The Betrayal

Benjamin Duterrau The Conciliation (1840) (TMAG)., originally uploaded by mxccuba.

With Archie trying to spot other Indigenous people and scanning maps for Indigenous names, I visited the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG). I normally don’t pay any attention to works I dislike, and I certainly haven’t written about them, but I’ve been preoccupied with The Conciliation. I suspect it’s the art-equivalent of watching a car crash. In addition to the accompanying works on paper, or studies I suppose of connected Indigenous Tasmanians, showing for example Woureddy’s resplendent ochre dusted dreadlocks, what’s particularly compelling is that The Conciliation very clearly depicts Indigenous Tasmanians not amidst flora and fauna, but rather their distinct identities.

Duterrau’s, The Conciliation is credited (namely William Moore, a critic and historian of the time) as the first historical epic painting in Australia. The painting depicts George Augustus Robinson with Indigenous Australians including Woureddy and his daughter Truganini (or Trucanini). Two of the most celebrated Indigenous Tasmanians. In particular, a meeting with the so-called ‘Protector of Aborigines’ in Van Diemen’s Land. Post Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur announcing the Black War (1830), Truganini (Sinead O’Connor on right), who would have feared further reprisals and concerned with the safety of her people, was persuaded by Robinson to assist or guide him. However, she was betrayed as part of a broader plan to re-settle them at Wybaleen, a kind of death camp on Flinders Island (1830-37). Also known as the Black Line: the attempted genocide of the Indigenous Tasmanians.

Before Truganini was seventeen, her mother Tanleboueyer had been killed by whalers, her uncle had been shot by a soldier, three of her sisters had been abducted and sold to sealers (one of whom was later shot) and her betrothed Paraweena, was drowned in the Channel by timber sawyers. Truganini was part of a guerilla war campaign (1838) at Port Philip, Victoria with a group of other Tasmanians – the men were recaptured and executed in Melbourne’s first public execution, and her husband died during their return.

Tragedy after tragedy: Truganini and the remaining 45 people were moved from Wybaleena to Oyster Cove (1847). Even posthumously her skeleton was displayed at the Tasmanian Museum (until 1951). It wasn’t until 100 years after her death (1976) that, in accordance with her wishes, her remains were finally cremated and scattered near Oyster Cove, near her traditional country in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, south of Hobart. Even today, samples of her skin and hair continue to be sourced and returned.

Benjamin Law also produced busts of Woureddy and Truganini, which are the earliest major pieces of Australian sculpture. Woureddy’s portrays a hunter, a warrior, or a Greek hero in kangaroo skin (Mary Mackay), whereas Truganini’s could be the most emotional colonial portrait of an Indigenous person. According to a colonial account, she is ‘sorrowing, mourning the slain members of her family’ and people.

For me, Robinson, historically the focal point, and his glowing white pants appears transplanted. Instead today, The Conciliation’s focal point is rather dominated and overwhelmed by ‘the Others’, embedded with legends and the premeditated deception against them; but especially Truganini and her burden.

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