History

Cape Barren Island is the second largest Island of the Furneaux group, situated off the North East coast of Tasmania in the Bass Strait.

With a total distance of 5 miles wide by 30 miles long, Cape Barren Island has a history of Aboriginal settlement dating back to the mid 1800's. The Tasmanian Aboriginal people of Cape Barren Island and the North East of Tasmania have struggled for over 200 years for survival as their lifestyle was over-taken and dramatically disrupted by the Europeans.

Their story begins some 40,000 years ago during the last ice age, when humans first moved down into the wild cool temperate Southern Peninsula of Australia. Humans had arrived in Australia at least 60,000 years ago, but it was only now that people took up occupation on this South-Eastern Peninsula.

These people were hunters and gatherers who employed their seasonal patterns of food collecting around the coastline and hinterlands. Clans of people shifted around the peninsula and settled territories, establishing clear borders of clan worlds, which became well recognized by their neighbours.

Clan worlds were negotiated and mutual concessions agreed to - such as rights of passage through neighboring lands, or access to seasonal food sources. Inter-clan marriages helped secure these agreements and provide incentives for good will between neighbors.

This was the age of stone and bone, long before metals were made or settled farming existed anywhere in the world. Life for these people was an endless cycle of movement, following the seasonal food sources. Homesites were established and used as bases during a local food season until the people moved on to the next homesite and food source. Some places were well established with permanent small buildings being refurnished each visit. Others were small sites used for shorter stays.

From lofty mountains to islands in the sea the Tasmanians sought out a broad ranging selection of foods, meat from wallaby, possum and other marsupials, roots and berries, birds and eggs, fruits and coastal vegetables, shellfish, crabs and crayfish. A strong alcoholic cider was made from a tree sap in the central highlands. Natural springs and water courses were known throughout their world. It was a food menu that all of us could readily sit down to.

12,000 years ago, a change in the world climate brought a dramatic event. This Southern Peninsula became the island of Tasmania. This was at the end of the last ice age when the warming world climate melted the vast icecaps at each of the Earth's poles, and the rising seas flooded the Bass Plains.

By 6000 years ago clans had shifted off the Bass Plains - either north to Victoria, or south to the newly formed island of Tasmania. Bass Strait was now a formidable sea 300 kilometres wide. And island-hopping was out of the question. The usual meetings of Victorians and Tasmanians was no longer possible with the kind of boats the people made for use around the coasts.

For the next 6000 years the Tasmanian people had no contact with any other humans. The revolutionary shift from hunting and gathering to settled farming that took place on the other side of the world set Europeans on a path of invention and expansion that would change the world. Metals were formed and the seas of the world were sailed across in boats of ever-increasing sophistication.

The first the Tasmanians knew about this was the arrival of European ships in the late 17th century.

There are accounts of Portuguese voyagers landing in Tasmania in the 16th Century. But though there are maps that attest to this, no written records of these landings exist. Abel Jansoon Tasman anchored in Marion Bay in 1642 but recorded no contact with the local people. This leaves us to believe that the French and British Naval expeditions in the late 18th Century were the first to meet with the original Tasmanians.

Images of the French observations offer a glimpse of the hunting and gathering people living along the Eastern seaboard of Tasmania at that time. Community leaders wore their hair in braided ochre dreads. The women wore their hair cut short. Their clothing was scant and simple - tanned skins tied together. Their tools were extremely simple too and made to throw away - scrapers and razor blades used a few times and dropped. From their tools and clothing we may see them as modern day hippies, living the simple life having no need of permanent possessions, but nevertheless very well kitted out to live happy and fulfilling lives.

However, other observations qualify this idea of a simple lifestyle. Contrary to current popular impressions of the Tasmanian way of life 200 years ago, the French record seeing canoes, rafts, sea traps, permanent homesites with elaborate open kitchens, large meeting places and substantial houses sporting seats and beds.

