Trick or Treaty? Tasmania’s Unfinished Business
Inaugural Lecture for World Indigenous People’s Day
By Dr Patsy Cameron AO
(Sponsored by Reconciliation Tasmania)
Through my mother’s line I trace my heritage to two great warriors and formidable leaders of colonial times, Mannalargenna, of the northeast Coastal Plains Nation, and Tongerlongter of the east coast Oyster Bay Nation. Mannalargenna, Tongerlongter, along with Maultherheerlargenna of the northern midlands Stoney Creek Nation and Montpelliatter of the central plateau Big River Nation, are at the heart of this historical overview that will explain the circumstances of a colonial treaty made in Van Diemen’s Land in 1831. Today I honour these four resistance fighters, and acknowledge their bravery defending their lands, peoples, and ancient cultural traditions from the British invaders. I also acknowledge the courageous resolutions they attained to negotiate peace with the Van Diemen’s Land government in 1831.
Truth telling and listening to the voices of our ancestors are pivotal to this presentation that seeks to acknowledge one of the most significant episodes of history, albeit 188 years after a verbal treaty was sanctioned. The purpose is to highlight the promises made during colonial times to enable all Tasmanians to gain an understanding of profound historic injustices that remain unresolved. I believe we cannot move forward together without knowing and understanding why a chapter of our history continues to cast a shadow over our island state while it remains the unfinished business between successive governments and all Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples.
The Aboriginal population at the time of British invasion in 1803 is unknown because no one bothered to count them as cultured Beings. The First People were considered ‘savages’. There are, however, speculative figures proposed for the original population: Henry Melville estimated 20,000, Clive Lord 10,000 to 12,000, and James Calder between 6,000 and 8,000 . There are other figures that range from 1000 to as low as 660. What we do know is, when the Flinders Island Aboriginal Establishment was abandoned in 1847, several hundred ancestors remained far from their homelands in the Wybalenna burial ground, and only 47 survivors (15 men, 22 women, 5 boys and 5 girls) were transferred to a condemned penal station, a place that was unfit for convicts, at Oyster Cove south of Hobart.
This was the result of acts of war that continued unabated throughout the late 1820s when, across the land frontier, lethal conflicts between the colonists and the Aboriginal clans intensified. Clive Lord, a former Director of TMAG, was told, that in 1826 alone, 2,000 Aborigines were killed on the land frontier . This figure is formally unsubstantiated of course, however Lord remained convinced by his source and recorded it as such . There were others who voiced grave concerns about the impacts of frontier conflict on the Aboriginal people.
In December 1827 William Walk of Breadalbane, a property south of Launceston, wrote to Lieutenant-Governor Arthur’s office with a suggestion that a treaty might be negotiated with the Aborigines of VDL which was disregarded at the time. The following year Martial Law was declared the outcome of which provided a legal catalyst for the colony to commit systemic acts of genocide against its own people. Under Martial Law Aboriginal people could now be shot on sight.
To appease the colonists, some of whom were calling for total extermination of the savages, Lieutenant-Governor Arthur proclaimed two campaigns to be undertaken simultaneously. The first was a military operation that would commence in October 1830, where several thousand soldiers and colonists were to be deployed to drive Aborigines, trapped ahead of advancing lines, into the Tasman Peninsula where they would be captured.
Alongside this military operation, armed bounty hunters, often referred to as ‘roving parties’, were sent out into the surrounding bushland to hunt Aborigines. Both operations had the effect of dispersing Aboriginal people away from their homelands and they were forced to seek safe haven in remote neighboring lands.
A second campaign was Arthur’s commission of George Augustus Robinson and his group of Aboriginal guides, were to circumambulate the island, and negotiate with the clans still free in the bush, to place themselves under his protection. Robinson’s treks between 1829 and 1835 were recorded paradoxically as the Friendly Missions.
My ancestral grandfather Mannalargenna was among a small confederated group located by Robinson inland from the Bay of Fires on November 1st 1830. Through his Aboriginal guides Robinson communicated his purpose to the group. He explained the military operation that was underway to the south, by using a stick to draw many lines on the ground. Robinson’s insistence must have startled the people for, when a loud noise was heard in the distance, he amplified their fears by agreeing with them that it was musket fire. He claimed that the soldiers were coming to shoot them, even-though he knew that The Line operations were moving southward through the Midlands and the Fingal Valley. The Anson’s Plains group of five men, including Mannalargenna, and two women, agreed to place themselves under Robinson’s protection. They became the first in Van Diemen’s Land to leave their homelands and go into exile. This exodus was early November 1830, nine months before a treaty was articulated by Robinson.
