three were already dead and he would be next. Giving no heed to Truganini’s pleas, he feverishly gathered some buoyant pieces of wood that he bound together with his garters and begged her to swim his makeshift raft across the fast-flowing river. Faced with a stark choice, she understood that she was better served by an alliance with Robinson than with the Tarkiner. Without hesitation she dived into the water. Kicking her powerful legs, she pushed the flimsy craft against a strong current that kept threatening to roll him into the turbid water.
Mannalargenna must have been surprised when Truganini brought Robinson back to camp, dripping wet and in shock, but with no spear wounds. By next day Robinson had recovered enough to return to the river where he saw his guides standing unharmed among the towering warriors shaking their spears at him. Shouting across the breach of water, he implored the men to recover their senses and return to his care. He could tell they were inclined to remain where they were, but showed some signs of wavering. They were now faced with a dilemma. Robinson was not dead, as foretold, and they must make the choice of returning to his protective custody, or risk the precarious freedom offered by the Tarkiner.
Maulboyheenner and Lacklay had no connection to these people, and Wooredy wanted his wife back. In the end, they chose to rejoin Robinson, crossing the river on a raft. Peevay hesitated the longest. Torn by the family ties that bound him to the Tarkiner, he was also bound to Robinson, who held his brother at Hunter Island. After a long wait, Peevay gathered up Robinson’s cloak and knapsack and brought them across the river on another raft. Robinson could not help but observe that ‘if he had influence sufficient to prevent them from taking those things, he must necessarily have had influence to prevent the attack’. This was an insight he chose not to dwell upon, any more than he would reflect on Mannalargenna’s extraordinary prescience.
WOOREDY SUFFERED A terrible loss of face at Arthur River when the Tarkiner attacked and Truganini ran away from him. A dark shadow was cast over their relationship. On their return to Hunter Island, a fearsome quarrel erupted between them when Wooredy snatched up a stolen spear and swore to kill his wife. He would not be calmed, even when Mannalargenna tried to take the spear away and Robinson actually had to threaten Wooredy with a loaded gun in order to compel him to relinquish the weapon. Robinson claimed to be at a loss to know what had caused this uncharacteristic outburst, although he was well aware of Wooredy’s persistent agitation at the close proximity of the men from West Point and Cape Grim. He could see that Truganini excited a great deal of interest among the Pennemukeer and Peerapper men, just as she had among the Tarkiner. Indeed, he had overheard Mannalargenna’s wife openly reprove Truganini for ‘going with the wild blacks’.
Wooredy was close to fifty, whereas Truganini was only twenty, which gave him reason enough to fear she would desert him. There was a catastrophic scarcity of women throughout the west because the sealers had abducted nearly all the young women. This was at the core of the war between the Pennemukeer and Peerapper and the Tarkiner. A healthy young woman like Truganini was a great prize for one of these younger warriors. Wooredy may have appeared supine when a white man like McKay took sexual liberties with Truganini, but he would never submit to such a loss of status among Tasmanian men. It was lucky for him all those tall, handsome warriors were soon shipped off to Flinders Island, while he and Truganini were required for Robinson’s return mission to the west coast.
ROBINSON WANTED TO be finished with the business of conciliation and move on to become the commandant at Flinders Island. Everything he craved was embodied in his prospective title: authority, status, official recognition, a good salary and the promise of a handsome pension. All that stood between him and his just deserts were three Tasmanian bands that remained on the west coast. ‘The sooner we got them the sooner we should be done,’ he wrote on his return to Macquarie Harbour in April 1833, displaying the breathtaking moral obtuseness that was the hallmark of his previous mission to the west coast.
