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


NJB Plomley’s Contribution to North-West Tasmanian Regional History


THE ABSENCE OF EITHER A settler or Government presence in the North West region of Tasmania during the period of early colonisation meant that the major parties involved in this process were limited to the Van Diemen’s Land Company (VDL Company) and the Aborigines themselves. The lack of documents detailing the accounts of either of these participants has hindered the development of a regional history of any depth and substance. The only sources traditionally available have been limited to Colonial Office records, sketchy accounts from early explorers and the occasional newspaper report issued from Launceston. However, the situation improved significantly with the introduction of VDL Company records into the public domain. Originating from Circular Head (the site of the VDL Company’s initial land grant in Tasmania’s far North West) and London, this material was gradually released from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. This release of material coincided with Plomley’s publication of Robinson’s journals in Friendly Mission (1966) which, however flawed, provided some hint of an Aboriginal perspective. Access to Robinson’s journals stimulated much of the subsequent archaeological research conducted in the region: Betty Hiatt (Food Quest and the Economy of the Tasmanian Aborigines from 1967), Sandra Bowdler (An Account of an Archaeological Reconnaissance of Hunter’s Isles, Northwest Tasmania, 1973/4 from 1974), Jim Stockton (Cumulative Report: Sites of Significance Survey, Tasmania from 1976) and of course Rhys Jones.1

Robinson’s journal entries were also to play a useful role in targeting significant documents buried within the extensive mass of VDL Company archives. Significant events such as the ‘Goldie incident’2 and the ‘Cape Grim massacre’ emerged into public view as researchers compared, contrasted and dovetailed Robinson’s eyewitness accounts with those found within VDL Company files. The Cape Grim massacre in particular has become the focus of much recent debate following Keith Windschuttle’s attempts to refute common interpretations of the incident.3 The massacre is an event worthy of serious investigation as it reveals much about the relationship between the VDL Company and Aborigines, as well as providing some indication of the probable fate of those tribes whose lands it occupied.

One of the points Windschuttle raised in his arguments against a serious massacre taking place was that ‘Cape Grim did not enter Australian historical consciousness until 1966’,4 noting that no nineteenth- or twentieth-century historian had ever mentioned it. However, the real reason for the late focus on the events at Cape Grim is that the important sources of information are located in the VDL Company records and in Robinson’s journal. None of the historians listed by Windschuttle from Melville (1835) to Turnbull (1948) could access this essential material. AL Meston was one of the first to take early advantage of VDL Company archives, briefly mentioning the massacre in his 1958 publication The Van Diemen’s Land Company, 182S-1842.5 Lacking other sources of information, he simply reported the initial explanation of the event forwarded by Company Manager Edward Curr to his Company directors.6 To plot a path through the many half-truths and distortions that characterise the recent debate on the Cape Grim massacre, it is instructive to examine and compare the two accounts of the incident presented by these two relatively new sources of material.

Firstly, there is the story presented by VDL Company records – the version most favoured by Windschuttle. At the time of the Cape Grim massacre, the VDL Company was administered by Edward Curr, who also held the position of Magistrate. These dual positions granted him inordinate powers and autonomy. With no free settlers in the district, Curr presided over a virtual state within a state, largely immune from the scrutiny of the colonial press and the policies of Lieutenant Governor Arthur’s administration in Hobart. The VDL Company records outline a series of five incidents at Cape Grim of direct relevance to the massacre.

