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End of the Line

18/07/2009

The woman seated in the centre of this photograph was an object of study for the the ethnologist Henry Ling Roth. Her name is written here as Trucanini but there are a number of different spellings around. There was some debate in the clubs and learned societies of England as to whether she or the half-blood Mrs Fanny Cochrane Smith could claim the title of ‘last living Aboriginal of Tasmania’.

Trucanini was a pure Black but after her death, F. C. Cochrane was the only living person who could sing in Tasmanian, the last gasps of which were recorded for future museums. It’s a small quibble. A civilization was forced into extinction. Whichever we choose as the moment of extinction, it came to the same thing. One small death for a woman, one giant heap for mankind.

Trucanini

This photograph, and the book in which it appeared in 1890, was part of a paean to a primitive race. Her story, as told by Ling Roth, fitted perfectly with an idea of progress we may still be in thrall to. Homo Sapiens is striving onwards and upwards, developing technologies and sensibilities of ever greater refinement. Our theories of evolution tell us that only the cleverest, strongest and most beautiful can possibly survive. And so it is with great regret that we must wave a fond farewell to these noble savages, the failed experiments over whom we are compelled to tread, as humanity strides to its perfection.

H. Ling Roth himself was a curator at the Bankfield Museum in Halifax. He never went to Tasmania, although he may have seen samples of Trucanini’s skin or hair when they were sent for examination to The Royal College of Surgeons in London after her death.

At the Manchester Museum is a filing cabinet full of photographs. The last remnants of a very effective ethnic cleansing. They are the field records of scientific men dutifully following behind the invaders who have prepared the ground. As such they are part of a grand project of conservation. The academic wing of the colonial drive. These men of science were apologists, justifiers, theorizers, documenters, barrow-boys and compères for our general entertainment and edification. Surely, it is indicative of the refinement of our civilization that we take time to delicately preserve and enjoy the exquisite savour of the rare objects we are wiping out.

These prints display the characteristics of some indigenous Tasmanian fauna. The specimens are of course not running wild. Very difficult to get a clear photograph that way. This picture shows four of the last hundred or so who were left after foreign viruses, bounty hunters, and general persecution had seen off the rest. These have been captured and relocated to a concentration camp in Wybalena, Flinders Island. Presumably in order to study them more closely, and so that they don’t get under our feet while we are getting on with the important work of civilization building.

I don’t think those are thylacines with them, those were virtually extinct too by the time that picture was taken, but I could probably find a stuffed one in here somewhere if you’re interested. Thank god for museums.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. 19/07/2009 10:10 am

    Five generations on there are still many of us in Tasmania who rue the day we began to interfere with the gentle people who were the guardians of this harsh and beautiful island. The guilt lingers ….

    • 19/07/2009 12:26 pm

      Thank you for your comment Ian.
      I’m sorry to bring up feelings of guilt. It’s not the most useful of emotions. But it is much better acknowledged than repressed. I hope we can transform it here into wisdom.
      The fact is that we are bequeathed a world by our ancestors.
      Am I right in thinking that your great, or great-great-, grandfather was Henry Jeanneret, the last head of what I have called the ‘concentration camp’ on Flinders Island?
      From what I can make out he was not the most evil of men. And in their many thousands of years of civilization I am sure that the Tasmanian Aborigines did not consist solely of saints.
      We are not our ancestors, yet we must honour them. Memories may be too painful to bear or too seductive to resist, and they may be distorted by our desires, yet without any memories at all we have no route into the future.

  2. Martin Schultz permalink
    19/07/2009 11:39 am

    Hi hermit!

    This seems to be a dificult topic as now one is going to jump into a discussion or leaving a comment. I would like to let yo know that i care about the photograph. On the one hand it shows something that has long been gone, on the other hand it contains something that has grown out of the changes – “the half-blood Mrs Fanny Cochrane Smith”.
    I might be heretic, but what do we express by calling them “full-blood” of “half-blood”? Our own lack of appropriate terminology? Is this some sort of labeling that should be avoided according to the “orphaned labels” discussion?

    I hope not to annoy you – it´s just an interesting point for me as it also helps me to reflect my own position by seeing how others react upon this.

    • 19/07/2009 12:36 pm

      Martin, these terms are used by many Tasmanian people themselves to signify their ancestry as ‘pure’ Aboriginal or of mixed Aboriginal and European descent. The debate about Trucanini and Mrs. Smith revolves precisely around this dichotomy. Of course its validity is another question, given what we now know about ethnic ‘purity’ and the social construction of race.

      The debate is far from long gone. The Jews are not the only people to have suffered a Holocaust.
      There are current and extremely vehement disputes going on right now concerning the legitimacy of certain peoples to call themselves Aboriginal and have access to ancestral lands, as you can see here.

      By drawing together in this blog, issues that might seem far apart I want to uncover the common patterns of behaviour. Are we not supposed to learn from history? What exactly is the difference between the proposal to wipe out mosquitoes which I spoke about earlier and the countdown to extermination of the Tasmanian Aborigines?

  3. Nina permalink
    19/07/2009 11:23 pm

    That one’s easy Hermit – people.
    We value human lives over animals’. I’m not saying that’s right, but it’s true. We thing nothing of swatting flies and mosquitos, but not many people think it’s ok to kill other people. Really. It goes against our moral code, whether in-built or learnt.

