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


Historians, Friendly Mission and the Contest for Robinson and Trukanini


EARLY IN 1970 I RECEIVED a postgraduate scholarship to Macquarie University in Sydney to research the Black War in Tasmania. I had been encouraged to embark on the project by historian Manning Clark, for whom I had worked as a research assistant on the Tasmanian section of Volume II of A History of Australia, and by archaeologist Rhys Jones, who told me that all previous research on the Tasmanian Aborigines had been overturned with the publication of Friendly Mission, the Tasmanian field journals of GA Robinson.

I scurried off to Angus & Robertson’s bookshop in Castlereagh Street for a copy and found it on a high shelf already looking like an ancient text. Its sombre blue cover with the title FRIENDLY MISSION and the editor’s surname PLOMLEY in gilt lettering on the thick spine gave no hint of the riches that lay inside. When I fetched it down and saw that the price, marked in pencil on the fly leaf, was an affordable $12.60 and the sales assistant told me it was their last copy, I did not know it then, but I had just purchased one of the most exciting and contested texts in Australian history.

I opened it on the way home in the bus, skipped Plomley’s Introduction and Prelude and dived straight into the first of Robinson’s journals, the story of his encounter with the Aborigines on Bruny Island in 1829. I was immediately captivated by the urgency of the narrative. By the time I arrived home half an hour later, I was hooked. I plunged into the remaining journals of his six missions to the Aborigines between 1830 and 1834 and resurfaced a week later, exhausted but elated. I was bowled over by the epic scale of the missions and by Robinson’s bravery and tenacity in completing them against the odds of settler scepticism, environmental hazards and Aboriginal resistance. How was it that a man of humble working-class origins could write with such humanity and compassion and achieve what no one else of his generation could – the conciliation of the Tasmanian Aborigines? Here was a man to be reckoned with.

Manning Clark had already told me that Robinson was driven by his belief that he had been sent by God to save Aborigines from the settlers’ guns and that, unlike most of his colonial contemporaries, he saw Aborigines as human beings with feelings as deep and profound as any of the settlers.1 I could also see that Robinson considered they were members of independent nations who had rightfully defended their homeland from the colonial invaders and who had been unjustly dispossessed of their country. I knew of no other Australian text that conveyed such a powerful story. If Robinson became more interested in financial rewards in the latter part of his missions, as the editor of the journals, Brian Plomley, indicated, I considered this was a minor flaw in the larger canvas of his epic journeys.2 I reasoned then that if riches and fame were his only interest, he could have achieved them more quickly and in far greater safety and security by continuing to practise his trade as a builder in the rapidly developing town of Hobart. Moreover, the way in which he considered the mission Aborigines as historical actors, together with his strong opposition to slavery and his support for the First Reform Act of England (1832), revealed to me that he was a man of radical religious and political beliefs who was confident that a positive future awaited them. To me, Robinson’s journals presented an entirely new view of his role in the Black War. I now had to find a way to place the epic story of his missions and the Aboriginal voices he recorded into my own story of the Tasmanian Aborigines.

For the next six years Friendly Mission rarely left my side. I took it first to the Tasmanian archives where I found corresponding evidence of Aboriginal resistance in the Colonial Secretary’s papers, the colonial press and settlers’ journals. Then I took it to the Bass Strait islands where I met the modern Aboriginal community and used it to begin to piece together their ‘lost’ past. When I discovered that many were descended from Mannalargenna, the Aboriginal leader who assisted Robinson in many of his missions, Friendly Mission took on a new dimension. No longer was it an account of an extinct race, but rather of a living people whose descendants had been denied their history. In this way it became a bridge between the past and the present.

In The Aboriginal Tasmanians, first published in 1981, I used Friendly Mission to drive the narrative of three chapters I devoted to Robinson’s missions between 1829 and 1834 to conciliate and capture the Aborigines. My concern was to show not only how Robinson conducted the missions and the dangers he encountered, but also how he developed increasingly complex political relationships with the mission Aborigines like Trukanini and Mannalargenna. In the early missions I showed how they taught him to travel in the bush with minimal accoutrements, how to conciliate their compatriots and how they tried to incorporate him into their own customary beliefs of mutual reciprocity. In the third and fourth missions I showed how he was often utterly dependent on them for his own survival and how they often led him completely astray. In the fifth and sixth missions I showed how, on at least two occasions, he realised they ‘resented losing their country and considered they had been badly treated by the government and the settlers’; how he nearly changed his mind about the need for their removal to Flinders Island but then realised it was too late; how they became increasingly disillusioned with his promises of a better life, in particular following the deaths of three mission Aborigines in 1832; and how in 1833 and 1834 he was forced to mislead them to achieve his objective.3

