Truganina (for more detailed information on Truganini use the menu to visit our Truganini page)
It is said Truganina had five husbands but no children. She was described as being vivacious and intelligent, sagacious in council and courageous in difficulty. A lady of Hobart who knew her in 1832 described her then as being “… exquisitely formed, with small and beautifully rounded breasts. The little dress she wore was loosely thrown around her person, but always with grace and a coquettish love of display.”
Whilst much was written about her almost everything about Truganina and her life raises questions. When was she born? How was her name actually pronounced? Why did she so loyally and bravely assist Robinson gather up her kin? These questions and more surround Truganina’s life and most will never be answered, however it is a life well worth remembering for, as the last of her race, Truganina’s life is profoundly interwoven with the fate of her race.
Born on Bruny Island, the place where Europeans first made contact Tasmania’s Aborigines Truganina was involved in almost every aspect of the relationship between her people and the new comers.
Truganina’s exact year of birth is not known though some say her birth year was 1812 while others say she was born in 1803, the same year of the beginning of British settlement of Tasmania. We know for certain that her father was Mangana, one of the chiefs of the Nuenonne tribe whose territory extended from the south banks of the Derwent River down the D`entrecasteaux Channel to Port Davey. When she was only a child Truganina’s mother was stabbed to death by a European, her uncle shot by a British soldier and her sister carried off as a sex slave by sealers.
In her early teens she and her intended husband, Paraweena, and another tribesman were at Birches Bay where the three accepted a ride back to Bruny Island in a boat with two loggers. Half way across the D`entrecasteaux Channel the loggers attacked the two Aboriginal men and threw them overboard, when they grabbed the boat’s gunwales to try to climb back in the loggers chopped off their hands with hatchets and left them to drown, leaving Truganina at their mercy.
Shortly after seeing her betrothed killed Truganina married another Nuenonne man named Woureddy, who was an important man in the tribe. Despite the encroachment of British settlement Woureddy, with his two wives, continued to live his traditional lifestyle on Bruny Island.
However the British government had no interest in seeing tribal people continue their traditional life styles in immediate proximity to the expanding Hobart settlement so in March 1829 the Lt. Governor advertised for a man to “… who will take an interest in effecting an intercourse with this unfortunate race, to reside on Bruni Island, taking charge of the provisions supplied for the use of the Natives of that place.”
The man appointed to this position, and who was to have a most profound effect on Truganina, was George Robinson, later known as the Conciliator. Robinson set up his “Mission” on Bruny Island and there tried to gather up those of the Nuenonne who he cold convince to live on handouts of free food, sugar and tea. Sedentary living and British food did not agree with the Nuenonne and soon sickness and disease took the lives of some whilst others, including Truganina, preferred the food and alcohol on offer from the whaling camps only a few kilometres up the D`entrecasteaux Channel. The mission was shut down; however in the process a strange and lasting bond had formed between Truganina and Robinson.
After the failure of his Bruny Island Mission Robertson, who was being paid about twice what he would earn at his trade as a bricklayer, moved his operation to gather up the last of the Tasmanian Aborigines to the west and north coast by persuading “… them that the Europeans wished only to better their conditions, …” In this persuading he relied most heavily on Truganina and her husband.
For the next six years Truganina accompanied Robertson on his mission to bring in the remnants of the Tasmanian tribes. During that time she performed many services for Robertson. She became proficient in a number of Tasmanian languages so she could act as his translator. Decked out in ribbons and bows Truganina often acted as Robinson’s “honey trap” going out in front of the main party with a couple of other native women to lure in the Aboriginal men to a place where Robinson could communicate with them. On several occasions Truganina was directly responsible for saving Robinson’s life. When the remnant of her people were interred on Flinders Island Truganina and her new husband, Alpha, remained with Robertson to accompany him on his next mission, the pacification of the Aborigines of Victoria. In this mission Robertson was unsuccessful and he soon abandoned Truganina, Alpha and others who were part of Robinson’s party. It is reported that by 1840 five of the group that included Truganina and two other women had taken to raiding and robbing settlers. In October 1841 the two men of the group murdered two whalers who they, mistakenly, thought had sexually assaulted the three women. They were all captured, the two Tasmanian men were hung and the three women sent to Flinders Island.
On Flinders Island Truganina watched as the remnants of her race dwindled away until only 44 remained. In 1848 these few were returned to Tasmania, to Oyster Cove on the D`entrecasteaux Channel, almost directly opposite the place on Bruny Island where Robinson had set up his first “mission” 20 years earlier.