  1. Early December 1827, wounding of the shepherd Thomas John in the thigh.
  2. 31 December 1827, destruction of sheep by Aborigines.
  3. Early January 1828, an abortive attempt to attack Aborigines at Cape Grim using the Company vessel Fanny.
  4. 9 February 1828, Company Superintendent Alexander Goldie visits his men at Cape Grim on the eve of the massacre.
  5. 10 February 1828, Cape Grim massacre.7

Curr’s depiction of these incidents is as follows:

1. Wounding of Thomas John – Curr reported to his directors that a ‘very strong party of Natives attacked the men in charge of the sheep at Cape Grim’ who, after a long conflict, succeeded in driving the natives away, Thomas John receiving a spear wound to the thigh in the process. Curr concluded his report by noting he was ‘under no apprehensions for the safety of either the men or the sheep’.8

2. Destruction of sheep by Aborigines – Curr reported receiving the ‘distressing information that the Natives had destroyed nearly one hundred of the ewes at Cape Grim by driving them over a rock into the sea, and such as were not drowned, were speared’.9 Following Goldie’s subsequent inspection of the remaining stock it was discovered that 118 ewes were missing.10

3. Attack by the Fanny – In Curr’s version of the event the attack took place following the Fanny’s voyage to Cape Grim on normal Company business a few days after the destruction of the sheep. Being delayed by the weather, the Master, Richard Frederick, ‘who is very well acquainted with that part of the country and with the habits of the Natives, took the opportunity of going in quest of them, with three other men’.11 After coming upon a tribe of about seventy men around nightfall, they decided to wait for daylight to make an attack. It rained heavily during the night and, when approaching the Aborigines at dawn, their muskets refused to fire and they were obliged to retreat. Curr went on to express his frustration with the Cape Grim situation, complaining that he could afford neither the men to control the Aborigines nor could he afford to abandon its superior pasture.

4. Alexander Goldie’s visit to Cape Grim – This is explained by Curr as a visit prompted by the unexpected return to Circular Head of a sheepdog from Cape Grim. Concerned that something might be amiss, Goldie visited the shepherds to investigate; finding everything in order, he left the night before the massacre.12

5. Cape Grim massacre – This is first reported in the same despatch where Curr noted Goldie’s absence from Cape Grim at the time of the incident. Curr described how

the shepherds fell in with a strong party of Natives who, after a long fight, left six of their number dead on the field, including their chief, besides several severely wounded. I have no doubt that this will have the effect of intimidating them, and oblige them to keep aloof.13

Curr was later to provide his Directors with a more detailed account of the conflict, describing how a large number of natives were gathered on top of a hill (Victory Hill) threatening four shepherds located in a hut at the foot of the hill. The shepherds, considering an attack imminent, marched out of the hut and engaged the natives, killing six of them, one of whom was a woman.14 The casualty estimate changed a little over two years later when, in a letter to Lieutenant Governor Arthur, Curr noted: ‘I have no doubt that some natives were killed on the occasion, my impression is that the real number was three’.15

A brief summary of Company records provides us with an account of a series of skirmishes between Company-employed shepherds and a group of aggressive Aborigines over a two-month period, leading to six Aboriginal deaths and several severely wounded on one side and a wounded shepherd and the loss of 118 sheep on the other. Regrettable, but not serious incidents as far as Australian frontier conflicts go, and this is probably where our understanding of these events would remain, as it does for Keith Windschuttle, had Plomley not published Friendly Mission.

Secondly, there is the story presented by Friendly Mission. The material directly relevant to the Cape Grim massacre appears in Robinson’s early journal entries during his first mission as Aboriginal Conciliator on the west coast in 1830. Following an incident involving the VDL Company and Aborigines near Emu Bay, Alexander Goldie sent a series of letters to Arthur alerting him to the fact that all was not well in the North West, describing Cape Grim as

a place, where there have been a great many Natives shot by the Company’s Servants, and several engagements between them while their stock was in that district. On one occasion a good many were shot (I never heard exactly the number) and although Mr Curr knew it, yet he never that I am aware, took any notice of it although in the Commission of the Peace and at that time there was no proclamation against the Natives, nor were they (the Natives) at the time they were attacked at all disturbing the Company’s flocks.16

As a result of earlier correspondence from Goldie,17 Arthur had asked Robinson to report on the situation in the North West. During his two months in the district, Robinson managed to gather information from several sources. On 16 June, while visiting Woolnorth (the VDL Company property at Cape Grim at the tip of Tasmania’s far North West coast), he interviewed the convict Charles Chamberlain, who was one of the four shepherds involved in the incident. The other men involved were John Weavis (Weaver), William Gunchannon and Richard Nicholson.