Many of these meetings between the European visitors and the Tasmanians were peaceful events, with exchanges made of food and objects. We would wish for more detail yet there is enough in the record to say that the French, who were exploring the coastline of Tasmania itself, were particularly moved by the lives of these Antipodean people. A picture of a cool temperate paradise was sent back to Europe. A land of remarkable flora and fauna. A world apart on the far side of the globe.

The French discovered that tasty seafoods and meats were daily fare for the Tasmanians. These delights were a welcome reprieve for the French from the dull restrictions of their rationed and often rotting foods onboard ship.

Family life and extensive kinship ties were central to the lives of the Tasmanians. Community leadership was highly regarded. Law, spiritual beliefs and organized obligations governed their lives.

The strange arrival of these white-skinned creatures in large ships was a dramatic and confounding event in their lives. What were these creatures? And how should they understand these apparitional arrivals?

At first these powerful seafarers were considered spiritual beings ? [who says this?] who had crossed the divide from the dead. [euro record?]But this notion gave way. They were just humans with very odd customs. The Tasmanians appear to have been a largely quiet and carefree people. [who said this?] They did not at first challenge the arrival of these sailors; rather they were intrigued by the magic tricks and crazy gadgets hawked by the white-skins. But they soon discovered that the newcomers were also very dangerous and war-like.

The French, British and American voyagers had come in search of new lands to occupy and exploit. Records in Newhaven speak of whaling voyages across the Pacific - after British gunships chased them off Chilean grounds - to the eastern seaboards where sperm and humpback were taken.

They knew there were seals and whales to catch and of secondary value there was science to collect.

These Colonists arrived with a powerful new vision of life - gunpowder, farming, surplus and expansion. The Iron Age has finally reached the Antipodean shores. This new vision of life soon became clear to the Tasmanians.

Once the British established a permanent station at Risdon Cove in Southern Tasmania in 1803, relations with the Tasmanians took a violent turn. Mass killings by the British began. War broke out with the Southern Clans, soon to spread throughout the island.

The Tasmanians put up a courageous resistance against the ever-expanding Europeans. It seemed an impossible standoff - flint tipped spears and clubs against black powder cannons, muskets and rifles.

Nonetheless, guerilla leaders emerged among the clans. Most important of these was from the North East clans - the leader of the Palawa People. His name was Mannalargenna. Outraged by the brutality and ignorance of the British settlers, together with other clan leaders, he staged a long running war across the island.

And by the mid 1820's the original Tasmanians had all but brought the British colony to its knees.

But the tide of immigrant and convict arrivals was against the Tasmanians. Their population crashed. European diseases and gunshot killings brought their numbers from an estimated 6000 people in 1803 to less than a 1000 by 1825.

Enter George Robinson, an English enthusiast for the Tasmanian Aborigines. He traveled around Tasmania in the 1830's and 40's with a group of Tasmanians. It was an extraordinary journey for an Englishman to undertake.

And he relied almost completely on his fellow Tasmanian travelers for his survival.

He gathered some 150 Aboriginal people together, convincing them that for their own survival they should go with him by ship into exile on Flinders Island in Bass Strait.

Through Robinson the Tasmanians made an historic agreement - a Treaty with the Tasmanian Governor and the British Government. The terms of the agreement were that the Tasmanians would remove themselves for a time to Flinders Island. Once law and order had been established and their safety could be assured, the people would be granted land back in their old Tasmanian homelands as a permanent sovereignty.

For now Flinders Island was to be a haven for the people, a place to survive the horror of British settlement on mainland Tasmania. Instead it became a place of death. Disease and appalling living conditions took their toll.

But more grievous to the Tasmanians was the realization that Robinson and the Governor had never intended keeping their agreement. There would be no return to their homelands. Hope faded. Many simply lay down and pined away.

But two Tasmanians refused to give up on their agreement. Arthur and Betsy Clarke petitioned the Queen of England to honour her agreement and grant them land in Tasmania. But this would never be heard of at Windsor Castle. The petition was lost in colonial beaurocracy.

