Exile: Truganini and Gwen Harwood in Oyster Cove

In her poem On History, the poet Gwen Harwood contends that time provides perspective, a point from which we can grasp “our place in the environment”:

 

Things have been past, and will be future

The present moment like a suture

Holds time together. What’s to come

Will be the past.

 

Sometimes the time seems out of joint,

but we can find a starting point

in any good historian’s pages,

and grasp, before our light is spent,

our place in the environment

 

In Blessed City, she asks

What does it mean to move

out of the present tense?

In other words, how do we grasp our place in the environment when we are exiled from the here and now?

 

Harwood moved to Tasmania from Queensland in 1945 and died in Hobart in 1995. For most of those fifty years, she considered herself to be living in exile, initially telling friends that she hated Hobart, describing Tasmania as an “ugly charm flung in seas of slate” [1]. In 1980 she still remained resolutely a Queenslander, even though by then she had lived the greater part of her life in the southern state: “Tasmania has always given me a feeling of exile. When I got off the plane here 35 years ago, a voice told me, this is beautiful, but not your place”. For a decade of that time she resided in Halcyon, her house at Oyster Cove, where she wrote a number of poems that were set in the local environment, including one from the perspective of a dinghy on the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, (putalinainpalawa karna), the stretch of water that separates Bruny Island from the main island.

 

Oyster Cove is where in 1847 the dispossessed Tasmanian Aborigines who had survived exile on Flinders Island in the Bass Strait were relocated. It had been a convict prison built on un-drained mudflats, and any heavy downpour of rain would flood the site. During the 37 years it was operational as housing for displaced Aboriginal people, it fell into increasing disrepair while at the same time, the number of detainees fell from 47 to 1, with the last, Truganini, relocated to Hobart in 1874 where she died twelve years later. Her death was opportunistically used by the government of the day to declare that the colony was rid of its “native population problem”.

 

When the demise of the island’s native population became imminent, academicians and other interested parties made their way to Oyster Cove, seeking anthropological data, physical artifacts and mementos. For example, in 1858 Tasmania’s first Anglican Bishop, Francis Nixon, took a series of photographs [2] that he later sent to the International Exhibition in London. Like the paintings made by Thomas Bock [3] only a few decades earlier, those portraits have since been used extensively in commentary and academic theorizing [4]. Lyndal Ryan proposes that Nixon deliberately but incorrectly depicted them as the “remnants of a dying race”. She suggests that if the photos had been taken in 1997, “they [the Aboriginal people] could be represented as proud, defiant and angry political prisoners in their own country” [5]. Presumably Ryan’s point was that over the next century and a half not only had Aboriginal people become more pro-actively political but also that public sentiment towards them and their issues had changed.

 

The idea that the Aboriginal people at Oyster Cove could be considered “prisoners in their own country” is an interesting notion. They may well have been angry and proud and on occasions at least, they were recorded as being defiant. And regardless of quibbles about the definition of incarceration, they were in some sense prisoners, even though they were at liberty to “go bush” for weeks on end. But were they on their own land? On the one hand, by 1997 Tasmanian Aboriginal people had amalgamated themselves and their ancestors into (more or less) one group, the Palawa, (now pakana) which collectively claimed on-going stewardship over the whole island, so regardless of the fact that the Oyster Cove internees came from different ancestral domains, they were indeed standing on their own land. On the other hand, the argument is a post-hoc re-interpretation of the actual circumstances because the “prisoners” came from tribal or clan groups that were in some cases in perpetual and brutal conflict. It seems unlikely that individuals such as Wapperty or Bessie Clarke considered themselves to be “in their own country” at Oyster Cove because they had come from different parts of the state. Walter George, as an example,came from the north east of the island, an area that is very different to the far south.

