Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Professor Henry Reynolds has described Cassandra Pybus’s Truganini as “a book of unquestionable national importance.” I could not agree more. It is a compelling book for Australians, for its stance on the human rights that aborigines would have expected, but were denied as a consequence of the blatant self-aggrandisement of George Arthur Robinson, self-styled missionary and conman.
In the blue waters of Recherche Bay, the place the Nuenonne called Lyleatea, around the year 1812, Truganini was born. Thus began a life of nearly seven decades that witnessed “ a psychological and cultural shift more extreme than most human imaginations could conjure” (xvi), thus making Truganini a “hugely significant figure in Australian history” (xvi). While Truganini was growing to adolescence, Governor Arthur, in pursuing a policy of conciliation and civilization, chose George Arthur Robinson, an uneducated, slick-tongued, newly-arrived, immigrant tradesman to be the agent of his policy. Robinson met the seventeen years old Truganini at Birch’s Bay (just across the channel from Bruny Island), where she was living with convict woodcutters. Robinson “took it upon himself to take her back to her father on Bruny Island” (12). His subsequent attempts to bring Nuenonne thinking to align with his own were unsuccessful (for the reasons Pybus describes).
Any sense of nobility in this book is found among the indigenous population, and certainly not in Europeans. Cassandra Pybus has gifted us a book of remarkable endeavour. She has captured the bicameral stature of human beings in depicting the shyness and the slyness of both black and white skinned people. Truganini’s own shyness is brought out in compelling language, but lest we think her a mere cipher in Robinson’s hands, we see her rebelliousness and her mockery of Robinson surface. She was a strong-willed young woman, sensual and passionate, who rejects Robinson’s Christian values while appearing to tolerate them. The slyness and practised deceit of the European race, again highlighted in the character of Robinson and his superiors, is laid bare. That we have to admit that our ancestors treated the aboriginal people in Tasmania with unbridled spite and chicanery is sickening.
Our interest is in Truganini herself but too often Pybus draws us away from her and aims her sights on Robinson and the activities of Truganini’s extended family and friends. The use of actual names such as Plorenernoopner, Wooredy and Kickerterpoller provides immediacy and authenticity to this personal history. To most Australians, Truganini is simply the last of the Tasmanian aborigines. “Sadly, a lot of what is said and written about her is myth and fabrication” (xv). Pybus does more with this book to focus the attention of her readers on Truganini the woman, Truganini the tragic, the exploited, the damaged, the woman who saved Robinson’s life, than any other writer I know. That she rejected him after years of false promises and lies is not known to present day Australians. Our response to the tragedy of the First Tasmanians is an impersonal, offhanded ‘sorry about the aborigines’ response, until one reads Pybus’s account.
Truganini’s sense of fun and tribal identification cannot be separated from that of her fellows – Wooredy, the Nuenonne elder, who was knowledgeable in ritual and healing (17), the young woman, Dray, Truganini’s friend, who was dressed in European finery to attend a ‘show and tell’ as Robinson required, only to immediately revert to a shapeless smock to have sex with the whalers at Adventure Bay (20), and the abandonment of all serious matters in the orgy, described on page 73, where the arrival of ‘stolen women’ triggered a disregard of Christian principles to the pleasure of the moment. Fun loving indigenous people contrasted with the self-righteous priggishness of Robinson’s ilk is an attractive element in the book. At the same time it generates a sense of deep loss.
Pybus details the difference between the fun loving world of Truganini with the tragedy ‘of decay and dissolution that surrounded…[her]…in 1866 when the women were dressed up in ball gowns and put on show at Government House” (257). Three years later Truganini was both old and ill, “with whiskers on her chin” (261), but lauded “as an antipodean Pocahontas in newspaper stories, the beautiful but self-denying native princess who had risked her life to save her beloved Mr Robinson” (261). Knowing that, on the death of her friend Billy, the white colonists had beheaded his body, Truganini walked in dread of her own fate. Her death was as dramatic as her life had been, but failed to close a horrible chapter in white-black relations.
No review worth writing could fail to mention the quality of the author’s writing style. Julia Baird has commented on its telling, remarking that the story is beautifully told. Just how beautiful can be gauged by the opening words of the Preface:
Half buried in the sand, uprooted stalks of kelp are like splashes of dark blood against the white quartzite, ground fine as talc. Tendrils of kelp flounce lazily in translucent shallows that gradually deepen to turquoise, turning Prussian blue at the horizon.
It is such a shame that the beauty of nature could not have been followed by a story equally as enchanting. But truth is like that.
By Cassandra Pybus
Allen & Unwin
$32.99; 336 pp