He found the place much as he left it, except that the fearsome penitentiary on Sarah Island was closing down and the holdings of the VDL Company had been abandoned. Colonists had concluded that this wild country was simply uninhabitable for white people. At the same time the Ninine, Peternidic and Tarkiner were well adapted to the rugged west coast, still vigorous and independent and living much as they always had done. Left alone, these tall and confident Tasmanians could have survived as a viable community. That was not Robinson’s plan for them. He, more than any colonist, understood the profound attachment the Tasmanians had to their country, yet he convinced himself that they would readily accept Flinders Island as their adopted country, even though it was necessary to use duplicity and firepower to get them to go there.
Wooredy heard no more lectures about not taking captives. When they met the Ninine again, Robinson had no qualms about exercising his authority, and the guns were no longer concealed in the knapsack. Not that it was necessary to shoot anyone. The mere display of cocked weapons by Robinson and his convict retainers proved persuasion enough to get these bewildered and distressed people to leave their country to go to some place they couldn’t even comprehend. ‘What signified firearms if God had not made them willing to go,’ Robinson reasoned, despite all the evidence that they were far from willing. Not even Dray wanted to go with him. Her husband refused to budge, stubbornly sitting down on the forest floor until Robinson brusquely ordered one of his convicts to uncover the fuse on his gun and point it. ‘I would not be trifled,’ he boasted to his journal.
The Peternidic and then the Tarkiner received the same treatment as Robinson made a ruthless sweep up the west coast. By July, Robinson was confident that no Indigenous people were at large in western Tasmania. ‘Providence had certainly crowned my labours with abundant success,’ he boasted to the commandant at Sarah Island. ‘…with me the motto veni, vidi, vici was applicable.’
Sixty-six people were removed from the west coast. Most of these captives were dispatched by ship directly to Flinders Island, but twenty-seven of the Tarkiner were taken to Sarah Island to wait for transport. Truganini and Wooredy had visited Sarah Island before on at least three occasions, when the commandant made a fuss over them, and so the grim penitentiary held no fear for them. Not so the Tarkiner. They regarded it as the lair of Ria Warrawah, a place of terror and of no return. They were utterly terrified to be penned up on the ground floor of the stone penitentiary with only a slatted wooden ceiling to separate them from the white convicts who stamped and shouted and urinated on them.
In the damp confines of this disease-ridden environment, everyone became ill. The resident doctor, incompetent and alcoholic, made matters worse by attempting to administer treatment to people who were terrified out of their wits. Convinced the doctor was Ria Warrawah trying to catch them, they shrieked and hid when he approached and sank their teeth into his hand. The warrior who led the attack at Arthur River attempted to break down the prison door and when that failed, he set it on fire. Near death, he managed to drag himself to the perimeter trying to get back to his own country.
Moved to tears by the scenes of suffering, Robinson insisted that the sick and dying be isolated in a makeshift hospital on an adjacent rocky outcrop, where another warrior plunged forty feet down the cliff to escape. Robinson blamed the doctor, he blamed the weather, and he blamed the convicts. But he steadfastly refused to admit any culpability of his own. Nor would he acknowledge the overwhelming desire of these people to return to their own country. When more than a dozen people had died, he conceded that he would have to move them to Hobart from where they would be dispatched to Flinders. So eager were the remaining Tarkiner to get away from the island of death that it scarcely mattered where they went. Waiting at the water’s edge to embark, they were so agitated with impatience that they were sobbing from fear that they might not be able to leave. Once allowed to embark, their joy was overwhelming. Within months nearly every one of them was dead.
IN FEBRUARY 1835 Robinson was able to assure the Governor that the entire Indigenous population had been removed from mainland Tasmania. Could Truganini and Wooredy have known that his ultimate triumph would bring an end to their nomadic life and their freedom? For five years they had been Robinson’s stalwart companions. As they waited at his house in Hobart they had months to ponder their future as Robinson collected his rewards, organised his finances and drafted the outline of the book he expected to publish. They and their fellow guides were now the only Tasmanians still living on the mainland, so they must have been very apprehensive. Despite the unruly and uncooperative attitude they had sometimes shown, they understood that their safety depended on Robinson and their future lay in his hands. There was talk of going with him over the sea to England, which Wooredy thought was an interesting prospect until Truganini told him they would be away from their country for a good many summers. Maybe they thought Robinson would take them back to their own country to live on his property on Bruni Island. Only one thing they could be sure about: wherever he went, they would go.
