“What does it mean to move
out of the present tense?”
– Blessed City
There exists a contention that without the context of time and place, existence is meaningless; that if we live, “in the present moment but without a sense of the past or future … that moment is devoid of meaning or moral significance.” Gwen Harwood, for one, agreed that we need a context to provide perspective, a point from which we can grasp our place in the world. In On History she writes
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
What then happens to those who are exiled from both time and place?
Gwen 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” . Even in 1980 she remained resolutely an exiled 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 the perspective from within a dinghy on the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, 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 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 two 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 their “demise” 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; images that he later sent them to the International Exhibition in London. Like the paintings made by Thomas Bock only a few decades earlier, those portraits have since been used extensively in commentary and academic theorizing . Lyndal Ryan proposes that Nixon deliberately but incorrectly depicted them as the “remnants of a dying race”. She suggests that if the photos been taken in 1997, “they [the Aboriginal people] could be represented as proud, defiant and angry political prisoners in their own country”. 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 over time.
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 stewardship over the whole island, and therefore 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 individual people came from tribal or clan groups that were in some cases in perpetual and brutal conflict with each other. 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 Arthur, 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 of Bruny Island was near enough see, has lit the imagination of novelists and historians alike. For example, on page 242 of her book Truganini – Journey through the apocalypse, Tasmanian author Cassandra Pybus imaginatively describes her trips to 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, for all of which Pybus’ forefathers were (according to the author) happy to give her free licence.
However, there is an argument that exile is experienced not only in terms of place but also in terms of time. In his seminal work, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, Tuan 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 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, authentic 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 while they stayed where they were, time and place had changed around them. The predominant view was it was just a matter of “the remnants of the race” dying 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 judicial systems of the settler societies, 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 there with her husband, Harwood had written a sonnet on the topic 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.
– Oyster Cove
The poem presents a received 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 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 his complaints to the Colonial Secretary about their conditions and inadequate. 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 her opinions changed after she moved to Oyster Cove: 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 as well as 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. Three poems in her collection The Lion’s Bride refer directly to Tasmania’s Aboriginal people. In the poem Looking Towards Bruny, she writes:
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 Mangana draws
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 Mangana to 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. To add to the indignity, she adds that barely a century after the Aborigines’ copper hue was considered offensive Europeans nowadays take great pains to tan their skins.
Nonetheless, she maintains the notion that Aboriginal people of Tasmania are extinct and in lamenting their passing she is complicit in the perpetuation of that lie. In Evening, Oyster Cove, she writes:
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 the astonishing claim that “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”. 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 back 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 of the context 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 nation collectively decided not to reproduce: if nothing else, the existence of a thriving contemporary pakana community 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.
It is therefore surprising that despite its unlikelihood, Marie Hansen Fels doesn’t dismiss the general idea out of hand completely. In her study of the interaction between the Boon Wurrung people of the Mornington peninsula and the European settlers, she considers it as a possibility, and one that she applauds:
I stand silent before the logic of those women who would not raise children in a world which no longer held a future for them. What must they have felt?
The idea of “the extinction of a racial or ethnic population … [results when] “the unwillingness or forbearance of its members to have children, [and] the birth rate falls below the death rate” . Coming from Eugenics, the term, race suicide is defined as “the gradual extinction of a people or racial strain through a tendency to restrict voluntarily the rate of reproduction.” Its legitimacy as a causal explanation for the extirpation of Aboriginal people has been challenged
Fels challenges another notion that has retained traction: the falsity that most Aboriginal women were infected with a range of venereal diseases. The unjustified smear echoes strongly in the Tasmanian context, resurfacing in by inference in Harwood’s description of the pakana women at Oyster Cove as “woodcutters’ whores” and “sick drunks”. It was widely believed that one of 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 Keith Windschuttle and others, has been challenged by other historians, including Marilyn Lake and Lyndal Ryan. And as an aside, 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, it was 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 out the cause isn’t genetic (unlike the “wisdom” of the day would have it) but the trauma of displacement and social disintegration tends to be a common factor. They note that amongst 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 point out 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. It has long been established that the effects of trauma remain well after the 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.
Despite the more nuanced understanding of Aboriginal perspectives in the latter poems, Harwood’s use of words such as “dying”, “decline” and “ebbed away” emphasises that she believed that Tasmania’s Aboriginal people had become extinct. In Evening Oyster Cove, Harwood asks their ghosts forgiveness while recognizing that eventually it will be 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 Shellgrit in 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.
Harwood reminds us that time and place are human fabrications created to measure and 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, 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.
There is a (possibly hyperbolic) contention that commemoration in poetry grants immortality. In her study of the poet, Stephanie Trigg proposes that “Harwood speaks and writes from a powerful classical tradition which, through poetry, grants immortality to those it commemorates.” But that immortality is not accessible to the person who is being immortalized: he or she is and remains dead even if he or she is venerated by the living. The suggestion is that renown lives on past the grave. Until recently being etched into the annals of history was a relatively rarely bestowed honour. In the past public’s perception of a person’s character relied on a skillful curator. For Julius Caesar, Shakespeare gave the role to Mark Antony, who took an antagonist strategy, asserting that “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones”. The statement is a rhetorical device rather than a verifiable maxim: the reverse is arguably equally true.
However, a curated commemoration of a person’s existence has much less traction since the advent of the Internet, where records are stored in perpetuity and reputations are no longer confined to and/or protected by history. As an un-gatekept reservoir of data it has made history contestable if not revisable but how that manifests is unpredictable. Whereas Michael Jackson’s artistic output has suffered in both value and popularity after being portrayed as a predatory paedophile, Pablo Picasso’s work continues to sell for record prices after he was portrayed as a sadistic misogynist.
Harwood argues that history not only champions a singular perspective, it can provide it with an apologia, a rationalization of an exclusive perspective and context. Phrases like the “heartsickness of decline” suggest resignation, emphasising that she believed that 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.
In an earlier essay, I mentioned that a century separated Truganini’s actual death with her funeral, raising the question of what form of life can exist between an actual and a symbolic death. Lacan’s notion of there being a “second death” has a long history in a wide range of cultures, especially Indigenous ones, going well beyond black magic and zombie apocalypses. Shakespeare, for example, is awash with dead people demanding satisfaction in the physical world before they can settle in the afterlife.
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. On the other hand, she was determined to end her 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 should be buried with due protocol and ritual . When Harwood died in 1995, she was cremated and, as she had instructed, her ashes were scattered on the Brisbane River.
Contemporary accounts of Truganini’s beliefs of life after death suggest she anticipated being reunited with her kinfolk if proper rituals and protocols had been observed. Being brought back to country is among the foremost of those. But unlike Harwood’s, Truganini’s pleas for a proper funeral to facilitate her spirit’s journey to the afterlife were an echo of a long and wide-spread history that fell on deaf ears. 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 may have been able to see the ceremony from her kitchen window.