Truganini (1812–1876)

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Truganini (1812–1876)

Tasmanian Aborigine who lived through the white takeover of her homeland and the virtual extermination of her people. Name variations: Truccanini or Traucanini; also known as Trugernanner; "Lalla Rookh" or "Lallah Rookh." Born in 1812 (some sources cite 1803) at Recherche Bay, Tasmania; died on May 8, 1876, in Hobart, Tasmania; daughter of Mangerner (an Aboriginal elder); mother's name unknown; married Woorraddy (a member of the Nuenonne tribe), in July 1829.

Assisted George Augustus Robinson in relocating Tasmania's remaining Aborigines to a nearby island (1830–35); began to urge her fellow Aborigines to remain in Tasmania (1836); relocated to an abandoned

settlement at Oyster Cove on Tasmania (1847); became last of that group to survive and one of the last full-blooded Tasmanian Aborigines.

Truganini was born at Recherche Bay in Tasmania, an island off the tip of southeast Australia, in 1812. Nine years before her birth, the government of Great Britain had begun shipping convicts to Tasmania (then called Van Diemen's Land), which was established as a vast convict settlement. Land was cleared and farms were set up, and as more and more convicts—and the administrators and soldiers who controlled them, as well as a few free settlers—were imported, more and more land was occupied. For over 30,000 years, Tasmania had been the home of Aborigines; by the early 1800s, it has been estimated, they numbered between 4,000 and 20,000 (the lower number is probably closer to the mark). Bloody battles for land and life were fought between the Aborigines and the Europeans, the latter of whom had the advantage of firearms. Most of the Europeans considered Aborigines subhuman, a species distinct from and much lower than themselves; as well, many of the convicts were callous and vicious men, criminals further hardened by terrible experiences during their enforced sea voyages and their lives in the settlements. Inevitably, some of them escaped the settlements. Both the convicts and the prison troops acted with horrific brutality against the Aborigines of Tasmania. (Shooting "parties" and trapping are some of the mildest acts recorded.) In turn, Aborigines staged raids and murdered whites when they could.

This, then, was the world in which Truganini, the daughter of Mangerner, a Lyluequonny man and an elder of the southeast Aboriginal tribe, grew up. She spent her childhood near the front lines of the ongoing battles between her people and the white settlers, in which hundreds of lives were claimed on both sides. These battles began growing worse in the early 1820s, when non-convict Britons began moving to Tasmania and establishing their own settlements, frequently claiming what the Aborigines considered valuable hunting grounds. In late 1828, martial law was declared, and whites were permitted to kill on sight all Aborigines they saw near "settled" land. By the time Truganini and her father met secular missionary George Augustus Robinson in March 1829, much of her family had been decimated. Her mother had been slain by whalers, her uncle had been shot by a soldier, and her sister Moorinna had been kidnapped and shot by sealers. Her husband-to-be, Paraweena, was murdered by men who had come to the area to gather timber. Truganini herself, described as a vibrant and attractive girl, had been raped by the timber gatherers. She had survived, however, and in July 1829, in a ceremony at the Bruny Island mission station, Truganini married Woorraddy, a member of the Nuenonne tribe from Bruny Island.

Robinson, a builder and untrained preacher, had been appointed by colonial authorities to mount a "friendly mission" to find the estimated 300 or so Aborigines believed still to be living in the Tasmanian hinterlands. Less than a year after Truganini married, so few Aborigines were left, and so many settlers had arrived (there would be some 40,000 by 1835), that the "black war" was over, and Aborigines were considered merely an irritant, less dangerous than the packs of wild dogs that roamed the streets of Tasmania's capital, Hobart Town. Robinson had been charged with the responsibility of relocating the Aborigines to a nearby island before they were all exterminated by the advancing British settlers. (This was not contrition or charity: they were generally expected to die out quietly there.) After meeting Truganini and her father, Robinson convinced them that he was their friend and would protect them. He further promised that if they came with him he would see that they were supplied with blankets, food, and shelter. Their customs would be respected, the missionary pledged. Truganini could see no way for her people to survive unless they accepted Robinson's offer.

Beginning in 1830, Truganini and her husband Woorraddy joined Robinson in his efforts to locate Tasmania's remaining Aboriginal people. The white missionary depended on Truganini and her family and friends to show him the way through the bush and to protect him. (In one instance, by 19th-century whites often blithely compared to the famous incident between Pocahontas and John Smith, she is said to have saved his life by helping him float across a swift river on a log when he came under attack.) However, her biggest role was to convince other Aborigines that Robinson's relocation plan was their only hope for continued survival. Her efforts paid off, for by 1835 nearly all of Tasmania's Aborigines—that is, some 100 people—had been moved to nearby Flinders Island, a 40-mile island between Tasmania and Australia, where a settlement had been set up for them at Wybalenna.

