End of the Line
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.
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.