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Friday essay: journey through the apocalypse

Heaven only knows what sort of excursion Wooredy and Truganini thought they had embarked upon on when G.A. Robinson took them to Recherche Bay in 1830 to make an overland trek to the Tasmanian west coast. Cassandra Pybus

Friday essay: journey through the apocalypse

Half buried in the sand, uprooted stalks of kelp are like splashes of dark blood against the white quartzite, ground fine as talc. In the translucent shallows, tendrils of kelp flounce lazily as the water gradually turns to turquoise then a deep Prussian blue at the horizon. Behind the crescent of beach, matted tentacles of spongy pigface disguise accumulated detritus of crayfish, oyster, abalone and scallop shells, rubbish middens thousands of years in the making.

Recherche Bay. Author provided

Known as Recherche Bay, this exquisite table-shaped body of water in the southeast corner of Tasmania was named by the French explorer Bruni D’Entrecasteaux who rested his ships Recherche and Esperance here in April and May 1792. Before the French arrived, this place was an important ritual site for the Nuenonne people, who journeyed in bark canoes from Bruny Island to meet with the Needwondee and Ninine people, who travelled overland from the west. For millennia they made this trip: the same seasonal migration; the same ritual feast. Not any more. Not since Ria Warrawah was loosed among them.

Wooredy, the last elder of the Nuenonne, saw it with his own eyes. In the cosmology of the original Tasmanians, Wooredy explained, Ria Warrawah was the intangible force of evil that could infest all things. Since the beginning of time, Ria Warrawah was held in check by the great ancestor who lived in the sky, maintaining the world in precarious balance until two avatars of evil fashioned as clouds pulling small islands floated into this very bay. As a small boy he had been transfixed by the sight of the French ships floating in from the ocean, and disgorging onto the land strange creatures just like the returned dead who had been drained of colour by the rigours of their journey. He watched as they walked about to collect water and make a fearsome sound with a stick that spat fire before returning to their floating islands.

A portrait of Wooredy by Thomas Bock, drawn in 1831. British Museum

He never saw those ships again, but when he was a young man on a hunting trip to the northern tip of Bruny Island, Wooredy observed two more such apparitions of evil float into the river estuary on the mainland opposite. This time the dead men came ashore and remained there, cutting down the trees to build huts and disturbing the ground all about. Plenty more of them arrived. And the Nuenonne began to die.

Thirty years after he watched the ships Lady Nelson and Ocean enter the estuary of the Derwent River, Wooredy was still hunting on his traditional country. He was by then a renowned warrior in his mid-forties who went about naked and wore his hair in the traditional fashion – long greased ringlets coloured with ochre that fell over his eyes like a mop. Wooredy was a cleverman, so knowledgeable in ritual and healing that the white men who came to his island called him the Doctor. Even he proved no match for the epidemic illness that between April and December of 1829 swept away nearly everyone of his clan.

Wooredy was not the last of the Nuenonne. That terrible distinction belonged to his second wife, Truganini, a woman whose name is vaguely familiar to most Australians, having achieved undesired celebrity as “the last of her race”.

An irresistible force

For most of my adult life I have been compelled by the story of Wooredy and Truganini, people who lived through a psychological and cultural transition more extreme than most human imagination could conjure. Both were witness and participant in a process of apocalyptic destruction without parallel in modern colonial history. Their experience has invariably been told through the prism of regretful colonial imperative, a rueful backward glance at the tragic collateral damage of inexorable historical forces. That is not a narrative I wish to perpetuate. Wooredy and Truganini compel my attention and emotional engagement because it is to them I owe a charmed existence in the temperate paradise where I now live and where my family has lived for generations.

My great-great-grandfather was fresh off the boat from England in 1829 when he was handed an unencumbered free land grant of over a thousand hectares of Nuenonne hunting grounds. On this land he prospered and put down deep roots, while the traditional owners were repaid with exile, anguish and despair.

Richard Pybus may have been the first white man granted freehold title to a large part of Bruny Island, but other grant holders followed soon enough. Next came George Augustus Robinson, an ambitious tradesman and self-styled missionary who threw over his successful business as a builder to become “conciliator” of the Indigenous Tasmanians. He had lofty ambitions that he could teach these ancient people to shuck off their savage ways and become good Christian serfs.

