Islands and islanders hold a special place in the imaginations of many people. Lighthouses, shipwrecks, hardy fishermen, lonely beaches, wildlife and good food are common to the Bass Strait islands. Kangaroo Island is no different; it has them all and to a very refined degree. It also has an Aboriginal past but, unlike the wine, sheep, cheese, marron and bread, it does nothing to advertise the fact. On the contrary, it hides from that history.
Kangaroo Island’s devastating fires of 2019–2020 destroyed buildings but it also scorched souls. The island will take a long time to revive physically and psychologically. So much tourist infrastructure was destroyed that the island’s economy received a massive hit. Recovery will be slow and painful.
It is easy to celebrate and promote great food, idyllic beaches and the island wildlife, but it will take a while for tourists to return. Don’t be deterred from visiting this place — it really is an exceptional part of the country and a few years back probably produced one of the most beguiling tourism advertising campaigns ever seen. It deserves the return of visitors. And hopefully this is an opportunity to broaden the tourist appeal through the untold story of its Aboriginal history.
Overseas tourists regularly list Aboriginal culture among the top three interests on their wish list of Australian experiences. They rarely have it granted. There is an opportunity here for entrepreneurs and history sleuths — but shouldn’t Aboriginal people supply that opportunity, deliver that story?
This is a way for the island to respect the past and profit from the future — Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people together. I invite you to explore this past with me now, which first takes us to Australia’s sealing industry and its largest island: Tasmania.
The sealing industry of colonial Australia is a perfect example of why western industrial capitalism is wrecking the world. Unsustainable exploitation with no thought for the environment. Plunder for profit, move on and leave the damage in your wake. Abuse of Mother Earth. And abuse of any people who happen to be in the way. In this case, Aboriginal people. Aboriginal women.
The tale of Mannalargenna
Tasmanian Aboriginal people had a division of labour where women were largely responsible for collection of resources from the sea. Aboriginal lore required that that extraction be undertaken under spiritual rules because the economy could not be separated from spiritual life.
Mannalargenna was an important man in Tasmanian Aboriginal politics. After the war in Tasmania had drastically reduced the Aboriginal population, he tried to find ways of negotiating with the invaders to secure a future for his people. He worked with the missionary George Augustus Robinson, whose plan it was to round up the remnant clans and transport them to the offshore islands.
Robinson’s scheme appealed to the colonial administration as a way of ridding themselves of the nuisance of the guerrilla attacks of Aboriginal people on outlying farm communities. The missionary sold the plan to the Aboriginal people as a temporary removal “while things settled down” on mainland Tasmania, after which they would be brought back to their homelands.
The reality was that the translocated people were never returned to their clan lands and living in unhealthy conditions on Flinders Island, most gradually died, always looking south to the land that was stolen from them. Robinson moved on to a better career opportunity, leaving those he had “saved” from the wilderness to their holes in the cemetery.
Mannalargenna was aware of Robinson’s ruse and led him on wild goose chases all over mainland Tasmania in an attempt to delay removal and give his people a chance to escape, but in the end his efforts were unable to outmatch the combined colonial forces. When he himself was removed to Green Island on a ship under the orders of Robinson, he waited until the bow of the ship ground into the beach and there he cut off his dreadlocks and threw them into the sea. His hope and authority were gone. This is one of the great acts of Indigenous despair, a profound repudiation of the invaders’ tactics and immorality.
Mannalargenna’s daughter, Woretemoeteyenner, was then captured or traded by a Bass Strait sealer, George Briggs. He sold Woretemoeteyenner to another sealer, John Thomas, and then went on to capture other Aboriginal women, profiting from their industry and sex. Thomas, like most of the sealers, thought it reasonable to purchase a woman for these purposes and, while church and government tut-tutted about the practice, it was an important plank of the colony’s success.
Typical of many sealers, Thomas roved the islands of Tasmania but when the seals became scarce, he set his sails, with Woretemoeteyenner and other women on board, for new shores to plunder. He went to Western Australia but then headed across the Indian Ocean for Mauritius in the hunt for more seals.
He claimed to be running out of food so dumped the Aboriginal women on Rodrigues Island and left them. It took Woretemoeteyenner three years to get back to Australia and in this she was helped by the governor of Mauritius.
Many other Aboriginal women ended up in Mauritius and, unlike Woretemoeteyenner, never returned home. Sealers routinely dropped off women on isolated islands when they were pregnant or no longer able to work. Quite a few were left on Kangaroo Island off the South Australian coast.
Today Kangaroo Island appears not to remember this history. You will search in vain in the tourist information for reference to the Aboriginal women. If you ask about Aboriginal history in the outlets where you might expect to find such things, you may receive a belligerent stare, as I did. Fortunately, an art shop was more forthcoming and I was given the phone number of an Aboriginal family who gave me a more complete history.
Australia’s bellicose resistance to the nation’s history is an unedifying reflection of our national character, but Rebe Taylor’s brilliant history of Kangaroo Island, Unearthed: The Aboriginal Tasmanians of Kangaroo Island, is the exception. Seek out a copy to read before you visit the island.
Taylor reflected on the absence of Aboriginal history in the island’s museums and, visiting a couple of years after the book’s release, I found it to be no different. The history is fascinating and full of enthralling stories, but not enthralling enough to some Australians who seem to find the very presence of Aborigines a threat to their ideas of legitimacy and identity.
It’s such a shame because adopting the true history of the country, despite the pain it must cause, is the only way to find an Australian identity. The country doesn’t have to be in constant genuflection to that pain but must acknowledge it if any intelligent discussion of our nationhood is to occur. Surely it is within our capability to understand the past while celebrating and looking forward to our future.