It is worthy to note that the idea of a treaty with the Aboriginal Nations was being considered by some officials at that time. In February 1831 Chief Justice John Lewes Pedder, in a speech to the Executive Council, presented treaty as an alternative to the Aborigines being banished from their homelands . However, by this time Robinson had already ascertained the suitability of Swan Island as a place for his small group of exiles, and treaty was certainly not on his mind.
In early 1831 the growing number of Aborigines were relocated further from the mainland to Gun Carriage Island in Franklin Sounds between Flinders Island and Cape Barren Island. Mannalargenna and his young wife Tanleboneyer were assigned one of the nine cottages on the island, but despair soon replaced hope when several deaths were recorded within a few weeks of their arrival.
Meanwhile Robinson returned to the northeast coast to search of another group in the northeast bush. This group of six men and one woman was led by a cunning leader Maulterheerlargenna who was also known as Umarrah. Robinson spent several months of frustration following trails that went cold and eventually he sent a boat to Gun Carriage Island to collect Mannalargenna who Robinson knew was the only person that could make physical contact with Maulterheerlargenna’s group.
Mannalargenna was greeted by Robinson as he stepped ashore at Little Musselroe Bay and the content of this meeting was recorded in Robinson’s journal dated the 6 August 1831;
This morning I developed my plans to the chief Mannalargenna and explained to him the benevolent views of the government towards himself and people. He cordially acquiesced and expressed his entire approbation of the salutary measure, and promised his utmost aid and assistance. I informed him in the presence of Kickerterpoller that I was commissioned by the Governor to inform them that, if the natives would desist from their wonted outrages upon the whites, they would be allowed to remain in their respective districts and would have flour, tea and sugar, clothes, etc. given them; that a good white man would dwell with them who would take care of them and would not allow any bad white man to shoot them, and he would go with them about the bush like myself and they could hunt. He was much delighted .
Robinson’s account emphatically records the details of this promise made at Little Musselroe Bay, the terms of which were agreed by both parties, Robinson as Lieutenant-Governor Arthur’s representative and Mannalargenna a leader of his confederated group. It is interesting that Robinson noted the promise was witnessed by Kickerterpoller who was known to Arthur and could speak English.
Robinson reiterated the terms of the promise to Mannalargenna for on 27 August 1831 he wrote;
‘I omit no opportunity of impressing upon the mind of the chief and others that they are to remain in their own country; and that I am anxious to get to them for the purpose of going to others, and that I will leave a man to take care of them and that some of the Tyereelore women shall stay with them. At this arrangement they are much pleased and say it is very good indeed’ .
When Mannalargenna successfully made contact with Maulterheerlargenna, and brought his group to meet Robinson at Little Pipers River on 29th August 1831, Robinson relayed the views of the government stating;
‘I made known to them the wish of the government: that if they would not spear white men they might remain and hunt, and they seemed glad and lifted up their hands and said no, no, no’ .
Robinson moved out of the northeast to search for other small groups in the bush, all the while he continued to induce his guides, now including Mannalargenna, by reinforcing the agreements made at Little Musselroe Bay and Little Pipers River: ‘I omit no opportunity of impressing upon the mind of the chief and other natives that they are to remain in their own Country’ and repeating to them ‘the benevolent intentions of the government towards the native tribes’. Robinson made sure they would not abscond. He threatened a warrior from Port Sorell, Ninger-noo-put-tener, that … ‘if he went away the soldiers would shoot him’.
On the 31st December 1831, after travelling through rugged country on the Central Plateau, Robinson met with a group of 16 men, 9 women and a child near Lake Echo. They included two powerful and formidable warriors; Tongerlongter of the Oyster Bay Nation and Montpelliatter of the Big River Nation. This group of 26 people were believed to be all that remained of two great nations that once numbered over a thousand.
Robinson recorded the following; ‘They were willing … to accept the offers of the government and placed themselves under my protection accordingly’ and added in his note to the Colonial Secretary …’these people cannot and ought not to be looked upon as captives. They have placed themselves under my protection and are desirous for peace’ . These two formidable warriors Tongerlongter and Montpelliater had agreed to a truce on the basis of Robinson’s promise!
Robinson, his Aboriginal guides, and the Big River and Oyster Bay people, arrived in Hobart Town on 7 January 1832. Holding spears in their hands and accompanied by 100 dogs, the warriors, women and child, walked to Government House and met the Governor. John Glover’s sketch depicts the group waiting for a boat to transport them to Wybalenna. Montpelliater can be seen sitting with the group at the top, second on the right. They would never touch their homelands again.