Whatever expectation of freedom Robinson had nurtured during his long association with Wooredy and Truganini, it came to nothing. At some point they understood that Robinson intended to take them to Flinders Island. On 1 October 1835, they boarded the Tamar to accompany him to his new post. They could have no illusions about what their future life would be like, having seen how very far away the island was and having heard devastating accounts of the terrible mortality there. When the Tamar landed on Flinders Island, they could look out beyond the rocky points of the bay entrance to see only the triangle of nearby Chappell Island jutting into an otherwise unbroken stretch of water. No sign at all of the land their ancestors had inhabited for forty thousand years.
As the ship sailed past the north-east coast, Mannalargenna was greatly distressed, requesting a spyglass so he could have one last look at his country. With a strip of kangaroo skin tied around his head, he paced back and forth along the deck like ‘like an emperor’, Robinson thought. Once the Tamar moved away from the outline of coast and into the Bass Strait, he solemnly cut off his long ochred hair with a piece of glass. Within weeks of arriving at Flinders Island, Mannalargenna was lowered into a hole in the crowded graveyard. Cremation fires were not permitted. There were no songs for the departed spirit of this great man, no relics of bone, no ashes for the people to remember him. His wife Tanleboneyer soon followed him into the ground.
The Pennemukeer believed the Bass Strait islands to be the islands of the dead, and Flinders must have looked like a prophecy fulfilled to Peevay. His one consolation was to be reunited with his brothers, but Wymurick died almost as soon as Peevay arrived, and his other brother was dead even before he reached the island. Truganini’s old friend Pagerly lay under the ground, hastily buried some time before, the date and reason for her death unrecorded.
THE NAME GIVEN to the settlement was Wybalenna, said to mean ‘black men’s houses’. It was like a village with cottages, chapel, hospital, tannery, bakehouse, store, cultivated gardens and military barracks, just what Robinson had envisaged for his ill-fated Bruni experiment. This was to be his domain, with the substantial commandant’s quarters as the centrepiece. ‘I was now addressed as the Commandant,’ he noted with immoderate pride. So taken was he with his new status that for weeks his journal references were to ‘the Commandant’, as if he were in awe of himself, as if the authority vested in that role differentiated that self from the self who was a participant and witness.
Creating a heroic role for himself, he arranged a plot to take place around it, constructing his journal entries to fit the story he intended to publish to a wider audience than the unappreciative colonists. His thought his time at Wybalenna would provide the culmination and fitting conclusion to his glorious achievement of saving and civilising the original Tasmanians. Robinson’s predilection to manipulate events to fit his preconceived vision was so intensified by his literary ambition that his Flinders Island journals became little more than an imaginative construct in which he fictionalised himself as the Commandant and transmogrified the Tasmanians into Christian toilers.
In keeping with his literary delusions, Robinson gave Wooredy and Truganini each a new name. Henceforth Wooredy was to be Count Alpha – possibly signifying that he was the first – while Truganini was named Lalla Rookh for the great oriental beauty celebrated in the poem by Thomas Moore. At the formal luncheon for his first Christmas at Flinders, Robinson made them his special guests. They were seated at a table with four other Tasmanians, identified only as two chiefs and their wives, all decked out in proper European clothes, which must have been an imposition on the men who didn’t like wearing clothes and usually walked about almost naked. At a separate table the commandant sat with the doctor, the catechist and the storekeeper, the military officers and their wives. The Tasmanians were presented a bottle of wine, and each was poured a glass. Robinson was pleased to observe that they ‘conducted themselves with great propriety’. One of the European party observed approvingly: ‘This…was civilisation.’