 

The possibility that Truganini may have felt “on country” because her childhood home on Bruny Island was near enough to see and visit has lit the imagination of novelists and historians alike. In her book Truganini – Journey through the apocalypse, Tasmanian author Cassandra Pybus imaginatively describes her trips to her home on the island: “As often as she could get a boat to take her, Truganini would cross the channel to Bruny Island, most likely accompanied by her kinswoman Dray. Truganini knew every inch of North Bruny”. Pybus tells us that once there and divested of her western garb, Truganini pursued a long list of traditional activities, including harvesting mussels, oysters and scallops, diving for crayfish, collecting mariner shells to make necklaces, finding eggs and catching mutton-birds [6], for all of which Pybus claims her forefathers, the island’s territorial usurpers, were happy to give her free licence. The contention that exile is experienced not only in terms of place but also in terms of time becomes more complex when home changes irrevocably during the course of the exile. Whether or not Truganini was given permission to roam on her ancestral domain, it was no longer her home in the same way it had been before British settlers like Pybus’ forefathers appropriated ownership of it, regardless of Pybus’ desire to retrospectively soften the nature of her exile.

 

Yi Fu Tuan [7] argues that because experience is contextualised by perspective, it is both idiosyncratically personal and multivalently social, and because both time and space are dynamically interactive the context of experience remains mutable. As is the case with many Indigenous worldviews, the perspective of Tasmania’s Aboriginal people was considered to be disestablished when their concepts of both time and place were made irrelevant by the change in context caused by the predominance of the Colonial perspective. In short, because they were no longer considered to exist as an autonomous, recognisable or authorial entity, they had for all intents and purposes (outside their own) become an inconsequential anomaly in the mainstream. They had become exiles because time and place had changed around them, and it was thought to be just a matter of waiting until “the remnants of the race” died off to make their demise complete. Patrick Wolfe in his notion of ‘settler colonialism’ has called this the ‘repressive hypothesis’ of aboriginality. It is based on an assumption that once they gain colonial dominance, settlers’ perspectives have a greater legitimacy than the Indigenous minority. While actions based on such assumptions are increasingly being challenged in terms of legality within the current judicial system, at the end of the nineteenth century in Tasmania it was widely accepted.

 

The narrative of Tasmania having no “real” Indigenous peoples after the death of Truganini retained traction in popular thought until relatively recently. Sometime before she moved to Halcyon with her husband, Harwood had written a sonnet entitled Oyster Cove in which she introduces themes that she would develop in later poems.

 

Dreams drip to stone. Barracks and salt marsh blaze

opal beneath a crackling glaze of frost.

Boot-black, in graceless Christian rags, a lost

race breathes out cold. Parting the milky haze

on mudflats, seabirds, clean and separate, wade.

Mother, Husband and Child: stars which forecast

fine weather, all are set. The long night’s past

and the long day begins. God’s creatures, made

woodcutters’ whores, sick drunks, watch the sun prise

their life apart: flesh, memory, language all

split open, featureless, to feed the wild

hunger of history. A woman lies

coughing her life out. There’s still blood to fall,

but all blood’s spilt that could have made a child.

 

The poem presents a common but unexamined understanding of Aboriginal Tasmania that was of its time. For Harwood, the battle (such as it was) to save the Tasmanian Aboriginal people from extinction had been lost. There is an implication that their contextual perspective had already been consigned to history well before the race was (incorrectly) asserted to have died out.

 

The idea that even though the Aboriginal women living at Oyster Cove were “woodcutters’ whores’ or “sick drunks” they were nonetheless “God’s creatures” is particularly disturbing. Nonetheless, the sentiment remains largely (though not entirely) unchallenged. Cassandra Pybus for one believes that it is an accurate description of the women. She also maintains that Billy Lanne, one of the last pre-invasion born males in Oyster Cove and “married” to both Bessie Clarke and Truganini, was violent when drunk, viciously assaulting either or both women, who he considered as his personal property. Lyndal Ryan, on the other hand, suggests a more caring relationship, citing Lanne’s complaints to the Colonial Secretary about their terrible living conditions. Whatever the case might be, the fact remains that neither the women nor the men had children. Harwood affirms the argument that because the women and men were no longer able to reproduce, and that flesh, memory and language were all beyond revival meant there was no future for Tasmanian Aboriginal people; that there were only a past and an increasingly tenuous present.

 

It is interesting to try to discern whether the poet’s opinions changed after she moved to Oyster Cove. Certainly, a number of poems indicate that she was deeply affected by her perception of the physical context of the place. Stephen Edgar points out that because her poetry is both technically and philosophically complex but also emotionally reverberant, Harwood’s response to the historied landscape in which she found herself is both intellectually considered and affectively primal; both bespoke and universal. After her move to Oyster Cove, a number of her poems become more specifically related to the environment, and three poems in her collection The Lion’s Briderefer directly to Tasmania’s Aboriginal people.

 

In the poem Looking Towards Bruny, she writes:

 

In a hollow where late-mown pasture lapses to straw

a flower not the colour of any flower

blows open and shut in gentle air.

Black calyx, blood-black corolla,

and filaments of sinew:

some creature has eaten crow

and liked it.

What prospect has the eye?

The low hills of Bruny rise

to a silver-grey wash of cloud.

A hectoring flight of crows

descending like torn-up shadows

enters a pine-tree’s singular darkness.

The ferry Manganadraws

in its wake a friction of lights

across the steel shining channel

where Truganini was held

in a rowboat by two white sawyers

whose hatchets crunched on black wrists

as her drowning companions clutched the gunwale.

She suffers that fourfold wound.

Four bodiless hands surrender

the snapping derision of bones

to the solid mercy of water.

While history suckles the race

who ride the Manganato Bruny

to brown their winter-pale skins

sea-monsters draw out the breast

in secret currents black fingers open and close.

 

The poem starts with a description of a dead crow, black feathers flapping in the breeze, calling to mind a “flower, not the colour of any flower”. Her use of crows to trigger her contemplation is not accidental: it is a due reference to Robert Drewe’s novel The Savage Crows, which had been published three years earlier. The “black fingers” waving underwater refers to the story of European men throwing two Aboriginal men overboard from a dingy they were rowing from Bruny Island to Kettering so they could force themselves on their Aboriginal women passengers. When the men grabbed onto the dinghy, the sailors hacked off their hands and the men drowned. The macabre irony of a ferry carrying white passengers to Bruny Island bearing the name of the father of the Aboriginal woman who had apparently seen her companions butchered and drowned in the stretch of water on which it sails doesn’t escape Harwood.

 

Nonetheless, she maintains the notion that Aboriginal people of Tasmania are extinct and in lamenting their passing she is complicit in its perpetuation. In Evening, Oyster Cove, she maintains her belief that Tasmania’s Indigenous people exist only in the past:

 

This elbow of the shallow bay

crooked an unchilded dying race

whose liquid language ebbed away.

Shadows forgather in this place:

 

Jackey, Patty, Queen Caroline,

Lalla Rookh – white contemptuous names

cloaked the heartsickness of decline.

 

Harwood’s use of the word “unchilded” brings to mind one of the more extreme interpretations of the history of Tasmania’s Aboriginal people. In his treatise on suicide aptly titled The Savage God, the English poet and critic Alfred Alvarez makes an astonishing claim

 

… the Tasmanian Aborigines died out not because they were hunted like kangaroos for an afternoon’s sport, but also because a world in which this could happen was intolerable to them; so they committed suicide as a race by refusing to breed. Ironically perhaps, as though to confirm the Aborigines’ judgement, the mummified remains of the old lady who was the last to survive have been preserved by the Australian Government as a museum curiosity. [8]

 

Alvarez supports his argument that under extreme circumstances a whole nation can, “unsanctioned by morality or belief and unswayed by zealotry” over-ride its self-preservation mechanism and commit mass suicide by citing examples from the Incas, the Aztecs and the Jews. It seems an untenable argument seeing that in each of the cited instances (questionable as they are) the suicide was a single act, which suggests mass hysteria rather than a calculated strategy.  Whatever the reasons for those actions (if they did occur as Alvarez claims), the bulk of Tasmanian Aboriginal people died from a range of causes over a period of decades after colonisation.

 

It must be noted that his claim was made before Truganini’s skeleton was handed over to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community for cremation and dispersal in a more appropriate and respectful manner but the fact that Alvarez refers to her mummified remains rather than her bleached bones suggests that his knowledge is superficial. Further, the Australian Government had nothing to do with the affair – in fact neither at the time of her burial nor at the time when her remains were dug up, did Australia yet exist as a single nation. Until 1901 what are now the states of Australia were independent colonies of Great Britain. And even after federation, Australia did not assume responsibility for its indigenous peoples nationally until after 1967.

 

There is little if any evidence that the women of any of the Aboriginal nations collectively decided not to reproduce: if nothing else, the existence of a thriving contemporary pakanacommunity speaks against it. But there may well be a more insidious aspect to Alvarez’ proposition. Perhaps he means that Aboriginal women chose not to breed with Aboriginal men and that they did so deliberately and successfully to end the race. Alvarez enjoys high status in international literary circles, and his perpetuation of the misconception that Tasmania’s Aboriginal people are now extinct (regardless of whether or not they decided as a race to commit suicide) is a concern.

 

Ethno-historian Marie Fels challenges another notion that has retained traction: the suggestion that Aboriginal women were infected with a range of venereal diseases, writing that she hopes “And I hope never to see in print again the falsity that 90 per cent of the Bonurong suffered from the venereal”.Fels’ impatience echoes strongly in the Tasmanian context: it resonates with what Harwood was inferring to when she described the pakanawomen as “woodcutters’ whores” and “sick drunks”. It was widely believed that primary amongst the sicknesses was syphilis. Cassandra Pybus mentions on several occasions that Truganini had a venereal disease, claiming that George Augustus Robinson didn’t have a sexual relationship with her because he was horrified by at the thought of being infected. In a different interview she iterates her belief, claiming that Truganini “clearly had venereal disease, syphilis, which killed a lot of people, but not her. She must have had extraordinary physical stamina.” But the proposition that the demise of Aboriginal people in Tasmania was due to their addiction to alcohol and venereal disease occasioned by the women’s willingness to prostitute themselves, a view championed by revisionist historians like Keith Windschuttle and others, has been challenged by other historians, including Marilyn Lake and Lyndal Ryan. It seems improbable that Truganini had long-term syphilis because she showed no signs thereof in her later years: no paralysis, no blindness and no dementia. While it is possible to present with no signs or symptoms despite being infected, that was highly unlikely in pre-penicillin times. On the other hand, there are numerous references to her fondness of alcohol. It is hardly surprising because addiction, drug abuse and self-medication are far from uncommon amongst displaced people, especially displaced indigenous folk. Clinical psychologist Mykita Daugherty and her colleagues point the trauma of displacement and social disintegration as the most likely cause. They note that an “extraordinarily diverse” range of displaced indigenous groups, “with no significant prior history of substance abuse for centuries, developed parallel patterns of widespread binge use with devastating health and social consequences following cultural disruption and displacement”. Moreover they note that displacement and exile are usually accompanied by poverty, and that limited access and a culture of sharing resources often leads to binging when alcohol is available [9]. It has long been established that the effects of trauma remain well after the immediate stressors have subsided and we know that there are very strong associations between trauma and substance abuse disorders. It seems likely then, that Truganini’s reported fondness for alcohol was directly related to her lived experiences of physical and emotional abuse, her displacement in place and culture and the lack of empathetic support, rather than the inevitable consequence of a genetic weakness.

 

Despite the more nuanced appreciation of Aboriginal perspectives in the latter poems, Harwood’s use of words such as “dying”, “decline” and “ebbed away” emphasises that she remained convinced that Tasmania’s Aboriginal people had become extinct.  From their ghosts, Harwood asks forgiveness while recognizing that eventually it is the advent of time that will put the ghosts to rest:

 

Ghosts of the night mist, set me free.

Forgive, until the past is called

wisdom, and history can be

told in some last redeeming world.

 

The idea that time will eventually smooth the brutal edges of the area’s history comes up again in a poem called Shellgritin which she reflects on Indigenous themes. Harwood opens the poem by referencing the delicateness and vulnerability of what remains of Aboriginal culture and the history:

 

Shells from old oyster middens

Crush at the lightest blow.

More parables of fate!

 

Later in the poem she muses on how inexorably time and distance turn even the most appalling events into disempowered narratives:

 

A place where history’s evil

grows luminous in distance,

haunted and beautiful.

 

A thousand griefs ground fine

by the sheer weight of the past

blow in a wind as active

and fretful as a child

who will not wait for answers

but wants only to ask.