Charles Chamberlain – Chamberlain confirmed the incident had taken place and informed Robinson that thirty Aborigines had been killed. He explained that the discrepancy between his figures and those provided earlier by Curr had arisen from their fear at the time that ‘the Governor would hear of it and we should get into trouble, but thirty was about the number’. Chamberlain also described throwing the bodies onto the same rocks where Aborigines had previously driven the Company sheep; there were four men involved in the killing and there were no Aboriginal women killed, although they were present.18

Aboriginal Testimony – Four days after interviewing Chamberlain, Robinson came across a sealer’s camp adjacent to Robbins Passage. The camp was occupied by four sealers and five Aboriginal women they had brought from the east. Also visiting the camp were two local Aborigines, a male (Pevay / Tunnerminnerwait) and a female whose name Robinson does not record. After striking up a conversation with the women, Robinson found that some of them could provide information relating to three of the events that took place at Cape Grim. Concerning the spearing of Thomas John, they related that this attack followed an attempt by Company shepherds to take liberties with Aboriginal women after getting them into their hut. Aboriginal men, resenting this action, reacted in a traditional manner by spearing one of the offenders in the leg. The shepherds then fired on the Aborigines, killing one man believed to be a chief. The women informed Robinson that sheep were driven over the cliff a few days later in direct response to this incident. The women were equally forthcoming with details relating to the massacre, describing how Company shepherds had taken by ‘surprise a whole tribe which had come for a supply of muttonbirds at the Doughboys, massacred thirty of them and threw them off a cliff two hundred feet in altitude’.19

The only other interview Robinson arranged was with the convict William Gunchannon, as Richard Nicholson had previously drowned and John Weavis had moved to near Hobart. Gunchannon was working on the Company lands at the Hampshire Hills when Robinson caught up with him on 10 August. Robinson found that Gunchannon was initially reluctant to provide any detailed information. However, he did admit to being one of the four men who had killed the Aborigines and dated the incident six weeks after the destruction of the sheep. Initially Gunchannon claimed that there were men and women involved in the event, but denied knowing whether any were killed or not. When Robinson informed him that Chamberlain had already admitted that thirty Aborigines were killed, Gunchannon, as Robinson put it, ‘seemed to glory in the act and said he would shoot them whenever he met them’.20

As well as gathering information from available witnesses, Robinson, accompanied by the highly regarded bushman Alexander McKay, visited Cape Grim in an attempt to reconstruct the circumstances of the massacre. McKay guided Robinson to a site now known as Suicide Bay, open to the west and situated directly opposite two small islets called the Doughboys. At the northern arm of the bay, Robinson was able to identify the steep cliff over which the Aborigines drove the Company sheep. In the body of the bay, just south of the cliff, Robinson described a steep path leading down to the beach the Aboriginal women had identified as the site of the massacre. Robinson then records his impression of what had occurred, visualising a fine day with the women swimming across to the Doughboys to gather muttonbirds:

They swim across, leaving their children at the rocks in the care of the elderly people. They had prepared their supply of birds, had tied them with grass, had towed them on shore, and the whole tribe was seated round their fires partaking of their hard-earned fare, when down rushed the band of fierce barbarians thirsting for the blood of these unprotected and unoffending people … Some rushed into the sea, others scrambled round the cliff and what remained the monsters put to death. Those poor creatures who had sought shelter in the cleft of the rock they forced to the brink of an awful precipice, massacred them all and threw their bodies down the precipice … I went to the foot of the cliff where the bodies had been thrown down and saw several human bones, some of which I brought with me, and a piece of the bloody cliff.21

Although Chamberlain’s estimate of the number of Aborigines killed was corroborated by the Aboriginal women, we are still left with the difficulty of two differing accounts of the event: that of Chamberlain, who stated that the men’s bodies were thrown down onto the rocks,22 and that of Robinson who, following information supplied by Aboriginal women, claimed that a whole tribe was attacked, including, of course, women and children23 who were seated on the shoreline round campfires eating. Robinson also adds a seemingly contradictory element to his story that supports Chamberlain’s account: ‘I went to the foot of the cliff where the bodies had been thrown down.’24

