This essay first appeared in a collection ‘Storykeepers’ edited by Marion Halligan, published by Duffy and Snellgrove in 2001.
A SHORT STRANGE SECRET MISTY SMOKY MYSTERIOUS HISTORY
Sometimes people ask me how growing up in Tasmania has affected my work as a fiction writer. I lived in Tasmania for the first twenty-three years of my life, and from the beginning I was fascinated by the short, strange, secret history of the place. I entertained myself quite a bit by reading the books in our house. I still have some of the books, and so I can refer to them in detail, not having to rely on memory.
Among the large and gloomy books which inspired me were two volumes called The Cyclopedia of Tasmania. This was a curious compendium of facts from the state’s past, published in 1900. I loved looking at these books. They consisted of page after page of photographs of people and buildings, as well as text, and they were such imposing volumes, so self-important and arresting. Most of the people in them were men with beards and wide, staring eyes. Very, very occasionally there was a picture of a woman such as Miss Marion Oldham who was the Principal of the Wattle Grove State School, but women were generally not part of the main narrative.
There is Mrs Ferrar, who appears seated beside her husband. Mrs Ferrar ‘remembers some exciting scenes in connection with the early days of the colony, when the aborigines were as thick as the proverbial bees, and as troublesome as wild beasts.’ I wonder if Mrs Ferrar spoke those words. Once Mrs Ferrar was speared and clubbed, but ‘happily with no serious results’. The phrase ‘speared and clubbed’ is one I have always found particularly arresting. It is so plain, so stark, bluntly violent, so inarguable. This prose is much more lively than is usual in The Cyclopedia. ‘As thick as the proverbial bees, and as troublesome as wild beasts.’
There is a description of ‘one of the handsomest shops in the colonies’. This is quite interesting, because the entry in The Cyclopedia begins by describing the shop itself, before explaining what Mr A.P. Miller – Chemist, Druggist, and Distiller – does. The shop is so elegant and ornamented, with its bevelled glass and embossed gold lettering, its sheoak drawers with crystal knobs, its windows decorated with designs of Tasmanian wildflowers and birds. Mr Miller was one of the first people in Tasmania to use the oil of the blue gum tree in the manufacture of creams and soaps and ointments. So The Cyclopedia is not without its glimpses of literary felicity. I really liked Mr Miller, a character who came to life among hundreds of characters who didn’t.
Mostly the prose is incredibly dull. Its very leaden nature stimulated my imagination, and the titles of institutions were enough to set me thinking. Imagine the Church of England Home of Mercy for Fallen Women. Then, there is an absence of children. In a photograph of a giant tree (Tasmania is famous for giant trees) a small girl in a white pinafore and bonnet sits at the root of the tree, while to the left, almost invisible, there sits a woman in black, wearing a stern hat. Both figures have their hands folded on their lap. To the right a man lounges against the base of the tree, his back to the other figures, his hat rather jaunty, his hand on his hip. He stares into the distance. The woman and child suggest themselves as fairy folk. Behind the tree, which reaches up into the heavens beyond the frame, all is misty, smoky, mysterious. How could I not be affected by all this? I was, of course, deeply affected.
Another notable absence from the pictures and the narrative is that of the Chinese population which was actually considerable. Even as a child I wondered about that. This is a white, generally Protestant, serious, respectable history. Yet as I will explain, it awakened and nourished my interest in the stories of indigenous Tasmanians.
The businessmen who subscribed to the publishing costs of the books were the principal characters in the narrative of The Cyclopedia. The authors, generally, are not acknowledged, so it is often impossible to know who was behind the story, responsible for the language, at any time.
One particularly fascinating section is at the back of Volume Two – ‘Curious Facts of Old Colonial Days’. It includes entries headed ‘State Morals in the Early Days’ and ‘Strong Drink in Van Diemen’s Land’. Then there are six pages titled ‘The Aborigines of Tasmania’. This part has no photographs. It seems to be a little afterthought. It is followed by a section called ‘Miscellaneous’. The section about the Aborigines begins with the information:
‘A special interest attaches to the aboriginal inhabitants of ‘the garden island’ inasmuch as they have become utterly extinct; and that too within the memory of many persons who are still in the prime of life.’ There follows a selection of notes from James Bonwick’s work Daily Life and Origin of the Tasmanians. The extinction is stated as a fact, uninformed by pathos, let alone outrage.
