For more than a century, it was claimed that the Aboriginal people of Tasmania—the Palawa—were “extinct.”
The British colonists and their descendants said they died with Truganini in 1876, who they labeled the last so-called “full blood”.
It’s a myth that has obscured the stories of many other Aboriginal Tasmanians, among them Fanny Smith, who lived at the same time as Truganini and died decades after her.
This proud Aboriginal woman was then, and is now, a powerful symbol of survival.
As Fanny’s people died around her, she created a vibrant community that is at the heart of much of the existing Palawa community today — her descendants are everywhere in Tasmania.
And a choice she made in 1899 ensured her voice will both symbolically and literally echo long into the future.
Born in ‘a place of death’
For its Indigenous people, Tasmania of the 1800s was a world in chaos.
“The British came here in the early 1800s — within the space of 30 years, 98 per cent or more of the original population was wiped out,” Fanny’s great-great granddaughter Kerry Sculthorpe tells ABC RN’s The History Listen.
“My family and I are genocide survivors.”
After decades of war and disease almost annihilated the Indigenous population, the remaining 300 or so survivors were taken to the settlement of Wybalenna on Flinders Island in Bass Strait in 1831.
Fanny was born there in 1834.
“Wybalenna was set up with an enormous sense of optimism and hope by the colonial government,” historian Rebe Taylor from the University of Tasmania says.
“It was hoped that this would be a place in which the Tasmanian Aborigines would be able to become ‘civilised’, Christianised.
“In reality, Wybalenna became a place of death.”
She says of the 300 or so people taken there in 1831, just 47 remained alive in 1847, when the settlement was closed.
In 1846, the governor ordered an inquiry into allegations of cruelty at Wybalenna. It gave a glimpse of Fanny’s childhood of her, and the brutal conduct of catechist preacher Robert Clark and his wife of him.
“He used to strip the Aboriginal children naked and flog us on the table … I was flogged on my naked skin with a long stick. I was flogged plenty of times in a week,” 13-year-old Fanny told the inquiry.
Fanny also described how she was chained up, forced to sleep in a box and “never allowed to talk”.
She said the Clarks and the superintendent of Wybalenna knew she was being sexually assaulted by a convict, but they did nothing to stop him. Instead, she was brutally punished and described as depraved.
“What she’d been through, a lot of people never recover from that. She was treated horrifically … But there was Fanny — she survived,” another of Fanny’s great-great granddaughters, June Sculthorpe says.
In two worlds
When Wybalenna closed, its 47 survivors were transported from Flinders Island to Oyster Cove, an ex-convict station near Hobart. This included Fanny, her mother de ella Tanganutura, the man she called father Nicermenic, her half sister, half brother and Truganini.
“[The huts] would have been so damp, they would never have dried out most of the winter. These huts that were too damp for the convicts, they weren’t too damp for the Aboriginals,” another great-great granddaughter, Colleen Frost says.
But when Fanny was 19, an ex-convict named William Smith offered her a different future.
June says her father recounted a story of how William saw Fanny running along the beach at Oyster Cove and fell in love.
“Fanny was so lucky that William Smith asked her to marry him, which was an escape route for her from this settlement, where her people kept dying,” Colleen says.
Fanny and William married in 1854. They went on to have 11 children — all of them survived.
On her marriage, the government of the colony gave Fanny a land grant of 100 acres at the nearby Nicholls Rivulet — in recognition of her people’s dispossession — and a pension of £24 a year.
Fanny became very active in the local Methodist community, and would host church services in her own home, often singing songs in her Pakana language.
A reverend at the time said: “I have often heard her speak in public on religious topics and I have never heard a more original speaker. She is exceedingly apt in illustrations drawn from her Aboriginal life and associations.”
She was highly regarded in her community — the reverend said he was proud to call her his friend — but this was not an easy time.
“I can’t imagine how she was feeling when she saw everybody that she had known from Flinders Island and from Oyster Cove, all her family and friends, just slowly dying. And there she was, left pretty much on her own, living among strangers,” Kerry says.
