Aboriginal Culture


Aboriginal Tasmanians

Aboriginal Tasmanians, known also as Parlevar or Palawa, were the indigenous people of Tasmania. Their ancestors are thought to have crossed into Tasmania approximately 40,000 years ago via a land bridge between the island and the rest of mainland Australia during the last glacial period. The islands of the Furneaux Group in north eastern Tasmania are the remnants of that bridge.

According to genetic studies, once the sea levels rose flooding the Bassian Plain, the people were left isolated for approximately 8,000 years until European exploratiols during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

It has been estimated that before British colonisation began in 1803, there were an estimated 3,000–15,000 Parlevar. A number of historians point to introduced disease as the major cause of the destruction of the full-blooded Aboriginal population, while others blame the massacre of Tasmanian Aboriginals by white settlers, followed by rounding the remant up and shipping them to offshore islands. They regard the Black War, which is widely believed to have decimated the race, as one of the earliest recorded modern genocides.

Yet others use both eye witness records as well as statements by 19th century Tasmanian Aboriginal Tasmanians that their tribes were decimated by disease lone before white settlement to support of their belief that white settlers had little to do with the demise of the race, and that the what is referred to as Black War is largely a myth. Despite over 170 years of debate over who or what was responsible for this near-extinction, no consensus exists on its origins, process, or whether or not it was genocide.

What is known is that there were two phases of conflict between the Aboriginal Tasmanians and the British colonists. The first began to take place well before the offical colony was established – sealers occupying the island of Bass Strait are known to have abducted Aboriginal women as sexual partners and Aboriginal children as labourers.

This lead to confict between the Aboriginal Tasmanians and the white sealers, however many of the women escaped or were allowed back into their communities. It is widely believed that, as a result of their contact with the sealers, diseases to which the native population had no immunity were introduced, with devastating consequences on the Aboriginal population.

The second phase took place overafter 1823, prior to which an ever increasing number of career criminals had escaped from places like Sarah Island and Port Arthur and were now roaming the countryside and living off the land. They kept clear of white settlements in order to avoid capture, and in so doing, encroached onto the hunting grounds of the Aboriginal Tasmanians. Here they competed for both their food and their women, and as could be expected, the Aboriginal Tasmanians retaliated.

Perhaps they did not differentiate between the white outlaws and the settlers, and believing them to be one and the same, they retaliated against the settlers and stock keepers. Up until that time, the settlers had gladly provided rations to the Aboriginal Tasmanians during their seasonal movements across the settled districts, recognising this practice as some form of payment for trespass. When the Aboriginal Tasmanians began to raid their huts for food, the white settlers were no longer willing to maintain these arrangements and took up arms to defend themselves and their property.

This resistance first took shape in 1824 when it has been estimated by Lyndall Ryan that 1000 Aboriginal Tasmanians remained in the settled districts. Between 1826 and 1831 a pattern of guerrilla warfare by the Aboriginal Tasmanians was identified by the colonists, some of whom acknowledged the indigenous population were fighting for their country. The colonial government responded with a series of measures to limit the conflict, culminating in the declaration of martial law in 1828.

The Black War of 1828-32 and the Black Line of 1830 were turning points in the relationship with European settlers. Even though the tribes managed to avoid capture during these events, they were shaken by the size of the campaigns against them.

The Black Line

In the early days of the British colonies in Van Diemen’s Land, a sort of guerilla warfare betweeen settlers and Aboriginal Tasmanians developed, lasting more than 25 years. By 1830 the low-level warfare showed no sign of ever ending and tensions between Aboriginal Tasmanians and settlers had become so acute (especially in the areas of the Big River and Oyster Bay tribes) that, pressurized by the settlers, the government organised what became known as The Black Line.

The intention of the Black Line was to drive the estimated 200 to 500 remaining Tasmanians from their hideouts, flush them into the open where they could be rounded up and taken to a mission, and there be cared for by the Government.

The expectation was that the round-up would result in the cessation of hostilities between the two warring parties, and the remaining Aboriginal Tasmanians who were losing their fight for survival would be saved from being wiped out altogether.

Around 2,000 white soldiers, officials, convicts and settlers equipped with shotguns and handcuffs lined up in long, drawn-out lines that walked east and south through most of south-east Tasmania. The operation was announced on 25 September 1830 with the following words: “The Community being called to act en masse on October 7th, for the purpose of capturing those hostile tribes of natives, which are daily committing renewed atrocities upon the settlers, and the Whites generally wherever found next and the purpose of the drive was declared to be … to capture and raise (the Aboriginal Tasmanians) in the scale of civilization, by placing them under the immediate control of a competent establishment, from whence they will not have it in their power to escape and therefore to molest the white inhabitants of the country.”

There was a lot of support for the plan from the settlers but that support was not unanimous. The result of the Black Line operation was pitiful in more than one sense: firstly there were nowhere near the expected number of Tasmanians still alive, and of those that were seen, some 20 escaped west, while an unknown number slipped through the drawn-out line unseen.

