Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Truganini & George Augustus Robinson
By 1829, Truganini was running out of options. Her mother had been stabbed to death by a sailor, her uncle shot by a soldier, her mother-in-law kidnapped by escaped convicts and her sisters abducted into sexual slavery by sealers. She had seen her betrothed’s hands cut off with a hatchet after he was thrown out of a dinghy by sealers, after which she was repeatedly raped. Small, courageous, intelligent and “exquisitely formed”, she was 18 and living in a whalers’ camp on Bruny Island.
In March, George Augustus Robinson, a 38-year-old bricklayer and spec builder with connections to the Church Missionary Society, London, arrived on Bruny Island. Employed as ‘storekeeper’, he was part of a government plan to eradicate the Tasmanians by luring them into camps. Along with the free sugar and tea, Robinson offered civilisation, Christianity and the opportunity for the Tasmanians to transform themselves into peasant farmers.
Thickset, pompous and married with seven children, Robinson managed to establish good relations with Woorreddy, an important local man. When Woorreddy mentioned his interest in Truganini, Robinson persuaded her to leave the whalers’ camp and team up with his new friend. When disease and desertion put paid to the Bruny Island mission, Robinson struck a deal with the government. For a substantial cash bonus, he undertook to ‘bring in’ the remnant tribes of the west coast and settle them on Flinders Island where there would be food and blankets.
For the next six years, Truganini accompanied Robinson on his Friendly Missions. She learned local languages, interpreted local customs and lured Aboriginal men into situations where Robinson could communicate with them. When she saved him from being speared in 1832, she got her name in the Hobart papers and her portrait painted by Benjamin Duterrau.
But the Flinders Island mission soon became a death trap of disease. Truganini wanted no part of it. When Robinson got the job of Chief Protector of Aborigines of Port Phillip, he took her and some of the other Tasmanians with him. In Victoria, he abandoned them. They turned bushranger, raiding and robbing settlers. In a skirmish in an isolated coastal settlement, they killed two runaway sailors. Truganini finished one off with a club. In Melbourne’s first execution, two of the men were hanged in front of an immense crowd in January 1842.
Robinson lobbied the governor and perjured himself on the women’s behalf, telling the jury they were totally subject to their menfolk. Released into his custody, they were returned to Flinders Island. Nine years later, Robinson visited Oyster Cove where Truganini was then subsisting. She refused to acknowledge his existence.