Audio Files

Transcript of 'Truganini, bushranger'

Newspaper: Intelligence reached town yesterday of a horrible outrage committed at the Coal Mining Company's station at Cape Patterson by two of the Van Diemen's Land Blacks ...

Shirley Westaway: The first I knew of Truganini in Victoria was when I found she was a member of a party where one of our ancestors had been wounded.

James Boyce: I don't know why Truganini pursued the acts of resistance that she did at Port Phillip, but you don't see your family members being killed before your eyes, you don't see a whole way of life ravaged, your community broken up without a massive effect on you.

Lyndall Ryan: We have to remember that Melbourne is pretty well surrounded by a war zone by the early 1840s. The colonists could not be trusted to leave the Aborigines in peace.

Newspaper: The warrants for the execution of the Van Diemen's Land Blacks, now in jail under sentence of death for the crime of murder, have arrived by the...

Lyndall Ryan: Isn't it extraordinary, the first hangings in Victoria are two Tasmanian Aborigines.

James Boyce: When we talk about them as political actors, when we talk about them as creating their own destiny, not just as victims, we need to do it remembering the reality of the options they had before them. And most of the time they don't have any options.

Lyndall Ryan: If Truganini had been convicted she would have been the first woman to have been hanged in Victoria.

Greg Lehman: I see her as representing a beginning, because the women of her generation, they were the beginning of the new Tasmanian Aboriginal world.

Michael Shirrefs: Like many people of my generation growing up in the 1960s and '70s, my knowledge of a person called Truganini began and ended with a single photo, the image of an old woman, with the caption 'Last of the full-blood Tasmanian Aborigines'.

It said nothing of who she was, why she was the last, what happened to her, what happened to the others, in fact it left everything up to the imagination. And while I felt a certain pity for this woman with the defiant stare, without any more information I was left to assume, and I assumed that Truganini was a passive victim.

We now know that labelling Truganini as the last of her people was, at best, deeply misleading and simplistic, because the descendents of these Tasmanian Aborigines continued, not on their tribal lands, but mostly on the islands to the north of Tasmania in Bass Straight. And thanks to a great many researchers and historians, we also have a much clearer picture of the extraordinary role that Truganini played in the unfolding drama of 19th century Van Diemen's Land.

But even finding all that about Truganini didn't prepare me for the discovery that she had travelled to Port Phillip—site of the present-day Melbourne—and that she'd eventually run off to an area of Victoria that I know well, where she became a bushranger, an outlaw. Suddenly the two-dimensional passive victim had become a three-dimensional, complex and very real human being. And suddenly, she was in my world, my landscape.

But to understand how she got here we need to know where she came from. Her story starts on Bruny Island, just south of Hobart.

Beverley Davis: I'm Beverley Davis and I've been on Bruny for about 35 years, and I'm the coordinator of the historical society. And with my husband's family's background, the Davises, who've been here since the first...well, they were the first family to settle on Bruny Island in 1824, certainly one of the major subjects that I got really involved in was the Aboriginal occupation before settlement on Bruny, in particular for Truganini who was born on Bruny in 1812 which was after there were already things happening as in woodcutters and explorers had been and gone with her forebears and interaction, and she would have heard all these stories. So she had a foot in both worlds because she could really communicate with everyone.

Michael Shirrefs: James Boyce is an historian based in Hobart, and he's the author of a book called Van Diemen's Land.

James Boyce: The context in which Truganini is born is after the British have arrived, and the Bruny Island people have already had long experience with Europeans, longer experience with Europeans than almost any other Aboriginal people on the Australian continent. Adventure Bay on Bruny Island has been a refuge for whalers and South Sea explorers going back to the 1770s. And the numbers that are coming, it's not just...most people are familiar with the French explorers and the most famous of the British explorers like Captain Cook, but they're only the minority of the visitors. The largest number of visitors are the South Sea whalers. Many of them are American, particularly to Adventure Bay where ships would call in for fresh food, for fuel, for timber, for fresh water, just for rest, safe anchorage time out. And it was a well-known place of refuge. So the Bruny Island people are pretty European savvy, but around the time Truganini is born it's moving into a much darker phase.

Beverley Davis: By the time George Augustus Robinson came to the island in 1829 he had contact with Truganini as one of the first people to see at the little ration station they'd set up to attract the Aborigines to be somewhere they could find them when they came here. And certainly by then she was a teenager and very attuned to her surroundings and knew all the tricks of the trade with finding where the food was and gathering eggs and certainly diving and swimming for the shellfish.

