Review: Truganini by Cassandra Pybus

Cassandra Pybus’s connection with Tasmania’s Aboriginal people is that one of her ancestors was granted a large piece of Indigenous land, thereby playing a role in their dispossession. It is this connection that drives Pybus’ biography of Nuenonne woman Truganini, fetishised as “the last Tasmanian”. Pybus largely didn’t work with the Tasmanian Aboriginal community. She describes the process of writing about Indigenous people as “fraught” (in an interview with Honi Soit well worth reading), and challenges authors to write with their own “integrity” and “responsibility”.

Like Pybus, I grew up playing on the stolen lands of Tasmania’s “original people” (the term Pybus uses throughout the book), including Truganini’s Nuennone country on what is now known as Bruny Island. A distinguished historian with 12 books under her belt, Pybus has re-combed the primary sources to “release” Truganini and her people “from entrapment in a paternalistic and self-serving account of the colonial past.” That she succeeds completely is testament to her skill as a writer and dedication to her subject. It is a shattering book. 

Truganini was born in the second decade of the 19th century into a world falling apart. Her father and people his age had seen the first white people arrive. When she was a child, her mother was hacked to death by sealers in front of her. Her sisters and her father’s second wife were abducted. As a young woman, she had to navigate a number of impossible choices to ensure her own survival. From the lands of her Nuenonne people of Bruny Island, to the emerging settlement of Melbourne, and back again, Truganini’s life encompassed an extraordinary time. The woman that emerges from Pybus’s rereading of colonial records is strategic and spirited, but is still only a glimpse of who she must have really been.

Much of Truganini’s story is inevitably and inextricably bound to the enigmatic George Robinson. Robinson arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1824 as a builder with a grand vision for himself. Driven by megalomania, religion, and, yes, perhaps a modicum of empathy unusual for his time, Robinson conceived a “friendly mission” to gather the remaining original people and remove them to a place that they would be safe from murderous settlers. With Truganini and other Aboriginal people as his guide, he embarked on an extraordinary circumference of Tasmanian, and his expedition diary provides a rare insight into a civilisation coming undone. To everyone’s astonishment except his own, his mission was mostly successful, and by the mid-1830s Robinson had largely “cleared” the island of its original inhabitants, paving the way for the expansion of the colony. 

There’s a temptation to view Robinson as a moral counterweight to the genocidal behaviour of other settlers. But as Pybus shows, Robinson was duplicitous and entirely self-serving. When his plan to corral the original inhabitants on offshore islands inevitably goes tragically awry, Robinson feels “regret without responsibility” (which is how Pybus conceives of Australia’s relationship to its first people too). In one of his worst crimes among a litany, he promised leaders like Mannalargenna that they could remain on their land with his fingers crossed behind his back. Some of the book’s most awful scenes involve the original people’s reaction to separation from their land. Mannalargenna, once one of the most powerful leaders on the island, cuts off his hair on the ship removing him from his land, and dies shortly after. Even if Robinson didn’t murder or rape anyone, he was just as complicit in the wholesale theft of land. Robinson, in a way, is all “well-meaning” settler Australians.

Truganini’s story is not just her own, and Pybus carefully “releases” the full lives of many of Truganini’s kin and companions.  The original people were offered a choice that wasn’t really: to remain free on their land and take their chances with the murderous settlers, or submit to captivity and relative safety on offshore islands. Each person navigated this “choice” differently, and one of Pybus’ successes is drawing out some of the complex decisions these people faced. Truganini saw in Robinson the chance to survive, while the Tarkiner leader Wyne chose to remain on his land as long as possible. All this was complicated by clan and kinship bonds, many disintegrating in the face of colonisation. Nuennone man Wooredy emerges as a fairly ruthless pragmatist, insisting that the remaining clans at large be brought in with extreme prejudice. Pybus suggests that he believed if he was captive, then so should everyone else. In the event of course, all roads led to the same place.

The tragedy of Tasmania was not only confined to its people. Throughout Truganini Pybus writes evocatively of the land that Truganini crossed, from the scrub and buttongrass of the south west, to tangled rainforest, to the swamps and plains, all heaving with swans, kangaroos, thylacines and other wildlife. At the time of settlement, Tasmania’s offshore islands were home to uncountable seals and seabirds. Robinson records an extraordinary scene in the north east watching an enormous flock of muttonbirds (short-tailed shearwaters) pass. They darken the sky for more than two hours. Tasmania is now celebrated for its environment, but it is a shadow of what it must have been. 

Like Robinson, there were a number of settlers who questioned the logic and process of colonisation. In one of the most rage-inducing passages, Pybus reveals that Tasmania’s chief justice dissented from the view that the original people should be shipped off to islands. Instead he proposed a treaty and reservation system on their former land, similar to what had been done in North America. While it would have still been woefully inadequate (and could have easily gone the way of John Batman’s “treaty” with the Kulin nations in Victoria), it is a glimpse of alternative pathway. 

Although Pybus says she wanted to move away from the tragic view of Truganini’s life, as a whole the book is unrelentingly abject. I have barely touched on the horror and sadness within it. Although subtitled “journey through the apocalypse”, it not is at all clear that we have yet made it to the other side. That Truganini lived to be an old woman is no doubt partly due to her strategic nous, but also incredible luck in a world that was stacked against her. To what end then? Pybus ends with a plea to honour the offer of the Uluru Statement From The Heart, to “walk with” the original custodians towards Makarrata, “the coming together after a struggle”. Central to this is truth-telling. It is the least we can do. 

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