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Cover image: ‘Truganini’ by Cassandra Pybus

Cassandra Pybus’s ancestors told a story of an old Aboriginal woman who would wander across their farm on Bruny Island, in south-east Tasmania, in the 1850s and 1860s. As a child, Cassandra didn’t know this woman was Truganini, and that Truganini was walking over the country of her clan, the Nuenonne.

For nearly seven decades, Truganini lived through a psychological and cultural shift more extreme than we can imagine. But her life was much more than a regrettable tragedy. Now Cassandra has examined the original eyewitness accounts to write Truganini’s extraordinary story in full.

Hardly more than a child, Truganini managed to survive the devastation of the 1820s, when the clans of south-eastern Tasmania were all but extinguished. She spent five years on a journey around Tasmania, across rugged highlands and through barely penetrable forests, with George Augustus Robinson, the self-styled missionary who was collecting the survivors to send them into exile on Flinders Island. She has become an international icon for a monumental tragedy – the so-called extinction of the original people of Tasmania.

Truganini’s story is inspiring and haunting – a journey through the apocalypse.


Truganini was his first point of contact for George Augustus Robinson when he founded his mission station on Bruny Island in April 1829. She was the daughter of Manganerer, the senior man of the local Nuenonne clan. He found her across the channel on the mainland of the colony, living with a gang of convict woodcutters.

Truganini was about sixteen or seventeen, diminutive and fine-boned, with her hair cut close to her scalp, which emphasised lively dark eyes and a generous mouth. Impressed with her obvious intelligence and grasp of English, Robinson took it upon himself to take her back to her country, hoping this gesture would persuade her father to come to his rudimentary establishment at Missionary Bay.

Robinson did his best to coax Truganini into being a chaste Christian woman, encouraging her to wear a shapeless smock made from blankets to cover her nakedness. She preferred to be unencumbered by clothing and generally went naked, rather to his discomfort. In time her presence at Missionary Bay did encourage Manganerer to move there with his second wife and young son. A dozen or so demoralised and sick people followed him to receive the daily allowance of half a pound of biscuit and a pound of potatoes that Robinson provided.

Within the limitations of his own evangelical understanding, Robinson tried to make sense of the narrative of calamity they presented to him. They must put their trust in God, he told them, and, by extension, in him, George Augustus Robinson: the good father sent to save them from obliteration.

Essential to Robinson’s scheme was that he must be the sole source of food and authority for the distressed Nuenonne. He was enraged by threats to his authority from men of the lower orders who had frequented the island for years. In his daily journal he railed against this debauched riffraff who gave generous gifts of flour, tea and sugar to the women in order to make them ‘subservient to the men’s appetites’. His moral outrage had no effect on either party: the women ignored his pious lectures, and the recipients of his letters simply laughed at him.

The two or three women who stayed around Missionary Bay spent their days diving for shellfish or collecting wild fruits and ferns, grinding ochre, and treating the wallaby skins to make cloaks and small pouches to carry relics of the dead. Truganini liked to collect tiny luminous shells from the beaches, clean them till they shone and then string them into exquisite necklaces. She gathered bundles of iris leaves, dried them over slow fires, and twisted the leaves into threads that she plaited and wove into globular baskets.

Truganini liked to collect tiny luminous shells from the beaches, clean them till they shone and then string them into exquisite necklaces.

Returning from Hobart, Robinson was delighted to see that Truganini had found a companion, a young woman named Dray from the Lowreenne clan from the colony’s remote west coast.

Another new face at Missionary Bay was Wooredy, an important Nuenonne elder in his forties who had left his semi-permanent camp on the southern part of the island to visit Manganerer. A renowned warrior, Wooredy was also a cleverman, so knowledgeable in ritual and healing that the convicts called him Doctor. Like Manganerer, he went naked and wore his hair in the traditional fashion: long greased ringlets coloured with red ochre that fell over his eyes like a mop. Wooredy was determined to induct Robinson into the Nuenonne way of life.

As the two senior men, Wooredy and Manganerer took Robinson hunting on the narrow neck leading to the south island, where the wallabies were more abundant. Although the hunters carried long spears, their weapon of choice was the shorter waddy, made of hard sheoak wood, that they threw with great dexterity, never failing to stun a bounding animal. Returning to Missionary Bay, Robinson sought to impress them with his own food-gathering skills. He threw a hooked line into the channel to catch some rock cod that he grilled over a fire. Unwittingly testing the limits of his companions’ agreeableness, he tried to persuade the men to eat the fish. Reluctantly, they took a bite, but they would not swallow it. It took some time to make him understand that they never ate scalefish, only shellfish and harvesting shellfish was exclusively women’s work. Men never learnt to swim and would rarely, if ever, enter the water. As game food of wallaby and possum became scarce, the Nuenonne were more dependent than ever on large fleshy abalone, as well as crayfish, scallops, oysters and mussels. A man might starve without a woman to harvest shellfish.

Truganini was a superb swimmer; she was constantly in and out of the water.  Watching her exuberant swimming and diving for shellfish, Robinson could see yet again how critical she would be to his strategy. He inserted himself into her routine, using his dinghy to take Truganini and her friend Dray to places that would otherwise be difficult to reach. The young women would leap from the boat with woven bags around their necks and small sticks, sharpened at one end, clenched between their teeth. They’d dive into the water and use their toes to lever the large abalone shells off the rocks, securing them in their bags. They could stay under for a considerable time before surfacing to take a breath, diving again and again until their bags were full.