I also considered that Robinson came increasingly to believe in the Aboriginal cause and expected the British government to offer a genuine alternative to their extermination by the settlers. The accounts of massacre that he recorded en passant left him in no doubt about the grim reality of their fate if they were to remain in their own country. But he also believed that it was better for the British government that the Aborigines died in the arms of God on Flinders Island than from extermination by the settlers. This led me to question their removal from the south-west in 1833 and 1834 because this area did not attract settlement until the 1870s.4 However, I neglected to consider the point made by AGL Shaw in his biography of Governor Arthur, that Robinson was under Arthur’s orders to remove the Aborigines from this area and that he considered Robinson’s ‘service [was] worth ten times the amount’ he was paid.5

I concluded that Robinson was misguided in his belief that he had been sent by God to save Aborigines from the settlers’ guns and take them to the Promised Land on Flinders Island, where he would transform them into a God-fearing Christian community. I could also see that by 1835 he began to realise that a better solution would be to take them with him to his next posting to the new settlement at Port Phillip (present-day Victoria), where he was appointed Chief Protector of the Aborigines in 1838. To achieve this, however, he would have to demonstrate to the authorities in Hobart, Sydney and London that they were no longer a threat to settler security. To this end he wrote elaborate reports about their adoption of ‘civilised’ ways of living. But the governor of New South Wales was not convinced and permitted him only to take fifteen Aborigines to Port Phillip. It is possible that in time the sixty Aborigines he had to leave behind on Flinders Island could have joined him, but the increased distrust of Aborigines by settlers and colonial governments precluded this outcome. It seemed to me that the near demise of the Tasmanian Aborigines was more about the changing political climate than the beliefs and behaviour of GA Robinson.

I should not have been surprised that other historians disagreed, for Friendly Mission offers endless possibilities for interpretation. However, most of us have used it to debate the character and reputation of Trukanini and GA Robinson as key players in the unfolding drama of Aboriginal dispossession and have used its narrative structure as the platform to make our case.

ONE OF THE FIRST ABORIGINES ROBINSON recorded meeting in 1829 when he began his career as a conciliator was Trukanini, then aged eighteen. During her lifetime she was the subject of portraits by colonial painters and photographers and towards the end of her life was ‘celebrated’ by scientists as ‘the last Tasmanian’. Refusing her deathbed wish for cremation in 1876, they exhumed her body two years later and articulated her skeleton for public display as ‘the last of her race’, first in Melbourne in 1904 and then in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery until 1947.6 We now know that parts of her body also found their way into museums all over the world, particularly in the United Kingdom, where they were considered the most primitive link in the human evolutionary chain.7

The publication of Friendly Mission and the new information it contained about the Tasmanian Aborigines, in particular about Trukanini as an historical actor, assisted in the resurgence of the Aboriginal community in Tasmania and their campaign for the return of her remains. They championed her as a brave Aboriginal leader who had been cruelly used and abused by settlers and scientists. On the centenary of her death in 1976 they reached an agreement with the Tasmanian Government for the return of her remains which were then cremated and her ashes scattered in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel.8

While some historians saw the ceremony as the beginning of the long road to reconciliation, others were clearly disturbed by this rupture of the known past. In ‘Trucanini’, published in 1976 in the influential history journal Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Papers and Proceedings, Vivienne Rae-Ellis cited Friendly Mission to argue that, far from being a leader of her people, Trukanini was a sexual manipulator who preferred white men rather than black and was so besotted with GA Robinson that she betrayed her own people to keep his affections.9 In presenting Trukanini as an agent of dispossession of her own people, Rae-Ellis made her an unworthy antecedent for the aspirations of the modern Aboriginal community.

This view of Trukanini did not resonate with my reading of Friendly Mission, from which I had prepared an entry on her life in volume 6 of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, also published in 1976. I represented her as a forceful, gifted and courageous woman who helped Robinson bring in other Aborigines because she wanted to save them from the settlers’ guns.10

Later that year, Rae-Ellis completed a biography, Trucanini: Queen or Traitor? for a Tasmanian publisher and then extensively revised it for a national publisher in 1981.11 In this account she used Friendly Mission to present Trukanini as a ‘bell-wether … in rounding up and capturing her people for the convenience of the white man’. Her argument rested on two assertions. First was the claim that during the harsh winter of 1830 on the west coast ‘Trucanini began to share Robinson’s blanket’, but that ‘Robinson took care not to reveal too much of his relationship with [her]. Occasional comments relating to their intimacies appear in his journal, but they are written in Aboriginal dialect and have only recently been translated by NJB Plomley.’12 But as Cassandra Pybus has recently pointed out, there is not ‘a shred of credible evidence’ in Friendly Mission to support the claim, for ‘any sexual liaison would have completely undermined [Robinson’s] powerful belief in himself as the sole protector and father figure of the Aborigines’.13

