In April 1855, J. E. Calder, Surveyor-General of Tasmania, set out to walk to the old convict station at Oyster Cove. So lovely was the day and so beautiful the terrain that Calder made detailed notes of his impressions for a Hobart newspaper. After passing through the hamlet of Snug on the southern edge of North West Bay, Calder followed the road upward into heavily wooded hills from which he caught the occasional glimpse of a spectacular landscape.
Now and then only, when an opening occurred … we greatly admired the varied and magnificent picture which lay before us. The dusky eminences of South Bruny stretched along the horizon, terminating in the bold and beautiful cliffs of the fluted cape. Adventure Bay on the east of Bruny—the place of anchorage of the famous old navigators Cook, Furneaux and Bligh, last century—lies fully in view, separated from the nearer waters of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel by the long, low thread-like isthmus that unites the two peninsulas of Bruny Island … and a vast extent of undulating country in the east and north east, fronting on the most varied coastline in the world, forming altogether a picture which well repays the toil of a long journey to see it.
The huge eucalyptus and myrtle forests have now gone, but in essence the majesty and extraordinary beauty of the scene remain as Calder encountered it in the autumn sunshine a hundred and thirty-three years ago. This is the channel country, the home of my family for six generations. From where Calder stood he could possibly have made out the homestead Sacriston, built by my great-great-grandfather, Richard Pybus, who took up a large land grant on North Bruny Island in 1829. Below him, nestling at the very lip of Little Oyster Cove, but hidden from view, was the house and orchard of Calder’s brother-in-law, Henry Harrison Pybus. This house, inherited by my great-grandfather, is still there behind its screen of trees, but only a huge scarred mulberry tree remains on Bruny to testify to the good fortune of that first immigrant from Northumbria. Not that physical presence matters. On my morning walks over the old station road I can feel my ancestral bonds to this place. It is my place: the landscape of my dreaming.
As I follow the path of my distant kinsman over the steep hills that divide North West Bay and the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, I have the same destination. It is a good long walk for my dog, while for myself it is a profound and constant source of psychic renewal. Like the tall timber, the old station is long since gone, and until recently the site was overrun with a tangle of bracken and blackberries. It was always sour and swampy ground, too low and damp for prolonged dwelling or productive use. Now it is cleared and signposted. The marker, pock-marked with dozens of bullet holes and defaced with spray paint, carries the Aboriginal flag. It is still possible to make out the words, a quotation from Xavier Herbert:
Until we give back to the black man just a bit of the land that was his, and give it back without provisos, without strings to snatch it back, without anything but complete generosity of spirit in concession for the evil we have done to him—until we do that, we shall remain what we have always been so far; a people without integrity; not a nation, but a community of thieves.
The clearing and sign are the work of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community who have a repeatedly unsuccessful land claim on the old convict station site. Their reasons for such a claim are simple and unassailable: this damp glen and swampy inlet are where the remnant of the tribal people of Tasmania were brought to die. On that April morning in 1855, Surveyor Calder was on his way to visit the few Aboriginals who still remained at Oyster Cove.
Nearing his melancholy object, Calder found the glory of the landscape quite diminished by the forlorn spectre of the station. ‘But if the view were a hundred times more prepossessing than it is’, he wrote, ‘its attractions would be scarcely observed … when we know that within the walls of that desolate-looking shealing are all who now remain of a once formidable people, whom a thirty years war with our countrymen has swept into captivity and their relatives to the grave.’ Within this dreary edifice, Calder found sixteen Aboriginal people living in a state of abject neglect and degradation, denied all but ‘a naked sustenance … to prevent them dying from want’. Mindful of ‘the duties of man to his follows’, Calder was indignant that ‘even at this late hour’ something should be done to improve the conditions of this pitiful remnant, ‘for we cannot by mere maintenance in life repay the debt we owe a race whom we have forcibly dispossessed of everything but mere existence’.
