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


Reliable Mr Robinson and the Controversial Dr Jones


RHYS JONES’S ARCHAEOLOGICAL WORK TRANSFORMED how traditional Tasmanian Aboriginal people are understood. As controversial as it was innovative, Jones’s ground-breaking research and dramatic ideas inflamed and inspired his fellow academics, Aboriginal people and the wider populace. Positively or negatively, Jones has influenced almost all subsequent scholarship into Aboriginal Tasmania. What this essay sets out to do is to explore what influenced Jones.

The first professional archaeologist to work in Tasmania, Jones began his research excavating shell middens in the island’s northwest in 1963. Sequencing his excavation, Jones found a non-presence of fish bones after about 3000 BP. Jones also noted that bone awls disappeared from the middens at about the same time. Jones argued that, as a result of their millennia-long isolation, the Tasmanian Aborigines were in a slow cultural decline: they had forgotten how to catch fish, probably lost the use of many of their tools and even the ability to make fire. The result, Jones concluded, was ‘the world’s simplest technology’. Jones had apparently provided the first archaeological evidence of cultural degeneration in world archaeology.1 Even if Europeans had never reached Tasmania, Jones famously asked, were the Aborigines nonetheless ‘doomed to a slow strangulation of the mind?’2

In 1978, Jones presented this idea in Tom Haydon’s highly successful film The Last Tasmanian. His cultural degeneration thesis preceded a horrific story of colonial genocide ending in the Aborigines’ total extinction. Many movie-goers drew the conclusion, as Tasmanian Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell summarised, that the ‘Aborigines in Tasmania were dying out anyway’.3 Just beginning their successful battle to be recognised as a living indigenous community, Tasmanian Aboriginal people were appalled not only by the reiteration of their extinction, but by a seemingly ‘natural’ explanation as to why it happened.

Within the academic community, Jones’s regression thesis found strong opposition. Archaeologists, some influenced by the Tasmanian Aboriginal response to Jones’s work, sought alternative reasons as to why the Tasmanian Aborigines stopped eating scale-fish.4 The debate became one of the longest and most significant within Australian archaeology. Lyndall Ryan’s 1981 book The Aboriginal Tasmanians – the first history of how the Tasmanian Aborigines survived colonisation – is explicitly set against the ideas of regression and extinction presented in The Last Tasmanian. In contrast, Keith Windschuttle’s 2002 The Fabrication of Aboriginal History misappropriates Jones’s ideas of cultural regression to exonerate British colonisation in Tasmania as part of his wider project of questioning Australian frontier historiography, including Ryan’s Tasmanian history.

The journals of GA Robinson were discovered and published during the first years of Jones’s Tasmanian research. They fundamentally shaped the direction of his work and the conclusions he formed. Jones was one of the first scholars to read Robinson closely, along with Betty Hiatt (now Meehan), who published a substantial two-part study of the traditional Tasmanian Aboriginal diet with reference to Robinson in 1968.5 The initial result of Jones’s reading of Robinson resulted in his ‘Appendix: Tasmanian Tribes’ in Norman Tindale’s 1974 Aboriginal Tribes of Australia, the most extensive picture of traditional Tasmanian Aboriginal society to date.6

Following this work Jones developed his thesis of Tasmanian Aboriginal cultural decline, first set out in the 1977 chapter ‘The Tasmanian Paradox’.7 Archaeological evidence alone did not support his regression thesis; historical sources, and most particularly Robinson’s journals, played a fundamental role. Robinson’s data provided Jones with essential evidence for the two central aspects of his thesis: the cessation of scale-fish eating and the idea that the Tasmanian Aborigines could not make fire.

