Just how the nine aboriginal tribes of Tasmania were so quickly decimated is a woefully sad and sordid story. This remote island was home to an estimated 4,000-5,000 indigenous people when British settlement first began in 1804. Due to a severe shortage of females in the new colony, it wasn’t long before whalers, sailors, soldiers, settlers and ex-convicts were abducting local aboriginal women as sexual slaves and servants. This barbaric practice naturally produced strong resentment within these original inhabitants.
As the new settlers spread out over the island, erecting homesteads and stockmen’s huts across the open plains, the Aborigines were deprived of their traditional hunting grounds upon which they had depended for hundreds of years. Tens of thousands of sheep and cattle were introduced without fencing, managed by ex-convict stockmen on horses who were wilder than the cattle under their care. While some property owners showed tolerance to the indigenous people, their ex-convict employees, bushrangers and escapees looked down on them as a class lower than themselves, delighting in brutalizing and killing them for sport.
For the above reasons, the number of indigenous people was soon in serious decline. Out of a need for survival, they began retaliating in anger and resentment, spearing the white man’s animals, attacking and burning his houses and huts, and killing the habitants. After twenty or so years only about 1,500 Aborigines remained. As violence escalated, Governor George Arthur was forced to declare martial law allowing soldiers to arrest or shoot Aborigines on sight. Called The Black War (1828-1832), it claimed the lives of more than 200 British colonialists and up to 900 Aborigines. By 1831 the number of natives had fallen to around 300.
Midway through the Black War, Governor Arthur had sought a more humane approach to dealing with the Aborigines. In 1830 he engaged George Augustus Robinson to act as a conciliator. His task was to travel throughout the island persuading the few remaining Aborigines to accompany him to a safe haven on Flinders Island where they could live in protection and peace. Over the next four years, his mission proved quite successful. All remaining Aborigines were rounded up and escorted to Wybalenna on Flinders Island. All that is, except one solitary family group who, when confronted by Robinson’s party in a remote corner of the Kentish municipality, resolutely refused to be led into captivity. More about this family later.
The Fate of our Tommeginne tribe
Our local aboriginal tribe lived mainly within an area along the northwest coastline between Port Sorell and Wynyard and as far south as the foothills of the Western Tiers, Cradle Mountain and St Valentines Peak. This Tommeginne tribe numbered about 400, but for practical purposes, hunted, cooked and sheltered in smaller groups consisting of three or four families. Colder winter months were spent in the estuaries of the coastal rivers, while during the warmer months they trekked inland into the vast hinterland behind Mount Roland and Mount Claude, over on the Middlesex Plains and further west at Hampshire Hills and Surrey Hills. On these feeding grounds they lived well from the wild berries, native fruit and an abundance of wild animals and birds.
The first assault upon the Tommeginne tribe by white intruders came from the sea. In the early 1800s as the fur seal trade began to flourish on the Bass Strait islands, it drew together a wild lawless mob of seasoned whalers, sealers, abandoned sailors and escaped convicts with little or no female company. To meet their needs, raiding parties periodically visited the estuaries of our northern Tasmanian rivers forcibly abducting local aboriginal women.
Then in the early 1820s as new settlers began occupying large sections of the Great Western Plains beneath the Western Tiers, it wasn’t long before they were occupying Tommeginne territory along the eastern side of the Mersey River. Any parts of these vast plains not granted to the new settlers, were claimed by the cattle king William Field who had large Government contracts to supply the entire island’s military forces and convict population with regular meat supplies. Hence the Tommeginnes were deprived of their traditional hunting grounds adjacent to the Mersey River.
The same encroachment occurred on the western side of Forth River. The Van Diemen’s Land Co obtained huge grants of grassy scrub country -10,000 acres at both Middlesex Plains and Hampshire Hills and a further 150,000 acres at Surrey Hills – all prime aboriginal hunting grounds. They were stocked with thousands of cattle and sheep, while stockmen’s huts were built to house the dozens of wild ex-convicts shepherds and oversees needed to manage them. These ex- convicts now made masters felt justified in squaring their personal ledgers by punishing the natives. By the mid-1820s Tommeginne numbers had halved, their only option now left was to fight back for survival.
From 1826/27 onward, the cruel conflicts sparked by these land acquisitions led to killing, plundering and burning on both sides. The new settlers had horses, guns and dogs; the natives light tea-tree spears, wooden waddies and fire sticks. Some VDL Co employees were brutal in their deliberate killing of indigenous men, women and children. At Middlesex Plains, shepherds added poison to some flour before offering to the Aborigines. Settlers and stockman were speared, their huts and houses plundered and burnt at places like Chudleigh, Whitefoord Hills, Moltema, Dunorlan and Deloraine.
