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Reading Robinson: Companion Essays to George Robinson’s Friendly Mission


A People Who Have No History?1



In 1993 I was commissioned to write a paper for Art Monthly, which was subsequently published with the title ‘Reclaiming Tru-ger-nan-ner: Decolonising the Symbol’.2 This was not the first piece of writing that I had published. Yet it had been very difficult to write. I had struggled to find a word confidence that disciplined the semi-articulated ideas within the emotional currents in which the text drifted for some time. I was tentatively trying to find a way to write about the representations of Tasmanian Aboriginal identity that resisted the colonial discourse of ‘caste’. Ever since the death of Trukanini, the so-called last Tasmanian, in 1876, those of us who are descended from Aboriginal Tasmanians have been inscribed with an increasingly fine-grained colonial lexical slide-rule, which forever marks our families as the other to the colonial self. We were ‘mixed breeds’, ‘half-castes’, ‘of the descent’ – perpetually liminal and never belonging. To that end, I refused, in this particular paper, to be restricted to any particular convention for spelling Trukanini’s name. Every version was mediated by a colonial ear – so I used them all in a gesture towards the epistemological difficulty of engaging with my precolonial Aboriginal history through the static of colonial discourse. I was searching for a textual discourse to recode my sense of self against a riptide and backwash of colonial metaphors for Aboriginal extinction and loss. Not only was this intellectually challenging, it invoked significant emotional memories that have been fundamental to shaping my subjectivity. In this context any search for representational integrity exposes one’s subjectivity to scrutiny in what can be a hostile environment. Although it may not have been so obvious in the original paper, NJB Plomley had been a significant presence in this text, both reflecting his contribution to the history of Tasmanian Aborigines and in terms of the impact he had on my social and emotional development.

In retrospect, despite my anxieties, this particular moment could not have been more open to the possibility of challenging the legacy and assumptions of colonial discourses of Aboriginality. I had not long finished my undergraduate degree – and had been actively involved with that first generation, or so, of Aboriginal Australians who were creating an intellectual presence within the Australian higher education system. In 1988 the public celebrations of the bicentenary of the arrival of the First Fleet on the east coast of Australia had provoked Aboriginal protest and further consolidated the development of a complex set of national discourses that emphasised the destructive impact of Australian colonialism on Aboriginal peoples and the implication of settler culture in this historical process. Described by Anthony Moran as ‘Indigenising settler nationalism’, these discourses constructed a culture of atonement, centralising the idea of Aboriginal dispossession within the imagined moral community of settler nationhood.3 Just twelve months before I wrote this paper, Paul Keating, then Australian Prime Minister, had marked the beginning of the International Year for World’s Indigenous Peoples with a sentinel speech in Redfern Park, Sydney, that was frank in its condemnation of the historically destructive impact of colonialism on both the colonised and coloniser alike: ‘… We failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask – how would I feel if this were done to me? As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.’4

If there was a time when it might have been possible to reshape the public representation of Aboriginality, it was then. Over a decade later there has been a profound shift in the discursive landscape of Australian nationalism. The rising influence of neoliberalism and its associated cultural movements (such as the ‘history wars’) have shifted the terrain of cultural debate. The publication of Keith Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History5 is most germane. Windschuttle’s revisionist history challenges a generation of colonial histories, which he charges with political bias: a ‘black armband’ history that services the progressive discourses associated with ‘indigenising settler nationalism’. With great irony, I now find myself re-evaluating the work of Plomley. I will never be reconciled to elements of his interpretative strategy in relation to Tasmanian Aboriginal history. Yet I am increasingly grateful for his empirical legacy – a consequence of his commitment to the role of conservator.

