Part 4: The Tasmanians have Survived
Table of Contents
4.1. Playing with Numbers
The Great Tasmanian Controversy:
Windschuttle: No Slander in Exposing Cultural Brutality
4.1. Playing with Numbers
The number of full-blooded (meaning "unmixed with whites") aboriginal Tasmanians has been controversial ever since the Tasmanians were discovered by statisticians in the 19th century. Robinson's manhunting expeditions and the transfer of his victims into camps in the 1830s effectively destroyed the Tasmanian culture and killed most of the Tasmanians. Always the correct book-keeper, Robinson was busy counting and compiling lists that document the rapid decline in the number of full-blooded Tasmanians. Despite all this frantic accounting work, figures remain unreliable.
How widely the earliest British "guesstimates" of the number of Tasmanians differed is shown by the first figures for the years between 1800 and 1817 in the list immediately below. It is today thought that the number of Tasmanian aborigines until the late 18th century and the arrival of the British remained fairly stable at around 6,000 persons. But that, too, is just another rough estimate.
Even the later figures (when only the survivors remained to be counted) are unreliable. As the years passed, there was an ever-growing number of mixed Tasmanian-Whites with ever more complex case histories and backgrounds. This in turn produced confused definitions and mixed-up statistics that have not been sorted even today and maybe can never be.
Today, the definition of an "aboriginal Tasmanian" is in fact "anyone who claims to have some aboriginal blood". Genetic testing is frowned upon and there is no virtually no other way to establish such claims, individual records being rare and unreliable.
From the 19th century, the confusion (deliberate or not) helped wishful thinking to seep into statistics. This trend was aided and abetted by shifting standards and highly variable definitions. Truganini's case is typical for this. She became the "last Tasmanian" because for political reasons the Tasmanian government was keen to close the books on what the officials considered the highly embarrassing case of the Tasmanian aborigines. No better way to bury the whole story than by loudly announcing "the death of the last Tasmanian". In this context it becomes only too clear why the (probably) truly last full-blooded Tasmanian, Fanny Cochrane Smith, was subsequently ignored by official historians.
Numbers of full-blooded Tasmanian aborigines are taken and adapted from David Davies, 1973, The Last Tasmanians, Frederick Muller, London, p. 273-274.
1802 - ca. 20,000?
1803 - ca. 6-8000?
1804 - no figure (the Black War starts)
1817 - ca. 7,000?
1824 - 340
1825 - 320
1826 - 320
1827 - 300
1828 - 280(resettlement begins on Bruny island)
1829 - 250
1830 - 225 (beginning of the Black War and of Robinson's round-up of aborigines)
1831 - 190 (enforced resettlement of aborigines to Flinder's island begins)
1832 - 176 (the Black War ends with the Black Line, construction of Wybalenna aboriginal "resettlement" camp begins on Flinders island)
1837 - 97
1838 - 82 (42 males, 40 females; including 14 children)
1839 - 68 (Robinson finishes rounding up aborigines)
1840 - 58
1841 - 49
1842 - 54 (in past 7 years only 14 children were born)
1847 - 48 (38 adults, 10 children; Wybalenna is closed down and the survivors moved to Oyster Cove near Hobart)
1848 - 40 (12 males, 20 females, 8 children)
1859 -14 (5 males, 9 females)
1860 - 11 (4 males, 7 females)
1861 - 8
1863 - 6
1864 - 6
1865 - 5 (1 male - William Lanne, 4 females)
1869 - 1 (Truganini)
1876 - 0*
*On this list, Fanny Cochrane Smith (1834-1905) is not recognized and counted as a survivor.
4.2. Modern Survivors: no Last Tasmanians
A little book written by Pat Peafield Price, The First Tasmanians , published by Rigby Limited Australia in 1979, ends with the following words:
The Tasmanian Aborigines had become extinct as a tribal people. In eighty-five years, white men had wiped out a race of people who had lived in Tasmania for thousands of years. Today, many people in Tasmania have Aboriginal blood. They are descended from the children of the sailors, sealers, and farmers who took Aboriginal women as wives or servants. There are many more part-Aboriginal Tasmanians now than there were tribal Aborigines and they are found in all walks of life. We shall probably hear more of them as time goes on.
That prophecy has come true.
For almost a century after Truganini's death in 1876, it was taken more or less and certainly officially for granted that Truganini had been "the last Tasmanian", even if it was sometimes admitted, that some other unmixed Tasmanians may have survived her by some years. In fact, the last (probably) full-blooded Tasmanian, Fanny Cochrane Smith, died in 1905.
