After Governor Arthur’s epic journey over the Great Western Highway to Emu Bay in January 1829, the next notable traveller across Kentish’s high country was Aboriginal Conciliator George Augustus Robinson.
In August 1830, April 1832, January and June 1834 Robinson spent weeks in this area searching the upper Mersey River, Mount Gog, Mole Creek, Liena, Gad’s Hill, Emu Plains, Lorinna, Forth River, Daisy Dell, Middlesex Plains and the Vale of Belvoir for the few remaining aborigines still at large. By the end of 1834, he had without carrying a gun, succeeded in peacefully removing almost all aborigines to their protected safe-haven on Flinders Island.
Robinson’s search parties included varying numbers of friendly natives who provided him with lots of important local information. A keen observer of their indigenous culture, Robinson learnt their language and listened to their tragic stories of brutal atrocities suffered at the handles of sealers, shepherds and stockmen. Each day he wrote an extensive diary of his party’s activities, the stories he heard, even recording local aboriginal place names for many geographical features around the island. Robinson’s original journals are held in the Mitchell Library, Sydney and were largely unknown until in 1966 they were published by N J B Plomley. Now an excellent source of information and insight, his journals are regarded as amongst the most important historical documents of early Van Diemen’s Land.
George Augustus Robinson was born in London in 1791, the son of a builder. On 28 February 1814 he married Maria Amelia Evans with whom he had seven children. In England he worked in the building trade and developed a real interest in religious activities including the Church Missionary Society, London. He arrived in Hobart Town in January 1824 and set up as a bricklayer/builder. After he had built a house, his wife and family joined him in April 1826. In Hobart, Robinson continued his religious activities, joining the Bible Society, became secretary of the Seamen’s Friend Society, and visited prisoners in the gaol.
Appointed Aboriginal Conciliator
By 1828 the violent conflict between white settlers and the indigenous Aborigines had escalated into the Black War (1828-1832) and the Black Line (1830). It became the most intense frontier conflict in Australia’s history with some 200 settlers and around 800 natives being killed. George Robinson was one of a number advocating a more peaceful solution – a way of bringing in the blacks without bloodshed. In 1829 the Governor appointed Robinson Conciliator to the Aborigines with the task of mounting a friendly mission towards the 200 or so remaining Aboriginals. His job was to round them up and resettle them at the Wybalenna compound (‘black man’s house’) on Flinders Island.
To prepare himself, Robinson spent nine months on Bruny Island with the local tribe to familiarise himself with their culture and language. It was there he rescued 18 year old Truganini who was living in a whalers’ camp. She had seen her mother stabbed to death by a sailor, her uncle shot by a soldier, and together with her sisters had been taken into sexual slavery by sealers. When they were abducted by boat, she watched the young man she loved thrown overboard. As he clung to the sides of the boat, a hatchet was used to cut both his hands off. Later Robinson encouraged Truganini’s marriage to Woorreddy, whose mother was also kidnapped by escaped convicts. Afterwards, both Truganini and Woorreddy became Robinson’s loyal and devoted helpers on all his friendly missions around the island. On one occasion Truganini saved Robinson’s life.
Robinson’s motivation for such compassionate treatment of our island’s original inhabitants came from his strong Christian beliefs. An entry in his journal 15 November 1830 reads:
I looked upon them as brethren, not as … maligned savages. No, they are my brethren by creation. God has made of one blood all nations of people and I am not ashamed to call them brothers. Would to God I could call them brethren by redemption. His prayer: Let us pray to God that they be brought to know him, the only true God.
His epic journeys to find these frightened survivors commenced on 27 January 1830 when with prominent bushman Alexander McKay, and a group of friendly natives, they left Hobart for Port Davey. Over the next months their party travelled up the West Coast reaching Cape Grim on 14 June,1830. There they found several aborigines, some of whom he sent by boat to Launceston while he had a couple of native youths join his search parties. The manager of the VDL Co Edward Curr received Robinson cautiously, refusing his request to be given a copy of Hellyer’s map of North West Coast. From Emu Bay, the party travelled south to Surrey Hills, then set out seeking aborigines along the Great Western road. The following are very brief summaries from Robinson’s journal of his visits into Kentish‘s High Country.
Robinson’s First Visit Aug 1830
Between Surrey Hills and Middlesex Plains, they saw several skeletons of sheep, death due to severe wet and cold; also, carcases of bullocks, having died along the track from excessive labour. For two days they travelled in snow 18 inches deep before camping on east side of the Vale of Belvoir. There open plains formed a beautiful sight encircled by hills and the Black Bluff Range; kangaroos bounded away in all directions. Shepherds had told them this was the best part of the back country. It would make an excellent cattle run. They camped overnight at Epping Forest (Daisy Dell) where Fossey had built huts for his work party. From Robinson’s diary – At this place I cut on a peppermint tree G A Robinson Aug 20, 1830. Around the camp fire that evening, a native youth told Robinson what he experienced as small boy near Cape Grim. He said nine sealers arrived by boat and ambushed his group of natives. He was only a child and climbed under some bushes. When they shot two native men, the women ran into the sea and tried to swim away, but the sealers rowed after them, pulled seven of them into the boat and took them away.
Next day Robinson’s search party descended the mountainside to the Forth River. They found it a broad rapid river 4 feet deep. The VDL Co had placed a rope across the river but it was broken. Not having seen any aborigines at all in the high country, Robinson wrote: I now know beyond a doubt that this country is too cold for the natives in winter time and that they only migrate here during the summer months. Epping Forest, Middlesex Plains, Vale of Belvoir and Surrey Hills must all be their favourite resorts. Robinson returned to Emu Bay and searched along the coast line to Port Sorell. After exploring the Rubicon River up to its source near Dunorlan, Robinson crossed over to the Mersey River south of Armistead and followed down the eastern bank of the Mersey right to the sea coast.