Second was the claim that Trukanini is the central figure in Benjamin Duterrau’s celebrated painting, The Conciliation. Rae-Ellis identified her as ‘the small girl with arm and leg raised standing to the right of centre; Woorrady holds her left hand.’14 Yet the drawings Duterrau prepared for the painting indicate that the central figure is Woolaytopinyer, a woman from the Big River tribe, welcoming her long-lost brother. Trukanini and Woorrady are almost out of sight, in the far right hand corner of the painting.

It would appear that Rae-Ellis had made up her mind about Trukanini long before she began to use Friendly Mission.

Historians today continue to vigorously contest Trukanini’s place in Australian history. Indigenous historians such as Ian Anderson and Ida West have found sources of evidence other than Friendly Mission to argue for her significance as a figure of colonial possession and a symbol of indigenous survival, whereas non-indigenous historians such as Henry Reynolds and Keith Windschuttle have relied on Friendly Mission to argue that she had ‘a serious political agenda, the survival of the Tasmanians as a people’, or, conversely, she was an insignificant figure in the conciliation process.15

THE DEBATE ABOUT ROBINSON ALSO rests on the way historians have used Friendly Mission, in this case to address two questions. How serious was he in his belief that he could save the Aborigines from destruction by the settlers’ guns and convert them to Christianity? Was he more interested in fame and financial gain than in the salvation of the Aborigines?

In 1983 Lloyd Robson acknowledged that ‘Robinson attributed his continued existence to God; [but] a less religious observer would put down his survival to great physical strength and stamina, excellent health and digestion, and unknown factors that warded off surely otherwise certain pneumonia’. He also considered that, despite Robinson’s realisation that the Aborigines were dying out, he ‘continued his work, imbued with a mixture of growing commercialism when rewards were offered for the capture of Aboriginal people, but still also motivated by Christian feelings, which perhaps the Aborigines did not fully grasp’.16

Vivienne Rae-Ellis had already challenged this view in her biography of Trukanini where she represented him as a ‘dynamic little leader’, a ‘born adventurer, and insatiable explorer’, whose ‘honest, childlike simplistic’ yet ‘fervent religious views’ gave him ‘the spiritual strength to face privation and danger’. She also argued that he ‘could never resist the feel of the pen between his fingers, and having taken one up could not bear to put it down. Words cascaded from his pen in torrents.’ But in her view they were of little value.17

Yet she was clearly impressed by his first mission to the west coast in 1830 ‘as one of the most arduous journeys ever undertaken in Van Diemen’s Land … He had set out to make peaceful contact with the Aborigines of the west and northwest coasts, and he had done so with no injury to himself and none to any of his party.’18 She also acknowledged that he had lost nearly thirteen kilos on the journey and ‘was so emaciated by privation and overwork he might have passed for a pauper’.19 From that moment however, he began his ‘moral decline’. He failed to rescue Aboriginal women kidnapped by the sealers, forced the mission Aborigines to undertake hazardous journeys in the middle of winter, lured the Aboriginal leader Mannalargenna to the mission with false promises, concealed from the authorities the name of Umarrah as the murderer of settlers along the Tamar River and failed to ensure that the members of his mission were properly compensated.20 Yet her text captured something of the epic grandeur of his missions and his narrative drove her story.

However, in Black Robinson (1988), her biography of Robinson, Rae-Ellis used Friendly Mission to construct a very different portrait of the conciliator. No longer was he a deeply flawed but honest man, but an opportunist who used trickery and fraud to conciliate the Aborigines for his own financial gain and who had no real interest in them as a people or in their fate. While she did acknowledge that he ‘recorded valuable information relating to the tribal life of the Tasmanian people’ and that he was ‘at his best in the bush, discarding his pomposity like an unwanted greatcoat on a hot day, and responding with genuine wonder to the natural beauties he observed’, her real point was that ‘his reputation as the friend of the Aborigine was a creation of Robinson’s imagination, designed solely to advance his own career’.21 She dismissed his religious beliefs as fraudulent, alleged that he used trickery and chicanery to gain the respect of Governor Arthur and the trust of the Aborigines and engaged in unacceptable financial practices to make his fortune.