In the squalid camp at Oyster Cove Truganina remained as the last of her race died around her. Eventually only she and the much younger William Laney remained. Laney died in a Hobart hotel room in 1869. When the Oyster Cove camp was eventually closed in 1874 Truganina was taken in by the Dendridge family and lived in relative comfort in Hobart for two more years until her death in May 1876.
Whilst she lived her last years in physical comfort Truganina’s mind was troubled by the approach of her death and her fear of what would become of her body for she had seen what had happened to William Laney and so many of the remnants of her race, whose bodies were dissected and preserved as specimens and sent to museums around the world.
Traditionally the Nuenonne, with most of the other Tasmanian tribes, had cremated their dead. Truganina begged of her pastor Rev. H.D. Atkinson that her body be cremated and the ashes thrown into the deepest part of the D`entrecasteaux Channel, which Atkinson promised to do however he was away on that fateful day .
On the day she died her last request was “Please don’t let them cut me up.” She was buried in the grounds of the women’s penitentiary in Degraves Street where a two feet thick concrete slab was poured over her grave to deter grave robbers however two years later the government gave permission for her grave to be opened. The Tasmanian Museum acquired her skeleton and placed it in a display case in a public area of the Museum where it remained until 1942. From then until 1976 Truganina’s skeleton was used for “scientific purposes” then in 1976 one hundred years after her death her remains were cremated and scattered in the D`entrecasteaux Channel as she had originally wished.
Davies R. ‘On the Aborigines of V. D. Land’ Tasmanian Journal of Science II (London) 1846 Dove T. ‘Moral and Social Characteristics of the Aborigines of Tasmania’ Tasmanian Journal Vol. 1 (London) 1842 Elkin A.P. Aboriginal Men of High Degree (Rochester) 1977 Flood J.Archaeology of the Dreamtime (1999) pp. 125-127 Lloyd G.T. Thirty Three Years in Tasmania and Victoria (London) 1862 Peron F. Voyage of Discovery (1824) Roth H. Aborigines of Tasmania Smythe R. The Aborigines of Victoria with notes relating to the habits of the Natives of other parts of Australia and Tasmania Vol. 2 Melbourne (1878)
Walking To Tasmania
Until about sixty five thousand years ago there were no humans in Tasmania or on the Australian “mainland”. The first humans to arrive in Tasmania were the descendants of 'boat people' from Asia who took advantage of lower sea levels during the last Ice Age to travel across the narrow stretch of water that then separated northern Australia from what is now Indonesia. From north Australia these first boat people gradually spread across the continent until they reached Tasmania around 45,000 years ago.
Because in those days the sea levels were often 80 metres lower than present sea levels Tasmania was then part of the mainland, connected by a land bridge to Australia across what is now Bass Strait. It was by walking across Bass Strait that the first humans reached Tasmania.
Chapter Two: Ten Thousand Years on an Island: Tasmanian Aborigines after the Ice Age
When the last Ice Age ended and the sea levels rose to their present levels human migration to Tasmania ceased for nearly 10,000 years. Once the land bridge across Bass Strait was cut by the rising ocean the Tasmanians became the most isolated people on Earth and remained so for many thousands of years. Exactly how many people were trapped on Tasmania is a matter that has been long disputed amongst academics; generally a population of between 5,000 and 20,000 is the accepted range. When Europeans began to reguarly arrive on Tasmania’s shores toward the end of the 18th century the evidence suggests that the first Tasmanians had had no contact what so ever with the rest of humanity for nearly 10,000 years.
The separation of Tasmania from mainland Australia had a number of effects on the Aboriginal people living there. The rising seas caused a shrinking of the size of Tasmania, for as the sea levels rose vast swaths of coastal land were inundated. These flooded lands would have been the richest and most productive for hunting and gathering foods. As the Aboriginal tribal territories, hunting grounds and access to resources shrank the people from the different Tasmanian Aboriginal tribes would have been squeezed up against each other, producing friction and, ultimately, warfare. The shrinking of territory and food resources combined with war would also have significantly reduced population numbers.
Another effect of 10,000 years of isolation, which would later have catastrophic effects, was that the Tasmanians, cut off from the rest of the world, would have no exposure to the many infectious diseases, viral and bacterial, that regularly spread through the rest of humanity. This meant when the Europeans began arriving on Tasmania’s shores in the 1700’s the Aboriginal Tasmanians’ immune system had little or no resistance to even the most common European diseases. This lack of immunity had immediate and devastating effects on the Tasmanian Aboriginal population. If a figure of around 10,000 is accepted as the number of people in Tasmania immediately prior to European settlement, this number was reduced to less than 500 by the late 1820’s. Most of these deaths came through a combination of introduced diseases, violence and the malaise caused by territorial dispossession.
