Thursday, 1 February 2007

The Franklins in Tasmania

A National Maritime Museum Talk by Ben Pollitt

The title of today’s talk is the Franklins in Tasmania.

It will last about fifteen minutes.

The early colonial history of Tasmania is a difficult subject to talk about.

For one thing it represents one of the more shameful event in British history.

It is also an episode which we in England know very little about.

This is not true for the Tasmanians for whom what happened to the Aboriginal population is still a very sensitive social and political issue.

To simplify matters, I shall divide the talk into two halves. I will in a minute talk about the exhibits we have here on display.

First, though I would like to give a bit of historical context.

Tasmania, like Australia, was first discovered by the Dutch back in the sixteenth century.

In 1642 a Dutchman by the name of Abel Tasman was the first European to set foot on the island.

Tasman did not encounter any of the island’s indigenous population face to face, though he did come across signs of human habitation.

One of these signs was a tree, a tall fruit tree, on the trunk of which were hacked out notches.

The thing was, the gaps between the notches were so wide that Tasman and his crew for some reason could only conclude that the island was populated by giants.

And so, without further ado, they all scurried back to their ship and sailed off again and it would not be for another one hundred and fifty years before the Europeans would return.

That, of course, was in 1778 when James Cook arrived on his third expedition.

Cook was accompanied by the expedition’s artist. Not William Hodges whose work we see around us today, but the equally talented John Webber.

Webber was the first European to paint the Tasmanian Aborigines. Here is an engraver after Webber’s original of an Aboriginal man painted in 1784.

Let me just say a couple of things about the image.

Firstly, we can see the influence of British portrait painting of the time.

This is the age of Reynolds and Gainsborough and Webber’s choice of three quarter profile pose with the sitter staring out at us conforms to the conventions of portraiture of the time.

There is also perhaps an underlying philosophical influence at play here.

This was the time of writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau who believed that people of so-called primitive societies lived closer to nature and so led a more vital and authentic existence. There is certainly something of the ‘noble savage’ in Webber’s picture.

Putting to one side the artistic and ideological baggage that Webber has brought to the image, we are still left with a sympathetic view of the subject who looks straight out at us as we look back at him, eye-to-eye, like equals.

After Cook left, Tasmania followed Australia in becoming a penal colony.

The first convicts arrived on the island in 1812.

Over the next few decades Tasmania, or Van Dieman’s land as it was then called, became synonymous with hell on earth.

The penal system was brutally harsh and completely disproportionate to the sort of crimes the convicts had committed, such as poaching and petty thievery.

It was not just convicts who made the journey over, all manner of settlers arrived: whalers, farmers, storekeepers, soldiers... For them, so far away from their homes, the island must have been an extremely alienating environment.

Those that bore the worst of it, though, were the native inhabitants.

For the Tasmanian Aborigines the British were invaders, pure and simple.

And the British did little to change their opinion.

They didn't learn their language.

They didn't try to understand their system of government.

They didn't try to engage them in trade.
Instead they treated them with contempt, calling them "Crows".

Also, and importantly, about ninety percent of the settlers and obviously the convicts encountered were men.

These were not shy and retiring types.

In fact, there are several recorded instances of Europeans stealing Aboriginal women from their families and communities and using them like slaves.

In retaliation those close to the women would kill a portion of the European’s livestock or burn down their crops.

Taking matters into their own hands the settlers in response would kill not just one but dozens of Aborigines, including women and children.

The British authorities were in a difficult position.

They could punish these atrocities and bring the perpetrators to justice.

By doing so they, however, they would also bring to public notice the difficulties the settlers were having with the native population which would probably have prompted the financial investors in the colony to back out.

In the end, they decided to support the settlers.

In 1828 martial law was declared. The army took control and the white settlers were given firearms ostensibly to defend themselves against the Aborigines.

And so began what came to be known as the Black War.

By 1830, as a result of war and the various diseases the Europeans had brought with them, from an estimated original population of 5,000, only 300 Aborigines remained.

These were then rounded up and sent off to an island north-east of the mainland called Flinders Island, where we will leave them for the time being.

Now turning to the exhibits in front of us, I would particularly draw your attention to these two Staffordshire figurines of Lady Jane Franklin and her husband Sir John Franklin.

Sir John was a famous figure in Victorian England.

A veteran of the battle of Trafalgar, he went on to become the greatest Arctic explorer of his age.
Like many before him he tried several times to find the North-West passage through the Canadian Arctic connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific.