For example, instead of having a genuine rapport with the Aborigines, she claimed that he had apparent ‘latent skill as a mesmerist’ which he used to develop ‘the power to influence’ the Aborigines and gain ‘almost … a complete ascendancy’ over them. He learned their languages not in a spirit of distinterested inquiry, but in order to capture them more readily. In his journals he withheld information from the authorities about an alleged ‘bloody massacre’ of settlers committed by the Port Davey tribe and in his reports he ‘carefully fashioned and continually refurbished’ his image as a trustworthy friend and protector of his Aboriginal companions, ‘the chief of whom was Trucanini’, with whom he began an illicit sexual relationship on his first journey to the west coast but with whom he had only a superficial attachment.22

Contrary to her earlier account of the first mission to the west coast, where he lost nearly thirteen kilos in weight, she now declared that by then ‘he was a liar and a cheat, a man of little honour, and one who invariably turned any situation to his own material advantage’. She also claimed that in his later missions, he removed the Aborigines by force.23 Once again Rae-Ellis had undermined the reputation of a key player in the history of the Tasmanian Aborigines.

Yet she demonstrates a shallow reading of the Friendly Mission journals. For example, the accusation that he withheld information about an alleged ‘bloody massacre’ committed by the Port Davey tribe neglects to consider that Robinson could have misunderstood the informant, for at that stage he had little knowledge of their language. Similarly, the accusation that Robinson deliberately inflated estimates of the Aboriginal population as 6000-8000 in 1803 and his claim that 700 remained in 1830 reveals not only an ignorance of the fact that Governor Arthur believed there were about 2000 alive in 1829 and that some settlers considered there were 600 left in the settled districts in September 1831, but also the long debate among scholars on this issue, about which there is still no agreement.24

Despite these obvious mistakes, Rae-Ellis’ view that Robinson acted solely for personal fame and financial gain and that he betrayed the Aborigines has gradually taken hold.

COMMUNITY OF THIEVES, CASSANDRA PYBUS’ memoir of her family who arrived in Tasmania in 1829, uses Friendly Mission to weave her family’s connections with the fate of the Tasmanian Aborigines. She considers Robinson as a man of ‘intriguing contradictions’ whose ‘genuine humane impulses continually fuelled his baser drives for personal and economic gratification’.25 The problem, she points out, is ‘that neither Robinson nor his Aboriginal companions ever managed to comprehend each other’s motives and expectations’ in that he never understood ‘Aboriginal expectations of reciprocal obligation’. While he was dependent upon the Aborigines to survive in the bush and to successfully carry out his missions, his focus on financial reward rather than their fate led him to betray them.26

More recently Pybus has reassessed Robinson. On the one hand she thinks there is ‘every reason to believe he was motivated less by the meagre salary on offer than by the missionary impulses that had already involved him prominently’ in the missionary societies, but, on the other, she points out that

he was canny enough to negotiate with the governor to double his salary once he had secured the post. Equally he believed that in a mission to the Aboriginals he would gain the status that was denied him as a mere artisan in Hobart. His posturings as the governor’s envoy on Bruny Island had no appreciable effect on the other white colonialists, and his self-important diary entries would seem rather pathetic were it not for the unmistakeable sense that Robinson saw the despised Aborigines as the key to the upward mobility he so craved. One of his most intriguing contradictions was that genuine humane impulses continually fuelled his baser drives for personal and economic gratification.27

In this case, her point is a moral one. She seems to believe that people like Robinson should have behaved like a saint and thus suffered in some way, either from lack of money or by dying for his cause. But he was not a saint; rather he was a public servant who earned a salary commensurate with his skills and qualifications in order to carry out his highly dangerous work. He may have been driven by his belief in God, but then so too was Governor Arthur. Both men lived long enough to enjoy the fruits of their labours, yet Pybus appears to consider Robinson’s wealth and longevity an unfair outcome when compared with the fate of the Tasmanian Aborigines. This may be so, but she also overlooks Governor Arthur’s point: that Robinson’s ‘service [was] worth ten times the amount’ he was paid.28

IN FATE OF A FREE PEOPLE, Henry Reynolds uses the absence of evidence in the Friendly Mission journals to argue that Arthur made a verbal agreement with the Aborigines which acknowledged that they had given up their country for their future support on Flinders Island. To make his case, he attempts to overturn Rae-Ellis’ assessment of Robinson and Trukanini by employing a legal framework to pose three rhetorical questions: ‘how was the removal of the Tasmanians effected?’; ‘why did the so-called “mission Aborigines” work with such persistence for Robinson?’; and ‘why did the Mission members persuade their compatriots all over Tasmania to accept the terms offered and leave their homelands?’29