I had first read Plomley when I was a teenager. I am not sure that I can fix a date, but it was sometime during a trip back ‘home’ when I was staying with my grandparents in Devonport on the northwest Tasmanian coast. My family had crossed the waters (Bass Strait) on 24 October 1974. Searching for work, driven by my father’s relentlessly ‘itchy feet’, we never returned to live on the island, but spent the years until I finally left home for university living in a number of different rural communities in New South Wales and Victoria. As small children our world in northern Tasmania had been cluttered with family and other farming folk, most of the latter being only one or two degrees of separation away from being family. One of the Federation-era farmhouses I had lived in, along the road to Eugenana, had previously been the home of a great-uncle. Under the floorboards of the old kitchen someone had hidden the traces of a long-cold love affair – discovered during renovations and then, despite the knowing smiles, reburied so as to protect the reputation of the living. Old Mrs Keep – from the orchard across the road and whose hairy chin and sail-like dresses scared me – was in fact the daughter of a cousin or uncle or some other degree of relative. Broken-down houses with their wild, untended gardens were scattered along the rambling coastal roads that crosschecked this farming country. They stood as remembrances to the family lives that, even though long gone, were frequently invoked in the genealogies of the present. Layers of time sifted through people and place – pleated and interwoven to create that emotional state of belonging.

By contrast, our life on the mainland could not have been more different. Whether we were living on a large cattle and grain property in central New South Wales or in the small rural towns in central Victoria, we felt like aliens. On someone else’s country. ‘That odd family’, my sister wryly once remembered. This sense of uprootedness and movement probably accentuated a feeling of social isolation and disconnection. It would take a few years before I, at least, connected up with family and kin on the mainland. And in fact there is such a large mob of them here I wonder now why it even took those few years. But here there were no old homes that reminded us of kin – no immediate sense of family. But it was on one of those very few summer holidays back in Devonport that I first read Brian Plomley and it was all part of my search for family meaning and belonging.

I wanted to find out more about my Aboriginal history. I can’t remember a time when I was growing up when this wasn’t a part of my consciousness. My tendency to wander when I was three or four was attributed to the blackfella in me by some of the oldies. Then there was the family gossip and half-heard adult talk about where we came from – why we had that ‘look’. In his book In Tasmania,6 Nicholas Shakespeare asked a number of the Aboriginal people he interviewed to recall the moment when they first ‘discovered’ that they were Aboriginal. I was really perplexed at first when I read this, and initially I thought he was hinting at some form of artifice. I wanted to ask back – through the pages – for him to recall the moment when he first discovered that he was English. Yet it made me think. I do not recall any moment of discovery – no moment of enlightenment. Rather, it was the gradual layered experiential process of understanding. What I do recall was more of an anti-epiphany – a dissolution. This was the moment when the metaphors of people, place and kin, which were beginning to shape my sense of social identity, were confronted by a confident assertion of fact by Plomley that I had no history. I remember crying. The unbelonging seemed as if it had become complete. It was at this moment that I learned that I was a ‘hybrid’ and ‘hybrids’ belong nowhere – not even to history.

However, it is not the primary purpose of this essay to excavate and analyse this debate – although I will outline its contours. I still cannot accept Plomley’s use of racialised categories such as ‘hybrid’ and ‘half-caste’, and the explanatory power that he confers on them. However, following a brief critical detour through Shakespeare’s In Tasmania, I will outline how I have come to re-evaluate Plomley’s contribution to the history of Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Even though his approach to historical analysis sentences contemporary Aboriginal Tasmanians to a liminal space outside of history, his practice as a conservator provides data that may be applied to the development of rehistoricised identity.

Hybrids, half-castes and other breeds

NJB Plomley first came to my attention through a short monograph in which he had drawn together a number of presentations made over a weekend seminar on 21-22 August 1976. The seminar had been convened by the Adult Education Board of Tasmania to ‘discuss recent research on several aspects of the life of the extinct Tasmanian aborigines’.7 At the end of the section on the history of the Tasmanians there are a few pages, headed ‘Hybrids’, where he notes that:

It is not unlikely that the first Tasmanian-European hybrids were conceived in 1793 in intercourse between seamen of D’Entrecasteaux’s expedition and the aboriginal women they met in south-eastern Tasmania. If not, then less than ten years later the unions between the sealers of Bass Strait and Tasmanian native women were producing hybrids …8

He goes on to explain that:

Hybrid offspring were also born of unions between stockmen and other country dwellers, and Tasmanian native women, but unfortunately there are few descriptions of them. R. M. Martin, writing in 1851, says –

The children by a European father and native mother are really handsome, of a light copper colour, with rosy cheeks, large black eyes (the whites tinged with blue), long dark eyelashes, fine teeth, well-proportioned head, and robust limbs.