There are two possible explanations that would overcome the contradictions between the two accounts. The two versions of events could be two elements of the one story, an explanation consistent with traditional Aboriginal hunting patterns at that place. When engaged in food gathering, Aborigines, according to custom, would have had the men upon the heights hunting for wallaby, while the women, children and the elderly would have remained closer to the sea harvesting any available seafood.25 Under these circumstances the wallaby hunters, probably less than half a dozen men, would have been the first Aborigines encountered by the shepherds and the first to be shot. It was their bodies that were later thrown upon the rocks after the shepherds had fired upon those lower down closer to the shore. Alternatively, a more likely explanation can be advanced from a close examination of the track leading down to the beach. About ten metres down from the top of the path are the remains of a significant midden embedded in a large flattish sandy area. If this was the cooking area chosen on the day, the tribe would have been trapped between the shepherds and the sea by an ambush launched from the land to the east. Alarmed by gunfire they could easily have become divided, with some fleeing down to the beach while others were driven back around the lip of the high ground leading to the cliff top immediately adjacent (see figure 1).

Two other elements of Robinson’s account are also subject to challenge, initially by Kerry Pink.26 The first questions the ability of four shepherds to inflict the casualties claimed. This argument is based on two counts: the inefficiency of the muskets in use at the time, and the inexperience of the shepherds. These objections are easy to deal with. The most common musket in use at the time was the Indian Pattern Musket.27 This was a smooth-bore weapon capable of using shot with no damage to the barrel. With a calibre of .75 inches (19.05 mm), slightly larger than the current twelve-gauge shotgun, and loaded with shot, a common practice with the Company,28 they would have had a devastating and widespread effect on people at close range. So armed, the shepherds at Cape Grim could easily have killed the thirty Aborigines claimed by Robinson’s informants. As for the inexperience of the shepherds, not only did the men daily use their muskets hunting game and killing vermin, but John Weavis was a former soldier who had served with the York Chasseurs, a regiment raised from military deserters.29 Weavis served in the West Indies from 1815 to 1817 and may well have taken part in suppressing slave revolts during his tour of duty.30 Weavis would also have had ample time to train his companions in the military use of the musket.

There have also been some doubts raised concerning Robinson’s claim of finding human bones and bloodstained cliffs31 approximately two and a half years after the massacre at Suicide Bay. However, Robinson did not claim to have found bloodstained rock but simply to have taken a piece of what he figuratively referred to as the ‘bloody cliff’.32 Nevertheless, he did take human bones as evidence from the site in the presence of Alexander McKay. It is likely that human remains would not survive long at the site, given the extent of local tides and seas. The presence of the bones may be explained by the earlier evidence of Goldie that there were a good many Aborigines shot in the area. Robinson may well have found traces of a more recent murder, because evidence from the Cape Grim massacre would have long since vanished.

Photo of Suicide Bay by Ian McFarlane


Detail of steep cliff face


However, even after addressing the apparent contradictions raised by Robinson’s interpretation of events there is still a major discrepancy to be resolved between the overall accounts given in the VDL Company records and in Friendly Mission. The former depicts a series of minor conflicts culminating in a military-style skirmish at Victory Hill, the latter a cold-blooded massacre at Suicide Bay.