Now I was prepared to believe what the book said, that this race of people had ‘completely disappeared off the face of the earth’. I found the idea remarkable and horrifying, and it is not only with hindsight that I say I felt there was something really creepy about the prose itself, this smooth, confident story of what was being named ‘extinction’. ‘They have become utterly extinct.’ ‘Extinct’ was not then a word often, or ever, used in ordinary conversation. I was interested in it. It sounded like a whip.
When I was very young I went to the Hobart Museum where I saw the tiny skeleton of Truganini who was supposed to have been the last of the Tasmanian Aborigines. I had never even seen a human skeleton before, let alone the skeleton of the last member of a lost race of people. I felt awe and a dreadful, shocked sadness. I remember the skeleton as being somehow unrelated to human life, so tiny, so museumy – more like the remains of a bandicoot or something. So this was extinction.
Then there was another book I used to pore over, a cheap green-bound volume published in 1928, Tasmania’s North-East. This one is written in a much more lively and personal style, and I really liked that about it. The author, Mr A. W. Loone, invents headings such as ‘Child Shockingly Mutilated’ and ‘Experience With Grasses’ and ‘The Joke that Failed’. This was clearly a better class of story. The author also quotes James Bonwick, but the burden of his narrative is one of deep compassion and a very real sorrow. He believes the accepted version of the extinction of the race, but his regret is palpable. Other texts I read were informed with a smug congratultion that extinction had been acheived. A most curious feature of this book is that its final chapter, called a ‘Conclusion’ concerns three important Tasmanian Aborigines. It felt to me even as a child that it was a peculiar way to end a book that seemed to be about the pioneers and adventurers and early settlers of the district. It was not usual to end on this note. It is no afterthought, but rather a lament which insists on being spoken, which sits most powerfully as the final statement of the book. The last glossy illustration is a reproduction of the Thomas Bock portrait of the Aboriginal known as Jack of Cape Grim. One of the three Aborigines in the last chapter is Truganini, one is King Billy, and the third is Mathinna.
The first sentence in this chapter says: ‘The history of Mathinna is melancholy in the extreme.’
The entire hidden tragedy and mystery, lit with the flashes of what horrors I knew of the fate of Tasmanian Aborigines, exercised a fascination over my early imagination, but possibly my heart was most deeply touched by the story of this girl. Mathinna. This little girl. There was a smudgy black and white reproduction of Thomas Bock’s portrait of her in some other book belonging to my father, but I no longer have that book. I used to stare and stare at the picture, convinced somehow that the sitter was looking into my soul. Or I was looking into hers. (A portrait of the Princes in the Tower actually had a similar effect on me. I would keep returning to these sweet boys – they resembled girls – who had been murdered and disposed of, never to be found.) I can’t recall when I first saw the picture of Mathinna in colour, but I had imagined that her dress was pink. In fact it is red. The redness seems now to be somehow very significant. I recall my mother telling me that it was actually right to put red shoes on little girls, but wrong to put red shoes on little boys. In fact I really expected Mathinna should have been wearing a white dress. I would have given her a white dress, I thought. Did somebody agonise over the colour? Or was it just that there was a handy piece of red cloth? I was very attracted to portraits of children, and I had several prints of these framed on my bedroom wall, and I thought about them a lot. I am quite sentimental – I have to tell you that for me this picture of Mathinna is the saddest, sweetest, dearest image, and its meaning for me is entwined with my own early life and early reading, as a child, in Tasmania.
Let me tell you what I know about the story of Mathinna.
In 1833, two years before Mathinna was born, her people of the South West tribe were captured by George Augustus Robinson as part of his re-location program, and removed to the Aboriginal settlement on Flinders Island. This settlement was part of a failed experiment in the management of the native people of Van Diemen’s Land. Mathinna was born on Flinders Island and was separated from her family, sent to live with the school-teacher as part of a policy to educate the children in white ways as early as possible in their lives. She was in fact the second child her parents had lost to the white authorities. So from the very beginning of her life Mathinna was alienated from her own people. Her name was to begin with ‘Mary’ but was later changed by white folk to ‘Mathinna’, suggesting to me a rather complex and bewildering confusion of black and white identity.
The Governor of the colony in Van Diemen’s Land was John Franklin, and in 1838 he and his wife Jane visited the Aboriginal settlement at Wybalenna on Flinders Island. They inspected the place and were entertained by the Aborigines with song and dance, and they gave out gifts of beads, handkerchiefs, knives, and marbles. Two years later the Governor and his Lady returned to Wybalenna, and this time they arranged for the child Mary (soon to become known as Mathinna) who was now five, to live with them at Government House in Hobart Town.
