A short story by Craig Cormick
Port Phillip — 1842
"You sorry fellows", says George Augustus Robinson, staring down at the empty graves. Waiting patiently for the bodies to arrive. He is glad he has not attended the hanging. He has seen too many of his blacks die while commandant of the Wybalenna mission in Van Diemen's Land. These two more deaths make him both sad and angry. "They should be very sorry for this", he mutters. "Very sorry indeed."
He does not need to attend the hanging to know what it will be like. A huge crowd of several thousand will be pushing and shoving to get a look at the gallows. Turned out like they were attending a royal picnic. Standing on walls and sitting on shoulders to get an indecent view.
The two black men, dressed in coarse white, will be led up onto the platform. They will look around themselves in fear and desperation. So many people. So much noise. But they are looking for him. Hoping that he might appear and save them, for he had always promised that he would protect them. But he is not there. And the sudden fear of dying in a strange land makes their legs shake and quiver.
The preacher will begin the prayers and some in the crowd will call on him to get on with it. Then the death masks will be pulled over the two men's faces and the nooses fastened around their necks. The crowd will fall silent then. When death is so close, it is not easily made light of.
But the gallows will malfunction and Maulboyheener, who the locals know as Timmy, will not fall cleanly. The rope will snag and he will be dangling there alive. Kicking and struggling frantically. His chained legs flailing wildly up in the air, trying desperately to seek some imaginary toehold that could save his life, but there is none. His legs will gradually slow. Then twitch slightly. Then hang still.
The gruesome struggle will have shocked the crowd. They will stare in silent fascination, waiting for the second man to be hanged. His will be much cleaner. Pevay will fall well and hit the end of the rope with a clean jerk. Hanging limply. Swaying slightly in the breeze. Lifeless.
Then the crowd will look about expectantly, as if waiting for somebody to take up a cheer or something. But nothing else happens. Then they will slowly disperse, walking back to their homes, or to their labours, replaying the scene of the hanging over in their minds, so that one day, many years from now, they can retell it to their families or grandchildren. Just as it happened from their differing points of view.
"Let me tell you about the day they hanged the murderous Van Diemen's Land blacks", they will say.
The bodies of the two dead men are transported to the Aboriginal graveyard in George Augustus Robinson's own cart. He has volunteered to conduct the funeral rites. He is long practised at reading the words at the funerals of his blacks.
The cart is accompanied by the other Van Diemen's Land blacks. Trugernanna. Wooredy and the rest. They are weeping openly. As the bodies are unloaded, George Augustus Robinson, chief protector of Aborigines of Port Phillip, moves across and puts one arm around Trugernanna, his old companion of many years. His precious black princess, who has helped him in his work for so many years. Trugernanna, whom he thought he knew and understood so intimately, yet was shocked to find himself defending to Superintendent La Trobe on charges of murder. He feels hurt by this. Wants her to make amends to him.
George Augustus Robinson, brickmaker turned saviour, lifts Trugernanna's face. "It's over", he says. Then, "They were ungrateful wretches and will be sorry for this".
Trugernanna pushes his arm away and falls to the ground beside her dead countrymen. He takes a step away from her. She has hurt him again. He will ask her to apologise later, but for now he dare not confront her; a man from the press is edging closer and George Augustus Robinson is already fearful of what he might write about him.
George Augustus Robinson has tried to talk with Trugernanna, but she has remained silent and obstinate in the face of his kindness.
He is greatly relieved to hear that Superintendent La Trobe has agreed to repatriate the remaining Van Diemen's Land blacks to the Wybalenna mission on Flinders Island. He is pleased they are going back. As he is pleased he is no longer the commandant there. Port Phillip has so much more promise for him, he thinks.
He told Trugernanna that she would be going home again. She said he was lying. That they would be sent back to Flinders Island. He insisted that was their home. That there was no more home for them on the Van Diemen's Land mainland. She said nothing, but refused to let him touch her.
He does not know what to do with her any more. He feels he does not know her any more. He is glad to consign her and her people to the past. Of the 15 Aboriginal charges he brought over to the mainland, already six have died. It is time for them all to go, he thinks.
When Trugernanna arrived at the colony of Port Phillip with him, she shocked George Augustus Robinson, her protector, by taking to the bush. By sleeping openly with local natives or with white men. He admonished her. Told her that he expected her and the other blacks to help him civilise the Port Phillip natives. But instead they took to the bush. Went on their robbing and murder rampage.
It was to hurt him personally, he knew.
At the court case he had defended her against the charge of murder by stating that she had once saved his life in the wilds and had never lacked in humanity. He told the court how she had assisted him in the interior of Van Diemen's Land. How she had taught him the ways of the blacks. Taught him their beliefs. Taught him her tongue. She was so young and lively then, he remembers. An impish smile ever on her lips. Her lithe dark body ever keen to guide and please him.
