Tag Archives: Cassandra Pybus

The Book Group and Cassandra Pybus’s Truganini

Cassandra Pybus, Truganini: Journey through the apocalypse (Allen & Unwin 2019)

Before the meeting: It was my turn to choose the book. I was tossing up between Truganini, about which I’d heard a terrific podcast from the Sydney Writers’ Festival (here’s a link to my blog post), and See what You Made Me Do, the Stella Prize winner. When I put it to the group there was an overwhelming preference for Truganini’s journey through the apocalypse over Jess Hill’s exploration of abusive men. If we thought this would be less gruelling we were probably wrong.

Truganini is known to non-Indigenous Australian popular history as ‘the last Tasmanian’. That’s rubbish of course. There are still many Indigenous Tasmanians alive and kicking. But Truganini’s life is better documented than any of the survivors of genocide in Tasmania, and she has become, as Cassandra Pybus says in her Preface, ‘an international icon for extinction’. The mythologising began almost as soon as she died, and she has been seen ‘through the prism of colonial imperative: a rueful backward glance at the last tragic victim of an inexorable historical process’. In this book, Pybus sets out ‘to redirect the lens to find the woman behind the myth’.

Pybus’s main historical source is the writings of George Augustus Robinson. To quote the Preface again, ‘Truganini and her companions are only available to us through the gaze of pompous, partisan, acquisitive, self-aggrandising men who controlled and directed the context of what they described’. I’m grateful that Cassandra Pybus did the hard yakka of extracting a story line from such sources, reading them so we don’t have to.

In the 1820s, the Aboriginal clans of south-east Tasmania (Van Diemens Land as it then was) were all but wiped out by massacre and disease. Truganini belonged to the Nuenonne clan, whose country included Bruny Island. When George Augustus Robinson, fired by missionary fervour and ambition to be seen as a man of significance, set out to rescue the surviving First Nations people from the violence of the colony, Truganini, her father and some friends accepted his protection and became his guides and later his agents in persuading people from other clans to come under his protection.

For five years the band trudged through forests, over mountains, across streams. Truganini had terribly swollen legs, possibly as a result of syphilis she had contracted from sealers who had abducted her early in life, but she was an adept diver for seafood, and she and the other women in the group were the only ones who could swim, so were often called on to pull rafts across icy rivers. For the most part, Pybus tells the story straight without commenting, for instance, on the moral dilemmas involved in persuading resisting warriors to surrender to Robinson rather than face deadly violence elsewhere, as at the hands of John Batman, who emerges from these pages as a ruthless, brutal slaver.

The result of all these rounding-up missions is that, whatever promises Robinson might have made, people were sent to virtual island prisons, mainly on Flinders Island in the Bass Strait, where the death toll were horrifying. what started out as a ‘friendly mission’ became the coup de grâce of a genocidal program.

After being taken to Port Phillip on the mainland where Robinson hoped they might again play an intermediary role, Truganini and her companions were conclusively dumped by Robinson. He simply turned away from them and never mentioned them in his journals again.

Truganini and her companionos, including a husband and a close woman friend, were settled in Oyster Cover on the east coast of Tasmania, from where they would go on hunting excursions to Bruny Island and elsewhere. One by one, her companions died. With extraordinary restraint, Pybus simply tells us that their deaths were unrecorded. She doesn’t have to spell out the callous disregard of the colonial establishment. Truganini, the sole survivor, spent her last years in the care of John Dandridge and his wife (unnamed) in Hobart. Dandridge would take her across to Bruny Island, so that she could still walk in her own country. To the end, she cared for country, and slept on the floor rather than the coloniser’s bed.

For all the horrors that were inflicted on this extraordinary woman and her people, the one that comes across with most poignancy in this narrative comes right at the end. As people die, the scientific establishment waits like vultures for their skeletons. Graves are dug up, newly dead bodies are decapitated, collections of skulls are sent to England. Truganini herself expressed her terror at having this done to her own remains, and asked Dandridge to scatter her ashes in the channel between Bruny Island and the main island of Tasmania. But he died before her, and her body was buried, dug up and later exhibited in the Tasmanian Museum – until 1947! After a long legal battle by Tasmanian Aborigines, the Museum allowed the skeleton to be cremated, and her ashes were scattered according to her wishes on 30 April 1976, a few days short of the centenary of her death.

And then there are the illustrations. Truganini, her warrior husband Wooredy, the great leader Mannalargenna and others challenge our gaze in portraits painted by Thomas Bock in 1835. There are photographs too, perhaps taken with ethnographic intentions, but when Truganini looks at you from a photo taken by Charles Woolley in 1866 (here’s a link), she isn’t offering herself as an object. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Jakelin Troy said, referring to the fact that Truganini walked about Bruny Island in old age:

I’m sure she was making the point that this was still her country and that she’s there, and even if they didn’t think deeply about the fact that it was her family’s country, I think that in reality you can’t avoid that that’s what it is.

