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Flinders Island May 5, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

File:Flinders island.jpg

Beachcombing tries to get a geographical spread going with his posts where – if there is a depressing bias towards Europe and Blighty – he covers pretty much the whole globe  in at least a token fashion. However, some parts of the world are underrepresented. Take Australasia. Bar some reports of moas in New Zealand and rumours of Australia on a sixteenth-century map Beach has been disgracefully neglectful of the Antipodes.

By way of amends he thought he would offer today the history of a Forgotten Kingdom, Flinders Island and its last citizens, any ever diminishing group of Tasmanian Aborigines.

In the early nineteenth century British colonisation of Tasmania began apace: convicts salted with the odd farming and pioneer families.

The native population, the Aborigines of Tasmania did not resist in a systematic fashion: by this Beachcombing means that there were no wars and certainly nothing to compare with the Maori resistance in New Zealand.

There was, however, bloodshed and death.

Indeed, in the 1820s and 1830s barely a month went by in which a settler was not murdered – there seems to have been a form of guerrilla warfare on the part of the natives. And the settlers’ treatment of the aborigines was everything that can be imagined and worse… Some have spoken, perhaps reasonably, of genocide: rape and slavery certainly figured.

The British administration tried to deal with the original inhabitants with a variety of methods, from proto multi-culturalism to the most nightmarish forms of apartheid.

What all of these strategies had in common was though that they were ineffective.

The white man’s most decisive weapon was not public policy or rifles but the viruses he and (perhaps more importantly) his animals brought to pristine Tasmania. Indeed, one estimate is that by 1830, only about 300 aborigines of an initial population of several thousand were left, most of the dead had been the victims of disease.

There are reasons for thinking that this number is  approximately accurate. What is certain is that the natives were already outnumbered by European settlers at that time and had been for perhaps a decade.

The creation of Flinders Land and the final doom of the Tasmanians was decided in the early 1830s when a curious individual George Augustus Robinson set about rounding up the remaining natives. His modus operandi is worth reporting. GAD – one of those well-meaning bunglers who do more damage to civilization than atom bombs – would go out into the Tasmanian bush  and invite the Aborigines to have a cup of tea with him. From there he would try and convince them to come and join an Aboriginal village he was setting up.

He did not go into details but he planned to protect, to civilise and to Christianise the locals: GAD was an evangelical preacher though allegedly he also had sexual relations with his adopted aboriginal ‘daughters’.

By 1835 he had brought together most of the remaining aborigines – perhaps all the pure bloods – promising them a safe place of refuge. And in that year he took them to Flinders Island to the north of Tasmania where none could hope to escape. He was determined to enforce a sedentary lifestyle. Records tell us that this unusual colony numbered about 120 when it began in that year.

Beachcombing’s readers will judge the wisdom of GAD’s mission by their own values. What is clear is that by the most basic variable of all the mission failed for the Tasmanians kept, inconsiderately, dying. Indeed, by 1839 only seventy of the one hundred and twenty were left. By 1851 there were thirty – in 1843 the Aborigines had been moved back to the Tasmanian mainland. By 1855 sixteen… And in 1876 the second to last Tasmanian, Truganini, died and in 1905, the very last, Fanny Cochrane Smith.

As an aside Beachcombing should note that Truganini was treated by the colonists with as little respect in death as she had been treated in life. Her skeleton was not buried but displayed in the Royal Society of Tasmania, though in this she fared better than the third to last Tasmanian to die, William Lanne, whose scrotum was made into a tobacco pouch.

So what went wrong?

A western diet, western way of life and crucially western viruses had not suited the population. Veneral diseases had sterilised and pulmonary illnesses had killed.

Beachcombing is something of an imperialist in historical terms – especially when that means the French and the British thrashing it out in North America or Spanish treasure ships in the Pacific. But here in Tasmania is the sordid reality of what colonisation all too often meant and that reality is underlined by GAD’s killing kindness.

Indeed, GAD’s attempts to create a haven had had the worst possible results. Flinders Island (and subsequent homes of the shrinking population) had gathered the remaining Aborigines together as efficiently as a Third Reich death camp. The last locals would have had a much better chance of survival out in the Tasmanian bush. As it was they were to die in suits and full length dresses with daily visits to church. This photograph of the four of the last Tasmanians (minus Fanny Cochrane Smith) says it all. While an early phonograph recording of Fanny Cochrane Smith speaking and singing Tasmanian – the only example we have of this language family – is enough to make Ayers Rock weep.

Beachcombing is always on the look out for ‘forgotten kingdoms’ particularly modern examples: drbeachcombing AT yahooDOTcom