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Monday, January 18, 2010

Black Men's Houses ~ January 14, 2010

Ever since Jude and I first walked the Needwonnee homelands of Southwest Tasmania, and then read of their destruction by white settlers after thousands of years of peaceful cohabitation with their fellow man and Earth, we had longed to witness Wybalenna, “Black Man’s Houses,” their final resting place. Unable to make that visit during our last voyage is one reason we returned to Tasmania this summer and made Flinders Island our first destination. Stormy weather kept us in hiding for four days, but when a high pressure cell brought settled weather, I drew a course line directly towards Settlement Point.

When Abel Tasman sighted the wild west coast of Tasmania in 1642, Aborigines had inhabited the island for 35,000 years. They were the southernmost people in the world. During the ice age they had hunted giant marsupials on glacial plains and when the world warmed and produced the thick rainforest typical of present-day Tasmania, they were forced onto the coastal plains. Often they travelled more than six-hundred kilometres each year to different food sources and to trade red ochre, which held religious significances, bonding them with the blood of the land. They wore it on their skin, and in their hair mixed with animal fat and charcoal, to keep warm and to disguise their scent when hunting. Despite the cold winds and rain, this was all they wore.

When white man settled on the island of Tasmania, they found plenty of wildlife for their tables. Kangaroo was the favourite, which meant after 1803, both Tasmanians and the newly-arrived British hunted them. With their guns, the British could hunt much more efficiently and they rapidly pushed the animals towards extinction. Soon, the Tasmanians were starving. But the British kept shooting, sometimes for sport, and it was this situation that started violent Tasmanian resistance, which escalated into the Black Wars, a sort of guerrilla warfare between settlers and aborigines.

Missionaries played their part. Quoting the Reverend Mr. Horton, “What I have seen… convinces me that they are in every respect the most destitute and wretched portion of the human family …. They are a race of beings altogether distinct from ourselves, and class them amongst the inferior species of irrational animals.” From lowliest convict to highest official, all were utterly convinced of their superiority to the Tasmanian Aborigine, and this produced the spirit of the Black Wars of 1804 – 1830, which culminated in the Black Line operations of November 1830. In order to drive from their hideouts the remaining 200 to 500 Tasmanians, so they could be arrested or shot, around 2,000 colonists of all kinds; soldiers, officials, convicts; equipped with a thousand shotguns and 300 handcuffs, lined up in long, drawn-out lines then walked east and south through most of south-eastern Tasmania.

The Black Wars had captured many aborigines who were re-settled on Bruny Island near Hobart, and in March 1829, before the Black Line operations, the authorities needed a "steady man of good character to effect an intercourse with the natives" - George Augustus Robinson applied and was appointed, taking the title, The "Protector of Aboriginal Tasmanians."  During the year prior to the Black Line operation, Robinson travelled the island to convince Aborigines to join him and therefore escape destruction. Many did when promised they could one day return to their homeland.

Robinson removed fifty-one Tasmanians to Swan Island, a tiny blot of land off the north east coast. This proved inhospitable, so in March of 1831, Robinson shifted them to Vansittart Island, situated between Flinders and Cape Barron Islands in Franklin Sound. This too proved unsuitable, another isolated barren place at the mercy of strong tides and winds, and again they shifted. To “The Lagoons,” a fancy name for a horribly exposed peninsula on the west coast of Flinders Island at the base of the Strzelecki mountains. After many deaths there, mostly by disease, Robinson was left with only 20 living Tasmanians. In January of 1832, another shipment swelled his flock to 66. Badly treated during their capture, trouble erupted, and some were shipped to nearby Green Island, but a final solution was needed.

In October 1832 the decision was taken to build a new camp with more solid buildings at a more suitable location than the catastrophic Lagoons site. Wybalenna, meaning “Black Men’s Houses” - on paper was a new aboriginal reservation, but in fact it was a prison colony and dumping ground. It was also badly run. With or without their agreement the aboriginal captives were brought there, and once there were either treated like prisoners or simply neglected. Any legal rights they might have had on paper or had promised them, evaporated. Moreover, Wybalenna camp was in a constant state of change with Robinson sending in streams of new groups he had captured or persuaded to follow him.

Attempts were made to "civilize" the natives and exterminate aboriginal culture by replacing it with a sort of "Christian English peasant culture." Reading, writing and arithmetic was taught in new schools along with religious instruction.

The population figures at Wybalenna fluctuated wildly. New captives were brought in, while at the same time the mortality rate was horrendous. Roughly, there were usually equal numbers of men and women. Sometimes a few children, but child mortality was even higher than that of adults and very few born at Wybalenna survived infancy. When established in 1833, there were 111 Tasmanians, but when the camp closed in 1847, there were only 47 remaining. These last were shifted to unhealthy mudflats at Oyster Cove near Hobart, where they were paraded in fancy clothes on occasions. In 1855 the number of Tasmanians at Oyster Cove was down to 16, and in 1869 there was only one. That last, Trucanini, died in 1876, the last full-blooded Tasmanian.

