All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Truganini by Cassandra Pybus

on July 15, 2020

Cassandra Pybus
Allen & Unwin
2020, 336
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

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

The name of Truganini is vaguely familiar to most Australians as ‘the last of her race’. She has become an international icon for a monumental tragedy: the extinction of the original people of Tasmania within her lifetime. For nearly seven decades she lived through a psychological and cultural shift more extreme than most human imaginations could conjure. She is a hugely significant figure in Australian history and we should know about how she lived, not simply that she died. Her life was much more than a regrettable tragedy. Now Cassandra has examined the original eyewitness accounts to write Truganini’s extraordinary story.

A lively, intelligent, sensual young woman, Truganini managed to survive the devastating decade of the 1820s when the clans of south-eastern Tasmania were all but extinguished. Taken away from Bruny Island in 1830, she spent five years on a journey around Tasmania, across rugged highland and through barely penetrable forests, with the self-styled missionary George Augustus Robinson, who was collecting all the surviving people to send them into exile on Flinders Island. She managed to avoid a long incarceration on Flinders Island when Robinson took her to Victoria where she was implicated in the murder of two white men. Acquitted of murder, she was returned to Tasmania where she lived for another thirty-five years. Her story is both inspiring and heart-wrenching, and it is told in full in this book for the first time.

I can’t remember when I first read about Truganini, but it was definitely not as early in life as it should have been. I definitely did not learn about her at school, and it seems like she is someone I should have learned about. I knew that after “colonisation” by the British, when they pushed through to Tasmania (and named it Van Dieman’s Land) that the indigenous population was eventually exterminated. This book, focusing on Truganini’s life journey specifically, also deals with the methods and plans used by colonisers to round up the local Indigenous population and herd them to a point where they would be easily captured. There were plans to remove them to remote islands off the coast of Tasmania, some were also taken to the mainland (including Truganini).

Cassandra Pybus is a descendant of a coloniser who was given a large patch of land on Bruny Island, on Tasmania’s east coast. Abutting that ancestor’s land was another patch of land given to. a man named George Augustus Robinson, who later became some sort of self appointed (and then officially appointed) protector of the Indigenous population and was responsible for basically tracking them down and making sure that it was possible to implement the plans to remove them from the island, where they had upset those given farming patches of land by travelling around and occasionally stealing a sheep. Pybus was determined to only use primary sources to tell this story, mostly Robinson’s diaries as it seems he was a prolific diarist, who often detailed his many interactions and dealings in the guise of “protecting” these people. He’s seen as pompous and self-important.

I knew that this would contain some pretty brutal acts and I was right. There’s plenty in here of the callous disregard for the Tasmanian Indigenous population, the systematic attempts to round them up and drive them from the land they had occupied for thousands of years. There are children taken to be raised as slaves for wealthy (or probably even non-wealthy) colonisers, there are plenty of them engaged and then shot, the women and young female children stolen and the men beaten in midnight raids, the bribing of women for sexual favours with rations like sugar. The sealer men not only take the women, beat them, rape them, keep them as slaves but then they also relentlessly hunted the seal population of Tasmania almost to extinction, which is shown in stark contrast of the Aboriginal way of harvesting the bounty of the seas. Truganini witnesses her mother and sister taken and is not long after dependent on Robinson, who uses her and her father to help him round up other tribes, seemingly under the guise of ‘helping them’. They are often left stranded on rocky barren islands with little in the way of food. Disease and illness becomes rife amount the tribes, especially when they are removed from their local lands. The connection between Indigenous people and the land is something I don’t think we can understand and it’s commented on often about how they sicken and die very soon after being removed to somewhere else. The white people also introduced fun things like syphilis to the local population, shared with the women when they are raped or taken as slaves and if they escape, then they bring it back to the local menfolk. Robinson is also advised to do things like bribe them with alcohol.

Pybus’ decision to only use primary sources (those who saw and spoke to Truganini and then recorded it) is admirable but it also removes her from her own story and also removes her people. All of the views that Pybus is forced to use, are by white people, early settlers who saw the local population a certain way. Even people like Robinson, who believe themselves to be magnanimous and helpful, who don’t believe they are hurting them, are still trying to buttonhole them into a new way of being. Turning them into ‘good, Christian people’, forcing them to dress conservatively, to adhere to strict Christian values around sex and renounce their beliefs to worship a God in the sky and fear a Devil underground. At best they would’ve been possibly well treated servants, in this new settlement, but even that was unlikely in many cases. Pybus tries to insert some of Truganini’s character into the story, such as when she leads Robinson and his crew in circles when she’s supposed to be tracking someone down but it’s difficult to really get a picture of her, as she’s always seen through Robinson’s eyes, or those of someone like him. And Robinson loses interest in his role of protector at some stage anyway, and can’t wait to be rid of them be it marooning them on Flinders Island or taking them to the mainland and basically pushing them into a community there, overseen by someone else, so that he may wipe his hands of the whole affair.

I feel the story of Truganini and those like her, her tribe, the tribes she knew and had relationships with, is an important story and it’s one that everyone should know. But at the same time, I’m still very much aware that even this story of her, is told from a perspective that is not her own or even that of one of her kin. That their stories were not recorded and that so much of our history is taught from the words of those that oppressed them, removed them from their lands, even murdered them, is an undeniable truth.


Book #126 of 2020

This book qualifies for all 3 of the challenges I am undertaking this year!

It is book #42 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020

Truganini is the 7th book completed for my participation in the 2020 NonFiction Reader Challenge. I’m using it to check off the History category.

1. Memoir

2. Disaster Event

3. Social Science

4. Related to an Occupation

5. History

6. Feminism

7. Psychology

8. Medical Issue

9. Nature

10. True Crime

11. Science

12. Published in 2020

I’m also counting it towards my participation in the Reading Women Challenge, hosted by the Reading Women Podcast. I am using it for prompt #15 – A Biography. It’s the 13th book completed for the challenge. Halfway there!

One response to “Review: Truganini by Cassandra Pybus

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