Did this desire to soothe the dying brow, I wonder, bring with it any sense of culpability? Was Calder moved to reflect on the role he might have played while on his surveying explorations into various parts of Tasmania? Did he have cause to consider that, as a recipient of an original land grant on Bruny Island, he had actually dispossessed one of that remnant whose plight now so moved him? As he admired the impressive terrain of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, did he observe that this temperate paradise contained both the beginning and the end of the fatal encounter of European and Aboriginal peoples? Did it matter to him that the virtual genocide of the Tasmanian people occurred within his own lifetime and that he was both witness to and participant in the process? Sadly, these are not the kinds of thoughts to which Calder’s readers are privy.
It is a perverse desire to make the past bear witness, to own up to its grievous acts. After all, what difference could it possibly make now? What was done is done, the newspaper letter writers remind me. Those early settlers, my ancestors, were simply creatures of their time, which is to say they were men like other men; no better, no worse. The past is another country, things are different there. Ah, but that is not how it seems to me on this morning, when a delicate shift of wind across the channel brings me the smell of broom on dancing white horses. In that instant of pure joy I am awash with memory reaching back to smallest childhood and beyond to the accumulated memories of my father and grandfather. We have been very happy here in the territory of the Nuenone people. Has any one of us stopped to do a reckoning?
On 26 January 1777, Captain James Cook brought his vessels Resolution and Discovery into calm anchorage beneath the great fluted cape at Adventure Bay on Bruny Island. Here, as elsewhere in the Pacific, the great navigator was keen to cultivate friendship with the native people. He seized his opportunity when a party of ten Aboriginal men was sighted on the beach. Cook was agreeably surprised to find the men approach his party unarmed and confident. They showed little interest in the trinkets he proffered or the varieties of food with which they were tempted. Cook noted that the Aboriginal men were naked, with ornamental punctures and ridges on their skin. He found them to be sturdy, healthy and ‘far from disagreeable’. There was nothing in this encounter to make him revise the opinion he had formed in New South Wales, that the Aboriginal people laid no claim to the land and would not oppose British settlement.
When d’Entrecasteaux sailed into the channel that bears his name almost exactly sixteen years later, he and his fellow scientists were also on the lookout for the local inhabitants. In a charmed encounter with a large mixed group, the naturalist Labillardière found them to be a spartan and friendly lot, with an openness he found most disarming. But his enthusiasm for these noble savages was not echoed by Péron and other scientists aboard Baudin’s expedition, which called at Bruny Island eight years later. After an encounter with some twenty of the inhabitants, Péron described them as a miserable horde in a state of extreme primitiveness. This assessment concurred with the observations Péron had made elsewhere in Van Diemen’s Land. In concluding that the Tasmanian Aborigines were further from civilisation than any other human race, Péron unwittingly provided scientific justification for their dispossession.
The presence of Baudin’s expedition in Van Diemen’s Land also provided justification for the occupation of the territory by the British, who feared the intentions of the French. Woorredy, a youth of the Nuenone band from Bruny, saw these first white settlers arrive:
We watched the ships coming and were frightened. My people had seen ships like these before and knew about the white men and their pieces of wood that spat fire and killed. I was very young and I thought the ships were the Wragewrapper—the evil spirit my parents had said would come and get me if I did not behave well. Although we were frightened my people did not leave Nibberluna [Derwent]. We stayed hidden for a long time watching the strangers as they cut down trees, built their huts and planted their crops. (Reported to G. A. Robinson on 11 July 1833)
Woorredy’s sense that these ships brought the evil spirit was not misplaced. Within twenty-five years of the first settlement at Risdon in 1803, the newcomers had taken all but the most inhospitable parts of the island for themselves, reducing the Aboriginal people to trespassers on their own hunting grounds. Though initially courteous and hospitable, Aboriginal reaction turned to violent resistance in the face of mindless killings, kidnappings and wholesale expropriation. Outraged at Aboriginal retaliation, the settlers declared an open season on killing the ‘crows’, as they commonly called the Aboriginal people.
In the midst of the lethal hostilities of the ‘Black War’, the channel district could still present an image of racial harmony. On 11 April 1828, a Captain Walsh reported that a party of about fifty Aboriginals from Bruny and the channel always gathered when vessels called at Recherche Bay, and would enthusiastically join the crews, hunting, fishing and making themselves useful. That the Nuenone people could be so benign is quite remarkable, as they too had suffered untold depredations and cruelty. On several occasions Nuenone men were captured and taken to Hobart as sociological exhibits. One man had escaped the Governor’s pleasure to return to his people with a ball and chain still attached to his leg. Mangana, an important elder, had experienced the murder of his wife by whalers and the abduction of his two eldest daughters by sealers. His youngest daughter, Truganini, had been raped repeatedly by convict sawyers, and borne horrified witness to the gruesome murder of her betrothed and his friend by these same men.
Neither were the Nuenone free to regard Bruny Island and the channel as their hunting and fishing grounds. Whaling and logging had been established in the 1820s, and the government magnanimously parcelled up large sections of the island to be granted freehold to settlers. One such beneficiary was Richard Pybus, who arrived in the colony in 1829 with some two thousand pounds in gold and stores to be promptly granted title to 2560 acres of the fertile northern part of Bruny. There is neither surviving record nor family lore as to how this first Pybus regarded the dispossessed people who still clung to their traditional territory. Perhaps he gave them hand-outs of tea and flour, as did the overseer at Captain Kelly’s farm on the point. Perhaps, like so many of his kind, he found them just a damned nuisance. I don’t know. But I do know about his loquacious neighbour, George Augustus Robinson, whose voluminous and self-regarding journals represent almost the entire written record of the tribal people of Tasmania.
Lacking the social standing and material assets to guarantee him a land grant as an automatic right, Robinson was given 500 acres and a cottage in addition to his salary as the government-appointed store-keeper of an Aboriginal establishment on Bruny. Robinson had left his trade as a bricklayer to take this post, ‘actuated solely by a desire to serve the aborigines, to do them good, to ameliorate their wretched conditions and to raise them in the scale of civilisation’. To this end he proposed the establishment of a native village where the principles of European civilisation could be learnt and Christian instruction given. As he explained in his journal of 30 September 1829:
Though in point of intellectual advancement the aborigines of this colony rank very low in the savage creation, yet this defect is amply counterbalanced by the many amiable points which glitter like sunbeams through the shroud of darkness by which they are enveloped, and operate most powerfully in calling forth from the discriminating and philanthropic observer an irresistible feeling of sympathy on their behalf.
The concept of an Aboriginal settlement which would afford some protection to the Indigenous people, and possibly some token recognition of their right to land, was part of Governor Arthur’s strategy to find a solution to the native problem short of the genocide proposed by many vocal sections of the white community.
Arthur’s strategy also included the deployment of roving bands whose mission was to capture blacks for a bounty of five pounds per adult and two pounds per child. Presumably Arthur intended these captives to be repatriated to Robinson’s care on Bruny. Indeed, two Nuenone people, Jack and his wife Nelson, were used as trackers for one roving party in the central plateau. Their experience yields some dues about such parties’ modus operandi. While Jack was repeatedly beaten by the soldiers, Nelson was forced to have sex with them. Jack was callously shot on attempting to escape, but Nelson managed to return to Bruny in a shocked and dazed state. There is no way of knowing just how many Aboriginals were killed by these bands. Certainly no-one grew rich on the bounty. According to Backhouse, such a successful operator as John Batman had killed thirty in the process of capturing five. Some indication of the Governor’s intention can be gleaned from the newspaper editor Henry Melville’s report of a bizarre conversation between Arthur and Black Tom (Kickerterpoller), a guide for Gilbert Robertson’s roving party. After an exchange concerning the policy of confining Aboriginals to specified areas such as the islands of Bass Strait, the conversation continued:
Tom—You send him to dat hyland, and take’t all him own country—what you give him for him own country? Governor—I will give them food and blankets, and teach them to work.