It is also worth noting that the first Europeans to report on the health of the Tasmanian Aborigines, between 1772 and 1802 noted that their general health and physical condition was good. The French scientist M. La Billardiere in 1792 noted the general excellent health of the Tasmanians saying that “… we did not see a single person who had the least trace of any disease of the skin.” By the 1820’s this had changed significantly. One British doctor stationed in Hobart noted: “… these people are subject to a disease which causes the most loathsome ulcerated sores … with its fatal consequences.”
The Flinders Island Catechist Robert Clark, who was a great friend of the Tasmanian Aborigines, reported “… I have gleaned from some of the Aborigines, now in their graves, that they were more numerous than the white people are aware of, but their numbers were very much thinned by the sudden attack of disease, which was general in the entire population … entire tribes were swept off in the course of one or two days’ illness.” The terrible consequences of the ravages of European diseases on isolated peoples who had little or no immunity has been well noted in other locations such as the Pacific Islands and in the Americas; however none of these people were anywhere near as isolated or susceptible as the first Tasmanians.
Chapter Four: Technologies
Looking at where watercraft were used and not used and the variations in design.
A Brief History of the Tasmanian Aborigines
This page is set up to give a brief overview of the history of the Tasmanian Aborigines. It relies heavily of 19th century accounts and does not attempt to deal with the complex issues that surround Tasmanian Aboriginality. In writing this short summary of Tasmanian Aboriginal history I hope to give a simple and reasonable account of how the Tasmanian Aborigines lived prior to the arrival of the Europeans and an account of the years that immediately followed European settlement of Tasmania. If you detect any inaccuracies in what I have written or have a piece of information you would like included on this page please do not hesitate to contact me so that I can consider your suggestion. To contact me simply click.
Tasmanian Aboriginal History and Culture
At the time the first humans arrived in Tasmania much of central Tasmania was covered by glaciers whilst, due to the lower sea levels, the coastline extended many kilometres further out than it does today. For example Bruny Island was not an island in those days. Because the Earth was in an Ice Age the milder temperatures near the coast would have been preferred to Tasmania’s cold interior, though there is plenty of evidence to suggest that even the presence of glaciers did not prevent the first Tasmanian Aborigines from exploring the icy interior of their new homeland. For example the ancient campsite on the Jordon River where the Brighton Bypass bridge is built was inhabited when glaciers were still growing close by.
Whilst the people who colonised Tasmania more than 45,000 years ago were the first humans to reach Tasmania they were not the last. At least several more waves of migrants, probably six or seven, would reach Tasmania before it was finally cut off from the mainland by the rising sea levels about 10,000 years ago. Each wave of new arrivals would have been linguistically, culturally and physically different to the preceding group. It is worth wondering if each new wave of migrants were seen as invaders by those who were already settled in Tasmania? Were there pitched battles between the newcomers and those who were already resident in Tasmania? Would those waves of migration account for the different tribes, languages and cultural practices that were part of pre-European Tasmania?
The Land Bridge to Tasmania during the last Ice Age
The white areas on the map above indicate the glacial areas in the Tasmanian Highlands
Tasmanian Aboriginal Tribes
Around the time of the British settlement of Tasmania, in the first decade of the 19th century, there may have been up to nine major Tasmanian Aborignal tribes, each with their own language, territories and cultural practices. These tribes inhabited every corner of Tasmania, from the freezing Central Highlands to the coastal islands such as Maria Island off the east coast and the Maatsuyker Islands several kilometres off the south west coast.
The exact number of people in each tribe is not known to history but it likely to have been at least a thousand. Tribes were made up of bands that might number from fifty to several hundred people whilst the bands were usually made up of ten, or more, smaller groups containing several families or groups of friends. These family groups lived closely together and shared the same fire and campsites. It is likely that the band was the most important social unit as each band had a name by which it was identified. For example the Big River tribe, whose territory stretched from the lands around Great Lake in the Central Highlands all the way down to the Derwent River valley, had at least twelve bands whose names were know to the British settlers and it is likely that there were yet more bands whose names were not known. It is not exactly known what political structures existed within the tribes other than that each band had a leader or “chief” and it appears that this position was not hereditary but earned. As there were significant differences in language, technologies and even physical appearance between different tribes it is likely that these tribes represented the different waves of migration from the mainland that occurred over the approximately 50,000 years humans lived in Tasmania.