My ancestor’s neighbour was a most problematic fellow. Tempting though it is for me to despise the man, I remain immensely grateful for his voluminous daily journals that have given me a glimpse into the lived experience of Wooredy and Truganini, who were his close companions for 12 years as guides and intermediaries in the audacious project of conciliation that he called “the friendly mission”.

Thomas Bock’s portrait of Truganini, also painted in 1831.

Heaven only knows what sort of excursion Wooredy and Truganini thought they had embarked upon on 29 January 1830 when Robinson took them from their island to sail to Recherche Bay for an overland trek to the west coast. Since the beginning of time the Nuenonne had taken this journey in their bark canoes, while nomadic treks through the southwest were part of the timeless, seasonal pattern of their traditional life. Such a journey encompassed return, a completion, in accordance with the natural cycles of the environment. A journey for the purpose of reaching a destination was entirely new. Not to return would have been unthinkable.

For more than 40 years, Wooredy had made trips to and from his island and knew Recherche Bay held the malevolent spirit of Ria Warrawah, embodied in a carved tree that was left by the French visitors. The day after their arrival, while hunting he came across a decayed body of a woman that showed no sign of violence. Ria Warrawah had caught her, he was sure of it. When the body was identified as a Ninine woman on a visit from the west coast who had become ill and been abandoned to die alone, Robinson was dismayed that his Tasmanian companions were strangely unmoved by this apparent callousness. It was yet another display of their belief “that no human means can avert the doom to which they are consigned”.

This stubborn fatalism about the irresistible force of Ria Warrawah deeply rankled him, even though Wooredy had given him a potent lesson in the awesome power of Ria Warrawah as they were sailing to this tranquil bay. During the trip Wooredy identified all the land that passed before his eyes as the country of three interconnected clans – the Mellukerdee of the Huon River, the Lyluequonny of Southport and the Needwondee of Cox’s Bight – all of them gone within the span of Wooredy’s adult life. This land was empty, he explained. Nobody left.

Plunging into the wild

Mid-morning on 3 February 1830, Robinson set out with his Tasmanian guides as well as a handful of convict retainers to walk overland to the west coast. The sun was shining and he estimated the distance to Port Davey to be about 60 miles, which would take them about three days. Truganini had relatives among the Ninine people of Port Davey and was anxious to get going but Wooredy was not so keen, displaying an inherent hostility toward the toogee – his collective name for people from the west coast — that Robinson found disturbing. It was an enmity he shared with the six other Tasmanian men in the party who were aliens in this country where they did not know the language or customs.

The steady, reliable Wooredy was considered by Robinson to be his “loyal and trusted companion”, and next he looked to the “respectful and compliant” Kickerterpoller, whose command of English and knowledge of European customs made him an ideal negotiator in Robinson’s eyes. This young man was from the Paredarererme clan from Oyster Bay, stolen from his people when he was about nine and given to a settler as a farmhand. As a youth he ran away to join in a guerrilla war before being captured in 1824 when he became a guide for the roving parties.

Kickerterpoller was very familiar with this kind of expedition and knew only too well the coercive, violent ways of white men. Although the mission was not a paramilitary organisation like the roving parties, and no one was openly armed, the convicts all carried guns and the brace of pistols Robinson had hidden in his knapsack told him it was not so friendly. Suspicion aside, Kickerterpoller had reason to cleave to Robinson, at least in the short term. Instead of being confined in a foetid gaol, the Tasmanians were at large in empty country where they could hunt freely. And no one was shooting at them.

An aerial view of the terrain crossed. Author provided

No white man had ever attempted an overland route to the west coast, and Robinson knew nothing of the territory before him. Among the colonists, an enduring perception had taken hold that the southwest was a terrible place, a geographical extension of the inhuman horrors of the penal settlement in Macquarie Harbour. Everyone knew the stories of convicts driven beyond endurance by the cruelties of the penal system who had escaped into the hinterland never to be seen again. One convict bolter who survived his encounter with this terrible land was sustained throughout his ordeal by eating the companions he murdered. If the rigours of this hellish environment could drive a Christian white man to cannibal depravity, why would any white man willingly set foot upon it?