His final attempt ended tragically and mysteriously. He and his crew perished, their bodies were never recovered.

Lady Jane became a woman of some reknown herself for her untiring efforts to find her husband’s body, efforts which brought her close to bankruptcy.

So there they stand, the loyal and dutiful wife and the brave and heroic husband; the epitome of Victorian values.

They come into our story as Sir John was governor of Tasmania from 1837 to 1842.

At that time less than a hundred Aborigines were still alive; malnutrition and despair having quickened their decline on Flinders Island.

It is arguable whether the Franklin’s could have prevented their final destruction.

One thing is for certain, the couple were interested in Aboriginal culture.

They asked one of their employees to collect what they called ‘curiosities’ from the native inhabitants and some of these are on display here.

Others went to the British Museum, the Natural History Museum and Fitz-William in Cambridge.

Only a handful of items here are actually from Tasmania: these spears and the sticks attached to them.

We know the spears are from Tasmania as they are pointed at both ends. Spears from the mainland have a thick butt to facilitate the use of spear-throwers. There were no spear-throwers in Tasmania.

They were used by men to kill large mammals, kangaroos, euros, wallabies and seals.

We can tell the sticks are from Tasmania because of their bulbous ends. They would be used as digging sticks to dig up roots but also double-up as weapons, projectiles to throw at birds or skull-crushers for close-range conflict.

Although perhaps an unassuming collection, what we have here actually represents a significant portion of the technological resources available to the Aborigines.

Here is an illustration of various Tasmanian Aboriginal tools painted by a French artist in a scientific expedition of the early 1800's.

Here we see the spears and the digging sticks as well as containers made from animal skins and a necklace made from shells.

Incidentally, these necklaces had ceremonial as well as decorative functions as in each of the shells were placed the ashes of the wearer’s ancestors.

Cremation, it is worth noting, was an extremely important part of Aborigine life.

And so museum back in England were taking an active interest in collecting and preserving these artefacts. It seems bizarre then that so little was done to protect the interests of the people themselves.

A clue to why this could have happened lies in this painting here of a group of Aborigines in Flinders Island painted by the artist William Gould.

Gould was a former convict who was sent out for stealing paint.

He was a very talented wildlife painting and certainly capable of painting a more flattering image of his subjects than this.

Here, in contrast to Webber’s painting, we look down on the men draped in blankets, their facial features grotesquely caricatured, huddling together like a group of monkeys.

The analogy is quite deliberate and mark the painting out as an early image of racist propaganda.

In the middle of the nineteenth century racist theories were becoming popular in educated circles in England

One book in particular was much talked about: Robert Knox’s The Races of Men.
Knox argued that humankind was not divided into races, but species and some species were closer to the animal kingdom than others.

Knox being English, the Saxon type of course was the superior species and cited as the most inferior and so closest to the animal kingdom were the Tasmanian Aborigines.

One of the reasons given for their inferiority was that they had brought themselves to the point of extinction!

Inspired by these ridiculous theories scientists came over to Tasmania to examine the people themselves.

So, after having their families wiped and their homeland taken from them, the last Aborigines were subjected to the pokings and proddings of scientists who looked on them more as specimens than as human beings.

Particularly heinous were cases in which scientists collected the remains of those who had died, remains which should, of course, have been cremated and sent them back to Eurpope.

Here is a photograph of the last Tasmanian Aborigine, a woman called Truganini.

She died in 1876.

Realising what was happening to the bodies of her compatriots, before she died she said to the nurse caring for her, “Please, don’t let them cut me up.”

Against her wishes, though, her skeleton was later dug up and became the most popular exhibit at the Tasmanian Museum where it remained until 1947.

1947, a significant date, a year or so after images of the Holocaust had been broadcast around the world when the racial theories that underlined the popularity of the exhibit had become extremely unpalatable.

The story does not quite end there, for among the curiosities the Franklins asked to be collected were human remains.

In fact, a skull which Lady Franklin sent to the Natural History Museum has only in recent months and after several years of pressure from the descendants of those stolen Aboriginal women been sent back to Tasmania to be cremated.

So, in conclusion, the first European contact was in 1778. In 1876 the last Tasmanian Aborigine died.

That’s less than a hundred years, making the destruction of the Tasmanian Aborigines the fastest extinction of a cultural group in history.
A shameful episode, indeed.

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