Map below shows approximate location of Tasmanian Aboriginal Tribal Territories
Tasmanian Aborigines making a spear, a process that could take several days.
The ' waddy ' was both a club and a throwing stick. Usually made from a knotted tea tree root, the Tasmanian Aboriginies also hardened the wood by using fire.
Whilst the design of the tool kits of Tasmanian Aboriginal men was very simple the kit of the Tasmanian Aboriginal women demonstrated very fine and complex work. The tight weaves of their baskets and the beautiful work in their shell necklaces shows an eye for detail and beauty
The most common form of housing used by the first Tasmanians was a hut made of bark which the French scientist La Billardiere described
“… The ingenuity with which they used the bark that covered its roof excited our admiration, the heaviest rain could not penetrate it…”
However archaeological research shows that more than 20,000 years ago, when Tasmania’s climate was much colder, many sought shelter from the ice and snow in deep caves, as did humans in Europe during the same period. There is also some suggestion that huge trees were hollowed out with fire for use as shelters.
This painting of a Tasmanian Aboriginal bark hut on Bruny island, from the 1790's, is one of the few historic records of the Tasmanian Aborigines' housing. Whilst La Billardiere was very impressed by the hut's design he also noted that, on entering its confines, the huts were often infested with vermin (lice or fleas).
The Tasmanian Aborigines' bark canoes were exclusive to the tribes of the south and west of Tasmania. They varied in size and could carry from one to nine people over distances of several kilometers in the open sea, even in rough conditions. The Tasmanian canoes, or catamarans as the French called them, were extremely stable and practically unsinkable.
They were usually made from the bark of the stringy bark tree or the bark of the paper bark tree. Both of which are very bouyant.
Note the spears leaning on the canoe and the long pole laying on the ground. The pole was used to paddle the canoe.
Hunters and Gatherers
Though their numbers were small, the groups of warriors that remained free were determined to fight to the last. Well organised raiding parties descended from their wilderness hideouts to conduct continual warfare against the white settlers wherever they saw the chance. The continued disruption to the expansion of the colony exasperated the government and brought forth many suggested solutions; the most bizarre of these “final solutions” to be tried was the “Black Line”. The government decided that the entire remaining population of Tasmanian Aborigines should be gathered up to be raised “… in the scale of civilisation by placing them under the immediate control of a competent establishment, from whence they will not have it in their power to escape and molest the white inhabitants of the colony.”
In effect the intention was to intern the remnant of Tasmania’s original population on an island from which they would never leave; a number of islands were being considered.
To capture the annoying remnants of Tasmania's Aboriginal tribes a line of more than 3,000 armed men was to stretch right across the wilds of Tasmania; from the north, near Launceston, to the south, near the Tasman Peninsular. The idea was that the line should move forward, slowly forcing the Aborigines before it until they were trapped on the Tasman Peninsular where they could be rounded up, impounded, then moved to an island fastness. The Line was a logistic challenge even to the British Military however over the ensuing months proclamations were made, men were assembled, armed and provisioned then sent out to their positions. The Black Line was then gradually moved through its manoeuvres. The end result, at the massive cost of £30,000 (millions of dollars in today’s money) was the capture of just one Aborigine, the rest easily slipped through the gaps that inevitably appeared in the Line.
After the expensive failure of the “Line” the government considered a more cost effective proposal from Thomas Anstey, Esq. J.P. the magistrate of Oatlands. Anstey suggested that small, well equipped “hunting” parties of expert bushmen be sent out in pursuit of the scattered native bands. The idea was to pursue them until they were so exhausted from lack of food and rest that they would be easy to capture and bring to Hobart. Once in Hobart they would be held before being moved to a suitable island “refuge”. A reward of five pounds “for each Black captured” and brought in alive and in good condition was offered. A number of “Roving Parties” were set up foremost of which was led by John Batman, a farmer from near Launceston and later the founder of what is now Victoria.
Eventually he was employed by the government on a wage of £100 p.a., about double what he might have earned as a bricklayer. He was charged traverse Tasmania and gather up all the remnants that had evaded the hunters. His first mission was on Bruny Island but its proximity to white settlers, whalers and alcohol brought the mission to an untidy end. However on Bruny Island Robinson met a woman who would be central to his work until its completion, Truganina. Robinson convinced the teenaged Truganina that his work would be of the greatest benefit to her people and with her assistance he quickly launched himself on another “mission” to gather up the remnants of the West Coast tribe, with whom the Bruny Island people had cordial relations.