It’s hard to look at Truganini in these portraits and not feel that she’s making a similar point: she is still herself, and even if the photographer, the curators, the scientists, the colonial historians don’t think deeply about the fact, she challenges us to acknowledge that she is a human being. As she tells us in a final chapter, Cassandra Pybus has reasons to take that challenge personally: her ancestor received a grant to part of Truganini’s country, and in her childhood she heard stories of the old Aboriginal woman who walked about the family’s property. This book is a powerful, humble and devastating response to the challenge.

After the meeting: We’re still meeting on zoom, probably not for the last time. This book generated a very interesting discussion among us white middle-aged and older men. Some were less enthusiastic about it than others. The negatives first.

One man had studied George Augustus Robinson on the 1980s, particularly the collection of his papers published in 1966, The Friendly Mission. He had approached this book with high hopes, but found that it didn’t add much by way of new perspectives or insights – despite its intention of focusing on Truganini, it largely stayed with Robinson.

Another, who read this just after Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light (my blog post here), was disappointed that neither Truganini nor Robinson, or really any of the other characters, emerged as fully rounded characters. There was precious little exploration of motivations or emotional responses. Maybe, he said, you can’t expect that of history: this might be excellent history but it’s not much chop as literature.

Someone who agreed with that latter point said that the question for him was, if that is so, then how come the book held his attention the whole time, when he usually gave up on history books after 15 pages? Someone said that the subject commands our attention, as this is a story that cuts through to our souls as settler Australians. I think that’s true, but I also think the book is well written, and the failure to flesh out the characters is a strength: Pybus doesn’t speculate or invent, but largely leaves us to join the dots. As someone said, it’s fairly clear that for Truganini and her companions, Robinson’s offer of protection was their best bet for survival.

Challenging the notion that the writing was generally flat and factual, someone read a short passage about Truganini’s father, Manganerer who had encountered convict mutineers:

These men abducted his wife and sailed away with her to New Zealand, then on to Japan and China. Hastily constructing a sturdy ocean-going canoe, Manganerer had attempted to follow them but had been blown far out into the Southern Ocean. His son had died and he himself was half dead from dehydration when he was found by a whaling ship.

The tragedy was almost too much for this proud man to bear. He had endured the murder of his first wife and the abduction of his two older daughters by the intruders, and now they had taken his second wife. His only son was dead and his remaining daughter had abandoned him for the whaling station. His distress was compounded when he discovered that in his absence almost all of his clan had succumbed to disease, as had all but one of the people visiting from Port Davey, who were under his protection.

There was a moment’s silence on the zoom space. With such a litany of horrors – and this is early in the book, the worst devastation comes towards the end – there’s not a lot of need for further authorial commentary.

One man took up the cudgels on Robinson’s behalf. He said he felt protective of him. Yes, he took on the role of ‘Protector of Aborigines’ out of a kind of opportunism, and yes, his ventures finished off the ‘extirpation’ that the notorious Black Line failed to achieve. But he had a huge inner struggle. At some level he recognised and respected the humanity and the cultural strength of the people in his care (there are scenes n the book where he eats and sings and dances with them). But he was blinded by his belief system and could only at rare moments acknowledge what he was actually doing. And – I think I’m quoting correctly – isn’t that blindness something that we all have?

I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration that the book had us staring into the abyss of our nation’s foundation story. Today, someone is offering to send us all bumper stickers in support of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.


Truganini is the 14th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

SWF 2020, Post 3

The Sydney Writers’ Festival 2020 didn’t happen, but it’s still going. I’ve now listened to five more sessions: rich conversations between authors none of whose books I’ve read (though I have read shorter pieces by some of them), sometimes about other authors whose books I haven’t read.

Philippe Sands: The Ratline 27 May

Otto von Wächter was one of Nazi Germany’s mass murderers. In 1945 he disappeared from public view and turned up dead in a Roman hospital four and a half years later. Philippe Sands, barrister and author of other books about Nazi leaders, gained possession of a huge trove of the papers of von Wächter and his wife Charlotte, and set about rediscovering the story of this almost forgotten Nazi. He produced a podcast and radio series and now a book: The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive.

This is a terrific conversation between Sands and SBS World News presenter Janice Petersen. Because of his access to private papers – given to him by von Wächter’s son Horst – Sands has been able to give an account of Wächter’s personal life and relationships.

At the end of the conversation, Janice Petersen asked why he thinks there is such a continuing interest in the Nazis. He confirmed her premise: if you put the word ‘Nazi’ in a book’s title or subtitle, he said, its sales in the UK increase by 50 percent, though it’s probably not the same in other parts of the world, including the US.

