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Tasmanian aboriginals

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Tasmanian aboriginals

This article is about the indigenous people of the Australian island state of Tasmania (known as Van Diemen's Land prior to 1856). For other indigenous people see Indigenous peoples (disambiguation)

Template:Use Australian English

Regions with significant populations
English; formerly Tasmanian languages

The Aboriginal Tasmanians (Tasmanian: Parlevar or Palawa) were the indigenous people of the Australian state of Tasmania, located south of the continent of Australia. Before British colonisation in 1803, there were an estimated 3,000–15,000 Parlevar.[1][2] A number of historians point to introduced disease as the major cause of the destruction of the full-blooded Aboriginal population.[3]:pp 84–85[4]:p 388[5]:pp 66–67[6]:pp 372–376 Geoffrey Blainey wrote that by 1830 in Tasmania: "Disease had killed most of them but warfare and private violence had also been devastating."[7] Other historians regard the Black War as one of the earliest recorded modern genocides.[8] Benjamin Madley wrote: "Despite over 170 years of debate over who or what was responsible for this near-extinction, no consensus exists on its origins, process, or whether or not it was genocide" however, using the "U.N. definition, sufficient evidence exists to designate the Tasmanian catastrophe genocide."[1]

By 1833, George Augustus Robinson, sponsored by Lieutenant Governor George Arthur, had persuaded the approximately 200 surviving Aboriginal Tasmanians to surrender themselves with assurances that they would be protected, provided for and eventually have their lands returned to them. These 'assurances' were in fact lies - promises made to the survivors that played on their desperate hopes for reunification with lost family and community members. The assurances were given by Robinson solely to remove the Aboriginal people from mainland Van Diemen's Land.[9] The survivors were moved to Wybalenna Aboriginal Establishment on Flinders Island, where diseases continued to reduce their numbers even further. In 1847, the last 47 living inhabitants of Wybalenna were transferred to Oyster Cove, south of Hobart. Two individuals, Trugernanner (1812–1876) and Fanny Cochrane Smith (1834–1905), are separately considered to have been the last people solely of Tasmanian descent.[10][11]

All of the Indigenous Tasmanian languages have been lost. Currently, there are some efforts to reconstruct a language from the available wordlists. Today, some thousands of people living in Tasmania and elsewhere can trace part of their ancestry to the Parlevar, since a number of Parlevar women were abducted, most commonly by the sealers living on smaller islands in Bass Strait; some women were traded or bartered for; and a number voluntarily associated themselves with European sealers and settlers and bore children. Those members of the modern-day descendant community who trace their ancestry to Aboriginal Tasmanians have mostly European ancestry, and did not keep the traditional Parlevar culture.

Other Aboriginal groups within Tasmania use the language words from the area where they are living and/or have lived for many generations uninterrupted. Many aspects of the Aboriginal Tasmanian culture are continually practised in various parts of the state and the islands of the Bass Strait.


Before European settlement

People are thought to have crossed into Tasmania approximately 40,000 years ago via a land bridge between the island and the rest of mainland Australia during the last glacial period. According to genetic studies, once the sea levels rose flooding the Bassian Plain, the people were left isolated for approximately 8,000 years until European exploration during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.[12]

In 1990 archaeologists excavated materials in the Warreen Cave in the Maxwell River valley of the south-west proving Aboriginal occupation from as early as 34,000 BP making indigenous Tasmanians the southern-most population in the world during the Pleistocene era. In 2010, following protests that the construction of the Jordan River valley bridge that was part of the new Brighton Bypass would disturb a traditional Aboriginal meeting place that had been identified in 2008, the government agreed to an archaeological investigation although stating that while artifacts would be protected the construction would go ahead. Archaeologists excavating a 600 metre long section of river bank found a large number of stone tools and later estimated that the bank contains up to three million artifacts. Preliminary dating indicates that the site was continuously occupied from 40,000 BP to 28,000 BP making the site 6,000 years older than the Warreen cave if confirmed.[13]

After the sea rose to create Bass Strait, the Australian mainland and Tasmania became separate land masses, and the Aboriginal people who had migrated from mainland Australia became cut off from their cousins on the mainland. Because neither side had ocean sailing technology, the two groups were unable to maintain contact.

Some have claimed that because of the ocean divide, and unlike other populations around the world, the small population of Tasmania was not able to share any of the new technological advances being made by mainland groups such as barbed spears, bone tools of any kind, boomerangs, hooks, sewing, and the ability to start a fire thus making Aboriginal Tasmanians the simplest people on Earth.[14] It is claimed that they only possessed lit fires with the men entrusted in carrying embers from camp to camp for cooking and which could also be used to clear land and herd animals to aid in hunting practices.[15][16]:313 However, other scholars dispute that the Aboriginal Tasmanians did not have fire;[17] and, indeed, a document from 1887 clearly describes fire-lighting techniques used among Tasmanians.[18] Another school of thought holds that because food was so abundant compared to mainland Australia the Aboriginal people had no need for a better technology, pointing out that they did in fact originally possess bone tools which dropped out of use as the effort to make them began to exceed the benefit they provided.[19]