In the settlement on Flinders Island, Robinson hoped to teach European customs and Christianity to the Aborigines. He and his "charges," however, had sharply contrasting perceptions of what the new settlement represented. The Aborigines felt that it was just a temporary home, where they would housed, fed, and protected until they could return to their ancestral homelands on Tasmania. Robinson and the colonial authorities saw the settlement as a permanent home for the Aborigines, and he separated children from parents and instituted a strict daily regimen of cleanliness inspections, Bible reading and the singing of hymns. Little fresh water was available at the settlement, and the diet provided to the Aborigines led to malnutrition.

A visit she made to Flinders Island in November 1835 proved to be an unsettling revelation for Truganini, for it became clear that she was expected to renounce her native culture and take on the mantle of a domestic servant. Robinson named her "Lalla Rookh," after the eponymous daughter of the emperor in the famous poem by Thomas Moore. The settlement had become, in effect, a virtual prison for the relocated Aborigines. Many fell ill and died. Truganini determined that Robinson's relocation plan was not a viable way to ensure the continued survival of her people. In March 1836, when she returned to Tasmania in the company of a handful of other "relocated" Aborigines to continue her quest for those who remained hidden, she began urging the few she found to stay where they were. She feared that if they followed the others who already had gone to Flinders Island, all of her people would soon be dead. Truganini returned to Flinders in July 1837 to find that even more Aborigines had died. Few babies were being born, and those that were usually died in infancy. She warned Robinson that all would probably be dead before the houses that were being built for them were ready for occupancy.

After Robinson was named protector of the Aborigines in Australia's Port Phillip district in 1839, Truganini and Woorraddy, along with 14 other Aborigines from Flinders, accompanied him to his new posting near Melbourne. A couple of years later, she escaped from the Port Phillip mission in the company of two Aboriginal men and two Aboriginal women. Near Western Port, the five went on a rampage, terrorizing a group of shepherds and shooting two whalers. (It has been speculated that one of the men shot may have been part of the group that earlier had killed Truganini's sister Moorinna.) For their crimes, the two men were hanged, and the three women were shipped back to Flinders Island. Accompanying them, Woorraddy died during the journey. Truganini remained on Flinders Island until October 1847, when the Aboriginal settlement, then consisting of about 46 people, was relocated to Oyster Bay, some 20 miles south of Hobart in Tasmania.

Although conditions at Oyster Bay were even more deplorable than those on Flinders Island, Truganini seemed to prosper now that she was back in her traditional homeland. She passed her days in such traditional pursuits as hunting in the bush, collecting shells, and revisiting childhood haunts. Few of the other Aborigines flourished, however, and by 1869 she was one of only three in the country known to remain alive. (One of those three, William Lanney, mockingly called "King Billy" in recognition of his status as the last full-blooded Aboriginal man, died that March. After his death, most of his body parts were removed and kept by surgeons and others as souvenirs.) In 1874, Oyster Bay was flooded, and Truganini was removed to the care of a white family—her "guardians"—in Hobart Town. She became a well-known figure there, wearing a bright red cap, her personal adaptation of the red gum tips or ochre her tribal group traditionally wore in their hair. In 1876, at age 64, Truganini died and was buried on the grounds of the women's prison in Hobart, denied her wish to be buried "behind the mountains." She was then believed to have been the last full-blooded Tasmanian Aborigine, although that claim has since been disputed. Her skeleton was exhumed two years later by scientists, with permission from the government on condition that it be kept from the public and seen only by "scientific men for scientific purposes." Ten years later her bones were displayed in Melbourne at the Centenary Exhibition. By 1904, they had been strung together in a full skeleton and placed on display at a Hobart museum, where they were for years the most visited exhibit. Public squeamishness caused the removal of the skeleton to a basement in 1947. As the years passed, Truganini became a symbol of the destruction of the Aborigines, interpreted in various ways and held up as a hero or a traitor by whites and Aborigines. Books and plays were written about her and her era, as well as poems and, in the later years of the 20th century, at least one film and a song by a hugely popular Australian band. An 1889 book, Cassell's Picturesque Australia, after noting her rescue of Robinson, stated: "She died at the age of sixty-five, and to the last was faithful to the whites. In every sense she was a heroine." In later years, she was at times vilified (often by whites) as a sort of Malinche , delivering her people over to their murderers. Despite the steps begun by the Australian government in the late years of the 20th century to make some sort of reparation to all Aborigines, their treatment at the hands of whites, both in the early history of the colony and later, remains a controversial and still raw subject. Today, life expectancy of Aborigines is 20 years less than that of other Australians. In 1976, 100 years after her death, Truganini's remains were cremated, and Tasmanian Aborigines scattered the ashes on the waters of her tribal land.


Bonwick, James. The Last of the Tasmanians: Or the Black War of Van Diemen's Land (originally published 1870). Adelaide, Australia: Australiana Facsimile Editions, 1969.

Radi, Heather, ed. 200 Australian Women: A Redress Anthology. NSW, Australia: Women's Redress Press, 1988.

Turnbull, Clive. Black War: The Extermination of the Tasmanian Aborigines. Cheshire, UK: Lansdowne, 1965.

Wilde, William H., Joy Hooten, and Barry Andrews. The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford, 1985.

Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania

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Truganini (1812–1876)

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