Saturday, May 9, 2020


Truganini – Journey through the apocalypse by Cassandra Pybus.  Allen & Unwin, 2020.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Maps by Guy Holt
By permission of the publishers.

“Cassandra Pybus is an award-winning author and a distinguished historian.  She is the author of twelve books and has held research professorships at the University of Sydney, Georgetown University in Washington DC, the University of Texas and Kings College, London.  She is descended from the colonist who received the largest free land grant on Truganini’s traditional country of Bruny Island.”  (Title Page)
Tasmania: South-east Nation - Nuenonne Clan on Bruny Island
Map: Guy Holt

 “Staring out over the mudflats [from near Oyster Cove] to the D’Entrecasteaux Channel at what had once been my family’s land on North Bruny Island, my emotions were in havoc….  I opened the gate [of the faded turquoise cottage, where] my uncle Ken welcomed me as if I had never been away.  Over a cup of tea, he told me that the place was getting too much for him, so I arranged to buy it from him, then and there.

"For the past thirty-four years the place I call home has been that cottage on the old station road in the country of the Nuenonne."  Page 268.


Reading between the time in 1828 when Richard Pybus was settled on his 500 acres land grant, when Truganini was probably about 16, to the time she died on 4 May 1876, Cassandra Pybus’ story-telling gave me that feeling – as if I had never been away.  Knowing, too, that her research is absolutely meticulous left me also with my emotions ‘in havoc’ as she goes on to describe them – “nothing as intimate and corrosive as guilt, just a powerful sense of complicity in the dispossession, destruction and denial that this dismal place represented”.

Truganini – Journey through the apocalypse is essential reading for all Australians; indeed for all people the world over.  I should start with my own experience.

My English parents migrated to Australia in 1955, when I was 14.  My Geography text book had taught me, in one distant black and white photo, that Australian Aborigines lived in a desert and wore almost no clothes.  Big city newspapers I read at Australia House in London headlined murders seemingly every day.  Dangerous?  Well…my father had taught me how to avoid the Teddy Boys in London, population 10 million - equal to that of the whole of Australia at that time.

If Aboriginal people appeared, they were cartoon characters who apparently lived in deserts with few clothes on.  In other words my understanding on arrival was no different from that of James Cook on his third voyage, except that he actually met the people at Adventure Bay, on the seaward side of Bruny Island, 29 January 1777.  Truganini’s father, Manganerer, was there.

The Captain Cook Society website at 
records that John Henry Martin, seaman on the Discovery, described the natives. "They have few, or no wants, & seemed perfectly Happy, if one might judge from their behaviour, for they frequently wou'd burst out, into the most immoderate fits of Laughter & when one Laughed every one followed his example Emediately."

But, as Pybus explains, “Cook was unaware that these people believed they were meeting their own dead returning as pale shadows of their former selves.  Being treated as some kind of kin, rather than as trespassing aliens, Cook and his officers were not to witness the fierce territorial attachment of the Nuenonne to their country.”

Of course, I immediately thought of what happened in Hawaii only two years later, when Cook was killed on 14 February 1779.  I think the brief mention at   
by Irene Wanner of the book by Glyn Williams: “The Death of Captain Cook: A Hero Made and Unmade” will lead you into that story of misunderstanding.

I began to realise that I was going to learn far more than I thought I knew already by reading on – about what happened to the daughter of the man with childhood memories of Captain Cook.  Usually, I write reviews of live theatre, where I am responding to immediate experience.  The Convid-19 virus has put paid – or rather, unpaid – to that.  Cassandra Pybus may be a distinguished historian, but she is also a powerful creative writer, adept at creating drama.

A paragraph chosen at random, 97 pages in:  Stopping to rest about a quarter of a mile inland from the mouth of the Boobyalla River, Truganini made an unsettling discovery.  While gathering swan’s eggs for Wooredy to eat, she became curious about a deep indentation in the ground, and after digging further into the hole she uncovered an old wooden chest that contained a jumble of human bones.  Days later, at the mouth of the Tomahawk River, she saw two bleached male skeletons lying a few hundred yards apart that no one had tried to hide.  Awful though it was, Truganini had seem similar sights before – the beaches and inlets of the north-east corner were repositories of many human bones, invariably male and often shattered by a musket ball.

This is not the stuff of romantic or ‘horror’ fiction.  This is true history.  The word that comes to mind for Pybus’ writing is honesty.

This quality is especially significant in her dealing with the extensive, thoroughly detailed diaries, or log books, kept by the man officially credited by the colonial government for the removal of the last Aboriginal people from Tasmania – George Augustus Robinson.  His first land grant was adjacent to the Pybus grant in Nuenonne country.

The timeline provided in the book after Truganini’s story has been told is an excellent reminder of important dates and episodes.  It begins in 1804 with the establishment of the penal settlement on the Derwent River, later named Hobart.  By the time of Truganini’s likely birth in 1812 “the Nuenonne clan was diminished and traumatised” and “no longer ‘without jealousy of strangers’; they no longer saw the ghost men as their kin.”