While this description applies to first generation hybrids, in subsequent generations the characters of the first parents would be expected to become evident in a haphazard way …9

The body of work that Plomley produced on the history of Tasmanian Aborigines is largely focused on the early encounters between Tasmanian Aborigines and British colonisers. Some of his most substantive contributions – such as Friendly Mission, Weep in Silence and Jorgen Jorgenson and the Aborigines of Van Diemen’s land10 – are substantively edited collections of historical papers and diaries of colonists such as George Augustus Robinson and Jorgen Jorgenson. His historical gaze only occasionally strays to consider the lives of those Aboriginal survivors of the early colonial periods and, in fact, he more generally notes that this lack of research attention is regrettable and that, in relation to this subject, ‘Much has been written, but most of the writing has been trivial, directed it seems more to the profit of the author than to a wish to increase knowledge. It is for the most part a mixture of the travelogue with family tittle-tattle.’11 He does not point a finger at those responsible for this gossip. Notwithstanding, it was his commentary on Aboriginal hybrids that had so significantly figured in my momentary teenage emotional dissolution:

It must be emphasised that hybrids are the products of two racial forms, and their characters are a mixture of those two, though genetic dominance may direct the expression of one rather than another. Structurally, physiologically and psychologically hybrids are some mixture of their parents. In social terms, they belong to neither race (and are shunned by both), and lacking a racial background they have no history.12

In the essay ‘Reclaiming Tru-ger-nan-ner: Decolonising the Symbol’, I rejected the identity of a ‘hybrid’ – and I made explicit reference to this quotation from Plomley. I was, in part, rejecting a racialised identity. In my mind this form of social identity was inextricably linked to the racialised notions of extinction, the inevitability of the decline of Aboriginal people and our exclusion from history: ‘Just as the Tasmanian Aboriginal people on the early frontier “were doomed to disappear”, we are doomed by this discourse to forever be the black-bit white-bit people.’13

Race, and racial hybridity, no longer carry currency within contemporary scientific thinking – although they still have some advocates.14 Anthropologists, in the main, argue that it is no longer scientifically valid to divide human populations into races. This view does take account of genetic variation, but ‘this variability does not conform to the discrete packages labelled races or subspecies. For man the position can be stated in other words: there are no races, there are only clines.’15 (A cline is a continuous gradation over space in the form or frequency of a trait, clinal variation being continuous not abrupt.) Even those who continue to advocate for the retention of a human taxonomy of race (albeit defined differently) argue for an approach that reconciles biological realism with its social construction, moving away from the rigid and unflinching biological determinism of earlier models.16

The discursive genealogy of hybridity is clearly located within the development of thinking during the nineteenth century on race and evolution. The origin of the word (Latin hibrida) refers to the ‘offspring of a (female) domestic sow and a (male) wild boar’, but more generally includes the mating of unlike animals or plants.17 Robert JC Young’s study of the discursive development of hybridity within racialised taxonomies demonstrates its inevitable sexualisation. It becomes a metaphorical vehicle for the expression of illicit or forbidden desire for the ‘other’. The best-known example of a hybrid from biology is the mule, the sexually sterile progeny of a horse and donkey. There are hints of this colonial sexualisation in the sources cited by Plomley. In a paper with Kristen Henley, he notes that ‘[l]ittle information has been found concerning the “half-caste” offspring of the Europeans and their native women’ before going on to cite a description of the wife of a sealer on Walker Island in 1838. She ‘was half European and half Tasmanian, and by no means ill-looking; she spoke very good English and appeared to take more care of her person than her two companions, who were aborigines of pure blood. A few wild flowers were tastefully entwined with her hair, which was dressed with some pretension to elegance.’18 Similarly the authors record the view of John Boultbee, made in 1824, whose sexually desirable ‘hybrid’ contrasts starkly with the Aboriginal mothers: ‘I have seen several of the offspring of these parties; they are a clever active sort of people and have a handsome countenance, notwithstanding the ugly physiognomies of their mothers.’19