Whilst Robinson rejected violence he was not above using other dubious methods to achieve his goals such as a “honey trap” where he dressed up his female Aboriginal “converts”, amongst whom Truganina was the foremost, in “gaudy ribbons” and sent them out into the bush, ahead of him, to entice the “wild blacks” to a place where Robinson could then convince them of his good intentions. Robinson promised those he met that he would take them to splendid new hunting grounds that abounded in game and where they would never again be harassed and hunted by the whites.
After a year’s work Robinson had some considerable successes and his salary was increased to £250 p.a.
Robinson, who taught himself several Tasmanian languages, was a convincing speaker and, with his lofty promises of an improved lifestyle, he convinced a great many of the remnants to join him. Over several years he succeeded in bringing in over two hundred of the last of the original Tasmanians. For a period Robinson’s gatherings and those still being brought in by the Roving Parties were held in gaols and other locations around Hobart before being moved to several unpleasant island locations. Eventually the remnants of the remnants were gathered up and interned on Flinders Island, a place that in no way resembled the wonderful new hunting grounds that Robinson had promised them.
A government surveyor who was working on Flinders Island at the time of the new arrivals described that:
“… when they saw from shipboard the “splendid” country which they had been promised they betrayed the greatest agitation, gazing with strained eyes on the sterile shore, uttering melancholy moans and, with arms hanging at their sides, trembled with convulsive feeling”
Of the hundreds of Aborigines gathered up by the combined efforts of Robinson and the roving parties only 118 survived to be deposited on Flinders Island.
Robinson, in the meantime, had secured himself a bonus of about £1,000, an amount it would have taken him about 20 years to earn as a bricklayer, as well as land grants and the acclaim of the colonies. After unsuccessfully attempting a similar project in Victoria, Robinson retired to England where he spent his remaining years living in wealth and comfort while the Aborigines whom he had convinced to leave their ancestral homelands sickened and died on the bleak, windswept Flinders Island.
However the high opinion of the Robinson’s efforts was not shared by all colonists. In 1833 Rev. Dr. Lang expressed his opinion of the “Conciliator” thus
“…In thirty years, the period which it required, under the iron rod of Spain, to exterminate all the inhabitants of Hispaniola, the numerous tribes into which the Aborigines of Van Diemen’s Land were divided have been reduced, under the mild sway of Britain, to 118 souls imprisoned on an island in Bass’s Strait! May the Lord preserve this miserable remnant of a race so nearly extinct.”
On their island prison the combined remnants of the tribes tried to preserve some elements of their traditional lifestyle, but they continued to sicken, trapped on an island with which none of them had any connection. By October 1847 the Flinders Island band numbered only 44 and it was obvious that these too would soon be gone if no change was made.
For more than a decade the prisoners had pled to be returned to mainland. With their numbers so reduced the authorities at last decided that they be returned to Oyster Cove south of Hobart on the shores of the D`entrecasteaux Channel, south of Hobart, almost opposite site of the first “mission” camp created by Robinson nearly twenty years earlier.
The site of Oyster Cove had once been a regular camp of the Nuenonne tribe, with a good source of freshwater flowing from the surrounding hills and an outcrop of excellent stone for tool making. The Nuenonne territories had included Bruny Island and the coast from the mouth of the Derwent River to Port Davie. Truganina’s father and her husband Woureddy had both been chiefs of this tribe.
The “Black War”
With the arrival of the first Europeans in Tasmania it was almost inevitable that there would be conflict with the first Tasmanians. The use of violence in territorial disputes was already a feature of the first Tasmanian’s lives whilst the Europeans also had a long tradition of settling disputes by warfare. Tasmanian tribes regularly went to war over such things as territory and women and the Europeans would soon threaten both. As with many human societies warfare was part of the culture heritage of the first Tasmanians and male prestige was linked to success in battle. Historic records show that narrative tales of these successes were an appreciated part of the Tasmanian Aborigines' corroborees.
(A noted warrior)… bounded in fierce rage through the midst of a flaming brushwood fire, proclaiming aloud with frantic gestures his many deeds in war and the exciting chase. When he paused from sheer exhaustion the lay was taken up by his female admirers.
Whilst it is probable that there had been earlier encounters, the first historic record of conflict between the Tasmanian Aborigines and Europeans was in 1772 when Marion du Fresne landed on the east coast. It appears that there was a misunderstanding over the lighting of a fire on the beach; after lighting the fire the French party was attacked by the Aborigines, the French respond with gun fire. The end result was at least one of the Tasmanians was killed while several French were wounded.