Truganini was a superb swimmer; she was constantly in and out of the water.

Robinson used these outings to interrogate Dray about her clan and the long journey she had made from the west coast. He was able to glean that there was a well-used track from Port Davey along the south coast to Recherche Bay. One day, sitting alone in the boat while the women dived below, he decided he would take them to Port Davey to establish contact with the still-numerous Ninine and the other coastal clans further north.

Robinson judged these two young women to be the most intelligent and tractable of the dozen people left at his mission and that they would benefit from interaction with respectable women. Having dressed them in smocks, he took them to visit a ship that had run aground on the other side of the channel. The bored English ladies on the stricken ship were thrilled to meet Truganini and Dray, with their short-cropped hair, whom they first took to be two beautiful boys. Assured that they were in fact female, the women took the two into their cabin, where they rummaged through their travelling wardrobes to find gorgeous dresses of silk and satin to replace the shapeless smocks. Truganini and Dray emerged from this entertainment utterly transformed. Robinson was shocked to see that rather than being dressed simply as would befit a maid, each was dressed as if she were a belle in a drawing room in London’s wealthy West End.

Truganini and Dray were much pleased with their transformation, but on their return to Missionary Bay the fancy gowns were quickly swapped for the shapeless smocks, which were in turn soon discarded. However, the lovely dresses were donned again when Robinson took Truganini and Dray to Hobart to display them to the colonial elite. The two young women were presented to the governor, who was duly impressed with their metamorphosis under Robinson’s tutelage.

It was a terrible blow to Robinson’s pride that as soon as Truganini and Dray returned to Missionary Bay they cast off their European finery and ran off to Adventure Bay. The migrating whales had returned and the whalers were back at the station. More haughty letters were sent to the whalers, to be met with more scornful resistance. In early August, Robinson attempted to retrieve Truganini and Dray from the whalers, only to be insulted to his face. He was doubly humiliated when the young women ran away from him and hid.

On his journey back from Adventure Bay, Robinson found Wooredy’s camp, near the narrow neck between the north and south of the island. Wooredy greeted Robinson with evident pleasure, proudly introducing his three sons. He was very solicitous of his pregnant wife who was very ill and promised to bring his whole family to Missionary Bay once she was well again. He did come to Missionary Bay, a month later, in very changed circumstances. He arrived in mid September with his two older sons, carrying one in his arms, even though he was so ill he could barely walk himself. He told Robinson that his wife and youngest son were loggerner nene, meaning ‘dead in the fire’.

He told Robinson that his wife and youngest son were loggerner nene, meaning ‘dead in the fire’.

So it was not be the whalers’ carnal appetites that proved the insurmountable barrier to Robinson’s plans for his civilising mission with the Nuenonne: it was the influenza virus. Instead of dispensing the fruits of civilisation, Robinson was reduced to an impotent bystander in an apocalyptic nightmare. ‘Death hath visited with dire havoc,’ Robinson confided to his journal on 23 September, ruefully noting that only fourteen Nuenonne remained to receive the benefit of his proselytising. These traumatised survivors were slashing their faces and bodies in grief, in no state to heed his Christian platitudes.

By October, only a handful of Nuenonne survived on the island. Manganerer was barely clinging to life, a broken man. Within a few months he, too, would be dead from venereal disease. The only man capable of decisive action was Wooredy. In this very able fellow, Robinson recognised an indispensable ally. Wooredy was bound to Robinson by ties of obligation, and not just for the rations. Wooredy needed a new wife and had set his sights on Truganini, making it clear that his support was contingent on Robinson’s exercising authority over the whalers to secure her return.

Wooredy was not alone in his desire for Truganini; many men found her desirable. Robinson himself had undoubtedly been very taken with Truganini from the first moment he set eyes on her. Whatever desire he felt for her was powerfully tempered by his visceral horror of venereal disease. He expressed righteous resentment at the sexual liberties taken by other men, but his journals provide no suggestion that Truganini ever became his sexual partner. The role he cast for himself was even more intimate and binding than that of a lover: he was the good father who would protect and save her.

Notwithstanding encouragement from her father and Robinson, Truganini refused to have him, rejected Wooredy’s overtures with tears of rage. In no way discouraged, Wooredy maintained his attentions until she resentfully submitted in October 1829, in ‘dread apprehension’, so Robinson recorded, of violating the cultural norms that required her to accept a suitor chosen by her father.

Confident that he had now secured Wooredy’s fidelity, Robinson sailed to Hobart to finalise plans to leave the charnel ground that Missionary Bay had become. He had hatched a much grander scheme to lead a civilising mission overland to Port Davey and then up the remote west coast, contacting all the clans in the west and north-west and bringing them under his protection. He called this audacious project his ‘friendly mission’. Dray, who was pining to be reunited with her people, would be essential to this mission, while Truganini and Wooredy had kinship connections and spoke the language. These three survivors would be his intermediaries in his process of ‘conciliation’.

This is a edited extract from Truganini: Journey through the apocalypse by Cassandra Pybus, published by Allen & Unwin.

Truganini: Journey through the apocalypse is available now at Readings.