By mid-1829, Arthur seems to have decided on Bruny Island as the site. He ordered that all Aboriginals living with Europeans were to be sent to Bruny and soon after dispatched the few captured Aboriginals to join them. He was prepared to be generous in assisting the experiment. To Robert, an industrious fellow raised by settlers since a baby, he made a grant of twenty acres, as well as a boat, cart, bullock and farm implements. Likewise, Kickerterpoller was promised land and a boat. Perhaps these two, having learnt the rewards of European labour from childhood, were to be models for their fellow countrymen.
Whatever the intention, neither Robert nor Kickerterpoller became farmers. By the time they reached Missionary Bay, Robinson had despaired of Bruny for his Aboriginal establishment. Death had rapidly overtaken the Nuenone since Robinson’s appearance among them. Mangana, on whom he had relied, had taken his second wife and son on an annual trip to Recherche Bay in August 1829. There his son was killed and his wife seized by mutinying convicts on the brig Cyprus. He returned to find that in his absence eleven of his people had died, as well as eleven visitors from Port Davey. To Mangana’s further dismay, Robinson had shown himself to be unable to restrain the women, Truganini, Pagerly and Dray, from cohabiting with the European men who supplied them with tea and sugar, and all three were debilitated with venereal disease. Mangana himself died in December.
Not to be daunted, Robinson hit upon the audacious idea of taking the five surviving Nuenone—Woorredy, Myunge, Droyerloine, Truganini and Pagerly—as well as Dray from Port Davey, to conciliate the tribes of the west coast and bring them under the umbrella of his protection. To this group he added the newcomers Kickerterpoller, Eumarrah, Trepanner, Maulboyhenner, Pawaretar and Robert. They left Bruny Island on 28 January 1830. The Aboriginals never returned. What became of Robert’s twenty acres, I have no way of knowing. Probably it was absorbed into the estate of some enterprising settler, to be passed on to his descendants and defended with the fierce determination and full force of the law that is so endearingly British.
Robinson did return to check on his own land on 5 April 1833. He dined with Richard Pybus, and they discussed property values and the cost of improvements. That evening in his journal Robinson had reason to query the veracity of Pybus’s assertions on this score. They remained neighbours for another five years, although Robinson was perpetually absent. In 1838, when Pybus sold 1880 acres, Robinson’s interest was aroused at the prospect of capitalising his property also. But it was not until 1848, just before he departed for England, that Robinson sold his Bruny Island holding, by then one of many land grants he had received.
Not Bruny but Flinders Island became the site of Robinson’s philanthropic enterprise for the approximately three hundred Aboriginal people he was able to track down and conciliate between 1830 and 1835. There, at the dreary settlement at Wybalenna, he set about making them over into a Christian peasantry who laboured for a master and had no rights to the land they occupied, or to its products. ‘Had the poor creatures survived’, he wrote in his retirement at Bath, ‘I am convinced they would have formed a contented and useful community.’ Perceiving that Flinders had become one great graveyard, he threw in the towel in 1838 and took himself off to more lucrative prospects as the Protector of Aborigines in Port Phillip.
In October 1847, the forty-six survivors of Wybalenna made the longed-for return journey to the Tasmanian mainland. Among them were Truganini and Myunge, returning after seventeen years to the familiar territory of the Nuenone. The convict station at Oyster Cove was damp and dilapidated but it was in sight of their birthplace, their spiritual homeland. It was the proximity to home, much more than the beef and damper, that sustained Truganini for the next four decades of her increasingly lonely life.
