‘Me Write Myself’ by Leonie Stevens

‘The Free Aboriginal Inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land at Wybalenna 1832-47’

I remember reading about the resettlement of Tasmanian Aborigines to Wybalenna on Flinders Island during the nineteenth century. I remember reading the justifications given: all from the perspective of the colonial authorities. I was totally unaware of any writing by those who were dispossessed and relocated. I was intrigued by the title of this book, and read it to find out more.
This book is the publication of Leonie Stevens’s PhD thesis. In her words:

‘This is a narrative history, which presents ideas, analysis and critiques chronologically. Given that its focus is documents and perspectives which were previously all but silenced, it is fitting that the overall structure is dictated by the nature of the texts themselves .’

I learned of the existence of the Flinders Island Chronicle, of sermons and letters written by the First Nation Peoples during the years of their exile to Wybalenna. And, as I read through each chapter, I started to hear voices from within the Wybalenna community. These exiles from their homelands saw themselves as free, and they wanted to return (as had been promised) home.
In the introduction, Leonie Stevens writes:

‘In the long and often problematic historiography surrounding the First Nations peoples of Van Diemen’s Land, one voice has largely been ignored: that of the people themselves. When two Big River nation elders wrote to the Governor in 1846, protesting the conditions of their exile, they signed their letter, proudly, ‘Me Write Myself King Alexander, Me Write Myself King Alphonso’. This study takes them at their word .’

It took me a while to appreciate the structure of Dr Stevens’s thesis, to try to move beyond what I thought I knew and to question some of what I had previously thought was accurate. Simply realising that the First Peoples were not passive, that they were actively involved in the activities of the settlement changed my perceptions. The various writing quoted engaged my attention (how can we have discounted or ignored these voices for so long?) but it was their petition (‘The Humble Petition of the Free Aborigines’) which held it, especially this part:

‘when we left our own place we were Plenty of People, we are now but a little one .’

Wybalenna changes over time. The First Peoples are subjected to (and often become part of) both the civilising mission and the Christianising missions undertaken. Much of what I read focusses on this. But it’s the reappointment of Doctor Henry Jeanneret as Superintendent which resulted in their petition to Queen Victoria in 1846. In 1847 Dr Jeanneret was again dismissed.

’18 October 1847 was a momentous date. After years of agitation by the VDL exiles, and months of planning by the colonial authorities, the VDL exiles boarded the Sisters. The journey took them south of Hobart, to Oyster Cove, where a former probation station had been prepared to house them.’

This may be the end of the Wybalenna settlement, but it’s not the end of the story of those who were part of it.

I am interested in history, but I am not an historian. Reading this book makes me wonder how much we should question what we think we know to be fact. Especially when so much of the history we read is often written by those with different cultural values and understandings than those being written about. This book should be a starting point, rather than an ending, for examining the voices of the First Nations Peoples at Wybalenna.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018