Lyndall Ryan: I'm Lyndall Ryan, I'm an historian, and I've written a book called The Aboriginal Tasmanians. Truganini was 18 when she met Robinson on Bruny Island in 1829. She was living with a whaling community...there was a whalers camp at Adventure Bay. And the first Aboriginal person that Robinson met on Bruny Island was Woorraddy and his wife died and one of his children died and he was very keen to get a new partner, and he mentioned to Robinson that there was this woman that he was very interested in and her name was Truganini.

So Robinson went to the whalers camp and encouraged Truganini and a couple of the other Aboriginal women to some to his new camp that he was setting up, and he kind of arranged for Woorraddy to take Truganini on board. So in a sense Robinson was playing a paternal role in trying to consolidate his friendship with Woorraddy who was the most important Aboriginal person for Robinson at that stage.

So when Robinson decides that he really needs to go over to the west coast to meet other Aborigines, he gets the idea from Woorraddy and Truganini. They both have relatives around the south-west and the west of the island, and a group of people from Port Davey visited Bruny Island during the winter of 1829 but they became ill and many of them died. But Robinson realised that this was a way forward to make contact with Aborigines on the other side of the frontier, and that Truganini and Woorraddy were going to be key people in performing diplomatic service to make contact with these people on the other side of the frontier. And they remain with Robinson for the next four to five years while he performs this extraordinary task.

Michael Shirrefs: These expeditions became known as the Friendly Missions, and they were George Augustus Robinson's antidote to the escalating war being waged by settlers, convicts and the military against the indigenous people of Van Diemen's Land.

James Boyce: Truganini decides to join Robinson, along with a number of other Aborigines, partly to...presumably because the number of options are getting even less...almost all her own people are dead by this time, either been killed or died from disease. There is some evidence from what she said later in life that she did believe that this was the last chance to save her people. She had very few options, and she can either stay on Bruny Island which is being overrun by a vagabond collection of whites and all the brutality that went with that, or she can go with Robinson. And Robinson was a friendly...someone who treated her with some degree of respect.

And that first expedition of nine months right up through the west coast, an extraordinary journey that we know about through Robinson's own journal, is a journey of peace. There's no attempt to remove or deceive Aboriginal people, they just meet with them and talk with them, and relationships and trust are formed, and presumably a degree of relationship and trust is formed between Truganini and Robinson.

Lyndall Ryan: And certainly Truganini saves Robinson's life in 1832 when he's stranded at the Arthur River on the wrong side of the river and Aborigines are throwing spears at him and she ferries him across the turbulent Arthur River on a raft and gets him safely to the other side. And it's really this story that gets into the Hobart press that brings Truganini into the public world in Tasmania, and it's from that moment we begin to get the first drawings of Truganini that are made by Benjamin Duterrau and then later by Thomas Bock. So from that moment Truganini kind of enters colonial history in Tasmania through this extraordinary act of saving Robinson's life, and it's from that moment that, in a sense, the colonial public takes an interest in Truganini. Who is this beautiful young woman? What is she doing? How did she save his life? And what is going to happen to her next?

James Boyce: That first expedition has no outcome, but what happens is we have the Black Line then, and the whole fighting escalated to another degree. And some Aborigines of the settled districts in Robinson's subsequent expeditions agree to temporary (it's clearly temporary) removal until the fighting abates. But the real tragedy is the fighting ceases then in the new year of January 1832, ceases virtually altogether, and only about a third to a quarter of the Aborigines removed by Robinson had been removed at that time.

And then the clearances of the west coast began, this area of still intact Aboriginal Tasmania, even though the British didn't want the land and didn't want the resources. In the area that they were evacuating from, the few sheep that were there were being pulled out because it was too wet. Macquarie Harbour, the main British settlement there, the penal station, was being closed because it was too remote. So the British were pulling out, and at the same time Robinson and Arthur decided on this terrible policy of removing every single last Aborigine from the island, whether they'd been engaged in fighting the British or not, whether they were any threat to the British or not.

They wanted an island...the mainland of Van Dieman's Land to be free of every last one. And Robinson is put on this awful know, suggests this awful contract and it's agreed to, where he gets this massive bonus if he clears every last person, there's not one left. It's a shocking crime in the annals any standards, in the British Empire in the 19th century.

Lyndall Ryan: We have to remember that Arthur ordered Robinson to go and bring in the groups on the west coast in 1832, 1833 and 1834. And while James Boyce argues that this was a form of ethnic cleansing...a view that I don't necessarily agree with because they believed that to leave the Aborigines there, they would simply be killed by the settlers who were completely uncontrollable. They'd be killed by sealers, by whalers, by escaped convicts, by stockkeepers. In other words, the colonists could not be trusted to leave the Aborigines in peace, and that if they did not take the opportunity to bring in the rest of the Aborigines, even if a number would die from disease, it was better that they died in the arms of God than being killed out there on the frontier by the colonists. And we have to remember, that was what drove Robinson.