Sir William Denison, the governor who had delivered the Aboriginals from their misery on Flinders, had his anxieties about the return to the mainland. Public protests had been held in Launceston; there was widespread concern that the blacks would endanger property. Having surveyed the thoroughly inoffensive group, Denison wrote to the Colonial Secretary: ‘the mountain is delivered of a mouse indeed’. He gave instructions that the survivors be paraded before the citizens of Hobart and that ‘respectable persons’ be invited to visit Oyster Cove to observe them. In December 1847, Denison organised a Christmas party at New Norfolk where he entertained fourteen Aboriginal guests, and the following year six men were taken to visit Government House.
At Oyster Cove, however, the Aboriginals were largely left to their own devices, while the children were removed to the orphan school at Hobart. Occasionally there were hunting sorties as far afield as the Huon, which provided great pleasure in contrast to the chill and idleness of the station. Walter Arthur, undisputed leader of the community, attempted to farm the sour ground, and received a grant of fifteen acres near the settlement. He employed a European labourer to help him clear the land, but his later request for an assigned convict was refused. Subsequently, a request for more fertile land near the Huon was also refused.
Except for the social outings when the residents at Oyster Cove were dressed up in European finery, parsimony was the watchword for all government dealings with the Aboriginal settlement. By April 1855, only fourteen people remained at the station. Thirty-one had died. Fanny, daughter of Nicermenic and Tanganutura, had married a European, William Smith, and had gone to live with him at Nicholls Rivulet. Despite complaints from both Calder and the visiting magistrate, the settlement’s funding was pared to a minimum and nothing was done to repair the filthy, derelict buildings. Meat rations were ‘often inedible, and blankets and clothing were traded for supplies, including ‘strong drink’ from local Europeans. Mathinna, once the pride and joy of Lady Franklin, who had taken her from Flinders to the pampered inner sanctum of Government House, drowned in a shallow creek beside the station in May 1855, having fallen facedown in a drunken stupor. She was twenty-one, but no longer anyone’s pride and joy.
In 1859, Hull’s Royal Kalendar listed the occupants of Oyster Cove as ‘five old men and nine old women … Uncleanly, unsober, unvirtuous, unenergetic and irreligious, with a past character for treachery and no record of noble action, the race is fast fading away and its utter extinction will hardly be regretted.’ Such sentiments were not uncommon and helped to fan official concern for the cost of maintaining this despised remnant. Walter Arthur, already defeated by disappointment, drowned when he fell from a boat in 1861, leaving the eight remaining Aboriginals with no-one to represent their interests. Alternatives for their care were canvassed, including an intriguing offer from Henry Harrison Pybus to look after them for five hundred pounds a year on his adjacent property at Little Oyster Cove.
Henry Harrison and his sister Margaret, probably children from an earlier marriage, emigrated with Richard Pybus in 1829. Margaret married the surveyor J. E. Calder, and Henry Harrison prospered in various entrepreneurial enterprises, including the logging operations and saw mill he owned jointly with William L. Crowther at Oyster Cove. He was certainly not in straitened circumstances, so I might assume his offer sprang from benevolent impulse rather than mercenary considerations. It is possible that he remembered Truganini from his youth, or that his proximity had stimulated an affectionate concern for his Aboriginal neighbours, though he does not seem to have ever made a visit to the station. Maybe he was concerned about the moral tone of the neighbourhood, since he undertook to keep his charges from public houses and ‘intimacies of an objectionable kind’. Yet another possibility is that it was his partner, Crowther, who instigated the offer.
Dr Crowther, among his varied pursuits, was a man of science with a particular interest in the original Tasmanians. He already had a collection of skeletal material and was keen to secure the skeletons of those he believed to be the last of their race. As joint owner of the property to which they were invited to move, Crowther would certainly have had prime access to the Aboriginal skulls and bones he coveted. With an arrangement of this kind, Crowther may not have needed to resort to breaking into the morgue to steal the skull from William Lanne’s corpse, as he did on 4 March 1869. The Examiner reported a rumour that Crowther had taken a prospecting lease on the old convict station in 1867. His son, Edward, who had assisted with the operation on William Lanne, acquired the site in 1900, and with his own son proceeded to dig up the graves of its Aboriginal inhabitants in 1907.