His Most Successful Round-Up April 1832
In the upper Mersey River region, with the help of friendly natives, Robinson were able to round up 14 natives, remnants of the Big River that had come north. They included Mannalargenna, the old Chief of the Oyster Bay Tribe who wore no clothes. At Mole Creek the natives wanted to visit the ochre mine, so that evening Robinson suggested they paint themselves up with the ochre and demonstrate their native dances. Their hilarity lasted until a late hour. The kangaroo dance was the best; the emu dance next; the war dance scariest of all. Robertson wanted to send this group over Mount Gog and down the east side of the Mersey River to the Coast, but when bad weather set in, he decided to keep them altogether and continue travelling West. At the Middlesex Plains they caught a large lobster about a foot long. In June when Robinson finally returned from the North West by this same route, he had another 23 natives.
Final Search for last Remnants June- July 1834
Once again Robinson’s party left Surrey Hills in a final attempt to locate the very last few natives thought to be hiding in the cold high country. On June 23 they camped on east side of Vale of Belvoir, before setting up a base camp at the Middlesex Plains on the south side of Pencil Pine Creek. They waited here for over a week for supplies to arrive and his son to return from delivering some natives to Flinders Island. There again he noted kangaroos in abundance, fat with young. While waiting, they searched the entire district for any signs of the natives – travelling south towards Cradle Mountain, north along the Lea and Iris Rivers towards Moina, east to the edge of the Forth Gorge where the Cethana Dam has been built today. Here his natives picked up rock’s sparling with minerals.
Back at their Middlesex base camp, horsemen eventually arrived with supplies of flour, sugar, rice and tea. Robinson writes: In mountainous country I live on badger, porcupine, rats, grubs and opossums; in clear country on kangaroo. Also, his son arrived with an update on Flinders Island. He told his father: At Wybalenna, there were now 140 natives and 20 whites, but things weren’t good. Several natives had died, one white worker had been suspended, a whaler was on the island living with one of the native women, and they were almost out of supplies.
By July 3 there were still no sign of any natives. They set off for the Forth River crossing (Lorinna) planning to follow the VDL Co road behind Mount Roland around to the ochre mine at Mount Gog where they expected to find some aborigines. Reaching the ford, he found the aborigines had burnt the rafts that the Company had placed there. As the Forth River was only knee deep, Robinson crossed the river immediately and later urged those carrying supplies to do the same, but they chose to remain on the west side. That night it began raining, the river rose, and it was a week later before this last party could safely cross.
From Forth River, they ascended Gad’s Hill where they found a native hut with two newly made waddies inside. They went a mile or so north and came upon open plains behind Mount Claude where there were more recently used huts containing pieces of blankets, shredded clothing, grass ropes and buttons. One of Robinson’s dogs, Fly, had thirteen pups, ten of which he drowned. They travelled onto Van Dyke then along a well-worn native track high on the back of Mount Roland, where they saw the bones of a dead bullock at bottom of a ravine. Near Mole Creek, Robinson explored a cave, but no natives would go with him. Using torches made from bark, he walked 266 paces into one internal chamber. On a piece of canvas, he wrote G A Robinson July 24 1834 and left it inside the cave.
This time Robertson chose to visit the ochre mine with the natives. One of them became stuck in a hole and had to be pulled out by his legs. Believing he may be the first white person to visit this sacred site, Robinson carved his initials GAR on a tree.
At Native Corner (Chudleigh) were numerous native huts, one containing pieces of blanket and some cartridges. After collecting his mail at Captain Vaughan’s primitive homestead at Chudleigh, Robinson became concerned that there was no letter from his wife. He decided to proceed to Hobart, leaving his two sons with the friendly natives near Mole Creek for several months in case other aborigines showed up, which they did on three occasions.
Robertson Dies in England
While Robinson’s roundup of the natives was considered a great success, their new protected compound at Wybalenna proved to be a dismal failure. Camp conditions deteriorated for the 135 natives there, many continuing to die of white man’s diseases or pining for their old nomadic way of life. In March 1839, Robinson deserted the few dozen survivors left at Wybalenna to become Chief Protector of Aborigines in Victoria. His wife Marie accompanied him, but she died in 1848, the year before his job was abolished. In 1852 Robinson returned to live to England, where 8 months later he married Rose Pyne, daughter of a well-known artist. They spent five years living in Italy and Paris before returning in 1858 to settle in Bath, England. Robinson died on 18 October 1866 aged 75 leaving 5 surviving children from his second marriage.
From Robinson’s Records of Aboriginal Place Names:
Mersey River (Native Plains) = WEE.LEE.TET.TER,
Mersey River (Den Plains) =TEE.YOO.LUNG.GAR.PIN
Mersey River (Liena)= LIME.LIN.ER.TORE.HE
Gog and Magog=TO.NO.NUNG.GER.LARE
Mount Gog Ochre Mine= TOO.LUM.BUNNER.
Gad’s Hill= DEAC.KELAR
Forth River at Lorinna= WOOL.LUN.NER.LY
Forth River Gorge=LY.CLIN.NER.LE
Vale of Belvoir = MONE.LIN.HE.LONE.HER
Cradle Mountain= WAR.LOUN.DIG.ER.LER
Mount Roland= TOO.LUM.BONNER LUNNER.LIN.NO
Mount Van Dyke =TARER.NEEMBER.RE
Mount Claude= PAR.MOE.NER.MEN.NER.WAY
Mount Claude (south)=ROE.BOY.VEER.ER.TUN.NO
Claude Rd= PAR.TAN.NER.ME.TEEL.LER
Kentish Plains area= NEER.HER.NOO