Sunday, 3 March 2013

Oyster Cove Aboriginal Settlement

The buildings at Oyster Cove were originally built in 1843 on unhealthy mudflats with insufficient drainage and little fishing. The buildings were of wood which soon rotted and offered little protection from the icy winds coming from the south. Initially the station was used for white female convicts and later for male convicts. It was abandoned in 1847 when it was found to be unsuited to convicts but was deemed still suitable for Tasmanian aborigines

In 1847, 47 Tasmanian Aboriginal people, incarcerated for fifteen years at Wybalenna on Flinders Island, arrived to take up forced residency at Oyster Cove station, the ex-convict government settlement 35 miles south of Hobart. The arrivals consisted of 5 boys, 5 girls, 23 women and 14 men, all who remained of some 200 Tasmanian Aboriginal people who had been compulsorily and officially removed from across Tasmania. Their return was officially recorded as a budgetary measure, but could also be viewed as a means to allay guilt for what non-Aboriginal people viewed as the 'last' of a distinct race dying outside their home territory to which they had continually asked to return. Initially delighted by the freshly painted houses, tables, bed, chairs and glass windows, the Tasmanians (who had not enjoyed such luxuries at Wybalenna) in turn delighted the settlers of the area with their ceremonial dances. The houses were arranged around a square and the 11 couples lived on one side while the unmarried people lived on the other. The ten children did not live at Oyster Cove but were sent to an orphan school at Hobart. The joy did not last.

The authorities had learnt a little from the disaster that was Wybalenna. While regular inspections and better food and other supplies made for a good start, the relentless cultural pressure to turn the aborigines into subservient British servants together with the unhealthy conditions at Oyster cove made life unhappy for the aborigines. In the opinion of what were still in fact, British jailers, the aborigines developed too much independence - some even had the ‘nerve to built their own huts and plant their own food!’ Some women also preferred to prostitute themselves so they could buy alcohol rather than attend the interminable religious instructions. Men also preferred to drink or go hunting in the bush despite the risk that this entailed. The jailers regarded all such independent activities as "recklessness" and "rank ingratitude".

There was a fair degree of outrage at the return to mainland Tasmania of its original inhabitants. Tasmanian pastoralists recalled a history of bloody skirmishes, and held a special meeting to protest the return of  the indigenous peoples to their traditional homelands. In part responding to these fears, the government described the non-threatening state of the thirteen Aboriginal men, saying they had either been reared by Europeans or worked for them, had lived for fifteen years 'in civilized habits' and 'are almost all addicted to gardening'. On arrival, eight children were removed to the Queen's Orphan Asylum in Hobart, and it is not known what eventually became of four of them.  

In bringing this group of mostly aged or incapacitated Aboriginal people back to mainland Tasmania, the government disregarded the growing population of Aboriginal people living across the Bass Strait Islands but outside the official Wybalenna settlement. These outcasts were considered separate because of their parentage, language and customs. These differences provided the means of exclusion from any recompense due for their own, their parents' and their grandparents' losses, including country, resulting from European invasion.

Upon arrival at Oyster Cove, the newcomers performed ceremonies. This may have boded well except that the site was damp and unhealthy, proper maintenance was never undertaken, provisions were poor and non-Aboriginal administration was inadequate. Local game was eliminated rapidly. Over the next few years the Aboriginal population declined in health, spirit and number, though some undertook extended hunting trips, in one instance to South Cape in 1848 and another walking to Port Davey during a six-week absence in 1860.

Other activities included general hunting and food gathering, traditional medicinal practices, diving on wrecks to procure lost goods for payment, fishing, shell necklace making and fibre practices, gardening, collecting firewood, frequenting local taverns, tending their thirty dogs, being constantly visited by outsiders and occasionally attending events in Hobart town. Five men went on whaling voyages. By 1851, 13 of the 46 had passed away. In 1855 John Dandridge took charge and improved care, despite the government halving its expenditure. This kindness was too little, too late and the population continued to decline. By 1859 only twelve people remained.

Oyster Cove was occupied by Aboriginal people until it succumbed to heavy flooding in the winter of 1874. The site was then abandoned. The last remaining full blooded Aboriginal inhabitant, Truganini, a Nuenone woman whose country was Bruny Island opposite Oyster Cove, was moved to Hobart and lived for the remaining two years of her life with Mrs Dandridge, wife of the former superintendent.

Oyster Cove today symbolizes the unity and resolve of Tasmanian Aboriginal people to redress wrongs of the past by political means. In 1981, the state government proclaimed 30.3 hectares of the Oyster Cove Station a historic site. In 1984 the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre occupied Oyster Cove and claimed land rights for the site. After several attempts, in 1995, 10 hectares at Oyster Cove were among the 3800 hectares transferred to the Tasmanian Aboriginal people.

Today, Oyster Cove is a peaceful place, surprising considering its fraught history. No buildings from the settlement have survived the ravages of time. Each year the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre hosts the Oyster Cove Festival – a day of community, music, food and remembrance. Having this place, where many of the Old People spent their last days, under Aboriginal care is an affirmation of the cultural and spiritual responsibility of Aboriginal people to maintain and build relationships with their people and country.