In 19th century Queensland, the Native Mounted Police were responsible for “dispersing” (a euphemism for systematic killing) Aboriginal people.
This government-funded paramilitary force operated from 1849 (prior to Queensland’s separation from New South Wales) until 1904. It grew to have an expansive reach throughout the state, with camps established in strategic locations along the ever-expanding frontier, first in the southeast and then west and north. While staffed with non-Indigenous senior officers, the bulk of the force was made up of Aboriginal men and, sometimes, boys.
We have been exploring the remote Queensland outback for traces of the base camps of the Native Mounted Police. There were nearly 200 such camps. So far we have visited more than 45 of them.
Our archaeological work is revealing the day-to-day livelihoods that underpinned the chilling work of these police. This is an important part of reckoning with Australia’s colonial violence, given the difficulties in identifying physical evidence of massacres in the archaeological record, despite recent efforts to map massacre sites from oral and written sources.
Rather than maintaining order among the European population, the Native Mounted Police’s role was to protect squatters, miners and settlers on the frontier, by whatever means necessary. Their well documented method of “protection” was to mount patrols and kill Aboriginal people who were trying to protect their land, lives and loved ones. There were literally hundreds of such events.
On February 10 1861, for instance, a detachment led by Sub-Inspector Rudolph Morisset shot at least four, possibly more, Aboriginal men on Manumbar Station (about 160 km northwest of Brisbane). This was in reprisal for Aboriginal people killing cattle on the run. We know about these particular deaths because John Mortimer, one of the station owners, complained in the local press about the police’s behaviour. He also gave evidence to an 1861 inquiry into the activities of the Native Mounted Police.
Around Christmas 1878 meanwhile, on the banks of a waterhole near Boulia, some Aboriginal people killed one or more Europeans looking after stock. The reprisal massacres of Aboriginal men, women and children that followed — with one, possibly two, survivors — are known from a written account, and from various oral accounts documented in the months and years after. The Burke River Native Mounted Police, stationed just outside Boulia, commanded by Sub-Inspector Ernest Eglinton, and assisted by at least one prominent pastoralist, Alexander Kennedy, were responsible for the Aboriginal murders.
Excavating the past
Similar to the forts built on the plains of North America during the “Indian” Wars, or the offices of the Third Reich in Nazi Germany, Native Mounted Police camps formed the force’s administrative backbone. More than 450 non-Indigenous officers lived on these bases, along with at least 700 Aboriginal men, through the force’s 50-year history.
Like other bureaucratic systems, their very domestic ordinariness — providing insights into what the police ate, drank and how they lived — belies the conflict that took place beyond their boundaries.
Many camps were short-lived, sometimes being occupied for only a few months; in such cases their physical imprint is limited. In other situations — particularly where the terrain was rugged and higher population densities meant Aboriginal people were able to mount more effective campaigns of resistance — camps were occupied for longer periods, sometimes several decades. These left a clearer impression on the landscape.
Even so, what is left is not what you might normally associate with a frontier war. There are no battlefields, in the traditional sense of the word, to be seen. No victims with bullet wounds, no mass graves, and no large fortified buildings. Instead, the Native Mounted Police camps are ordinary, banal even, revealing the detritus of everyday life: stone fireplaces, segments of post and rail fences, sections of pathways, clearings and the occasional rubbish dump strewn with broken bottles.
Perhaps more telling, are the large numbers of bullets and spent cartridges from government-issue Snider rifles. These were rarely owned by private citizens but were issued to the Native Mounted Police for decades.
At each of the Burke River, Cluney and Boralga camps we have catalogued more than 100 bullets and cartridges, an unexpected situation given that most killings of Aboriginal people by the Native Mounted Police occurred outside the confines of the camps. Perhaps the abundance of these objects in the camps is the result of regular target practice by troopers, or maybe the result of having to hunt kangaroos at the local waterhole to supplement their meagre rations. Military-style buttons from uniforms – with ornate monograms, sometimes including a royal cipher and crown – serve as a bleak reminder that the violence associated with the Native Mounted Police was endorsed by the state.
The Burke River camp
Burke River near Boulia in southwest Queensland – the base for Sub Inspector Eglinton and his detachment – was described in 1882 by a visitor as
the most respectable looking native police camp I have seen in Queensland, there seems to be a place for everything and everything in its place.
This camp sits beside a waterhole that is associated with Dreaming stories – an Aboriginal stone arrangement and the thousands of flaked stone artefacts along the edge of the watercourse are testament to it being an important living and ceremonial place. The establishment of a police camp on the site was likely to have been viewed by local Aboriginal people as both inappropriate and insulting – but of course their views were not a concern.
There are two stone buildings, likely built to house equipment, guns, ammunition and dry foodstuffs, and possibly the officer’s quarters. Further away again is a series of small mounds – so slight that unless you know what to look for you would not even see them. These mounds are a treasure trove of discarded rubbish. The fish hooks, flaked glass artefacts and animal remains we have recovered from them indicate they are likely the remains of the troopers’ huts. They serve to remind us that, despite the job they were hired to carry out, they too were just men trying to survive.
Sites of colonial violence are difficult to locate exactly. As such, there is ongoing debate about its scale and nature. Aboriginal people have always referred to these events as a war. Such statements are often dismissed by critics as unreliable. Yet 19th century European authors also described the frontier killings as a war. The archaeology of Native Mounted Police camps is the closest material indication we have of the scale of suppression of Aboriginal people through the 19th century.
While some of these camps are recognised on Queensland’s Aboriginal heritage list, none can be found on the broader State Heritage Register – despite 200 sites that refer to the regular Queensland Police Force in some manner. We believe this should change to give more formal recognition to the dark past of the State’s foundations.
There is no doubt that Europeans brought a culture of brewing and consuming alcohol during their early migration and colonisation of Australia.
But there is also evidence that Aboriginal people were already aware of fermentation processes to make beverages, in much the same way that many other cultures around the world have done for millennia.
For example, social anthropologist Maggie Brady’s 2008 and 2014 work pulls together early European accounts of some Aboriginal practices. They involved the collection and production of sugar-rich solutions and extracts followed by an “incubation” to allow fermentation to occur.
I’m interested to know more about the nature, composition, flavour and aroma of the materials used in any Aboriginal fermentations, as well as the microbiology involved.
When members of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (owners of the Trawtha Makuminya reserve) heard about this project, they kindly invited my research group to examine and sample Eucalyptus gunnii trees on their reserve.
A drink from sap
The Eucalyptus gunnii trees originate from the Central Highlands of Tasmania at about 1,000 metres above sea level. Perhaps the easiest material to use from these trees is the sap.
Dotted around frost hollows in poorly drained soils, prone to extreme cold, attack from animals and insect borers – presumably for the sugary bonanza they represent in their environment – the trees appear to cling to existence.
In the past, Aboriginal people tapped the trees to allow the sap, resembling maple syrup, to collect in hollows in the bark or at the base of the tree. Ever-present yeast would ferment the liquid to an alcoholic, cider-like beverage that the local Aboriginal people referred to as Way-a-linah.
In the absence of any detailed investigation of cider gum sap and the indigenous microflora inevitably associated with it, work was initiated late in 2016 to collect samples for analysis and yeast isolation.
Considering the remoteness of the trees, it was hoped they would yield novel strains of known yeasts, if not new species. Over the course of two field trips to central Tasmania, some 20 trees scattered across three large reserve areas were sampled.
Given their endangered status, no tapping was performed, nor was any required given pre-existing flows via fissures in the bark or holes produced by boring insects.
The presence of exposed runs readily attracted insects and supported a microbial population evident from the distinct vinegar-like aroma detected as one approaches the trees.
About 130 samples of sap droplets on the trees or larger volumes from pools, bark and soil were collected.