Site investigation

Following Robinson’s example, a physical examination of the general area is extremely useful in reconstructing the likely course of events, as in the case of discovering the midden on the path at Suicide Bay. According to Curr’s report, the conflict took place on a hill with a shepherd’s hut situated at its base. Although there are two hills in the immediate area, Victory Hill is traditionally considered to be the relevant site. An examination of the area shows neither water supply nor any evidence of hut foundations anywhere near either of the hills. However, charts from surveyors Hellyer and Wedge indicate the site to be where there are ruins of a hut about one kilometre to the northeast of Victory Hill, a situation that allowed the Company easy access from the sea via Davisons Bay. Curr very rarely visited Cape Grim and was probably told on construction of the hut that it was ‘near a hill’ and subsequently imagined it to be at its base. The conflict as Curr described it could not have taken place between Victory Hill and this hut, as any Aborigines on the hill would pose no threat to the shepherds, whose hut was well out of range of Aboriginal spears. If the shepherds did fire on Aborigines closer to their hut they would have had to carry their deadweight bodies nearly two kilometres in order to throw them off the cliffs. Furthermore, neither Chamberlain, Gunchannon, nor the Aborigines made any mention of the hut or the hill; the focus of their accounts was solely Suicide Bay. Curr’s version of events is clearly implausible, without foundation and would appear designed to depict the Aborigines as the aggressors by shifting the scene, and thus the nature of the crime, from Suicide Bay to Victory Hill (see figure 3).

Curr’s account of the first incident, the wounding of Thomas John, is also at variance with the Aboriginal women’s report. Curr described the wounding as a result of a wanton attack by Aborigines on the shepherd’s hut, whereas the Aboriginal women told of the shooting of an Aboriginal man. This followed an attempted assault on Aboriginal women in the same hut.33 If the local Aborigines were hostile to the VDL Company’s presence, one could ask why they waited until the building was constructed and established before making their first attack? Robinson reported seeing Aboriginal huts while walking in the area.34 Huts in the North West were beehive-shaped and often left telltale circular depressions in the ground as evidence of their presence. Jorgen Jorgensen gave a good description of this type of hut when travelling down the west coast in 1827.35 The only village site to be found in the Victory Hill area has at least ten depressions (the largest two measuring 7.2 metres and 5.4 metres in diameter). It is in clear line of sight of the shepherd’s hut, being a little under one kilometre directly south-west of it, and roughly one kilometre due north of Victory Hill. Archaeologist Jim Stockton conducted a comprehensive survey of the area in 1979 for the Australian Heritage Commission.36 This was the only Aboriginal village site recorded at Cape Grim: situated to the north of Victory Hill, it is in flat, open country with continuous access to the sea in an ideal environment for Aboriginal habitation. The open nature of this landscape indicates that the Aborigines would have been well aware of the Company’s presence at the time that this hut, or any other hut in the surrounding area, was constructed. If the Aborigines were aggressively resistant, attacks would have taken place during the hut’s construction when the shepherds were most vulnerable. However, Curr, contradicting his later statements, had previously informed the directors that the Aborigines at Cape Grim were quite passive, though numerous.37 Jorgensen, moreover, described them as an ‘inoffensive and friendly race’.38 Also adding weight to the Aboriginal version of events is Jorgensen’s earlier warning to Arthur that the VDL Company’s men had ‘… designs of violating their women …’39

As magistrate, Curr was responsible for the welfare of the local Aboriginal tribes, who were officially under his jurisdiction and protection. However, he took no action following this incident and as a consequence, a few days later, Aborigines slaughtered 118 sheep as a reprisal, which, in turn, led to the attack from the Fanny. It is beyond the bounds of credulity that the master of the Fanny would mount an attack without Curr’s knowledge and consent, yet Curr’s account of the incident makes little sense. He suggested that four men sat all night in the rain with their muskets getting damp, observing their quarry – seventy Aboriginal men silhouetted against their campfires – before mounting an assault in broad daylight. Just as unlikely is the story of making a successful retreat from such a body, with useless muskets. The presence of seventy Aboriginal men is also highly improbable, as this is a far greater number than any single tribe could hope to muster. The Pennemukeer people who occupied Cape Grim were not a very large tribe, as the ten hut depressions at the village site indicate. On the other hand, the village site is vulnerable to a seaborne assault, with a very good anchorage just to the north in Davisons Bay. From there, a night attack on a tribe consisting of some forty to fifty men, women and children would have a reasonable chance of success. Rosalie Hare, the wife of the captain of the Caroline who was visiting Circular Head during January 1828, noted in her diary: ‘The Master of the Company’s cutter Fanny assisted by four shepherds and his crew, surprised a party and killed twelve. The rest escaped but afterwards followed them. They reached the vessel just in time to save their lives …’40 This account is more plausible because it includes the Company shepherds. In an attack of this scale, the crew of the Fanny would have naturally enlisted the support of the shepherds, whom they were probably visiting at the time.

