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


Community Voices


THE RE-PUBLICATION OF FRIENDLY MISSION is important. Copies of the edition published in 1966 are rare and their increasing value has seen many disappear from lending library shelves. The book itself stirs mixed emotions. On the one hand, it offers a tenuous link with the past, detailing firsthand experience of the Aboriginal peoples of the island now called Tasmania. On the other, it is a story of their betrayal, told from the condescending perspective of the betrayer.

As a primary school student in the early 1970s, I was taught that George Augustus Robinson – ‘the Conciliator’ – was a hero who had endured much to ‘save’ the ‘aborigines.’ His failure was attributed to the poor unfortunates themselves. They did not change their clothes when they got wet, consequently caught colds and died (I did wonder why somebody didn’t tell them). Also, they sat upon the rocks above the shore and looked out across the ocean toward their homeland and simply ‘pined away,’ with the odd desperate soul plunging into the sea, never to be seen again. Really, some people just can’t be helped! Of course, the story ended with the death of Trukanini, ‘the last Tasmanian.’ This left four rather bewildered children in the class looking at each other wondering what that made us. It sounds far-fetched now but, unfortunately, the use of ‘good intentions’ as a justification for past racial policy is still employed today.

The federal Howard government used precisely that excuse for the assimilation policy. Keith Windschuttle, a champion for the political right, is strongly opposed to the reassessment of history that has taken place since the 1980s. He argues that only documented evidence can be relied on to discern the ‘truth.’ Given that, historically, one side of the conflict had no form of written record, this argument conveniently sustains the one-sided story largely accepted before that period. The concept of ‘truth’ itself creates difficulties. One would be challenged to identify the ‘truth’ in the manoeuvrings of current politics, much less determine the ‘truth’ behind policies enacted almost two hundred years ago. The very notion of a single ‘truth’ to explain history is simplistic and evokes connotations of propaganda – the ‘official line.’ Another issue with this reliance on written records is the deliberate destruction of some of the more damning documentation (including some of Robinson’s later records from Wybalenna). To that extent, the record that remains has been censored.

Brian Plomley has painstakingly reconstituted the text of Robinson’s journals from handwriting he describes as ‘difficult to read’ and ‘almost without punctuation’.1 Thus, what follows is Plomley’s interpretation and his perspective should be deemed a ‘filter’ to the text presented in Friendly Mission. This is not a criticism, simply an unavoidable outcome of the process that needs to be taken into account while reading it. Plomley also comments on ‘differences in script … so great that in another context’ he might have believed someone else had written the entries.2 Considering the whitewashed history that shaped his perception, this conviction is not surprising. However, given the far greater understanding of the level of contact between Aboriginal and European peoples during the early years of the colony, the likelihood of one or more of Robinson’s guides being literate cannot be lightly dismissed. Would a handwriting analysis of the original journals reveal an unhoped for treasure – firsthand accounts of Aboriginal country, perspectives and events? A glimmer of possibility to excite you as you read …

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

   by Anna Johnston and Mitchell Rolls