Over the following thirty years of occasional European visits to Tasmania’s shores there were regular conflicts between the resident Tasmanian Aborigines and the new comers, it appears that these conflicts concerned either territory or women. Whilst both parties suffered some injuries during this period there were no further fatalities until the establishment of a British settlement on the shores of the Derwent in 1803. The ensuing conflict is now known as the “Risdon Massacre”. The exact cause and outcome of this conflict is still disputed. However, in short, several hundred Aborigines approached the outskirts of the settlement; they were perceived as a threat by the British and were fired on by cannon. The exact effect of the cannon’s grape shot is not known, with the number of casualties varying significantly depending on the source. We do know for certain that least one Aborigine was killed.
The Risdon conflict is generally seen to mark the beginning of what became known as the Black War. By the mid 1820’s British settlement had expanded across Tasmania with farming and livestock reaching even into the Highland Lakes District. As the “squattocracy” was taking the first Tasmanians’ territory the farm workers and stockmen were taking their women, either by force or by barter. Naturally the first Tasmanians fought back, they attacked farms and farmers, stock and stockmen, killing burning and destroying whatever they could. The Europeans responded in kind. Whilst the British had superior weapon technology that gave them an advantage on the open field of battle they were no match for the Tasmanians’ martial cunning or skill in bushcraft and knowledge of the terrain. The Tasmanian Aborigines quickly learned that open confrontation was doomed to failure so they rapidly adapted their battle tactics to a guerrilla style of warfare using stealth and ambush. For the first Tasmanians the battle was to expel the newcomers from their territories, for the Europeans the goal was extermination of the Aboriginal Tasmanians. Pursuing these goals both sides won and lost battles. And history records that both side committed atrocities.
European against Aborigine:
"A number of blacks, with women and children, were congregated in a gully near town… the men had formed themselves in a ring round a large fire while the women were cooking the evening meal of opossums and bandicoots. They were surprised by a party of soldiers who, without giving warning, fired upon them as they sat and rushing up to the scene of the slaughter found there wounded men and women…”
Aborigines against European:
“… a small farmer named Hooper, with his wife and either seven or eight young children, lived in a hut placed between two rocky hills, near a stream of fresh water. One day, some persons went to see Hooper and were surprised at not finding him or any of his children about, or at work as usual, and proceeded toward the cottage, where lying all around, frightfully mangled and full of spears, were the dead bodies of Hooper, his wife and all their children.”
In the end, it was not superior weaponry or military tactics that handed the British victory in the Black War; it was the decimation of Tasmania's Aboriginal population by introduced diseases. By the late 1820’s considerably less than 500 of the first Tasmanians survived, scattered remnants of once powerful tribes, dispossessed and decimated, yet determined to fight on against the British.
Tasmanian Aboriginal Religious Beliefs and Practices
There is little history of Tasmanian Aboriginal spiritual beliefs and practices as these were largely ignored by early recordists due to two separate prejudices predominant in those Europeans who would otherwise have noted such things. First the prevailing Christian belief that saw Aboriginal belief systems in the context of heathen practices. Secondly the growing rationalist view that such practices were an expression of ignorance and superstition. As Thomas Dove wrote in 1842 “Two customs … are still retained among them; neither bearing the slightest reference even to low and misguided religious homage”
The world view of the first Tasmanians can best be described as “shamanistic” in as much as they perceived a world in which non-physical entities, usually described as spirits, had a profound influence over affairs in the physical world. Such spirits were known to abide in various places within the landscape such as caverns, crevices and mountain tops and would move around in the night. These beings were generally of an evil disposition. Opposing these dark forces were the ghosts of departed friends and loved ones whose bones, following cremation, were often made into ornaments, such as a necklace or carried in small pouches as talismans. As with the ancient Egyptians the belief was that the physical remains of a dead person maintained a connection between them and the world of the living. There was also a pervading belief in reincarnation, that on their death they would reincarnate in some other place or body. The belief in reincarnation was also common in mainland Aboriginal tribes. The Tasmanian’s cosmology included an entity that ruled the day and was largely benevolent, though there is no indication that such an entity was seen as a supreme being as is the case in the Judaic-Christian religions. In this way their belief system may be seen as similar to those held in the Japanese Shinto “religion” or Tibetan Buddhism. (ref Elkin )
It appears, again in common with mainland Aborigines, that each band had a shaman who was responsible for the physical mental and spiritual wellbeing of his band. Of course in the 19th century such persons were called “witch doctors” and held up to ridicule as examples of the primitive nature of the Tasmanian, while in modern times their value and power has become an area of great academic interest. Certainly there are stories that indicate the Tasmanian shamans had interesting powers. James Kelly, who circumnavigated Tasmania in 1816, gives us this description of a shaman of the North West Tribe that he encountered on his Journey.
