Truganini by Cassandra Pybus

‘The life of this woman, Truganini, frames the story of the dispossession and destruction of the original people of Tasmania.’

When I was a child, growing up in Tasmania, I was told that Truganini had been the last Tasmanian Aborigine.  There was no discussion, then, about ‘how’ or ‘why’.  Simply an assertion, presented as fact.  I made it to adulthood before questioning this.

Cassandra Pybus’s family had a connection to Truganini: their land grants on Bruny Island were country that once belonged to Truganini’s Nuenonne clan. This connection has provided Ms Pybus with a source of inspiration for this book.

Truganini was born around 1812 (as we measure time) on Bruny Island.  She died in 1876.  And in between?  How did she live?  Truganini was born as part of a traditional community, which was then displaced, dispossessed and frequently diseased by British colonisers.  How did Truganini survive?

In 1830, Truganini was taken from Bruny Island and then spent five years journeying around Tasmania with George Augustus Robinson, as he collected Aboriginal people for their tragic exile to Flinders Island.  Robinson then took Truganini to Port Phillip, where she and four others were implicated in the murder of two white men.  In 1842 acquitted of the charges, she was returned to Flinders Island.  In 1847, Truganini (and forty-six others) were sent to a new settlement at Oyster Bay.

In this book, Ms Pybus draws on original eye-witness accounts, including George Robinson’s journal, to provide more detail of Truganini’s life.  Imagine: a young woman, suffering from venereal disease (which had probably rendered her infertile) being used by Europeans to try to trap her own people into exile.  Imagine: a young woman, losing every connection she had to people and place, being confined and required to adopt (at least some) European habits.  And when she died, it took nearly one hundred years for her remains to be cremated and scattered according to her wishes.

This is a confronting read, especially for those of us descended from nineteenth century European settlers.  We cannot change the past, but we can acknowledge it.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith