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The Aboriginal peoples of Tasmania

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The demise of the Aboriginal peoples of Tasmania is one of the most tragic episodes of recent history. Ironically, were it not for American and British sealers and whalers, who had operated on Van Diemen’s Land since 1793, abducting Aboriginal women and taking them to the Furneaux Islands in the Bass Strait as mistresses, the Tasmanian Aborigines could have disappeared entirely. Until recently, schoolbooks stated that the last Aboriginal Tasmanian was Truganini, who died at Oyster Cove, south of Hobart, in 1876. Not true – in fact, a strong Aboriginal movement has grown up in Tasmania.

Raised ocean levels after the last Ice Age separated the Aboriginal people of Tasmania from the mainland and caused isolation that was both genetic and cultural: for example, they couldn’t make fire but kept alight smouldering fire-sticks, and their weapons were simple clubs and spears not boomerangs. In appearance, the men wore their hair in long ringlets smeared with grease and red ochre, while women’s heads were closely shaved, and, to keep warm, they coated their bodies with a paste of animal fat, ochre and charcoal; women often wore a kangaroo-skin cloak.

When the first white settlement was established in the early 1800s there were reckoned to be about five thousand Aboriginal people in Tasmania, divided into bands who shared a language and culture, socialized, intermarried and – crucially – fought against other bands. They also traded and moved peacefully across neighbouring territory to share resources. Once the nomadic tribes realized the white settlers were not going to “share” resources in this traditional exchange, confrontation was inevitable. Tit-for-tat skirmishes in the 1820s led state governor George Arthur to declare martial law in 1828, expelling all Aboriginal people from settled districts and giving settlers licence to shoot on sight. To end the bloodshed, the government planned to confine the remaining Aborigines on Bruny Island, south of Hobart Town, and in 1830, a militia of three thousand settlers swept the island in a dragnet known as the Black Line.

The ploy failed, but betrayal between rival bands did the job instead and in 1834, the last 135 Aborigines were moved to a makeshift settlement on Flinders Island in the Bass Strait. Within four years most had died through disease or the harsh conditions. The 47 survivors were transferred to their final settlement at Oyster Cove, near Hobart, in 1837. The skeleton of that group’s last survivor, Truganini, originally from Bruny Island, was displayed in the Tasmanian Museum until 1976, when her remains were finally cremated and scattered in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel.

The mixed-race descendants of the Aboriginal Tasmanians, known as the Palawa, were given a voice by the establishment of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) in the 1970s. A push for land rights handed it control of historic areas of Flinders Island in 1999 and, in 2005, Cape Barren Island to its south. Pride in Aboriginal roots grew, too: in a 1981 census, 2700 Tasmanians ticked the Aboriginal box; by 2001 that number was 16,000. Ironically, this huge increase has riled the TAC, whose sympathies lie with the distinct Bass Strait communities that can trace their lineage back to the late 1700s.

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