Read about Kate Auty and Lynette Russell’s new book, and the ongoing importance of investigating the histories of Indigenous Australians.
Last week at the Australian Historical Association’s annual conference Professor Andy May launched Hunt Them, Hang Them: “The Tasmanians” in Port Phillip 1841-42, written by Professor Kate Auty and myself. The story is a tragic one about two Tasmanian Aboriginal men – Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner, also known as Jack and Bob – who were executed for the murder of two European whalers.
I was a co-author with Kate Auty, a legal scholar undertaking a forensic study of the arrest, evidence and court processes. We were not attempting to find the men retrospectively innocent, indeed we believe that they most likely did murder the whalers. However, we were trying to ascertain if, even by nineteenth-century standards, the men received a fair trial. It is unsurprising that we argue that, even at a time when rough justice was the order of the day, Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner were abjectly treated.
Maulboyheenner and Tunnerminnerwait were members of a significant party of Aboriginal people from Tasmania who travelled to what was then the Port Phillip colony with George Augustus Robinson. Robinson had just spent the previous decade in Tasmania, rounding up Aboriginal people and confining them on missions. He’d worked through the so-called Black Wars (1804–1830), and what they called the Black Line, and he then basically got the job in Melbourne to become the first Protector of Aborigines. He brought with him a significant group of Aboriginal people from Tasmania. By 1841, the stage of this particular event, there were only about five of them left with him in Melbourne. Maulboyheenner and Tunnerminnerwait were two of the men, and there were three women – Planobeena (also known as Fanny), Pyteruner (also called Matilda), and of course the very famous Truganini, who tends to be only known by her traditional name.
All five were charged with the murders, however the case against the women was dismissed. The judge Justice John Walpole Willis was by all accounts incompetent. He ran the trial in a manner that certainly – even by the standards of the day – was unacceptable. He took evidence that shouldn’t have been taken. Kate very carefully went through his judgement. With the eyes of a legal scholar, she argues very strongly that this trial was irregular – even at a time when Aboriginal evidence was not admissible.
Judge Willis failed to include the testimony of William Thomas, Assistant Protector of Aborigines, so-called Friend of the Aborigines, who was in fact a witness to their arrest. He was somebody who could have spoken about whether or not these men did in fact confess, which is what the argument was. On the day of the trial, Thomas was prevented from entering the Court. This is by any standards simply astonishing. In the end their convictions were based on confessions: condemned by “their own words”.
And yet the extraordinary thing was that, as Aboriginal men, they were not allowed to provide alibis for themselves – they were not allowed to give evidence in court – yet their so-called confession is what actually condemns them.
All this happened against a backdrop of pleas for mercy, including from the jury who, along with the defence counsel, recommended against execution. Judge Willis was not to be swayed. On a blistering hot January day, they were subjected to a ghastly and botched execution. Makeshift gallows were constructed; the ladder was rickety. The men were handcuffed behind their backs and, in order to ascend the rungs of the ladder, they needed to use their chins to steady themselves. One went with extraordinary dignity and one was absolutely terrified. A crowd of 5000 colonists watched; so, from a distance, did a number of Kulin people.
After the book launch at the AHA I was contacted by ABC Radio National and asked to do a Sunday morning interview. The interview went well and host Jonathan Green was interested and informed. Imagine my surprise when within 15 minutes of the interview ending I received a series of racist emails stating that I had given no consideration to the murder victims. In one particularly vicious case, I was told it was a pity all Aboriginal people hadn’t been executed as it would certainly solve the problems of today. The last email I looked at (after this I simply stopped reading) argued that today’s elders had a lot to answer for as they were responsible for the disadvantages the community experienced today.
Even after decades of working as a scholar of Indigenous histories, I was shocked at the level of vitriol and racism in these responses. I never cease to be amazed at how, if you scratch the surface of Australian society, there is only a very thin veneer of civility. But perhaps what shocks me more is just how invested these extremists are and how they feel the need – perhaps even obligation – to attack with such force and anger; why do they take such personal affront to criticism of early pioneers and settlers?
In the end, these responses convince me that this work is important and encourages me to continue with it.
Listen to Lynette Russell’s ABC Radio National interview with Jonathan Green.
Lynette Russell is the Director of the Faculty of Arts Monash Indigenous Centre at Monash University and President of the Australian Historical Association (2016-2018). Lynette’s publications include Savage Imaginings: Historical and Contemporary Constructions of Australian Aboriginalities (2001) and Roving Mariners: Australian Aboriginal Whalers and Sealers in the Southern Oceans, 1790-1870 (2012). Her historical focuses are far ranging – across the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, from the Gunditjmara and Wurundjeri people of Victoria to the Smoki people in Prescott, Arizona. One of her major concerns is to develop an anthropological approach to history as well as the history.