Compositional analysis revealed sugars such as glucose, fructose and maltose as well as several organic acids and alcohol (ethanol). Across the samples there were clearly differences in the extent to which they had already fermented.
Thus sugar contents ranged from trace to several hundred grams per litre, while ethanol ranged between 0-6% alcohol by volume. By comparison, a full strength beer or cider contains about 5% alcohol.
Clearly the indigenous microflora are capable of producing an alcoholic beverage without needing human encouragement.
Extraction of DNA from relevant samples, followed by sequence-based attempts to identify the fungal species present (yeast is a micro fungi) revealed a highly variable and complex microbial population with between 10% and 90% of all sequence fragments failing to align with a known fungal genome.
In some cases these unknowns will have arisen out of sequencing issues or limitations in online fungal genome sequence databases. But new species or genera of yeast are possible and at least new strains of known yeast are highly likely. Certainly the uniqueness and isolation of the source sites would suggest this.
Since the above sequencing approach only recovers DNA, effectively telling us what was in the samples, parallel efforts sought to recover living yeast by traditional microbiological culture methods. To date we have preserved a small subset only, but even this represents about 1,500 individual isolates.
All are undergoing sequence-based identification. It’s noteworthy that the typical beer/wine/baking yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, is virtually absent, while so-called non-Saccharomyces species such as Hanseniaspora osmophilia and H. valbyensis predominate.
Previously isolated examples of H. osmophilahave been linked to high sugar environments (e.g. dried grapes) and are able to produce ferments with up to 11.6% alcohol, well within the level anticipated in fermented cider gum sap.
Interesting properties have already been observed including good growth at low temperatures – lower than is tolerated by non-Saccharomyces that are already sold for wine fermentation. Such cold tolerance makes sense given the very harsh winters that are common where cider gums are found.
We are also looking to identify all recovered isolates. In some cases this has only been possible to a genus level – perhaps implying new species. In other cases no definitive identification could be made, suggesting entirely new species.
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As our work progresses we will publish our findings and report back to the Aboriginal communities that have supported the study. We have also begun to extend the study to other substrates as well as the anthropological and cultural significance of these unique fermentation practices.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this story may contain images and voices of people who have died.
The five planets we can see by naked eye were known to the ancient Greeks as “asteres planetai”, meaning “wandering stars”, due to their wandering journey across the sky relative to the fixed stars. This is where we get the word “planet”.
But knowledge of the planets and their movements goes back much further, being prominent in the traditions of the oldest continuing cultures in the world.
Recent research reveals a wealth of information about the planets and their complex motions in the Knowledge Systems of Indigenous Australians.
The wandering stars
These systems show that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people carefully observe the complex motions of the planets.
In Wardaman traditions, the planets are ancestor spirits who walk across a celestial road. Wardaman Elder Bill Yidumduma Harney calls it the Dreaming Track in the Sky.
Astronomers call this celestial road the zodiac – the region of sky nine degrees on either side of the ecliptic (the path of the Sun). As the planets orbit the Sun in roughly the same plane, they all are visible along this band of the sky.
Uncle Yidumduma describes the planet-ancestors moving across the sky much like we walk down a busy footpath. We sometimes hurriedly pass each other, or slow down for a chat. Occasionally, we even stop and turn backwards to chat with someone before moving forward again.
Astronomers call this phenomenon retrograde motion. It is an optical effect that occurs as the planets orbit the Sun at different distances and velocities. It means the planets can appear to slow down and move backwards for a time before returning to their normal motion.
There are five planets visible to the naked eye and right now, and you can see at least four – Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – in the sky at sunset from most locations across Australia. All of these planets are currently in retrograde motion.
The (non) twinkling stars
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people recognise that these wandering stars generally do not twinkle – a phenomenon the Meriam people of the eastern Torres Strait call epreki and observe to predict weather and seasonal change.
But sometimes they do twinkle, particularly if they are very low on the horizon. Kamilaroi people of northern New South Wales say Venus occasionally twinkles when it’s low in the sky. They say it’s an old man who told a rude joke and has been laughing ever since.
In the traditions of the Euahlayi people – neighbours of the Kamilaroi – Venus and Mars relate to songlines and trade with Arrernte people of the Central Desert.
During special ceremonies, the Arrernte travel from the MacDonnell Ranges to Quilpie in southwest Queensland, bringing with them a red stone that signifies Mars. The Euahlayi people bring a green and blue stone to the ceremony, representing Venus. They are seen as the different-coloured eyes of the creator spirit Baayami.
Venus – the Morning and Evening Star
Venus is commonly known in many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures as both the Morning and Evening Star.
In the Dreaming stories of the Western Arrernte, a celestial baby fell from the Milky Way, striking the ground and creating the giant meteorite crater called Tnorala (Gosses Bluff). The child’s parents – the Morning and Evening Stars – take turns searching for their lost child to this day.
Arrernte mothers warn their children not to look at the Morning or Evening Star, as the celestial parents might mistake them for their lost child and carry them away to the sky.
In Yolngu traditions of Arnhem Land, a special ceremony is held to signify the rising of the Creation ancestor, Banumbirr (Venus), between the mainland and a Burralku – the sacred island of the dead.
The ceremony starts at dusk and continues through the night, reaching a climax when Banumbirr rises a few hours before dawn as Venus transitions from the Evening Star to the Morning Star. Banumbirr communicates with the people through a faint rope that holds her close to the Sun.
Astronomers call this zodiacal light – the glow of dust in the plane of the Solar System.
The first rising of Venus as the Morning Star, after it transitions from the Evening Star, occurs every 584 days. Astronomers refer to this as Venus’ synodic period.
It’s 50 years since the anthropologist WEH Stanner gave the 1968 Boyer Lectures — a watershed moment for Australian history. Stanner argued that Australia’s sense of its past, its very collective memory, had been built on a state of forgetting, which couldn’t “be explained by absent mindedness”:
It is a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape. What may well have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.
His lectures profoundly influenced historians partly because of the image he captured: for a practice based on documentation, archiving and storytelling, silence is a compelling idea. And a whole-scale silence — a “cult of forgetfulness”, no less —indicated a bold re-imagining of a national historiography on Stanner’s part.
As Stanner insisted, this sort of silence was no “absent-mindedness”: the occlusion of Aboriginal people from Australian history wasn’t inevitable.
In the wake of his lectures, influential Australian historians conceived of their own historical awakening in these same terms. In an autobiographical essay historian Marilyn Lake described the prevailing historical view in her small rural town: “Growing up in the former colony of Tasmania we did our fair share of forgetting”. And in his evocative memoir, Why Weren’t We Told? Henry Reynolds famously pondered that shift away from silence as people endeavoured to write in Indigenous perspectives from the 1970s onwards.
It’s a common refrain. I remember my dad describing how he also “hadn’t been told” about Australia’s Aboriginal history when Reynolds’ book came out. And a colleague and friend recently recounted visiting Myall Creek as part of a Sunday school picnic in the 1980s: no-one mentioned its dark history as the site of an infamous Aboriginal massacre in 1838.
Yet the move from “great Australian silence” to historical “truth-telling” isn’t quite as clear cut as Stanner’s description might suggest. “Too often it is taken to imply a kind of historiographical periodisation where there was no Aboriginal history before Stanner’s own lecture and an end to the silence after it”, writes Ann Curthoys. Yet that doesn’t capture the whole picture: “there was neither complete silence before 1968, nor was it completely ended afterwards”.
While we now have important interventions into Aboriginal history that amplify Australia’s uncomfortable past, such as Lyndall Ryan’s massacre map and the Uluru Statement from the Heart, those reverberations continue to cause anxiety.
The Statement from the Heart called for a “truth-telling about our history” but still awaits bipartisan support; meanwhile, online commentary in response to the release of Ryan’s massacre database shows the persistence of historical refusal in Australia.
