Those Who Stay: caring for memory at Wybalenna

by Neika Lehman

 

If the past month of old bronze racists finding their new geotagged resting places at the bottom of city rivers can tell us anything, it is that in the West, people have grown sick of staring at a very narrow selection of statues that represent a very narrow section of history. One of the only things that keeps me on social media are memes, and I now have a folder of instructional memes detailing how best to pull down statues. No memes so far on how to put up new ones. I encourage the Australian reader to take on that challenge and send it my way—I would love to see it. Perhaps by condensing the bureaucracy of this colony, putting it into a single meme, we can unceremoniously throw away that red tape and start again.

 

Truthfully and with bravery this time.

 

How to properly memorialise (read: care for) the living memories of what happened here during the Frontier Wars, what the Guardian Australian labels ‘the Killing Times’, has long been the work of my surrounding First Nations elders and peers. [1] This kind of work has an intergenerational weave, and so in no small way, the project of memory work has been moving forward since the start of invasion.

 

The problem with painful memories is what to do with them. An important part of trauma therapy is learning to create a safe enough environment that you feel able and ready to sit with those memories of pain and process them. We know those memories and we try to own their impact on our lives. After a while of sitting with trauma and its residual impressions, new perspectives emerge that can lead to the road of healing. Part of this experience is cognitive: new recognition, acknowledgement, understanding. Another part is emotional: catharsis, connection, love.

 

This stuff is largely internal, but it is also an external process—social and material. It’s the work being done through healing ceremonies at sites of frontier violence, such as the Myall Creek Massacre and memorial site. Each June, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people gather to remember the 1838 unprovoked and premeditated murder of 28 Wirrayaraay men, women and children. Some of the people who attend the gathering are the descendents of both the perpetrators and the victims. Importantly, the gathering has also come to serve as a meeting point for discussion of contemporary settler-colonial issues and a community building place for grassroots intercultural, interfaith activity. To me, it’s a blueprint for the type of community work needed for healing ‘wounded spaces’, as Worimi writer, artist and curator Genevieve Grieves puts it, in a term borrowed from Deborah Bird Rose. [2] Rose first used the concept to identify those geographical spaces that have been ‘...torn and fractured by violence and exile, and that is pitted with sites where life has been irretrievably killed’. [3] Where Rose suggests irreparable damage, Grieves looks to cultural and creative practices that, through the process of re-connecting and maintaining connections between people and wounded places, can help heal historical traumas that live on in the present. [4] The belief here is that if there is a collective wound, there is a collective remedy—if the people can agree on it.

 

This year of 2020 has been officially christened ‘250’: the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s east-coast navigation of so-called Australia. In that 250 years post-invasion, outside of the context of art museums, there are still a total of zero national monuments directly acknowledging the murder and massacres of genocidal violence by the British colony and Australian colonial government towards the First Nations living on this continent. [5] Over half of the Frontier massacres were perpetrated by soldiers, police units and armed colonists working as agents of the state. [6] This fact hits the heart harder than ever in 2020, when local chapters of the global movement Black Lives Matter points to the painful legacy of state and police violence against black/blak and brown people that is still taking a disturbing number of lives today. [7] So far this state-inflicted truth is too deep for the perpetrators to reckon with, and so the wound lays bare. Meanwhile grassroots community initiatives lead the way in healing these historical ‘wounded spaces’ that dot this continent’s land. [8]

 

*

 

The island of Tasmania/lutruwita is where I grew up and is famous for its violent colonial history. Do a quick google search, and you’ll find Tasmania is often framed in the terms of its ‘dark history’, to the extent that it can feel oppressive. A lingering sense of atrocity can still be felt in some places on the island. Sheep-bitten fields house a failing ‘Little England’ imaginary, and many white locals impose an always-been-here attitude but prefer any topic other than the bitter past. There are places on the island blakfellas no longer tend to go, but we are not in the habit of abandoning our more difficult places. We do not abandon our difficult histories.  

