Any review of our local history that commences with the discovery of the Kentish Plains on 1st August 1842, is like starting to describe a 100 metre footrace two metres from the finishing line. Admittedly the last two metres are vitally important to us, but they don’t tell the complete story.
With the amount of historical evidence showing that Tasmania’s first indigenous people lived around the Mersey and Forth River valleys for many centuries, it is inconceivable to imagine that they didn’t also inhabit the grassy plains between these two rivers. In fact, it is now generally acknowledged that most of the open grassy plains along our north-west coast such as the Kentish Plains are not natural but come to us courtesy of the aboriginal practice of regularly burning open corridors through the bush. They did this to create large clearings that enticed kangaroos, wallabies and wombats to graze out in the open where they could be speared more easily. This fundamental hunting practice was almost certainly the origin of our Kentish Plains.
When the first European explorers visited Van Diemen’s Land, they discovered a stone-age people living on a remote island, it being the most southerly location of any people group in the world. Not only that, but they had existed without any contact with other human beings for thousands of years, longer than any other population of people on earth.
These earliest Tasmanians didn’t practise any form of farming, crop planting or domestication of animals or birds. They led simple nomadic lives as hunters and food gatherers, following a seasonal rotation around many different locations. With no written language, their entire culture, customs and incredible bush skills were passed down orally during regular dream-time story-telling around camp fires, at young men’s initiation ceremonies and special sessions for ‘women’s business’.
Red ochre was one of their most prized possessions. Mixed with black charcoal and animal fat, it was used extensively for glamourizing all parts of their bodies for corroborees – their main social or communal interaction. Dancing around the flickering light of a big fire emulating the movements of wild animals, leaping and shrieking ‘narracoopa’, meaning in modern idiom ‘How awesome, this is cool’, usually continued well into the night.
The Tommeginne Tribe
When the first Europeans settlers arrived in 1804, there were an estimated 4000-5000 indigenous people scattered across Van Diemen’s Land in nine tribal groups. The tribe located along our North West Coast was known as the Tommeginne tribe.
Their territory ran from the Rubicon River in the East along to Wynyard in the West, and from the coastline in the North to the foothills of the Western Tiers, Cradle Mountain and St. Valentine’s Peak in the South. The total population of the Tommeginne tribe was estimated to be around 400.
Our specific interest are the two or three clans of Aborigines, probably numbering about 200, who inhabited and hunted between the Mersey and Forth River valleys. Their seasonal rotation saw them spending the colder months along the coastline and in the river estuaries of the Rubicon, Mersey, Don and Forth; in the warmer months they trekked inland back into the high country around Gad’s Hill, Middlesex Plains and lush Lake Lea located on the Vale of Belvoir, feeding off native berries and various animals.
Within this eastern Tommeginne territory was the most important deposit of red ochre in the whole island. Located on the slopes of Mount Gog, a long spur running off the north eastern end of Mount Roland, its rich redness made it superior to all other places. Hence it was regularly sought by most Aboriginal tribes throughout the island. So this unique supply of red ochre on the Kentish side of the Mersey River, several kilometres north of the Union bridge near Mole Creek was the hub for a network of native tracks that converged on eastern side of Mount Gog.
The track coming from the East Coast passed south of Longford, along the Liffey valley, across the open plains just below the Western Tiers before arriving at Den Plains beside the Mersey River just north of Mole Creek. The Big River tribe located in the Derwent Valley would trek up over the Central Highlands past Mount Pelion, then down the upper Mersey Valley. Coming from the West and far North West Coasts, a major native track followed much the same route as the present Cradle Mountain Link Road across the Vale of Belvoir and Middlesex Plains, before it descended to the only ford over the Forth River at Lorinna. If rain had caused the river to rise, Aborigines could be forced to wait days or even weeks to get across. From Lorinna they travelled east, up over Gad’s Hill coming around behind Mount Roland to Mount Gog. Alternatively, a shorter route from Lorinna came north over Mount Claude, followed the Dasher River along in front of Mount Roland, before climbing up through Paradise to the ochre deposit.
Their main camping grounds were at Chudleigh and on Den Plains, a small flood plain in a bend of the Mersey River, below Mount Gog. Years later when these plains were finally purchased by the first white settlers, there were so many disc-shaped stones and pounders scattered across the river flats that it took two men several days to clear them. They had been used by aboriginal women to grind the red ochre into powder.
The Toolumbunner Ochre Mine
The ochre mine itself, on the eastern end of Mount Gog, was called Toolumbunner. Aboriginal conciliator George A Robinson records in his journal around 1830 that while walking with the natives towards Toolumbunner, the chief of the Oyster Bay tribe became overjoyed at the prospect of seeing this celebrated place. He says: ‘Bye and bye me see it plenty’. Upon arrival at the ochre mine, Robinson records some Aborigines patted and kissed the ground.
In 1982 Lloyd Robson and Rosemary Kiss of the University of Melbourne, having read Robinson report of this important Aboriginal ochre mine, set out to rediscover its location. They were accompanied by Brian Plomley of the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston. Eventually, on 12 April 1982, they discovered the site and began a series of archaeological investigations, which spanned several years and covered an area of five hectares. Their findings were printed in the book Bruising the Red Earth edited by Antonia Sagona and published by Melbourne University Press in 1994. Toolumbunner they concluded was a unique Australian Aboriginal site consisting of two main quarries about a kilometre apart. They believed that the site had been mined continuously for 500-600 years.
Of course, this Aboriginal site is protected under the provisions of the Aboriginal Relics Act 1975. No public road runs nearby, and the area cannot be reached without traversing many kilometres over private property. Today there is nothing really to see. The site is covered with scrub, the trenches have caved in and you could walk by without noticing anything.
In closing, what we have hopefully portrayed in this initial article is that long before the arrival of any European settlers, our intriguing Kentish region had found considerable fame as the depository of the finest artistic resource on the island. Aborigines from all other parts were attracted to this locality. In my next article we will look at further Aboriginal activities around our Mersey/Forth region as we try to penetrate history’s long silence regarding our first indigenous inhabitants of Kentish and give them some of the recognition they deserve.