It’s safe to say that Truganini was the most famous Palawa (indigenous Tasmanian) person in history. The daughter of one chief (and later wife of another), she was unfortunately born into a pretty shitty era. Her people were being obliterated by the one-two punch of disease and violence, both courtesy of European colonists. Truganini was hardly exempt from this: her mother was killed by settlers, her sisters kidnapped into sexual slavery, and her intended husband mutilated and left to drown by settlers – who then raped her. 1
This is not to say that all the settlers were morality-bereft criminals (although an abnormally high amount were, Australia being a penal colony at the time). One man, George Robinson, appointed by the English as “Protector of Aborigines,” spent much of his life trying to help the Palawa. He was, to be sure, flawed, prudish, egotistical, and occasionally disingenuous, but his heart was largely in the right place. The Palawa were dying in droves, and he rightly felt that, left without protection from the colonists (who very obviously could not be trusted), the Palawa would die out. To that end, he enlisted Truganini’s help in getting the remaining Palawa to move to a different island, where he could afford them more protection.2
Partnering with Robinson was a clever move on her part. Realizing that “it was no use… trying to kill all the white people… there were so many of them,” she instead threw her lot in with the one white person who’d respected her 3 and set about trying to save her people. This likely saved several lives, including hers, her friends’, and even Robinson’s (she once saved him from being killed by Palawa people). Soon after they began Robinson’s “friendly missions,” the local government ratcheted up tensions by instigating the Black Line: a massive human chain that swept across the land, killing or imprisoning Palawa people along the way.
By no means did this mean that Truganini was Robinson’s unquestioning subordinate 4. When he stopped delivering on his promises (as he did shortly after the Palawa were relocated to Flinders Island) she ditched him and started making her own way. She banded together with several other of her people and entered into a phase of her life often overlooked by history books: she became an outlaw.
Together with four others, she left for the Western Port area – hunting, one historian believes 5, for the whalers who’d abducted her sister ten years prior. During this period, they stole from various settlers and even killed several sailors. While their crimes shocked the white population, truthfully Truganini was pretty gentle during this time. When the group raided a hut, she and two other women ferried the white women in the hut across a creek to safety, while the others burnt the hut down.
After many weeks on the run 6, Truganini and her compatriots were caught by the authorities and put on trial. At the trial, since the Palawa were not allowed to testify in their defense, Robinson came to their aid, wantonly perjuring himself by saying that the two men of the group had been the ringleaders, and the women mere pawns. In the end, the two Palawa men were hanged, and Truganini and her two female comrades exiled back to Flinders Island.7 There Truganini lived out the rest of her life, until her death in 1876 – by which time she was erroneously thought to be “the last full-blooded Tasmanian person alive”8. After she was buried, her grave was robbed and her corpse displayed in a museum for a century. All this, despite her dying words being a plea to not leave her to scientists. It is only after a hundred years that she got a proper cremation, and her ashes were scattered where she’d wished.
Thankfully, life got better for the Palawa in the intervening years. Not only are their numbers up tremendously (14,000 as of 1996, while they were down in the hundreds at the time of Truganini’s death), but they have a greater say in Australian politics and have made concerted efforts to rebuild their culture. Not the least of which is the effort to reconstruct the Palawa language, which had gone extinct.
One wonders if that is not, in some small way, part of Truganini’s legacy. In death, as the ostensible “last Tasmanian,” she made their plight that much more visible to everyone else, and in so doing, helped her people win gains for themselves.
- As the story goes, a 17-year-old Truganini, her intended, and another Palawan man arranged a boat ride across a channel with some local settlers whom they knew. Midway through the trip, the settlers threw the men overboard. When they swam back and attempted to climb on board, the settlers chopped off their hands with hatchets. The two men, now unable to swim, were left to drown. The settlers then raped her.
To the best of my knowledge, the rapists’ names were Watkins Lowe and Paddy Newell. It is my sincerest hope that they are currently burning in a particularly nasty area of hell. ↩
- Robinson was also offered a substantial bonus by his bosses if he was able to move all of the Palawan to Flinders Island. He definitely had more than purely altruistic intentions. Like I said, flawed guy.
The two had a very strange relationship, as the rest of the entry points out. Historian Vivienne Rae-Ellis goes so far as to claim that they had sex, although there’s little to no evidence of this (Robinson had a wife and was a total prude!). While Rae Ellis clearly has put a lot of time into her work, it’s difficult to accept the word of an author who describes Truganini as a “tantalizing slip of a girl” immediately before detailing the aforementioned childhood tragedies – while neglecting to mention her rape. ↩
- For all his faults, Robinson did actually make a concerted effort to learn Truganini’s language and respect her customs. He even helped introduce her to her husband, chief Woorrady. Robinson was not, however, a terribly intellectual man. His Palawa lingual abilities consisted of literal word-for-word translations of English, grammar conjugation be damned. At least he tried. ↩
- Although many history books paint it that way. ↩
- Lyndall Ryan, author of The Aboriginal Tasmanians. I’ve seen the claim repeated elsewhere, but she seems to be one of the main proponents. Unsure what evidence she has used for this claim. You can hear (and read the transcript of) her thoughts on this stellar radio program on Truganini. ↩
- Partly they were able to evade authorities because of their mastery of the terrain, but partly it was due to the woeful incompetence of their pursuers. William Thomas, who was in charge of the expedition, could barely handle his horse. In the end, they had to enlist the help of some mainland indigenous people (the Kulin) to track down Truganini. ↩
- The men killed were named, in the Australian press, as Jack and Bob. While an ABC radio program says their real names were Pevay and Timmy, Robinson’s memoirs say they were Umarrah and Woorraddy. Yes, the same Woorraddy that Robinson had introduced to his wife Truganini, and who had helped alongside the two of them in the “friendly mission.” Robinson was despondent at how things turned out. Truganini never spoke to him again – when he visited Flinders Island later in life, she ignored him and didn’t say a word to him. ↩
- This label, which you’ll see everywhere and which I’ve studiously avoided using until the end of this entry, was erroneous and borderline offensive on a number of levels. Not only was she not the last — three others were living at the time of her death — but her label as “full-blooded,” which I’m only using because of its historical significance, ties into old ideas that aboriginal identity could be bred out, or that the Palawa people were extinct. These are pernicious falsehoods which sadly persist to present day. ↩
First off, thanks to tumblr user riumuriamu for the suggestion! Sorry it took a while to get to her.
- Virtually every single image of Truganini is that of her as a (somewhat understandably angry-looking) old woman. I didn’t want to add to that. Instead, she’s here a young woman, living the last vestiges of her outlaw life – next to the last sparks of a small fire.
- They did actually have a dog at their little encampment in the woods! Unfortunately it was shot by the men hunting for them. I wanted to show her looking after someone. It’s an Australian/dingo hybrid breed — although, as reader Jessica Korte points out, it probably would have been unlikely to exist in Tasmania, since there were no dingos there.
- The standing Palawa person (screen right) is based off her husband Woorraddy, who put ashes in his hair to color it. It actually showed up orange.
- The clumsy guy falling off the horse in the background is William Thomas (see footnote 6).
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(again, guessing is on pause for the time being)