It is best, I found, to leave reading the timeline until after allowing the experience of becoming immersed in the story to seep through beyond your consciousness of historical detail to your emotional state in response.  This is why when reviewing a stage play, I prefer not to read the program or interview the director or cast beforehand.  It is the immediacy of my thoughts and feelings that I need to express.

George Augustus Robinson saw himself as a good man who wanted to save the original people at first from themselves and then from the inevitable ravages of the invading colonists.  To “lift them from their state of savage ignorance” required them to “put their trust in God, he told them, and, by extension, in him, George Augustus Robinson: the good father sent to save them from obliteration.”  As in a good play, it is not so much in the plot, but in the characters and their relationships that the drama unfolds of the decade-long story of how Truganini played her part from Robinson’s first noticing her in 1829, “impressed with this young woman’s obvious intelligence and grasp of English”, to the transporting of people from all the clans in Tasmania to Flinders Island by 1835, and how Robinson’s attempt to move them finally to the Australian mainland at Port Phillip (Melbourne) failed by 1841.

The final chapter is the denouement after that climactic point, simply titled The Way the World Ends, taking us through to the point where Truganini becomes famous as ‘the last Tasmanian Aboriginal’.  If you were taught, as I was, that this was true, you will think again, about the cast of all the people in Truganini’s life from her Nuenonne father Manganerer, of the South-east Nation, through to all those others from the many clans within the South-west, Oyster Bay, North Midland, North-east, Ben Lomond, North, North-west and Big River Nations.  Their individual biographies take up an extra 30 pages of absorbing reading.
Tasmania: Indigenous Nations' Boundaries
Map: Guy Holt
“Driven to distraction by rising hysteria” the farming ‘settlers’ attempted, finally with official support authorised by Governor George Arthur by proclaiming martial law in 1828 and the Black Line of 1830, to remove the original owners by out-and-out murder.  G A Robinson believed, with the help of the Nuenonne clan, he could walk all around and across Van Dieman’s Land and persuade personally everyone still living on country to accept him as their saviour, accept his command, and go with him to places of safety – which in the end would mean on an island off-shore away from the temptation to return.
See The Black Line in Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), 1830 by Lyndall Ryan to whom Cassandra Pybus has dedicated this book.
Tasmania: Van Diemen's Land Locations
February - October 1830 
Truganini and Dray led G A Robinson walking from Recherche Bay
to Port Davey, Bathurst Harbour, past Macquarie Harbour,
across the Pieman River and Arthur River
to Cape Grimm, then east to Launceston
600 miles

Map: Guy Holt

My migrating to Australia (Sydney and the Blue Mountains) introduced me to bushwalking.  This is very different from ‘rambling’ in England, ‘hiking’ in America or ‘tramping’ in New Zealand.  It meant navigating through ‘scrub’ often with no tracks (and certainly no National Park signposts until quite recent times).  My wife and I know what it means to face the special features of Tasmanian bush: ‘horizontal scrub’, seemingly impenetrable tangled vegetation, and mud so deep, thick and clinging, just as Robinson describes, that I had great difficulty on one occasion extracting my right shoe after extracting myself from such a mudhole on the Overland Track. 

Escaping convicts died from starvation and exposure trying to cross Van Dieman’s Land from the Sarah Island prison in Macquarie Harbour in the hopes of reaching Hobart – except for Alexander Pearce: Alexander Pearce (1790 – 19 July 1824) was an Irish convict who was transported to the penal colony in Van Diemen's Land (the modern day state of Tasmania), Australia for seven years for theft. He escaped from prison several times. During one of these escapes he allegedly became a cannibal, murdering his companions one by one. In another escape, with one companion, he allegedly killed him and ate him in pieces. He was eventually captured and was hanged and dissected in Hobart for murder.

This episode not only shows how degenerated was the white society of Van Diemen’s Land, but makes even more amazing the physique and cultural adaptation of Truganini’s people who lived so successfully in this seriously rugged landscape in such a climate 40+ degrees latitude south.  Truganini, a diver for abalone and shellfish of all kinds, and swimmer of great strength, endurance and skill, saved Robinson twice from certain drowning in the flooded Arthur River on the infamous West Coast where the Roaring Forties hold sway all year round; while her husband Wooredy could maintain their meat supply hunting kangaroos and wallabies in areas which had been carefully managed by fire farming, as Robinson noted – for thousands of years more than he could have imagined.

The following photos show the nature of the country Truganini and her friend Dray, a young woman from the Lowreenne clan of the South-west Nation, led Robinson through to find people, such as the Tarkiner clan of the North-west Nation.  They met up on the banks of the Arthur River.  “The dominant man in the group was a very tall Tarkiner warrior in his forties named Wyne….As evening fell, the whole group walked back to a camp in the forest, with Robinson carrying Wyne’s youngest daughter on his shoulders….A secret warning was conveyed to Peevay [of Robinson’s group] that he should keep watch that night because the Tarkiner intended to kill Robinson and any of his guides who were not their kin, with the exception of Truganini, whom they wanted to keep for themselves….”