Leaving our hide-out behind Prime Seal Island after the strong westerly winds abated, we motored ten miles across undulating cold blue sea to enter Lillies Bay then anchored Banyandah out in front of the dilapidated jetty once used to offload Aborigines and supplies. It lies with a view to the precipice of Strzelecki Mountains in a beautiful sandy bay open to the south and bordered by lovely smooth granite rock outcrops at both ends. Wheat yellow plains, visible beyond coastal dunes, sweep up a small mountain speckled with black granite rocks and crowned by Blue Gum forests. On the point, a smaller hill rises upon which signals were flown.

Upon aquamarine water we rowed Little Red over ribbon grass that grew right up to the extraordinarily coarse sand beach. The tide falling we pulled our transport up only a little then donning our boots, set off to find the remains of Wybalenna. Behind the dunes, a dirt track was encountered and turning left past the aged timber jetty, we walked on towards Settlement Point, but were soon entering private property amongst twisted mallee scrub. Nevertheless, we kept trudging on, thinking we could always ask politely for directions from whomever we encountered.
But, we encountered only a vacant house, its verandahs facing a serene view over what can be troubled waters. All else was a tangle of wind blown scrub kept company by a low rumble of surf. The track ended, and Jude looked to me wondering where to go next, so I followed a vague animal track into the forest. I knew the old camp was now on private property and that its only remaining building, the chapel, had been last used as a shearing shed. And from the map seen on the internet, I also knew it lay just beyond Signal Hill, which I thought we were now climbing.

We’re not normal tourists who would have either taken a tour or hired a car at the airport, so climbing up though a tangled forest on someone’s property in the midst of no-where didn’t faze us in the least. One animal track vanished, another was found, and then the top of the hill was encountered that opened out into a sparkling view over our blue bay with Banyandah proudly dancing as its lone occupant. Climbing over a few fallen twisted limbs lead us onto an open hillside of summer yellow grass, and there below us on a small plain was once the prison of the last Tasmanian Aborigines.

In my mind’s eye, I could hear the flag fluttering next to us. And down below, the lumps of overgrown rubble seemed to come alive with black figures in rags collected in groups. Smoke drifted up from a chimney, weedy gardens darkened the slope, and like the present, no livestock could be seen in what I now felt to be a depressing scene.

Of course, for Jude and me in warm sunshine, with freedoms almost unheard of today, we were gladdened to have found the destination longed for since first standing upon Tasmania’s stormy south-western shores. Snapping photos and recording video, we strolled slowly down the open hillside, talking about the history that had taken place there. At the same time, our sharp eyes picked out unusual lumps that would require further attention. The first provided a glimpse of olden day bricks, made on this land more than a hundred and fifty years earlier. Holding one in our hands connected us to those poor souls who had had a paradise on Earth, until discovered by a more “advanced” race. A race with rather low morals.

Amongst a glen of trees surrounded by a wooden picket fence, I saw the chapel and headed us directly towards it. Through its gate dedicated to Aunty Ida West, and then into her ‘Healing Garden’ we stood in front of the tiny brick chapel that had at one time housed the first people of these islands. I put my hands on its course bricks, saw the pebbles encased within the red clay, and touching one felt the warmth of a black man upon my finger tips. Running my tips along the flaking window sills, a jumble of images rolled round my head. Images of disgruntled souls awkwardly wearing heavy clothes that hung like drooping blankets, intense unhappiness in their sullen faces, hatred in their childlike eyes. Why? I wondered. Why do we hurt harmless people? People aligned to mother-Earth, Unsophisticated, but connected to what is real, and important for life to continue.

Inside, yes, the door was unlocked and beckoned us in; a plainly hewed floor marked by use took us under a charming roof of cross battened rafters clad with thatch. Again, so easy to conjure up a hundred black folk being taught about our god. Jesus, who gave his life, so we may live. Those people had their own beliefs and who’s to say either is better. Aborigine beliefs are aligned to Earth and their forefathers while ours seem more based on the supernatural. One you can touch, the other requires belief without providing proof. Seems to me, Earth is the closest thing to God, if you believe in one. And that’s why I consistently say, put Earth First in all you do.

Well, we soaked up all we could hold within that chapel. Read the notices and looked upon the few old photos taken just before Wybalenna was abandoned. Same sad faces looked back at me. They all seemed to be asking, “Why?”

Down a dirt track, in a fenced off half acre stood a few headstones, but none were for the hundred odd Aborigines buried within that hallowed ground. Buried they might have been, but their remains have long ago been dug up and sent round the world to different scientific facilities for further study. How would you like that? You’re so special you can never rest in peace, and yet so little respected your head might be sent to Oslo while your torso sails off to Budapest. We’re an amazing race.

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