The “great Australian silence” is also historically a little more complex. I’m writing a history of history-making in Australia and have been struck by the detailed interest in Aboriginal life as well as the often graphic accounts of frontier violence in works from the early and mid-19th century. For want of colonial history “texts”, I’ve also been reading travelogues and emigrant’s guides. While these books and pamphlets are largely observational, they also frequently present historical narratives and interpretation.
Many of them didn’t hold back in their tales from the colonial frontier, cataloguing extensive episodes of violent conflict between Aboriginal people and colonialists.
Have a look at this description of the 1838 Myall Creek massacre from Godfrey Charles Mundy in his travelogue, Our Australian Antipodes, published in 1852:
[The perpetrators,] with the exception of a child or two; and having bound them together with thongs, fired into the mass until the entire tribe, 27 in number, were killed or mortally wounded. The white savages then chopped in pieces their victims, and threw them, some yet living, on a large fire; a detachment of the stockmen remaining for several days on the spot to complete the destruction of the bodies.
It is graphic historical writing.
The horror of Mundy’s Myall Creek account is paradoxically eclipsed by the chilling official silence he observes after most attacks:
Reprisals [against Aboriginal people] are undertaken on a large scale – a scale that either never reaches the ears of the Government, which is bound to protect alike the white and the black subject; or, if it reaches them at all, finds them conveniently deaf.
James Demark’s Adventures in Australia Fifty Years Ago, from 1893, similarly reports a structural and deliberate deafness in response to the violent, eerie echoes across the frontier: “The settlers retaliated in their own way”, he writes, and “there were no Government regulations to check these irregular proceedings”.
Even self-described histories, such as those by James Bonwick and John West, explicitly link frontier violence with Australia’s colonisation. West’s History of Tasmania, first published in 1852, even uses the terms “black hunts” and “black war” to describe the first 50 years of Van Diemen’s Land. West was an abolitionist, and a tone of historical injustice inflects his writing about the Tasmanian Aborigines in volume two.
Take this excerpt, where he relates the perverse logic of colonial expansion:
It was better that the blacks should die, than that they should stain the settler’s heath with the blood of his children.
And this one, where he mourns the destruction of Tasmanian Aboriginal society in only two generations:
At length the secret comes out: the tribe which welcomed the first settler with shouts and dancing, or at worst looked on with indifference, has ceased to live.
Bonwick’s 1870 history of Tasmania is similarly full of sentiment. In a tone curiously analogous to Paul Keating’s Redfern Park speech 120 years later, Bonwick offers this lament on the effects of colonisation on Tasmania’s Aboriginal people:
We came upon them as evil genii, and blasted them with the breath of our presence. We broke up their home circles. We arrested their laughing corrobory. We turned their song into weeping, and their mirth to sadness.
Bonwick also reveals the ease with which colonial discourse accounted for murder. During his time in Tasmania, Bonwick writes, he had heard several people explain that “they thought no more of shooting a Black than bringing down a bird”. He went on: “Indeed, in those distant times, it was common enough to hear men talk of the number of black crows they had destroyed”.
Those recollections of euphemistic colonial vernacular hint at some of Bonwick’s method as a historian. In the introduction to his history and in an 1895 talk to the Royal Colonial Institute in London, he gives a more detailed explanation of that approach.
It was not a hunt through blue books [government records], that provided the source material for his research, he explains. Rather, it was conversation and hearsay, from sly-grog sellers, ex-bushrangers and colonial gentry alike, that furnish his historical narrative.
How else could you write about hunting crows?
Alongside those histories was a humanitarian public discourse that anguished over frontier violence. Media commentary, public debates and lectures, as well as letters to the editor from the frontier that related specific episodes of violence, are explored in detail by Henry Reynolds in This Whispering in Our Hearts.
Likewise, poetry such as The Aboriginal Mother (1838) by Eliza Hamilton Dunlop reveals a form of popular and creative history-making in response to colonisation that can be seen in the work of writers such as Judith Wright and Eleanor Dark a century later.
So why was that reverberation replaced with euphemism and omission? Partly the silence was a fear of punishment, as Bain Attwood argues in a recent essay on historical denial.
Especially after the successful prosecution of the Myall Creek massacre perpetrators, colonial frontlines and allegiances became a little murkier. “There were good reasons to be silent,” historian Tom Griffiths has similarly insisted.
Mundy’s 1852 account of his “ramble” through the antipodes confirms Attwood and Griffiths’ explanation, and reveals how stories quietly murmured along the frontier provided a catalogue of violence.
“Dreadful tales of cold-blooded carnage have found their way into print, or are whispered about in the provinces,” he writes. And
although there be Crown land commissioners, police magistrates, and settlers of mark, who deny, qualify, or ignore these wholesale massacres of the black population, there can be no real doubt their extirpation from the land is rapidly going on.
It wasn’t simply a case of an uncomfortable frontier that came to characterise the silence Stanner identified in his Boyer lectures, however.
The historians Stanner named in his lectures (such as M. Barnard Eldershaw, Hartley Grattan, Max Crawford and Brian Fitzpatrick) were largely silent on Aboriginal policy and history in their mid-20th century histories — despite being written after the 1930s, a decade which Stanner notes for its influence in shapeshifting on Aboriginal policy.
Yet this form of history writing had begun in the late 19th century. At a time when Australian nationhood and national identity were being formed around Federation, the historical discipline was moving into a particular form of narrative writing oriented towards (non-Indigenous) Australian exceptionalism based on democratic and economic progress.
As Australia’s national consciousness emerged, it required a historical consciousness of its own origin. Education departments commissioned history texts and universities appointed history professors. As history became increasingly professionalised “blue books” and official archives were in; hearsay and poetry out.
So what did disciplinary “silence” look like in Australia? It saw History (with a capital “H”) arriving with colonisation: “She alone of all the continents has no history”, proclaimed journalist Flora Shaw in a presentation about Australia to the Royal Colonial Institute in London in 1894.
She offers the introductory chapter of a new history and bases her claim to the attention of the world upon the future which she is shaping for herself.
Lorenzo Veracini has described that settler-colonial vision of the Australian continent as a sort of historia nullius, where “Australian history” only existed thanks to the selective creation and curation by colonial historians.
For Australian historians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the silence of pre-and post-contact Indigenous experience occurred because it existed outside the Whiggish historical narrative of imperial progress. “The federation of (white) Australia and the birth of ‘national’ historical consciousness thus represent … a moment of disciplinary origin”, historian Leigh Boucher asserts.
In his 1916 Short History of Australia, Ernest Scott described “vast tracts of fertile country which had never rung under the hoof of a horse and where the bleat of a sheep had never been heard.” In these texts, silence is counterposed against the ringing of axes and “industry”.
Scott writes that Australia “begins with a blank space of the map, and ends with the record of a new name on the map, that of Anzac”. It’s worth dissecting this quote here, to unpack that form of history writing: the inevitability of historical progress and national formation is telling.
We shouldn’t assume that this early national history writing was completely silent on Indigenous matters: Coghlan and Ewing’s 1902 Progress of Australasia in the Nineteenth Century described the “invasion” of parts of southern Australia by the colonists, and related in some detail the colonial massacre of Aboriginal people at Risden Cove in Tasmania; and Scott’s 1916 short history included ghastly and violent accounts of murder on the colonial frontier, as well as the deliberate planting of arsenic in flour destined for Aboriginal people.
Nevertheless, Stanner gave voice to an emergent idea about silence that understands history as a method that changes over time and place, rather than an objective interpretation of the past. It reminds me of what narrative psychologist Jerome Bruner explains as the “coherence” we “impose” on the past, to “make it into history”.
In other words, the 1930s histories that Stanner identified in his Boyer lectures exist in a historical structure where Indigenous perspectives have been locked out. As Stanner himself articulated,
We have been able for so long to disremember the Aborigines that we are now hard put to keep them in mind even when we most want to do so.