He sighs and looks back out the window beyond his reflection, into the darkness. They were the best days of his life, he thinks. He was young. Strong. Confident. The whole world was before him. Armed with only his faith and self confidence, he strode into the wild interior of Tasmania to conduct intercourse with the blacks there.
After she had been released from jail into his care, he had asked Trugernanna what had ever become of those days. She had glared at him insolently. They had never existed except in his own memory, she told him.
George August Robinson can remember the past. He can remember weeping with rage. In all his years as commandant of the Wybalenna mission on Flinders Island, the natives had rarely seen him so angry. He had them assembled in the brick chapel. He had overseen its construction himself. Proof of his dedication to his charges. But another black had died. Another! His anger left him speechless for a moment. One more grave to be dug and one more funeral service to be prepared. There were fewer than 80 of the race left.
"What has happened is intolerable", he said to the natives. Raising his voice as if he were addressing a large auditorium. "The deaths must not continue!" He looked about him. Then went on. Still shouting. "I am the commandant of the Aborigine Settlement", he said. "If you all die, what will I be then? Nothing! You should all be sorry for the way you are treating me!"
Nobody said anything for a time. Then Trugernanna said, "We want to return to our homeland".
George Augustus Robinson calmed a little. "I acknowledge that you grieve for your homeland", he said. "But that is the past and has nothing to do with the present. They were different times."
Again nobody said anything. They just stared at him. Unmoving. He appeared a very small man to them. As if standing a very long way from them. And yet the past did not seem so very far away at all.
And then, led by Trugernanna, the blacks all stood and turned their backs on him.
"You will be very very sorry!" he said. Much softer.
The first that George Augustus Robinson, chief protector of the Aborigines of Port Phillip, knew of the rampage of his blacks was when he received word two whalers had been murdered at Cape Patterson. Trugernanna, with two women and two men, had left the settlement; they were heading east, robbing and burning homesteads. They had stolen several guns and had also stolen £22 in bank notes — which they had wantonly burned.
The police, he was told, assisted by black trackers, were on their trail, pursuing them as he himself had once pursued the wild blacks in Van Diemen's Land.
George Augustus Robinson put his head in his hands when told. The press would link them to him. The superintendent would demand an inquiry. His pension would be in jeopardy. He sat there alone in his study and wondered what to do. This would be harder than dealing with the natives who had died at Wybalenna or on the Port Phillip Protectorate. You could not hide white bodies from the press.
He knew what they would write:
"Information has been received in town that numerous depredations have been committed in the Westernport direction by a party of the Aborigines accompanied by and associated with two Van Diemen's Land blacks and three women who are as well skilled in the use of the firearms they possess as the males.
"These peoples have been imported by Mr Robinson for the purpose of aiding in the civilisation of the Aborigines of Australia Felix."
George Augustus Robinson sits up with a shock. As if his body has suddenly been jolted at the end of a rope. He looks around, expecting to see a large empty grave, but sees by the early morning light that he is sitting in the chair in his study. He has fallen asleep there. He was having a dream. He had been standing by the empty graves on the day of the hangings. But one was his grave. He had been digging his own grave. And he was standing in it, staring at a photograph in his hands. A photograph of Trugernanna. A picture of her in her last year of life. As the last of her race.
No, that would not be quite right, he thinks. There would still be those natives who lived with the sealers in the Strait Islands. Those who had resisted being taken to the Flinders Island mission. Those who had never been his blacks and had never existed in his history.
He closes his eyes and tries to remember the photograph of Trugernanna — his black princess. She had become an old woman. Thick set with heavy limbs. Short grey hair. Heavy features and a small wispy beard under her chin. And her forehead was wrinkled into a frown of concern. As if she knew how little time she had left to live. Like Wooredy had known.
But it is the eyes that he can most recall. They were dark and accusing. Staring slightly away from the photographer. Staring into the past perhaps. Or staring at him.
He is suddenly afraid of what she is saying about him. Others may see this photograph of her and read in her eyes what she knew of him. All the secrets she refused to reveal in life.
He has a terrible realisation. After he dies he will be unable to defend himself, but through her photograph she will keep living. And her accusations will live with her.
George Augustus Robinson suddenly feels very sorry for himself. He knows he has always been concerned about the future of the blacks. But he also knows that he has been more concerned about what history will say of him. He has defended himself in his journals, repeatedly, saying he had asked for more funding. Tried to build new mission stations. But it was the blacks who kept dying. Undermining his efforts.
Things have not turned out as he has hoped. His promises to the Big River and Ben Lomond tribes. The deaths on Flinders Island. The hangings in Port Phillip. And Trugernanna.
There were so many promises.
He sits in front of his journal and he wishes he could write it all better again. But he doesn't know what words might fix it.
Suddenly there is a light knock on the door and his wife Maria peeps in. She sees him sitting in his chair, holding up a photograph that isn't there. Staring at it fixedly.
She wonders whether to disturb him or not, then asks, "Did you have a message to send to the blacks before they sail?"
"Sorry?" he says.
[From Unwritten Histories, to be published by Aboriginal Studies Press later this year.]