Image supplied by Tasmap, State of Tasmania


At this point, it is useful to consider the significance of the mounting casualty figures revealed in this review of the massacre: early December 1827, Thomas John wounded (one Aborigine shot dead); early January 1828, seaborne attack on Aborigines at Cape Grim from Fanny (twelve Aboriginal deaths); 10 February 1828, Cape Grim massacre on beach and cliffs (thirty Aboriginal deaths). Collectively, these accounts provide a potential death toll of forty-three, to which must be added an indeterminate number of wounded, who, given the use of shot, would have had poor prospects of survival. Casualty figures of this order can only point to the likely extinction of the whole tribe. This position is reinforced by the appearance in later records of only two possible Pennemukeer. Neither were at Cape Grim, both having survived along with the Tarkiner, because they had married into that tribe. These were Panenemoke,41 husband to Lynoongar (Tarkiner), and Rynuwiddicer,42 husband to Nangergoring (Tarkiner), both captured by Robinson on 28 February 1834.43

IN CONCLUDING THIS REVIEW OF the events at Cape Grim, it is useful to recall Curr’s earlier remarks after the raid by the Fanny, when he complained that he could not control the Aborigines, but nor could he abandon the superior pasture at Cape Grim. It appears that Curr found a way to resolve his difficulties, with the massacre marking the culmination of his drive to remove the Pennemukeer from their traditional lands. A close reading of both VDL Company records and Robinson’s journals provides some insight into the nature of Curr’s character and his ability to devise and order such actions. In VDL Company despatches we find Curr’s own directors expressing their concerns by questioning Curr’s version of events following his report of the massacre: ‘It is with no ordinary feelings of regret that the Court has read your account of the encounter with the Natives near Cape Grim. It does not appear from the account who were the aggressors.’44

In Friendly Mission, Robinson reported a number of revealing incidents, ranging from an armed attack on his mission by fourteen of Curr’s men45 to the brutality of Curr’s regime, during a brief stay at Circular Head. Robinson noted one Company employee receiving fifty lashes for a misdemeanour and Curr personally assaulting and breaking the collarbone of an indentured servant for attempting an escape.46

This brief analysis of the Cape Grim massacre serves to highlight the central importance of NJB Plomley’s contribution to North West regional history. If VDL Company archives were the sole record of the events of the Cape Grim massacre we could only conclude that the shepherd Thomas John was wounded, 118 sheep were killed, an attack on Aborigines from the Company vessel Fanny failed, that only six Aborigines, including maybe their chief, were killed and several wounded: important historical facts but not as significant and disturbing as those revealed by a close investigation of Robinson’s account enabled by Plomley’s edition. After investigation of discrepancies within and between accounts the sensible and sobering conclusion is that most likely forty-three Aborigines were killed, not Curr’s estimated three, in addition to the wounding of Thomas John and the killing of the sheep. This was not an act of self-defence but a cold-blooded act of murder, at a site primarily overlooked in favour of Victory Hill. The publication of Plomley’s Friendly Mission, Weep in Silence and Jorgen Jorgensen and the Aborigines of Van Diemen’s Land collectively provide a resource that spans almost the entire period of contact history and early European settlement in the region. Supported by some of Plomley’s other related contributions (such as The Sealers of Bass Strait and the Cape Barren Island Community and The Tasmanian Aborigines), they not only correct a distortion in Curr’s account but also provide invaluable clues towards gaining some understanding of the life and culture of the original inhabitants.

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

   by Anna Johnston and Mitchell Rolls