LEST WE FORGET
THE TUNNERMINNERWAIT AND MAULBOYHEENNER SAGA
The denial regarding the brutality accompanying the colonisation process in Australia 225 years after a convict settlement was established at Port Jackson in 1788 is so complete many Australians are more familiar with the names of North American Native American tribes and resistance leaders like Geronimo and Sitting Bull than they are with indigenous Australian tribes and indigenous resistance fighters. It’s no exaggeration to say most Australians would have difficulty naming one indigenous tribe in Australia, let alone the name of an indigenous resistance fighter.Australia has a rich and moving history of resistance to white colonisation. The denial of this country’s Blak History is linked to the inability of Australians to make any serious attempts to heal the festering wound that still exists between many indigenous and non-indigenous Australians 225 years after the colonisation process began.
Every city, every town has a story about indigenous resistance to the colonisation process. These stories are never acknowledged, let alone publicly recognised. Melbourne has a rich history of resistance to the colonisation process. The 20th January marks the 171st Anniversary of the execution of the indigenous freedom fighters Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner.
At 8.00am on Thursday the 20th of January 1842, over 5,000 people, a quarter of Victoria’s white population, gathered on the outskirts of Melbourne crowding round the gallows erected on a small rise east of Swanston Street and north of LaTrobe Street. The land where the execution took place was only partly cleared. The crowd, in a carnival mood, had come to see the public execution of Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner – the first two people executed in Victoria.
Early in October 1841, Tunnerminnerwait, Maulboyheenner, Pyterrunner, Truganini and Planobeena – 5 of 16 Tasmanian Aborigines who had been brought to Melbourne by Robinson in 1839 to ‘civilise’ the Victorian ‘blacks’, stole two guns and some ammunition from a settler’s hut at Bass River. Over the next seven weeks, they robbed many stations in Dandenong and Mornington, wounding four white men and killing two sealers ‘Yankee’ and William Cook. All five were captured by a party of police, settlers and soldiers on the 20th of November 1841. Five days later when they arrived in Melbourne, they were charged with murder. They appeared before Judge Willis on the 20th December 1841. The five were defended by Redmond Barry – the standing Defence Council for Aborigines (as Chief Justice he sentenced Ned Kelly to hang 39 years later in 1880). He argued that as they were not naturalised citizens, half the jury should have been made up of people not subjects of the Queen.
The only evidence to link the party of Aborigines with the murders was the confessions of the Aborigines themselves. Barry, the Defence Council, continued to question the legal basis of British authority over Aborigines. He claimed the evidence was dubious and circumstantial. Truganini turned Queen’s evidence and claimed the men had killed the sealers. Unlike Truganini, Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner refused to shift the blame on the others. Later that night, the jury took only 30 minutes to find the two men guilty of murder; they acquitted the women. The jury made a very strong plea for clemency “on account of general good character and the peculiar circumstances under which they were placed” acknowledging they believed Trugannini’s story that one of the sealers had killed her husband in Tasmania and they understood why Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner killed the sealers.
Judge Willis ignored the plea for clemency. On the 20th of January 1842, the men were dressed in white, paraded through the streets of Melbourne in an open cart drawn by two grey horses. The executioner John Davies, a convict who had been sentenced to life for sheep stealing, was promised his freedom and ten pounds if he acted as executioner. Eighteen convicts had competed for the post of public executioner; some wanted the heads of the Aborigines as payment. A carnival atmosphere surrounded the execution until the trapdoor was opened.
The men only fell a short distance, not enough to break their necks. “There was a dead pause and a cry of shame from the crowd. The two…..twisted and writhed convulsively in a manner that horrified even the most hardened”. A spectator kicked away a piece of timber holding up the trap door and they fell to the full length of the rope. Tunnerminnerwait died instantly. Maulboyheenner continued to struggle wildly as his noose had dislodged. The bodies hung for the regulation hour; they were stripped of their clothes (a regular perk for executioners), their naked bodies were put in wooden coffins and buried in the Aboriginal cemetery (the site of the current Queen Victoria Market). Their remains lie on the northern side at the eastern end of the wall that currently divides the Queen Victoria Market.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE OTHER TASMANIANS?
Robinson was upset that Judge Willis had made him personally responsible for the 3 women who were acquitted of the charges laid against them. La Trobe finally agreed to pay for the remaining Tasmanian Aborigines to be returned to Flinders Island. Truganini, Planobeena and Pyterruner – ‘David Bruny’, ‘Walter Arthur’ and ‘Jack Allen’ a Tasmanian Aborigine, who had been brought across from Tasmania by Batman in 1835, were returned to Flinders Island. ‘Peter Brune’ and ‘Johnny Franklin’ remained in Victoria. Nine of the original party of 16 had died during the 3 years they were at Port Phillip.
Those that returned to Flinders Island sought better living conditions and organised the Flinders Island community to petition Queen Victoria in 1846 to grant them some land and remove the European Superintendent from the Island. The Colonial office in London closed down the Flinders Island community as a result of their protests and returned many of the Flinders Island Aborigines to the mainland. In 1847, 45 Aborigines were removed from Flinders Island and transferred to Oyster Cove outside Hobart. Oyster Cove had been abandoned as a convict settlement because of the harsh and damp conditions there. By 1856, 29 of the Tasmanian Aborigines who had been transferred to Oyster Cove had died mainly as a result of respiratory diseases. By 1868, only 3 remained at Oyster Cove.