Even as Robinson provided his own admiring audience, he could not escape the despair and disintegration of the people he had sent there; the people he had professed to save and for whom he alone had responsibility. It was one thing to fantasise in his journal and to fabricate fraudulent reports for the Governor, it was quite another to contend daily with evidence of serious malnutrition and neglect. For his psychological health, it was not enough to imagine the process of civilising his Tasmanian captives, he needed it to be true. He was not so far gone in self-delusion that he could not see the awful impossibility of Wybalenna.
After burying yet another soul on Christmas Day, Robinson sat down to his journal in black despair. It was in much less self-aggrandising words that he bitterly acknowledged he had been an unwitting agent of extermination and that his new role was standing watch over an unremitting cascade of misery and death. He could do nothing but ‘weep in silence’. That was a rare day. As a matter of course, these issues of moral culpability never engaged him for more than a fleeting moment.
At Wybalenna, Wooredy found a great comfort in being reunited with his sons, Myunge and Droyerloine, who were then eleven and twelve. Still, he couldn’t hunt and there was little for him to do. Truganini was greatly dissatisfied. She was restless and bored. Robinson completely ignored them when he wasn’t creating a role-play for them.
HIS ATTENTION WAS fixed on the three young guides – Peevay, Maulboyheenner and Lacklay. Robinson was the closest to a parent these young men knew and he wanted to see them settled into respectable Christian marriages. They did as they were told when instructed to choose wives. Under his watchful eye, and in the face of fierce clan opposition, Maulboyheenner chose a Pallittorre woman from the northern Midlands, whose name was Semiramis, although Robinson called her Jenny. Peevay chose Plorenernoopner, a Poormairerner woman from the north-east coast who had escaped from the sealers, and who Robinson knew as Fanny. Lacklay chose Maytepueminer, another woman rescued from the sealers, and known as Matilda. All three couples were married according to the rites of the Church of England. There was no corroboree to celebrate, no singing, no dancing, no painting with ochre. Such heathen practices were no longer tolerated.
For the next sixteen months these newlyweds were spared the doleful experience of living at Wybalenna. They were out and about in north-west Tasmania, together with Wooredy and Truganini, ostensibly helping Robinson’s son locate the one defiant family still at large. Since George Robinson Jnr had none of his father’s authority, these four couples enjoyed a carefree reprieve, roaming about the empty country and hunting pretty much as they liked. This raised the ire of disgruntled settlers, who had thought themselves rid of this Indigenous nuisance. They returned to Wybalenna in July 1837, without any captives.
In their absence from Wybalenna, Commandant Robinson had further indulged his fantasy by embarking on a beautification program. He had the Tasmanian men cut a winding road through the tea-tree from the settlement to the landing place, reporting to the Governor that it would be called the Elysium Walk, with rustic seats and flowerpots along the verges. In describing this beautification project, Robinson made much of the willingness and aptitude of his labourers, claiming they had accomplished in hours what would have taken white men a week. Similar rapturous sentiments coloured his description of some of the fierce Big River people reaping corn as if they were born to the sickle, or the women’s sewing circle, dutifully making dresses out of sackcloth. Robinson was fictionalising his charges into the parts he had made for them, miraculously transformed from nomadic hunters into Christian serfs. The real truth was that nineteen people had died and many more were seriously ill. The returning guides, all in rude good health, presented a stark contrast that was not lost on him.
Although Flinders was larger than Swan Island, it was just as unsuitable, with the same gale-force winds and an equally unhealthy water supply. With no reliable reasonable local source of food, Wybalenna was dependent on inadequate ration supplies, which caused chronic illness from the high salt content and frequent famine when the rations so often failed to arrive. Robinson could not avoid acknowledging that the appallingly high death rate was not miraculously going to turn about. It was a grim reality that his captives understood only too well. ‘We don’t want to live here. Let us go to our own country and we can live,’ they pleaded with him. ‘Why keep us here to starve?’