For the British in part it’s a reminder of what is seen as a glorious episode, the vanquishing of evil, and it is also the fact that the people we are dealing with were highly educated, highly cultured, highly intelligent, highly organised and they left behind a wealth of detail. …
I think what’s different in this case is Charlotte. Charlotte is the beating heart of this story because Otto was not alone. Otto had a close, loving, dutiful, intelligent, articulate, literate wife who recorded the totality and so we’re able to get another perspective, and that enables us to think a little bit more about the question, ‘How is it possible?’ and the related question that any reasonable person might ask themselves, ‘Could I do it?’ …
In our own countries, we cross lines. In Britain as in Australia, the treatment of refugees and of certain minorities is a very very big issue. Some of the conditions, for example, in which women refugees are being held in Britain and of course the treatment in Australia of the refugee community, parts of it, parking them on faraway islands, raise very serious questions. It raises to my mind a most serious question which is evoked indirectly in The Ratline, ‘What happens when we commit ourselves as a society to cross a line?’ The lesson of Otto Wächter is that once you’ve crossed one line it becomes a lot easier to cross another line.


James Bradley: Ghost Species 1 June

I hope to read one of James Bradley’s books one day. But as I’ve heard quite a lot of him on the radio recently, I skipped through this conversation with Cassie McCullagh of ABC Radio’s The Bookshelf about his most recent book, Ghost Species, in which there is a project to resurrect extinct species, including Neanderthal humans. In my skipping, I heard some fascinating tidbits, including this about the role of CliFi, as someone is calling fiction about climate change:

We inhabit this weird space where we know what’s going on but we don’t let ourselves know.
One of the things fiction can do is let you sit in that space for a while and let you actually let go of having to keep that other stuff at bay. You can encounter your anxieties, think about them. …
One of the things that fiction helps people do is to find their way to a space of acceptance, that space of recognising the reality of things, which seems to me to be a good place to get to, because if people get there then we can start having honest conversations about where we are.


Cassandra Pybus: Truganini 3 June

Truganini is on my TBR shelf. This is a brilliant conversation about it. It’s by Cassandra Pybus, white historian, whose family ‘owned’ land on Bruny Island, Truganini’s country, land that Truganini visited often in her last years. By all accounts, including the account given in this podcast, the book reclaims Truganini’s memory from the prevailing image of her as the archetypical victim of colonial violence, ‘the last Tasmanian’, and presents her as a woman who was never colonised, who was resourceful and strategic and ultimately in important ways successful.

Here she talks with Jakelin Troy, a Ngarigu woman from south-eastern Australia and professor at the University of Sydney, who clearly loves the book, and loves that Cassandra Pybus has written it:

For me, as an Aboriginal woman, it’s so important to have this story told, and by somebody who is an expert at interrogating the historical record but who can bring out the reality of the story. It’s obviously something that has become part of your own story. I love when you say that Truganini inhabits you now. I’m sure that’s what she intended to do by continuing to walk across your family’s country, which was her family’s country. She was making the point, I’m sure she was making the point, that this was still her country and that she’s there, and even if they didn’t think deeply about the fact that it was her family’s country, I think that in reality you can’t avoid that that’s what it is.


Kay Kerr: Please Don’t Hug Me 3 June

This is a conversation between two neurodivergent women from southern Queensland, both of whom have young-adult novels appearing at about the time of the conversation. The focus is on Kay Kerr’s epistolary novel Please Don’t Hug Me, but there is frequent reference to Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal by Anna Whateley, her interlocutor.

Both women are smart, charming and have interesting things to say, especially about autism and prevalent misconceptions about people living with autism.

If this had been a live event, I would have been hoping someone would ask about ‘own voices’, a term they used to describe their books. The term is close to self-explanatory, and I’d heard it vaguely in the past, but it sounded as if there was history attached to it. In the absence of a Q&A session, I went online, and found that #OwnVoices is a hashtag originated in 2015 by a Dutch writer of young adult science fiction and fantasy novels, Corinne Duyvis (a longish interview with her about the hashtag is at this link).

A quick look around Young Adult publishers’ sites shows that the hashtag has taken off and, though sometimes used as a weapon by call-out warriors, it represents a powerful movement to recognise that the best people to write about a marginalised group are those who experience that marginalisation. Both participants in this conversation are #ownvoices authors about characters on the autism spectrum.


Eimear McBride: Strange Hotel 9 Jun, 2020

I heard Eimear McBride read, beautifully, from her first novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing at the 2014 Sydney Writers’ Festival. Here she talks to Heather Rose (whose books are on my TBR list) abut her third novel, Strange Hotel. I enjoyed the conversation. Unlike A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, the new novel is punctuated conventionally, but the author says she doesn’t think it’s any easier to understand (she’s a big fan of Joyce and Beckett). She read an excerpt, which was beautifully written, but – and that ‘but’ says more about me than her – it’s a scene where the protagonist is in a hotel in Auckland, and thinks of herself as being at the very edge of the earth, about to go over the edge. This raised my antipodean hackles. I was reminded of a British writer who visited my student household in the early 1970s and treated us to a stoned fantasy about how the edge of the world lay just outside the heads of Sydney Harbour. Too easy, and too unaware of the audience.


Coming when I’ve listened to them: Bob Brown and some interesting-sounding genre fiction, but still no books I’ve read.