 

In her denial of the continued existence of Aboriginal people, Harwood reminds us that time and place are human fabrications created to measure and to contain; that it is our desire to accommodate Truganini not only as a person and a representation of historical events but to make her an iconic image within our collective consciousness, thereby smoothing out the uncomfortable aspects of the place’s brutal, unforgivable history and making it palatable. The bases of our cultural identity are well-worn narratives. Harwood argued that poetry can provide historical narratives with an apologia, a convincing rationalization of a favoured perspective and context. She believed that while it was a horrible, regrettable chapter in the island’s history, Tasmania’s Aboriginal people had been a fragile people unable to withstand the new social context and that their demise was “a parable of fate”.  The ultimate apologia for their extirpation is her contention that “history’s evil” can become “beautiful” if seen from far enough away. Unintentionally perhaps, Harwood thereby echoes the so-called ‘Law of Progress’, Herbert Spencer’s social evolution theory that proposed society moves unfalteringly towards an ever more refined and improved state. It has been discredited, as many post-Enlightenment ideas, because it assumed refinement and improvement meant more western European [10].

 

Finally, there is a notable difference in how either woman’s exile ended. Gwen Hardwood had a clear belief in an afterlife. In 1941, she had entered a Franciscan convent as a novitiate. Despite realizing that she wasn’t cut out to be a nun, she remained a committed Catholic her entire life, anticipating an eventual reckoning with God. Before that, she was determined to end her physical exile when she died. Bear in mind that the Church had not allowed cremation until 1963, and even then, ashes were not be scattered at sea or kept at home in an urn. Instead, they were to be buried with due protocol and ritual. Nonetheless, when Harwood died in 1995, her body was cremated and her ashes were scattered on the Brisbane River, as she had instructed.

 

Contemporary accounts of Truganini’s beliefs of life after death suggest she too anticipated being reunited with her kinfolk in the afterlife as long as proper rituals and protocols were observed. Being brought back to country is foremost among those. But unlike Harwood’s, Truganini’s request to be buried on country was ignored. Instead, as “the last of her race” her corpse was a curiosity and her bones were flensed and later, held up by wires, put on display in a museum. It wasn’t until 1976 that her remains were finally cremated and her ashes scattered on the waters of putalina.

 

Had Harwood still been living at Halcyon, she would have been able to see the ceremony from her kitchen window.

 

 

Notes

 

[1] Harwood, G. (2015). Idle Talk Letters 1960 – 1964, edited by Alison Hoddinott, Blackheath: Brandl & Schlessinger.

 

[2]James Beattie later reprinted many of the albumen prints. https://artsearch.nga.gov.au/detail.cfm?IRN=169905

 

[3] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-08-17/tasmanian-aboriginal-portraits-return-from-british-museum/10128436

 

[4] Including me in Truganini’s Necklace(EMP) and ‘Truganini’s Funeral’ (Island)

 

[5] Ryan, L. (1997). “The struggle for Trukanini 1830/1997”, Papers and Proceedings: Tasmanian Historical Research Association, 44(3), p157

 

[6] Pybus, C. (2020). Truganini. Journey through the apocalypse. Sydney: Allen & Unwin pp 242-3. Pybus acknowledges that she, via her family, is the beneficiary of land stolen from the Nuenonne people and thereby somewhat complicit in their genocide.

 

[7]Tuan, Yi-Fu. (1978). Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

 

[8] Alvarez, A. (1971). The Savage God, London: Bloomsbury p50.

 

[9] Daugherty M, James W, Love C. & W. Miller. (2002) Substance Abuse among Displaced and Indigenous Peoples. In: W. Miller & C. Weisner (eds) Changing Substance Abuse Through Health and Social Systems, Boston: Springer.

 

[10] Seein particular Historicizing Humans: Deep Time, Evolution, and Race in Nineteenth-Century British Sciences edited by Efram Sera-Shriar, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press (2018).

2 Responses to Exile: Truganini and Gwen Harwood in Oyster Cove

  1. Annette 8 July 2021 at 9:14 pm #

    Chilling…

    • Andrys 9 July 2021 at 11:45 am #

      Not Tasmania’s finest hour!

Leave a Reply