Still a work-in-progress
Stanner’s point raises an important question: if “History” itself is tied to the process of colonisation, can it accommodate perspectives outside its colonial apparatus? Stanner sensed that history would overcome its own silences, but doing so would require major methodological shifts, such as the incorporation of Aboriginal Studies and oral history:
In Aboriginal Australia there is an oral history which is providing these people with a coherent principal of explanation … It has a directness and a candour which cut like a knife through most of what we say and write.
His predictions played out, and such approaches, applied by Indigenous and non-Indigenous historians such as Hobbles Danyari, Heather Goodall, Peter Read, Paddy Roe and Deborah Bird Rose overturned Aboriginal historiography in Australia.
The murmurings have since turned into a groundswell: Indigenous histories have become increasingly prominent and Indigenous perspectives are now mandated across school curricula. Conspicuous public and political debates over Australian history are further indication of how this counter narrative has become a significant historical lens.
“I hardly think that what I have called ‘the great Australian silence’ will survive the research that is now in course”, Stanner anticipated. And to a large degree, he was right — a substantial historical revision has taken place in Australia.
If anything, that change has accelerated since Stanner’s death in 1981. Yet in university history departments, Indigenous historians still remain vastly underrepresented.
Indigenous perspectives have increasingly informed, critiqued and revised historical approaches. But Indigenous histories are often relegated to “memoir”, “story”, “family history”, “narratives of place” or “political protest”, rather than acknowledged as part of a disciplinary practice.
And with the possible exception of oral history and pre-history/deep time, there is still a marked absence of Indigenous historiography in Australia’s historical “canon”.
We may have developed new critical approaches, and a growing understanding of the genealogy of historical “silence”. Yet the meaning and the consequences of that understanding are still a work in progress.
Truganini’s death in Hobart in May 1876 attracted worldwide attention. She was widely, but wrongly, believed to have been the last Aboriginal person to have survived the Tasmanian genocide. Her demise symbolised the devastating impacts of British imperialism on Indigenous peoples.
Yet Tasmanian Aboriginal people continue to live on the Bass Strait Islands, in rural and urban Tasmania and elsewhere. Their culture, although severely disrupted by the British invasion, persists. Part of this survival is the resurrection of a language, palawa kani, that is used by some Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Recently there have been calls to use the Aboriginal name nipaluna for Hobart, and other places are already using dual names.
Across Australia, an estimated 250 Indigenous Australian languages and hundreds more dialects were spoken before the British arrived. The cultural disruption caused by invasion has resulted in more than half of these languages vanishing.
In parts of the country, Aboriginal people and linguists have been working to preserve and restore some of the country’s original languages. In this wider context of language preservation and renewal, a reconstructed Tasmanian Aboriginal language has recently emerged. Palawa kani (“Tasmanian Aboriginal people speak”), is based on surviving spoken and written remnants of the island’s original languages. The written form of palawa kani has only lower case letters following a decision by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre to discontinue capitals.
In 1981, linguists Terry Crowley and Robert Dixon estimated that between eight and 12 different languages, some mutually unintelligible, were spoken by Tasmanian Aboriginal people prior to invasion. They used a variety of colonial records to arrive at this estimate.
Maritime explorers, missionaries and colonial officials wrote Tasmanian Aboriginal words and phrases in their journals. Some, like botanist Allan Cunningham, jotted down lists of words. Others, such as Quaker missionaries James Backhouse and George Washington Walker, also wrote down the lyrics to Tasmanian Aboriginal songs.
Between 1829 and 1834, the Conciliator of Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson, travelled the island with an entourage of Aboriginal people, including Truganini, and white servants. They aimed to capture Tasmanian Aboriginal people who had survived the Vandemonian War, which had been fought between Aboriginal people and the British colonists. Robinson relied on interpreters, but he and his white companions learned some Tasmanian Aboriginal languages. Robinson wrote down over 4,500 Tasmanian Aboriginal words. His white servant, James Gravenor, later spoke some words in Truganini’s Aboriginal language at her burial.
Many Tasmanian Aboriginal words continued to be used by those living on the Bass Strait islands. Tasmanian Aboriginal singer Ronnie Summers grew up on Cape Barren Island. He has written, for example, about how “yolla” is an Aboriginal word for short-tailed shearwaters.
South of Hobart, Fanny Cochrane Smith continued to use some of her Tasmanian Aboriginal language. Famously, in 1899 and 1903, she was recorded singing several songs and speaking in this language.
Since the 1990s, Tasmanian Aboriginal people including Theresa Sainty, Jenny Longey and June Sculthorpe have worked to restore language to their community. palawa kani has been built from words and songs passed down Aboriginal families as well as phrases and words recorded in colonial documents. It is a composite language that has been embraced by some, but not all, Tasmanian Aboriginal people.
Today, Tasmanian Aboriginal people are using palawa kani in different contexts. These include educational settings, during ceremonies and at official functions. Digital materials, posters and flash cards have been produced. People are encouraged to use palawa kani in their homes. Language learning is also supported by palawa kani being used in the award-winning animated television series Little J and Big Cuz.
Gradually people living in and beyond the wider Tasmanian community are becoming used to hearing or seeing palawa kani. In 2014, Tasmanian Aboriginal musician Dewayne Everettsmith’s debut album Surrender included melaythina, the first song released in palawa kani. More recently, in April 2018, the oratorio A Tasmanian Requiem premiered in Hobart. It included palawa kani, English and Latin. On approaching the ningina tunipri Tasmanian Aboriginal gallery at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart, visitors hear palawa kani.
Around Tasmania, some national parks and other significant landmarks now have dual names. Examples include Mt Wellington, near Hobart, which is also known by its Aboriginal name kunanyi and Asbestos Range National Park in the north of the state. The latter was renamed Narawntapu National Park in 2000, prior to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre discontinuing the use of upper case letters in palawa kani.
The word nipaluna, for Hobart, came from a word recorded by Robinson on 16 January 1830. The Conciliator wrote in his journal that his Aboriginal informant Woorrady (Wooreddy) told him Hobart was called nib.ber.loon.ne. On 11 July, Robinson recorded the name for Hobart as niberlooner. Different spellings were common in the 19th century for Aboriginal and English words. Those working on palawa kani have had to take these variations into account.
Present day use of palawa kani goes beyond dual place naming. It is also being used as a language of protest. Earlier this year, in February 2018, a television advertisement spoken in palawa kani went to air to protest against the Tasmanian Government’s plans to reopen some four-wheel drive tracks in the remote Arthur Pieman Conservation Area in Tasmania’s north west.
Despite not all Tasmanian Aboriginal people embracing palawa kani, the reemergence of an Aboriginal language in Tasmania is providing the island’s first peoples with a culturally distinctive, unique voice.
Ten previously forgotten Aboriginal names for 19th century sites and suburbs of Melbourne have been recently unearthed at the Melbourne Museum. These include the names for Fitzroy (Ngár-go), Richmond (Quo-yung), Collingwood (Yálla-birr-ang) and Brunswick (Bulleke-bek).
These names were in a cache of notes made by Alfred William Howitt, an anthropologist and Gippsland magistrate. His jottings appear to be records of conversations he had sometime between 1897 and 1901 with William Barak, ngurungaeta (leader) of the Wurundjeri-willam, the traditional owners of what is now northern Melbourne, and Dick Richards, Barak’s fellow Kulin countryman. (The Kulin was an alliance of Aboriginal nations in central Victoria.)
Howitt’s palm-sized, leather bound notebooks, written in his barely legible hand, were not precise or verbatim records of these conversations but aides to memory. Held in the museum since the 1950s as a small part of his extensive collection, they are difficult to decipher and require expert scholarship to decode. Throughout one notebook we can see that Howitt has jotted down Aboriginal names, mostly in the Woiwurrung language once spoken in the Melbourne area, corresponding to landmarks and municipalities that arose in Melbourne town during Barak’s lifetime. (He lived from around 1824 to 1903).