It has been suggested that approximately 4,000 years ago, the Aboriginal Tasmanians largely dropped scaled fish from their diet, and began eating more land mammals such as possums, kangaroos, and wallabies. They also switched from worked bone tools to sharpened stone tools.[16] The significance of the disappearance of bone tools (believed to have been primarily used for fishing related activities) and fish in the diet is heavily debated. Some argue that it is evidence of a maladaptive society while others argue that the change was economic as large areas of scrub at that time were changing to grassland providing substantially increased food resources. Fish were never a large part of the diet, ranking behind shellfish and seals, and with more resources available the cost/benefit ratio of fishing may have become too high.[19] Archaeological evidence indicates that around the time these changes took place the Tasmanian tribes began expanding their territories, a process that was still continuing when Europeans arrived.[20]

Tasmanian Aboriginal tribes

The social organisation of Aboriginal Tasmanians had three distinct levels: the domestic unit or family group, the social unit or band which had a self-defining name with 40 to 50 people, and collections of bands comprising tribes which owned territories. Even though territories were owned there was substantial movement and migration by bands to utilise and share abundant food resources in particular seasons.[16]:pp 10–11

Estimates made of the combined population of the Aboriginal people of Tasmania, before European arrival in Tasmania, are in the range of 3,000 to 15,000 people.[1] Genetic studies have suggested much higher figures which is supported by oral traditions that Aboriginal people were "more numerous than the white people were aware of" but that their population had been decimated by a sudden outbreak of disease prior to 1803. It is speculated that early contacts with sealers before colonisation had resulted in an epidemic.[3]:pp 84–85 Using archaeological evidence, Stockton (I983:68) estimated 3,000 to 6,000 for the northern half of the west coast alone, or up to six times the commonly accepted estimate, however he later revised this to 3,000 to 5,000 for the entire island based on historical sources. The low rate of genetic drift indicates that Stockton's original maximum estimate is likely the lower boundary and, while not indicated by the archaeological record, a population as high as 100,000 can "not be rejected out of hand". This is supported by carrying capacity data indicating greater resource productivity in Tasmania than the mainland.[12]

The Aboriginal Tasmanians were primarily nomadic people who lived in adjoining territories, moving based on seasonal changes in food supplies such as seafood, land mammals and native vegetables and berries. They socialised, intermarried and fought 'wars' against other tribes.[15]

According to Ryan, the population of Tasmania was aligned into nine tribes composed of six to fifteen bands each, with each band comprising two to six extended family units (clans) who were distantly related to each other. Individual bands had a specific home range with elaborate rites of entry required of visitors. However, the band was a land using group not a land owner with the clans making up the band each owning the rights to their own "estate" in the range.[21] There were more than 60 bands before European colonisation, although only 48 have been located and associated with particular territories. The Eastern and northern Group consisted of the Oyster Bay Tribe, North East Tribe, and the North Tribe. the Midlands Group consisted of the Big River Tribe, North Midlands Tribe and Ben Lomond Tribe. The Maritime Group consisted of the North West Tribe, South West Tribe and South East Tribe.[16]:pp 10–11

Oyster Bay (Paredarerme)

The Paredarerme tribe was estimated to be the largest Tasmanian tribe with ten bands totalling 700 to 800 people.[16]:p 17 The Paredarerme Tribe had good relations with the Big River tribe, with large congregations at favoured hunting sites inland and at the coast. Relations with the North Midlands tribe were mostly hostile, and evidence suggests that the Douglas-Apsley region may have been a dangerous borderland rarely visited (Ferguson 1986 pg22). Generally, Paredarerme tribe bands migrated inland to the High Country for Spring and Summer and returned to the coast for Autumn and Winter, but not all people left their territory each year with some deciding to stay by the coast. Migrations provided a varied diet with plentiful seafood, seals and birds on the coast, and good hunting for kangaroos, wallabies and possums inland.[16]:p 17 The High Country also provided opportunities to trade for ochre with the North-west and North people, and to harvest intoxicating gum from Eucalyptus gunnii, found only on the plateau.[16]:pp 10–11 The key determinant of camp sites was topography. The majority of camps were along river valleys, adjacent north facing hill slopes and on gentle slopes bordering a forest or marsh (Brown 1986).

Band Territory Seasonal migration
Leetermairremener St Patricks Head near St Marys Winter in the coastal areas of their own lands. Between August and October congregating around Moulting Lagoon and Schouten Island. In October they would move inland to St Pauls and Break o' Day Rivers or up the Meredith River to the Elizabeth River area.
In January, the band would move back to the coast.
Linetemairrener North of Great Oyster Bay As above.
Loontitetermairrelehoinner North Oyster Bay As above.
Toorernomairremener Schouten Passage As above.
Poredareme Little Swanport Winter in the coastal areas of their own lands. In August moving west to the Eastern Marshes, and through St Peters pass to Big River Country before returning to the coast in January.
Laremairremener Grindstone Bay As above.
Tyreddeme Maria Island As above.
Portmairremener Prosser River As above.
Pydairrerme Tasman Peninsula As above.
Moomairremener Pittwater, Risdon Moomairremener tended to move inland later than other bands, leaving between September and October and returning to the coast in June.

North East

The North East tribe consisted of seven bands totalling around 500 people. They had good relations with the Ben Lomond tribe, who were allowed access to the resources of the north-east coast.