Insert Kelly’s narrative
Whilst George Backhouse recalls how he witnessed a Tasmanian Aborigine predict the exact moment of his death:
"A man who was ill at the time stated that he would die when the sun went down and requested the other men to bring wood and build a pyre to cremate his body when his death occurred. While the work was going forward he rested against some logs that were to form part of of the pyre, to watch them execute the work. He became worse as the day progressed and died before the night."
Music and Dancing
The Tasmanian Aborigines had a rich culture of music and dance. George Hull, an early settler of the Launceston area recalls:
I think it was in 1824 or 25 that some ten or twelve natives (all women) appeared on the west bank of the Tamar… They sang, all joining in concert, and with the sweetest harmony, the notes not more than thirds. They began, say, in D and E, but swelling sweetly from note to note, and so gradually that it was a mere continuation of harmony – very melancholy, it is true.
Again and again, when a musically knowledgeable European heard the first Tasmanians singing, they were impressed by the sophistication and skill of the singing, which was often accompanied by drumming with sticks or hands on rolled kangaroo skins. Such singing, with associated dances, was part of the cycle of corroborees that would occur on every full moon, as well as other times, often lasting many hours, even to dawn. As well as complex songs and dances involving many people, individual performers would sing animated and emotive ballads of particular events such as successful hunts or deeds in battle.
The nature and subject of Tasmanian dance was expressive of the relationship of the people with their island world. For example the emu dance where the movements of the emu were imitated or the lightning and thunder dance where the roll of thunder was imitated by the rapid pounding of the feet on the dry earth. The fluid and adaptive nature of the Tasmanian Aboriginal culture is shown by the fact that by the 1820’s they had included into their repertoire the horse and carriage dance whilst ballads concerning battles with whites had become the most popular performances.
The image above was painted by Glover who wittnessed many such 'dance parties' in Tasmania.
The three preferred weapons, both for hunting and fighting, were the spear; the waddy and the throwing stone.
The design of the Tasmanian spear was again an exercise in functional simplicity, a thin straight tea tree branch three to four metres long with one end hardened in the fire and then sharpened with a stone knife. Considerable effort went into selecting the perfect branches for spear making. Once cut they were carefully straightened by gently heating the wood and bending it between the teeth and arms until it was straight. After straightening and sharpening, the spear was polished and given a coating of grease so that it looked as though it had been varnished. These spears could be thrown with deadly accuracy over 40 metres. Tea tree wood becomes extremely hard given this treatment.
There were two more weapons in the early Tasmanian armoury, the waddy and the stone. The waddy was essentially a club that could also be thrown. It was a short, thick stick 60 to 70 cm long, slightly thicker at one end with a notched handle. The waddy was used in battle and also to kill larger animals such as seals.
The last weapon was the thrown stone, whilst this might seem beneath mentioning as a weapon the first Tasmanians could throw stones very accurately over extreme distance. Baudin, in 1802, notes that a group of Tasmanians on the shore, which was out of range of his gun, was able to throw rocks at his boat “… although they were a long way off.”
There are interesting comparisons between the design of the watercraft of the southern Tasmanian tribes and those of ancient Egypt, Sumer and the swamp dwelling residents of southern Iraq. These vessels also contrast with watercraft of the mainland Aborigines. Also important is the seaworthiness of the Tasmanian Aboriginal canoe as compared with lake and river canoes of the mainland tribes.
In common with mainland Aborigines the Tasmanians used every effort to keep a fire going by carrying fire with them on their travels, even to the point of carrying it on the decks of their bark canoes when they visited outlying islands such as the Maatsuykers. However if the fire should fail for some reason, such as heavy rain, they were able to use the friction method to create a fresh fire. The most common version of this was to place the pointed end of a stick into a notch cut in a dry piece of wood and then to spin the stick rapidly with a rubbing action of the hands. This created a smouldering heat which was then fed with dry grass and blown to achieve a flame. (Insert Roth Image p.82)
Bags, Baskets, Pouches, Rope and String
String and rope was an important part of the first Tasmanians’ daily life and was always carried with them as they travelled their seasonal routes. String was used for making baskets, water buckets and sewing skins together. In the south and west string was also used for making the beautiful bark canoes that were used to travel around the coast. Strong, triple stranded grass rope about 3 cm thick, made in lengths of approximately 3 metres, was used for climbing trees to catch possums and to raid bird’s nests.