So when they get to Flinders Island, when the Friendly Mission is finally over by early 1835 and the remaining Aborigines are all on Flinders Island...when I say 'all', by that stage there's about 160 I think and they're rapidly dying, it's a shocking story. Truganini is very smart; she realises very quickly that life on Flinders Island is not going to see her survival. She's quite critical of Robinson on Flinders Island, she's complaining that everyone is dying and he's not delivering the future that she believed he had promised them. Robinson feels quite beholden to Truganini and Woorraddy, they're the key people whom he listened to most, because the other leaders who have already died, Mannalargenna died almost as soon as they arrived on Flinders Island.

So Woorraddy and Truganini are pretty important to Robinson to make him realise that he's got to save these people, he's got to do something more with them. And almost as soon as he arrives on Flinders Island he's trying to find ways to get them off. His view is that if he could take them across to the new settlement at Port Phillip where he is about to be appointed Chief Protector of the Aborigines, then maybe the remaining Tasmanian Aborigines might survive a bit longer. That doesn't really happen. But when Robinson does go across to Port Phillip he is allowed to take Truganini and Woorraddy and a number of other Aborigines who'd been part of the Friendly Mission. I think there were about 13 or 14 altogether who go across to Port Phillip with him.

Peter Christiansen: My name is Peter Christiansen, I'm an historian, and my area of interest is the Aboriginal protectorate era in the Port Phillip region. Once they get to Port Phillip it's a bit of a different scenario. There's not that much for the Tasmanian people to do. So Robinson, having managed to convince the authorities to bring these people across, loses interest in them, I think partly because he can't find a role for them and also the independence. The Tasmanian Aborigines are able to negotiate a settlement of friendship with the Kulin peoples, the clans of the Port Phillip region.

The Kulin would not welcome enemy strangers from outside their borders, but the Tasmanians are obviously seen as not a threat, and perhaps because of their skills as negotiators know how to make friendships with other Aboriginal clans that they hadn't previous met. And this means that the Tasmanians have a degree of freedom moving in and around the Yarra Valley, down the Mornington Peninsula and into Western Port, which could only have been given if they had the friendship of the local Aboriginal people.

Lyndall Ryan: Unlike many other historians, I don't think that Truganini had a particularly close relationship with Robinson. She placed Robinson in a position where he had obligations to her rather than she having obligations to him. I think she saw him as a father figure who was expected to deliver, and when he ceased to deliver she looked around for other ways to survive. She formed close connections with other younger Tasmanian Aborigines, particularly the two men Pevay [Jack] and Timmy [Bob] who were definitely very bold, brave young warriors. And with two other women, Fanny and Matilda, they kind of form quite a group of young Tasmanian Aborigines who are determined to kind of make lives for themselves.

So when they finally abandon Robinson's home in Melbourne, I'm very firmly of the view they were very purposeful in going to the Western Port area because it was there that they believed there was a whaling camp, and I think that Truganini believed there were whalers there who had abducted her sister ten years before. In a sense she was looking for her sister, and she may have identified one of the whalers who had abducted her sister. And what happened next, in my view, was retribution for that abduction a decade earlier.

Peter Christiansen: In October 1841 the Tasmanians turned bush ranger. They travel to Cape Patterson, they attack a miner's cottage. They then encounter a number of runaway sailors and kill two of them. Prior to this the Tasmanians had visited the area and scouted it quite thoroughly. They had been duck hunting in this region, they knew the trails. So there's an element one can see almost perhaps of planning here. This area was a fair distance from Melbourne, it would be difficult to track them, and the settlers, the coal miners at Cape Patterson were quite isolated, so the actions of the Tasmanians seemed to be to a degree premeditated.

Newspaper: Port Philip Patriot, Thursday 14th October, 1841.
Intelligence reached town yesterday of a horrible outrage committed at the Coal Mining Company's station at Cape Patterson by two of the Van Diemen's Land Aborigines, named Bob and Jack, brought over here by Mr Robinson, the Chief Protector of Aborigines.

Peter Christiansen: Word of the outrages at Western Port is taken back to Melbourne, and Lieutenant Governor La Trobe organises a police party to go in search of the Tasmanians.

