Grease and Ochre

Review of Grease and Ochre by Patsy Cameron

Author Patsy Cameron is a direct descendant of Mannerlargenna whom Henry Reynolds calls that “great and tragic” Tasmanian. Mannerlargenna led the resistance to the dispossession of their country by the colonists. He died of grief and, I suspect, shame from allowing himself to be exiled from his country by the lies of the colonial administration.

Patsy Cameron’s work is a methodical and dispassionate contribution to history.

It contains a detailed description of what is known of pre-colonial people of North East Tasmania with some general references to the people of the other parts of Tasmania mainly to draw distinctions. It includes an examination of the geological and archaeological record tracking the immigration of people from the mainland before the Bass strait was inundated by the sea between 12-14,000 years BP. The work describes the economic, cultural and spiritual life of the aboriginal nations of that part of Tasmania and paints a picture of a complex, mature culture which had survived for thousands of years in an environment which provided for them generously.

It includes critical examination of the writing of colonists who had contact with the aborigines of Tasmania and what has been accepted history. It confirms some things and corrects others pointing out inaccuracies arising from cultural biases, ignorance and lack of interest.

It includes references to practices which would be frowned upon in modern Australia e.g. As intermarriage within clans was not practiced, Inter-clan marriage was usually achieved by agreement or trading between clans which had the advantage of strengthening bonds and alliances between clans and avoiding conflict. Such a practice would be problematic because of issues surrounding consent and coercion of the women involved but it was equivalent to the arranged marriages among the British and European nobility of the time and the practice of arranged marriage which continues in some parts of the world today.

Even more problematic was the practice of the Tasmanian aborigines of taking women from other clans following or in the course of conflict and clans engaging in conflict for the purposes of taking women for marriage. For me, the inclusion of this negative enhances the credibility of the entire work.   

The work examines the history of the so-called “sealers” of Bass Strait in some detail and corrects the commonly held view that that all the sealers were brutal criminals, murderers and rapists who behaved accordingly in their interactions with the Tasmanian aborigines. It explains that there were four cohorts of “sealers” and, indeed, the most significant of these cohorts were not predominantly sealers but self-described “Straitsmen” for whom sealing was a minor part of their economic activity.

The first cohort were sealers from Port Jackson who, between 1797 and 1806, were funded by merchants in the first significant commercial activity in the colony which was not conducted by the Colonial authority. The merchants were licensed to charter ships and engage workers of good character and repute to travel to Bass Strait for 3 to 5 months each year to harvest seals for their skins and oil. The importance of good character and repute arose from the fact that the sealers were in a remote area without any law enforcement who had assigned to them valuable equipment and who had possession of the valuable product of their labours. As it happened, the aborigines of North East Tasmania chose to have nothing to do with these sealers and there was virtually no contact. These sealers eventually depleted the stocks of seals such that the industry was no longer viable in Bass Strait in its initial form.

The second cohort were sealers employed by Tasmanian merchants who undertook sealing from the main Tasmanian rivers on a much smaller scale. These sealers also had incidental contact with the aborigines of the North East but no significant trade, cultural exchange or conflict.

Colonisation in the North-West of Van Diemen’s land. the drawing depicts Highfied House, Stanley, on the hill in the distance

The third cohort included escaping convicts and indentured servants and general criminals who found refuge in the island s of Bass Strait of whom more later.

The most important cohort were the self-styled straitsmen who chose a quiet life on the islands of Bass Strait and who, for a time had a co-operative arrangement with the clans of the North East which continued the culture of “trading” women as wives to the straitsmen as a means of strengthening social and commercial bonds. There is an appendix in the book wherein the 38 straitsmen and their aboriginal wives are named. The vast majority of the women who became wives of the straitsmen were, at least, accepting of their lot as it accorded with their culture. A small minority were not contented and sought to return to their clan and country.

There is a detailed description of the roles of the straitsmen and their wives in which the significance and cooperativeness of the roles of the women is emphasised. The women continued in traditional roles and adapted them to their new circumstances. The women chose to continue to practice parts of their culture. The straitsmen acquiesced acknowledging that their skills were crucial to the survival of the families. The Children of their unions were given limited education by the Men. The women visited their country regularly with the men who were permitted by the clans to hunt on their lands.  Within the bounds of the paternalistic culture of the straitsmen, there was genuine affection between most of the men and their wives.

This bond between the clans of the North East and the Straitsmen continued until 1827. A thief and person of ill repute by the name of Tucker, having exhausted his welcome on mainland Tasmania, found a position with one of the straitsmen on an island in Bass strait. Tucker was a member of a party who raided the coast, abducted women and shot and killed clansmen who tried to stop them. Subsequently, the clansmen gained retribution by killing two of the members of a party of the same straitsmen which according to the aborigines, was an end to the matter. Tucker, however, held a grudge and, three years later killed more clan members for revenge. The result was that the cooperative relationship between the clansmen and the aborigines was virtually destroyed permanently. Only one of the straitsmen by the name of Thompson was able to continue the relationship. This event was very sad for the wives of the straitsmen because it prevented them from continuing their regular intercourse with their clans and their regular visits to their country.

However, that intercourse and those visits would have been short lived because the nations of the North East were destroyed by the conflicts with settlers, followed by the declaration of martial law which deemed the aborigines’ enemies to be shot on sight and culminating in the Black Line operation. Those small number of aborigines who survived were rounded up and imprisoned on islands where most died from despair at dispossession of their country and gross neglect.

The importance of the straitsmen and their wives is that they were the means by which the aborigines of Tasmania survived what can only be described as a genocide.

The most significant colonist referred to in the history is George Augustus Robinson who was appointed by the colonial government to manage the aboriginal population. Robinson projected substantial knowledge of the aborigines together with religious and charitable motivation. This work calmly and dispassionately questions much of his assessment and many of his reports on the basis of bias. On one reading of the work, I could not find clear evidence of this alleged bias other than that arising from his cultural ignorance.

However, Aboriginal Society in North West Tasmania – Dispossession and Genocide by Ian McFarlane paints Robinson as a person who may have begun with noble motives but who, ultimately was motivated by self-interest, which in its simplest form, was a bounty for each aborigine rounded up and imprisoned. From the aborigines’ point of view, Robinson’s greatest offence was failing to honour his promise to allow them to return to their country.

John Curr
3 April 2021