For researchers such as Jones, Robinson’s journals transformed the Tasmanian ethnographic landscape. Before their discovery and publication, Tasmanian historical sources were considered problematic in their limitations. The first explorers’ journals included useful observations, but, as Jones states, the visitors ‘stayed only a short time in one place, and could not speak the language’. Early colonial accounts were often tainted by ‘prejudice against the aborigines’ and long gaps between observation and the written accounts. The records dating from when the Aborigines were living in the Bass Strait mission – post-1840s – are, Jones considers, useful, particularly linguistically but by this time the Aboriginal people were living very different lives in a new land.8 Hiatt agrees, writing that Tasmanian sources post-1840s offered only ‘second hand’ information; after then Tasmanian ‘indigenous culture must have been disrupted’.9 This chronological marker within Tasmanian sources had long been recognised; Henry Ling Roth had doubted much information dating from after the Aborigines were living in the Flinders Island mission, by which time they had also been in contact with Aborigines ‘imported’ from mainland Australia.10

This temporal boundary was underscored by the idea that Tasmanian Aboriginal people had been extinct since the death of Trukanini in 1876, which was widely accepted as fact by academics during the 1960s. Most commentators did not believe that descendants of ‘full-blood’ Aborigines – be they living or informants interviewed by former anthropologists – could dependably attest to pre-contact traditional Tasmanian culture. Since Tasmanian Aboriginal people were officially recognised as a living people from the early 1970s, these sources can, and should, be recognised as potentially important sources of information. But in the scholarly context when Jones began his research, only the archaeological record and contemporaneous historical sources could offer reliable insights, and none more so than Robinson’s journals. ‘What Robinson set down in his journals is reliable because written [sic] at the time of the events,’ states Plomley.11 ‘[E]ven his gossip seems to be reliable’, comments Hiatt. Robinson offers ‘direct observations’, Hiatt considers, and ‘reasonable indications of the way the original inhabitants of the various areas would have behaved’.12

The discovery of Robinson’s journals led Norman Tindale to alter his original plans for the extensive work, Aboriginal Tribes of Australia. Based upon decades of the ethnographer’s field research, Aboriginal Tribes mapped the linguistic boundaries across Australia for the first time, and formed the basis for much subsequent anthropological research. Tindale had initially decided to exclude Tasmania because, he explained, those Aborigines were ‘extinct’ and thus ‘no significant field information could be gathered about [their] former tribal structure’.13 This was, however, before the discovery of Robinson’s journals and Jones’s timely PhD research. ‘It is mostly from Robinson’s work that we are now able to build up a picture of Tasmanian society from families up to the major tribal and linguistic units’, Jones writes in Tindale’s Aboriginal Tribes. ‘[W]ith care … the journals enable us to advance considerably beyond the level believed possible only a few years ago, and work to this end has only just begun.’14

Jones not only began this work, but his ‘Appendix’ remains effectively unsurpassed. The 1994 Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia contains a relatively brief entry for the ‘Tasmania Regions’, referencing Jones’s ‘Appendix’ as further reading, as it does for half the entries for the eight individual Tasmanian regions. The boundaries on the Encyclopaedia’s Tasmanian map are, with a few notable changes, also much the same as those drawn by Jones in 1974.15 While the Encyclopaedia references Ryan’s The Aboriginal Tasmanians as further reading, the chapter in which Ryan details the traditional regions is in fact based upon a 1971 draft of Jones’s ‘Appendix’.16 Ryan confirmed this was so, and told me that she considers Jones’s ‘Appendix’ ‘a masterpiece’. Jones had ‘a clearer grasp’ of Robinson’s journals’ significance than did Plomley, being ‘more alert to other new research work … and … better placed … to locate the Tasmanian Aborigines in a wider context’.17 Ryan told me that she was originally inspired and encouraged to research Tasmanian Aboriginal colonial history by Jones at the Australian National University in the mid-1960s.18 But this was when the idea of Tasmanian Aboriginal extinction was still assumed within the academy, and before Jones published his regression thesis.

The idea of extinction deeply affected how Jones saw Tasmania, and how he perceived and used its historical sources. Robinson’s journals reinforced for Jones how and why so much Aboriginal culture and language were lost. The accounts of frontier violence in Robinson in part led Jones to summarise Tasmania’s colonial history in his 1971 PhD thesis as one of ‘psychopathic sadism, of punitive man hunts … Buchewald [sic] and My Lai remind us that things are much the same nowadays.’19

After completing his PhD, Jones went with Betty Hiatt in 1972 to coastal Arnhem Land to study Gigjingali society. Jones told me that being in Arnhem Land had changed how he felt about Tasmania.20 On his return Jones published ‘The Tasmanian Paradox’, posing the famous question of a ‘slow strangulation of the mind?’ It was, Jones told me, intended to be ‘not a scientific article’ but more ‘like a novel’.21 Indeed, it was written as if Jones was looking down from the far north to the cold southern island, struck by their contrasts. Tasmania seemed even more disconnected, isolated, emptier: devastated by colonisation. In Jones’s emotive idea of a ‘slow strangulation’, the rising seas brought not only regression, but also the colonisers who sailed to the southern island: deep time met genocide.