The reduced fecundity of the racial union is another characteristic of this discourse – a counterpoint to the idea of the hypersexual hybrid. Racialised hybridity presupposes a racialised ‘anterior purity’ – an essentialised human taxonomy, and, for at least some of the race theorists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ‘the phenomenon of diminished fertility … provided proof that black and white were different species’.20 To that end, Plomley’s interpretation of the population history of the Bass Strait islands directly echoes this thinking:

There are records of about fifty sealers in Bass Strait in the 1820’s and 1830’s, but many of these men had small halfcaste families who had died out by the second generation. Why was this? It is probably safe to assume that the majority of both the men and the women were fertile, that there were no hereditary disabilities among them, and that in regard to the venereal diseases there was little syphilis, but perhaps some gonorrhoea among the women. It was quite different, however, in regard to fecundity, because only a few of the women had viable children or grandchildren, and it seems reasonable to think that it was not the women to whom was due this lack of fecundity, but the men, whose sperm could not fertilise the woman or rendered her womb unreceptive, that is, many of the European men were unable to produce offspring when mating with the Aboriginal woman, even though they may have done so with European women. There seems no doubt that this state of affairs was basically a genetic one. To take another example of what appears to have been another genetic effect: the majority of Tasmanian Aborigines, but certainly not all, were susceptible to infection by European thoracic disease.21

In sum, this view suggests that racial hybrids have disrupted fertility, as a consequence of their transgression of racialised categories.

However, the determinants of human population fertility are considerably more complex in terms of both the possible range of factors and the social processes associated with them. A complete review of this body of work is beyond the scope of this paper. For illustration, however, JW Wood22 proposes a framework for organising the proximate determinants of natural fertility (the population fertility in those populations without effective contraception and induced abortion) into exposure and susceptibility factors. The cluster of exposure factors includes the age at which sexual union commences, age of menarche and menopause, and age of onset of pathological sterility (caused by, for example, some sexually transmissible diseases). Susceptibility factors include the duration of lactation, waiting time to conception (frequency of intercourse, length of ovarian cycles and so on), the probability of foetal loss, and so on. All of the proximate causes identified by Wood can further be framed within an ecological context that is influenced by a range of intersecting cultural and economic factors. Consequently, the social mores that shape the age of first intercourse, economic factors such as the patterns of labour and migration, poverty and food supply are all possible contributors to population fertility.

Of all this entire range of factors that impact on the fertility of populations, Plomley only considers, and then dismisses, the impact of pathological sterility. He observes that there was a low prevalence of sexually transmissible infections, but this view is not substantiated. It is, further, unlikely that the historical record could be used to make categorical assertions about the impact of sexually transmissible infections, given both the intimate and often asymptomatic nature of their expression. Notwithstanding, Plomley confers racial hybridity with an explanatory power – such that this transgression of racial categories explains the low number of babies born in the Bass Strait islands.

Plomley’s interest in the biological classification of difference between human peoples does not necessarily imply a naturalisation of inferiority. In fact, he explicitly rejects this: ‘As an offshoot of classifications of superiority and inferiority the term “race” has formed a blanket cover for these two thoughts [that is, taxonomy and stratification], but it is a word related strongly to prejudice and should therefore be used as little as possible.’23 Further, he acknowledges ongoing social discrimination: ‘As the [Cape Barren Island] community developed the group sought acceptance by the dominant culture, but the European community at large rejected the mixed-bloods. This rejection forced the mixed-bloods to rely upon themselves, and to consider themselves to be Aborigines.’24

Nevertheless, I would argue that Plomley’s interpretative approach to Aboriginal history is flawed in his reliance on biologically determinist models. His rejection of a naturalised inferiority notwithstanding, the racialised construction of Tasmanian Aborigines produces a colonial encounter in which Aboriginal people are propelled towards an inevitable demise, unable to withstand the encounter with a colonising culture, unable to withstand the onslaught of European disease, and sterile in the encounters that followed. The historical connection between the children and grandchildren of Tasmanian Aborigines and sealers and settlers is confined to the in-between space, with their lived and historical relations to their ancestors severed by their hybrid status.

