Aboriginal Islanders

Aboriginal people on Cape Barren Island, about 1940 (AOT, PH30/1/6675)

Many contemporary Tasmanian Aborigines are descended from a community of Aboriginal women and European sealers, established in the early 1800s on the Furneaux Islands. Some women were abducted by sealers, others were traded by Aboriginal men in attempts to establish reciprocal relations with the sealers. By 1840 muttonbirding was the basis of the community's economy, built on the basis of Aboriginal knowledge of muttonbirding and European maritime skills. Birding quickly acquired a ritual significance. Its seasonal nature and community basis facilitated the maintenance of Aboriginal identity, as did geographical remoteness from mainland Tasmania.

From the 1850s, the Islander community, through letters, petitions and representations to government, actively pursued the return of land. The Islanders believed they should be given control of the muttonbird rookeries as compensation for the British invasion and theft of their ancestors' lands. Their insistence on the maintenance of a culture based on hunting and community rather than European farming and social individualism brought them into regular conflict with Tasmanian authorities, especially the various missionaries sent to 'civilise' them.

The formation in 1897 of an Islander Association to agitate for control of the rookeries resulted in the Cape Barren Island Reserve Act (1912), intended to subjugate Islanders to government authority and transform them into peasant farmers. Governments offered limited access to rookeries and unwanted leaseholds on small, infertile agricultural blocks. The Islanders regularly challenged the power of local authorities, consistently defied unpopular provisions of the Reserve Act, and maintained a lifestyle and identity clearly different from that of mainstream Tasmanian society.

Tasmanian Aborigines were perceived by early colonists in terms of the concept of savagery, mostly the idea of the ignoble savage. Later perceptions were framed within the evolutionary strictures of scientific racism. Evolutionary scientists in Europe saw Tasmanian Aborigines as the 'missing link' between humans and apes, and the Tasmanians were for a time the focus of scientific inquiry into man's primitive past, seen as clear evidence of natural selection at work. Truganini's death in 1876 confirmed that belief. Tasmanians were now regarded as extinct.

Since they held an exalted status at the bottom end of the evolutionary scale, their physical remains were keenly sought. Members of the Royal Society of Tasmania engaged in grave-robbing. Truganini's skeleton was dug up and put on display in the Tasmanian Museum from 1904 until 1947. William Lanney's head was removed from his corpse, and a tobacco pouch was made from his scrotum. In 1909 William Crowther removed twelve skeletons from the graves at Oyster Cove. A shameful trade distributed Aboriginal remains to major Australian and European research institutions. Tasmanian crania were used by osteologists at the University of Melbourne, a major centre for osteological research, in failed experiments seeking to prove a hierarchy of cerebral capacity.

After Truganini's death, white Tasmanians perceived the Islanders within a racist ideology of the Aboriginal 'half-caste'. Successive governments, and Tasmanian society generally, consistently refused to acknowledge the Islanders' Aboriginality. Rather, they were seen as hybrids who combined the worst characteristics of their Aboriginal and sealer forebears and were best confined to the Cape Barren Island Reserve. These derogatory views persisted despite active participation by Aboriginal Islanders in both world wars. Such views fuelled the assimilationist thinking which led to the closure of the Cape Barren Island Reserve in 1951, and remained firmly in place until the late twentieth century.

Once the Reserve was closed, some Islanders, believing the Reserve to be their land, remained on the island. Some were forcibly removed to mainland Tasmania, others voluntarily left and lived in sub-standard housing in poorer suburbs in Launceston, Hobart and Burnie. Many who remained on the island had their children stolen by welfare authorities in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite this harsh treatment and their relatively small numbers, the spirit of the Tasmanian Aborigines was not crushed.

Further reading: L Ryan, The Aboriginal Tasmanians, Sydney, 1996; H Reynolds, Fate of a free people, Melbourne, 1995; J Boyce, God's own country?, Hobart, 2001; S Murray-Smith, 'Beyond the Pale', THRAPP 20/4, 1973.

Shayne Breen