 

From 1824 - 1831, the Black War was waged on an island of people who had been living on ancestral homelands for 40,000 years. Many historians consider the Black War the most intense of the frontier conflicts across the continent. [9] While death tolls soared on both sides of the armed black versus white conflict, the colonists kept arriving and a state of martial law was declared against our people for 3 years. As Nicholas Clements points out, by the end of the Black War, almost every colonist would have lost one person they knew. [10] But for Tassie blakfellas, we lost nearly everyone we knew, and that included our Country. After decades of bloodshed and introduced illnesses, in November 1830 the British bricklayer, missionary and colony-hired ‘conciliator’ George Augustus Robinson met with the revered chief and cleverman Manalargenna, known as Grandfather to many living Tasmanian Aboriginal people today.

 

The meeting has become one of the most crucial moments in modern Tasmanian/lutruwita history. As Robinson and Manalargenna spoke, approximately 2,200 armed men were marching in a formation known as the Black Line. Moving south along the island’s east coast, this terrifying and exhausting British military tactic aimed to round up any remaining First Nations peoples in the ‘settled districts’, attempting to finish off the Aboriginal ‘problem’ where land grants were being handed out in dense numbers. With news of this extreme military action, Manalargenna made an agreement with Robinson to temporarily relocate himself, his remaining tribe and approximately 160 other First Nations people of various territories and languages to Flinders Island. The exile would be a temporary measure to cool off violence, and relocate Aboriginal people back to the mainland, after the colonists had time to ‘settle’ in on their stolen land. Situated off the top of north east lutruwita/Tasmania, Flinders Island and the rest of the Furneaux Islands’ cluster were known to mob at the time as islands of spirits; a place where blakfellas went to die. [11]

AUTAS001139593537.jpg


Frankland, George, ‘Field plan of movements of the military. No. 9, Military operations against the aboriginal inhabitants of Van Diemen's Land G. Frankland, surveyor general.’ ca.1831, In Select Committee on Aborigines (British Settlements), 1831, 1836 [Hobart], Aborigines (Parliament of Tasmania, 1881-1908), W.L Crowther Library, Courtesy of the State Library of Tasmania, https://stors.tas.gov.au/AUTAS001139593537

 

Robinson’s agreement to return our people to mainland Tasmania was not upheld, and so Wybalenna, meaning ‘black man’s houses’, became Australia’s first permanent offshore detention centre. [12] Beyond a series of small and cold European designed rooms for the Aboriginal occupants, the settlement housed a chapel for church and educational requirements. Operating between 1830 - 1847, Wybalenna was a hotbed of introduced illnesses, and approximately 130 - 150 of the people that lived there, including Manalargenna, never made it home to the mainland. Those people remain in unmarked graves, buried at the settlement’s cemetery. The 47 people who survived were transferred to putalina/Oyster Cove, south of nipaluna/Hobart on the mainland of lutruwita/Tasmania. Today, the Wybalenna chapel is one of the only structures standing, while the rest has fallen to ruins.

 

I have visited Wybalenna a handful of times since I was little. One of my earliest memories of the place is as a toddler, accompanying my dad on a follow-up visit after his participation in the making of the 1992 documentary Black Man’s Houses. [13] The last time I visited was in November 2019, doing exactly the same thing. If you grew up in Tasmania and went through the public schools, you probably watched the film as I did, as a glassy-eyed teenager who barely understood the island’s history. I knew the island’s eternal feeling when walking along beaches eating bush tucker, or laying in the shade of a fern. But the facts of history felt like a dream. Years later, I stumbled on the film again as a documentary history student. With such an exceedingly slim history of Tasmanian Aboriginal people on film, it is not much to say I had seen nothing like Black Man’s Houses.

 

I became quietly obsessed by the beautiful shots of Flinders Island: white sand and wind-swept valleys, childhood elders and the staunch blackfella activists of 1991, who had gathered at Wybalenna to officially re-occupy the site. The Community’s demand was that the site be removed from the state government’s Parks and Wildlife control and handed back to the Aboriginal people, to the surviving descendants of those who lived there during its original settlement-cum-detention centre days.

 

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Stephen Thomas (director)
'Black Man's Houses', circa 1992
B&W photos (production stills)
Courtesy of Flying Carpet Films

There are many prominent Tasmanian figures represented or involved in the film: Aunty Ida West, Aunty Girlie Purdon, Aunty Alma Stackhouse, Aunty Ruby Roughley, Aunty Phyllis Pitchford, Chris West, Glen & Maxine Shaw. There is a young Uncle Jim Everett-puralia meenamatta, maikutena Aunty Vicki-Laine Green, Lillian Wheatley, and even a brief cameo of Aunty Wendell dressed up as a red-coat in disguise. There is my father Greg Lehman, who looks young and fervorous, around the age I am now. During the re-occupation, the film documents the community who are busy sorting many things, including some long overdue business—primarily, how to care for the 100 old fellas buried in the cemetery there.

