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Tasmanian Aboriginal People and History

Gwion


Aboriginal people have been living in Tasmania for at least 35 000 years. They continue living on the island today, descendants of the original occupants, with art and culture connected to their predecessors as well as having contemporary influences.

 

The oldest Aboriginal occupation site, Warreen, has been dated as 35 000 years old. Other signs of early occupation are the rock art (petroglyphs) at various places, particularly around the north west coast.

Circles are the main engraved symbol, together with spirals and rows of dots. Figurative elements (animal tracks, emus) are less common.

Tasmanian rock art

The rock engravings at Preminghana (formerly called Mount Cameron West), shown above right, are the best known engravings and are estimated to have a minimum age of 1500 years.

There are also rock shelters and caves decorated with red ochre hand stencils. Ochre was apparently widely used by the wallaby hunters from at least 35 000 years ago until the end of the last Ice Age around 12 000 years ago.

The Aboriginal people of Tasmania became separated from the mainland around 10 000 years ago when the sea level rose with the ending of the Ice Age, flooding the Bassian Plains between Tasmania and Victoria. The result was isolation from other people and a society with unique cultural practices, traditions and beliefs.

Life before Invasion

Changes in the social, cultural and territorial structures of the Tasmanian people over time are largely unknown. However, there is evidence that around 3500 years ago scale fish were dropped from from the people's diet and they increased their consumption of land animals such as kangaroos and wallabies. The women collected abalones, oysters, mussels and other shellfish and the remains of these form enormous middens around Tasmania's coastline.

At about this time they also stopped using bone tools, and refined their making of stone tool implements. Canoes were used during the last 2000 years to travel to islands to harvest mutton birds and seals during summer and autumn.

As a mainly nomadic people, Tasmanian people followed the seasonal changes in food supply, such as shellfish, seabirds, wallaby and a variety of vegetable foods. They camped in family groups, several of which formed a band, the land-holding group in Tasmanian society. Six to fifteen bands spoke the same language and there were nine language groups or tribes in Tasmania at the time of European contact.

Archaeological evidence indicates that the population of Tasmania had been expanding, at least territorially, from 4000 to 3000 years ago until the 18th century. The use of fire to open up forested areas may have played a major role in this expansion.

At the start of the 1800s the population is thought to have been in the range 4000 to 10000. They had a social and political organisation comparable to hunter/gatherer communities on mainland Australia and they had a clear understanding of 'country'.

European explorers visited Tasmania during the 17th and 18th centuries and the British settled in the south of the island in 1803. This was the start of the history of destructive interaction of Aboriginal Tasmanians with Europeans.

British Occupation of Tasmania

Between 1803 and 1823, there were two phases of conflict between the Aborigines and the British colonists. The first took place between 1803 and 1808 over the need for common food sources such as kangaroos, and the second between 1808 and 1823, when the small number of white females among the farmers, sealers and whalers, led to the abduction of Aboriginal women as sexual partners and Aboriginal children as labourers.

These practices also increased conflict over women among Aboriginal tribes. This in turn led to a decline in the Aboriginal population. European disease, however, does not appear to have become a serious factor until after 1829.

Rapid pastoral expansion and an increase in the colony's population triggered Aboriginal resistance from 1824 onwards. Whereas settlers and stock keepers had previously provided rations to the Aborigines during their seasonal movements across the settled districts, and recognised this practice as some form of payment for trespass, the new settlers and stock keepers were unwilling to maintain these arrangements.

So the Aborigines began to raid settlers' huts for food. This resistance first took shape in 1824 when it has been estimated by Lyndall Ryan that 1000 Aborigines remained in the settled districts.

Between 1826 and 1831 a pattern of guerrilla warfare by the Aborigines was identified by the colonists, some of whom acknowledged the Aborigines as fighting for their country. The colonial government responded with a series of measures to limit the conflict, culminating in the declaration of martial law in 1828.

The Black War of 1828-32 and the Black Line of 1830 were turning points in the relationship with European settlers. Even though the tribes managed to avoid capture during these events, they were shaken by the size of the campaigns against them.

Removal to Flinders Island

The colonial government decided to change its strategy from a military one to one of "pacification" and employed a builder and lay preacher from London, George Augustus Robinson, to seek better relations with the remaining Aboriginal people.

Robinson set out from Hobart in 1830 on an eight month trek through the wilds of Tasmania with a group of convict servants, two Aboriginal chefs, and a group of four male and three women Aborigines searching for the last surviving tribal groups.

Robinson saw himself as a Conciliator who would liberate the remaining Aborigines who were left hiding and bring them into a haven safe from white persecution. Robinson undertook five more similar expeditions, eventually making contact with every tribe and group of Aborigines left in Tasmania.

"The Conciliation" - painting by Benjamin Duterrau
Stylized representation of George Augustus Robinson with Tasmanian Aborigines
"The Conciliation" - painting by Benjamin Duterrau, 1840

By 1835 Robinson had managed to persuade the remaining people to move to a new settlement on Flinders Island, called Wybalenna, where he promised a modern and comfortable environment, and that they would be relocated to the Tasmanian mainland as soon as possible.

Truganini

An important guide and interpreter for Robinson was an Aboriginal woman called Truganini. In 1829 Truganini became the partner of Woorraddy and with him accompanied Robinson on his missions to the Aboriginal tribes between 1830-1834.

She worked with Woorraddy to help Robinson move Aboriginal people from the mainland to settle on Flinders Island.

She arrived at the Aboriginal settlement on Flinders Island (Wybalenna) in 1835 disillusioned with Robinson and his mission, realising that the resettlement program would further erode the chances of the remaining Aboriginal population leading their preferred way of life.

In 1839 Truganini went to Port Phillip (now known as Melbourne, Victoria) but returned to Wybalenna in 1842. Woorraddy died on the way, a further blow to Truganini. She then moved with her people to Oyster Cove on the mainland.

Truganini in 1866
Truganini in 1866
(photograph by Charles Wooley)

The Oyster Cove settlement was not successful and most of the people died. At the end of her life Truganini lived in Hobart and was very well known. She died in 1876.

Aboriginal People in Tasmania Today

Truganini became known as the last Tasmanian Aborigine but this is not correct. Despite the loss of Aboriginal lives on the colonial frontier, Tasmanian Aborigines did not cease to exist in 1876 - Tasmanian people and Tasmanian art and culture have continued through the descendants of the Wybalenna people and others.

Up until the mid 1970s, it was widely believed in white Australia that the "Last Tasmanian" (Truganini) died in 1876. However, the appearance of vocal campaigners for the Aboriginal cause have changed this view dramatically, to the point where it is now widely accepted within the Tasmanian community that some 10000 people have Aboriginal heritage.

Further reading: "The Aboriginal Tasmanians" by Lyndall Ryan, University of Queensland Press

 

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