George Augustus Robinson was no ordinary white man. He had a hankering to venture into the heart of darkness and immerse himself in the challenges offered by the vast wilderness of the new world. He would reason to himself that his object in plunging into the wild was to shine the light of God into the darkness, while his wholehearted embrace of untamed nature revealed a passion for elemental experience much at odds with his evangelical posturing. All along the rugged way, his steps were driven by a voracious ambition to be feted and admired by the settler elite who had showered derision upon his enterprise. He was determined to return to their small world as a conquering hero.

Walking in single file, with the convicts bringing up the rear, the party followed the creek westward for a mile or so until they reached a flat plain that stretched for many miles, promising easy walking. To everyone’s dismay, they almost immediately sank into tepid water that rose to their calves. The pretty olive-and rust-coloured grasses that stretched as far as their eyes could see were growing in a porous layer of peat that sat on a hard quartzite base, trapping the voluminous rainfall into a watery bog. For hours the party pulled their legs through marshland that at times sucked them down to their knees. Reaching higher ground they were only slightly less dismayed to find an almost impenetrable belt of thick eucalypt scrub.

A buttongrass plain in south-west Tasmania. Author provided.

Just after dawn next day they located “the native track” that led to the south coast. The track had not been used for many months, and in places was completely swallowed up by rainforest – which meant clambering over fallen trees that were slippery with moss, sometimes crawling through on hands and knees, then a steep descent down a cliff face where almost every step caused a cascade of small boulders. After much slipping and stumbling they finally reached the shore, where they made camp just as huge heavy drops of rain began to fall, and persisted all through the night.

At sunrise, greatly disheartened and drenched to the bone, the expedition set off once more, climbing up and over rugged country covered with dense forest, punctuated by huge outcrops of barren rock with jagged edges sharp as knives. When they reached the coast they were sweating profusely under the baking sunshine as they walked for several hours along a wide arc of squeaky, shifting sand pounded by heavy surf. Lagging a mile or two behind Robinson and his guides, the burdened convicts stumbled and cursed. That night, camped at the bottom of a deep coastal ravine, Robinson was very apprehensive. They had covered no more that 20 miles, and supplies were running dangerously low. There were no people around to render assistance. Along the way they had passed many bark huts of the Needwondee, all deserted. Wooredy explained these people were snatched away by Ria Warrawah.

A replica Needwondee hut. Author provided

The fourth day involved negotiating a passage across a daunting mountain range that consisted of a series of polished quartz summits. Much of the time they progressed on hands and knees, clinging onto the wiry tufts of grass or pitiful, wind-stunted trees. After persevering all day in this unforgiving terrain without any food, the guides were at the point of total exhaustion. Truganini could barely walk. Kickerterpoller was no longer compliant, boldly remonstrating that this was not the way locals travelled. Even a roving party that moved through cleared country on level ground did not go at such a pace.

The indefatigable Wooredy was the only one not prone with exhaustion. Scanning the ragged, precipitous coastline his sharp eyes located the supply schooner lying offshore in a bay about six miles ahead. White men called this place Louisa Bay, but Wooredy knew it to be where the creator spirit Droemerdeener fell from the sky into the sea. Like Recherche Bay, it was once a ritual meeting place for all the clans of the south-east, and it held extensive shell middens and hidden rock paintings. Here was where his father and grandfather built the sturdy canoes they took to distant Maatsuyker Island to hunt for seals. There was no more hunting for seals on Maatsuyker. In a few short years the seal colony had been wiped out by the same rapacious white men who had stolen so many of the Nuenonne women.

Re-energised by the prospect of food, Robinson followed his guides in a headlong scramble down the mountainside, reaching Louisa Bay by late afternoon. Two hours later the shattered convicts arrived. Watching Truganini gleefully diving for crayfish, he ruefully acknowledged how perilously close they had come to starvation. The rigours of the journey convinced him that he would not survive the trip to Port Davey without reliance on Indigenous food supplies and local knowledge of the bush. He would have to defer to their way of doing things.