50171892-006.jpg


Stephen Thomas (director)
'Black Man's Houses', circa 1992
B&W photos (production stills)
Courtesy of Flying Carpet Films
 

 

Bringing in Parks and Wildlife archeologist Don Ranson, the community helped locate and name the graves at Wybalenna, before establishing ochred wooden markers to acknowledge each of the buried’s positions. Peering over Don Ranson’s shoulder at the computer screen, the community goes over a graphic that’s been generated from Don’s archeological scans. Cross-checking with the settlement’s colonial records, it is with overwhelming emotion that the group identify the grave position of Manalargenna. With displeasure, they identify a few of the grainier looking graves on the graphic as robbed—you can tell by the looseness of the soil. The highs and lows of these discoveries is palpable and it’s an intense experience for myself as a viewer.

 

Through my own curatorial work, I’ve come to recognise Indigenous cinema as often being concerned with memory and how to carry old stories forward. Memory work on film is a powerful mechanism, whether it’s used to correct historical untruths or as evidence for land rights claims and royal commissions. It also strikes me that Indigenous films work a bit like conventional memorials: a dedication to a certain community’s vision and understanding of the past. But they can also function as instructional documents, and in this way, Black Man’s Houses serves as the ‘how-to’ meme I’ve been looking for—it shows us how a community can put monuments up, and the enduring complexities that can follow.

 

In the film, there is a scene where the community participants begin erecting the markers that acknowledge each grave. Aunty Vicki observes that even lightly hammering the shallow posts into the ground feels like a disturbance of the old fellas' spirits. Lillian Wheatley’s closing line of the film helps frame the community’s intentions: ‘The old fellas now know that we’re here to look after what is left’. There is a following ceremony, and a plinth is officially opened by the community. The plaque on it reads: ‘Repossession of Wybalenna 15.7.1991 - For all those Aboriginal people that walked and still walk this land’. It is remarkable what a re-occupation can achieve.

50171892-007.jpg


Stephen Thomas (director)
'Black Man's Houses', circa 1992
B&W photos (production stills)
Courtesy of Flying Carpet Films
 

 

Watching the film again as a young adult, I was bursting with questions. What had happened to Wybalenna, now that 25 years had passed? After speaking to a filmmaker friend, I learnt that Black Man’s Houses’ director, the British-born, non-Indigeous Australian Steve Thomas was her teacher, and also lived in my adopted town of Narrm/Melbourne. We connected, and he had questions too. What was the story of this special place now?

 

Beyond the ending credits of Black Man’s Houses is a tailpiece shot of the community’s Wybalenna monument again, this time knocked over. Steve Thomas’s voice-over reports that a few months after the monument was put up, the plinth was vandalised and the plaque stolen. What was meant as an epilogue presaged a new wave of white vandalism and destruction. Following that monument’s desecration, each grave post was also ripped out and stolen. Those markers have never been replaced.

 

maikutena Vicki-Laine Green has been my guide to the history of Flinders post-Black Man’s Houses. On a drive around the island’s south, she tells me that racism was still very pronounced on Flinders Island in the early 90s, and that the vandalism at Wybalenna was far from isolated. We drive past the Aboriginal Community Centre, and Vicki yarns about its opening, when, after the Aboriginal flag was raised, people came in the night to dip it in white paint and write racist slogans on the fence.

 

Many of the older white residents in Black Man’s Houses who confidently gave their racist pieces to camera have passed on, apparently taking much of that boasting and belligerent style of racism with them. In the last two decades, large numbers of new-comers have moved to Flinders, bringing different visions and different pasts. Whether or not Flinders Island is still a racist society depends on who you speak to. Since the days of Black Man’s Houses, the Flinders Island Aboriginal Association Inc. (FIAAI) has progressively expanded its duties. Established in Uncle Jim Everett's backyard in 1973 as the Flinders Island Community Association (FICA), FIAAI has developed over the years to not only operate as the voice-piece of blakfellas on the island, it also runs a health service, 60 public houses for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal residents, as well as several thriving businesses, including the tavern where I slept on my latest stay. There is a higher proportion of blakfellas in the Flinders population than there is on mainland lutruwita/Tasmania, and you get the sense there’s not much FIAAI aren’t across. But in the settler colony, community relations, proximity to land, and local knowledge doesn’t necessitate authority or control, particularly when it comes to Wybalenna.