Until the 1970s the belief that the aboriginal Tasmanians were totally extinct remained largely undisturbed and unquestioned among virtually all inhabitants of Tasmania and in the world. Then, two lines of mostly white Aboriginal Tasmanians with some ancient Tasmanian admixture appeared as if from nowhere. Both groups were culturally anglicized and exclusively English-speaking. Yet they could not be more different.
Controversy has raged ever since (see: the Windschuttle-Reynolds-Dalley Debate 2003, and Windschuttle No Slander in Exposing Cultural Brutality 2003)
The Lia Pootah
The Lia Pootah are the mixed-race descendants of Tasmanians who
remained in Tasmania itself (i.e. who were not part of the
Seal-hunting Community - see below) with whites. On their Tasmanian
side they are descendants of survivors of the Wybalenna
Cove camps or survived in other ways in Tasmania itself.
Astonishingly, the politically moderate Lia Pootah are not recognized
by the Tasmanian government as entitled to speak for their section of
the surviving Tasmanians. Nor is this the only odd aspect of the
situation: the excellent Lia Pootah web-site is the only credible
source of information on their more militant but uncommunicative
opponents, the Palawa.
The Lia Pootah have such a large, informative and
well-written web-site that we do not need to describe them
and their views here. As regards the relationship of the Lia Pootah to the
Palawa, see especially http://www.tasmanianaboriginal.com.au/woodpile.htm
Just click on Lia Pootah logo on the left to go to the Lia Pootah website.
The Lia Pootah have such a large, informative and
well-written web-site that we do not need to describe them
and their views here.
As regards the relationship of the Lia Pootah to the Palawa, see especially http://www.tasmanianaboriginal.com.au/woodpile.htm
The Palawa (controlling the Tasmanian Aboriginal Council TAC)
The crews of the ships operating in the waters off the northern coast of Tasmania to catch, slaughter and sell seals for their oil and skins in the 19th century created a distinctive mixed Tasmanian-White Seal-hunting Community. They accomplished this feat of intercultural merger almost unnoticed by outside authorities. At the beginning, the captains and part of the crews of these ships were white, the women Tasmanians (acquired by negotiations from Tasmanian fathers in the traditional if rather unromantic Tasmanian way of passing young women to otther groups). As the traditional Tasmanian society vanished from the main island, the supply of Tasmanian women for the sealers ceased and the racially mixed group became largely self-sustaining.
Initially, the Tasmanian women were little more than slave labour for the white sealers (as they seem to have been in traditional Tasmanian society to their fathers and husbands, too), but they proved themselves so resilient, hard-working, competent and all-round indispensable that many a genuine family grew out of this inter-racial cooperation from the early 19th right into the 20th century. Harsh conditions, dangerous work and a locally inexistent government made the early sealers into a tough, closed and highly independent group.
The modern Palawa are descendants of those early mixed aboriginal-white sealers. While they no longer club seals to death for a living, their style of political debate owes much to the ways of their ancestors. These same ways have let the Palawa to persuade the Tasmanian government into recognizing them as the sole representatives of aboriginal Tasmanian. In the Alice-in-Wonderland world of Tasmanian politics, the Lia Pootah Tasmanians have not similarly been blessed by their government.
Michael Mansell, born 1951, is the firebrand leader of the Palawa and a lawyer by trade. Genuine historical aboriginal Tasmanians are were among the darkest-skinned people on earth. Yet Mansell is called (in his Wikipedia entry) "a white Aboriginal lawyer and activist". White he certainly is, and a Leader, too. But Aboriginal?
For a sample of Mansell's distinct, if not always silky-smooth debating style see his spslendidly forthright article The mutual obligation of fascists, racist scum and cold-hearted pricks, dated 23 December 2004. Merry Christmas, Mike!
However, Mansell and his people do make one good point: see below
Manson the lawyer-politician probably never killed a baby seal in his life. Nor do we think he would really want to. But his white and Tasmanian ancestors made a living from this trade for more than a century. Unfair? Not really, we just make a point in the Great Man's own blunt style - for a change.