Speculation about motives aside, Pybus’s price was still too high for the Tasmanian government to pay. Instead, the settlement was allowed to continue in its deplorable condition under the despairing supervision of John Strange Dandridge, who did what he could with his meagre provisions. Despite the appalling conditions of their domicile, the remaining Aboriginals were increasingly being recognised as rare and valuable. William Lanne, who had joined a whaling crew, had been given the quite erroneous title of King Billy as a recognition of his importance. In 1864 the four women still living at Oyster Cove—Truganini, Wapperty, Goneannah and Mary Anne—were dressed up and taken to a ball at Government House. A newspaper social columnist reported the women to be ‘charmed beyond measure by the position they occupied’. Along with Lanne, they then had their photograph taken so the Museum could record them for posterity. In 1868, William Lanne and Truganini, now called Queen Truganini, were presented to the Duke of Edinburgh as fellow royalty.
William Lanne died in 1869, having progressed from being a despised outcast to itinerant seaman to immensely valuable property. After Crowther and son stole his skull, the Fellows of the Royal Society cut off his hands and feet, then returned to the grave to cart off the rest of his remains after they had been buried. Such grisly scientific endeavour had a profoundly unsettling effect on Truganini, who was quick to perceive the interest her own body might excite. It was her fervent wish, reiterated to several people, that she be buried in the deepest part of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel in order to escape such a fate.
In 1874, after three years as sole Aboriginal resident at Oyster Cove, Truganini was transferred into the care of Mrs Dandridge at Battery Point and the settlement was closed. Truganini, last of the Nuenone, died on 8 May 1876, ninety-nine years after her people had their first fateful encounter with the inquisitive Captain Cook. She was buried at the Cascades in Hobart, and the following year her body was illegally exhumed to serve the interests of science. It was a further ninety-nine years before Truganini was to get her wish to be buried in the territory of the Nuenone. Her skeleton was on display in the Tasmanian Museum until 1947, then stored in the museum vaults. After considerable public pressure, Tuganini’s remains were finally cremated on 1 May 1976 and the ashes cast upon the waters of the D’Entrecasteaux.
On the other side of Mount Wellington, well away from the public debate about the proper disposal of the body, Truganini was mourned in the traditional way by her friend Fanny Cochrane Smith, who had been born at Wybalenna and lived with her family at Oyster Cove. For many years Fanny had lived inland from Oyster Cove at Nicholls Rivulet, on a hundred-acre allotment granted to her in 1856, along with a lifetime annuity of twenty-four pounds. There she escaped public interest because of her marriage to William Smith, and because there was a suspicion that, like her sister Mary Anne, Fanny was a half-caste and of no scientific value.
Along with her husband and eleven children, Fanny ran a successful farm and timber business as well as continuing the traditional pursuits, hunting and gathering wild foods. Until 1874 she was often accompanied on her hunting trips by residents from Oyster Cove, especially Truganini. Until her own death in 1905, Fanny Cochrane Smith nurtured and promoted Aboriginal culture and traditions, giving performances of the songs and stories of her people. These she also passed on to her many children and grandchildren. Thanks to the wonders of technology, I can still listen to Fanny singing into a recording machine in 1903. She sings in honour of a great leader:
Papele royna ngongna Lo with might runs the man.
toka mengha leah My heel is swift like the fire.
Nena taypa rayna poonya My heel is indeed swift like the fire.
Nena nawra peyllah Come thou and run like a man.
Pallah a nawra pewylla A very great man, a great man.
Pellanah, Pellanah A man who is a hero! Hurrah.
