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The book corner: Reappropriating stolen memory

  • 16 September 2022
  In his introduction to My People’s Songs:  How an Indigenous Family Survived Colonial Tasmania, about his ancestors Joel Birnie recalls his visit to a disused church in the Southeast of Tasmania. The visit leaves him with questions about the past and how it is remembered. Why was this piece of land and church judged so important to preserve? And further, how might a manipulated account of his heritage have coloured this experience? He comes to his writing convinced that the stories of Indigenous people in Tasmania have not been told from their own perspective but from that of those who invaded the island and dealt with them. 

Birnie’s exploration of the lives of three strong Indigenous women begins in the period of whalers’ and sealers’ incursions in Northern Tasmania, continues during the War on the Indigenous and the decision to confine them to settlements under the protection of George Augustus Robinson. They were settled first in 1832 at Wybalenna on Flinders Island, and removed in 1847 to Oyster Island on the South Eastern Coast.

The story begins with Tarenootairer who as a child in the 1820s was enslaved by white whalers and continues with the story of her daughters Mary Ann Arthur and Fanny Cochrane Smith, the former born to a whaler and the latter at Wybalenna.

Their lives were marked by great resilience in the endurance of great suffering callously inflicted by colonists, sometimes with good intentions mismatched to disrespectful means. Their plight met with public indifference alternating with prurient curiosity. Both responses displayed a contempt based on a profound lack of knowledge.

Tarenootairer was born on the coast of northeastern Tasmania where there had long been contact between the Indigenous inhabitants and colonial traders. As a girl, like many other women, she was kidnapped by sealers and taken to the islands on the Northwest of Tasmania where she was put to work hunting and killing seals. She was sold on twice, becoming the wife of a 53 year old Scotsman who beat her. Like other seized girls she was given an English name, Tibb, denoting a disreputable woman. She had a least two children with him, including Mary Ann.

'It is the story of violence against persons and their culture, both physical and legal by removal from their country into confined settlements, removal from access to the food and spirits central to their lives, imposition of colonial styles of dress and of religious practice,