Band Territory Seasonal migration
Peeberrangner uncertain
Leenerrerter uncertain
Pinterrairer uncertain
Trawlwoolway uncertain
Pyemmairrenerpairrener uncertain
Leenethmairrener uncertain
Panpekanner uncertain


The North tribe consisted of four bands totalling 200–300 people.[16]:p 22 Their country contained the most important ochre mines in Tasmania, accessed by well defined roads kept open by firing. They traded the ochre with all adjacent tribes. They would spend part of the year in the country of the North West Tribe to hunt seals and collect shells from Robbins Island for necklaces. In return, the North West Tribe had free access to the ochre mines[16]:pp 23–26 Relatively isolated, the region was first explored by Europeans in 1824 with the Van Diemen's Land Company being given a grant of 250,000 acres (100,000 ha), which included the greater part of the tribes hunting grounds. The settlement was a failure, with the inland areas described as "wet, cold and soggy", while the coastal region was difficult to clear, as Superintendent Henry Hellyer noted the "forest [was] altogether unlike anything I have seen in the Island". However, in 1827 a port was established at Emu Bay. In 1828 Tarerenorerer (Eng:Walyer), a woman who had escaped from sealers, became the leader of the Emu Bay people and attacked the settlers with stolen weapons, the first recorded use of muskets by Aboriginal people.[22]

Band Territory Seasonal migration
Punnilerpanner Port Sorell Winter spent on the coast. In summer they would move inland.
Pallittorre Quamby Bluff As above
Noeteeler Hampshire Hills As above
Plairhekehillerplue Emu Bay As above

Big River

The Big River tribe numbered 400 - 500 people consisting of five bands. Little is known of their seasonal movements although it is believed that four of the five bands moved through Oyster Bay territory along the Derwent River to reach their coastal camps near Pitt Water. The Oyster Bay tribe had reciprocal movement rights through Big River territory.[23]

Band Territory Seasonal migration
Leenowwenne New Norfolk
Pangerninghe Clyde - Derwent Rivers Junction
Braylwunyer Ouse and Dee Rivers
Larmairremener West of Dee
Luggermairrernerpairrer Great Lake

North Midlands

Band Territory Seasonal migration
Leterremairrener Port Dalrymple
Panninher Norfolk Plains
Tyerrernotepanner Campbell Town

Ben Lomond

The Ben Lomond tribe consisted of three and possibly four bands totalling 150-200 people who occupied 260 km2 (100 sq mi) of country surrounding the 182 km2 (70 sq mi) Ben Lomond plateau. Until 12,000 years ago, the plateau was covered by an ice cap, leaving it largely devoid of soil and lacking in resources. Walter George Arthur, son of a Ben Lomond elder, was the Wybalenna "activist" who petitioned Queen Victoria in 1847.[24] Mannalargenna, who organised guerrilla attacks against British soldiers in Tasmania during the period known as the Black War, was a Plangermaireener elder, and in 1835 became the first Aboriginal person in Tasmania to be given a "christian" burial.

Band Territory Seasonal migration
Plangermaireener uncertain
Plindermairhemener uncertain
Tonenerweenerlarmenne uncertain

North West

The North West tribe numbered between 400 and 600 people at time of contact with Europeans and had at least eight bands.[16]:pp 10–11 They had good relations with the North tribe, who were allowed access to the resources of the north-west coast. First explored by Europeans in 1824, the region was considered inhospitable and only lightly settled, although it suffered a high rate of Aboriginal dispossession and killings.

Band Territory Seasonal migration
Tommeginer Table Cape
Parperloihener Robbins Island
Pennemukeer Cape Grim
Pendowte Studland Bay
Peerapper West Point
Manegin Arthur River mouth
Tarkinener Sandy Cape
Peternidic Pieman River mouth

South West Coast

Band Territory Seasonal migration
Mimegin Macquarie Harbour
Lowreenne Low Rocky Point
Ninene Port Davey
Needwonnee Cox Bight

South East

Risdon Cove, the first Tasmanian settlement, was located in south-east country. There is eyewitness evidence that the South East tribe may have consisted of up to ten bands, totalling around 500 people. However, only four bands totalling 160-200 people were officially recorded as the main source by Robinson, whose journals begin in 1829. By this time, Europeans had settled in most of the South East tribe's country, with the majority of bands dispossessed and food resources depleted. Their country contained the most important silcrete, chert and quartzite mines in Tasmania.[25] The South East people had a hostile relationship with the Oyster Bay people whom they frequently raided, often to kidnap women.[23] Truganini was a Nuenonne from Bruny Island, which they called Lunawanna-Alonnah. The first two European towns built on the island were named Lunawanna and Alonnah, and most of the island's landmarks are named after Nuenonne people. The island was the source of the sandstone used to build many of Melbourne's buildings, such as the Post Office and Parliament House.[26]

Band Territory Seasonal migration
Mouheneenner Hobart
Nuenonne Bruny Island
Mellukerdee Huon River
Lyluequonny Recherche Bay

