Tongerlongeter: First Nations leader and Tasmanian war hero

May 30, 2023
Background painting: 'Residence of the Aborigines, Flinders Island' by John Skinner Prout/NMA

Tongerlongeter: First Nations leader and Tasmanian War Hero
By Henry Reynolds and Nicolas Clements
NewSouth publications, 2021

Crowds gathered in the streets of Hobart on January 7, 1832, as news spread of the arrival of chief Tongerlongeter of the Oyster Bay-Big Rivers Aboriginal nations of south-eastern Tasmania. Tongerlongeter had arrived to meet Lieutenant Governor George Arthur to negotiate an armistice and the exile of his people to Flinders Island, following the 1823‒31 Black Wars.

Despite having led the most effective armed resistance campaign on Australian soil, Tongerlongeter has largely been forgotten. However, historians Henry Reynolds and Nicolas Clements, authors of books such as The Other Side of the Frontier (1981) and The Black Wars: Fear, Sex and Resistance in Tasmania (2014) seek to rescue Tongerlongeter from obscurity in their 2021 book Tongerlongeter: First Nations Leader and Tasmanian War Hero.

Born around 1790 as part of the Oyster Bay nation, Tongerlongeter would have heard from his parents about the French expedition by Marc-Joseph Marion Du Fresne in 1772. In 1802, his people encountered the French explorers under Nicolas Baudin on Maria Island. Having never heard of foreign lands or peoples, they believed they were the pale-faced spirits of their ancestors.

From 1823 onwards — as white settlers further encroached on land in the south-eastern valleys of Tasmania — Tongerlongeter and his band of warriors began their campaign of resistance. Initially Tongerlongeter and his allies restricted their attacks to targeted retribution, but by 1828, as the war escalated, they responded with greater intensity against the white colonists.

Due to the fear of bad spirits, Tongerlongeter refused to attack at night, leaving his people vulnerable. Gangs of “frontiersmen” and sealers killed hundreds of men and abducted countless women and girls — including Tongerlongeter’s first wife, who was taken in an ambush.

During the day, Tongerlongeter’s war parties exposed colonists to constant fear of attack. Having been trained from infancy in the arts of war, Aboriginal warriors carried out guerrilla operations with extraordinary discipline and strategy, using tactics such as reconnaissance, decoys, flanking and pincer maneuvers, sabotage and arson.

Apart from soldiers, most colonists were woefully unprepared to face such assailants. Typically, warriors would surround a hut, kill its occupants, take what they wanted, then set it alight. Then, they “simply vanished”, outwitting even mounted pursuit parties. Between 1828 and 1830, Tongerlongeter and his allies, the neighbouring Big River nation, intensified their resistance.

There were 137 documented attacks in 1828, rising to 152 in 1829 and 204 in 1830. At one point, some colonists thought the colony should be abandoned. In 1828, Arthur declared martial law, enabling vigilantes who had long “hunted the blacks” with impunity, the ability to do so legally.

Arthur initiated and personally commanded the Black Line in September 1830, a human cordon sweeping down eastern Tasmania. It involved 2200 soldiers, settlers and convicts — 10% of the white population — in a seven-week campaign designed to “capture the hostile tribes”.

The Black Line was a stunning failure, resulting in just two Aboriginal people captured and two killed. Despite this, the days of the Oyster Bay-Big Rivers Nations were numbered, with only 57 attacks recorded in 1831. Tongerlongeter narrowly escaped death after being shot and having his arm amputated.

In late 1831, Tongerlongeter travelled west, where his wife, Droomteemetyer, gave birth to their son, Parperermanener, the last Oyster Bay-Big River child.

On New Year’s Eve 1831, Tongerlongeter’s war-weary warriors were holed up in the remote lake country when they were approached by a small Aboriginal party — envoys of George Augustus Robinson’s friendly mission” tasked with “conciliating the hostile tribes”.

Robinson’s terms were: if Tongerlongeter’s people lay down their arms they could, once order was restored, remain on their Country with a government emissary for protection. The chief was undoubtedly suspicious, but the alternative was the wholesale erasure of his people and culture. So, a week later, on January 7, he entered Hobart to meet with Arthur, leading the 26 survivors of the Black Wars.

Ten days later, Tongerlongeter led his people into exile on Flinders Island. His son died soon after. Despite this death being among the many losses his people experienced, he refused to give up hope and became the acclaimed leader of the exiles in negotiations, settling disputes, providing counsel, distributing justice and being instrumental in a range of improvements.

When Robinson took command of the settlement in 1835, he immediately recognised the chief’s seniority over the 244 Aboriginal people on the island, renaming him “King William” after Britain’s reigning monarch. However, over the five years of Tongerlongeter’s time on Flinders, there were four births but more than 100 deaths, mostly from influenza.

On March 21, 1837, Tongerlongeter demanded they be allowed “to leave this place of sickness”. When Robinson hesitated, he asked: “What, do you mean to stay till all the black men are dead?”. Tongerlongeter died from illness on the same day as his namesake in Windsor Castle. By the time the Flinders Island settlement was abandoned in 1847, only 47 Aboriginal survivors remained.

It is commonly believed that Truganini, who died in 1876, was the last of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people. However, a small number of people of mixed European and Aboriginal descent — descended from the Sealer communities — survived, and in the 2016 census, more than 23,000 Tasmanian people identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Despite leading the most effective and biggest campaign of resistance in Australian military history, Tongerlongeter and his people have not been honoured with statues or memorials. In Tongerlongeter: First Nations Leader and Tasmanian War Hero, Reynolds and Clements place the chief and his people at the forefront of defending their lands in Australia’s frontier wars, which lasted from 1788 to 1928.

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