Mathinna was suddenly elevated to the status of a child of colonial aristocracy. She shared a governess with Eleanor, the daughter of John Franklin, and rode in the carriage with Lady Franklin. It was at this time that Lady Franklin commissioned Thomas Bock to paint Mathinna’s portrait. Eleanor Franklin kept a diary in which she mentioned Mathinna only twice, a fact that I see as significant in what it reveals about Eleanor’s relationship or lack of it with Mathinna. I will quote these entries which I first read when I was about twelve.
Eleanor wrote: ‘The last Aborigines were caught about a fortnight ago, and sent to Flinders Island, so that our little native girl is the only one remaining here. She is improving I think, though it will be a long time before she becomes quite civilised.’
The other entry, in which Eleanor copies out a letter written by Mathinna, is, in the context of Mathinna’s life, one of the most moving and touching passages I have ever read in its simplicity and its vivid revelation of a life. It is a statement in the form of a letter to Mathinna’s step-father (her own father died when she was two). It seems to me that there is a conflation of three fathers – the step-father, Governor Franklin, and God. The letter is dated 14 November 1841, and it reads:
‘Mathinna is six years old. Her mother Eveline, father, modern name Hannibal, Cape Sorell tribe. I am good little girl. I have pen and ink cause I am good little girl. I do love my father. I have got a doll and shift and a petticoat. I read. My father I thank thee for sleep. I have got red frock. Like my father. Come here to see my father. I have got sore feet and shoes and stockings and I am very glad. All great ships. Tell my father two rooms.’
This period in Mathinna’s life, when she had her own bedroom and her pet possum, when she danced for visitors in her English clothes, did not last long. Two years in fact. Two years during which time she became the pet of the Europeans, but could no longer relate to her own people. The Franklins left Van Diemen’s Land and returned to England in 1843, leaving her behind. She was placed in the Queen’s Orphan School in Hobart where she was utterly different from and unacceptable to the other children. A year later she was back on Flinders Island living with the school master. Fanny Cochrane, an Aboriginal girl who was Mathinna’s age, and who in fact lived to be seventy, was living there as well. The Aborigines at Wybalenna were dying. Mathinna’s step-father died when Mathinna was eleven – her mother was already dead. When she was twelve Mathinna was returned to the Queen’s Orphan School.
At New Norfolk, north west of Hobart, the governor had a country house which Mathinna had visited when she was a member of the Franklin household. She was now taken there for a Christmas treat, as an orphan from the school. Governor and Lady Denison gave a big party, with plum pudding and gifts. There was a tent on the lawn for white folk and a tent for black folk. The Europeans were very interested in the Aborigines, since such people had not been seen in public in southern Van Diemen’s Land for a long time. There was a genuine desire to give the Aborigines a good time at the party, but there was also a sense in which they were a collection of freaks on show. It is so sad and poignant to imagine Mathinna as one of the Aborigines who played and danced for the European audience, she who not long before would have been among the privileged white children herself. And it was only a day outing. In the evening the carriages took the visitors back to the Orphan School.
The Orphan School was an abject Dickensian place of overcrowding, disease, hunger and punishment. The Denisons were interested in trying to improve the conditions, paying visits and taking gifts, and giving prizes for good work. By the time Mathinna left the school at the age of sixteen, she was the only Aboriginal left. She went to live at the tragic settlement at Oyster Cove where the dwindling group of Aborigines were dying of loneliness, disease and broken hearts.
By the time she was twenty-one Mathinna was trading her body for alcohol, and one night when she was drunk she fell into the water, and she drowned.
I try to match the end of this story with the image of the child in the red dress, and I fancy that in the soft hands, gentle smile, and in the intense and searching eyes of the portrait, I can feel the tragedy of the child’s future already written.
You can see that I have a special affection for and relationship with this portrait. I have carried a framed print of it round with me for a long time. Some years ago I went to live in an old house in Melbourne. I was using one of the rooms as a store-room for the time being. But for some reason I banged a nail in the wall and put up one picture, the picture of Mathinna. In the middle of the night, the ceiling of that room came crashing down. Now I realise that that ceiling was ancient and unstable, and that I had disturbed it by hammering the nail into the wall, but I choose to wonder. Would the ceiling have descended it the picture had been of my father in his cricket team?
When I was discussing this essay with Marion, the editor of the book, I told her the anecdote of the ceiling. That night, another piece of ceiling, this time in the bedroom, fell down, disturbed, I like to think, by my telling of the story. I have now had all the ceilings in the house replaced. They are superb. Growing up in Tasmania has affected my reading, my writing, and my ceilings.