Early European contact

Abel Jansen Tasman, credited as the first European to discover Tasmania (in 1642) and who named it Van Diemen’s Land, did not encounter any of the Aboriginal Tasmanians when he landed. In 1772, a French exploratory expedition under Marion Dufresne visited Tasmania. At first, contact with the Aboriginal people was friendly; however the Aboriginal Tasmanians became alarmed when another boat was dispatched towards the shore. It was reported that spears and stones were thrown and the French responded with musket fire, killing at least one Aboriginal person and wounding several others. Two later French expeditions led by Bruni d'Entrecasteaux in 1792-93 and Nicolas Baudin in 1802 made friendly contact with the Aboriginal Tasmanians; the d'Entrecasteaux expedition doing so over an extended period of time.[5]:pp 58–60 The Resolution under Captain Tobias Furneaux (part of an expedition led by Captain James Cook) had visited in 1773 but made no contact with the Aboriginal Tasmanians although gifts were left for them in unoccupied shelters found on Bruny Island. The first known British contact with the Aboriginal Tasmanians was on Bruny Island by Captain Cook in 1777. The contact was peaceful. Captain William Bligh also visited Bruny Island in 1788 and made peaceful contact with the Aboriginal Tasmanians.[4]:pp 3–8

Contact with sealers on the north and east coasts

More extensive contact between Aboriginal Tasmanians and Europeans resulted when British and American seal hunters began visiting the islands in Bass Strait as well as the northern and eastern coasts of Tasmania from the late 1790s. Shortly thereafter (by about 1800), sealers were regularly left on uninhabited islands in Bass Strait during the sealing season (November to May). The sealers established semi-permanent camps or settlements on the islands, which were close enough for the sealers to reach the main island of Tasmania in small boats and so make contact with the Aboriginal Tasmanians.[5]:pp 58–60, 76

Trading relationships developed between sealers and Tasmanian Aboriginal tribes. Hunting dogs became highly prized by the Aboriginal people, as were other ‘exotic’ items such as flour, tea and tobacco. The Aboriginal people traded kangaroo skins for such goods. However, a trade in Aboriginal women soon developed. Many Tasmanian Aboriginal women were highly skilled in hunting seals, as well as in obtaining other foods such as sea-birds, and some Tasmanian tribes would trade their services and, more rarely, those of Aboriginal men to the sealers for the seal-hunting season. Others were sold on a permanent basis. This trade incorporated not only women of the tribe engaged in the trade but also women abducted from other tribes. Some may have been given as ‘gifts’ meant to incorporate the new arrivals into Aboriginal society through marriage.

Sealers engaged in raids along the coasts to abduct Aboriginal women and were reported to have killed Aboriginal men in the process. By 1810 seal numbers had been greatly reduced by hunting so most seal hunters abandoned the area, however a small number of sealers, approximately fifty mostly ‘renegade sailors, escaped convicts or ex-convicts’, remained as permanent residents of the Bass Strait islands and some established families with Tasmanian Aboriginal women.[5]:pp 58–60

Some of the women were taken back to the islands by the sealers involuntarily and some went willingly, as in the case of a woman called Tarerenorerer (Eng:Walyer). Differing opinions have been given on Walyer’s involvement with the sealers. McFarlane writes that she voluntarily joined the sealers with members of her family, and was responsible for attacking Aboriginal people and white settlers alike.[27] However, Ryan comes to a different conclusion, that Walyer had been abducted at Port Sorell by Aboriginal people and traded to the sealers for dogs and flour.[16]:p 141 Walyer was later to gain some notoriety for her attempts to kill the sealers to escape their brutality. Walyer, a Punnilerpanner, joined the Plairhekehillerplue band after eventually escaping and went on to lead attacks on employees of the Van Diemen's Land Company. Walyer's attacks are the first recorded use of muskets by Aboriginal people. Captured, she refused to work and was banished to Penguin Island. Later imprisoned on Swan Island she attempted to organise a rebellion. Although Aboriginal women were by custom forbidden to take part in war, several Aboriginal women who escaped from sealers became leaders or took part in attacks. According to Lyndall Ryan, the women traded to, or kidnapped by sealers became "a significant dissident group" against white authority.[28]

Historian James Bonwick reported Aboriginal women who were clearly captives of sealers but he also reported women living with sealers who 'proved faithful and affectionate to their new husbands', women who appeared ‘content’ and others who were allowed to visit their ‘native tribe’, taking gifts, with the sealers being confident that they would return.[4]:pp 295–297 Bonwick also reports a number of claims of brutality by sealers towards Aboriginal women including some of those made by George Augustus Robinson.[4]:pp 295–301 An Aboriginal woman by the name of Bulrer related her experience to Robinson, that sealers had rushed her camp and stolen six women including herself "the white men tie them and then they flog them very much, plenty much blood, plenty cry." Sealing captain, James Kelly, wrote in 1816 that the custom of the sealers was to each have "two to five of these native women for their own use and benefit." A shortage of women available "in trade" resulted in abduction becoming common and in 1830 it was reported that at least fifty Aboriginal women were "kept in slavery" on the Bass Strait islands.[28]

"Harrington, a sealer, procured ten or fifteen native women, and placed them on different islands in Bass's Straits, where he left them to procure skins; if, however, when he returned, they had not obtained enough, he punished them by tying them up to trees for twenty-four to thirty-six hours together, flogging them at intervals, and he killed them not infrequently if they proved stubborn." (H.W.Parker The Rise, Progress, and Present State of V. D. Land 1833)[29]

The raids for, and trade in, Aboriginal women contributed to the rapid depletion of the numbers of Aboriginal women in the northern areas of Tasmania, “by 1830 only three women survived in northeast Tasmania among 72 men” [5]:pp 58–60 and thus contributed in a significant manner to the demise of the full-blooded Aboriginal population of Tasmania. However many modern day Aboriginal Tasmanians trace their descent from the 19th century sealer communities of Bass Strait.