This was one occasion when Truganini saved the desperate George Augustus Robinson’s life.

Photos: Meg McKone Feb (summer) 2019

Roaring Forties weather coming in, near Arthur River.

                                             West Coast Hut Depression near Arthur River
Aboriginal huts - large beehive shaped structures composed of wood and bark that could accommodate between 6 -14 people.

The unique beehive shape was specifically designed to withstand the harsh weather conditions of Tasmania’s coastal environments, particularly along the west coast where they are more commonly found.

Midden including abalone shells, behind Four Mile Beach south of Pieman River.

Dense rainforest inland near Montezuma Falls between Macquarie Harbour and Pieman River.

From Friendly Mission 1829-1831, the story takes us on through Extirpation and Exile 1831-1838, when everyone was believed to have been found and moved to Flinders Island in Bass Strait.

Map: Guy Holt
The situation at Wybalenna was simply dreadful, and so Robinson – in competition with the infamous John Batman, who made entirely spurious agreements with the Kulin people on the mainland to establish what became Melbourne – won the day, and became Chief Protector of Aborigines there with the intention of taking all the Van Dieman’s Land people across Bass Strait.  That story In Kulin Country 1839-1841 reveals a new level of misunderstanding. 

The mainland was administered from Sydney, so bringing Van Diemen’s Land people to Port Phillip was never going to be acceptable to the official superintendent, Charles La Trobe.  And, of course completely outside Robinson’s understanding, the Tasmanian nations had had no connection with the Australian mainland for some 10,000 years, since Bass Strait was flooded after the last Ice Age ended.  The idea that these people would naturally get on with any Aboriginal people whose country they were put into, just because they were all Aboriginals, was completely out of touch.  But Truganini with her diplomatic and language skills did her best. 

In Chapter 8, by 1839, “Confronted with the magnitude of the suffering in Port Phillip, the chief protector had no idea what he was supposed to do for so many afflicted and desperate people” – the Wurundjeri, Boonwurrung, Wadawurrung, Djadjawurrung and Taungurong clans of the Kulin Nation.  When Robinson organised a feast for more than five hundred, in the hopes of building trust as he could personally distribute food, “It fell to Truganini, Wooredy and Peevay to dispel suspicions that the feast was a trap to get the clans corralled together in one place where they could be shot.  Eventually, the offer of fresh meat was too enticing for the Kulin to stay away and the feast went off without incident….

But the tragic end of Chapter 9 is just too awful to contemplate.

When considering the idea that Truganini was the last Tasmanian, though, the story of one figure, Lacklay from the Punnilerpanner clan of the North Nation, who spoke the same language as Peevay, may be of interest.  He apparently disappeared from Port Phillip, presumably drowned in a boat that was wrecked – except that it did not capsize in Westernport Bay as people then believed.

He possibly worked in the whaling industry based in New Zealand, with an Oyster Bay Nation man known as Ned Tomlins, who married a Maori woman (Hipora) and had a son (Edward).  Perhaps Lacklay’s story turned out like Ned’s: he was young and could well have had a family of his own.  And there are surely many others: Wikipedia quotes “Contemporary figures (2016) for the number of people of Tasmanian Aboriginal descent vary according to the criteria used to determine this identity, ranging from 6,000 to over 23,000.”

Including lawyer, activist  and currently chair of the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania, Michael Mansell.

The final scene in Truganini’s life, at the end of Chapter 10, is told with simple dignity and respect for this remarkable woman.  Though we cannot undo the past, surely we can improve the future.  Truganini – Journey through the apocalypse is not a book to make immigrants like me feel guilty for the dreadful treatment of our Aboriginal peoples that the colonisation of Australia has caused.

I am angry, though, when, as Cassandra Pybus puts it in her Afterword, “From all points in the southern sky, leaders of the First Nations of Australia came together in 2017 to produce the Uluru Statement from the Heart [and] they proposed a Makarrata, which is a word [from the far northern Kakadu region – so distant from Truganini’s Nuenonne country on Bruny Island in the far south] in the Yolgnu language meaning a coming together after a struggle, facing the facts of wrongs done, and living again in peace”; angry because the Australian Prime Minister of the day dismissed out of hand enshrining these people and Makarrata in our country’s Constitution – a law, by the way, passed on 5 July 1900 by the British Parliament, given Royal Assent by Queen Victoria on 9 July and proclaimed on 1 January 1901, which effectively ignored the presence of the original owners of the land!

On our behalf, Cassandra Pybus has faced the facts and the wrongs done, even alongside her own family’s history since 1828.  Surely now it is well past the time, as the Uluru Statement asks, for ‘a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood’.