In the early 1850's the 50 odd survivors of this failed enterprise on Flinders Island were brought back to Hobart and housed on a small land reserve south of the town. Trugernanna was one of them. A Hobart photographer traveled south to make their portraits. By the 1870's most of these people had died. The graveyard grew until only 5 people were left alive. They were moved into Hobart and died quite soon after.

The reports on the deaths of the last two people out of Robinson's original roundup of 150 Tasmanians - William Lanny and Truggernanna - makes for chilling reading. This moment in history, with the death of Lanney and Tuggernanna, has been portrayed as the end of the Tasmanians. It has been taught in schools and spread about in books and televison shows. This story, put out by government and its institutions, was a bald faced lie.

To understand why, we need to move north. Here a very different story took place in North-Eastern Tasmania and the Bass Strait islands - homeland of the Palawa People.

In the 1790's the first whaling and sealing boats arrived to begin catching the large numbers of seals discovered by the Europeans in the area.

By now the British settlement at Port Jackson in New South Wales had been established and toward the end of 1793 a band of European sealers set up camps on a number a smaller islands in Eastern Bass Strait.

They came from Post Jackson, following reports of large seal colonies, firstly in small sailboats and then in bigger ships to exploit the Hair and Fur Seals, killed for their skins and oil for trade in Europe.

These European sealers were put off on the islands by their ship's masters to fend for themselves, often for up to a year. They were edging in on the seasonal hunting of seals by the local Tasmanian clans - a tradition that stretched far back into antiquity. The consequence of this intrusion would soon become clear.

Word of the sealing spread. American and British ships flocked to the area. Along with the seals, they found migrating herds of whale. For now these sealers had their hands full killing seals and whales and rending oil. No contact seems to have been made with Tasmanians at this time.

Stories of sailors stealing Tasmanian women and bringing them out onto the island sealing stations are well known to the public. Yet there is only one verifiable account of this happening. The man was ultimately punished by his captain and the woman returned to her clan.

Within 15 years the Europeans had virtually wiped out the seal colonies and whale populations and most of the men had left.

But a few sealers remained. They established homes on the islands over the first 10 years of the nineteenth century. They were mostly Irish, Scot and British men, some ex slaves from the Caribbean and America, some free English settlers and released convicts.

It was these sealers who began for the first time to meet with the North East clans - lead by Mannalergenner. He and his people had been fighting the British coming up from the south of the island. It is intriguing to find him now entering into negotiations with European sealers coming down from the Bass Strait islands. Perhaps he could already see how things would go with the soldiers and farmers from Hobart and Launceston with their muskets and horses, their fences and cattle.

In the same way that clan leaders had established ties with neighbouring clans, the Tasmanians now made agreements with the Bass Strait sealers.

As with hunter-gatherer communities around the world, these agreements shaped boundaries of land use and inter-clan behaviour. They were the basis of exchanged marriages. Women were married to men of other clans and vice versa. And in this way Cape Portland women married the Bass Strait sealers, bringing those men into clan agreements with their attendant obligations.

Two of Manalergenna's daughters married sealers and moved to the islands. They had children together who grew up on the islands and regularly visited their mother's people on Cape Portland. They were free people under a new clan agreement. In this way the Europeans were brought into the Tasmanian communities.

This is a fundamental event in the history of the Tasmania. European cultural traditions and genetic heritage blended into the North East clans of the Tasmanian people. It was not the other way around.

The Tasmanians did not lose their identity by marrying the European sealers. Rather, by bringing the sealers into their clans, this was a way of continuing the Tasmanian nation in a new adventure masterminded by Manalargenna.

He could see advantage in these treaties. The sealers became obligated to the North East clans. The ties would help protect his community from the ever increasing threat of British settlement. Whether he knew it or not - it was the decisive strategy that ensured the continuation of the Tasmanian community. And for a while his strategy kept the government and the settlers away from the North East and the islands.

