If you go into Melbourne on Thursday 20th January at 12.00 and head up to the corner of Bowen and Franklin Streets, you’ll see the 169th anniversary of the hanging of Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener. These commemorations have been conducted for several years now- in fact, the Lord Mayor Robert Doyle spoke at the 2009 commemoration.
I’ve heard it said that once a blog starts to cannibalise itself, then the end is nigh- I hope this is not the case. But just this once I’ll refer you back to an earlier post that I wrote on this anniversary two years ago and a post on images of Tunnerminnerwait in the Robert Dowling exhibition at the Geelong Gallery and later National Gallery of Australia last year.
The smile in this image – so unusual amongst depictions of Aboriginal people at the time- is explored by Leonie Stevens in her article ‘The Phenomenal Coolness of Tunnerminnerwait’ published in the Victorian Historical Journal, Vol 81, Number 1, June 2010. If you belong to a library that has access to Informit, then it’s well worth following up.
Abstract: There have been numerous historical constructions of Tunnerminnerwait, alias Cape Grim Jack, who was publicly executed along with his friend, Maulboyheener in Melbourne in January 1842. This paper revisits the documentary record and historicizing of the two young Tasmanians, and asks, were they victims of colonial indifference, freedom fighters, or simply wild Tasmanians enacting the final stages of the Black Wars?
The commemorations on 20th January that have been held over several years now certainly claims them as freedom fighters, but I’m not particularly comfortable with that characterization. I concur with Stevens that they were defiant, independent actors, and her article highlights the difficulty in ascribing any one motive to their actions when dealing with such a partial and complex historical record. For me the connotation of politicized, communal action denoted by 20th century term ‘freedom fighter’ does not ring true for a small group of Aboriginal people cast adrift from their country and tribal structure and utter strangers to the land they found themselves in.
I’m puzzled, too, by the recommendation to mercy by the jury: a recommendation that that was not supported by Judge Willis and disregarded by the colonial authorities. The Van Diemens Land Blacks encapsulated the two huge and very sharp anxieties of the frontier- blacks AND bushrangers rolled into one- yet there was obviously some disquiet about the death penalty among the jurors at least. Nonetheless, large crowds witnessed the execution outside the jail but here too, we can only guess at what motivated them to come out in such numbers: curiosity? sense of occasion? 19th century popular culture? crowd behaviour?- close to the spot where the commemoration on 20th January will take place.
And here it was: