Savages or Saviours? -- the Australian Sealers and Aboriginal Tasmanian Survival

Article excerpt

In October 1798 Matthew Flinders and George Bass refuted the assumption, long held by the colonists of New South Wales, that Van Diemen's Land was connected to New Holland.(1) The strait that ran in between the two land masses, which they named after Bass, was found to be littered with islands and these in turn were covered with seals. But two years later, on returning to England, Flinders noted how many of the seals of Bass Strait had already disappeared.(2)

Perhaps their skins had already become hats or shoes in the fashionable centres of Europe. Sealing was one of Australia's first export industries, the skins valued as an easily realised commodity that could be traded in the overseas markets for cash and goods needed in the new colony.(3) Merchants chartered boats with thousands of skins at a time from Sydney to Canton, to Calcutta, to America and to England, and came back with tea, porcelain and silks.

Only eight years after Flinders' first sighting of the seals in Bass Strait they were becoming scarse, however. So the, merchants sent sealers further afield: west to Kangaroo Island and King George's Sound, east to New Zealand and south to the freezing Antarctic islands. The sealers -- mostly ex-sailors and some ex-convicts -- were usually employed seasonally under articles of agreement. They got a seventy-fifth or even a hundredth of the profits that the merchants put in their pockets. Whatever sum the sealers did get from their `lay', the cost of their clothing, tools and food was taken out.(4)

Working and living independently on the islands of the Bass Strait and on Kangaroo Island would seem comparably profitable and easy nevertheless. As sealing merchant Captain Hart remembered in a letter to Victorian Governor Latrobe in 1854, the islanders' lives had `a peculiar charm'.(5) Some men stayed on the islands for years, others lifetimes. They established plots of vegetables and cereal crops and built small houses. For a time they continued to live off the seal skin trade -- still booming on Kangaroo Island in the 1820s, where wallaby pelts were also sought after, and salt could be found in natural lagoons. The merchants picked up such goods and left alcohol, tea and tobacco on the beaches in return.

But such life on the islands would not have been possible without the Aboriginal women these men had taken, often violently, from Tasmania and also from the southern coasts of Australia. These women knew how to live in a land still uncolonised by the British. They could build shelters, crew on the sealing boats, catch fish, dive for shell-fish, trap wallabies, find bird eggs and water in a parched land, stitch jackets and make shoes from skins and the sinew pulled from kangaroo tails. In the Bass Strait the Tasmanian women also taught the white men how to kill muttonbirds, pluck their feathers and squeeze out their oil. By the late 1820s they were selling muttonbird feathers in Launceston to fill bedspreads and muttonbird oil for lamps. A new industry and an independent community had begun to develop in the strait.(6)

In 1830 missionary George Augustus Robinson, who the previous year had been appointed by the colonial government to conciliate with the Aboriginal Tasmanians, went to the Bass Strait and accounted for seventy-four women living with sealers, and was told of another fourteen living on Kangaroo Island.(7) (Robinson never went to Kangaroo Island -- there are another eight named women who appear in the records as having been taken there about whom he appears to have been unaware).(8) It was one of Robinson's principle aims to remove the women from sealers in the Bass Strait and into his mission. By 1837 there were only six Aboriginal Tasmanian women, four Australian Aboriginal women and a Maori-Tasmanian woman living with twelve European men in the Bass Strait, as Ryan deatils.(9) Nonetheless, ten years later there were thirteen Aboriginal families living on the islands, comprising about fifty people. …