FOR ALL HIS previous posturing as an antipodean Caesar, Robinson had believed that his removal of the Indigenous people of Tasmania was for their own good. He lied to them about the Governor’s humane intentions, but he did expect a measure of generosity and goodwill towards the dispossessed Tasmanians. ‘They are the lawful owners, not us,’ he wrote in a rare moment of sombre reflection. ‘We have desolated them, despoiled them of their country, the land of their forefathers, and having placed them on an isolated spot the least we ought to do is abundantly supply their wants.’ Any fool might have foreseen that as far as the self-interested colonial authorities were concerned, out of sight was out of mind.
George Augustus Robinson was more than just any fool. He had genuinely wanted to protect the Tasmanians from murderous settlers, to bring them into God’s grace and to bestow the great benefits of civilisation as he understood it. Never for a moment did he think that his beneficent God would permit that they would all die. Still, if it was the will of Providence that the Tasmanians should be no more, he reasoned, ‘How much better that they died here where they are kindly treated.’ The inescapable reality was that his new domain was just one great graveyard and he had no intention of bearing witness for the last of the Tasmanians. With renewed vigour he set his sights on a position on the Australian mainland, with the faint hope that he might be able to take any Tasmanian survivors with him.
Wooredy was able to find some compensation for the tawdry misery of their new home. Always impressed with the magical power of written language, he was keen to have his sons teach him how to write. Truganini found nothing tolerable, disdaining the sewing and cooking classes under the direction of the storekeeper’s wife. She was uncharacteristically critical of Robinson, making the curt observation that there was little point in the new houses of which he boasted since there would soon be no Tasmanians left to live in them. Peevay, Maulboyheenner and Lacklay were unruly and uncontrollable, leaving Wybalenna for weeks on end without bothering to ask his permission. Obviously these people were not going to fulfil the role of elite leadership that Robinson had envisaged for his civilisation program.
For all his annoyance, Robinson did maintain a special regard for his long-time companions, and he joined them on a five-day expedition to explore the distant parts of Flinders Island in December 1837. Revelling in the freedom and challenge of being in the bush for the first time in more than two years, he was at the same time shocked by a fundamental change in their relationship with him. Gone was their sense of mutual dependence and obligation. They treated him with total disinterest and disregard, forcing him to fend for himself for everything, even hunting for food. Not even Truganini lifted a finger to help him. ‘They had four swans, an abundance of kangaroo, ducks, teal etc. and never prepared me a morsel nor made me a shelter wherein to sleep nor made my tea nor damper bread,’ he complained sourly. He returned to Wybalenna ‘exceedingly displeased at their negligence, their careless indifference and their ingratitude’. He did not pause to consider what they might think of the negligence, indifference and ingratitude he showed towards Wooredy, who had stuck by his side with stoic resignation, or Truganini, the consistent ally who had saved his life, or the three orphan youths who had grown into adulthood in his service.
ON 22 FEBRUARY 1839 Robinson sailed away from Flinders Island bound for Port Phillip, the administrative district of New South Wales that would become the Colony of Victoria, where he had been appointed the Protector of Aborigines. After two years of protracted negotiations, the Governor of NSW remained adamant there would be no transfer of the Tasmanian survivors
to Port Phillip. Eventually worn down by Robinson’s importuning, the Governor agreed that Robinson could bring one family as his personal servants. So Wooredy with his two sons and Truganini made the crossing to Port Philip. But they were not the only Tasmanians to cross the Bass Strait. Peevay went with his wife Plorenernoopner, Lacklay with his wife Maytepueminer, and Maulboyheenner, whose wife Semiramis had died only days before, went too. Somewhere in Robinson’s narcissistic soul he felt a kind of love for these young guides with whom he had lived so intimately. He saw himself as their father and simply could not bring himself to leave them on Flinders. They were all one family to him.