Under Tom Haydon’s direction and writing, Jones’s symbolic connection became far more literal in The Last Tasmanian. But by now the presumption of the Tasmanian Aborigines’ extinction had been successfully challenged by strong activist voices. The Commonwealth government had, since 1973, funded an Aboriginal legal service which, by 1977, was called the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre.22 But Haydon did not include this fact or the vocal activists in his film. Instead, almost the only living Aborigines who appear in the film deny their identity. For some who had grown up with other names for themselves, such as ‘half-castes’ or ‘Islanders’, the change in nomenclature to ‘Aboriginal’ was difficult. The Last Tasmanian was made during that shift in the language of identity. Indeed, in many ways the controversy it produced made the film part of that shift.

As a result Jones became – or was cast as – the last vocal academic rearguard of, and apologist for, the Tasmanian Aborigines’ extinction. This ensured he was at loggerheads with the student he had originally inspired in Canberra a decade before; Lyndall Ryan, with the publication of The Aboriginal Tasmanians, became the new academic voice arguing for the Tasmanian Aborigines’ survival. She joined Jones’s other critics such as Michael Mansell, black activist Bobbi Sykes and archaeologists Anne Bickford and Sandra Bowdler who considered Jones was perpetuating nineteenth-century ‘social Darwinist’, or ‘dying race’, theories.23

This interpretation of Jones’s work was not wholly accurate. Nineteenth-century scholars such as John Lubbock and EB Tylor, whose ideas were commensurate with Darwinian models of human evolution, did consider that the Tasmanians represented one of the lowest levels of human development.24 Jones did not challenge this notion entirely, but he argued their cultural status had not always been so low. While his regression theory had strong echoes with early Darwinians, such as Francis Galton and Cesare Lombroso, who argued that certain environments can cause regressive characteristics among humans, for most evolutionist anthropologists the Tasmanians were either locked in a stasis, or on the verge of progress.25 The idea of regression was for them, as Tim Murray puts it, ‘a much harder idea to historicize on the world scale’.26

Moreover, the idea that The Last Tasmanian was an apology for British colonisation could not be further from the intentions of Haydon and Jones. They had hoped it would be a shocking indictment of colonisation, as indeed it was for many Australians. Jones was an outspoken, left-wing Welshman who saw the film as an opportunity to empathise with the Tasmanians’ cultural loss.27 But with the film’s emphasis on presenting a history of complete genocide, Jones’s archaeological thesis of regression is almost presented only to foreshadow their subsequent extinction. For most viewers 12,000 years were squeezed into the events of about seventy years.28

In the furious debate that resulted, there was little space to recover Jones’s complex archaeological thesis or his anti-imperialist politics. Jones’s ability to give poetic power to academic ideas left him vulnerable to being misread. The most recent misreading has been by Windschuttle who, in an attempt to recycle the nineteenth-century social Darwinian idea that the colonists were naturally superior to the Aborigines, takes Jones’s intentionally poetic question ‘slow strangulation of the mind?’ and states it as a fact true not only of the Tasmanian Aborigines’ technical abilities, but of their ‘internally dysfunctional’ society. This, not British colonisation, was their ‘real tragedy’, Windschuttle concludes. The millennia they had survived ‘owed more to good fortune than good management … it is not surprising that when the British arrived, this small, precarious society collapsed.’29 This is one of several strategies Windschuttle employs to justify the devastating effects of colonisation on traditional Tasmanian people. It is an insult to Jones’s beliefs and rigorous academic research.