The recording quality is very poor, but Fanny’s strong voice never fails to make the hair rise on the back of my neck. Her photographs show a handsome black woman, assured and elegant in Edwardian clothing which she has adorned with shell necklaces and possum skins. By all accounts, Fanny Cochrane Smith was an impressive woman. She so impressed the Tasmanian Parliament that in 1884 they agreed to increase her pension to fifty pounds a year and give her full title to 300 acres. The land was actually granted in 1889. There is no doubt that both Fanny and the parliament regarded this grant as compensation for the expropriation of Aboriginal land.
While 300 acres was small cheese compared to Richard Pybus’s 2560, there were those who felt that Fanny’s claim to land was fraudulent. In the late 1880s, opposing voices raised the issue of her parentage, insisting that as a half-caste, by which they meant non-Aboriginal, she could have no claim on the land. Fanny’s mother Tanganutura, known as Sarah, had lived with sealers for some years and had one child, Mary Anne, by a white man. Though Fanny was bom at Wybalenna after her mother had married Nicermenic, there was always a suggestion that she too was ‘half-caste’. The Aboriginal people all regarded Nicermenic as Fanny’s father, just as he was the father of her brother Adam. Fanny and her husband always maintained both parents were Aboriginal and presented convincing evidence to the parliament in 1889.
This would have been the end of the matter but for the Royal Society, which was never far away when Aboriginal issues were at stake. A paper read at the Society by Mr Barnard ‘threw out the challenge to ethnologists’ with the assertion that Fanny was of pure Tasmanian blood. Science rose to the occasion to prove she was not. Ling Roth, working from photographs and a lock of hair, definitively proclaimed Fanny a half-caste in 1898. His ‘proof ’ was accepted over Fanny’s own evidence and has been ever since.
Fanny did not lose her grant and pension, but the denial of her identity must have dealt a cruel blow to her, as perhaps it was meant to. Entering the twentieth century, Tasmanians were disinclined to dwell on the moral responsibilities of their past. Modern Tasmania had no place for Aboriginality outside of the classroom and the cherished story of ‘Queen Truganini—Last of the Tasmanians’. By proving that ‘half-castes’ were non-Aboriginal, Ling Roth’s curious science provided the underpinning for a continuing policy of denying Aboriginal rights in Tasmania. In granting land to Fanny Cochrane Smith, the government acted in error—so the logic runs. Since then, however, science has been on hand to ensure such errors are not repeated.
Leaving the grand sweep of vista, my walk descends into a perpetually damp gully of man ferns and musk trees, and I am conscious of the melancholy that always seems to emanate from Oyster Cove. But on crossing Mathinna Creek, named for Lady Franklin’s darling, I catch sounds of revelry from the old station site. Smoke rises above the trees, and excited, high-pitched voices carry to where I stand, taken by surprise, with my dog. Closer scrutiny reveals a kids’ barbecue, organised by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. A game of rounders is in progress on the mudflats while huge quantities of chops and sausages are charring on the grill plate. My dog, keen to play, darts off to chase the ball, leaving me, the intruder, unsure whether to advance or retreat. I know these people, some of them at least. Several whom I recognise are the great-great-grandchildren of Fanny Cochrane Smith, who lived here with her parents, her brother and sister, all those years ago. We were close neighbours then, my family and theirs, but I fear I am not wanted here at this family picnic. I wave, call my dog and leave, somewhat belittled by the feeling that I have nothing to contribute.
On the homeward path, I crush leaves from the musk tree to immerse my senses in their pungent aroma. I do not know how to pay the dues I owe for my charmed existence in this place. I do know we cannot remake the past, but the promise remains that we can remake the future. With a head full of musk scent I remember the words of the American poet Robert Penn Warren, reflecting on his own country’s brutal history:
But if responsibility is not The thing given but the thing to be achieved, There is still no way out of the responsibility of Trying to achieve responsibility.
NOTE: In the preparation of this piece I have been especially indebted to Heather Felton, who has painstakingly compiled the life stories of many of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people.