'Out of sight, out of mind.' The Europeans were focused on the 'problem of the natives' in Southern Tasmania. They were not concerned about a rag-and-tag collection of families on the little islands to the North. For a while, the Government men in Hobart forgot about them.

After concluding these decisive alliances and undertaking years of resistance work against the British, Manalergenna met with the zealot Arthur George Robinson. And Robinson convinced Mannalergenna to accompany him into exile on Flinders Island. Why did he do this?

Mannalergenna's people in the Northeast had now come under the intense pressure his fellow Tasmanians had been living with in the south. These European farmers were hungry for land and ruthless in their use of firearms.

The British knew that Mannalergenna was a highly capable leader, whose people remained intact as communities in the North East and on the islands. They continued without interruption their way of life and traditions, their spiritual ceremonies.

Elsewhere in Tasmania by now, clan life had all but disappeared. Their numbers dwindled and their homelands were burnt and turned into farms, their forests were cut down, their food sources disrupted. And most destructive of all, the Tasmanians were now outlaws in a British Colony with a bounty on their heads. They were forced to sneak about their World like robbers in the dark. For the Southern clans, this was the end of a 30,000 year old history of occupation and lifestyle.

It was as if Manalergenna could see the dark events of the future, the destruction caused in the South would inevitably overwhelm them, and so he chose not to be part of it.

He sailed away to Flinders Island, watching the homefires of his people along the coast from the quarter deck of a naval cutter. Within a week of his arrival at Flinders Island, Manalergenna withdrew into himself and died.

He had begun a movement, a new blended way of life that secured a future for his people and no longer depended on him. By the time of his death in 1838 thirty families occupied most of the Bass Strait islands.

Mannalaganna's grand-daughter Fanny Cockrane Smith was one of the first children of these island marriages.

When the women had to go to town - to sell or buy goods - they wore European clothes - either their own or borrowed. As soon as they were back in their island homes, they set them aside and put back on their own sewn skin clothes which most early Straits people wore – both the original European men, the Tasmanian women and their sons and daughters.

These Straiters - as they now called themselves - continued their traditional seasonal hunting and collecting practices. In Spring they collected Swan and Muttonbird eggs from the large rookeries and lagoons. Wallaby and kangaroo were snared and speared. Seals were killed for skins and meat. Cray fish, abalone, scallops, mussels, oysters and clams were an abundant year-round resource.

The men brought their European gardening passions into the economy. Potatoes, beans, tomatoes, cabbage, leek and onion became staple foods alongside the traditional meats and seafoods. Surplus foods were bottled and kept for lean times. Now that they were no longer bound by yearly suffciency, their created surplus, and the surplus could be traded. Island households grew and prospered. Clan leaders emerged. While the dark events of mainland Tasmania ground on, these Straiters established thriving economies.

A school was begun on Badger Island for the rapidly growing population of children. International ships put in to trade local fresh vegetables, sheep and fowl for metals and other European goods. Melanesian and Polynesian sailors from passing ships joined the communities.

Boat building became an important skill in a world of small islands and wild seas. Large ships were built. Trade with Macau and London flourished, this at a time when the Tasmanian mainland British colonies were experiencing famine.

The rise of the Bass Strait island economies did not go un-noticed in the halls of government in Hobart. By now, most of Tasmania had been settled by European farmers. These settlers had cause to travel among the islands on their way to Flinders Island which had been farmed by Europeans since the failed settlement at Wybalenna.

Now, European settlers were keen to get hold of land on these smaller islands. They could see stores of surplus grains and smoked meats, of fruit and vegetables produced by their flourishing economies. Yet these people were just outlaws, misfits and half-castes with no legal claim to the islands.

The Settlers petitioned the Tasmanian Government of the day to remove the Straiters from their land and homes. Until now Hobart had not chosen to recognize these people as Aborigines. No-one considered the small islands of Bass Strait of value. These people were outlaws away from their sight. Hobart had its own troubles.