Although there is no accompanying map, these names identify landmarks and perhaps sites of Ancestral stories on land owned by Barak’s clan and beyond. They add some 10 new locality names and further tantalising details to what is already known from other publications.
Fitzroy, for example, the first suburb of Melbourne gazetted in 1839 and the first municipality beyond the Melbourne borders, is listed in Howitt’s notebook as Ngár-go, meaning “high ground”. Although a Woiwurrung name for the Fitzroy area has not been noted before, the records of colonist Daniel Bunce include “N’gorack”, a similar term to describe a “mountain, peak or hill”.
The suburb of Brunswick corresponds to Bulleke bek, a term that appears to include the suffix “bik” meaning “ground/country/place”, although Howitt’s English gloss for this name is difficult to decipher. His handwriting is so tiny and rushed that he appears to have either written “flat country with scattered trees” or “flat country where scott’s work”.
The boundaries of European suburbs or municipalities did not, of course, correspond with the pre-existing Aboriginal conceptions of place. We have to acknowledge that we do not exactly know what Barak and Richards were referring to when they provided Howitt with these terms. Did they refer to areas within a particular clan boundary (usually called an “estate” in anthropological parlance) or were they the names of very specific sites; perhaps a tree, a rock, a bend in the river or a hill? The truth is that in the absence of more precise geospatial information we will never know.
These names do nevertheless add further details to an alternative vision of Australia’s fastest growing metropolis. Some names describe land use or vegetation that have in most cases been eradicated, others are suggestive of ancestral stories.
The term for Collingwood Flat, Yalla-birr-ang, for example, is described as “a very old name” that means “the wooden point of a reed spear”. This may reference the place in a story where an Ancestor fashioned a spear point, or fixed one. To complicate things, though, a very similar term, yallanēbirong, was listed by an earlier ethnographer not as a place name, but as a word for “blanket”.
Indigenous words, phrases and place names have been taken up and used in mainstream Australia since colonisation, but often with a limited appreciation of their nuance or complexity. Universities, for example, are eagerly adopting Indigenous names to furnish their meeting rooms and public spaces. Some local councils are keen to source Indigenous names for new parks, river ways and streets.
And while the recuperation of this material is essential for recognising and acknowledging Indigenous presence (deep into the past and ongoing), interpreting this material is not straight-forward, as linguistic and anthropological literature has shown, especially when it comes from scant archival material.
The Woiwurrung name for “Cathedral”, “Geeburr” in Howitt’s notes is especially intriguing and difficult to decipher. It may refer to the site of one of the two Melbourne Cathedrals that were completed just prior to these conversations taking place. St. Pauls was largely finished in 1891, while St Patricks, situated on the high ground identified as Ngár-go (though further east than the borders of Fitzroy), was consecrated a little later in 1897.
Or, perhaps “Geeburr” is a generic reference to a place recognised as “sacred” by Aboriginal people and not a specific place name at all? The only other name referring to a building rather than a place is the “S.P. Office”, presumably meaning the office of the Superintendent of Police, which Howitt records as “Turrák-gullia arm”.
Place names throw up many linguistic issues that we need to consider in our analysis. Aboriginal languages in Victoria had sounds not used in English which could easily confuse European scribes.
Take the name for the River Yarra. In 1876, Robert Brough Smyth recorded the Woiwurrung name for the river as “Birr-arrung”, but failed to tell us from whom or when it was collected. Most Melburnians will now recognise this in the name for the large green-space located nearby to Federation square, Birrarung Marr.
However many years earlier, Rev William Thomas made a sketch map of Aboriginal names for the rivers and creeks in the Yarra valley. He wrote “Yarra Yarra or Paarran” next to the outline of the course of the river. Melbourne still uses a derivative of this word, Prahran, for one of its suburbs, although it is not beside the river.
Edward M. Curr, in his 1887 book The Australian Race, recorded the name for the river as Bay-ray-rung. In fact these four words, Birrarrung, Paarran, Bay-ray-rung and Prahran, are different spellings of the same word. The original word included sounds we can’t write in English, and we cannot be sure of the original pronunciation (as there are no audio recordings of fluent speakers of the Kulin languages). We can at least say though, that this was a place name associated with the river, perhaps related to the word for “mist” or “fog”, that was elsewhere recorded as “boorroong” or “boorr-arrang”.
The more commonly known name “Yarra” however came from surveyor John Helder Wedge, who upon asking a Wathawurrung speaker from the Geelong area what the cascading waters on a lower section of the river were called, exclaimed “Yanna Yanna”, meaning “it flows”. Wedge’s mishearing and misunderstanding became the accepted name of Melbourne’s iconic waterway.
Howitt’s scrambled notes conjure the difficulties of precolonial interaction and cross-cultural understanding in early Melbourne but they also highlight the challenges of post-colonial recognition and adjustment. The faint echoes of the conversations between Richards, Barak and Howitt resonate from the 19th century as the citizens of present day Melbourne wrestle with our colonial heritage.
This research is part of a large multi-institutional project on colonial records involving Aboriginal communities, historians, linguists and anthropologists, led by Deakin University in partnership with Melbourne Museum.
The authors would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri Council for their assistance in preparing this article. Permission for access and use of any cultural information, language, and place names within this article must be obtained by written approval from the Wurundjeri Council.
As Hobart’s Old Government House was being demolished in the late 1850s, workers made a remarkable discovery. Lifting the floor, they found an old pine board covered with four rows of pictures. Six scenes painted in oils depicted interactions between white people and Aboriginal men, women and children.
An old colonist who had arrived in Van Diemen’s Land back in 1804 remembered seeing such a picture board. She told The Mercury newspaper in November 1874 how she recalled it
hanging on a gum tree at Cottage Green [now Battery Point] where … there was an Aboriginal “Home”, to the occupants of which rations were issued.
In the early decades of the Australian colonies, British officials tried different techniques to communicate with Aboriginal people. Some strategies were brutal, such as when Governor Arthur Phillip had Arabanoo, and later Colebee and Bennelong, kidnapped. The Governor planned to restrain these Aboriginal men until they learned English and could act as go-betweens (eventually Bennelong became an intermediary and a companion to Phillip).
Other communication strategies were more creative. Around 1816, Governor Lachlan Macquarie used proclamations nailed to trees to try to convey messages to Aboriginal people in New South Wales. None of these are known to have survived. In the 19th century, visiting Italian scientist Enrico Giglioli thought that Tasmania’s colonists were copying Macquarie’s approach when they began using picture boards.
The Tasmanian picture board found stashed under Old Government House is rare. Only six others like it survive, all bearing the same picture sequence. This design has become relatively well known. Yet people continue to debate the meaning behind the boards. Some believe they depict the rule of law, others see martial law.
The central motif of the Lieutenant-Governor shaking hands with an Aboriginal leader, and the other pictures illustrating equality, have led scholars to conclude that picture boards were used to promote conciliation and harmony.
In 2014, fellow historian Nick Brodie and I were astonished to read detailed descriptions of two very different Tasmanian picture boards, in a manuscript by an unidentified author held in the Allport Library in Hobart. The author wrote about “Several Paintings of Panel […] about Eighteen Inches Square” that were “divided into compartments each of which represented a series of Actions admonitory to the Natives of the course intended by the Government to be pursued in future towards them”.
These visual warnings to Aboriginal people were part of Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur’s propaganda campaign during the Vandemonian War. We were intrigued by the scenes the writer described. To bring these to life, we invited Melbourne-based Tasmanian artist Simon Barnard to create impressions of what these other picture boards might have looked like.
The manuscript described scenes mirroring events that actually occurred. Take, for example, the Aboriginal man pictured in chains. In August 1830, following an altercation between field police and Aboriginal people at the Shannon River in Central Tasmania, the Colonial Times reported how an Aboriginal leader was
led in chains to the capital […] a large and heavy cart chain was twisted around his neck, and the other end of it was in the left hand of one of the conquerors.
The newspaper stated that two Aboriginal men were killed during the Shannon River affray. Other Aboriginal men, including the well-known resistance leader and convict from New South Wales, Musquito, were hanged in Hobart.
The two boards described in the manuscript presented Aboriginal people with a grim choice. Resist the British and guns and death awaits you. Adopt colonial ways and things will be better for you. The writer even suggested that “Official Rank & Station should be open to them [Aboriginal people] & […] they might even aspire to the dignified & confidential Employment of Postman”.
The accounts of these more recently rediscovered boards complicate our understandings of Van Diemen’s Land, by showing how the colonial government offered stark terms. Depicting “soldiery […] firing upon a tribe”, these images convey the brutal realities of the Vandemonian War more accurately than the board found under Old Government House. Rather than implying friendship and equality, the sequences of pictures on these other two boards illustrate diverging paths for Tasmania’s Aboriginal people following the British invasion.
The altercation-themed board’s picture sequence showed how, if Aboriginal people continued to resist the invasion, they would continue to be shot by soldiers, field police, armed settlers, and convicts. Those taken into custody could face the hangman.
On the other hand, the assimilation-themed board depicted how, in order to survive, the island’s original inhabitants could adopt Western ways. It showed Tasmanian Aboriginal people peacefully trading with the newcomers, being subservient to the Lieutenant-Governor, wearing colonial clothing, attending church, and taking up employment.
Aboriginal engagement with picture boards
Little evidence has survived to tell us how Aboriginal people engaged with or reacted to picture boards. We know at least one Tasmanian Aboriginal man became familiar with the imagery.
On 26 November 1830, the Tasmanian and Austral-Asiatic Review reported how Surveyor-General George Frankland gave the well-known leader Eumarrah a “little sketch” that illustrated:
[…] the consequences of the Aborigines adopting a peaceable demeanour, or of continuing their present murderous and predatory habits. In one part of the sketch, the soldiery were represented firing upon a tribe of the Blacks, who were falling from the effects of the attack. On the other part were seen, another tribe, decently clad, receiving food for themselves and families.
Ultimately this colonial propaganda was telling Tasmanian Aboriginal people that they really had no choice at all. Assimilate to survive. Resist, and perish.
The approximately 400 languages of Aboriginal Australia can be grouped into 27 different families. To put that diversity in context, Europe has just four language families, Indo-European, Basque, Finno-Ugric and Semitic, with Indo-European encompassing such languages as English, Spanish, Russian and Hindi.
Australia’s largest language family is Pama-Nyungan. Before 1788 it covered 90% of the country and comprised about 300 languages. The territories on which Canberra (Ngunnawal), Perth (Noongar), Sydney (Daruk, Iyora), Brisbane (Turubal) and Melbourne (Woiwurrung) are built were all once owned by speakers of Pama-Nyungan languages.
All the languages from the Torres Strait to Bunbury, from the Pilbara to the Grampians, are descended from a single ancestor language that spread across the continent to all but the Kimberley and the Top End.
Where this language came from, how old it is, and how it spread, has been something of a puzzle. Our research, published today in Nature Ecology and Evolution, suggests the family arose just under 6,000 years ago around what is now the Queensland town of Burketown. Our findings suggest this language family spread across Australia as people moved in response to changing climate.
Aboriginal Australia is often described as “the world’s oldest living culture”, and public discussion often falsely assumes that this means unchanging. Our research adds further evidence to Australia pre-1788 being a dynamic place, where people moved and adapted to a changing land.
We used data from changes in several hundred words in different languages from the Pama-Nyungan family to build up a tree of languages, using a computer model adapted from those used originally to trace virus outbreaks.
Because our models make estimates of the time that it takes for words to change, as well as how words in Pama-Nyungan languages are related to one another, we can use those changes to estimate the age of the family.
We found clear support for the origin of Pama-Nyungan just under 6,000 years ago in an area around what is now the Queensland town of Burketown. We found no support for the theories that Pama-Nyungan spread earlier.
The timing of this expansion is consistent with a theory that increasingly unstable conditions caused groups of people to fragment and spread. But correlation is not causation: just because two patterns appear related, it does not mean that one caused the other.
In this case, however, we have other evidence that access to ecological resources has shaped how people migrated. We found that, in our model, groups of people moved more slowly near the coast and major waterways, and faster across deserts. This implies that populations increase where food and water are plentiful, and then spread out and fissure when resources are harder to obtain.
You can see a simulated expansion here. The spread of Pama-Nyungan languages mirrored this spread of people.
What languages tell us
Languages today tell us a lot about our past. Because languages change regularly, we can use information in them to work out who groups were talking to in the past, where they lived, who they are related to, and where they’ve moved. We can do this even in the absence of a written record and of archaeological materials.
For places like Australia, the linguistic record, though incomplete, has more even coverage across the continent than the archaeological record does. At European settlement, there were about 300 Pama-Nyungan languages. Because there are at least some records of most of them we are able to work with these to uncover these complex patterns of change.
There are approximately 145 Aboriginal languages with speakers today, including languages from outside the Pama-Nyungan family. Many of these languages, such as Dieri, Ngalia and Mangala, are spoken by only a few people, many of whom are elderly.
Other languages, however, are actively used in their communities and are learned as first languages by young children. These include the Yolŋu languages of Arnhem Land and Arrernte in Central Australia. Yet others (such as Kaurna around Adelaide) are undergoing a renaissance, gaining speakers within their communities.
Finally, though not the focus of our study, there are also new languages, such as Kriol spoken across Northern Australia, Palawa Kani in Tasmania, and Gurindji Kriol. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders also know English, and most Indigenous Australians are multilingual.
Without records of all these languages, and without ongoing work to support speakers and communities, we aren’t able to do research like this, and Australia loses a vital link to its history. After all, European settlement of Australia is a tiny chunk of the time people have lived on this land.
On 1 July 1983, in a dramatic four-three decision, the High Court of Australia ruled to stop the damming of the Franklin River. It brought an end to a protracted campaign that had helped bring down two state premiers and a prime minister, as well as overseeing the rise of a new figure on the political landscape – the future founder of the Greens, Bob Brown.
The fact that a remote corner of southwest Tasmania became the centre of national debate reflects what was at stake in the campaigns against hydro-electric development. For many, like novelist James McQueen, the Franklin was “not just a river”: “it is the epitome of all the lost forests, all the submerged lakes, all the tamed rivers, all the extinguished species”. The campaign was a fight for the survival of “a corner of Australia untouched by man”; it was a fight for the right of “wilderness” to exist.
“It is a wild and wondrous thing,” Bob Brown wrote of the Franklin River in May 1978, “and 175 years after Tasmania’s first European settlement, the Franklin remains much as it was before man – black or white – came to its precincts.”
But it was not only the idea of “wilderness” – of an ancient, pure, timeless landscape – that saved the Franklin. The archaeological research that took place during the campaign was at the heart of the High Court decision. Far from being untouched and pristine, southwest Tasmania had a deep human history. What was undoubtedly a natural wonder was also a cultural landscape.
‘A sea of stone artefacts’
The archaeological site at the centre of the campaign was, for a time, known by two names: Fraser Cave and Kutikina. Kevin Kiernan, a caver and the first director of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, was the first to rediscover the site. He and Greg Middleton recorded it on 13 January 1977 as part of a systematic survey of the lower and middle Gordon and Franklin Rivers.
