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August 31st 2009 print

John Izzard

Return of the culture wars

A UN emissary by the name of Professor James Anaya, of Apache Nation heritage, managed to discover in 11 days - what has eluded this nation for over two centuries - how to improve the well-being of our Indigenous Nations … all 500 of them.

The culture wars got a shot of adrenalin this week on various fronts as a host of new players tried to invigorate the various battle groups. Prime Minister,Kevin Rudd suggested cultural/history war warriors should kiss and make up. 

Tom Calma launched a new indigenous concept in the form of a ‘company’ rather than the quasi-government body that the old ATSIC represented. Noel Pearson immediately got out his tar-and-feather kit and labelled it just another ‘wailing wall’. 

Then a UN emissary by the name of Professor James Anaya, of Apache Nation heritage, managed to discover in 11 days – what has eluded this nation for over two centuries – how to improve the well-being of our Indigenous Nations … all 500 of them. 

But the really big bang that caught the attention of gullible media types was the humbug surrounding the Sotheby’s auction of two plaster busts. One was of the Tasmanian Aboriginal woman, Truganini, and the other of her husband, Woureddy. The busts, by English sculptor Benjamin Law, were cast around 1837. 

Nala Mansell-McKenna, state secretary of Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre and a member of Tom Calma’s Steering Committee for his new indigenous body, decided to hop on a plane and fly to Melbourne to protest about the auction of the two burnished plaster busts. She and her colleagues chanted outside the auction showrooms ‘Sotheby’s, Sotheby’s, leave them alone, let us take our ancestors home’. The media loved it. 

One co-demonstrator, Sarah Maynard, after demanding that the statues be given to her Tasmanian group, refused to rule out that the group would not smash the statues to pieces. 

What was missing from the media coverage was any skerrick of historical background about Truganini or why she manages to create such passion and interest – not only within Aboriginal circles, but also the academic industry that regularly grazes on Tasmanian Aboriginal history. Poor old Woureddy, Truganini’s husband, rarely got a mention. 

Truganini (aka Lalla Rookh) came from Bruny Island, south of Hobart, and became famous as the The Last Tasmanian in a film by Tom Hayden and anthropologist, Rhys Jones, made in 1978. The film ignited passions. 

People of Tasmanian Aboriginal descent took umbrage at the suggestion that Aboriginal people had died out, and, out of the scrum, emerged Michael Mansell … father of the above Nala Mansell-McKenna. 

Truganini, in 1830 became the most trusted companion of George Augustus Robinson – saviour/disseminator of the last of the tribal Tasmanian Aboriginal people – who, assisted by Truganini, rounded them up and had them incarcerated on Flinders Island in 1835. 

Robinson, ever the self-publicist, had Woureddy, then later Truganini, pose for the bust – it is said that she was paid for the sitting. 

When Robinson moved on to a job in Victoria as Chief Protector of Aborigines in 1839, he took Truganini and Woureddy with him, as well as the Aboriginal team he had worked with in Tasmania. These were the men Pevay and Tim.me, Pevay’s wife Fanny as well as another Aboriginal woman, Matilda. 

The team worked around Port Phillip Bay ‘conciliating’ until the Governor La Trobe reduced Robinson’s salary. Robinson immediately dumped his Aboriginal team and let them fend for themselves. They went bush and feral. Settlers were killed. One report had Truganini and Pevay clubbing a man to death.  

The Aboriginal outlaws were eventually caught after killing two whalers and stood trial for murder. Truganini turned Crown Witness against Pevay and Tim.me and got off. Tim.me and Pevay were hanged. The first execution in Melbourne. 

There is a Melbourne group that is claiming that Tim.me and Pevay were ‘freedom fighters’ and are demanding recognition of the two men. Try their website for an adventure in ‘culture wars’. 

Truganini and Woureddy returned to Flinders Island , where Woureddy died in 1842. Truganini was eventually resettled in southern Tasmania where she died in 1876. 

From all this you might gather that Truganini is just as much part of the European history of the settlement of Tasmania as it is the Aboriginal experience.  

Truganini from 1830 was certainly a major player in all of the events surrounding G.A. Robinson’s ‘Friendly Mission’ and it is suggested that he was, for a time, Truganini’s lover. 

The notion that images of dead Tasmanian Aboriginal people as somehow sacred or should not be on public display is a nonsense, and is part of ‘new-think’ culture. Most Tasmanian Aboriginal web sites and publications carry images of historical Tasmanian Aboriginal figures with pride.  

The sad thing about this is the way the media played up to Nala Mansell-McKenna’s publicity stunt. The Tasmanian archives and the Tasmanian Museum is full of images of Aboriginal people. Water-colours, oils, prints, photographs and etchings … and we love them all.  

Nala Mansell-McKenna – it’s our history just as much as yours!