Maulterheerlargenna died in Launceston in mid 1832. Montpelliatter, renamed Waterloo by Robinson, died at Wybalenna in mid 1835. Mannalargenna died at Wybalenna on December 4, 1835 and Tongerlongter, renamed King William by Robinson, died at Wybalenna in June 1837. According to Lyndall Ryan, death and despair at Wybalenna was ‘the price for surviving the wars with the settlers by incarceration in a place far from their homeland’.
The people of Wybalenna waited for news of their return to their respective homelands. They did not forget the promises made by Robinson in the bush.
In 1834 the Commandant of Wybalenna, Henry Nicholls, wrote;
‘The basic problem is quite clear. The Aborigines had been induced to leave their native land by a promise that all their wants would be supplied and they expected this undertaking to be honoured. They were eager to learn to write, not to become scholars like white men, but to be able to write to their Governor father in Hobart Town as they are anxious to induce him to remove them to their native land. They would be perfectly wretched were they certain they should die here’ .
As time passed by they refused to work for their rations and grow crops stating that ‘The king will keep them, white men work and not them’. According to Lyndall Ryan they considered their rations ‘as bare compensation for the loss of their land’ . They despised Commandant Dr. Jeanerette for inflicting spiteful and inhumane punishment against them. And when rumors circulated in 1846 that Jeanerette was returning as commandant the people took action; first by complaining to Governor John Franklin, and in February 1846, they petitioned Queen Victoria.
The petition stated in part:
‘The humble petition of the free Aborigines inhabitants of Van Diemens Land who live upon Flinders Island in Basses Strait most humbly sheweth that we, your Majesty’s petitioners, are your free children, that we were not taken prisoners but freely gave up our Country to Colonel Arthur, then the Governor, after defending ourselves.
Your petitioners humbly state to your Majesty that Mr. Robinson made for us and with Colonel Arthur an agreement which we have not lost from our minds since, and we have made our part of it good….when we left our own place we were plenty of people, we are now but a little one’….
This Petition to Queen Victoria made absolutely clear that the people had not forgotten the agreements made by Robinson and Lieutenant – Governor Arthur 15 years earlier, and that they had kept their part of the agreement and it fortified their determination that those promises made should be honoured .
The petition was signed by eight men: Walter George Arthur; King Alexander; David Bruney; John Allen; Washington; Frederick; King Tippoo; and Augustus.
The crown responded, but not as the people expected. A year later Wybalenna was abandoned and, rather than returning to their homelands as promised, the surviving 47 were relocated to the condemned penal station at Oyster Cove, south of Hobart. A place that was not fit for convicts.
When Robinson’s task was completed on the mainland in late 1835 he took up his new position as Commandant of Wybalenna. By this time Mannalargenna realised that the Little Musselroe Bay Promise would never be honoured. He knew that he was tricked into leaving his homelands. He knew he would never hunt or walk in the footprints of his ancestors or see his own Country again. When he arrived at the Green Island anchorage off Flinders Island he cut off his ochred hair and beard . These were symbols of a warrior status and revered leader. Mannalargenna died within a month of his return into exile .
This is my history. This is your history. This is Tasmania’s history. There is no doubt that a treaty was made in 1831, a treaty that was never rescinded, a treaty that was never honoured. We can lament, but cannot change the past, for our lives are intrinsically linked to the past as it shapes the future. Treaty is an important part of Tasmania’s unfinished business and, as a moral imperative, I call on our Tasmanian Government and all members of the Tasmanian Parliament to take steps to formally acknowledge the existence of the Van Diemen’s Land treaty of 1831. Both houses of Parliament should unanimously resolve this business and clear the way to support a treaty dialogue with us, the living descendants of those warriors who agreed to the original treaty. I am aware of present discussions about a Tasmanian treaty but there are probably many views to be heard. Therefore, my advice is for all Tasmanian Aboriginal people to explore what treaty means to them and discuss what treaty might look like in the 21st century. I also encourage all Tasmanians to walk beside us on this journey. Only then can we walk together as proud Tasmanians who have the courage and compassion to reconcile the past in the present day.
Robinson wrote the following verse in his journal on 25 December 1835;
‘Look back, my friends, you who have known them for a short time. Look back, you who have known them for a longer period and I will look back to the time when I knew them in their own native wilderness when we were first known to each other. Let us give full scope to our recollections and call to mind all the incidents and associations connected therewith, and then turn to those memories of our departed friends and weep in silence’.