Book review: Truganini : Journey Through the Apocalypse by Cassandra Pybus

(cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin Book Publishers)

History is usually looked upon very dispassionately.

We see conquerors and the conquered, civilisations rise and civilisations fall, and while we know there are real people involved in all these recounted events, we don’t often pause to consider what it must have been like to be on the receiving end of, say, a brutal invasion that pays scant regard to the innate humanity, culture, lives and values of those whose land is invaded.

Wonder no more then for in Cassandra Pybus’s harrowing telling of the cruel settling of Tasmania by British forces in the early 1800s, Truganini: Journey through the apocalypse, we see in sorrowful detail how ruinously destructive the wholesale thievery of the island from its original owners was for all the clans who called this bountiful place home.

The British arrived in Tasmania in 1803, some 15 years after the First Fleet sailed into Sydney Harbour on 26 January 2021 – it is officially Australia Day but this reviewer, along with an increasing number of other Australians, feels it is far more apt to call in Invasion Day; there is, thus, a sizeable push to have the date changed to one more inclusive of all Australians – and immediately begin to carve up the land and its precious resources as if there was no one already in residence.

But, of course, there were – the myriad clans and nations of Tasmania were very much in residence and had been for at least 40,000 years, custodians of a land they tended with reverence and great care and which had sustained them and their rich cultures for a far greater time period than the British had had anything resembling a civilisation.

The book, as you might expect from the title, focuses on the poignant figure of Truganini, often deemed the last Tasmanian Aboriginal – she was not, in fact, as Pybus (a descendant of one of the first settlers on Bruny Island) and the many modern Indigenous Tasmanians still very much alive and practising and living their culture are at pains to point out – who witnessed change on a cataclysmically horrendous scale through almost seven decades of life.

“Truganini was Goerge Augustus Robinson’s first point of contact with the Nuenonne. He found her, in April 1829, living with a gang of convict woodcutters just across the channel from Bruny Island at Birch’s Bay. She was a lovely young woman, diminutive and fine-boned, with her hair cut close to her scalp, which emphasised lively dark eyes and a generous mouth.” (P. 12)

With the British arriving some ten years before her birth, Truganini was born into a world that still, superficially at least, resembled the one her clan folk and ancestors had know since time immemorial.

Her people, the Nuenonne, still collected abundant shellfish from the coves scattered across lunawanna-allonah, or Bruny Island, as the British christened it, met with other clans from across the island at a sacred site within their Country and observed rituals and customs many millennia old.

It was not necessarily a wholly idyllic life, since war and disagreements were still a part of the fabric of life on the island, but it was one which was in sync with the seasons and the natural world, which gave the Nuenonne, the Tarkiner and the Ninine and other clans of the island a great deal of meaning, and which fed and clothed its people in ways that the later forcibly adopted British lifestyle could not.

What strikes you quite forcefully as you read Truganini: Journey through the apocalypse, quite apart from the vandalistic cruelty of much of the British establishment and appallingly large numbers of the settlers, whalers and convicts who treated Tasmania as a place to be raped and pillaged for their own benefit, screw the original owners, is how Truganini fought hard to stay afloat in a world seemingly dedicated to metaphorically drowning her and those of her people who survived the initial annihilation of many of the clans.

Cassandra Pybus (image courtesy Sydney Writers’ Festival)

It was a terrifyingly quick process.

As Pybus observes, the clans of south-eastern Tasmania, which included the Nuenonne, were all but wiped out by the 1820s, with a rich and highly-cultured people extirpated like common vermin, often seen as they were by settlers as intruders on land that was actually still theirs, had never been ceded by them and to which they naturally retained a strong and enduring bond.

Throughout this rapid cataclysmic change, Truganini, her close friend and fellow clan member Dray, her eventual husband and warrior and cleverman Wooredy, and countless others, did what they had to to survive.

Theirs was an existence riven by coercion, exile – one man, George Augustus Robinson, took it upon himself, as a means of ingratiating himself with the Tasmanian Governor and others, to round up all the First Nations people of the island and take them to Flinders Island, far from their various Countries, which was akin to death for many of them – starvation alcoholism, sexual depravity and great pain and loss, all of it brought about the callous, inhuman invasive activities of the British.

And yet, as they fell further and further away from the rich lives they had once led, it was the British, the brutalist architects of their misery and loss and degradation, who dared to scornfully berate them for failing to hold to decent standards of human behaviour.

The hypocrisy and lack of empathy is breathtaking, akin to breaking into a house, dispossessing its perfectly happy and content inhabitants and then pillorying them for being homeless.

“While my family history provides an unassailable case for my being the beneficiary of stolen land and genocide, the deeper truth is that every Australian who is not a member of the First Nations is a beneficiary of stolen country, brutal dispossession, institutionalised racial discrimination and callous indifference. The expropriation of the territory of a generous people, and the devastating frontier war and dispersal that followed, is Australia’s true foundation story, not the voyage of Captain Cook or the arrival of the First Fleet.” (P. 270)

The power of Truganini: Journey through the apocalypse is that Pybus does not attempt to build something Truganini into some sort of inspiring figure nor reinforce the perception of her as some tragically lost figure marooned in history and left behind while her culture and people disappeared around her.

Rather, she lets the facts speak for themselves, allowing this remarkable woman who did what she had to do to stay alive in a new, brutally cruel world that often felt committed to killing her as quickly as it could, to come alive as someone intrinsically and authentically human.

Lifted from being a simply curiosity of history, Truganini has her humanity restored to her, with Pybus bearing witness through historical accounts, to a woman who refused to let an apocalyptic event destroy her and who, flawed like any human being is, made her share of mistakes as much as she made some brilliantly survivalist decisions.

It is hard not to read Truganini: Journey through the apocalypse and not feel fury at the way in which the British treated the original owners of Tasmania, and indeed, First Nations people all across Australia, and there is precious little to persuade you away from viewing the invaders as barren of all humanity and bereft of the very hallmarks of civilisation they claimed to champion.

But what does emerge from this transformative and eye-opening book is how much one person will do, in this case Truganini, to survive a sequence of events that should have ended her life years before she died of old age and to hang onto her culture and her Country as much as she could in the face of an invasion so callously monstrous that it is impossible to view this or any historical epoch with anything approaching dispassion ever again.


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