Something has been kind of trembling within my thoughts for a few weeks now, ever since a dinner party conversation afforded me some amazing news. I’ve been so astonished I haven’t quite known what to do with it. Just speaking in these grandiose tones is probably building it up way too much for everyone, but for me it is kind of huge.
To explain why it’s so amazing to me, I have to give a bit of background (bear with me).
When I was a child I read Nan Chauncy’s “Tangara” and I have been carrying the Aboriginal reconciliation torch on my sleeve ever since. I have read books about Aboriginal culture, done tours, listened to experts speak about the subject; I have signed petitions, joined support groups, written articles and stories and spent countless hours thinking about it. And all the while I felt that all I was doing was never enough to undo the damage that has been done to our Indigenous Australians.
My first article, written when I was 23 when the landmark WIK decision was fresh in everyone’s minds, stated that when the Aborigines occupied Australia alone, “…a hostile land flourished under a gentle, understanding touch. And in return the Aborigines were given music, art, origin, context and meaning… ” In the same article I wrote about the tragedy that unfolded in Tasmania after settlement that ended only when the Tasmanian Aborigines were effectively wiped out.
It seems conceited to quote myself, but I’m just trying to emphasize my concern with this issue and to underscore how obtuse (dumb) I must be to have missed the fact that I LIVE ON THE VERY BEACH WHERE TASMANIAN ABORIGINES HAD THEIR FIRST EVER CONTACT WITH WHITE PEOPLE. Sorry to shout, I realise that that this news probably doesn’t mean that much to anyone else, but to me it’s kind of ENORMOUS and I’m slightly bash-myself-in-the-head flabbergasted that I missed it along the way.
HANG ON THERE A MINUTE MEG – YOU’VE GOT CARRIED AWAY. IT WASN’T MARION BAY BEACH, YOU MUST HAVE JUST ASSUMED THAT BECAUSE OF IT’ S NAME AND BECAUSE IT’S WHAT YOU WANTED TO BELIEVE, BUT IN ACTUAL FACT THE FRENCHMEN LANDED ON TWO MILE BEACH, ON THE SOUTH-EASTERN SIDE OF MARION BAY, SO NOT YOUR BEACH AT ALL. DON’T YOU LOOK LIKE A WANKER. ANYWAY, ON WITH THE STORY, WIND OUT OF SAILS AND ALL….
Oh right, well they landed IN FREDERICK-HENRY BAY, JUST OVER FROM OUR BACH and first saw Aborigines there – how did I not know that either?
It wasn’t until a few weeks ago at a dinner party when Nicholas Clement’s recent book, “The Black War” was brought up (thanks Bob) and the story told to me. I rushed out and bought the book (well I didn’t rush out of the dinner party, that really would have been bonkers, and rude). Then I read the book* and sure enough, there it was.
In March 1772 (130 years after Abel Tasman had a wander about over the bay as the first known white man to reach Tasmania), Frenchman Marc-Joseph Marion DuFresne and his crew arrived in Frederick-Henry Bay and noted – as I do most days when I remember to stop and enjoy the view – what a truly beautiful place it is.
They landed on
Marion Bay Beach Two Mile Beach and came face to face with a small tribe of Tasmanian Aborigines. He was greeted in what was reported to be a friendly manner but evidently things turned nasty; the visitors suffered some injuries and at least one Aborigine was killed.
DuFresne evidently stayed in the region for six days, assessing the place for timber and fresh water before he departed unsatisfied. He sailed on to New Zealand where a few months later he was killed and eaten by Maoris. Bloody hell.
I was hungry for more information though – why did things turn sour between the two parties? What did they do here for 6 days?
The journals of DuFresne were lost, but his second in command Julian Marie Crozet also wrote about the voyage and his journal was later translated into English by Henry Ling-Roth. This translation is at my fingertips via the good people at openlibrary.org and it is fascinating.
Apart from the beauty of the place, Crozet remarked on the number of fires dotted along the bay, indicating that the land was “thickly populated”. Upon landing, he said that the Aborigines “showed themselves agreeable” and appeared to build them a fire, inviting them to light it. The Frenchmen offered gifts – mirrors, iron, meat and other things – but the offerings were rejected. Then one Aborigine offered DuFresne a “firebrand in order to light a little wood pile”. Du Fresne,“thinking that this was a ceremony intended to indicate he had come with pacific intentions, did not hesitate to light the pile. But it was immediately evident that this was all wrong and that the acceptance of the brand was an acceptance of a defiance or a declaration of war”.
As the fire was lit, the Aborigines immediately moved to a high point and threw rocks at the Frenchmen, forcing their retreat. Shots were fired as warnings as they returned to their ships. When they attempted another landing further along, they were again showered with missiles and this time the return fire was direct. An Aborigine was killed, while a DuFresne crew member took a spear to the leg. The Frenchmen chased the Aborigines into the woods and found one wounded and dying. It seems they took this man and washed him, but Crozet does not say whether he survive. I assume not.
They scoured the land at least “two leagues inland” (about 11 km) for fresh water and timber with no luck. Dudes are you sure your men actually searched? Lagoon Bay is right there – I have a feeling they may have hidden in the bushes, necked a bottle of claret and had a snooze. Or maybe the creek was briny then. They did find some “tiger cats” (Tassie tigers? Devils?) and ate some pelicans before upping stumps and heading off.
Details aside, it is bloody Ah.Maze.Ing to me (have I said that already, oh well I said it again) that here on my doorstep, it was first proven to the Mother Country that Van Diemen’s Land was not Terra Nullius (land belonging to no one), but well and truly inhabited.
I asked Nicholas Clements whether he thought the tribe that fled the gunfire might have reported the events to other tribes and he said it was possible. I had in my ever-dramatic head that this violent first encounter might have sparked the animosity that fueled the ultimate devastation of the Tasmanian Aborigines. That Here It All Began.
Less significantly but remarkable to me at least, this bit of history also answers what I question pretty much every time I step out into the country that is Marion Bay and Bream Creek: that there were active tribes here – living, traversing, singing the land into life. There must have been heaps of them. Crozet describes the ground (other than being light and sandy – don’t my roses know it) was covered in ash from all the fires.
I had made up stories about them, written them down and told them to my children without ever really knowing if they’d really been here. And all along there they were, not far from where my children sleep, making history.
What did those tribes-people think when they saw those boats approach. What did they think they were seeing when men, dressed in scarlet and blue, landed on their sands? What on Earth?
I’m sure I’ve sensed their presence around here – in the trees, in the calls of birds and the sound of the sea. There’s a part of me that isn’t surprised I live in such a significant place, and that they were here, all around.
It all makes me think of some Palawa Kani words that for some reason I memorised when I saw them at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery recently: “nara makara lumi” – we will always be here.
*The Black War by Nicholas Clements, UQP – a bloody good read with an interesting point of difference in that it reports from both points of view so that you end up feeling sympathy for both sides.