JONES’S FINDINGS OF A NON-PRESENCE of fish bones in excavated middens had apparently influenced Tasmanian historiography far beyond his original hopes or intentions. It was not his archaeological findings themselves that created the drama, but rather the conclusions Jones drew from them. Other archaeologists quickly concurred that the Tasmanian Aborigines had ceased eating scale-fish from about 3000 BP when Jones’s Rocky Cape findings were corroborated by further excavations from the late 1960s onwards. Where they differed from Jones was in the reasons why. Sandra Bowdler suggested that fish had never been a central part of the Tasmanian diet.30 Harry Allen proposed that the cooler climate from about 5000 BP may have given Aboriginal hunters cause to ‘concentrate their energies on more profitable foods’.31 Ron Vanderwal found evidence of such a shift, which, among other factors, David Horton considers evidence of adaptation rather than degeneration.32

Historical sources also strongly supported the idea of a cessation of fish eating. Ling Roth, in The Aborigines of Tasmania (1899), concluded that ‘the Tasmanians did not eat fish’.33 They speared fish for sport, and ate shell-fish in abundant quantities, but they never ate fish with scales. Ling Roth finds no reliable evidence of Aborigines eating scale-fish in the many Tasmanian historical sources he gathered, and notes several references in which they rejected offers of fish made by early explorers. Once discovered, Robinson’s journals further confirmed these findings, as Hiatt first noted in 1968.34 A decade later Jones reflected that from the ‘more than half a million words’ that make up Robinson’s diaries, with ‘hundreds of descriptions of hunting and gathering episodes, documenting scores of different vegetable and animal foods, there is not a single description of fish being eaten in the bush’.35 Jones reflects that, ‘while negative evidence is always dangerous, I consider this silence to be highly significant’.36

Robinson in fact recorded many instances of Tasmanian Aborigines eating ‘fish’, but Plomley, like Jones, is confident that when Robinson uses the word ‘fish’ he always means shellfish.37 There are several positive references within the journals that appear to support this presumption. One of these Hiatt considers ‘perhaps the clearest statement in Robinson’s journals that the natives did not eat bony fish’.38 Camping at Wanderer River in 1833, Robinson describes how the Aboriginal women he was travelling with made fish hooks of bent pins, then attached lines of thread, dug up worms as bait and caught ‘trout’ from the river. ‘This was fine amusement for them. Although they do not eat this sort of fish’.39 Robinson and his son, however, enjoyed the ‘trout’ as well as a large ‘lobster’ caught for them, of which he wrote, ‘[t]he natives are fond of this fish’.40 Jones also cites a scene from Robinson’s expedition to the northwest in 1832 when he is being chased by a group of ‘wild blacks’ whom he had enraged by convincing four of their young women to join him on his mission. The pursuit took him over a river, which he crossed, leaving the ‘wild blacks’ stranded on the other side. They called out that they would give Robinson dogs (in return for the women) with which they got ‘plenty of kangaroo and wallaby’. They also told him: ‘when I got those people to the island I should feed them on fish, and mimicked the pulling up of the fish with a line.’41 It is not exactly clear if the men were mocking the eating of fish (as inferior to kangaroo and wallaby) or merely the technique of catching it with a line. Jones concludes from this scene that the Aboriginal people ‘who had … entered the Government settlements had become “fish eaters” – a term of abuse’.42 The term ‘fish eaters’ appears to be Jones’s own invention.

Jones interpreted Robinson’s journal entries with considerable confidence, even ignoring the established tenet: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This is perhaps understandable, for Robinson’s journal entries underscore a swathe of archaeological and other historical evidence. But this is not the case with the other central aspect of Jones’s regression thesis: the idea that Tasmanian Aborigines had lost the ability to make fire. More than the cessation of fish eating, the loss of a skill so basic to their everyday survival became the most influential factor in creating the image of Tasmanian Aborigines as the simplest people on earth. Jones first suggested the idea in his widely referenced 1977 paper. ‘Fire was carried … in smouldering slow burning fire-sticks’, he wrote, ‘but the Tasmanians did not know how to make it.’ They had ‘to go to their neighbours for a re-light if their own sticks went out.’43

Apart from the possible traces of fire left on stones that may have been used as striking flints, as suggested by Gisela Völger, there is no archaeological evidence that could reasonably exist to determine the notion positively or negatively.44 Jones’s sole evidence for this statement is a reference to a note by Plomley in Friendly Mission: ‘The Tasmanians seem to have had no artificial means of producing fire. They had to keep a fire constantly alight and, if it was extinguished, had to obtain fire from other natives. This is made clear by Robinson elsewhere in his diaries.’45 It seems evident that Plomley is referring to the one final comment in Robinson’s diary from which such an interpretation could be made. It is from 28 December 1831, as Robinson undertook his Big River expedition with ‘his mission’ Aborigines:

As the chief always carries a lighted torch I asked them what they did when their fire went out. They said if their fire went out by reason of the rain they was compelled to eat the kangaroo raw and to walk about and look for another mob and get fire of them. They must give fire and sometimes they would fight afterwards. MANNALARGENNA said that the two men in the sky first gave the natives fire, that they stood all round. WOORRADY said PARPEDER gave fire to the Brune natives.46

Informed by Plomley, it was Jones who popularised the idea.47 Lyndall Ryan states the Tasmanians could not make fire in The Aboriginal Tasmanians, an assertion repeated by Vivienne Rae-Ellis in Trucanini: Queen or Traitor?, also published in 1981.48 Tim Flannery’s 1994 The Future Eaters restates the claim with Rae-Ellis as his reference.49 Jared Diamond’s 1993 article ‘Ten Thousand Years in Isolation’ – which reiterates Jones’s thesis of cultural regression (without credit) – states that ‘most archaeologists suspect that [the Tasmanians] had no means of kindling [fire]’.50 The unified opinion of archaeologists on this point is in fact highly debatable. Most recently, Windschuttle writes that the ‘colonists were astonished to observe [the Aborigines] could not make fire, a skill that even Neanderthal man had mastered’.51 The idea that the Tasmanian Aborigines could not make fire has broad appeal beyond written books. When on holiday in the Bass Strait in 1996, a fellow tourist told me that the Tasmanian Aborigines were ‘so backward’ that ‘they couldn’t even make fire’.

While the idea that the Tasmanian Aborigines could not make fire became most widely repeated following Jones, there were writers in the nineteenth century who also considered it true. Missionaries James Backhouse, the Rev. Thomas Dove and Joseph Milligan, who spoke with Aborigines at the Flinders Island Mission from the 1830s, and colonists James E Calder and James Fenton, concluded that the Aboriginal people had no traditional method of making fire.52 Ling Roth and Tylor, who note these sources and who both considered the Tasmanian Aborigines representative of one of most primitive cultures on earth, nonetheless found this conclusion highly dubious.53

Among the journal records of early French and English explorers of south-east Tasmania from 1773 to 1792, eight men independently described Aboriginal baskets containing stones and dry bark, moss or grass.54 They all concluded that these were tools used for striking a fire, a method anthropologists call the ‘percussion’ method, and which has been used by Aborigines in other parts of Australia.55 Further, in early 1830, Robinson wrote that he had ‘[o]btained a stone’ used by the ‘Brune natives with which they sharpen their waddies and by means of which they strike fire … they call it MY.RER.’56 Plomley was unconvinced by the explorers’ conclusions, pointing out that they were ‘no doubt influenced by their own flintlock arms’, and in reference to the ‘MY.RER’ stone, he notes in Friendly Mission that it was ‘an error’ due to Robinson’s ‘inexperience’, or due to him ‘misunderstanding what he was told’.57

Aside from the ‘percussion’ method, there are many accounts of traditional Tasmanian Aboriginal people using wood to obtain fire with the ‘friction’ method. The earliest is by French explorer Louis Ventenat in 1793.58 Other references date from colonists in the 1840s. Despite his distrust of most later sources, Ling Roth concludes that this was the method the Aborigines used, citing two detailed descriptions by early settlers who had witnessed fire-making first-hand.

These descriptions are closely echoed in the greatest body of Tasmanian fire-making evidence. Amateur scientist Ernest Westlake travelled to Tasmania in 1908-1910 collecting Aboriginal stone artefacts. Central to the Westlake Papers, housed in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, are the notes Westlake made in interviews with ninety-five Tasmanians – both Aboriginal (or ‘half-castes’ as they were then called) and non-Aboriginal – about the lives of the traditional indigenes. Westlake was a meticulous researcher, not only noting interviews, but voraciously tracking down every possible reference to traditional Tasmanian Aboriginal language and culture he could during his years in Tasmania. It was Westlake who informed the Mitchell Library of the existence and forthcoming sale of Robinson’s field journals. In early 1910 Hobart photographer JW Beattie told Westlake that the diaries were being brought to Australia from England to be sold. Westlake then wrote to the Mitchell Library in Sydney suggesting they acquire Robinson’s journals, offering to act as negotiator and to get them valued – hopefully by Ling Roth – in return for the opportunity to read them on his return to England. It was his aim to publish ‘any matter’ in Robinson ‘relating to the habits and customs of the Tasmanians’.59 It is doubtful that Westlake was aware of the size of his proposed undertaking. If he ever had the opportunity to read them, he never published any part of them. Indeed, Westlake never published any of his Tasmanian notes which, particularly regarding the question of fire-making, have only recently been recognised for their significance.