Reading: Ensign Rawson, Sunday October 10th, 1841.
Mr Powlett, Commissioner for Crown Lands, with two policemen arrived at about five o'clock. Pick up a large party consisting of two coal miners and their wives and four whalers from Massie and Anderson's in a boat with the intelligence of the murder of two of their party...

Peter Christiansen: There's an isolated settlement at Cape Patterson where William Watson and his wife and daughter and son-in-law are living. The Tasmanians wait for the men to go off to work and then they approach the hut, they intimidate the women and they start ransacking the contents. Truganini approaches Mrs Watson and her daughter and she convinces them to leave the hut. She bends down and one of her companions also bends down and gets the white women to climb on their backs so they can ferry them across a nearby creek to safety. Jack and Bob continue ransacking the hut and then burn it to the ground. When William Watson returns he's outraged, and of course the Tasmanians are now on high alert because they realise that there's a chance that Watson would shoot them if he sees them.

After the incident with the coal miner Watson, the Tasmanians encounter a group of runaway sailors and I believe that they assumed that these are other coal miners possibly hunting them. They attack two of these sailors, they shoot them. One dies through a bullet through the head, another falls to the ground with a chest wound, and Truganini helps finish him off with a blow from a wooden club.

Reading: George Augustus Robinson, Thursday 14th October, 1841.
Received letter from His Honour of the murder of two white men by two Van Diemen's Land natives.

Reading: Ensign Rawson, Wednesday October 13th, 1841.
Left in the bush...called in, pausing at the old government settlement where there was a station some 18 years ago. A Mr Westaway had been located here for a few days. He had pitched a tent...

Shirley Westaway: I'm Shirley Westaway, a local historian in South Gippsland. The first I knew of Truganini in Victoria was when I found she was a member of a party where one of our ancestors had been wounded.

Reading: ...we went with him to his tent where, to his astonishment, he found it had been robbed of everything, even though he had never been out of sight of it.

Shirley Westaway: The attack on George occurred after he discovered that arms and other property had been stolen from his store and as he went to search for them, he and Bates were both shot.

Peter Christiansen: This second incident with shots being fired at Europeans only heightened the concern and fear that the authorities and the settlers had about the Tasmanians and what they might do in the Western Port, Cape Patterson region.

Newspaper: A party of the Border Police, accompanied by Mr Thomas, the Assistant Protector, and several settlers with a party of natives...

Reading: William Thomas, Thursday 27th October, 1841.
Chief Protector gives me order to wait on Commissioner of Crown Lands and make arrangements to proceed in quest of the Van Diemen's Land Blacks. Wait on Mr Commissioner Powlett, made following arrangements: three policemen, two Blacks, Beruke and Lively (Commissioner Powlett wishes me to go as he will not be able to leave), and any that I think proper to take and swear them in as constables...

Peter Christiansen: Powlett and Rawson find that they don't really have the capacity to run down Truganini on their own, they need the Kulin and they need Thomas the mediator to help them. The Kulin realise this and realise they have a power and they also have a degree of respect. So there's a certain equality too in the hunting party. You can't pull rank over the black people because you rely upon them, and if you need someone then you have to be a bit pleasant to them.

Reading: William Thomas, Thursday 28th October, 1841.
Left Melbourne accompanied by two policemen and one Black. An understanding was entered into between Mr Powlett and myself that his dray would meet us and a further party at Dandenong that night and that himself and Ensign Rawson should accompany us by ten o'clock following morning.

Reading: Ensign Rawson, Saturday October 30th, 1841.
Started at 8am. About 12 on horseback including the Blacks, the cart with the tent following. We had not gone far when I was astonished by the Protector Thomas, who had seldom been on horseback before, come flying past without his hat and a gun that he was carrying for some reason entangled in his bridle and looking the very picture of despair. Just as we came in sight of the station we saw him again laying on his back.

Reading: George Augustus Robinson, Tuesday 2nd November, 1841.
Proceeded to Edward Ruffy, by new road marked trees, beautiful run. Rode on to Sawtell's. Thomas had been thrown from his horse. He said it was the fault of his gun. He had no business with one.

Reading: William Thomas, Sunday 31st October, 1841.
At daybreak found that six horses had strayed. Found four of them but mine and Mr Hobson's were still absent and not found. A horse was offered me by Mr Allen but being very ill from the fall I preferred to walk and joined the walking party, preceded by Blacks.

Reading: Ensign Rawson, Sunday October 31st, 1841.
The three principal guides rejoiced in the names of Mr Lively, Mr Langhorne and Pigeon. An old man dressed in a green frock coat, no inexpressibles and a beaver hat arrives with an immense musket and, further to encourage him, had him lent one of my pistols.