He had no plans for what he could do with the Tasmanians at Port Phillip. Experience should have told him that they would be of no use as mediators in such an alien environment. Maybe he was hoping that they would somehow merge with the Indigenous clans of Victoria and absolve him of the dreadful burden of responsibility for their fate – so starkly apparent in the one hundred and five burial sites in the Wybalenna graveyard. Whatever his motivation, taking those people to Port Phillip was a tragic misjudgement.
From the moment Robinson arrived with his Tasmanian entourage it was made clear to him that the government would not provide rations and they would have to be maintained at his own expense. Here was the rub: these people were supposed to make money for him, not cost him. Wooredy went to live on a property owned by Dr James Allen, who had for years been the surgeon at Wybalenna and was now married to Robinson’s daughter. Already he was showing signs of a serious mental and physical deterioration, and Robinson had formed the opinion – on Allen’s diagnosis perhaps – that the proud old warrior was falling into a state of imbecility. That may have been the case, but equally he could have been in the late stages of syphilis. Maulboyheenner was employed as a guide on an overland expedition to South Australia. Peevay and Lacklay, with their wives, were largely left to their own devices. All the Tasmanian men were permitted to have at least one gun so they could hunt for food.
No longer concerned to give the appearance that Wooredy and Truganini were husband and wife, Robinson kept Truganini with his family in Melbourne, where she created trouble. In August 1839 Robinson had to extract her from a large encampment of displaced local clans on the edge of the Yarra River. When he left to go on a tour of the interior the following April, she took off again. It was two months before Robinson’s son located her, living with two white shepherds at Point Nepean at the every end of the Mornington Peninsula. Then she was taken to live with Assistant Protector William Thomas, at the protectorate station nearby. Also at the station was Maulboyheenner, who had just returned from the expedition to South Australia. Truganini and Maulboyheenner had been together since they were adolescents. She was now twenty-seven while he was twenty-five. It was inevitable that they would become partners.
The protectorate station was established to provide support for about one hundred and twenty displaced local Bunurong people, and there simply was not enough food. The ration supply was manifestly inadequate, and since the Tasmanians were not entitled to the government ration they were obliged to fend for themselves, although kangaroo was scarce. For several months in 1840 Truganini and Maulboyheenner were reported to be working for rations on stations around the Mornington Peninsula. At the same time Peevay and his wife were working on a station at Westernport, while Lacklay was known to be visiting various stations on the Peninsula. In late May it was understood that Lacklay had gone to Westernport, having helped himself to food, blankets, clothing and about ten pounds of buckshot from a station where he had been staying. Nothing more was heard of him until October when Assistant Protector Thomas reported the account of the ‘supposed’ death of Lacklay, drowned in a boat that capsized in a squall.
By then Robinson was exasperated with his old companions and had communicated his frustration to Governor La Trobe. ‘I told him they were no use to me and that I wished to be rid of them,’ he wrote in his journal. On 25 August 1840 he sent a formal request that they be sent back to Flinders Island.
WHAT HAD CAUSED Robinson to jettison his responsibilities in such cavalier fashion when he had gone to the trouble to bring them with him in the first place? Truth was he couldn’t handle the job in Port Phillip. He had not the first idea what he was supposed to do to provide protection for the already decimated and traumatised Port Phillip clans. Above all else he dreaded ridicule, believing, quite rightly, that the colonies were full of jeering detractors just waiting for him to falter. In the tormenting realities of the raw Port Phillip settlement, the intractable Tasmanians were proving a liability. They were the living proof of his deception, his failure.
Curiously, the Governor’s position on the Tasmanians had softened. He had received good reports of them from the settlers on the Mornington Peninsula, and he refused Robinson’s request. In December 1840 he required Robinson to deliver the Tasmanians so they could be employed. Robinson had no idea where they were. Neither did Assistant Protector Thomas. Just before Christmas they were found in a bush camp at Arthur’s Seat, where they were living with a group of local Bunurong people. They were sent to Assistant Protector Thomas with instructions that they should be put to work. By May 1941 Thomas could confirm that Truganini and Maulboyheenner were working for rations at James Horsfel’s property on the coast of Port Phillip Bay, and Peevay was working as a guide for Robinson on a six-month expedition into the western district.