 

After a decades-long battle agitating the Tasmanian state government for land returns, in 1995 the Aboriginal Lands Act legislation was passed, enabling the return of parcels of Aboriginal land. The Act was amended in 1999 to include Wybalenna. But the state government took a homogenising approach to Indigenous land care relations, designating all land ownership to the state-wide statutory body, the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania (ALCT), rather than granting ownership to the local Aboriginal associations living in closest relation to each site.

 

For Wybalenna this legislation has seemed to embed Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples and our relationship to land further within the layers of settler-colonial bureaucracy, and further away from the pre-colonial way of care, when lutruwita was an island of separate territories, languages, and identities. The Aboriginal Lands Act is still in place today, and means FIAAI and local people have no authoritative control over Wybalenna. While ALCT offered day-to-day management of the site to FIAAI as a negotiation, all direction would ultimately be dictated by ALCT off-shore on the mainland. FIAAI wasn’t interested in the compromise.

 

Having an off-island management system at Wybalenna for more than 20 years has created an ongoing trauma of frustration, anger and sadness for locals. Ambitious young people became middle-aged in that time frame; the middle-aged grew old. And while local mob can stand on the ground of Wybalenna, they can’t do much more without having to seek permissions from the mainland statutory body. If someone is invited to tell their stories at the site by visiting groups like the ABC, for example, permissions must be sought from the mainland. As an effect of this bureaucracy, the historic chapel and nearby cottage homestead is in desperate need of repairs.

 

While the community made grave monuments were never restored, the chapel remains an enduring monument to Tasmania’s frontier wars, to imposed knowledge and belief systems, to the colony’s failure at adequate care and to the consequences of a broken promise. In its fraying state today, it has also become a monument to the hard labour of 20th century land rights activists, to the subsequent state interference in Aboriginal land care relations, and to the implications these power processes have had on local community wellbeing, when it comes to sites of significance.

 

In recent years, the lucrative development of the ‘gourmet traveller’ style of tourism that permeated mainland Tasmania has arrived on Flinders Island. With the increase of tourists stepping off Sharp Airline’s 12 seater plane each week, there are more people coming to pay their respects at Wybalenna, evidenced in the chapel guest book, which hosts a stream of pilgrimage entries. These particular entries, written with passionate, journeyed ardour, confirm the national and international interest in Wybalenna as a site of deep historical importance.

 

I wonder how many tourists are expecting to see the bare field of the graveyard, unchanged since vandals knocked away those markers back in ‘91. Next to the chapel, there is the Aunty Ida memorial garden with its yarning table, built in 2004 to honour the dearly missed elder. Beyond garden, bar the guest book and a few new information boards inside the chapel (made from rapidly deteriorating materials), Wybalenna looks more or less the same: a remote and windy place on a large stretch of land, where a wide open landscape betrays intensely loaded memories, its sense as a wounded space that’s had some healing, but not enough.

 

The Healing Garden.jpg


Ricky Maynard
The Healing Garden - Portrait of a Distant Land 2005/08
silver gelatin print on paper, unframed; edition 10
37h x 54w cm (image size)
Courtesy of the artist and Bett Gallery

In the summer of 2018 - 2019, Aunty Vicki, Steve, dad and I organised a set of Tasmanian screenings of Black Man’s Houses to celebrate the film’s new digital restoration and 25th anniversary of the TV premiere. Back at the Whitemark Hall on Flinders Island, during the Q&A at the final showing, new locals who watched the film for the first time were confused by Wybalenna’s bizarre time capsule appearance (albeit an eroding one), and more so to find out that FIAAI don’t have ownership over the site.

 

On a short walk through the trees fringing one side of the site, Dad and I come upon the ruins of settlement cottages—sparse brick rubble sitting quietly in the grass. These were where the ancestors were made to live, in cold, damp conditions that contributed to the poor quality of life, hastening the mass of deaths. There is no avoiding the vision of exposure and breakdown in front of me. I don’t know how long these bricks take to decompose, I assume centuries more.

