Truganini: Journey through the apocalypse is an extraordinary read.
Cassandra Pybus has compiled a thorough and very personal history of Truganini's life and times. I say personal, because what gives this book that little extra something special is Pybus' relationship to Truganini. As she says in her Preface, the 'rapid dispossession (of the original people of Tasmania), and its terrible aftermath, is the foundation narrative of my family.'
This book has been a 30 year labour of love for Pybus, as she has searched for the right way to tell this story. Feeling very conscious about not speaking for someone who left behind no letters, diaries or direct speech of her own, Pybus chose to only use documents that contained first hand accounts from people who had actually met Truganini, 'people who saw and heard her with their own eyes and ears, then - ideally - made a contemporaneous record of it.'
Pybus was also conscious that most of these first hand accounts about Truganini, were written by men, 'pompous, blinkered, acquisitive, self-aggrandising men who controlled and directed the context of what they described.' She was determined to find the 'woman behind the myth.'
One of those pompous, blinkered, acquisitive, self-aggrandising men was George Augustus Robinson (1791-1866). His Australian Dictionary of Biography claims that he was a protector of Aborigines, however his diaries reveal a man far more self-interested and self-serving than this generous sounding title would imply.
Richard Pybus and his wife (Cassandra's ancestors) arrived in Australia in 1829 and were given a 'massive swathe of North Bruny Island, an unencumbered free land grant, even while Truganini and her family were still living there.' Their other (white) neighbour on this island, Nuenonne land, was George Robinson.
This is where we first meet a young Truganini - in the journals, letters and notes made by the Harrison - at home on Bruny Island with her family.
I cannot imagine what it must have been like for people of Truganini's generation. To have been born into one world - a safe, familiar, world where you knew you belonged - but then to grow up in another - with alien rules and expectations, even while still living on your own country. To have the certainty of your birth right taken from you, subjected to judgement and harsh treatment and to be denied the solace of your own way of life A way of life now seen as inferior, if not completely denigrated and despised.
Robinson's diaries document this rapidly changing world for Truganini and her family. Whalers stealing the young girls and women, having to barter for goods (often with their bodies), the life-long effects of syphilis and other venereal diseases, dressing up in European clothes to impress governors, Christian leaders and journalists only to run off naked back to their home land, what was left of it...that is, until the influenza virus of 1829.
After the flu virus had ravaged the island, Robinson in his diary said,
only fourteen Nuenonne remained to receive the benefit of his proselytising. These traumatisied survivors were slashing their faces and bodies in grief, in no state to heed his Christian platitudes.
Naturally, Truganini's story is bound up with Robinson's story. He seemed to have taken on a fatherly role in her life. She also seemed to realise that by sticking by him, she was guaranteed a safer passage through this fast-changing world. So when Robinson left Bruny Island to take on a missionary role tracking remote clans on the west coast of Tasmania so he could bring them 'under his protection'. Truganini joined him, little realising that she would never live on Bruny Island, her home country, again.
Robinson was a curious fellow,
He reasoned to himself that his object in plunging into 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....it seemed as if he was in the process of becoming one of them....he shared the food they caught and was at pains to make himself part of their rituals and daily activity.
Although it's not easy to like him or even respect him very much by today's standards, Pybus reminds us of how he was seen by his contemporaries. His desire to protect, or broker a reconciliation with the original people of Van Dieman's Land was actually at odds with most of the other white settlers of the colony, who just wanted a clear field and a clear conscious to do what they wanted in this new land.
The bulk of the book is about the long, arduous treks that Robinson took around Tasmania, with his native guides, searching for the last surviving tribes. By the end, he had even travelled to the newly founded settlement of Melbourne on the mainland. Robinson's changing perspective and position in regards to whether he was proselytising or capturing, preserving or protecting, acting compassionately or purely for self-promotion, ultimately made him a man that Truganini and her friends could not trust completely, yet they had so few other options available to them for survival.
Having watched the people sing the land, he knew it was the wellspring of their spiritual life and their material culture. For them, land and life were indivisible. Until this bond was completely severed, he believed their souls would never be saved for God.
Pybus talked about the effects of Stockholm syndrome on the Indigenous population, especially how it could explain why the young women kept returning to abusive white whalers and sealers, even though they were treated so appallingly.
I learnt more than I ever want to know about the ghastly Black Line - the pincer movement decreed by Governor George Arthur that 'every able-bodied male - settler and convict - was required to muster into a militia' to capture and remove every single remaining Aboriginal from the new colony.
I learnt what a loathsome character John Batman was, not only in Robinson's eye, but in the eye's of many others and how a blind eye was turned towards his activities by those in charge, simply because he got stuff done. His particular habit of capturing young Aboriginal boys to 'rear them' was considered a very dubious practice by Robinson.
I learnt that Flinders Island was used to house the remaining Tasmanian Aborigines, so that on the 3rd February, 1835, Robinson was able to claim that 'he had cleared all the original people from the colony.'
I learnt that the painter, John Glover spent time with Robinson and some his native guides on the Nile River in January 1834. Glover spent several days sketching the group. He later used these in his paintings including The River Nile, Van Diemen's Land, from Mr Glover's farm | 1837 | below.
Robinson had truly believed that his removal of the original people of Van Dieman's Land was for their own good. He had wanted to protect them from murderous settlers, to bring them into God's grace and to bestow the great benefits of civilisation, as he understood it. Never did he think that his beneficent God would permit them all to die. Now the inescapable reality was that his intended sanctuary would become one great graveyard.
In 1839, Robinson took Truganini and some of the other guides, to the Port Phillip District, where he basically let them loose to fend for themselves. Things did not go well for them.
We know that Truganini spent some time back on Flinders Island before being removed to an abandoned penal station at Oyster Cove, south of Hobart. It sounded like a ghastly place to live, yet somehow Truganini basically lived out her life there. From here, she was able to regularly visit Bruny Island, so perhaps that was enough reason. In 1872 she was the sole remaining person living there.
At the end, Pybus provides an extensive biography on Truganini's contemporaries, as well as a timeline and her various sources.
For those of us in the AWW blogging world, you may be as delighted as I was, to note that Pybus cited as one her online sources The Resident Judge of Port Philip. How wonderful that all the hard work and love we pour into our blogs can be appreciated and acknowledged in the wider world.
Truganini's story is compelling and heart-breaking. Pybus has honoured her story and returned the myth back into a flesh and blood woman.