Peter Christiansen: It would seem that, if anything, maybe the Kulin were a bit sympathetic to the Tasmanians. The Tasmanians were not a recognised enemy and that they had made their peace with the Kulin when they had come over with Robinson, so there weren't incidents between them. But the Kulin are not family, they're not clan, they're not kin, they're not close friends. So the obligation to them is limited. Their first obligation is to their own people, and the Tasmanians are outside that kinship network. So there is no shame or wrongdoing in their eyes in helping to bring them in. They're not working against their own people, these are people from a different land who've been brought into their territory.

Reading: William Thomas, Monday 1st November, 1841.
Mr Commissioner Powlett prevailed upon me to take a days rest which would perhaps render me more capable of travel after my fall.

Peter Christiansen: The Kulin spend a number of weeks hunting the Tasmanians around the Cape Patterson region, and Truganini and her companions are very familiar with this area and that could be one of the reasons why it takes a while to track them down.

Michael Shirrefs: And these veterans of the Friendly Missions in the wilds of Van Diemen's Land knew how to use landscape to elude capture—anything that would hide or blur the trail; swamps, grazing cattle, creeks, the tidal movement on the beach. And all this, combined with the uncertain motivations of the Kulin trackers, as well as the complete lack of bushcraft on the part of most of the others involved in the hunt, meant that the search for Truganini and her companions lasted for five weeks, in spite of the fact that they were moving in a relatively small area.

Lyndall Ryan: Well, the chase can be seen in a number of ways. It can be seen as a kind of 'Keystone Cops', in a way. Obviously the parties that go out after the Aborigines are not as well organised as they could be. I think there is a sense in which Thomas, who is one of the Sub-Protectors, is seen to be incompetent, that he's not used to carrying firearms, that he's not used to riding horses and so on, and I think there's a sense where the local stockkeepers feel that this is their country and they know it better and that Thomas is hopeless and a liability. And I think that Thomas is really very concerned that these Aborigines are going to be shot and he's got to really look after their interests.

It could be read also as incompetence on the part of the police, of Powlett not really having full control over what is going on, not being able to manage, he's not a good manager. And I think another way in which it could be read is to see the Tasmanian Aborigines as heroes, kind of making their statement, determined to get retribution for past wrongs.

Peter Christiansen: The Kulin were keen to be rewarded with firearms. What actually does happen after Truganini is captured along with her companions is that Lieutenant Governor La Trobe decides to institute a native police, and the Kulin trackers who brought in the Tasmanians would form the basis of this native police force.

Reading: Ensign Rawson, November 19th, 1841.
Came to another creek, water not so brackish and found where the Blacks had camped two nights before. About four miles further we came to a fire still burning. The Blacks left us here while they went off to reconnoitre. About 9pm they returned and said they had seen their fire about a mile off.

Saturday November 20th, 1841.
Arose about four, a cold morning, a heavy dew falling. Having examined our arms to see all was right, we marched in silence in single file, the Blacks leading to point out the way, which lay under a range of sand hills about a mile from the sea. We advanced for some time, till we began to think the guides had lost the tracks, when just as the sun was rising, they pointed out the smoke of a fire rising above a few shrubs about 20 to 30 yards below us.

Peter Christiansen: So the Kulin and the police party, in a rather ragged line, stormed the encampment. A number of shots were fired. A dog that was with the Tasmanians put its head up at the wrong moment and was killed. A number of the Tasmanians escaped into the scrub, but Rawson found a blanket on the ground which he removed to reveal Truganini. He pulled her to her feet, took her to the edge of a clearing, put a pistol to her head, and suggested she call on her companions to surrender, which she did.

Reading: ...we thus had the whole party and to our astonishment only one wounded, which was owing to the thickness of the underwood.

Newspaper: Port Philip Patriot, Thursday 25th November, 1841.
At a late hour last evening we received intelligence of the capture of the black marauders whose numerous depredations had rendered them the terror of the settlers in the neighbourhood of Western Port. They were apprehended by the...

Reading: George Augustus Robinson, Thursday 25th November, 1841. Heard that the Van Diemen's Land natives were captured.

Friday 26th November, 1841.
AM. Van Diemen's Land natives arrived in Melbourne and were lodged in the watch house and subsequently examined at PM.

Reading: William Thomas, Tuesday 30th November, 1841.
Attend police office, saw one of the three sailors who ran away from the ship at Port Albert, the two killed being his companions. Discussed rewarding the Blacks who helped us to capture the Van Diemen's Land Blacks.

