2020, 336 p.
The front cover of Cassandra Pybus’ biography of Truganini shows Peter Dombrovski’s photograph of the sinuous, black ribbons of kelp at Macquarie Harbour in Tasmania. It’s a beautiful and yet unnerving photograph that is just right for this story of a black, evil period of Australia’s history that still congeals and clogs our sense of ourselves as Australians.
Truganini is a story based on historical sources, but Pybus has chosen not to write history here, with footnotes and forays into the historiography and secondary source material about Tasmanian indigenous history. As a historian, I regret that.
The approximately 250 km of Bass Strait that separates Victoria and Tasmania is not a wide expanse of water, but Victorian and Tasmanian histories have tended, until recent years (e.g. James Boyce’s 1835; Lynette Russell’s Roving Mariners ) to have been told as two separate histories of development. This is particularly true in the consideration of Truganini, for a long time wrongly described as the “last Tasmanian Aborigine” as one story, and the story of the “Van Diemen’s Land Blacks” (as they were described at the time) who accompanied the Aboriginal Protector George Augustus Robinson to the Port Phillip settlement in 1839 as a separate story. I have read of Robinson’s activities in Tasmania through Plomley’s work (most recently revisited in Johnston and Rolls’ collection of essays in Reading Robinson, and in Leonie Steven’s beautifully written Me Write Myself) and I have also read in more details of his activities in Victoria ( most particularly in Auty and Russell’s Hunt Them, Hang Them). But until now, I haven’t read another work that sees the Tasmanian and Victorian experiences as a unified event, part of this unfolding ‘apocalypse’ that swept away all the certainties of a long-established lifestyle in an environment that could be bounteous, but also unrelenting.
Cassandra Pybus’ own life story is tied up with that of Truganini. Her family history in Tasmania starts with the grant of Neunonne land on North Bruny Island to her great-great grandfather Richard Pybus, thus implicating her own family directly in the dispossession of Truganini’s own land. She had heard family tales of an old woman picking her way across the land – her traditional Neunonne land, (although the Pybus family wouldn’t have seen it that way) and Pybus herself purchases and lives in her uncle’s house built directly adjacent the old convict station at Oyster Cove where Truganini spent the last thirty years of her life.
Perhaps because it is a story personal to herself that Pybus has decided to write this as a narrative biography, rather than an academic history. As with any other writer working in this area, she relies heavily on the journals of George August Robinson, the self-appointed ‘Protector’ of Aborigines. Written in an almost illegible scrawl, these journals are a mixture of bombast, ego, information, sketches, occasional introspection and frequent obliviousness. In her introduction, she writes:
In writing this book, I have deliberately confined myself to first-person accounts from people who saw her and heard her with their own eyes and ears, then – ideally- made a contemporaneous record of it. Such sources are very few and they are all culturally loaded. Robinson’s journals, however narcissistic and ideologically driven, are the best sources available , which bestows on this highly problematic man an outsized role in her story that he doesn’t really merit. (p. xix)
She doesn’t hold back on her own opinion of Robinson- an opinion much more critical than many other historians who are alternately repelled but puzzled by him:
Truganini and her companions are only available to us through the gaze of pompous, partisan, acquisitive, self-aggrandising men who controlled and directed the context of what they described. The challenge I have set myself is to somehow release these people from entrapment in a paternalising and self-serving account of the colonial past. I want to redirect the lens to find the woman behind the myth (p. xix)
And this is where my regret that she has chosen not to write a history comes in: that without footnotes, and without acknowledging the work of historians with whom she has clearly talked – her friend Lyndall Ryan for just one- as a reader, I cannot tell where Robinson and the other observers end, and Pybus takes up, especially in ascribing Truganini’s motives and responses.
But I am in danger of letting my desire for a different book obscure my pleasure in the book that we do have. In Pybus’ Truganini – as distinct from the ‘last Tasmanian aborigine’ Truganini- we have a flesh-and-blood woman who swims and dives, who struggles through harsh landscapes and complains of having to walk instead of taking the boat, has friendships, loves children, uses her body and her sexuality to get what she wants, and resists being corralled into Robinson’s vision of a compliant, dying race.
