A story of loss: loss of life and loss of culture
February 10 is always a tough date in the calendars for many in the Circular Head region and surrounds. It marks the anniversary of the Cape Grim massacre, a time of great loss for Aboriginal people.
Over the course of time, the gravity of this event has sadly been downplayed, or misconstrued across history. Ultimately though, no matter how tough the truth might be to hear, it is important that we tell it so that we can move forward as a nation, and as a community, to a time of honest understanding of one another’s struggles, in order to better model pathways forward. Is that not what truth-telling is all about? Truth-telling must come before a Treaty, and certainly before anything like “The Voice”, so why not start here at perhaps one of the most significant, certainly one of the most devastating, events in the history of the North-West people?
Cape Grim for the Van Diemen’s Land Company (VDLco) was an important element of its Land Grants, which began as a simple Shepherd’s Hut manned by four shepherds who cared for the valuable company flock. Cape Grim for the Pennemuker people was an important part of their hunting grounds, and a site that would have been frequently visited, particularly by the women who would have dived around the area. There was a short period of time when they lived harmoniously (which we can only infer from the lack of reports of it being otherwise), enough so that the Shepherd’s could establish a hut in clear sight of the Pennemuker village and establish the flock without report of resistance at the time.
“Within twelve months of the Company establishing presence in the north west, the employees under Curr’s direct control had gained a reputation for brutal treatment of the local Aboriginal population. An example of the scale and nature of the offences perpetrated by Company shepherds may be found in the Cape Grim Massacre. The circumstances surrounding this incident also reveal much about Curr’s attitude to those Aborigines living under his jurisdiction and supposed protection” (McFarlane, I. 2002 p.101)
This “harmonious” life was broken when the Company Shepherds “...got native women into their hut and wanted to take their liberties with them…” (Plomley, NJB. 1966, p.181) In retaliation to this, the Aboriginal men approached the shepherds and subsequently one shepherd, Thomas John was speared in the leg “...the type of wound often inflicted by Aborigines as punishment for a breach of tribal custom…” As to be expected, a clash followed that resulted in one Aboriginal being shot dead.
Given the proficiency Aboriginal men had with a spear, the spearing to the thigh was an attempt at warning the men to stay away from their women. However, this attempt to warn the men resulted in the death of their own, one that was sure to bring subsequent retaliation. This came on December 31 1827, when the Aborigines drove 118 company sheep off the cliff at Cape Grim (Inward Despatch no. 2 Curr to Directors).
So, Curr is well aware of the escalating situation between the Pennemuker people and the Shepherds owing to Thomas John’s injury and the report of the sheep deaths. In retaliation to the loss of sheep, which would have been a big blow to the company at the time, Curr (the Chief Agent) sent the ship, Fanny, to Cape Grim for a night time attack, a time when Aboriginal people were the most vulnerable. According to Curr’s official report, the attack was unsuccessful and “...not a musket would go off and they were obliged to retreat without firing a shot”. However, luckily for the diaries of a visitor to Circular Head (Highfield), Rosalie Hare, the truth of the matter is made clear. “...The Master of the Company’s cutter Fanny assisted by four shepherds and his crew, surprised a party and killed twelve…” (Hare, R. 1927) Rosalie reported this in her diary after spending time with those involved.
Rosalie also wrote in her diary:
“We are not to suppose the Europeans in their turn take no revenge. We have to lament that our own countrymen consider the massacre of these people an honour. While we remained at Circular Head there were several accounts of considerable numbers of natives having been shot by them, they wishing to extirpate them entirely if possible." (Hare, R. 1927)
Extirpating them entirely is certainly what they were able to achieve with the Cape Grim Massacre, made only more obvious by Curr’s inability to report or even investigate the incident as the Manager and Magistrate of the jurisdiction. Which brings me to the matter of our two whistleblowers that have helped us to learn the sad truth of this story.
The first is Alexander Goldie, a Company Superintendent, who reported the incident to Lieutenant Governor Arthur, eighteen months later in November 1829. Goldie had nothing to gain by reporting this incident, but did so anyway as Curr continued to abuse his power. In his report to Arthur, Goldie wrote:
“... there have been a great many Natives shot by the Company’s Servants, and several engagements between them while their stock was in that district. On one occasion a good many were shot (I never heard exactly the number) and although Mr Curr knew it, yet he never that I am aware, took any notice of it although in the Commission of the Peace and that time there was no proclamation against the Natives, nor were they (the Natives) at the time they were attacked at all disturbing the Company’s flocks…” (Alexander Goldie, in letter to Governor Arthur, 1830)
Thanks to this report from our first whistleblower, Arthur requested Robinson on his “Friendly Mission”, to obtain all information on the matter.
Which brings us to our second whistleblower of this story, Charles Chamberlain. Chamberlain was one of the four shepherds, and as the only convict, he had no say in what took place. As he was not an employee of the Company like the other shepherds, he is perhaps the most impartial witness to the event, and thus likely to be the most reliable resource. On Robinson’s visit to Cape Grim, he interviewed Chamberlain who recounted the event honestly and paid the price some time later for contradicting Curr’s version of events, hence his place as a whistleblower of this story.