Twenty-seven of Westlake’s ninety-five informants recount methods by which the Aborigines made fire. Among them, Aboriginal Islander Philip Thomas remembered in close detail the same method described by Ling Roth’s settler informants.60 Philip Jones notes this method has been used by Aborigines in Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria and Queensland.61 In a 2002 paper, Beth Gott assesses this evidence and concludes that ‘virtually all of it is open to the objection that it could have been learned from contact’; there were no eye-witness accounts of Aborigines making fire until after the 1840s. Nonetheless, Gott considers it likely that the Tasmanians could make fire, evoking the well-known tenet in the title to her article ‘Fire-Making in Tasmania: Absence of Evidence is Not Evidence of Absence’.62

It was, however, precisely this absence that had convinced Plomley and, in turn, Jones. Not only are there no positive eye-witness accounts of Aborigines actively making fire before the 1840s, there are none in Robinson’s journals. Moreover, after Robinson had moved to Victoria in 1840 he noted: ‘I observed for the first time how natives in their original state get fire by friction from two pieces of wood’, suggesting he had never seen this in Tasmania.63

In a 1992 paper, Shayne Breen suggests a reason why Robinson never saw fire being made in Tasmania: that it was a secret men’s business. He wonders ‘if the carrying of firesticks was restricted to initiated men’ (since the ‘chief always’ carried it) and if fire-making was a ‘special ceremony’ in which the myth they spoke of – ‘Parpeder’ and the ‘two men in the sky’ – was ‘re-enacted’.64 If this speculation is so, then it appears to explain why Backhouse and Dove concluded the Tasmanian Aborigines could not make fire. The Aborigines they met all spoke of fire coming from the sky – what the white men assumed was lightning. As Tylor observes, myths for the origin of fire from around the world predominantly refer to fire first coming from the sky; in Greek mythology Prometheus steals fire from Zeus, and brings it to earth.65 In Dreaming stories from across Aboriginal Australia fire also comes from the sun, or from a bird.66

There may also be a far more mundane reason that Robinson never saw fire being made in Tasmania. Robinson included the premise: ‘They said if their fire went out by reason of rain.’ If the weather had been warm and dry then Mannalargenna may have had quite a different response. To make fire using the friction method, both the air and the wood need to be appropriately dry and warm. In wet and cold weather, it might be impossible. It rains a great deal in Tasmania.

Escapee William Buckley, who lived with Aborigines in Port Phillip, found if his group’s firesticks went out while they were travelling, they had to wait until they could find another mob who had fire so ‘we were again able to make fires to cook our food’.67 In Lake Eyre, one of the driest places in the continent, missionary JG Ruether noted the Aboriginal maxim: ‘kindle (rub) a fire today; tomorrow the wood may be damp.’68 This may explain why colonists Calder and Fenton considered the Aborigines unable to make fire; they considered the Tasmanian timbers impossible to ignite.69 Sylvia Hallam notes that in south-western Australia, as in Tasmania, the Aborigines always carried firesticks when it was raining in order to be able to light another fire quickly, but adds ‘that the use of a fire-brand did not signify inability to ignite a fire’.70 To observe that the Tasmanian Aborigines could not make fire in the rain is quite different to stating that they had forgotten how to make it altogether.