They were aware that the monolithic Hydro-Electric Commission was considering the region as the site for a new dam and they were searching for something – “maybe a big whizz-bang cave” – that might save these valleys from being flooded. In an attempt to raise awareness of this threatened landscape, they started a tradition of naming rock features in the southwest “after the political figures who would decide their fate”.
Fraser Cave was thus named after the sitting Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser. There was also a Whitlam cave, a Hayden Cave and a Bingham Arch. When the Tasmanian Nomenclature Board caught wind of this tradition, they accused Kiernan and other members of the Sydney Speleological Society of “gross impertinence” for naming caves outside their state. In mid-1982, at the suggestion of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, Fraser Cave became Kutikina, which means “spirit” in the oral tradition nurtured by the dispossessed Tasmanian Aboriginal community on Babel Island in Bass Strait.
But although Kiernan admired the natural splendour of Kutikina in 1977, he did not immediately recognise the artefacts it contained as human-made. It was not until he returned in February 1981 that he realised what he had found. He and the new director of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, Bob Brown, and its secretary, Bob Burton, were searching the remote valley for evidence of a convict who had supposedly perished in the region after escaping the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station.
The story conjured the “wildness” of the country and the discovery of his bones might help bring publicity to their campaign against the dam. But when they climbed through the entrance of Kutikina, they were amazed to find a sea of stone artefacts and ashy hearths extending into the dark. These were no convict bones.
Three weeks later, a team of archaeologists, cavers and National Parks officers rafted down the Franklin River to investigate. It was already dark on 9 March 1981 when they tied their boats to the riverbank. They had a deep chill after hours navigating the fast-flowing river, hauling their aluminium punt and rubber dingy over successive rapids, journeying deeper into the dense rainforest. The rain picked up again as they unloaded their gear and took shelter in the mouth of the cave, which opened “like a huge, curved shell”.
Some of the team started a small, smoky fire to cook their dinner, while the others, with the light of their torches, ventured into the cavern. Kutikina opened out “like an aircraft hangar” and extended for almost 200 metres into the cliff. But it was not its scale that excited them: it was the idea that this remote cave, buried in thick “horizontal” rainforest, could have once been home to a thriving human population.
Too tired to erect their tents, they unrolled their sleeping mats on the disturbed floor at the cave entrance. It later occurred to them that they were probably the first people to sleep there in around 15,000 years.
Over the following days, as rain poured outside, the team carefully surveyed Kutikina. The archaeologists, Rhys Jones and Don Ranson, opened a small trench where the black sediment of the floor was covered by a thin layer of soft stalagmite. The test pit only extended to a depth of 1.2 metres before it met bedrock, but it yielded an extraordinary 75,000 artefacts and 250,000 animal bone fragments.
This small pit represented about one per cent of the artefact-bearing deposit, making the cave one of the richest archaeological sites in Australia. “In terms of the number of stone tools,” Jones said to one journalist, “much, much richer than Mungo.”
The archaeological remains at Kutikina told a remarkable story. The tools appeared to be a regional variant of the “Australian core tool and scraper tradition”, found across the mainland during the Pleistocene, suggesting immense chains of cultural connection before the creation of Bass Strait. The bone fragments were also curious. Most had been charred or smashed to extract marrow, and almost all (95 per cent) were wallaby bones, suggesting a finely targeted hunting strategy, similar to that found in the Dordogne region in France.
But most surprisingly, underneath the upper layer of hearths, there were angular fragments of limestone that appeared to have shattered and fallen from the cave roof at a time of extreme cold, forming rubble on the floor. It was one of the main pieces of evidence that led Jones to speculate in his diary: “Is this the late glacial technology?”
Home to the southernmost humans on earth
The possibility of Ice Age dates conjured the image of a dramatically different world. Pollen records in the region revealed that what is now rainforest was once an alpine herbfield like the tundra found in Alaska, northern Russia and northern Canada. Twenty thousand years ago, the mighty trees of ancient Gondwanaland had retreated to the river gorges, where they were irrigated and sheltered from fire, while wallabies and wombats roamed the high, open plains above.
The cold blast of Antarctica, only 1000 kilometres to the south, had dropped temperatures by around 6.5 degrees Celsius. A 65-square-kilometre ice cap presided over the central Tasmanian plateau, feeding a 12-kilometre-long glacier that gripped the upper Franklin valley. Icebergs floated off the Tasmanian coast.
At the height of the last Ice Age, Kutikina was home to the southernmost humans on earth. The people of southwest Tasmania hunted red-necked wallabies on the broad open slopes of Franklin valley, they collected fine stone from glacial melt water gravels and chipped them into tools, and they sheltered beside fires in the mouths of deep, limestone caverns. “They alone,” Jones reflected, “may have experienced the high latitude, glacier-edge conditions of a southern Ice Age.”
Significantly, during a separate excavation near the confluence of the Denison and Gordon Rivers, archaeologists also discovered tools and charcoal dating to 250–450 years ago, long after the ice cap had melted and the rainforest had returned. It revealed that the river valleys of southwest Tasmania had a recent, as well as a deep, Aboriginal history.
The rediscovery of Kutikina made the front page of the local and national newspapers, and was discussed on the floor of Parliament, but, surprisingly, it was restricted to the margins of the conservation campaign. John Mulvaney later reflected on the productive, albeit tense alliance between archaeologists and conservationists during the campaign:
We claimed an Ice Age environment of tundra-like grasslands, where their dearly loved primeval forest was supposed to have stood eternally. By discrediting the image of a forest wilderness, we were ruining their image and battle cry!
Added to this tension was the animosity the Tasmanian Aboriginal community felt towards both the archaeologists, for fossicking on their land, and the conservationists, for suggesting they had never lived there. Their activism during the campaign had profound implications for the Australian archaeological community. But while Aboriginal leaders such as Rosalind Langford and Michael Mansell were eager to regain control of Kutikina – “the most sacred thing in the state” – they also recognised the value of the history that had been uncovered. As Mansell said:
The fact that the Aborigines could survive physically and culturally in adverse conditions and over such a long period of time … helps me counteract the feeling of racial inferiority and enables me to demonstrate within the wider community that I and my people are the equal of other members of the community.
At the 1981 Tasmanian Power Referendum, 47 per cent of the electorate voted in favour of the Gordon-below-Franklin dam. But, remarkably, there was also a 45 per cent informal vote. Tens of thousands of voters had scrawled “no dams” on their ballot papers. The unprecedented “write-in” had been organised by the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, led by Brown. It repeated this highly organised, campaign-oriented strategy at local, state and federal elections throughout 1982.
The federal leader of the Australian Democrats, Don Chipp, also recognised the mood of the electorate against the dam and in August 1981 he initiated a Senate inquiry into “the federal responsibility in assisting Tasmania to preserve its wilderness areas of national and international importance”. Jones, Mulvaney and the executive of the Australian Archaeological Association were among the many to make submissions to the new Senate Select Committee.
The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre also made a submission, drawing upon the archaeological research to underline the cave’s “great historical importance”. But they also made a more personal plea. The Franklin River caves “form part of us – we are of them and they of us. Their destruction represents a part destruction of us.”
This advocacy had a profound influence. Several members of the Senate Committee flew into the Franklin valley to see the ongoing archaeological work and when the committee presented its report on the Future Demand and Supply of Electricity for Tasmania and Other Matters, the archaeology dominated the “other matters”. “Apart from any other reasons for preserving the area,” they concluded, “the caves are of such importance that the Franklin River be not inundated.”
Prime Minister Fraser heeded the conclusions of the report. He did not want the Franklin dam built, but he was reluctant to intervene in what he regarded as a state matter. So he did not act when construction on the dam began in July 1982.
Protests and political shifts
On 14 December 1982, the same day the region was formally listed as a World Heritage site for its natural and cultural value, a chain of rubber rafts blocked the main landing sites along the Franklin River, protestors occupied the dam site and rallies were held in cities across Australia.