There are numerous stories of the sealers' brutality towards the Aboriginal women; with some of these reports originating from George Augustus Robinson. In 1830, Robinson seized 14 Aboriginal women from the sealers, planning for them to marry Aboriginal men at the Flinders Island settlement. Josephine Flood, an archaeologist specialising in Australian mainland Aboriginal peoples, notes: “he encountered strong resistance from the women as well as sealers”. The sealers sent a representative, James Munro, to appeal to Governor Arthur and argue for the women’s return on the basis that they wanted to stay with their sealer husbands and children rather than marry Aboriginal men unknown to them. Arthur ordered the return of some of the women. Shortly thereafter, Robinson began to disseminate stories, told to him by James Munro, of atrocities allegedly committed by the sealers against Aboriginal people and against Aboriginal women, in particular. Brian Plomley, who edited Robinson's papers, expressed scepticism about these atrocities and notes that they were not reported to Archdeacon Broughton's 1830 committee of inquiry into violence towards Tasmanians. Abduction and ill-treatment of Aboriginal Tasmanians certainly occurred, but the extent is debated.[5]:p 76

After European settlement

Between 1803 and 1823, there were two phases of conflict between the Aboriginal people and the British colonists. The first took place between 1803 and 1808 over the need for common food sources such as oysters and kangaroos, and the second between 1808 and 1823, when the small number of white females among the farmers, sealers and whalers, led to the trading, and the abduction, of Aboriginal women as sexual partners. These practices also increased conflict over women among Aboriginal tribes. This in turn led to a decline in the Aboriginal population. Historian Lyndall Ryan records 74 Aboriginal people (almost all women) living with sealers on the Bass Strait islands in the period up to 1835.[16]:p 313

By 1816, kidnapping of Aboriginal children for labour had become widespread. In 1814, Governor Thomas Davey issued a proclamation expressing "utter indignation and abhorrence" in regards to the kidnapping of the children and in 1819 Governor William Sorell not only re-issued the proclamation but ordered that those who had been taken without parental consent were to be sent to Hobart and supported at government expense.[31] A number of young Aboriginal children were known to be living with settlers. An Irish sealer named Brien spared the life of the baby son of a native woman he had abducted, explaining, "as (he) had stolen the dam he would keep the cub." When the child grew up he became an invaluable assistant to Brien but was considered "no good" by his own people as he was brought up to dislike Aboriginal people, whom he considered "dirty lazy brutes."[28] Twenty-six were definitely known (through baptismal records) to have been taken into settlers' homes as infants or very small children, too young to be of service as labourers. Some Aboriginal children were sent to the Orphan School in Hobart.[5]:p 77 Lyndall Ryan reports fifty-eight Aboriginal people, of various ages, living with settlers in Tasmania in the period up to 1835.[16]:p 176

Some historians argue that European disease did not appear to be a serious factor until after 1829.[32] Other historians including Geoffrey Blainey and Keith Windschuttle, point to introduced disease as the main cause of the destruction of the full-blooded Tasmanian Aboriginal population. Keith Windschuttle argues that while smallpox never reached Tasmania, respiratory diseases such as influenza, pneumonia and tuberculosis and the effects of venereal diseases devastated the Tasmanian Aboriginal population whose long isolation from contact with the mainland compromised their resistance to introduced disease. The work of historian James Bonwick and anthropologist H. Ling Roth, both writing in the 19th century, also point to the significant role of epidemics and infertility without clear attribution of the sources of the diseases as having been introduced through contact with Europeans. Bonwick, however, did note that Tasmanian Aboriginal women were infected with venereal diseases by Europeans. Introduced venereal disease not only directly caused deaths but, more insidiously, left a significant percentage of the population unable to reproduce. Josephine Flood, archaeologist, wrote: "Venereal disease sterilised and chest complaints - influenza, pneumonia and tuberculosis - killed."[5]:pp 77, 90, 128[6]:pp 372–376

Bonwick, who lived in Tasmania, recorded a number of reports of the devastating effect of introduced disease including one report by a Doctor Story, a Quaker, who wrote: “After 1823 the women along with the tribe seemed to have had no children; but why I do not know.”[4]:p 388 Later historians have reported that introduced venereal disease caused infertility amongst the Aboriginal Tasmanians.[5]:p 90[6]:pp 375–376 Bonwick also recorded a strong Aboriginal oral tradition of an epidemic even before formal colonisation in 1803. “Mr Robert Clark, in a letter to me, said : 'I have gleaned from some of the aborigines, now in their graves, that they were more numerous than the white people were aware of, but their numbers were very much thinned by a sudden attack of disease which was general among the entire population previous to the arrival of the English, entire tribes of natives having been swept off in the course of one or two days' illness.'”[3]:pp 84–85 Such an epidemic may be linked to contact with sailors or sealers.[5]:pp 66–67