Michael Mansell is the son of a fourth-generation sealer from Cape Barren island. The name Mansell appears in 1847 in a family of sealers living on Long island, off Barren Island. An "Edward Mansell and a Tasmanian Julia ("Black Judy with 1 child") is mentioned in records of that year (see The Sealing Community) but with no further information given. The combination of white man with Tasmanian woman was the norm among the sealers. Before the 1830s the Tasmanian women were of mostly unmixed race, later of of increasingly mixed race. Was this "1847 Mansell" an ancestor of the "aboriginal Palawa Mansell" of our own days? Almost certainly - the sealing community in the 19th century was small and Mansell was not a widespread name in that community.
Interestingly, Mansell's very own Wikipedia entry slyly suggests undiluted Tasmanian ancestry by stating that he is "himself a Palawa (Indigenous Tasmanian), descended from the Trawlwoolway on his mother's side and Pinterrairer on his father's side, both of which are north-eastern Tasmanian tribes." Sounds convincing, unless you know that the physical end of virtually all Tasmanians in all of Tasmania dates to George Augustus Robinson who in the early 1830s collected most survivors to be "resettled" at Wybalenna on Flinders island. That action with its deadly results remains the most serious allegation against the British and is much (and rightly) denounced by everyone, including Mr. Mansell and his followers.
But it leaves Mr. Mansell with a timing and a credibility gap: he was born in 1951 and the the Trawlwoolway and Pinterrairer died out more than 100 years before his birth - a gap of quite a few generations. The answer is simple: Mansell is unmistakably a good lawyer and politician: he is not lying, he is just leaving out inconvenient facts. It also explains why Mansell and his group are so strongly against DNA sampling.
4.3. We don't Need No Evidence
"Sovereignty over our own past"
If no evidence of ancient Tasmanian ancestry is available, it is because the Palawa have chosen to cremate the Tasmanian remains returned from British museums against the protests of scientists and the museums involved. An elaborate cremation was the traditional way to dispose of the dead among ancient Tasmanians but other methods such as burying people in hollow tree trunks were also employed. Fire was not the only way.
The Palawa say that they want "sovereignty over their own past", that they want to be "the only source of knowledge" about the ancient Tasmanians and they reject DNA testing on the grounds that a connection with "aboriginality" is more important than the presence or absence of a genetic link - whatever that means. Sounds good and makes snappy headlines - but it means only that you do not want to know.
The only valid and viable way to reconstruct a credible ancestry and a past is to gather, preserve and analyse any available evidence. Most people (including tribals on all continents) these days do precisely that. Why not train Tasmanian archaeologists and other scientists, allow unprejudiced investigators to excavate, investigate, take DNA samples and do whatever is necessary to produce in the end the most solid possible and credible backing for a genuine history of the Tasmanian ancestral people until today? Why not indeed.
In archaeology just as in genetics the Palawa hinder and block investigations while allowing unprecedented vandalism to damage the prehistoric caves that they allegedly rever so much. It is not an impressive record but it does show that the Palawa mean it when they say that they decide what is their past. They really do think they "don't need no evidence" and expect credulity for even the most arrant nonsense, just because they say so.
Inherent in Palawa line (remember: they are the sole government-approved group!) is also the awful possibility that I, your author, George Weber, might one day suddenly stand up and claim to be an aboriginal Tasmanian. I could, you know. Mansell's rules allow it. Why don't I do it right here any now? I AM A TASMANIAN ABORIGINE ... see? That was easy and painless. Anyone can do it.
In any case, even in the face of the Palawa's ranbtings and the Tasmanian governments spinelessness in the face of hooligans, all is not lost. Claims made by people who feel they do not need evidence can be shot down easily (even in parliament, if anyone there has the guts there) with a simple polite
Yes, it may be as you say - but where is your evidence?
Feeling strongly does not replace evidence - and without evidence you don't have an argument except with the sort who until recently believed the world to be flat.
Just how the Palawa treat the evidence that is out there waiting to be discovered can be illustrated by the following only-too-real sequence:
What Palawa "sovereignty over their past" means in real life:
1. an archaeologist makes a discovery (cave, rock paintings, whatever)
2. by international scientific convention the discoverer has the right to name her or his discovery
3. international conventions are not worth a lot in Tasmania. "Recognized aborigines" have the right to re-name new finds if they feel that way inclined (see how this works in grotesque bureaucratic detail under the Fraser Cave re-name). The Palawa are very keen on re-naming things - it shows the other whites how much power they have.
4. the discovery is legally re-named (usually with a fancy word from the fantasy "New Tasmanian" language that is still under construction and that is designed to gloss over the fact that almost nothing is known of the genuine but long-extinct Tasmanian languages (see The Tasmanian Languages).