In the end, two Oyster Bay people were shot and two captured, the latter being an old man and a boy. The whole exercise cost the government the staggering amount of 27,000 Pounds (millions of dollars in today’s currency).

The Black Line operation was widely ridiculed at the time because of the grotesque imbalance between cost and result. From the official British view it was nevertheless a “success”, even if a very expensive one. The Black Line was seen to have cleared the settled lands of all Aboriginal inhabitants by not only driving away the surviving remnants of the Oyster Bay and Big River tribes north-westwards, but also disrupting social cohesion among the North Midland and Ben Lomond tribes, enabling George Augustus Robinson to walk in and easily collect the demoralised survivors a few years later.

The Flinders Island Solution

The colonial government decided to change its strategy from a military one to one of “pacification” and employed a builder and lay preacher from London, George Augustus Robinson, to seek better relations with the remaining Aboriginal people. Sponsored by Lieutenant Governor George Arthur, Robinson set out from Hobart in 1830 on an eight month trek through the wilds of Tasmania with a group of convict servants, two Aboriginal chefs, and a group of four male and three women Aboriginal Tasmanians, searching for the last surviving tribal groups.

Robinson saw himself as a Conciliator come to rescue the remaining Aboriginal Tasmanians, most of whom had now gone into hiding, hoping to save them from certain destruction and bring them into a haven safe from white persecution. Whilst his intentions may have been honourable, his action reflected the white view of the noble savage, a primitive human endowed with natural goodness and simplicity, but uncivilised, with no culture or structured society.

Thus to Robinson, what he was doing for them would have been seen as a great favour, a good thing, and he would have been completely oblivious to the fact that his action was little more than kidnapping that would tear families apart and complete the decimation of a society on the brink of collapse that he was trying to save.

Robinson undertook a total of six expeditions, eventually making contact with every tribe and group of Aboriginal Tasmanians left in Tasmania. He had persuaded the approximately 200 surviving Aboriginal Tasmanians to surrender themselves with assurances that they would be protected, provided for and eventually have their lands returned to them.

The survivors were moved to Wybalenna Aboriginal Establishment on Flinders Island, where diseases continued to reduce their numbers even further. In 1847, the last 47 living inhabitants of Wybalenna were transferred to Oyster Cove, south of Hobart, on the Tasmania mainland. To be returned to the mainland was a far cry from Robinson’s promise to have their lands returned to them, and it was very much a case of far too little far too late.

An important guide and interpreter for Robinson had been an Aboriginal woman called Trugernanner (often rendered as Truganini). In 1829 Truganini became the partner of Woorraddy and with him accompanied Robinson on his missions to the Aboriginal tribes between 1830-1834. She worked with Woorraddy to help Robinson move Aboriginal people from the mainland to settle on Flinders Island.

Truganini arrived at the Wybalenna Aboriginal settlement on Flinders Island in 1835 disillusioned with Robinson and his mission, realising that the resettlement program would further erode the chances of the remaining Aboriginal population leading their preferred way of life. In 1839 Truganini went to Port Phillip (now known as Melbourne, Victoria) but returned to Wybalenna in 1842 after becoming involved in an Aboriginal uprising. Woorraddy died on the way, a further blow to Truganini. She then moved with her people to Oyster Cove on the mainland.

Like Wybalenna, the Oyster Cove settlement was not successful and most of the people died. At the end of her life Truganini lived in Hobart and was very well known. She died in 1876. Truganini is widely believed to be the last of the ‘full-blooded’ Aboriginal person, she was definitely the last of the Bruny Island tribe and the last from the group transferred to Oyster Cove from Wybalenna. In 1889 Parliament recognised Fanny Cochrane Smith, who died in 1905, as the last surviving Aboriginal Tasmanian, giving her a land grant of 120 ha and an annuity of £50.

All of the Indigenous Tasmanian languages have been lost. Currently there are some efforts to reconstruct a language from the available wordlists. Today, some thousands of people living in Tasmania and elsewhere can trace part of their ancestry to the Parlevar, either via the few Tasmanian Aboriginals who escaped capture, or a number of Parlevar women who were bartered for or abducted, most commonly by the Bass Stair sealers.

Since the mid-1970s Tasmanian Aboriginal activists such as Michael Mansell have sought to broaden awareness and identification of Aboriginal descent.

A dispute exists within the Tasmanian Aboriginal community, however, over what constitutes Aboriginality. Since splitting from the Lia Pootah in 1996, the Palawa were given the power to decide who is of Tasmanian Aboriginal descent at the state level (entitlement to government Aboriginal services). Palawa recognise only descendants of the Bass Strait Island community as Aboriginal and do not consider as Aboriginal the Lia Pootah, who claim descent, based on oral traditions, from Tasmanian mainland Aboriginal communities.


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