Unearthing Unearthed telling the story of the Aboriginal

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					    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

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
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

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-

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

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.

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