 

One of the animals living at the site, a wombat, shows us his excavation work at the entrance to his hole: broken bits of old crockery, maybe some from the 1970s, maybe some from 170 years before. I love this presencing of Country, the way the land continues to move, regardless of the human stasis. We stand there, marvelling at the wombat’s archeology skills and move on. Nothing else to do with that little bit of history for now.

 

Dad and I sit on the hill overlooking the whole site; we source good tools from the bones of a wallaby; he tells me about marrying my mum at the Wybalenna chapel in ‘84. We find a photo of me as a toddler sitting in front of the homestead, and take another one to mark the time passed. Later, the graveyard is squarely in front of me. Wide open skies, clouds passing shadows along the grassy hills. The soft rush of wind through the sheoaks. It is difficult to know how to process a history that feels so alive in its condition of decay. Country is here, open and greeting us.

 

 

 

 

Note: The written form of palawa kani—the language of Tasmanian Aboriginal people—uses only lower case letters.

 

 

 

 

Endnotes:

 

  1. While the Guardian may have recently popularised the term, the ‘The Killing Times’, appeared earlier as the title of the 1984 novel by John Cribbin concerning the Conniston Massacres, published by Fontana/Collins, Sydney. For Guardian series see: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/series/the-killing-times
  2. Deborah Bird Rose, Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2004.
  3.  Rose, pg. 34
  4. Genevieve Grieves ‘Connecting with Wounded Spaces’, un Magazine, 12.1, 2018 http://unprojects.org.au/magazine/issues/issue-12-1/connecting-with-wounded-spaces/
  5. Djon Mundine’s 1988 ‘the Aboriginal Memorial’ is a permanent installation and monument that directly represents the Aboriginal people who died at the hands of the British colony and Australian nation state. For more, read: https://www.artlink.com.au/articles/4277/the-aboriginal-memorial-to-australiaE28099s-forgotten-w/  and https://nga.gov.au/aboriginalmemorial/home.cfm
  6. See the University of Newcastle’s Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia, 1788-1930 research project for more: https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres/introduction.php
  7. The use of the term ‘blak’, which is minus the regular spelling with the letter c, was first used by Destiny Deacon in 1991 in her exhibition ‘Blak lik mi’. In her 2004 MCA exhibition, ‘Walk and don't look blak’, "blak" is defined as: ‘a term used by some Aboriginal people to reclaim historical, representational, symbolical, stereotypical and romanticised notions of Black or Blackness’.It has come to be a common usage word and spelling denoting Aboriginality particularly in urban, south-eastern Aboriginal discourse. See:australianblakhistorymonth/extra-credit#:~:text=What%20does%20Blak%20mean%3F,an%20exhibition%20Blak%20lik%20mi.&text=Blak%3A%20a%20term%20used%20by,used%20as%20ammunition%20or%20inspiration.
  8. I have deliberately used to word ‘dot’ to refer to the massacre mapping technology designed by the Centre for 21st Century Humanities at the University of Newcastle, which gives a clear visual of how many massacres were perpetrated across the Australian continent: https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres/map.php
  9.  Argued clearly by Nicholas Clements in this short piece published in the Conversation: https://theconversation.com/tasmanias-black-war-a-tragic-case-of-lest-we-remember-25663; see also Lyndall Ryan’s Tasmanian Aborigines: a history since 1803, Allen & Unwin, 2012.
  10. Clements, https://theconversation.com/tasmanias-black-war-a-tragic-case-of-lest-we-remember-25663
  11. Patsy Cameron, Grease and Ochre: the blending of two cultures at the colonial sea frontier, Fullers, 2001.
  12. While some sources such as the University of Tasmania’s official page on Wybalenna states the place name is a translation from the Ben Lomond Nation, Leonie Stevens cites colonist William Darling as the official advisor that ‘Wybalenna’ had been chosen from the Nuenonne/Bruny Island Nation language.
  13. Steve Thomas, Black Man’s Houses, Ronan Films, 1992, 58 mins.

 

 

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Neika Lehman is a writer and artist living and working in Kulin Country since 2014. They grew up in nipaluna/Hobart and belong to the Trawlwoolway peoples of north east Tasmania. Recent poetry and criticism can be found at Cordite Poetry Review, un Magazine, The Saturday Paper the Lifted Brow & Art Almanac.

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