In Curr’s version of events, the massacre took place adjacent to the Hill called Mount Victory. On seeing a large party of Aborigines on the Hill, the four shepherds who were in their hut at the foot of the Hill, considered an attack imminent so marched out to engage the enemy. In the long battle that ensued six Aborigines were killed. Irrespective of the contradictory account provided by view from Charles Chamberlain, there are many things that do not ring true with this version of events. Firstly, the shepherds hut was about a kilometer from the foot of the hill, to the North East where there would have been fresh water and ease of access from Davisons Bay, well beyond the reach of the spears of Aboriginals, and to mount an attack on the Aboriginals from this point, away from the safety of the hut, would have certainly favoured the Aboriginals who had the higher ground. Even more far-fetched if you consider that John Weavis, one of the Shepherds, was a former soldier and would certainly know that a musket shot uphill would have been a poor match to the spear thrown from higher ground. Secondly, if an attack had taken place closer to the hut as described by Curr, then they would have had to carry the bodies almost two kilometers over Victory Hill in order to throw them from the Cliff at Suicide Bay. What’s more, neither the recounts by Chamerlain, Gunshannon, nor the Aboriginal woman interviewed by Robinson made any mention of Victory Hill, but spoke solely of Suicide Bay. It is clear that Curr’s version of events is implausible, and he wanted to shift the narrative so that the Aboriginals looked like the aggressors and thus justifying the act. This version of events is what would have passed into history if it wasn’t for the ‘whistleblower’ of this story, Charles Chamberlain, whose account was corroborated by additional interviews, as mentioned, with Gunshannon and an Aboriginal woman. In his interview with Robinson on June 16 1830, Chamberlain spoke of a massacre taking place at Suicide Bay, not Victory Hill, and readily advised that the number of Aboriginies shot was about 30, and stated “we threw them down the rocks where they had thrown the sheep” (Plomley, NJB. 1966, p.175). It is evident that this is a direct reprisal for the earlier incident of the sheep being driven off the cliff by the Aboriginals. Adding to this testimony, Robinson also interviewed Gunshannon, another shepherd involved in the incident. In his discussion with Gunshannon, Robinson recorded that “the indifference of this man was quite astonishing”, and when Robinson recalled that Chamberlain admitted that 30 were killed, Gunshannon wasn’t able to deny it but “seemed to glory in the act and said he would shoot them whenever he met them” (Plomley, NJB. 1966, p.196). This version of history by Chamberlain and Gunshannon was later corroborated by another conversation with Robinson, this time by an Aboriginal woman. Together the 4 reports from Chamberlain, Gunshannon, the Aboriginal woman and Goldie, supported each other leaving Curr’s version in tatters.
So if we accept this version that 30 Aboriginals were massacred at Cape Grim that day, then the event itself ultimately led to the near extinction of the Pennemuker people. Combining the 30 from the massacre, the 12 from the night raid and the 1 from the Thomas John hut incident, leaves 43 Pennemuker dead. The destruction wrought may be evidence that only 8 Pennemuker adults ever appeared on records after the massacre, people who were obviously not present on Cape Grim at this time, they all having intermarried with other tribes and all living or taking refuge with the Tarkiner (except for one case, Nol.la.hal.la.ker, later rescued from the Sealer Robert Rew by Parish December 19 1830). This would bring the estimate to 51 tribe members, combine this with the estimated 9-11 Hut Depressions from the village site, the events would easily account for the fate of the whole tribe.
So where do we go from here? Let’s acknowledge this history and reflect that this is a sad time for many. It represents not only a massacre, but the near extinction of a tribe. The loss of life yes, but also the sadness in that two whistleblowers (who paid the price for their honesty) have ultimately become the story-tellers for today's Aboriginal people (with the help of some good historians), an important cultural practice that was robbed from them with the Cape Grim Massacre. A chance lost for all future generations to know their ancestors and their way of life. What’s left is the stories told by Europeans, a perspective that is sure to compromise cultural integrity and genuineness. Hopefully by sharing this story, however hard to bear, is a chance to know the Pennemuker people and the lives they would have led, a life enjoyed by the sea. Look to the ocean today and remember them.
Hare, Rosalie. Ida Lee (ed.), 1927, “The Voyage of the Caroline from England to Van
Diemen 's Land and Batavia”.
Letter from Goldie to Arthur, 18th November 1830. AOT CSO 280125. pp.. 488 - 48
McFarlane, I., 2002, “Aboriginal Society in North West Tasmania: Dispossession and Genocide, University of Tasmania,
Plomley, NJB. 1966 “Friendly Mission”, Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Holstead Press, Kingsgrove. p.181
Van Diemen's Land Company Inward and Outward Letter Despatches AOT. VDLC : Inward Despatch No.2. Curr to Directors. 14th January 1828. AOT.