The decimation of the Aborigines in the southern half of the island had been going on for a much longer time. By the time of the Black War, the southern tribes had become dysfunctional and surviving remnants retreated up the Derwent Valley to join the fragmented Big River Tribe. Withdrawing still further, the survivors crossed the central highlands via their well-worn tracks to Mount Gog where they sought refuge and shelter in our Tommeginne territory. Arriving around 1830 very frightened, but very angry and hostile, they were ready to attack and kill all colonists. So, it was in 1831, largely in Tommeginne country that some of the worst and last atrocities occurred in this sorrowful saga that eventually culminated in the complete demise of our island’s unique indigenous race.
Throughout most of 1831 hostile and murderous acts were undertaken by both sides. Barbarous killings occurred on several of the VDL Co land grants including Middlesex Plains. East of the Mersey River, two women and four children were killed near Lemana; Mrs Mary McCaskell was speared and clubbed to death in front of her children near Deloraine; Captain Bartholomew Thomas and James Parker were speared to death at Port Sorell to mention just a few. Dolly Dalrymple alone with her children in a hut at Stockers Plain, fought off an attack by natives for six hours. By the end of the Black War, only about fifty Tommeginne remained.
1830-1834 George Augustus Robinson with Trugannine & Woorrady
Some months prior to the arrival of these aggressive aborigines from the south, George Robinson had commenced his much more conciliatory approach to the aboriginal problem. Using friendly natives to make initial contacts, Robinson would then persuade them to accompany his party to a safe haven created on Flinders Island. Among Robinson’s regular helpers were well known aboriginal woman Trugannine and her husband Woorrady. Also, Robinson’s two sons, George Jnr and Charles.
Over the next four years Robinson and his party made several tours through the Mersey/Forth region. After his second visit in April 1832 he had collected up to 23 from the North West and walked them to Hobart to parade them in the streets, before sending them to Flinders Island. In May 1834, at Mount Gog, Robinson heard that a small band of aborigines were still at large in the vicinity of the Forth River. Eventually found, they had been hiding in the cold high country when normally they would have been seeking the warmer climate along the coast line. Altogether Robinson rounded up over 200 natives and escorted them to their new home.
The Last of the Free Aborigines
Finally, it was announced that all Aborigines had been brought in and George Robinson was appointed the new commandant of Wybalenna on Flinders Island. However, this announcement was premature; some natives had been missed.
In October 1835 Robinson’s son Charles was sent to find a small group at the back of the Black Bluff range. They were escorted across the Forth River at Lorinna taken behind Mount Roland and thence to Launceston. Again in 1836 VDL Co employees reported seeing a small group of natives on their grants and again Robinson’s two sons George Jnr and Charles with nine co-operative Aborigines were dispatched to find them. Eventually on 20 November 1836, this final family with three small children was located in the vicinity of Leary’s corner near Cradle Mountain. All the persuasion of the friendly Aborigines could not convince them to surrender their freedom for Flinders Island. So here in a remote corner of the Kentish municipality, the one last free aboriginal family in Tasmania reject all their pleas and walked off, back into the bush. The youngest member of this family, a one year old baby boy later became the last full-blooded Aboriginal male of his race to die. His name was William Lanney (nicknamed King Billy), whose death caused a huge uproar among the scientific community when someone broke into the Hobart morgue, severed his head and stole it.
For the next five years this lone family survived by keeping away from the white man and his dogs. A raid on some vacant VDL Co huts on the Middlesex Plains in 1841 was the last recorded attack by any Tasmanian Aboriginals. This family was eventually captured not far from the present Murchison Highway in 1842, the same year that Nathaniel Lipscombe Kentish announced his discovery the Kentish Plains.
As these Tommeginne Aborigines inhabited our municipality for many centuries, and were expunged just before white settlement occurred, shouldn’t there be a memorial to these original inhabitants who first opened the Kentish Plains and fire-managed them for so long? Well, nature has already taken care of it and left us with a gigantic rock memorial located at the western end of Mount Roland.
Viewed from the Sheffield/West Kentish Road district, the three huge rounded steps descending like a staircase from the top of the mountain to its base are easy to identify. The highest rounded step provides the vivid profile of an aboriginal man’s face as he looks pensively towards the skies perhaps pleading to some higher power on behalf of his imperilled indigenous race. Similarly, the middle-rounded step profiles of the head of his aboriginal wife. With her sorrowful face buried in her husband’s chest, it silhouettes her closely cropped curly hair covering the back of her head, while the lowest step profiles her left shoulder. Thus, we have on the western end of our magnificent mountain a massive rock memorial depicting a grieving aboriginal couple, representatives of Tasmania’s unique indigenous race, to remind us forever of their place in our local history and their untimely demise.
This concludes the FIRST INHABITANTS series.