Henry Ling Roth, an anthropologist, wrote: “Calder, who has gone more fully into the particulars of their illnesses, writes as follows ...: “Their rapid declension after the colony was founded is traceable, as far as our proofs allow us to judge, to the prevalence of epidemic disorders….”[29] Roth was referring to James Erskine Calder who took up a post as a surveyor in Tasmania in 1829 and who wrote a number of scholarly papers about the Aboriginal people. "According to Calder, a rapid and remarkable declension of the numbers of the aborigines had been going on long before the remnants were gathered together on Flinders Island. Whole tribes (some of which Robinson mentions by name as being in existence fifteen or twenty years before he went amongst them, and which probably never had a shot fired at them) had absolutely and entirely vanished. To the causes to which he attributes this strange wasting away ... I think infecundity, produced by the infidelity of the women to their husbands in the early times of the colony, may be safely added ... Robinson always enumerates the sexes of the individuals he took; ... and as a general thing, found scarcely any children amongst them; ... adultness was found to outweigh infancy everywhere in a remarkable degree ..."[29]:pp 172–173

George Augustus Robinson recorded in his journals a number of comments regarding the Aboriginal Tasmanians' susceptibility to diseases, particularly respiratory diseases. In 1832 he revisited the west coast of Tasmania, far from the settled regions, and wrote: "The numbers of aborigines along the western coast have been considerably reduced since the time of my last visit [1830]. A mortality has raged amongst them which together with the severity of the season and other causes had rendered the paucity of their number very considerable." [33]

Between 1825 and 1831 a pattern of guerilla warfare by the Aboriginal Tasmanians was identified by the colonists, some of whom acknowledged the Aboriginal people as fighting for their country. Rapid pastoral expansion and an increase in the colony's population triggered Aboriginal resistance from 1824 onwards when it has been estimated by Lyndall Ryan that 1000 Aboriginal people remained in the settled districts. Whereas settlers and stock keepers had previously provided rations to the Aboriginal people during their seasonal movements across the settled districts, and recognised this practice as some form of payment for trespass and loss of traditional hunting grounds, the new settlers and stock keepers were unwilling to maintain these arrangements and the Aboriginal people began to raid settlers' huts for food. The official Government position was that Aboriginal people were blameless for any hostilities, but when Musquito was hanged in 1825, a significant debate was generated which split the colonists along class lines. The "higher grade" saw the hanging as a dangerous precedent and argued that Aboriginal people were only defending their land and should not be punished for doing so. The "lower grade" of colonists wanted more Aboriginal people hanged to encourage a "conciliatory line of conduct." Governor Arthur sided with the "lower grade" and 1825 saw the first official acceptance that Aboriginal people were at least partly to blame for conflict. In 1826 the Government gazette, which had formerly reported "retaliatory actions" by Aboriginal people, now reported "acts of atrocity" and for the first time used the terminology "Aborigine" instead of "native". A newspaper reported that there were only two solutions to the problem, either they should be "hunted down like wild beasts and destroyed" or they should be removed from the settled districts. The colonial Government assigned troops to drive them out. A Royal Proclamation in 1828 established military posts on the boundaries and a further proclamation declared martial law against the Aboriginal people. As it was recognised that there were fixed routes for seasonal migration, Aboriginal people were required to have passes if they needed to cross the settled districts with bounties offered for the capture of those without passes, £5 (around 2010:$1,000) for an adult and £2 for children, a process that often led to organised hunts resulting in deaths. Every dispatch from Governor Arthur to the Secretary of State during this period stressed that in every case where Aboriginal people had been killed it was colonists that initiated hostilities.[34] While many aboriginal deaths went unrecorded the Cape Grim massacre in 1828 demonstrates the level of frontier violence towards Aboriginal Tasmanians.

The Black War of 1828-32 and the Black Line of 1830 were turning points in the relationship with European settlers. Even though many of the Aboriginal people managed to avoid capture during these events, they were shaken by the size of the campaigns against them, and this brought them to a position whereby they were willing to surrender to Robinson and move to Flinders Island.

Tasmanian aboriginals and settlers mentioned in literature 1800-1835

Europeans killed and Aborigines captured may be considered as reasonably accurate. The figures for tribal people shot is likely to be a substantial undercount.[16]:pp 313–314

Tribe Captured Shot Settlers killed
Oyster Bay 27 67 50
North East 12 43 7
North 28 80 15
Big River 31 43 60
North Midlands 23 38 26
Ben Lomond 35 31 20
North West 96 59 3
South West Coast 47 0 0
South East 14 1 2
Total 313 362 183