Reading: George Augustus Robinson, Tuesday 30th November, 1841.
Attended all day at police office, the natives fully committed for murder, the three women before and after the fact.

Peter Christiansen: Robinson is aware that any judgement (say, a death sentence) in regard to Truganini and her companions has to be authorised by the Lieutenant Governor Charles La Trobe. So Robinson approaches La Trobe and lobbies him on behalf of Truganini and her companions to have their lives spared.

Lyndall Ryan: Once they're brought back to Melbourne for trial, Robinson really does try to help them and he's quite happy to perjure himself to save them. After all, he knows what the settlers have been doing. And we have to remember that the Aborigines are not allowed to give evidence on their own behalf, they can't appear in the dock, they're treated as children who are not allowed to give evidence. This had been a really big problem in Tasmania when four Tasmanian Aborigines were hanged in the mid 1820s. So Robinson is going to do everything possible to try to save them. It's going to be very hard to save the two boys because they're quite open about what happened and what they've done, and they're quite proud of what they've done, we must remember that. They felt that they were avenging a past wrong.

And if Truganini had been convicted she would have been the first woman to have been hanged in Victoria. It is some years ahead before the first woman is going to be hanged, and I think there's a greater window of opportunity for Robinson to speak on Truganini's behalf, how she had saved his life, which she had certainly done, and that Redmond Barry had more opportunity to develop a case in her defence, and Judge Willis was much more sympathetic to the women than he was to the two Aboriginal boys and it's clear that the jury were as well. It would have been very difficult...I think that the colonial authorities would have been most reluctant to hang an Aboriginal woman, and I think an Aboriginal woman who was as well known as Truganini.

Peter Christiansen: Robinson appeared before the court. He told the jury that the two men, Robert and Jack, were men of high character. He said that Truganini and her female companions were totally subjected to the will of their menfolk and therefore not responsible for their actions. This of course is totally untrue but the jury took Robinson at his word. They deemed that the charges (notwithstanding Truanini's statements) against the women were unproven. The men were convicted. Truganini and her female companions were released into the custody of George Robinson with the understanding he would arrange for their immediate return to Van Diemen's Land.

Reading: George Augustus Robinson, Monday 20th December, 1841.
Attended the trial of Van Diemen's Land Blacks. Three women discharged, two men found guilty.

Tuesday 21st December, 1841.
AM. Sentence of death passed on Bob and Jack. I was present. Called on His Honour's office, went with Reverend Thomson to visit the prisoners. They requested I and doctor pray prayers God. God made them, Jesus Christ son of God...gave them two shillings.

Friday 14th January, 1842.
Went to town to His Honour. The judge and Sharp were there. Judge wanted a Black to hang the two Van Diemen's Land natives and procession to church. His Honour left it to me. Visited the two men. They complained still that they should not have taken the bush, only that the settler did not give them their wages and the stockman bounced them.

Newspaper: Port Philip Patriot, Monday 17th January, 1842.
The warrants for the execution of the Van Diemen's Land Blacks, now in jail under sentence of death for the crime of murder, have arrived by the Sea Horse, and will be carried into effect on Thursday morning next in the rear of the new jail.

The news was immediately communicated to the unfortunate wretches, but they received it with the most perfect unconcern, being indeed apparently ignorant of their awful situation. This will be the first execution in Australia the Happy, and we fervently hope it will be the last.

Reading: George Augustus Robinson, Tuesday 18th January, 1842.
Convict asked if the Van Diemen's Land natives' heads could be had.

Thursday 20th January, 1842.
6am. Went to town in the boat to jail. A large concourse of people at the jail and border police in the jail yard. Reverends Mr Orton and Wilkinson were the unfortunate culprits. The victims were dressed in white trousers, white stockings, white shirts, ditto caps, and shaved and washed. Peter Brune went with me. They were in a state of mental suffering, they prayed fervently. Mr Orton wept. I disproved of dressing up the victims. Jack first put them on. Bob refused but was prevailed upon. I was much affected.

Mr Thomson said he should not baptise Bob because he had no knowledge of the notion of the instructions, although he said he knew the fundamental principle; Jesus Christ came into this world to save sinners. My van was at the jail to take them to the gallows. I left with Peter and went to grave, two of which was dug in new Aboriginal ground. An immense crowd also at new jail. After they had hung an hour, I went and met the cart. Peter followed, the only mourner.