I hadn’t realized just how far Robinson and his ‘guides’ walked on the different ‘missions’ between 1830 and 1834. They literally circumnavigated Tasmania, across varied terrains in often appalling weather. Pybus’ writing glows in describing landscape: you can just see them sinking into wetlands, scrabbling up and down rocky slopes. Then there were the ‘missions’ back and forth, trying to ‘conciliate’ particular tribes – or what was left of them- all part of Robinson’s plan and purpose, none of which he could have undertaken without them.
By “reading against the archival grain” in Robinson’s journals, you can see how resistant Truganini and his other ‘guides’ were to his mission. There was a whole tribal political and economic network in operation to which Robinson was oblivious and excluded. In a ‘search’, it was dubious who was seeking and who was sought. Women were ‘rescued’ from the Bass Strait sealers, but refused to go with Robinson, preferring to stay with the sealers. There was a sexual trade in operation – and Truganini was a participant – and Robinson was powerless to stop it.
The two-facedness and betrayal in Robinson’s behaviour is breath-taking. He ‘brought in’ people of the varying nations with promises that he did not keep, often pleading that he had sought permission but been denied. He promised to rescue daughters from the sealers, but did not (and could not) do so. He held out the promise of fertile land on the north-east tip of Tasmania, near the Bay of Fires, knowing that the eventual outcome was not this rich territory, but instead a windswept Bass Strait island.
His abandonment of his ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ family in Port Phillip, after bringing them over by various ruses, is reprehensible. Robinson had arrived in Port Phillip well before Superintendent La Trobe arrived, and by then he had virtually washed his hands of their charge, more intent on bolstering his career by building the bureaucracy of the Protectorate in Port Phillip. His ‘Van Diemen’s Land family’ simply just falls out of his journals, and his conscience.
It was Truganini’s longevity that leaves her at the end of a dismal story of betrayal and illness, as gradually the people around her sicken and children are never born. It is difficult to find ‘agency’ in this slow denouement, but there is instead a steady resistance as Truganini refuses to fit into the fairy tale ending of an arranged marriage and a cottage in a simulacrum of “civilization”.
The book closes with a series of short biographies of the various indigenous people who Truganini encountered, either as part of her pre-Robinson days, during the so-called ‘Friendly Missions’ or through their enforced proximity on Wyballenna and Oyster Cove. These are arranged by nation, reflecting the importance of country as identity. They highlight that Truganini, like all of us, played various roles amongst the people she knew: friend, sexual partner, fellow expeditioner on the so called ‘Friendly Missions’. They make daunting and depressing reading.
The book has excellent maps at the start, which I found myself consulting often. The text rarely mentioned places not shown on the map, and it was easy to locate where the action was taking place. There are two sets of colour plates, but unfortunately no index, which made the biographies at the end of the book awkward to negotiate if you were unaware of the tribal origins of each individual. Her primary sources are cited, but no secondary literature at all.
I come to this book as a historian, and so I regret the lack of footnotes and engagement with the huge body of scholarship and the historical debates. The research has been done and her passion is clearly apparent. Her work is, as historian Henry Reynolds blurbs on the back cover “of unquestionable national importance” but by her choices she has moved it out of the historiographical realm.
But there is no gainsaying the beauty of Pybus’ prose in describing landscape, and her sensitivity to Truganini’s agency and cohesiveness as an intelligent, resilient woman in a maelstrom of disruption and under a burden of grief. Perhaps eschewing the footnotes attracts readers other than historians, and that is important.
As a reader -whether a historian or a general reader- you leave the book agreeing with Pybus that after all this dispossession, resistance and sorrow, that the “very least we can do is pay attention and give respectful consideration when the original people of this country tell us what is needed” (p 270). It is, as she says “not too much to ask”. Indeed.
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
My rating: Difficult to say- commenting as a general reader, 9/10
I have included this in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020
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