A community of people did survive and thrive in Bass Strait and Tasmania. Tasmanian Aboriginal people have also contributed to the ongoing development of Aboriginal communities in Australia in places such as Kangaroo Island, Aboriginal reserve communities (such as Coranderrk in Victoria and Cummergunga in New South Wales) and many more.25 The racialisation of Aboriginal identities had produced a colonial lexicon of liminality – half-caste, half-breed, quadroon, octoroon, the 1/64th, touched by the tar brush, mixed breed, a touch of the splash – that was increasingly fine-grained in the granularity of difference. However, most Aboriginal Australians have rejected the identity of ‘breed’, preferring regional identities such as Koori, Ngoongah, Murri or Palawa (in the case of Tasmanians), or traditional clan names. Aborigine in this context signifies a historical relationship with precolonial inhabitants of Australia, an undiminished sense of community and a differentiated citizenship within the context of the Australian state. This cultural reassertion became increasingly prominent as a part of the Aboriginal political movement that developed during the latter half of the twentieth century. It was a matter of political choice to refer to oneself as Tasmanian Aboriginal rather than half-caste: it reflected a rejection of a liminality imposed through colonial discourse.

This manoeuvre directly confronts the racialisation of identity. Such racialisation demands an arithmetic of parts – a calculus that rests on the mistaken belief that there is a concordance between identity and a biological classification of humanity. However, while the intellectual enthusiasm for racialised constructions has waned, the enthusiasm for hybridity has not. Notwithstanding the debate about the scientific merit of race and racial hybridity, the metaphor of hybridity has been imported into cultural theory with considerable enthusiasm, along with ‘assertions that identities are constructed, multiply constituted, and fluid: that border crossing is “in” and boundary making is suspect; that political initiatives are best grounded in “provisional solidarities” that avoid all recourse to essentialism …’26 It is essentialism that posits a necessary purity of form – and so for some theorists ‘hybridity’ provides a conceptual rescue or antidote ‘to do duty for an articulation of rights and assertions of autonomy. The hybrid is a usefully slippery category purposefully contested and deployed to claim change … [H]ybridity has come to mean all sorts of things to do with mixing and combination in the moment of cultural exchange.’27

Despite the recent widespread enthusiasm for this idea, some cultural theorists have raised serious concerns about the utility or appropriateness of ‘cultural hybridity’ in some or all contexts.28 One concern relates to the location of this idea within the discourse of race – and the way in which it reinforces or restates some of the assumptions of this discourse:

There is an historical stemma between the cultural concepts of our own day and those of the past from which we tend to assume that we have distanced ourselves. We restate and rehearse them covertly in the language and concepts that we use: every time a commentator uses the epithet ‘full-blooded’, for example, he or she repeats the distinction between those of pure and mixed race. Hybridity in particular shows the connections between the racial categories of the past and contemporary cultural discourse: it may be used in different ways, given different inflections and apparently discrete references, but it always reiterates and reinforces the dynamics of the same conflictual economy whose tensions and divisions it re-enacts in its own antithetical structure. There is no single, or correct, concept of hybridity: it changes as it repeats, but it also repeats as it changes. It shows that we are still locked into parts of the ideological network of a culture that we think and presume that we have surpassed.29

Perhaps of greater significance is the way in which terms such as hybridity can be mobilised in particular sociopolitical contexts. In a paper that analyses the complexity that arises when terms such as hybridity ‘travel’ between distinct sociopolitical settings, Charles Hale argues that, within the specific context of the highlands of Guatemala, members of the dominant (ladino) group have mobilised this term to challenge and delegitimate Mayan Indians’ demands for cultural rights, and in some circumstances ‘make a thinly veiled call for outright assimilation’.30 Further this ‘deployment in effect often works against the primary objectives of Maya activism …’:

It is not just that they take on new and different meanings when they travel – a significant but not an especially deep or novel insight. More importantly, these theories of identity politics which affirm and celebrate hybrid sensibilities, especially the ones that I find most useful and convincing … may not really be made ready to travel. They are firmly grounded in a particular place, a specific set of struggles …31

Hutnyk is perhaps even more sceptical: ‘It is my argument, however, that syncretism and hybridity are academic conceptual tools providing an alibi for lack of attention to politics, in a project designed to manage the cultural consequence of colonization and globalization.’32

This is particularly pertinent to the context of many Aboriginal peoples in settled (non-remote) Australia and in Tasmania in particular. It is on the discursive fulcrum of hybridity that Aboriginal administrative policies have, for a substantial proportion of the twentieth century, minimised the claims for Aboriginal rights, while at the same time they have justified interventions in child welfare and social welfare ostensibly aimed at producing an assimilated Aboriginal citizen. Aboriginal Tasmanians, like many other Aboriginal Australians, understand very well that whether they are represented in racial terms as half-castes or in the more contemporary vogue of cultural hybrids they risk political expulsion into a place of non-belonging. This ambivalence is evoked by Brian Stross, an advocate of cultural hybridity and its biological metaphors in a clear echo of those remarks made by Plomley that so threatened my teenage sense of place and self:

Hybrids, whether plants or animals, can be seen as belonging simultaneously to both (or more) parent systems or to neither. Sometimes they are assigned to one or the other of the parents on the basis of gender, power, or some other quality. Cultures, genres, and other products of human “culture” are treated in the same way by human classificatory perceptions and constructions.33

The question that this then provokes is how it is possible to articulate a sense of self that disengages with the racialised constructions of identity produced through colonial discourses and those universalising constructs of cultural hybridity that travel so poorly, given the particular and specific context of Tasmania’s history and politics? Here I want to turn to a more contemporary source, one which surprisingly set me thinking about the relationship between kinship, place and history, and the formation of subjectivity.

Past, kinship and place

In Tasmania is a literary exploration of Nicholas Shakespeare’s encounter with Tasmania. Shakespeare migrates from England, drawn in part by the island’s remoteness: ‘it is like outer space on earth and invoked by those at the “centre” to stand for all that is far-flung, strange and unverifiable.’34 His narrative of discovery juxtaposes the ordinariness of setting up house, meeting people and having his first child with an historical journey that is refracted through his account of the life history of Anthony Fenn Kemp. Kemp – ‘one of the founding sires of Australia, who led like a lightning rod back to the island’s past, giving me a portrait of the whole bizarre and brutal early history of Tasmania and New South Wales’35 – was the brother-in-law of and business partner to Shakespeare’s ancestor William Potter. Shakespeare’s entrancement with the so-called ‘Father of Tasmania’ begins with a bag of letters, which his father passed on to him following their discovery in Shakespeare’s grandmother’s basement in England. The correspondence (thirty letters in all) was dated from 1791 to 1825, and the bulk of it was between Kemp and Potter.

To me, their story was about two ways of being in the world. On the one hand there was Kemp, roistering, opportunistic, peripatetic, corrupt. (The name Kemp, I found out, derived from a Saxon word meaning combat, competitive drinker, “a contemptible, rascally fellow”.) On the other was the sedentary, abstemious Potter.36

In this ‘outer space’ place, the island at the periphery of an Eurocentric imagination, it ‘is in myth and in history a secret place, a rarely visited place. Those few who did make the journey compared it to Elysium, or sometimes to Hades.’37 His narrative accordingly explores the mythic contrasts that so divided the Tasmanian landscape. On the dark side of the ledger the brutality of the Tasmanian convict system and the impact of colonisation on Aboriginal peoples figure highly. On the other hand, the faint echoes of hedgerow rural England, the hope of a southern Arcadia, the imprint of a Constable landscape, paper over the soil stained by the blood of coloniser and colonised. Farming hamlets that edge onto a pristine wilderness speak for the Elysium of the European imagination. This representation of Tasmania is drawn out through a contemporary story of travel and migration interspersed with the unfolding drama of a human binary that is represented by the ancestral kinship connection between Shakespeare, Kemp and Potter.

In his journey through the mythic construct of Tasmania, kinship and ancestry are constant guideposts. For instance, in North Motton, an isolated cluster of small farms on the northwest coast, Shakespeare unexpectedly encounters another branch of his family: the granddaughters of ‘a lost uncle of whom my grandfather had been fonder than of his father or mother’.38 Settling away from Devon with the shame of the loss of the family estate behind them and troubled by the alcoholism of their father, this branch of the family has a story which evokes a place of backbreaking work and disappointment tempered by the contentment that comes from endurance. The family has become disconnected from its Devonshire roots and the two sisters are delighted to have the opportunity to meet their English kin. Theirs has been a contained life.

“Where’s the furthest you ever travelled?”

[He asks the old ladies.]

“Launceston. That’s as far as we ever got,” Ivy said.

“But that was years ago.”

Launceston was no further than 70 miles away.

“When was this?”

“Oh, 1947.”39

Here Shakespeare effects a reconnection of kin that bridges the globe. Yet there is a possibility that lies uncovered beneath the surface of this touching encounter. The isolated rural life in northern Tasmania is a complete and sustaining world. Remote, perhaps, to global travellers anchored as they may be intellectually in the European north, but not so to these elderly women, for whom the south of the island is ‘distant parts’ and the so-called European ‘centre’ a mythic and far-off place.

This idea resonates with my emotional centredness on the island. It is a place where family and kin have lived and died for millennia. The mountains, valleys and coast have been familiar features through the generations – with their contours receding within the span of geological time. Shakespeare is intensely curious about the Aboriginal history of the island. He is surprised to learn that there are people who refer to themselves as Aboriginal, having been brought up on the Tasmanian myth of extinction. In the course of this intellectual and emotional journey he interviews a number of Aboriginal people, witnesses Aboriginal community debate and even observes the theatre of a public debate on Keith Windschuttle’s controversial Fabrication of Aboriginal History. His stance is both sympathetic and searching. Yet he struggles with the idea of Aboriginal identity. He is honest in his perplexity, confessing, at the end of one account of an interview with a Tasmanian Aboriginal man:

But I needed his help. How could someone who was 1/64 Aborigine – like, it appeared, most of the leaders in the Aboriginal community – choose this fraction of his ancestry over and above the rest? … I felt out of my depth. I felt that Tasmanian Aboriginality had elements of a faith, and that facts counted less than feeling. It was hard to think it through: I had to imagine it through. But I felt chained by the Western, linear, rationalist tradition of my English culture, and in the end it was impossible to let this go.40

I don’t think that the chains that bind his understanding are the ‘rationalist tradition’ of his English culture. His blind spot is the residuum of race. The extinction metaphor rests entirely on this construct. The notion of racial extinction is nonsense if you accept that race is a scientifically implausible construct. So, too, is the idea of ‘parts’. How can one be a part of a whole if the whole is in fact an illusion? Is Shakespeare, by contrast, 1/64th William Potter? What is the ancestral lineage that defines a ‘pure’ Englishman? To be English must you necessarily deny French, Italian, Jewish or other ancestries? And indeed towards the conclusion of his intellectual journey Shakespeare concedes:

All humans were of mixed descent, Huxley wrote, and all great nations “melting pots of race”, the result of the amalgamations of many tribes and of many waves of immigration. “Man’s incurable and increasing propensity to wander over the face of the globe had effected a thorough mixing between the hypothetical primary sub-species long before the dawn of the historic period.” Not even the Tasmanian Aborigine could be said to have been pure. “Even in its state of maximum isolation, such a group will certainly have contained many genes derived from other similar groups.”41

Notwithstanding the distant and fragmented kinship connection between Kemp and Potter and with the North Motton branch of the family, the metaphor of kinship is an extremely powerful and evocative vehicle through which Shakespeare identifies with a place that had previously been myth. On the birth of his son, he ponders:

Genealogy may generally be the preoccupation of the elderly, but the impulse to look back at the tracks in the sand can be triggered by having a child of your own, especially when that event occurs, as in my case, somewhat late in life.

