Unearthing Unearthed: telling the story of the Aboriginal Tasmanians of Kangaroo Island Rebe Taylor I want to tell you the story of the Tasmanian Aborigines of Kangaroo Island. And I also want to go behind the scenes and tell you how it was I discovered this history, and the challenges I faced in writing it. This is partly because so much of my own story is entwined with this history. The best way to explain how is just to begin – and to begin with my story. I was born in London. My family migrated to Australia in 1976 when my father was asked to direct the Australian Dance Theatre in Adelaide. Adelaide became my home, but not the place of my most cherished childhood memories. Those belong on Kangaroo Island. Every year we went to stay on a family’s sheep farm at Antechamber Bay, which overlooked Backstairs Passage and the mainland. In those days we were about the only tourists there; we took long walks over the sheep paddocks and enjoyed empty, white-sanded beaches. As English migrants we were not only captivated by the beauty of the place, but by its mysterious history, which seemed to live in the land itself. The farm, we were told by its owners, was said to be first occupied by a man called Nat Thomas who arrived long before any official white settler had come to Kangaroo Island. A Robinson Crusoe-type character; Nat Thomas seemed more myth than man. He was said to have dressed in skins, and lived with Aboriginal women taken from Tasmania and from the near-by mainland. I remember being told how Nat employed the women to kill seals and tan the skins with their teeth, and that he traded his teeth-tanned skins for rum on the beaches – the very beaches where we built our sand-castles. The stories of the Aboriginal women were also remembered in the land. One of our many walks took us through Wab’s Gully, a thin corridor of cleared land – a pass for bringing through sheep – that divided two scrubby hills. We had been told that Wab – a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman – had lived alone in the gully. If we looked deep in the scrub, we could see a low, dry-stone wall, the remains of Wab’s home. It seemed a desperately lonely place. Here, it was said that Wab “lived out the last of her days”. Another walk took us over the crossing at Lubra Creek. A canopy of paper barks sheltered a soft, white sand floor interspersed by a few green limestone pools. The air at Lubra Creek was always still and quiet, and the light soft, but remarkably clear. Lubra Creek We used to find Aboriginal flint stones in the sand, turned up by sheep’s’ hooves. They were said to be the ancient remnants of the Aboriginal population who lived on Kangaroo Island from before the seas rose at the end of the last Ice Age, cutting the island off from the mainland. But it was another, more recent Aboriginal story that used to captivate our imaginations, breaking the serenity at Lubra Creek. We were told that an Aboriginal woman tried to escape from Nat Thomas by swimming from the Creek’s mouth over Backstairs Passage. She didn’t make it, and turned back. On her return she was caught by Nat and “beaten for her troubles”. These words have echoed through generations of telling. Everything about the history at Antechamber Bay seemed to us encrusted with mystery – we were captivated by its drama and by the feeling that we were among the few to know its secrets. To know this history seemed to me to be able to connect to the place – it made us feel less English and more local, not so much as Islanders, but at least as Australians. It was from this need to belong; that I chose to study Australian history at University. And when I came to be accepted to do an Honours degree, it seemed logical to choose a history that was connected to Kangaroo Island in some way. I chose to research the sealing industry, and for the first time I learned about the history of what had brought Nat Thomas and the Aboriginal women to Kangaroo Island. Sealing had begun on the Bass Strait Islands in about 1798. It was Australia’s first major export trade. Tens of thousands skins were shipped primarily to Canton, the centre of the 19th c. skin-trade, and in exchange for tea, china, tobacco and other goods the new colony needed. Such was size of the trade, within a few years the sealers had to go further a field to find seals: to a coast that was mapped but not yet colonised. To Kangaroo Island, and further, to the Western Australian coast. Working in gangs, the sealers often lived alone on the islands for months at a time. The first known men to go to sealing on Kangaroo Island lost their boat and were not seen again for three years. So they had to learn how to live in the bush: to eat bush foods, find water and replace their European clothes with skins. It’s not surprising that they wanted Aboriginal women – they needed their knowledge as well as their labour to hunt and skin seals. There were occasions in which Tasmanian Aboriginal women went with the sealers in the Bass Strait on a short-term basis as part of deals made with Aboriginal men, in exchange for meat, skins and hunting dogs. But it’s unlikely any women who went as far away as Kangaroo Island were ever taken as part of such a deal. More likely they were abducted, often violently. They never saw their homes or families again. Many Aboriginal men died trying to defend them. There are about 22 named Tasmanian women who appear in the records has having been taken to Kangaroo Island from Tasmania. There were possibly many more. We have these names because missionary G A Robinson asked Bass Strait sealers about the women who had been taken in the 1830s. There were also many Kaurna and Ngarrindgeri women taken from the South Australian mainland only a few of whose names were recorded after South Australian settlement; many of those women never saw their homes again either. But there were some who tried to return: I discovered that the story of Lubra Creek was not the only story of attempted escape – in the other stories sometimes the woman makes, sometimes she dies in the effort, sometimes she also return and is beaten. By the 1820s, there possibly around 100 people living on KI. But by the mid 1830s there were only about 8 white men left, aged from about 33 to 70 living across the island. By this time the relationship between the men and women must have changed. There were about double the number of Aboriginal women to men, and they were half their age. By then the small community was most probably more Aboriginal than European in culture: the men left there, including Nat Thomas, did indeed dress in skins, they spoke Aboriginal languages, and ate bush foods as well as the vegetables they grew. These were the people that first South Australian settlers encountered when they landed on the beaches of Kangaroo Island in July 1836 planning to make the island the site of a new colony – they were surprised to see white men so changed – one new settler considered Nat Thomas to be ‘more like a savage… than an Englishman’. Finding the island quite unsuitable the, South Australian Company shifted their settlement to Adelaide six months later. But what happened to the first Islanders after settlement? Well this is more or less where I left my Honours Thesis, but that question did not go away. It seemed a good topic of a Masters Thesis, especially as the topic quickly turned into the story of Nat Thomas and his family being the only sealer who had had children with an Aboriginal partner who stayed on Kangaroo Island. And I had read that there was a descendant of Nat Thomas still living on Kangaroo Island, in Kingscote, a few 100 kilometres from Antechamber Bay. Her name was Mavis Golder I packed my suitcase and went. I was hoping to find some Tasmanian Aboriginal language or culture, or some untold stories from the sealing days… I was insensitive with curiosity. Mavis Golder knew none of these things. She had grown up knowing nothing of her Aboriginal history and only a little of her white history. She did not know the stories of Wab’s Gully or Lubra Creek – the stories I had heard as a child. Mavis knew only what I had already been able to gather from my own research – her by her adult son who had done some genealogical research for her in Adelaide: What we knew was by 1830s Nat Thomas was living at Antechamber Bay and had had three children: a son and two daughters, with a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman known as ‘Betty’. Nat and Betty’s son had gone to sea aged 16 never to be seen again. Their daughters, however, had married white settlers and had become Mrs Mary Seymour and Mrs Hannah Simpson. Mary Seymour – poss. taken by anatomist Richard Berry who visited Penneshaw in 1907 and spoke to Mary. He wrote a subsequent article with the confusing name of ‘A living descendant of an extinct Race’. Mary had three children – one of them Mavis’s grandfather, Joe Seymour Joe Seymour– taken by South Australian Museum ethnologist Norman Tindale in 1936 who recorded much information from Joe Seymour about his history. Hannah Simpson had nine surviving children, six of them sons. While Mavis remembered her grandfather Joe, she did not know anything about the Simpsons, or indeed most of her family, and why none of them were on Kangaroo Island anymore. So Mavis suggested I go and see some people she thought WOULD know. The families who have been farming land near Antechamber Bay for 5 or 6 generations. Antechamber Bay is on the Dudley Peninsula. Dudley is almost an island itself, with only 1 km-thick neck of land attaching it to the rest of the island. Dudley has been farmed and owned by the same families since the 1850s- 1880s. I call them the COLONIAL Descendants. They called themselves the ‘TRUE Kangaroo Islanders, or the LOCAL locals, as distinguished from there mere ‘locals’, or more recent arrivals. These were the people who had remembered the stories of Wab’s Gully and Lubra Creek. They could tell me other stories from this time: stories of Nat Thomas so detailed they included his quirky sayings, and stories of how Betty, and two fellow Tasmanian Aboriginal women remembered only as, Sal and Suke, continued to hunt over land with their dogs, and occasionally visiting homesteads for food into the 1870s. Indeed Betty and Suke both outlived Truganini, the so-called ‘last’ Tasmanian Aboriginal ‘full-blood’ who died in Hobart 1876 – a fact is only ever mentioned as a passing footnote. The colonial descendants, could not only tell me stories about the Aboriginal women and about Nat Thomas, but also countless stories of his children , grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, reeling off his genealogy as if it were their own. From talking to the Colonial Descendants, and in turn returning again to various archives, I made a remarkable discovery: When Nat Thomas died, in 1879, Hannah Simpson’s eldest sons inherited his land at Antechamber Bay and increased it, so that by the turn of the 20th century they owned over 12,000 acres of land near Antechamber Bay in leasehold and freehold title. They grew wool and barley. Nat Simpson was a Justice of the Peace and a Councilor. Nat Simpson His brothers Thomas and Bill were also local Councillors. PHOTOS of Thomas and And here are the brothers in boaters playing cricket with other Dudley locals. Hog Bay Cricket team What happened to this family? Why are there no Simpsons in Dudley, or anywhere on Kangaroo Island today, while the colonial descendants still own most of the Dudley peninsula? As I traced the land records I discovered that by the 1920s the Simpsons had sold all their land, in debt, but the records did not tell me why. So I went back to the Dudley colonial descendants, and asked them if they knew why the Simpsons had lost their land. One retired farmer told me: ‘because they were part-Aboriginal. They fell out of the social connection and didn’t marry easily’. I asked another colonial descendant if this was true. One man said: ‘Yes. It was always avoided, and I can say for myself I would dread to be mixed in the Abo race. I say “stay White: Stay away from colour”.’ One woman explained it was the fear of the ‘throw back’ that lead parents to forbid their children from marrying the Aboriginal descendants. So, what do you do as a historian when you hear this? Footnote the oral sources and just hope it’s true that racism had caused the Aboriginal descendants to sell their land? Well, you do what your discipline, what your academic supervisor, demands! You go back to the archives! I researched, over the next year, the genealogical information for the other, non-Aboriginal families on the Dudley Peninsula, and the land records that they owned over 6 generations and I found that the white land owning families had married each other, repeatedly (although not dangerously so) for over 5 generations. They did so complaining there was no body else to marry on the small island. But none of them married the Aboriginal land owning family. Some of the Aboriginal descendants did marry, but only to people who did not own land. On Kangaroo Island staying landed meant staying white. What I was told by the islanders seemed true. But, when I came to write the relevant chapter, I was still plagued by other possibilities: was it racist exclusion that forced the Simpsons to sell up, or was it the 1894 Depression? Was it the 1914 drought? But if so, why didn’t these events affect the other farming families? Did they have poorer land? A geological study showed their land was no better or worse than other farmers’. Were the Aboriginal descendants just bad managers? They had grown wool and barley, just as the other farmers did, with apparent success in the early years. Ultimately, after 26 drafts of the chapter, I concluded that I was not rewriting history, I was, or at least I hoped, unearthing the truth. So I concluded that when the Tasmanian Aboriginal descendants had reached their 40s and 50s they were without sons, or sons-in-law, or extended family in their local community that the white farmers had – the unwaged support they needed as they aged. Unable to pay their mortgage they picked up their swags. The colonial descendants remember how these older Aboriginal men collected yacca gum, sold wallaby skins and worked in the shearing sheds just to make a living. How they dressed in dirty clothes, scabbed lifts off the locals and lived in rough conditions. How they had become ‘typically’ Aboriginal. And they remember how they left the island, one by one, leaving only Mavis’s family in Kingscote. And when they left, they left behind their history. When they married, some hid their ancestry even from their spouses and didn’t tell their children. So it was that Mavis Golder grew up in Kingscote not knowing her Aboriginal history – even when everyone in Penneshaw knew it. So it was that as a child I heard the stories of Wab’s Gully and Lubra Creek that she had never heard. And so it is, a Masters Thesis, and a book later, that I come to tell you this story at a conference in the Barossa. But the first time I was asked to tell this story publicly was to the Kangaroo Island Pioneers Association Annual Dinner. After I had finished an elderly lady stood up. She said her family had lived on Kangaroo Island for generations. Her name tag told me she was a member of one of the families I had just said would ‘not mix with the Abo race’. She was very angry. She told the audience: ‘I would like to say that my grandmother used to go up the hill to where Mavis Golder’s mother used to live and play bridge – and they did that in the 1930s!’ Then one of Nat Thomas and Betty’s descendants stood up, a cousin of Mavis Golder, called Adrian Waller. Adrien said that he used to visit that same house then he was a child. He said there used to be this ‘dark lady’ there, and he always used to wonder who she was. He wasn’t told that she was his great aunt. He wasn’t told in order to keep his Aboriginal ancestry from him. So you can see how my own story is so entwined in this history, that I was not a distant narrator but an arbiter between two groups separated by generations of silence. It has not always been an easy part to play. My book, Unearthed, has angered some Kangaroo Islanders. While some have said to me ‘the truth had to be told’, at least one person is said to want ‘to tear strips off me’. It was not the people I spoke to who were angry, most of whom who were elderly, retired farmers, but their children, who thought I’d taken their parents’ stories and opinions and twisted them into my own version of events. I hope they were not right. After all, this story of Aboriginal loss and exclusion could, in many ways, be the story of any rural community in Australia, indeed; it could be story of Australia in miniature. Perhaps more importantly, the Tasmanian Aboriginal descendants are happy with how I wrote their history and I am grateful to them for allowing me that opportunity. But their story does not end with the publication of a book. History does not live solely in books or in written things. It also lives in peoples’ memories, in stories remembered in the land. While I tell this story, another generation of children is growing up at Antechamber Bay and being told the stories of Lubra Creek and of Wab’s Gully. And in Kingscote another generation of descendants of Nat Thomas and Betty is growing up – Mavis’s grandchildren – this time aware and proud of their Aboriginal history. And since Unearthed was published, a group of colonial descendant Islanders has organised a new memorial, in consultation with Adrian Waller’s son and Aboriginal groups, to remember the Tasmanian Aboriginal, Kaurna and Ngarrindgeri women taken to Kangaroo Island. It is a conciliatory step that has apparently been appreciated and welcomed. This history will continue to be retold in new and different ways. And perhaps, one day, it will be forgotten all over again, in wait for someone else to unearth.