In 1993 Plomley revoked his earlier conclusion that the Tasmanians were unable to make fire. He agreed with Breen that, in Plomley’s words, ‘to fail to observe something is far from claiming that it did not happen’. He also reassessed the collective conclusions drawn by early explorers in regard to the baskets of stones, concluding it was ‘an impressive record’ and reappraised Westlake’s informants as an important and reliable source of traditional Tasmanian Aboriginal culture.71

Jones had studied the Westlake Papers in Oxford for his PhD, but he did not reference these contrary testimonies in his regression thesis, most likely because he did not consider Westlake’s informants dependable witnesses of traditional Tasmanian culture.72 With the idea of extinction as yet unchallenged, Westlake’s informants were not considered Tasmanian Aborigines and, having been interviewed more than a century after first settlement, their testimonies were a long way from the ‘right side’ of the 1840s chronological marker. Within this logic, their evidence could not convincingly contradict one reference in Robinson’s journal.

In 1966 Plomley too had more faith in this one entry. This is because it appeared to be testimony from the most reliable Tasmanian historical source: from a man who had spent more time than any other European living and travelling with traditional Tasmanian Aborigines. Plomley’s conclusion had a far-reaching impact. It convinced Rhys Jones whose ground-breaking archaeological work influenced almost all subsequent scholarly work on Aboriginal Tasmania. But the idea of the Tasmanian Aborigines as a fireless people was far more romantic than it was ever scientific. Tylor had observed that the idea had been promulgated in various contexts and times; Tasmania was just another, more recent, example. While the concept of ‘fireless men’ intrigued him, Tylor considered it no less dubious than the fanciful discoveries through the ages of races ‘who have no language, no names … no mouths, no heads, or no noses …’73 Appealing as the idea may be, the evidence simply does not stack up.

JONES WAS ONE OF THE first scholars, and perhaps the most important, to realise how Robinson opened a new and incomparably reliable window onto the Aborigines’ pre-contact way of life. But no historical record can provide an unfiltered view onto the past. As Greg Dening observes, the moment ‘at which cultures were purely native, unchanged by intrusion’ is a moment ‘that historically has never existed’. Tasmanian Aborigines entered the written record post-contact. Everything about them is bound up ‘with the historical reality of the intruders who saw them, changed them, destroyed them’.74 Robinson’s journals tell us as much about Robinson as they do about what he saw; they show us the world of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people through the eyes of one man.

Moreover, interpretations of Robinson are no less historical. When Jones began his ground-breaking research on Tasmanian Aborigines, it was assumed those people were extinct.75 By the time he published his ideas of cultural regression, Tasmanian Aborigines had been officially recognised as a living community. For this reason it is arguably no longer plausible to exclude all Tasmanian historical sources post-1840s, in particular those including the voices of Tasmanian Aboriginal people such as the Westlake Papers.

This relates not only to the question of fire-making, but also to scale fish eating: almost all of Westlake’s interviewees whom he questioned on the matter were adamant that the Tasmanian Aborigines traditionally ate fish with scales. On Cape Barren Island, Aboriginal interviewee Philip Thomas remembered, as a child, seeing the fires lit on the sea shores at Cape Portland to attract the fish which were then speared. When I was on Cape Barren Island in 2002, I was told that spears and until recently, torches, were used to catch scale fish, which informants insisted were a traditional part of their diet.76

While there may be no assurance that these people are ‘right’ in their assertions of continuing traditional practices, there is equally no guarantee that they are ‘wrong’. Colonisation did not create an entirely impenetrable boundary to Aboriginal traditional life. To exclude subsequent generations’ testimonies for their possible unreliability is to silence these modern Aborigines and to deem them inauthentic.

This is effectively what Jones, and also Hiatt and Plomley, did when giving Robinson precedence before all other historical sources; they devalued later records and reaffirmed the idea of extinction. From this vantage point Jones gained the confidence to trust one reference on fire-making above all others, a reference that became central in shaping the image of the Tasmanian Aborigines as a regressed culture. In so doing, Jones became an important historical character in the development of the modern Tasmanian Aboriginal movement; he became a figure against which to protest in the struggle to be recognised as a living community. But more than cause offence to Tasmanian Aboriginal people, Jones’s archaeological research and his portrayal of traditional Tasmanian Aboriginal social and linguistic structures provided fundamental groundwork for all subsequent scholarship in the field.

Robinson transformed the ethnographic landscape in Tasmania, and in turn Jones radically changed how people saw the Aboriginal Tasmanians. As Robinson continues to be referenced and reinterpreted, the conclusions Jones made will continue to echo – in reference or protest – through the textual layers that make up Tasmanian Aboriginal historiography.

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

   by Anna Johnston and Mitchell Rolls