  4. Stephen Welsh permalink
    21/07/2009 12:15 pm

    This photograph, and similar ones in the collection, was taken by Dr. R. F. Nixon, the Anglican bishop of Tasmanian, on 24th March 1858. They were reproduced on a commercial scale several years later by Mr. J. W. Beattie, an historian and photographer, who acquired Nixon’s negatives, and eventually Ling Roth was able to purchase some copies.

    The reason we know this is because at Oyster Cove, the reserve where the 47 survivors from Flinders Island were moved in 1847, introduced an official visitors book as a crude attempt to improve supervision and in so doing prevent further Aboriginal deaths. Any so-called humanitarian intervention at this conjecture was futile. In July 1873 the reserve was closed, the only survivors were Trucanini and Mary Ann Brooker.

    Historians James Bonwick and J. E. Calder actually visited the reserve whilst it was still in use, unlike Ling Roth who, as the Hermit points out, never actually ventured to Tasmania. Although their publications are now seriously out dated and some of their motivations suspect, they were genuinely concerned and shocked at the physical and psychological condition of the Aboriginal people they met. They petitioned the authorities in a last ditch attempt to relieve the suffering of Trucanini and her community, but to no avail.

    Today we can use these photographs to illustrate the devastating impact of colonialism on indigenous peoples, just as Bonwick and Calder did, and thoroughly contextualise the objects we have from Tasmania. They also provide the Museum with an opportunity to reflect on its own history as an imperialist institution.

  5. 21/07/2009 4:18 pm

    A group of Tasmanian Aboriginals has visited Manchester Museum twice. During their first visit I showed them a collection of paintings of Tasmanian Aboriginals, which were part of the Ling Roth collection. After their first visit, I had 2 sets of colour transparencies made by the museum’s photographer and I sent 1 set of these out to Tasmania, which I gathered were received by the Tasmanian Aboriginals.

    Also Manchester Museum has a small collection of copies of stone tools from Tasmania, which I showed to the Curator of the Hobart Museum on the second visit. The Curator from Hobart Museum said they had plenty of stone tools from Tasmania in the Hobart Museum.

  6. Tom Stephenson permalink
    22/07/2009 10:14 am

    I am constantly amazed at how many priceless artifacts have survived the centuries intact, simply because they were ignored, unloved and un-curated. The Saxon Church in Bradford on Avon, The London Stone – smaller objects tucked away in the backs of our Grandparents cupboards – owe their continued existence precisely to the fact that nobody cared enough about them to destroy them, and in the case of The London Stone, walked past it every day on their way to work with complete indifference.

    There are many examples of wonderful artifacts which have had their spirit removed from them by the undue attention given to them by so-called conservators – the London Titians, The Westbury White Horse, all the medieval church paintings which were removed in an act of piety by the early Victorians, etc.

    There is an element of ‘reality TV’ to this project which I find quite distasteful. Asking random members of the public to decide which objects should be allowed to exist, and which should be destroyed on the whim of another random member of the public is definitely not the job of a Hermit, nomatter what his intentions might be for the long-term. The Hermit is supposed to shine a light down a dark road in order to help the traveller avoid dangers and pit-falls – not ask the journymen which objects they would like to destroy on the way. Milestones should to be left for the benefit of others coming behind you.

    I suppose it is the spiritual arrogance that I find most offensive. If – in the tradition of monks of old – the Hermit behaved in a truly impassive way toward the artifacts that he considers, he would leave them in the cupboard and allow the material world to decide their fate, rather than dragging them out for ritual sacrifice.

  7. Stephen Welsh permalink
    22/07/2009 4:23 pm

    Most recently I was also able to supply Julie Gough with information and images on what is believed to be a Tasmanian basket in the Museum’s Living Cultures collection, although there is still some debate over this.

    Julie was compiling data for the exhibition ‘Tayenebe: Tasmanian Aboriginal women’s fibre work’ which opened on 4th July this year in Hobart. The exhibition was a collaboration between the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and the TMAG Aboriginal Advisory Council.

    You can see Vicki maikutena Matson-Green, an artist who contributed to the exhibition, talking about the work of the women at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYjES-01xHQ

    Stephen

  8. Tom Stephenson permalink
    23/07/2009 9:54 am

    Interesting piece of information on the World of Warcraft website which makes me wonder if they know something we don’t:

    there’s a little house on the map NW, which is NOT where the hermit is. see the ridge east of the graveyard? go to it and north. it’s outside the graveyard, no undead, black widow hatchlings along the way.

  9. 11/11/2009 11:10 pm

    Приветствую Вас. Вот меня, как консультанта из Белорусии, беспокоит вопрос о отношении к нам, так сказать к тем, кто только начинает свою карьеру… Поговаривают, что в других регионах в случае праздников, консультантов поздравляют, дарят что-то ценное, а не обходятся банальной открыткой, как это делается у нас… Ведь это же действительно и приятно и понимаешь, что тебя хоть каплю, но уважают. Расскажите, как у Вас с этим?

  10. 11/06/2010 2:42 pm

    What theme are you using? Can’t wait to start my own blog.

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