5. no further archaeological excavations are allowed by new owners at the site ("sovereignty over our own past" means whatever the Palawa leadership wants it to mean. Doubt is heresy.
6. the site is simply left to rot by the new "owners" who are interested in scoring political points, not in collecting new evidence that would only confuse people.
7. hooligans of a different sort drink beer, spray grafffiti, scratch their initials, poke around and otherwise damage the site for a laugh. The Palawa are not interested - they are too busy scoring more points by having something else renamed and put under their ownership.
Mansell does have one
Scientists have behaved abominably towards the genuine Tasmanians
(and not just them) in the 19th and 20th century
Nowhere in the world has the scientific chase for skulls and bones, for anatomical data, for measuring up the natives (living or dead) been so vicious, so ruthless and so undignified as in Tasmania. The aborigines of Tasmania first came to scientific attention just when one of the great intellectual battles of the 19th century raged around the theory of evolution proposed by the British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882).Tasmanian remains soon became hostages in the fight for an against that theory and on how the theory was to be applied to Homo sapiens .
The enthusiasm of British scientists over the discovery of such an "interesting" population in a British territory largely inaccessible to non-British competitors went beyond all reasonable and indeed sane limits. Tasmanian skeletons were shipped to Britain and no questions were asked how these came to be dead. To keep a sense of proportion, it should be mentioned here that moving dead bodies around was not a special indignity reserved for Tasmanians - even in British churchyards freshly-buried bodies were dug up for use in medical schools during the 19th century. With the wisdom of hindsight, we can feel superior and call it a rough age with an often uncouth science.
One can almost see and feel the visions of coming fame and glory that must have flashed before the eyes of so many British scientists at that time at the thought of making a reputation with a paper or two. Not all, but far too many scientists regarded theTasmanians, when still alive, as "walking specimens" in a way that is all too reminiscent of the way Nazi doctors in concentration camps regarded their victims. It was definitively one of British science's lowest moments, and more than a century later, science is still paying the price for this long-gone madness.
In view of the horrible background, the extreme reluctance of the living descendants of the ancient Tasmanians to allow scientific meddling with the remains of their ancestors is understandable. But it is still wrong - and above all it is wrong for the aboriginal Tasmanians themselves. Without scientific evidence, they have nothing but (justified) moral outrage and no evidence to support what they say. Without evidence you operate in the void of a "Mansellian space" . Physical anthropology today is no longer the body-snatching, cut-and-slash butchery of the 19th and early 20th century. The catastrophic excesses of Nazi "science" have opened eyes all over to the dangers of research without regard for the moral and social consequences. No sane person would argue against this. But provided research done properly and for clearly defined reasons, there is no reason why anyone (including an aboriginal Tasmanian) who wants to help in finding genuine evidence on who his or her ancestors were should shy away from it.
The objectionable practices of earlier physical anthropologists in any case become thoroughly redundant (as the probably were from the beginning). The pseudo-theories of "higher" and "lower" human races have also gone - with scientific evidence very much supporting their departure. Moreover, today's geneticists need only a few molecules (too tiny to see by naked eye!) to get a wealth of meaningful details of descent and relationships (but not of who the individual is nor who is more "advanced" and who "more backward"! ).
Today's scientists quite rightly need to explain their projects to potential cooperatorss or donors and other stakeholders. Virtually all are prepared to do so. Today, donors (or the descendants of dead donors) must be asked for and give their agreement before any samples can be taken from human remains and this is absolutely right. But the donors should also remember that contemporary scientists tend to be interested in whole populations, not individuals, while descendants are interested above all in individual family members or other ancestors. DNA analysis today could satisfy both parties - and all for the price of a few molecules.
In the case of the Tasmanians, the modern descendants of ancient Tasmanians should bear in mind that it does not pay and may even be dangerous to remain ignorant when one can find out something new - about oneself, one's family, group or ancestors. There is nothing insensitive or discriminatory about finding out who your or my ancestors were, what they did and where they came from and when and why. If you have the best scientific evidence available at the time, you will have solid arguments and can avoid falling into traps that wait for the wilfully ignorant. As a genuine descendant of Tasmanians you will be able to argue from a position of factual and moral strength
If you don't, you risk white chaps like me joining you as shiny new white aboriginal Tasmanians, just like Mr. Mansell and quoting Mr. Mansell all the way.
Do you really want your children to grow up to such a twisted future past?
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Last change 12 March 2009