“[But] she worked hard, she spoke her language, and she looked forward in life — looking after her family to make sure they were provided for.”
When Truganini died in 1876, Fanny claimed the title of ‘the last Tasmanian’.
In recognition of this, the government granted her 300 acres of land and increased her pension to £50 a year.
But there was debate about her claim in some circles—some said her cheeks were “too pink.”
And it got far more dehumanizing than that.
English anthropologist Henry Ling Roth wanted to write the first full anthropology of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Amid incorrect claims that Tasmanian Indigenous people became “extinct” with Truganini, he heard of Fanny.
Roth tried to acquire photographs of Fanny, descriptions of her teeth, and then samples of hair from her head and her pubic hair.
For 10 years he tried, with some success, to collect samples from Fanny’s body. He even wanted the promise of her skeleton from her when she died.
“Can you imagine how frightening that would have been? Can you imagine? Can you imagine what barbaric ways they had? Was it in the name of science? I find that hard to believe. That was a frightening thing for Fanny to live with, Colleen says.
As Kerry sums up this time: “It was just the all-pervasiveness of the colonisers thinking that the Aborigines were now gone. White was good and black wasn’t.”
Recordings that echo through the ages
In this environment, Fanny embraced her Indigenous identity and made a decision that would ripple through history.
In 1899 and 1903, Fanny agreed to work with the Royal Society of Tasmania and make recordings of her voice in language.
She talked and sang into the bell of a gramophone in her Pakana language, which was captured on a series of wax cylinders.
“She says, ‘I’m Fanny Smith. I was born on Flinders Island. I’m the last of the Tasmanians’,” June says.
According to the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, the recordings capture the “last fluent speaker of any one of the original Tasmanian Aboriginal languages”.
They are the oldest voice recordings ever made of an Aboriginal person, among the earliest sound recordings ever made in Australia. In 2017, they were added to the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register.
And the recordings play an important part in efforts to recover and reclaim Indigenous language in Tasmania over recent decades.
“[The recordings] take you back in time and take you back to some of the sad things, and also the fact that we belong to that woman,” Colleen says.
Fanny died in 1905, but even in death, she could not escape the racial politics of the era.
“It has been said that she was terrified that her body would be stolen and so she wasn’t actually in the coffin that 400 people followed to the Methodist cemetery when she died — that she was buried somewhere else,” Kerry says.
Her impact today
What it means to be an Aboriginal Tasmanian has changed dramatically since the times of Fanny.
Kerry says she grew up in a world that was incredibly hostile to her people.
“When I was a child, there was nothing worse in the world to be than an Aborigine … I don’t remember the name of Fanny Smith ever being mentioned when we were children,” she says.
Or as Colleen says: “[Family members] didn’t say they had any Aboriginal blood in them — it was a disgrace to have Aboriginal blood in them.”
Kerry says things started to change in the 1970s and points to the activism of Tasmanian Aboriginal leader Michael Mansell.
“I think we were just calling ourselves ‘Aboriginal descendants’ at that time. Then Michael started talking to us about actually being a people, rather than just descended from someone … Are you just a ‘descendant’ or are you actually somebody? Are you Black?” Kerry says.
“And we haven’t looked back from there.”
In 1984, the Tasmanian Aboriginal community — the Palawa — reclaimed the land of the Oyster Cove settlement as Putalina. In 1995, the Tasmanian Government officially returned this land to the community. These 10 hectares were among 3,800 hectares returned that year.
“I have wondered recently, what Grandmother Smith would make of what we’ve done today — in the fight that we’ve had,” Kerry says.
“In my lifetime, to go from a little country bumpkin, who grew up in a valley where there were no Aborigines, no prospect of there ever being any Aborigines. To now, being the Tasmanian Aboriginal people, being the Palawa, with our own language and our own land, and getting more.”
The family hopes that Grandmother Smith—the proud Aboriginal matriarch—would have been pleased.
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