If there’s one place on Flinders Island that’s steeped with history it has to be Wybalenna, just a short drive north of Whitemark. I have visited the site on two occasions and in the first instance I visited alone with not a soul in sight. You may be wondering what the attraction is and why being alone is significant. Well, here’s the story.
The Black War took place in Tasmania between 1824 and 1831. “Lest We Forget” does not recognise more than 500 lives lost (white and black) in this unforgivable act of ridding natives from their land. After the costly Black Line operation, only a handful of Aborigines remained and Governor Arthur wanted them out of sight, out of mind. To this day, it is unknown whether an official treaty was drawn-up for the relocation of the remaining natives to Flinders Island but in discussions with the native leaders a promise was made where they could return to their homelands for part of the year.
Friendly Mission: George Augustus Robinson
George Augustus Robinson was well respected by the Aboriginal people. They taught him many of their ways including language, hunting, trekking and selecting bush food. When Governor Arthur awarded him the task of the Friendly Mission, he was the obvious choice and by 1833 Robinson was leading them to a windswept outpost on Flinders Island.
For reasons unknown, the climate and surrounds didn’t suit the estimated 200 Tasmanian Aborigines that occupied Wybalenna. The terrain didn’t offer the same hunting grounds that they had before and shellfish were less abundant. Although Wybalenna had the luxury of a resident surgeon, he could do very little for those that contracted pneumonia. Dwindling numbers meant very few births and, even then, child survival was rare. My own feeling is that despondency and despair were contributing factors to the rapid decline.
Alone I walked the track to Settlement Point. I imagined the dismal daily routine of the “fish out of water” and their yearning for their homelands. Robinson never did keep his promise and it wasn’t until 1847 that the remaining 47 went back to mainland Tasmania and Oyster Cove.
The graves of those that perished are unmarked and the exact locations speculative. That didn’t stop me from entering the gate into a well-defined, fenced graveyard that is the resting place for some of the original islanders.
Wybalenna: Convicts and Aborigines
It was only when I returned home that I learned of a convict population of 70 at Wybalenna between the years of 1833 and 1837. When I was at the settlement, I was totally unaware of this and being alone without a tour guide it was never an issue! Historians say that the Wybalenna convicts lived under worse conditions than the Aborigines. They were harshly treated and lived on frugal rations. Surprisingly records show that only one convict died during a four year period compared with forty Aboriginal deaths.
In his book, The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes likens Wybalenna to a pre-20th century ‘concentration camp where genocide was committed’. I can see his point. Not one bit of action was taken to stem the tide of death.
Roger Findlay spends all his holidays in Tasmania, then writes about the experience for Think Tasmania. If you’d like Roger to visit you in the name of research (so we can publish information about your business), please contact us.
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