In the uproar of my son’s ancestry were some pretty disappointed expectations, but like any incipient parent I was prone to self-deception and wishful thinking. I wanted his life to be perfect.

The genes, they come down. If I had a say, whose genes did I wish to dominate my son: the sensible Potter’s or the adventurous Kemp’s?42

And, further, he provides more significant clues in his own intellectual and emotional journey:

By coming to Tasmania, I had repeated the pattern of two hitherto undreamed-of relatives and the discovery pleased me in a profound and mysterious way. However tenuous, they linked me to this place. They reminded me that life was not a string of arbitrary events. That there were, if you like, no accidents.43

Here Shakespeare provides a window into a way of understanding of Aboriginal identity – one that is not racialised. The present experience of place is mediated by narratives of kinship, ones that unfold over the life course and others that are retold as stories of the ancestors. Unlike Shakespeare, for whom these Tasmanian relationships are fragmented and new, the entangled relationship between place and kin for Aboriginal Tasmanians is dense, complexly interwoven and of ancient time spans. Kin defies a racial definition. These relationships span the emotional and reciprocal bonds of connectedness. Their fluidity reflects the movement through life and place. Other factors play into the configuration of Aboriginal identity that may be less significant for Shakespeare. The experience of social exclusion and discrimination heightens the sense of belonging to a community of kin – an observation that Plomley made. Furthermore, in an Aboriginal sense of place and self, Tasmania is the centre. It is England, Scotland and Ireland, Europe and other parts, that are remote. Such remote ancestral connections are at the periphery of Aboriginal identities forged by growing up on and around the island.

The paradox of Plomley

The artefacts of memory and identity are complex and woven through the lived experience of social relations. The Aboriginal tradition has for many generations relied on the oral telling of stories and knowledge. Yet this is a tradition that has been disrupted in many ways by the impact of colonialism. In this context the archives provide a valuable resource for connecting and reconnecting those bits of the narrative that have become obscured by human tragedy. It was this realisation that enabled me to reassess the enduring legacy of the work of NJB Plomley.

He was a committed conservator: ‘The key to future knowledge lies in conservation in the present … It is no doubt quite obvious that written records should be sought and when found publicly preserved. It is no less obvious that occupation sites and other remains of the aborigines should be identified and the finds reported.’44 Some of his most significant works are edited transcripts of historical records, such as the diaries of Jorgen Jorgenson, the records of the d’Entrecasteaux expedition (1792-1793) or the Baudin expedition (1802), the Westlake papers, the diaries of George Augustus Robinson, and the historical records of the Flinders Island Aboriginal ‘settlement’.45 He produced a catalogue of Tasmanian Aboriginal material in European collections and a catalogue of Thomas Bock’s portraits of Tasmanian Aborigines.46 In addition there are a number of short monographs that Plomley published, which extract and organise archival records on a variety of topics, including Tasmanian language lists, Aboriginal place names, records of violent Aboriginal and settler encounters, and Aboriginal body markings and Aboriginal plant foods.47 Many of these documents were self-published, which in itself is an indication of his commitment to making these records available to a broader public.

The historical record is not without bias or gap or immune to subjectivity. However, I have come to appreciate NJB Plomley’s patient empiricism. The rage that burned when I wrote ‘Reclaiming Tru-ger-nan-ner: Decolonising the Symbol’ has perhaps cooled. Certainly, my understanding of my family’s past has grown and matured, as I have been able to pick up the threads of a broken discourse, albeit using an interpretative stance that is very distinct from that of NJB Plomley. I have a deeper sense of the kinship that ties me, not just to the island but more broadly to many Aboriginal communities in southeastern Australia. My pride in that past has matured as I have come to appreciate the extraordinary history of survival that many of these Aboriginal histories represent. The paradox of this is that while Plomley’s racialised hybridity denies contemporary Tasmanian Aborigines a history, his empiricism has provided access to resources and knowledge that enables the development of a considerably richer knowledge about our past. It provides a path back into history.

Reading Robinson: Companion Essays to George Robinson’s Friendly Mission

   by Anna Johnston and Mitchell Rolls