Reverend Mr Orton spoke to the people at the grave, sung a hymn. Watson and wife were at the execution and grave. I was distressed by the tragic scene. Reverend Mr Thomson said Bob wept bitterly all the way from the jail and at the foot of the gallows. Jack went up first. Bob looked up at Jack and wanted to speak and at last by an effort said, 'Why did Jack leave Mr Robinson?' On the steps he again said, 'Try and save me,' and cried bitterly. Mr Thomson said nobody could save him. Poor fellow, God pardon you, for Christ's sake. Mr Orton said he had no doubt that they had gone to heaven. They were our brethren.

Newspaper: Port Philip Patriot, Monday 24th January, 1842.
At an early hour on Thursday morning, myriads of men, women and even children were to be seen wending their way in the direction of the new jail on the eastern hill, in the rear of which a temporary gallows had been erected for the execution of the Van Diemen's Land Aboriginals, Bob and Jack, convicted of murder at the late criminal session of the Supreme Court, all apparently anxious to gratify that feeling of morbid curiosity which renders an execution a treat to the lower orders of the British.

Lyndall Ryan: I find the press coverage of those incidents of what they call 'the horrible outrage''s very anti-Aboriginal. The Aboriginal women are never referred to as women, they're referred to as 'gins' and all of that language. And it's much more profoundly anti-Aboriginal than even the Tasmanian press during the Black War. So by the late 1830s, early 1840s, attitudes to Aborigines more generally had hardened, and to the Tasmanian Aborigines in particular had become very intensely anti-Aboriginal. So I think we must see the reports in the Port Phillip press as, I think, very biased indeed. They're not really interested to know how things happened.

Michael Shirrefs: With the executions over, there still remained the issue of Truganini and the two other women, Fanny and Matilda. Having been spared the gallows but ordered to be returned to Flinders Island, it's still six months before the authorities make the arrangements, at which point it's up to George Augustus Robinson to say goodbye to his long-time friend and companion.

Reading: George Augustus Robinson, Wednesday 6th July, 1842.
The four Van Diemen's Land natives carriaged in my cart to shore and embarked on board The Adelaide for Flinders. Gave the four Van Diemen's Land natives presents. They wept and parted in tears.

Lyndall Ryan: He reports in his diary that they are in tears, that he's given them presents and...I think he's devastated. What he had believed in is being sorely tested. And it would be very interesting to follow through from that in his diary about what happens next in his life. Is he as engaged in trying to save the Victorian Aborigines from then on until his term comes to an end in 1849? I think it's a turning point in his life, and I think he feels that he has been betrayed by the colonial authorities because then the colonial authorities are not really supporting him in trying to save the Victorian Aborigines, and now the very people whom he first met in 1829 are being sent to Flinders Island where he is uncertain what is going to happen to them. It's interesting that Truginini survives beyond that.

And the other sadness is when Robinson finishes his term of duty in Port Phillip in 1849, he goes back to Tasmania to look at his property and visit members of his family, and he visits Oyster Cove in 1851, and Truganini doesn't even acknowledge his existence. And I think that was pretty hard for him. It's not a great story, is it. Or it's a great tragic story.

Michael Shirrefs: One of the most glaring absences from this epic tale is the voice of Truganini herself. Words are recorded from conversations she had early on with Robinson, and late in life with people like the Tasmanian Surveyor-General James Calder who was a prolific writer and who showed a great interest in the Tasmanian Aborigines. But nothing is really known of her feelings about these events in Victoria.

One quote, attributed to Truganini by James Calder during a conversation he had with her in her last years at Oyster Cove, does hint at the choices she was faced with, right at the start:

Truganini quote: I knew it was no use my people trying to kill all the white people now, there were so many of them always coming in big boats.

Michael Shirrefs: But the many omissions in the way these histories were recorded are reflected in the fact that even the descendants of these Tasmanian Aborigines were unaware of the sort of detail that historians are only now starting to piece together.

Greg Lehman is Manager of Aboriginal Education in Tasmania. He's a writer and a member of the Aboriginal communities that continued off Tasmania's north coast.

Greg Lehman: I didn't know much about Truganini. I grew up in the north-west coast which is a long way away from down here, and my family didn't know much about Truganini, and all I knew was what I was getting from the history books in the classroom which of course were about the last Tasmanian and all that sort of thing. I didn't really get anything about Truganini until such time as I moved to Hobart and started to meet other people from Aboriginal community and start talking and sharing our reaction, if you like, to those myths.

The story of Truganini in the Aboriginal community, to my way of seeing it, is it's a picture that we've had to put together from the missing parts. So it's sad because you've got to wonder in your heart why those pieces are not there. I don't know whether it's people didn't care or what was available was very convenient to the story that people wanted to tell.