In the first case Reynolds challenges Rae-Ellis’ claim ‘that Robinson displayed “cruelty in driving the Van Diemen’s Land blacks into their prison on Flinders Island”’. The Friendly Mission itself, he argues, ‘was not accompanied by force’, but rather it was ‘done with [the mission Aborigines’] own free consent’. But, ‘if force was not the method of coercion, what was?’ He argues that the driving force was Robinson’s belief in divine intervention.30

In the second case, Reynolds considers Rae-Ellis’ explanation that the Aborigines ‘fell prey to some special powers possessed by Robinson’ misses the point. Rather than the Aborigines relying on Robinson, the reverse was the case. Robinson, he points out, not only needed the mission Aborigines to show him how to travel in the bush but, more importantly, he needed them for ‘translation, negotiation and diplomacy’, in meeting Aborigines on the other side of the frontier. ‘The negotiation’, he argues, ‘was an Aboriginal one, pursued in an Aboriginal manner for Aboriginal ends.’31

In the third case, he uses the character of Trukanini to support his argument. Rather than perceiving her as a femme fatale, as argued by Rae-Ellis, he considers that she had ‘a serious political agenda’ – the survival of the Tasmanians as a people – and that she supported Robinson because he was

negotiating what was, in effect, a treaty. It cloaked the political reality that the colonists had failed to impose a military solution and were forced to offer terms; that after significant negotiation, during which the terms were modified and then accepted, there was then a strong obligation to meet the conditions of the treaty.32

Reynolds develops this view in his next book, This Whispering in Our Hearts (1998), where he argues that Robinson ‘like many of his humanitarian contemporaries … believed the Aborigines were the legitimate owners of the soil’. But he also admits that Robinson ‘almost certainly betrayed the Tasmanians by failing to deliver on his promise that they should be able to return to their homelands after a short stay on Flinders Island’ and ‘[t]here is much evidence to suggest that Robinson was deeply conscious of his part in the betrayal’.33 Once again Robinson stands condemned for saving the Aborigines from extermination by the settlers.

IN THE FABRICATION OF ABORIGINAL HISTORY, Keith Windschuttle not only accuses Robinson of betraying the Aborigines but of deceiving everyone else as well, including Governor Arthur, for his own aggrandisement and personal gain. Relying on Rae-Ellis’ biography for the key evidence to make his case, he claims that Friendly Mission is a completely fraudulent text in which Robinson not only concealed Aboriginal atrocities against the settlers, but also accepted without question accounts of settler massacres of Aborigines. However, in failing to check Rae-Ellis’ assertions, and to understand the context of Robinson’s journals, his own argument stands on very shaky ground. Two examples demonstrate the problem.34

Windschuttle repeats Rae-Ellis’ claim that Robinson deliberately concealed the identity of the Port Davey people as the murderers of settler James Doran at New Norfolk in December 1829. But the local magistrate, who prepared a report of the incident, was in no doubt that the Big River people were the actual perpetrators.35

In the second instance, Windschuttle claims that incidents of massacre reported to Robinson by a stockman named Punch on 25 September 1830, as they travelled along the Meander River, are unsubstantiated. However, two of the incidents were reported in the colonial press and another in the official sources.36 Put together they provide very strong corroborating evidence for Punch’s account.

These examples indicate that the incidents that Robinson recorded in the Friendly Mission journals must be read in context. In the Bruny Island journal, where Robinson was beginning to learn the language of the Port Davey people, he often misunderstood his Aboriginal informants, as the magistrate’s report indicates. In the later journals where he recorded information by non-Aboriginal as well as Aboriginal informants, whose languages he by then understood, his knowledge was more robust and more likely to be corroborated in the colonial record.

IT SEEMS EXTRAORDINARY THAT THE man who risked his life to save the Tasmanian Aborigines from extermination by the settlers and gave us so much information about their dispossession should be held in such contempt by historians today. His status is now like the condition of my own copy of Friendly Mission, which lies on my bookshelf like a fallen warrior, bruised and battered from thirty-seven years of faithful service; the gilt lettering has faded and the spine has almost fallen off. It is as if the man and his journals are no longer relevant. On the contrary, both are long overdue for historical reassessment.

I would like to hope that the republication of Friendly Mission will enable a new generation of historians to read the journals afresh: to be captivated by the epic story and its narrative power and to assess the journals in the light of new debates about indigenous peoples confronting the onslaught of white settler colonialism in an international context. In this way Friendly Mission will not only reach a wider audience than it has hitherto enjoyed, but also confirm its status as one of the most important historical sources about indigenous peoples anywhere. Then it might be possible for GA Robinson to be recognised as a man ahead of his time, a champion of the Aborigines and one of the most significant figures in nineteenth-century colonial history.

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

   by Anna Johnston and Mitchell Rolls