Sunday, 19 May 2013

George Augustus Robinson

I've been on holiday in Tasmania for the past week.  While I was there I visited the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and it got me thinking about George Robinson and the fate of the original Tasmanians.

We were taught in school that the Tasmanian Aborigines had been wiped out.  The last of them, Truganini (at least that is one variant of her name) died in Hobart in 1876.  Of course this version of history is not quite true.  There are still descendents of the first Tasmanians living now.  I'll get back to them later.  In the meantime, George Augustus Robinson.


Robinson was a bricklayer and Methodist lay preacher who moved to Tasmania as a free settler in 1824.  In the 1830s he abandoned his bricklaying business and went on a mission to the remaining Aboriginal people in the eastern part of Tasmania.  His mission was prompted by the state of all-out war that had broken out between the European settlers and the original inhabitants.  For the Europeans, the Aboriginal people represented a threat to their existence, to be shot on sight.  While the Aboriginal people had greater bushcraft the Europeans had far superior firepower and there could only ever be one winner.

Robinson stood out as virtually the only European settler who made a serious attempt to forge friendships with the original inhabitants of the land, and to attempt to negotiate a peaceful settlement. 

Ultimately you could only conclude that he failed, although he may not have seen it this way.  After years of effort and immense carnage he finally persuaded the few remaining Big River and Oyster Bay peoples - about 100 of the estimated 10,000 who had been there at the time of the European arrival - to make peace (or perhaps surrender) and took them to a settlement on remote and unfruitful Flinders Island in Bass Strait.  No sensible person, European or Aboriginal, ever tried to make a permanent home on this cold, windswept patch of dirt and scrub, and within 40 years every one of them had died.

How are we to view Robinson's legacy?  Historians and writers, including those sympathetic to Aboriginal people, differ widely. 

CD Rowley, in his pioneering 1970 historical work The Destruction of Aboriginal Society, saw Robinson as something of a tragic hero.  Robinson's willingness to learn their languages, to make friends, to approach them unarmed and to live among them for months on end, contrasted with the normal attitude of his compatriots who had an almost hysterical fear of Aboriginal people and shot them on sight. 

In this context, Rowley is inclined to excuse Robinson for the Flinders Island disaster.  He acknowledges that Robinson was ignorant of the social dynamics of Aboriginal societies and that he was perhaps more interested in saving their souls than their bodies.  Nonetheless this is his summation.

To read (Robinson's) journal is to realise that even incarceration on an island off the coast could fairly seem to offer better chance of survival than any other course of action; and he had in fact by this time begun to win the necessary confidence of  a people with whom he had gone far to establish humane and trusting relationships.  It is interesting to find the intuitive understanding of a common humanity in this uneducated bricklayer.  His success highlights the timorousness of the settler community as whole.  That Robinson was to lead his people to a doom just as sure as the one from which he hoped to save them was something he could not know.

Others have not been so kind.  The novelist Mudrooroo, in Doctor Wooreddy's Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World, portrays him as a fool and a dupe, well intentioned perhaps but easily manipulated both  by his Aboriginal companions and by Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur.  For Mudrooroo the real heroes of the story are Robinson's companions, Wooreddy and his wife Truganini, who lead him a merry dance around Tasmania, hunting kangaroo while pretending to search for uncontacted tribes, lighting huge fires to ensure anyone in range knew their whereabouts and could choose freely whether to make contact, placating Robinson with a show of friendship but keeping him at a safe distance.  Yet for Mudrooroo there is still a huge gap between Robinson and the other settlers who rob, rape and murder without compunction.  He may be a fool, but at least he means well.

The display in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery casts some doubt even on this faint praise.  They suggest that when the last surviving members of the Oyster Bay and Big River peoples agreed to accompany Robinson into Hobart to treat with Arthur, they believed they would agree terms and return to their own country with conditions in place.  In other words Robinson, intentionally or otherwise, tricked them.  While he was travelling with them in the wilds of Tasmania he was their friend and companion, but on Flinders Island he rapidly became their jailer.  He prevented their escape, regulated their lives, tried to force them to abandon their culture and adopt Westernised Christianity.  He posed as their protector, but colluded in their genocide.

I'm not in a position to judge between these competing views.  I simply place them before you for your consideration.  It's interesting, though, that the survival of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people was not a result of Robinson's efforts, but of the actions of sealers and fishermen who lived on the more remote coasts of Tasmania.  While Robinson was acting as go-between, trying in a high-minded European way to forge a settlement that could lead to the survival and civilisation of his Aboriginal friends, the sealers and fisherman took Aboriginal women to their camps as companions, and had children with them. 

These women were most probably kidnapped rather than going willingly, their children the result of rape not marriage.  The men themselves were little better than outlaws, less educated even than Robinson and living in rough huts, earning a meagre living selling seal-skins.  No sane European woman would join them there, but a law which permitted the summary execution of Aboriginal people by European farmers would hardly protect Aboriginal women even from these pariahs of European society. 

Yet this violence, rather than Robinson's religion and humane intentions, was the salvation of Tasmania's first peoples.  Survival came at a huge cost - after suffering capture and rape they lost their country, their language, their customs, their social structures.  What remained was a hybrid culture, stitched together from pieces of Aboriginal culture passed on through their mothers and bits of European lore and technology passed on from their European fathers, forged together in the fire of hard living and geographic isolation. 

Perhaps it was just luck, but I think perhaps there is another lesson for us here.  Robinson, despite his good intentions, was never able to see Aboriginal people as his equals.  He always saw himself as their protector and guide, and them as his children.  When Rowley speaks of "his people" it can only possibly be meant in a proprietorial sense.  He would never have taken an Aboriginal bride and was too upright to simply sleep with an Aboriginal woman, even with her consent. 

The sealers and fishermen, on the other hand, despite their violence, ended up discovering a common humanity.  If they were brutal to the women, they could not deny that the children were their own flesh and blood.  By the next generation, the distinctions of race disappeared and they forged their own single community.  Far from demonising the "natives" as savages with whom there could never be any compromise, they understood that their fates were literally bound up together.  It is always so, and always will be.  No man is an island, even if they live on one.

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