You will have a wonderful island holiday on Kangaroo Island. To wash away the bitter taste of the reception I was given on my request for information on Aboriginal history, I dived for abalone at the remote and beautiful Snelling Beach. Kangaroo Island is stunning and it is common to have an entire beach to yourself. This is an experience our crowded world craves.
While strolling along the sand, reflect on the Australian bounty. Accepting a truer national history does not mean having to forgo our beach culture. There will be times of discomfort on both sides, but the conversation between us can deepen and mature. Australia is capable of this transition. The national identity is not tossed out but enriched, built on substance and fact.
The national parks across the island and the lighthouses at Cape Borda and Cape du Couedic are wonderful places to visit even after the devastating fires of 2019–2020. The fires on the island that summer were catastrophic. A long period of drought was followed by hot, dry winds. Climate change has been contributing to the warming of the planet because of our reliance on fossil fuels and the consequent release of carbon into the atmosphere. But we contribute in other ways too. Cattle and sheep release methane into the atmosphere at greater rates than our native animals.
One of our contributions is rarely mentioned. Growing trees is considered to be environmentally friendly, but it is more about how we grow them. Aboriginal burning and cultivation meant that in most parts of eastern Australia, there were rarely more than 12 to 15 trees to the hectare.
Wildlife on the island
Watching the seals bask and play at Cape du Couedic is an eerie experience given their centrality to the story of the Aboriginal women the island finds so difficult to acknowledge.
But discovering a male Cape Barren goose harassing a female at the national park centre was disconcerting. It was a fascinating close-up view of these extraordinarily rare and beautiful birds disturbed by the brutish impositions of the male — an unnerving reminder of the island’s history. The goose is another bird that almost disappeared as a result of overhunting. They are more common on the islands off Australia’s southern coast, but the conservancy at Tower Hill near Warrnambool in Victoria has had a lot to do with the species’ preservation.
The eastern end of Kangaroo Island is a truly remarkable coast, and as a saltwater man I know some remarkable coasts, but it was a peculiar feeling watching seals disporting themselves in the water and on the sandstone slabs around the giant arches and caves. So close to extinction yet so oblivious of their fate. The story of the seals and the women with whom they are associated seems so compelling, but Australian tourism at times wears a blindfold to history and ties its hands behind its back. Perhaps that attitude is reflected in the fact that, whereas Aboriginal names represent as much as 70 per cent of all placenames in many parts of Australia, on this island and its sister in Bass Strait, King Island, they are almost entirely absent.
There are myths floating about these islands that Aboriginal people didn’t eat scale fish and knew nothing about the making of fire. Both are nonsense but their persistence is part and parcel of an amnesiac history and some islanders might tell you that there were never any Aborigines on the island anyway. Presumably then the artefacts on the southern coast were imported! Many of the artefacts found are for the preparation of fish and animals prior to cooking. A cursory familiarity with world history and Aboriginal story will tell you that in periods of lower sea levels, these islands were close enough to the mainland to be easily accessible. And, like the offshore island Lady Julia Percy near Portland in Victoria, they may always have been accessible to Aboriginal sailors.
If there were Aboriginal people on the island at contact they were either soon murdered or joined the ragtag parade of shipwrecked sailors or disenchanted sealers and their Aboriginal women from Tasmania.
The history of Bass Strait is full of gruesome and unlikely stories made possible by the eclectic mix of the mad, the eccentric and the dispossessed. One story that has never left me tells of a sealer dumping a pregnant Aboriginal woman on a deserted Bass Strait island. Her fate was never told, nobody bothering to go back and find out what became of her. How that woman and her child fared still troubles me. I retold the story as fiction in Australians Awl, from the collection Nightjar, but the true histories need no embellishment. Most Tasmanian Aboriginal people are descended from the survivors of this vicious era.
Explore new perspectives
This knowledge may temper the delight of your holiday, but it can be the opportunity to gain a perspective of the previous civilisation. Crayfish and yabbies are features of the Kangaroo Island cuisine now, but they always were. Oysters and mussels feature too, but then they always did. Aboriginal people were not living from hand to mouth but living off the fat of the land. The island still caters for those rich ocean flavours.
Islands tend to cherish the eccentric and so it is an odd delight to watch the unfamiliar activity of sheep being milked for the island’s famous cheese. You can walk right into the dairy and be among the animals which seem habituated to the procedure. Buy some of the delicious cheese and take it down to one of the hundreds of beaches and eat it with crusty bread from the island’s bakery at Parndana, the second-best bakery in the world, a genuine island experience.
The marron farm is the place to lunch. The succulent yabbies are farmed there and, given that the catch of wild rock lobster has long been unsustainable, the ability to farm marron is an important culinary pursuit. The texture and flavour are the equal of lobster in my opinion, and the outside tables in the sun are the place to enjoy them. A local white wine is the perfect accompaniment; allow the wine to soothe, the sun to bless and the lobster to nourish.
Penneshaw receives the ferry from Cape Jervis on the mainland and there’s that air of transience about the place, the mood of a transit point. You can get pizza and beer, but the feeling is that you then move on. It’s a shame because a walk around the shoreline is a wonderful experience.
Hire a bike or a car and enjoy the island at your leisure. If you hear prejudicial and uninformed conversation on the nature of Aborigines while crossing on the ferry, put that down to an Australian tourist experience, but one that we hope will soon be replaced by discussions informed by the distinction of Aboriginal placenames and the entree they provide to a more real and complete Australian history.