But now, in the 1850's and 60's Europeans had forcibly removed most of the farmable land from the Tasmanian clans of the mainland island. Farmers wanted to expand. The very fact that these outlaws were living in relative luxury, with no title to the islands, without law, under no Government status was not to be tolerated.

The Government agreed to offer the land for sale to the Europeans. No compensation was offered to the Straiters. Nor could any of them afford the purchase price. The outcome was known from the start.

By the end 1870's all of the original settlers of the Bass Strait islands had been forcefully removed by the Government from their homeland farms. They lost an entire economy in this transaction. Their stock, their substantial system of cropping and gardening, their seasonal access to Muttonbird eggs and birds, swans and geese.

They were placed on a island with no Muttonbird rookeries and no established systems of farming or gardens. They had large families and no money.

The place was called Cape Barren Island.

In the first years starvation was a constant threat. They received no assistance from the Government and survived constant harassment from the usurping European farmers, who stocked the stolen islands with sheep and returned to town leaving shepherds in the stolen houses.

This was a dramatic moment in their history; one which would shape the future community.

These people were removed from their prosperous small holding farms and lifestyles. On Cape Barren they were not able to continue this self sufficient garden-farming and gathering that had been so successful for more than half a century.

Conditions grew worse. Church organisations then arrived on missions of mercy, to educate and assimilate the people into the European culture of the island state.

Thus began a cycle of dependency on institutional support. What should be remembered is that the Straiters had been economically self-sufficient for half a century, before the Tasmanian Government effectively destroyed their livelihoods.

In 1912 a further restriction was placed upon the people. As part of a new Segregation policy, a reservation was created by the Tasmanian Government on a small portion of Cape Barren Island land. Now everyone had to live on the reserve. The rest of the island fell once again into the hands of Europeans Tasmanians.

But once again the islanders adapted to their forced boundaries. These people were survivors. A new reserve school was established and thrived. The community stabilized. Indignities were suffered. Identity went underground. Often misguided but equally well-meant assistance was gracefully accepted. During the birding season - access to Big Dog Island was negotiated and the families would shift there for six weeks.

In the 1940's the Cape Barren people sent 25 men to service in the Armed Forces. At home - while trams were giving way to buses and private cars in Launceston and Hobart - the only transport on the island remained the horse and cart, or walking.

And when the war ended another unsolicited change blew in from the Government down south.

The Assimilation policy that was replacing the previous Segregation policy in the enlightened era of the 1950's throughout Australia arrived on the Island. It took the form of the forced removal of children to be sent to Tasmanian mainland homes and schools. Families had no choice but to follow them. It was unthinkable to have all contact lost by the stroke of a Government pen. Even if contact with children was snatched in moments between schools and homes, it would be done.

By the end of the 1950's, the island had been virtually emptied by this Government decree. But over the next 20 years the Islanders quietly found ways of escaping back to Cape Barren. Children were gathered up and belongings, such as they were tied together. Groups of people made passage, however they could, back to the island.

The pull of their homeland, the desire to live the lives of their own choice in the Strait, their surviving identity as a community, sustained a longing for Cape Barren.

In the face of ever increasing odds the original Tasmanians held onto their culture. They survived a series of bungled Government policies - which at one moment denied their existence, yet at another determined to break up their community.

Though stressed by continued misunderstanding in the broader Tasmanian society and the toll recent history has exacted - their identity as a people remains unbroken.

In 2003 their struggle was finally rewarded. The Tasmanian Government formally granted 3 islands into Tasmanian Aboriginal ownership - Cape Barren Island, and the muttonbird rookery islands of Big Dog Island and Babel Island.

These days there is a queue of families waiting to move to Cape Barren Island. Housing is hard to come by. Getting supplies is difficult. But the community has plans and dreams for their future. And the school is at the heart of them.

Now, the first Tasmanians want to tell their story.

The wind moans, the owl hoots and on the night before Christmas, a star rises in the East over Cape Barren Island.