Resettlement of the indigenous population

In late 1831 George Augustus Robinson, a Christian missionary, brought the first 51 Aboriginals to a settlement on Flinders Island named The Lagoons, which turned out to be inadequate as it was exposed to gales, had little water and no land suitable for cultivation.[35] Supplies to the settlement were inadequate and if sealers had not supplied potatoes, the Aboriginal people would have starved. The Europeans were living on oatmeal and potatoes while the Aboriginal people, who detested oatmeal and refused to eat it, survived on potatoes and rice supplemented by mutton birds they caught.[29]:p 3 Within months 31 Aboriginal people had died.
"They were lodged at night in shelters or "breakwinds." These "breakwinds" were thatched roofs sloping to the ground, with an opening at the top to let out the smoke, and closed at the ends, with the exception of a doorway. They were twenty feet long by ten feet wide. In each of these from twenty to thirty blacks were lodged ... To savages accustomed to sleep naked in the open air beneath the rudest shelter, the change to close and heated dwellings tended to make them susceptible, as they had never been in their wild state, to chills from atmospheric changes, and was only too well calculated to induce those severe pulmonary diseases which were destined to prove so fatal to them. The same may be said of the use of clothes ... At the settlement they were compelled to wear clothes, which they threw off when heated or when they found them troublesome, and when wetted by rain allowed them to dry on their bodies. In the case of Tasmanians, as with other wild tribes accustomed to go naked, the use of clothes had a most mischievous effect on their health.[29]

By January 1832 a further 44 captured Aboriginals had arrived and conflicts arose between the tribal groups. To defuse the situation, Sergeant Wight took the Big River group to Green island, where they were abandoned and he later decided to move the rest to Green Island as well. Two weeks later Robinson arrived with Lieutenant Darling, the new commander for the station, and moved the Aboriginal people back to The Lagoons. Darling ensured a supply of plentiful food and permitted "hunting excursions." In October 1832, it was decided to build a new camp with better buildings (wattle and daub) at a more suitable location, Pea Jacket Point. Pea Jacket Point was renamed Civilisation Point but became more commonly known as Wybalenna, which in the Ben Lomond language meant "Blackman's Houses".[29]

Robinson befriended Truganini, learned some of the local language and in 1833 managed to persuade the remaining 154 "full-blooded" people to move to the new settlement on Flinders Island, where he promised a modern and comfortable environment, and that they would be returned to their former homes on the Tasmanian mainland as soon as possible. At the Wybalenna Aboriginal establishment on Flinders Island, described by historian Henry Reynolds as the "best equipped and most lavishly staffed Aboriginal institution in the Australian colonies in the nineteenth century", they were provided with housing, clothing, rations of food, the services of a doctor and educational facilities. Convicts were assigned to build housing and do most of the work at the settlement including the growing of food in the vegetable gardens.[5]:p88, citing Reynolds After arrival, all Aboriginal children aged between six and 15 years were removed from their families to be brought up by the storekeeper and a lay preacher.[31] The Aboriginal people were free to roam the island and were often absent from the settlement for extended periods on hunting trips as the rations supplied turned out to be inadequate. By 1835 the living conditions had deteriorated to the extent that in October Robinson personally took charge of Wybalenna, organising better food and improving the housing. However, of the 220 who arrived with Robinson, most died in the following 14 years from introduced disease and inadequate shelter. As a result of their loss of freedom, the birth rate was extremely low and few children survived infancy.

In 1839, Governor Franklin appointed a board to inquire into the conditions at Wybalenna that rejected Robinson's claims regarding improved living conditions and found the settlement to be a failure. The report was never released and the government continued to promote Wybalenna as a success in the treatment of Aboriginal people.[36] In March 1847 six Aboriginals at Wybalenna presented a petition to Queen Victoria, the first petition to a reigning monarch from any Aboriginal group in Australia, requesting that the promises made to them be honoured.[37] In October 1847, the 47 survivors were transferred to their final settlement at Oyster Cove station.[4]:pp 270–295 Only 44 survived the trip (11 couples, 12 single men and 10 children) and the children were immediately sent to the orphan school in Hobart.[31] Although the housing and food was better than Wybalenna, the station was a former convict station that had been abandoned earlier that year due to health issues as it was located on inadequately drained mudflats. According to the guards, the Aboriginal people developed "too much independence" by trying to continue their culture which they considered "recklessness" and "rank ingratitude." Their numbers continued to diminish, being estimated in 1859 at around a dozen and, by 1869, there was only one, who died in 1876.

Commenting in 1899 on Robinson's claims of success, anthropologist Henry Ling Roth wrote:
While Robinson and others were doing their best to make them into a civilised people, the poor blacks had given up the struggle, and were solving the difficult problem by dying. The very efforts made for their welfare only served to hasten on their inevitable doom. The white man's civilisation proved scarcely less fatal than the white man's musket.[29]

Anthropological interest

The Oyster Cove people attracted contemporaneous international scientific interest from the 1860s onwards, with many museums claiming body parts for their collections. Scientists were interested in studying Aboriginal Tasmanians from a physical anthropology perspective, hoping to gain insights into the field of paleoanthropology. For these reasons, they were interested in individual Aboriginal body parts and whole skeletons.

Tasmanian Aboriginal skulls were particularly sought internationally for studies into craniofacial anthropometry.

In one case, the Royal Society of Tasmania received government permission to exhume the body of Truganini in 1878, within two years of her death, on condition that it was "decently deposited in a secure resting place accessible by special permission to scientific men for scientific purposes." Her skeleton was on display in the Tasmanian Museum until 1947.[38] Another case was the removal of the skull and scrotum — for a tobacco pouch — of William Lanne, known as King Billy, on his death in 1869.

Aboriginal people have considered the dispersal of body parts as being disrespectful, as a common aspect within Aboriginal belief systems is that a soul can only be at rest when laid in its homeland.

20th century to present

Body parts and ornaments are still being returned from collections today, with the Royal College of Surgeons of England returning samples of Truganini's skin and hair (in 2002); and the British Museum returning ashes to two descendants in 2007.[39]

During the 20th century, the absence of "full blood" Aboriginals and a general unawareness of the surviving populations, mean many non-Aboriginals assumed they were extinct, after the death of Truganini in 1876. Since the mid-1970s Tasmanian Aboriginal activists such as Michael Mansell have sought to broaden awareness and identification of Aboriginal descent.

A dispute exists within the Tasmanian Aboriginal community, however, over what constitutes Aboriginality. Since splitting from the Lia Pootah in 1996, the Palawa minority were given the power to decide who is of Tasmanian Aboriginal descent at the state level (entitlement to government Aboriginal services). Palawa recognise only descendants of the Bass Strait Island community as Aboriginal and do not consider as Aboriginal the Lia Pootah, who claim descent, based on oral traditions, from Tasmanian mainland Aboriginal communities. The Lia Pootah feel that the Palawa controlled Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre does not represent them politically.[40][41] Since 2007 there have been initiatives to introduce DNA testing to establish family history in descendant subgroups. This is strongly opposed by the Palawa and has drawn an angry reaction from some quarters, as some have claimed "spiritual connection" with aboriginality distinct from, but not as important as the existence of a genetic link. The Lia Pootah object to the current test used to prove Aboriginality as they believe it favours the Palawa, a DNA test would circumvent barriers to Lia Pootah recognition, or disprove their claims to Aboriginality.[42]

In April 2000, the Tasmanian Government Legislative Council Select Committee on Aboriginal Lands discussed the difficulty of determining Aboriginality based on oral traditions. An example given by Prof. Cassandra Pybus was the claim by the Huon and Channel Aboriginal people who had an oral history of descent from two Indigenous women. Research found that both were white convict women. A further problem was the number of non-European settlers. Up to 600 of the convict settlers were Afro-American and it is also known that a percentage of free settlers were not of European descent. An Aboriginal community that survived on Bruny Island is possibly descended from two Africans who took up land grants on the island. The 1818 Hobart census lists 20 Afro-Americans and Lascars and the passenger list of one vessel, the Lady Nelson included ten Indians and Africans who had been given land grants in the Tasmanian interior. The children of these settlers effectively disappeared into the community as they were never identified as "negro" or "coloured" as no distinction was made between them and the European settlers.[43]

The Tasmanian Palawa Aboriginal community is making an effort to reconstruct and reintroduce a Tasmanian language, called palawa kani out of the various records on Tasmanian languages. Other Tasmanian aboriginal communities use words from traditional Tasmanian languages, according to the language area they were born or live in.

Tasmanian Aboriginal shell necklace art

Making necklaces from shells is a significant cultural tradition among Tasmanian Aboriginal women.[44] Necklaces were used for adornment, as gifts and tokens of honour, and as trading objects. Dating back at least 2,600 years, necklace-making is one of the few Palawa traditions that has remained intact and has continued without interruption since before European settlement.[45] A number of shell necklaces is held in the collection of the National Museum of Australia.[46]

Legislated definition

In June 2005, the Tasmanian Legislative Council introduced an innovated definition of aboriginality into the Aboriginal Lands Act.[47] The bill was passed to allow Aboriginal Lands Council elections to commence, after uncertainty over who was 'aboriginal', and thus eligible to vote.

Under the bill, a person can claim "Tasmanian Aboriginality" if they meet the following criteria:

  • Ancestry
  • Self-identification
  • Community recognition

Government compensation for "Stolen Generations"

On 13 August 1997 a Statement of Apology (specific to removal of children) was issued - which was unanimously supported by the Tasmanian Parliament - the wording of the sentence was

That this house, on behalf of all Tasmanian(s)... expresses its deep and sincere regret at the hurt and distress caused by past policies under which Aboriginal children were removed from their families and homes; apologises to the Aboriginal people for those past actions and reaffirms its support for reconciliation between all Australians.

There are many people currently working in the community, academia, various levels of government and NGOs to strengthen what has been termed as the Tasmanian Aboriginal culture and the conditions of those who identify as members of the descendant community.

In November 2006 Tasmania became the first Australian state or territory to offer financial compensation for the Stolen Generations, Aboriginal people forcibly removed from their families by Australian government agencies and church missions between about 1900 and 1972. Up to 40 Aboriginal Tasmanians' descendants are expected to be eligible for compensation from the $5 million package.[48]

Some notable Aboriginal Tasmanians

Literature and entertainment


External links

  • , March 2003, 47:3
  • Archives Office of Tasmania "Brief Guide No. 18"
  • Australian Bureau of Statistics)
  • The Lia Pootah People Home Page
  • Henry Reynolds)
  • New Criterion review of Keith Windschuttle's book casting doubt on a supposed Tasmanian genocide.
  • Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR)
  • Reconciliation Australia
  • 1984 Review of Tom Haydon's documentary "The Last Tasmanian" (1978)
  • Richard Flanagan
  • Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.
  • Transcript of current affairs television program Sunday with Keith Windschuttle, Prof. Henry Reynolds, Prof. Cassandra Pybus, Prof. Lyndall Ryan, and others
  • National Museum of Australia

Template:Aboriginal peoples in Tasmania

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