A hideous irony

For the next six weeks Robinson kept to the meandering, leisurely pace of the Tasmanians, for whom travel was subordinate to the requirements of hunting and gathering. He was growing increasingly frustrated at his failure to make contact with the elusive Ninine. Although evidence of their fires and their grass-covered huts were plentiful, the people kept well out of sight. Truganini knew how to find her relatives, but was in no hurry. Slyly deflecting Robinson’s pursuit, she spent her time diving for crayfish, oyster and abalone or collecting small wild plums, sweet red berries and edible roots. The men went hunting for wallaby, wild duck and an elusive animal somewhat bigger than a dog, with distinctive stripes on its back. It was a kind of hyena, Robinson thought.

Bust of Truganini by Benjamin Law, 1836. Australian Museum

As the food became more plentiful, the difficulties of the terrain got greater. Moving further westward toward Bathurst Harbour meant pushing into mountainous country covered with almost horizontal forest. Beset by mizzling rain that never let up, they were forced to crawl along precipices or wade for miles through thigh-high water. Impervious to the brutal terrain and the perpetual rain, Robinson found the experience excruciatingly uncomfortable, yet utterly exhilarating.

Robinson was sticking close to his guides, sleeping around their fires and sharing their provisions of abalone, crayfish and fresh wallaby meat, while the scornful convicts made camp a considerable distance away and spurned the Tasmanians’ fresh food in favour of their Christian food of spoiled potatoes and salted meat. Nor did they want any part of the heathen singing and dancing that went on every night at the Tasmanians’ camp, with Robinson as a fascinated participant. He listened attentively as Wooredy told of the exploits of the creator spirits who made man from the kangaroo, writing up copious notes in his journal.

The mountainous country was covered with almost horizontal forest. Author provided.

As the stories were sung with a repeated, chanted chorus, Robinson cleverly inserted himself into these nightly rituals by joining in the chanting. And he played his flute, which was a great hit. The Tasmanians were all having a fine time. After years of terror and harassment they were back in the bush, reviving a traditional way of life that revolved around hunting and ritual. And Mister Robinson was there to make sure the surly white men with guns were kept a safe distance.

So began a system of mutual support and protection between Robinson and his Tasmanian guides that for Wooredy and Truganini lasted 12 years. They might not have properly comprehended Robinson’s intentions, but they understood that their relationship with him had undergone a profound change since leaving Louisa Bay. In contrast to his earlier behaviour, where his efforts had been to make them like himself, in the wilderness it seemed as if he was in the process of becoming one of them.

Wooredy took the lead in an overt effort to induct Robinson into the Tasmanians’ way of life, leading the nightly ritual re-enactments of how animal spirits formed the world, how they left their recognisable mark on the landscape and how they emerged in the form of man and other species to inhabit that landscape. In Wooredy’s spellbinding stories, and in their song and dance, the Tasmanians asserted the palpable reality of their world, as opposed to Robinson’s abstract talk of God, heaven and hell.

This reciprocal relationship between Robinson and his Tasmanian guides had all the elements of tragedy. In his detailed accounts of their interactions, Robinson revealed a genuine interest in Tasmanian culture and an affectionate regard for the people. He slept with them, sang with them, hunted with them, learnt their language and marvelled at their mental and physical adaptation to the natural world. The hideous irony was that despite the intense pleasure he took in this elemental experience, which caused his impoverished puritan spirit to soar, Robinson sought to ingratiate himself to secure their trust so he could use them to entice the remaining Indigenous population into his custody.

Fancying himself as an ethnographer, he was also making a study of the curious ways of the primitive Tasmanians in the wild for the book he intended to publish. His journal entries offer not a glimmer of awareness that his travel companions might think they were in a relationship of mutual obligation.

Robinson could invest his companions with fundamental human feelings of sadness and pleasure, even affection and loyalty, but to grant them complex reasoning and intricate social relationships would have destroyed the whole rationale of his activity. The idea that Wooredy and Truganini might have regarded themselves as equal partners in his enterprise would never have entered his head.

