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Research Guides


Commonwealth Government Records about Tasmania


Before 1967

The 'founding fathers' defined Indigenous Australians to be not the responsibility of the federal government. There are only two references to Aboriginal people in the body of the Australian Constitution. Parliament was denied power to make laws concerning people of 'the aboriginal race in any State'. Section 51(xxvi) conferred on Parliament the power to make laws with respect to 'the people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws'. The drafters had in mind making laws relating to groups such as Chinese miners and market gardeners, Japanese pearlers and Pacific Islands labourers. That the new nation might acknowledge that it had an obligation to its original inhabitants was not seriously contemplated. As well, section 127 provided: 'In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted'.

The 20th century's first decade saw Truganini's skeleton put on display in the Tasmanian Museum and the removal of 12 skeletons by Dr William Crowther from graves at Oyster Cove, symbolising a perception of a living people turning into scientific curiosities. Shortly after, the Tasmanian Government effectively acknowledged the descendants of Fanny Cochrane Smith and others in Bass Strait locations with the passage of the Cape Barren Island Reserve Act 1912. The year before, the Commonwealth assumed responsibility for the Northern Territory, issued the Aboriginals Ordinance 1911 and appointed a Chief Protector. What was happening in the island state was decidedly not being recorded in the Commonwealth's record – until the war, that is.

World War I

World War I brought the descendants of the first Tasmanians into the Commonwealth record. Definitive enlistment numbers are not known either before or after a relaxation on racial grounds in October 1917 that 'Half-castes may be enlisted ... provided the examining Medical Officers are satisfied that one of the parents is of European origin'. Between 50 and 60 Tasmanian Aboriginal people are known to have enlisted. In terms of volunteers and other sacrifices, on Cape Barren Island at least, they were, as Lyndall Ryan wrote, 'significantly greater than that of the surrounding settlers'.

World War I personnel dossiers for a selection of Tasmanian Aboriginal people
National Archives, Canberra
Brown, Claude Eyre; service number – 6477; place of birth – Cape Barren, Tasmania; place of enlistment – Claremont, Tasmania; next of kin – (sister) Beeton, Olive Mrs, 1914–20 B2455, BROWN C E
Fisher, George Godfrey; service number – 374; place of birth – Launceston, Tasmania; place of enlistment – Claremont, Tasmania; next of kin – (father) Fisher, John, 1914–20 B2455, FISHER G G
Hearps, Charles; service number – 207; place of birth – Devonport, Tasmania; place of enlistment – Claremont, Tasmania; next of kin – (father) Hearps, Charles, 1914–20 B2455, HEARPS C 207
Kennedy, Gilbert Morgan; service number – 7023; place of birth – Hamilton on Forth, Tasmania; place of enlistment – Claremont, Tasmania; next of kin – (father) Kennedy, William, 1914–20 B2455, KENNEDY GILBERT MORGAN
Mansell, Archie Douglas; service number – 5150; place of birth – Cape Barren, Tasmania; place of enlistment – Claremont, Tasmania; next of kin – (father) Mansell, John, 1914–20 B2455, MANSELL ARCHIE DOUGLAS
Maynard, Edward Lewis; service number – 2294; place of birth – Flinders Island, Tasmania; place of enlistment – Claremont, Tasmania; next of kin – (mother) Maynard, D, 1914–20 B2455, MAYNARD EDWARD LEWIS
Sellers, George Ira; service number – 19646; place of birth – Sheffield, Tasmania; place of enlistment – Scottsdale, Tasmania; next of kin – (father) Sellers, George Thomas, 1914–20 B2455, SELLERS GEORGE IRA

The interwar years

Image 12: Reply to letter by JH Sexton, Honorary Secretary, Aborigines’ Friends’ Association, about conditions on Cape Barren Island after an influenza epidemic, 7 September, 1926

Image 12: Reply to letter by JH Sexton, Honorary Secretary, Aborigines’ Friends’ Association, about conditions on Cape Barren Island after an influenza epidemic, 7 September, 1926
NAA: A1, 1926/16551
Enlarge image - View image gallery

