Dreaming Tasmania

Colonization and Subjugation
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Coastal Tasmania
Coastal Tasmania

Here are some words that Tasmanian schoolchildren learn: Gondwanaland; Tabberabberan Orogeny; Moihernee; Truganini. Gondwanaland is the ancient continent that later broke up into Antarctica, South America, Africa, mainland Australia, and the smaller islands of New Zealand and Tasmania. Tabberabberan Orogeny is what scientists call the last of the great geologic upheavals, 400 million years ago, that left Tasmania basically in the form it is today—a police-badge-shaped land mass off the southeast coast of Australia. Aboriginal legend gives credit for the creation of Tasmania to Moihernee, who fell to Earth after a run-in with the great spirit Dromerdeem. The Aborigines arrived in Tasmania about 25,000 years ago and Truganini is the name of the last full-blooded tribal Tasmanian Aborigine, a woman who died less than a century after the British settlers arrived.

We've started reading aloud to each other from The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin's book that describes how Aborigines on mainland Australia believe their world was sung into existence by their ancestors, about how people have a totem animal, and about how sacred places are linked and interdependent. This beach, however, is empty. The only songs being sung here are the cries of the seagulls. It's hard to believe anyone ever lived on this empty beach. Not a single piece of refuse lies on the sand. Not a wisp of smoke climbs into the sky.

We cross Louisa Creek on a log and follow the trail through a tunnel of waxy green laurel leaves down the sea cliff to Louisa Bay. Aborigines lived here for 3,000 years, according to most estimates. The men hunted, flushing game out of the forest with fire and using small boats to chase seals. The women gathered edible plants and fished. The people didn't wear clothes, despite the fact that Tasmania is as far south of the equator as the state of Oregon is north of it. Eight thousand years ago, after the last Ice Age, the wind-whipped waters of the Bass Strait rose and covered the land bridge that linked Tasmania to mainland Australia. They had no visitors, friendly or otherwise.

Then the Europeans arrived. One account says that when the Tasmanians first saw a European ship sailing toward them, they were terrified because they thought it must be Rageorappa, an invisible, fearsome man created to discipline the tribespeople. The colonists moved onto the Aboriginal land, and when the native people fought back, the British settlers either shot them or rounded them up and took them offshore to Flinder's Island, where they died of disease and homesickness. Aboriginal graves were later robbed to supply European museums with relics. Lyell Wilson, a lecturer at the University of Tasmania in Hobart whose ancestry is both Aboriginal and European, summed up modern-day Tasmania's brutal beginnings as a penal colony this way: "You've got, basically, the rejects from Mother England coming over here, and they've had the crap kicked out of them all their lives. They come here, and they find an indigenous people that don't conform to their measuring stick, so they kick the crap out of them as well."

We walk the length of this unattended expanse of sand to the Louisa River. Stately and flat, it's also salty now with the high tide. We take a dip in the frigid sea and go back to camp.


Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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