Tyerelore Culture

The Maynard family of Cape Barren Island, 1920 (AOT, PH30/1/6677)

Palawa communities in Tasmania today are a result of the meeting of Aboriginal Tasmanians with the first Europeans in the region of Tasmania. Europeans began to occupy the region from 1798, responding to reports of seals in great abundance. Seal populations could not sustain such depredation and the industry was reduced to a minor activity by 1820. The sealers, living on uninhabited islands of Bass Strait, also began to exploit Aboriginal tribes along the northern and eastern coasts. They obtained young women either by kidnapping or through negotiation with Palawa leaders who sought to establish kinship associations. These young women became known as the Tyerelore, or 'Island Wives'. Because the sealers made no claims on Palawa land, these trade-based relationships were relatively successful, capitalising on the competition that existed between tribes and introducing new commodities such as dogs, flour and tobacco into the Indigenous society.

Sealers mostly considered these Aboriginal women as chattels, trading them as labour in order to exploit their skills in capturing seals and muttonbirds. The women, as young as twelve, were often abused savagely. One sealer called Harrington would punish women he thought had not procured enough skins by tying them to trees for days, flogging and even killing them. Many children were born and communities of sealers and their Palawa partners and children became established on the islands. This community was far from stable and a high rate of infanticide and abandonment of children probably indicated that violence and subjugation dominated the social environment.

It was not only sealers and other men 'on the edge of the law' who persecuted the Palawa. There is little doubt that well-to-do settlers had also joined in the assault. Hull reported 'that it was a favourite amusement to hunt the Aborigines; that a day would be selected and the neighbouring settlers invited, with their families, to a pic-nic... After dinner all would be gaiety and merriment, while the gentlemen of the party would take their guns and dogs, and accompanied by two or three convict servants, wander through the bush in search of blackfellows. Sometimes they would return without sport; at others they would succeed in killing a woman, or, if lucky, a man or two'.

It is from these tumultuous origins that contemporary Tasmanian Aboriginal families trace their forebears. They still honour their ancestors and practise the indigenous cultural traditions that have been handed down through their generations. The strength of the Tyerelore in surviving the onslaught of British invasion has also been translated across the years and is evidenced today in the activities of organisations such as the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, the Mersey–Leven Aboriginal Corporation and the South East Tasmanian Aboriginal Corporation, established and operated by members of Tyerelore families. The struggle for recognition of identity, justice and rights that characterise the contemporary Tasmanian Aboriginal community would seem little different to earlier Aborigines than their own struggles over a century ago.

Further reading: N Plomley (ed), Friendly mission, Hobart, 1966; N Plomley & K Henley, The sealers of Bass Strait, Hobart, 1990; H Reynolds, Fate of a free people, Ringwood, 1995; H Roth, The Aborigines of Tasmania, London, 1890; L Ryan, The Aboriginal Tasmanians, Brisbane, 1996; H Hull, Clerk of the House, written 1882, published Hobart, 1984.

Greg Lehman