In Tasmania, with the passage of the Cape Barren Island Reserve Act 1912, a common legal contradiction was evident, as Ryan explained: 'On the one hand it asserted that by virtue of their race the Islanders required special government regulation yet on the other hand it refused to recognise their race as Aboriginal. By insisting that they were a "distinct" group of people with a "separate" identity, the act placed the Islanders in legal limbo for the next forty years.' The irony was compounded nationally. The involvement of Tasmanian Aboriginal people in war may have been noted in Commonwealth records, but their actual existence went unacknowledged. In the 1920–21 census of Aboriginal people, for example, the 17 September 1920 circular letter from the Commonwealth Statistician to all states explicitly indicated that it applied to 'All States except Tasmania' (NAA: A9590, 49). The view in Tasmania was no different, summed up by the title of Sir William Crowther's 1933 Halford oration, 'The Passing of the Tasmanian Race'.

Nothing better highlights the Tasmanian Aboriginal people's absence from consideration than the Commonwealth and State Aboriginal Authorities on Aboriginal Welfare conference held in Canberra in April 1937. Here, a uniform policy was agreed, the central plank of which was that, 'This conference believes that the destiny of the natives of aboriginal origin, but not of the full blood, lies in their ultimate absorption by the people of the Commonwealth, and it therefore recommends that all efforts be directed to that end'. It was as if in Tasmania the former no longer existed and the latter had already been absorbed.

On the relevant files for the conference there is but a single public objection to the failure to include a Tasmanian representative (NAA: A659, 1942/1/8104) and repeated references in memoranda that Tasmania 'has no aboriginal inhabitants'. Even William Cooper, Secretary of the Australian Aborigines' League, agreed. Writing to Prime Minister Lyons about the conference on 22 July 1936, he began with the eloquent understatement that, 'The aborigines are looking forward with deep concern to the forthcoming conference of Premiers in Adelaide next month as they feel that their destinies are somewhat involved', later to note: 'We have no hope where the States with large aboriginal populations cannot adequately finance their obligations and the States with small aboriginal populations, or none, as in the case of Tasmania, should not be freed from responsibility'.

Selected items relating to the Conference of Commonwealth and State Aboriginal Authorities held in Canberra in April 1937
National Archives, Canberra
Conference of Commonwealth and State Aboriginal Authorities – Canberra, April 1937, 1933–40 A659, 1942/1/8104
Aboriginal welfare – initial conference of Commonwealth and State Aboriginal Authorities held at Canberra, 21–23 April 1937, 1937 A52, 572/99429/912
Image 13: Letter by Mrs ME Adams objecting to the failure to include a Tasmanian representative at the Commonwealth and State Aboriginal Authorities on Aboriginal Welfare conference, 19 April 1937

Image 13: Letter by Mrs ME Adams objecting to the failure to include a Tasmanian representative at the Commonwealth and State Aboriginal Authorities on Aboriginal Welfare conference, 19 April 1937
NAA: A659, 1942/1/8104
Enlarge image - View image gallery

War records aside, for more than half of the 20th century, Tasmanian Aboriginal people are a fleeting presence in the extant Commonwealth documentation, at best represented as 'half castes' and at worst assumed extinct. The most sympathetic observers agreed, with Clive Turnbull in 1948 and again in reprints in the 1960s and 1970s titling his history Black War: the extermination of the Tasmanian Aborigines. Even the most sensitive of novelists, Christopher Koch, in describing the world of six-year-old Frances Cullen in 1950s Hobart in The Boys in the Island (1958), referred to a lost race, all wiped out, though there is still a reproachful memory in the island's silence.

selected items relating to Tasmanian Aboriginal people, pre-1967
National Archives, Sydney
Fanny Cockrane Smith – songs and war tunes of extinct Tasmanian Aboriginals [date of content is 1890s], format: audiotape; quantity: 1 of 1 tapes; duration: 7 min 44 sec; type: 1/4 inch magnetic; sound status: preservation material, 1933–71 C102, NAT1
National Archives, Canberra
Print of Tasmanian Aboriginal bust on a Tasmania Insurance Company Limited calendar – registration and exhibit, 1915 A1861, 3382
Care of half-caste children by Church Missionary Society of Australia and Tasmania, Part 2, 1947–51 A431, 1949/496
Aborigines on Cape Barren Island – treatment of, 1926 A1, 1926/16551

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Chapter 6
Tasmanian Aboriginal people