(Insert Robinson Image)
It is interesting that the fine basketwork made by the Tasmanians were essentially the same as that of the Ainu, the indigenous peoples of Japan as well as certain groups on the Australian mainland.
Immediately prior to the arrival of humans from Europe the technologies used by the Tasmanians were simple but effective. Cutting tools such as knives and axes were created from types of rock that would give a very sharp, strong and durable edge. Such rocks, like agate, only existed in specific locations within each tribe’s territory and were a valuable resource. Stone tools, and the quarries they were obtained from, can be found all over Tasmania, from the heights of the Central Highlands to the shores of the D`entrecasteaux Channel; a testament to just how extensively the first Tasmanians were connected with their island. Stone knives were used for such work as skinning animals, sharpening spears and making cords from strips of animal skin. Stone axes were used for things like cutting climbing notches in tree trunks and cutting bark for constructing canoes
Art, Music and Entertainment
Food and Diet
The diet of the first Tasmanians was determined by their territory; if a tribe lived on the coast then shellfish such as mussels, oysters and abalone made up a large portion of their diet whilst, in the season, lobsters, mutton birds and seals were favoured. If they lived inland then kangaroo, possum and bandicoot featured prominently. Besides these obvious sources of meat the Tasmanian Aborigines exploited a wide range of vegetable foods including edible seaweeds, roots, fungi, seeds and seedpods as well as the hearts of fern and grass trees. With the exception of hunting which involved the use of the spear or the waddy it appears that all other food groups were gathered by the women. Interestingly, although abundant, scaled fish were never eaten. The reason for this is not known.
In common with mainland Aborigines certain groups had taboos on certain foods, for example one group might be prohibited from eating the female possum whilst for another group the male possum was taboo.
Although Tasmanian Aboriginal drawings and paintings were noted by the earlier European visitors to Tasmania little remains of those artworks because the material upon which they were drawn or painted was usually bark. An example of abstract bark drawing was copied by the French artist Petit from an Aboriginal burial site on the South East coast in 1802 whilst there are numerous reports of drawings on the bark of huts depicting various scenes such as the hunt and battles. A number of ancient cave paintings are also known, these were mostly sprayed ochre hand outlines contemporary with and similar to those produced in Europe fifteen to twenty thousand years ago.
The art form most commonly recorded was the decorative scarring with which both men and women were adorned. There can be no doubt that these patterns of raised scars were associated with some form of ritual passage as it was noted in numerous sources that the scars were not present on the young, below about 15 years of age.
Decorative face and body painting using charcoal and ochre was also common. Peron notes in his account of his meeting with the daughter of a Port Cygnet family
Oure Oure acquainted us for the first time with the nature of face paint in these regions… taking some charcoal she crushed it into a fine powder; then … rubbing it first on her forehead and next on her cheeks, she turned herself … black in an instant.
Such face and body painting included decorating the face and body with a range of patterns and colours using combinations of charcoal and different coloured ochres mixed with fat.
Perhaps the most famous cosmetic practice of the first Tasmanians was the men’s use of a mixture of red ochre and fat in their hair to create the iconic “rat tail” hair style seen in early pictures of Tasmanian men. Women wore their hair shorn very short however it was relatively common for them to wear a headband of fur or string or a necklace made of the beautifully coloured Elenchus shell. These shells were polished with sand to remove the dull outer crust and then, to bring out the colour, they were oiled with penguin or mutton bird fat. As part of this process the shells were individually punctured and then strung on a fine thread made from the long tail sinews of the kangaroo. Such necklaces were often over two metres long and could consist of more than 500 shells. Flowers and feathers were also used as adornments.
The combination of the roving parties and the five pound bounty resulted in a steady stream of captives being brought to Hobart; however the bulk of them were exhausted women and children; the warriors were more difficult to catch.
While the roving parties hunted down small groups, those who evaded capture continued their war against the British. Meanwhile amongst the British the more liberal were appalled by the violent processes being employed to solve the “black problem”. They called for a more humane and conciliatory approach; foremost of these was the devout Wesleyan bricklayer, George Augustus Robinson, later known as the Conciliator.
Robinson argued that reason and compassion would win where force of arms had failed.