Truganina, Truganini: destiny, disease, disaster …


Touch of irony to the latest Covid outbreak epicentre at Truganina, again, and the sad story of the so-called last full-blood Tasmanian Aboriginal, Truganini.

Always been curious about Truganini because my grandmother grew up in the tiny rural hamlet that Truganina once was, out the back of Werribee half-way to Melton. Her French-born dad, old anti-vaxxer he was, was fined for refusing to inoculate his kids back in the fin de siècle early 1900 days. Not sure just what he was fighting so virulently against. Told the court he had scruples.

Plenty of whooping cough and measles outbreaks back then but concern was fairly widespread also about the new smallpox vaccine supposedly injecting all sorts of other diseases into your carcass. Not so different to today. Fortunately, his scruples haven’t been passed on through the family – well, not to me, anyway.

Rough country out Truganina way. Rocky volcanic terrain, rugged creekbeds, sparse groundcover, few trees and they’re gnarled, twisted things. Bitter westerlies in winter and blistering northerlies in summer. Great grand-pere’s beautiful two-storey bluestone homestead, named Remiremont for his native Alsace digs, burnt down in the 1969 fires that blitzkrieged the place.

Bit of a blitzkrieg at the moment also into the remains of Truganini’s confrere William Lanne, also known as King Billy, who was hacked apart and whisked away by researchers and collectors after he died in 1869. They might have gone to London, possibly elsewhere in Tasmania, some of his skeleton was long thought to be buried in Hobart. One story suggests the remains were destroyed by Nazi bombs in WW2. New evidence suggests they stayed, mainly, in Tassie, but the jury’s still out.

Probably shouldn’t do so but it reminds me of the movie On the Nose with Robbie Coltrane, who you’ll know as Hagrid, along with Dan Aykroyd and Aussie Tony Briggs. It’s probably a bit on the nose these days, PC-wise, as it has Coltrane stalling Briggs from repatriating the head of an Aboriginal leader that’s been preserved for 200 years in glass jar at a Dublin medical college.

Outlandishly, Coltrane discovers the head rotates in the sunlight, so he calibrates numbers around the jar which, as an inveterate gambler, he seizes on to pick winning racehorses depending where the proboscis is pointing. On the nose, get it? Anyway, things get complicated because Coltrane needs to win the Grand National or somesuch to get his kid into Trinity College … all very silly but it picked up an Audience Award at the 2002 Newport Beach Film Festival.

Comedy, non-PC or whatever, it’s interesting for its allusion to repatriation problems if not, more specifically, to some of the brawling over extracting DNA from old bones that might differentiate opposing cultural interests in Tassie. In a nutshell, some people have been arguing they’re more Tasmanian Aboriginal than others. Not especially pretty, the whole thing.

Truganina’s ties to Truganini’s sad story, and that of her Parlevar people, grew in my mind with Robert Drewe’s book The Savage Crows. Later, I learned that by 17 her mother and her husband-to-be were murdered, her uncle shot, her stepmother kidnapped, her sisters abducted and she herself raped by whites.

She came to Victoria at one point with Chief Protector George Robinson but was involved in several raids around the Dandenongs and Westernport. She and four others were charged with the murder of two whalers at Portland Bay – two men were hanged, the three women sent to Flinders Island. Her later husband, warrior Wooraddy, who wasn’t in the Portland Bay affair, died on the return trip.

Not surprisingly, she despised European society. She demanded her body not be desecrated on her death but sure enough it was exhumed by the great minds of  the Royal Society of Tasmania and, later, put on public display from 1904 to 1947 at the Tasmanian Museum. In 1976, a century after her death, her ashes were spread in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel.

Frontier wars were largely responsible for the deaths of some 15,000 Tasmanian indigenous people before the deaths of William Lanne and Truganini. But there was another insidious enemy that killed many very early in the piece – disease. Disease of numerous varieties for which there was no vaccine, no defence and no recourse to compensation, JobKeeper, justice or anything of that nature.

So there’s an irony to Truganina’s latest Covid outbreak. There’s also a pretty clear message: do yourself, and everyone, a favour: Get vaxxed.