Truganini was the last survivor at the Oyster Cove community. Aborigines who had remained on the islands in Bass Strait, living in sealers camps, invited her to live with them in 1872. She refused, preferring to live near her traditional lands. She died in 1876 aged 64 – ‘the last of the Tasmanians’ in the public’s eye. Two years later, her body was dug up by the Royal Society of Tasmania and put on public display for almost a century. Despite protests from the Tasmanian Museum, her bones were finally cremated on the 1st of May 1976 and her ashes were scattered on her tribal fishing grounds by members of Tasmania’s thriving Aboriginal community.
The struggle between squatters and Aborigines in Victoria intensified over the next few years. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Aborigines where shot, clubbed to death and poisoned. Their bodies were thrown over cliffs, chopped up and buried or cremated as the squatters did not want any evidence of their handiwork to be found. Sheep rapidly replaced the Aboriginal people that had lived in harmony with nature for over 40,000 years.
A Victorian Aboriginal population of over a 100,000 had been decimated by European introduced disease before the first squatter put a foot in Victoria. Only about 20,000 Aborigines had survived the introduction of European diseases when Batman „signed? his dubious treaty with the Aborigines in 1835. Within 25 years of white colonisation, the Aboriginal population had been reduced to around 2,000.
Tunnerminnerwait’s and Maulboyheenner’s execution was followed by the execution of 3 European bushrangers – Ellis, Jepps and Fogarty – who were publicly executed on the 5th of June 1842.
On the 5th of September 1842, Figara Alkepurata (Roger the Russian) an Aboriginal man from the Port Fairy region was publicly executed for the murder of Patrick Codd – a squatter who had a history of murdering Aboriginal people. Although there was a great deal of doubt about who committed the murder, it seems an Aboriginal – any Aboriginal – had to be hanged to set an example to Victoria’s Aborigines.
Redmond Barry eventually became a Victorian Supreme Court Judge. He was the Judge who sentenced Ned Kelly to death. He died six days after the execution of Ned Kelly on the 11th of November 1880.
In 1847, John Davis, the hangman, was working as a self employed shoemaker in Brighton in Melbourne.
Judge Willis was removed from office for incompetence on the 24th of June 1843. He returned to England and lived the life of an English country Squire. He died peacefully in his sleep in 1877.
LEST WE FORGET
The interpretation of history changes with each generation. The difficulty about interpreting Australia’s early colonial history is that only the colonisers left written records about what occurred. These records were incomplete. In many cases, you have to read between the lines to find out what really happened. The story of Tunnerminnerwait, Maulboyheenner, Pyterruner, Truganini and Planobeena is a great Australian story that all Australians should be familiar with. It is a love story, a story of survival against all the odds, a story of armed resistance, rebellion, compassion, brutality and most importantly of all – hope.
It is easy to dismiss the group as a bunch of cold blooded murderers, arsonists and thieves, but their behaviour tells another story. The Van Diemen’s Land Aborigines knew what was in store for the Victorian Aborigines. Survivors of a 33 year war in Tasmania that saw the Aboriginal population reduced from over 10,000 people to a little under a 100, they knew how to use firearms and how to survive in the bush. Their struggle was carried out with a great deal of compassion. The Tasmanians believed that by taking up arms against the squatters, they would be able to ignite an Aboriginal revolt that would drive the invaders into the sea.
The way they conducted their guerrilla campaign highlights they had motives that went far beyond survival and vengeance. They collected and stockpiled firearms whenever they could; they stockpiled food, they burnt down the houses they raided driving the squatters in the Port Phillip region back to Melbourne. They understood the only way to drive the squatters out of the country was by using their own weapons against them. Their struggle was a compassionate one; women and children and many of the squatters were spared. The killing of the two whalers was clearly a case of mistaken identity, as they were believed to be from a party that was chasing the Tasmanians. Those squatters that were wounded were injured in the heat of battle and were not killed.
The Tasmanians capture only occurred as a result of the help of local Aborigines. The colonial authorities had a great deal of difficulty finding black trackers, as the local Aborigines supported the Tasmanians war against the squatters. On several occasions, the Tasmanians were helped by local Aborigines, and on one occasion local Aborigines were involved in the attack on a hut. Ironically, the local black trackers who were lured into the hunt with promises of guns and goods only received a few knick-knacks once the Tasmanians were captured.
In 2008 the Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner Commemoration Committee was established to hold a yearly commemoration on the 20th January at the execution site (corner Bowen and Franklin St, Melbourne) to work towards acknowledging the injustice that occurred on that day, to attempt to highlight the unfinished business that exists between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians and to work towards the establishment of a significant public monument to publicly acknowledge what happened on that fateful day. The Commemoration Committee wants the area bounded by Victoria Parade, Franklin St and Swanston St to be made into a public park that hosts a monument to Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner. The creation of open public space in a City that has little open public space would not only highlight Melbourne has a black history it would also act as a focal point to kick start a reconciliation process between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians that stalled years ago.
The story of Tunnerminnerwait, Maulboyheenner, Pyterruner, Truganini and Planobeena is a story of revolt, armed resistance and survival. It is a story that is as pivotal to the creation of 21st century Australia as Gallipoli and Kokoda were. To acknowledge Gallipoli and Kokoda and ignore their struggle is our loss as a people and a nation.
Dr. Joseph Toscano / Convenor Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner Commemoration Committee
This year’s Commemoration will be held at midday on Sunday 20th January at the corner of Bowen and Franklin St, Melbourne (opposite City Baths). At 1:00pm participants will be walking from the execution site to the men’s burial site, the north side of the eastern end of the wall that currently divides the Queen Victoria Market, the men’s last known resting place. – Please bring flowers.