And the other thing, I think if you open up a book with that photograph of Truganini with the words underneath it 'The last full-blood blah blah blah', the response you'll get from a lot of people in the Aboriginal community today is people will get angry, they'll get pissed off. And that's why you get a lot of people who say they don't want to talk about Truganini because those words and that picture are used against us...not so much these days but certainly throughout all of our lifetimes sitting around this table we've all had that thrown at us. Truganini has been used against the family and the descendents of our own people to deny us who we are. So it's not just a sad history of absence and missing pieces, she's actually been used as a weapon against us. So it's a hard one.

For me, I reckon Truganini represents in the mainstream, in terms of how she's been portrayed in school curriculum and stories and general knowledge, she's been made to represent the end, an ending. And I think the key difference for me is that I see her more as representing a beginning because the women of her generation were the ones who had the children that we're descended from, they're the ones who passed on the knowledge that we still keep and hold, and honour. They were the beginning of the new world, if you like, the new Tasmanian Aboriginal world.

Beverley Davis: When Truganini's trial was over she returned to Wybalenna where the other Aborigines were on Flinders Island, and then later the survivors were transferred to Oyster Cove which was in sight of Bruny Island. Truganini came back to especially the Neck beach where she could collect shells, and did that for many years until she was quite elderly. When Truganini died I'm sure most people realised that her grave was robbed and all that sort of thing.

James Boyce: She told a Church of England clergyman about her fear that her body would be dug up by these terrible so-called scientists. And I think what is important...people often think, oh, that was what British people did at the time. This was not what British people did at the time. This was considered with horror by ordinary people. The great fear of ordinary British people as well...actually, Aboriginal beliefs and British cultural beliefs are not in conflict over this. The great fear of the ordinary people of British, their biggest fear, is not execution, not death, even if it's by hanging, but having your body mutilated after death, because people were sentenced to that. Judges would sentence you not just to being hung, but to really, really get you was that also your body would be handed over for dissection, for mutilation. There was a belief amongst ordinary British people that they wouldn't be at peace, their soul wouldn't be at peace. This was traditional understanding, and it's the new science, if you like. And so the ordinary people of Hobart are horrified about the mutilation of these Aboriginal bodies.

Beverley Davis: So it was many years before she had a proper memorial and it was exactly 100 years after her death that she was cremated and her ashes were scattered in the D'Entrecasteaux Channel off the Neck beach. So that was very fitting, and that was her wishes when she died, that was what she wanted to happen.

Michael Shirrefs: I'm walking over the park at the top of Mount Nelson which is a sister hill to Mount Wellington in Hobart. It's got a nice vantage point. The weather is quite damp and blowy. It's a sweet little park, but quite hidden from view, in a way. It doesn't feel like it would be widely known, and even talking to people in Hobart who know the Truganini story, even academics didn't even know the memorial was up here, which is saying something.

So I've come across this little clearing with rocks set into the ground, big old granite rocks, looking out over the view through the gum trees, and a couple of bench seats with moss on them. And the strangely small memorial on the side of the rocks. It's quite tiny, and the words on the side of it: 'Truganini, died 8th of May, 1876. Truganini Park, 8th May, 1976.' So, 100 years later. 'Dedicated to the Tasmanian Aboriginal people and their descendents.'


* CA Woolley (photographer)...

* Thomas Bock (c. 1790-1855) ...

* Truganini memorial

James Boyce
Historian and author of Van Diemen's Land

Peter Christiansen
Historian and author of the essay 'The Western Port Outbreak, 1841', published in Heat 08 - And So Forth

Beverly Davis
Coordinator of the Bruny Island Historical Society and the Bruny Island History Room

Greg Lehman
Manager of Aboriginal Education in Tasmania, writer and a member of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community

Lyndall Ryan
Historian and author of The Aboriginal Tasmanians

Shirley Westaway
Local historian in South Gippsland, Victoria

Further Information

The Bruny Island History Room

Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Thanks go to the National Library of Australia, The Mitchell Library, The State Library of Victoria, Tony Brown, Julie Gough, Richard Flanagan, Zulfikar Abbany, John Reid, James Freemantle, Selena Sullivan, Jan Wozitsky and Elva Press.


Title: The Western Port Outbreak, 1841
Author: Peter Christianen
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing
Published in 'Heat 08 - And So Forth' ISBN 0-920882-05-7

Title: Van Diemen's Land
Author: James Boyce
Publisher: Black Inc, 2008
ISBN 9781-8639-5413-6

Title: The Aboriginal Tasmanians
Author: Lyndall Ryan
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 1996
ISBN 9781-8637-3965-8

Michael Shirrefs

Michael Shirrefs