Captives already

In the middle of March the party reached the vast waterway of Bathurst Harbour. They had been walking for six weeks without making contact. The inhabitants of the southwest proved no more accommodating than the savage landscape, “fleeing before my approach as the clouds flee before a tempest”, Robinson wrote with heavy exasperation. It was at Bathurst Harbour that one of the guides spotted a flag fluttering on the shore, causing Robinson to experience a surge of expectation. The flag was revealed to be a pathetic, desperate signal planted by three escaped convicts from the penitentiary at Sarah Island, many miles to the north. Their bleached skeletons, still wearing tatters of government-issue clothing, were an unsettling reminder of how inhospitable this place could be for white intruders.

Bust of Wooredy by Benjamin Law, 1835. Australia Museum

Squatting on the ground to register this grim find, Wooredy suddenly pointed to smoke rising in the distance hills. The sight of smoke set Robinson’s heart racing all over again – at last the Ninine were in sight. Wooredy and Truganini set off in hot pursuit, and in the following days they made contact with the Ninine time and time again, but could persuade only two young women to come with them to meet Mister Robinson. The rest of the group simply melted away into the bush. These two women were entertained with the baubles Robinson gave to them and were also utterly beguiled by the sound of his flute, but it took days to persuade them to take him to their hiding place.

Pushing through tough scrub, Robinson followed the two women for a very long way, until they reached a hidden clearing. After several loud hoots, ten naked women emerged, with six children in tow, followed a little later by ten men, all of them standing over six feet tall, naked and carrying spears, with dead wallaby thrown over their shoulders. Wooredy told how he had walked all day to meet with them and how Robinson was constantly calling out gozee, meaning “make haste”, which caused great mirth. They kept repeating “gozee” to Robinson, then collapsing into gleeful laughter. Cautiously they sniffed at the biscuit he offered, before handing it back, then they amused themselves stroking and prodding his pale skin and meticulously examining the blue coat he was wearing.

These ten families made an impressive group, with everyone in excellent health and high spirits. This jocular band agreed to accompany Robinson back to his camp, laughing and shouting all along the way, until they breasted the hill above Kelly’s Basin. Suddenly they stopped in their tracks and fell silent. Coming toward them were a group of white men in a boat.

Robinson was livid with anger at the curious convicts who had disobeyed his order to stay out of sight. Knowing he had no hope of inducing the Ninine to take another step, he went alone to his camp. Early next morning he anxiously climbed the same hill and was distressed to see that the Ninine had slipped away. Wooredy and Truganini followed on their tracks for next two weeks, being led in a game of hide-and-seek, making sporadic contact with the Ninine, only to have them disappear at whim.

Palpably frustrated by his failure to effect “conciliation” with the local population, Robinson was equally perplexed by the attitude of his guides. He was alarmed when the Tasmanian men told him they could round up the Ninine for him if only he would give them his pistols. Alternatively, his convict retainers advised that alcohol would be the most effective weapon, explaining “it would only be necessary to make them drunk and you could take them anywhere”.

Robinson expected this kind of response from convicts, which is why he kept them far away from any possible contact, and he was alert to the potential antagonism from the men from other language groups, but it was beyond his comprehension that Wooredy should want to capture a people to whom he was closely related. Robinson began to suspect his loyal and trusted companion could be causing the extreme wariness of the Ninene, especially when he heard Truganini warn them that her husband “did not like toogee”.

It was a genuine shock to Robinson to realise that all his expedition team thought the purpose of their travail in this rugged, wet and wind-ravaged landscape was to capture the inhabitants. No one appeared to understand him when he reiterated that his friendly mission was merely to gain the confidence of the west-coast clans. Taking captives was never his intention, he insisted, oblivious as always to the implicit message he was giving. His Tasmanian guides were already captives. Captivity was the new order in which they lived and it was apparent to them that even the white men who carried the supplies were captives.

To what end had Robinson marched them across the island, his bemused companions might have wondered, if not capture and removal? What other motivation could there be for such an insane expedition through this barely penetrable wilderness?

This is an extract from the essay Journey through the apocalypse published in Griffith Review 58: Storied Lives.