In August, Peevay returned from his expedition with a plan for a more independent and sustainable life. While in Westernport he had seen a large swathe of coastal land on the eastern side of the bay where white settlement had been largely abandoned and there were no survivors of the original owners from the Yallock-balluk clan. Here was empty country of unlimited bush where they could roam and hunt unhindered, at least that was what he told his previous employer. Truganini and Maulboyheenner left their employment in early September, taking with them a gun, powder, shot and sundry clothes, so Assistant Protector Thomas reported. In a separate, undated report he noted that Maytepueminer and Plorenernoopner had left the protectorate station with the intention of going to Westernport to look for Lacklay.
For two weeks in September these five Tasmanians were camped on the station of a squatter named Robert Massie, who had a huge run along the Bass River on the eastern side of Westernport Bay. Massie deduced that they had been at someone else’s station before his, as they had arrived with tea and sugar. After a congenial stay on Massie’s run, they moved south to camp near the home of William Watson, who was employed to work a coalmine at Cape Patterson. Mrs Watson gave them tea and sugar, as well as the loan of a kettle. They stayed for four days.
Robinson was entirely unaware that his old companions were roaming around Westernport until he saw the newspaper story of 13 October 1841 reporting that three days before two whalers known as Yankee and Cook were murdered by a party of marauding natives at Cape Patterson. The culprits were soon identified by Robert Massie as Truganini, Maulboyheenner, Peevay, Maytepueminer and Plorenernoopner, although he called them Lalla, Bob, Jack, Matilda and Fanny.
This news must have come as a terrible shock to Robinson, yet he didn’t stir himself to try to find his old companions, nor did he send his sons to look for them. Even as reports flooded in about the Tasmanians brazenly robbing stations all along the eastern side of Westernport, burning huts and helping themselves to guns and ammunition, Robinson stayed in Melbourne. When a search party was formed weeks later, he refused to join.
The Tasmanians managed to elude several search parties for nearly six weeks. With the help of ‘black trackers’ they were finally captured in a blaze of gunfire in a pre-dawn raid on a camp hidden in the thick heathland of the coastal sand dunes, not far from the site of the killing. Reportedly they admitted to having committed nine robberies, shot at several white men and killed the two whalers.
Truganini was treated for a gunshot wound. She led the search party to the spot where the two men were killed, so one witness attested, apparently volunteering the information that Peevay had killed Yankee, while Maulboyheenner had mortally wounded Cook, who had begged them not to leave him to die in slow agony. To kill the injured man she and Maulboyheenner and Peevay had smashed his head with clubs made from tree roots. Other witnesses did not put the wounded Truganini at the killing site, suggesting instead that Maulboyheenner and Peevay did the talking. All agreed that the Tasmanians confessed the murders were a mistake, for which they were very remorseful. They had meant to kill William Watson.
The story that emerged from bits and pieces of wildly contradictory information provided by members of the search party and journalists, as well as evidence given to the committal hearing and the trial, was that the Tasmanians believed Watson intended to kill them. Watson claimed the Tasmanians had robbed him. At the time of the killing, he and his and his son-in-law were out searching for them to retrieve his missing property. Maulboyheenner gave a very different account. His story was that the Tasmanians were in mortal fear of Watson. He told the Reverend Joseph Orton, who visited the Tasmanians in gaol, that he had information from his previous employer, Mr Horsfel, that Watson had killed his friend Lacklay. At the committal hearing Maulboyheenner insisted that the day before the killing Watson and his partner had shot at them, and he displayed a neat bullet hole in his jacket to prove it. He and his friends had staked out Watson’s place, unaware that that a group of whalers from Cape Patterson was resting inside the hut on a break in a trek from Cape Patterson to Melbourne. When two men emerged from Watson’s hut, the Tasmanians believed it was Watson and his son-in-law, who were seeking to kill them. That was why they shot at them.
NONE OF THIS was presented as evidence at the Supreme Court trial. British courts did not recognise the validity of evidence from Indigenous people, so the Tasmanians had to remain silent. Defence counsel Redmond Barry did all the talking, except when he called Robinson as a defence witness. Robinson told the judge that Peevay and Maulboyheenner had been with him since their adolescence and had served him ‘in the most exemplary manner’. The women, Robinson claimed, were in ‘total thraldom’ to the men and could not be held responsible. He asked for leniency, especially for Truganini, who had saved his life. ‘I have never found these people wanting in humanity,’ he concluded.
Peevay and Maulboyheenner were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by the judge, who ignored the jury’s strong plea for clemency. All three women were discharged into Robinson’s custody, to his considerable annoyance.
Peevay and Maulboyheenner were executed at the first public hanging in Melbourne on 20 January 1842. More than four thousand people, at least a quarter of the population of Port Phillip, turned up to watch and jeer, conducting themselves as if they were attending a race meeting. The two travelled to the gallows in Robinson’s cart, although he did not join the throng, leaving his assistant James Dredge and Wooredy’s youngest son, now baptised as Peter Bruni, to deliver the bodies to the graveyard. Dredge later wrote that it was ‘such an affecting, appalling, disgusting, execrable scene’ as he would ever see. Even the festive crowd was not happy about the gallows malfunction and the distressful death of Maulboyheenner, who struggled wildly and was left dangling in convulsions for some minutes. The gallows worked better for Peevay. ‘He hung beautiful,’ said the executioner.
The bodies were on display for an hour before being cut down and handed over to Dredge. He and Peter Bruni took them to the graveyard where Robinson was waiting with an Anglican minister. A few pious words were spoken and a hymn was sung before the bodies were lowered into the hole and covered with dirt. Wooredy was not well enough to travel to Melbourne to say goodbye to his long-time companions, so his son was the only Tasmanian present at their death and burial. Neither Plorenernoopner nor Truganini had been permitted to visit their partners in the jail and they did not see them buried.
Truganini remained closely sequestered in Melbourne until July when she and the other Tasmanians, with the exception of Peter Bruni, were embarked on the Adelaide to return to Flinders Island. Once they were dispatched back to Flinders Island, Robinson made no comment on their exit from his life. For twelve years Wooredy and Trugannini were an important part of his life. He spent much more of his time with them than with his family, and his journal entries show that he developed a deep bond with them. Yet they simply no longer figured in his recorded thoughts. Effectively George Augustus Robinson closed his book on them.
Wooredy did not survive the trip across Bass Strait. Within sight of Flinders Island Ria Warrawah finally caught him, and he was hastily buried on Green Island. Truganini survived for another thirty-four years as a captive of the colonial government. She was living in the house of William Dandridge on 4 May 1876 when Mrs Dandridge heard her shout ‘Ria Warrawah catch me’ before lapsing into a coma. Three days later she was pronounced dead. The Nuenonne were no more.
I NEVER SAW Truganini’s skeleton on display in the Tasmanian Museum. It was removed the year I was born, the bones shoved into cardboard box in a backroom cupboard. Like all Tasmanian schoolchildren, I heard the mawkish tale of the lonely old woman in the black dress and the shell necklaces who was ‘the last Tasmanian’, but no one ever told me of my family connection. I doubt anyone knew. Or cared. When I was ten I left Tasmania and never gave it another thought.
Nearly thirty years later, I came back to the place of my ancestors. My good friend Lyndall Ryan, who had done so much to rescue the original Tasmanians from historical amnesia, told me about George Augustus Robinson’s journals, where he talked about a neighbour named Pybus. Reading Robinson turned my world around and set me to being a writer. His journals were the catalyst for my first book Community of Thieves (Heinemann) in 1991 and still, all these years later, I am trying to liberate the extraordinary stories trapped within his overweening self-regard.
It is the least I can do.