By autumn 1983, 1272 protestors had been arrested during the Franklin blockade, and nearly 450 had done time in Hobart’s Risdon Prison, including Mansell and Langford, who were charged with trespass on their return from visiting Kutikina.
While the blockade continued, and with a federal election just around the corner, the ALP made a snap change in its leadership on 3 February 1983. It replaced Bill Hayden, who had voted against Labor’s policy to stop the dam at the party’s national conference, with Bob Hawke, who had voted for it. And in a tumultuous few hours of Australian political history, Fraser called an early election on the same day. It would turn out to be a grievous political miscalculation.
Neither Fraser nor Hawke believed the Franklin River dispute decided the 5 March 1983 election, but the outgoing Deputy Prime Minister, Doug Anthony, was adamant: “There is no doubt that the dam was the issue that lost the government the election.”
On 31 March the new Hawke government passed regulations to prevent further construction on the Franklin dam. Tasmanian Premier Robin Gray took the matter to the High Court, challenging the constitutionality of Hawke’s “interventionist” legislation. His appeal failed by the narrowest of margins.
The judges in the majority considered that the Commonwealth had a clear obligation to use its External Affairs power to stop the proposed dam, as the inundation of “the Franklin River, including Kutikina Cave and Deena Reena Cave”, would breach the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act and damage Australia’s international standing. They also invoked the Commonwealth power to make laws with respect to Aboriginal people.
The Franklin River campaign has entered “the folklore of Australian environmentalism” as a green victory: a battle won, in Clive Hamilton’s words, through “the intrinsic worth of wild places.” But behind the scenes it was the deep Aboriginal history of the region that pushed the decision over the line. The archaeological evidence featured in every report about the judgement, and privately Malcolm Fraser considered it to be the deciding factor.
At a public meeting in Hobart in the late 1830s, Solicitor-General Alfred Stephen, later Chief Justice of New South Wales, shared with the assembled crowd his solution for dealing with “the Aboriginal problem”. If the colony could not protect its convict servants from Aboriginal attack “without extermination”, said Stephen, “then I say boldly and broadly exterminate!”
Voluminous written and archaeological records and oral histories provide irrefutable proof that colonial wars were fought on Australian soil between British colonists and Aboriginal people. More controversially, surviving evidence indicates the British enacted genocidal policies and practices – the intentional destruction of a people and their culture.
When lawyer Raphael Lemkin formulated the idea of “genocide” after the second world war, he included Tasmania as a case study in his history of the concept. Lemkin drew heavily on James Bonwick’s 1870 book, The Last of the Tasmanians, to engage with the island’s violent colonial past.
Curiously, books published before and since Bonwick’s have stuck to a master narrative crafted during and immediately after the Tasmanian conflict. This held that the implementation and subsequent failure of conciliatory policies were the ultimate cause of the destruction of the majority of Tasmanian Aboriginal people. The effect of this narrative was to play down the culpability of the government and senior colonists.
More recent works have challenged this narrative. In his 2014 book, The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania, Professor Tom Lawson made a compelling case for the use of the word “genocide” in the context of Tasmania’s colonial war in the 1820s and early 1830s, a time when the island was called Van Diemen’s Land. As Lawson writes, in the colony’s early decades, “extermination” and “extirpation” were words used by colonists when discussing the devastating consequences of the colonial invasion for the island’s Aboriginal inhabitants.
Nick Brodie’s 2017 book, The Vandemonian War: The Secret History of Britain’s Tasmanian Invasion, argues that the war was a highly orchestrated, yet deliberately downplayed, series of campaigns to efface Tasmanian Aboriginal people from their country. Brodie’s book makes extensive use of over 1,000 pages handwritten by Colonel George Arthur, revealing exactly how he prosecuted the Vandemonian War. (Disclaimer: Nick Brodie is my partner and occasional research collaborator.)
Arthur’s correspondence tells all
In his dual roles as lieutenant-governor of the colony and colonel commanding the military, Arthur directed a series of offensives against Aboriginal people.
Imperial soldiers, paramilitaries and volunteer parties were regularly deployed. Some parties were assigned Aboriginal auxiliaries as guides. Arthur’s war eventually included the largest ground offensive in Australian colonial history.
Shortly after he arrived in the colony in 1824, Arthur began stockpiling weapons. He blurred the lines between military men and civilians. Military officers and soldiers were given civil powers.
Former soldiers were encouraged to settle in Van Diemen’s Land and to help quell Aboriginal resistance. Settlers were issued with hundreds of guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Convicts who fought against Aboriginal people were rewarded.
Military and civilian parties scoured the island for Aboriginal people, taking some prisoner and injuring or killing others. They destroyed Aboriginal campsites and caches of weapons.
Arthur knew his war parties were killing their opponents, but continued to send them out regardless. He feigned ignorance after John Batman, leader of one of the parties and later founding father of Melbourne, fatally shot two injured Aboriginal prisoners in his custody.
Colonial strategy became more severe over time. Bounties were introduced at £5 for an adult Aboriginal person and £2 per child to encourage colonists to bring in live captives. These payments were later extended to cover not only the living but also the dead.
Arthur’s regime leaked stories to the press to manage the public’s understanding of the war. It publicly announced the retirement of parties that it continued to support, and selectively recorded evidence given to an investigative committee.
As the war progressed, Arthur ordered men to conduct many covert operations. While there were some expressions of empathy for Aboriginal people, many reports painted them as aggressors, thereby justifying government action and even secrecy.
Ultimately, a couple of thousand soldiers, settlers and convicts were recruited for a general movement against Aboriginal people in late 1830. During this major campaign, Arthur rode his horse up and down the lines. He personally oversaw the operation. He sent dedicated skirmishing parties out in front of “the line”. Surviving records do not reveal how many casualties may have resulted.
In the latter stages of the war, Arthur sent George Augustus Robinson to carry out so-called diplomatic “friendly missions” to Aboriginal people. While these were taking place, Arthur continued to orchestrate military and paramilitary operations, including some conducted by nominally diplomatic operatives.
Eventually, Arthur declared that details of the war had to become a military secret. He then continued with a series of major military offensives against the island’s remaining Aboriginal population.
By the mid-1830s almost all of Tasmania’s surviving Aboriginal inhabitants lived on small islands in Bass Strait, some with sealers and others at the Aboriginal Establishment on Flinders Island. From an Aboriginal population numbering somewhere in the thousands on the eve of invasion, within a generation just a few dozen remained.
Whereas the master narrative framed this state of affairs as proof of a benign government caring for unfortunate victims of circumstance, the colony’s archives reveal that Aboriginal people were removed from their ancient homelands by means fair and foul. This was the intent of the government, revealed by its actions and instructions and obfuscations. In the language of the day the Aboriginal Tasmanians had been deliberately, knowingly and wilfully extirpated. Today we could call it genocide.
Learning from New Zealand
As well as legacies of death and dispossession, the colony left a legacy of deliberate forgetting. Our neighbours across the Tasman Sea acknowledge and now formally commemorate the 19th-century New Zealand wars. The first Rā Maumahara, a national day of remembrance, was held on October 28 2017.
Yet today in Australia people quibble over whether the nation’s colonial conflicts ought to be called “wars”, or indeed whether any conflicts took place.
Despite some differences, wars prosecuted in the Australian colonies share strong similarities with the New Zealand wars. British colonists and imperial soldiers fought against Indigenous people who took up arms to protect their families, land, resources and sovereignty.
Yet colonists perceived their Indigenous opponents differently. Through British eyes, Māori were feared as a martial foe. Australian Aboriginal people, on the other hand, were considered incapable of organising armed resistance despite extensive evidence to the contrary.
New Zealand has begun a new chapter of national commemoration for the wars fought on its soil. Is Australia ready to follow suit? Or will it, by omission, continue to perpetuate the secrecies of its own wartime propaganda?