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Tasmanian Aboriginal Woman

Walyer, the Tasmanian Amazon

Tarerenore, alias Walyer, was either a resistance leader intent on the destruction of whites in revenge for being cruelly subjected to rape and humiliation, or she was an Amazion style warrior trying to become leader of a fragmented Aboriginal population by killing all her rivals to power. The truth is impossible to ascertain because, just as the accounts of her actions in her time were probably corrupted by agendas, so are the interpretations of her life today.

Even though it is impossible to know her true motivations, all the ingredients for the extinction of the full-blood Tasmanian Aborigines can be found in the agreed aspects her story - the trade of women, the inter-tribal violence, the conflict with whites, the good will of whites that sought to isolate Aborigines in closed religious missions and finally, the Aborigines' susceptibility to European diseases.

Walyer was born around 1800 to the Plair-Leke-Liller-Plue people of Tasmania. As a teenager, she ended up living with sealers. Historian Ian Coates wrote that she was abducted by a rival tribe and sold to sealers in exchange for flour and dogs. (1) Another historian, Ian Mcfarlan, wrote that she had a falling out with her tribe and freely chose to live with the sealers. Later, two of her brothers and two of her sisters joined her with the sealers. (2)

At the time, it was not uncommon for Aboriginal women to end up with colonists and it was a social pattern that reduced the capacity of the Aboriginal tribes to culturally and physically reproduce themselves. When women were traded between tribes, at least the tribe losing a woman eventually got a woman in return. When traded to a colonist, the only thing the tribe would get in return was food or something of short-term benefit.

In the case of Walyer, an additional problem for the future of Aboriginal people was that the sealers taught her how to speak English and use guns. She then used her new skills to attack Aboriginal people. In 1828, she left the sealers and formed a new tribe with remnants of old ones. Subsequently, she commenced war with existing tribes.

Walyer's attacks on Aboriginal people brought her to the attention of GA Robinson, the chief protector of Aborigines. In a letter to Colonel George Arthur, Robinson wrote,

"From several aborigines, I received information respecting an amazon named Tarerenore, alias, "Walyer", who was at the head of an aboriginal banditti. This woman speaks English, and issues her orders in a most determined manner. Several cattle belonging to the company have been speared, and several petty thefts have been committed, which I have traced to this woman. The Amazon is at war with several nations of aborigines, and many aborigines have been slain by her party. The Amazon is an athletic woman, middle aged, and is a native of the East Coast._ She has collected together the disaffected of several nations, and roams over a vastylent of country committing dire outrages."

Some present day historians have interpreted Walyer's actions differently to Robinson. Vicki maikutena Matson-Green has argued that Walyer hated whites and wanted revenge for the whites enslaving, raping, massacring and torturing her people. Matson-Green has portrayed Walyer as a resistance leader who organised guerrilla campaigns to rid Tasmania of the white invaders. In her own words:

"she gathered an army of other disenchanted Aborigines in warfare. She 'hated the luta tawin [white man] as much as she did a black snake', for the injuries perpetrated against her people through massacre, torture, enslavement, incarceration, disease and the stealing of Aboriginal women by sealers. The women stolen were enslaved and tortured in attempts to make them submissive, raped, and traded for goods, services and animals. Tarenorerer refused to bend and nurtured her anger and hatred. The sealers increasingly became frustrated at her refusal to be victimised. " (3)

By 1830, Walyer's tribe had somehow broken down and she fled to the Bass Straight Islands where she once again lived with sealers. According to Matson-Green, there had been no free choice in her return to a life with sealers. Apparently, she

“was taken by sealers to the Hunter Islands and then placed on Bird Island to catch seals and mutton birds. Known as 'Mary Anne', she was given to John Williams ('Norfolk Island Jack') and lived with him and other men and Aboriginal women on Forsyth Island, in the Furneaux group.” (4)

It seems that despite being tortured and raped by sealers throughout her teenage years and late into her 20s, and having the charisma to lead a gang of outlaws, she was not smart enough to avoid capture by sealers once more, nor determined enough to refuse working as their slave. In what Matson-Green might have defined as one final spark of defiance, Walyer hatched a plan to kill one of the hated sealers. Unfortunately, she was even able to put that plan into action and was given up to the authorities. News of her capture apparently elated Robinson, because he saw her capture as

"a matter of considerable importance to the peace and tranquility of those districts where she and her formidable coadjutors had made themselves so conspicuous in their wanton and barbarous aggression'. It was, he thought, a 'most fortunate thing that this woman is apprehended and stopped in her murderous career . . . The dire atrocities she would have occasioned would be the most dreadful that can possibly be conceived" (4)

Matson-Green's interpretation was a reflection of Australia's contemporary history profession that justified distorting evidence to serve a political agenda. Mastson-Green's interpretation completely omited Robinson's account that stated Walyer was at war with other tribes. Instead, she portrayed Walyer as solely being at war with whites. Although there was a chance that could have been the case, incredibly she used Robinson’s words to justify it. She quoted Robinson's words that expressed concern at Wayler's violence towards other Aborigines in a context that implied the violence had been directed towards whites. Unfortunately, Matson-Green's history was by no means an isolated method of historical inquiry. It had became the norm in Australia's left-wing history profession where honesty or objectivity was lost in the pursuit of ideological expression or political advantage.

Admittedly, it is possible that Robinson himself had a political agenda and had been as dishonest as Matson-Green with his accounts. Robinson wanted to build support for the relocation of Aborigines to a closed religious mission where they could be kept apart from whites and civilised. This necessitated that Aborigines be seen as victims that were making trouble for whites, but not sufficient trouble that would make whites want them to be killed. If Robinson had portrayed Walyer as a guerrilla leader, whites might have wanted her killed and all other Aborigines killed with her. If he had portrayed her as solely fighting other Aborigines, the whites might have decided to let them kill themselves.

For Robinson, the ideal attitude was see in the words of Governor Arthur when he wrote:

"It was evident that nothing but capturing and forcibly detaining these unfortunate savages ... could now arrest a long term of rapine and bloodshed, already commenced, a great decline in the prosperity of the colony, and the extirpation of the Aboriginal race itself."

An even more serious problem was Aborigines having relationships with sealers or ex-Convicts. Throughout Australia, British authorities were very concerned about such relationships because both groups were potentially very hostile to British rule.  If sealers had started teaching Aborigines how to use guns and joining them in battle, then they would have posed a formidable threat to British control. If such unions gained public sympathy, then they could have drawn supporters and escaped Convicts wanting to follow the American path to revolution. To stop such a possibility, sealers needed to be portrayed in a negative way and kept apart from Aborigines.

Faced with such political considerations, it is possible that Robinson corrupted his accounts much like political considerations corrupt accounts today. However, if Robinson had been dishonest in his accounts then it would not be possible to use Robinson's quotes to justify a version of history that was in contradiction with what he wrote. Without proof that he was lying, the presumption needed to be that he was being honest.

Whatever the truth about Walyer's motivations, she was a remarkable woman. At a time when women were nothing more that commodities to be traded, she rallied a diverse group of individuals behind her and led them into battle. As is the case in many wars, perhaps there was no real reason to fight, and no real agenda in mind. The joy of battle might have been the end in itself.

Walyer's death, isolated and alone while under the protection of a white man, was an quite an undignified way to end such a spirited life.

 

1)Coats, Ian in Oulawed! Rebels, Revolutionaries and Bushrangers National Museum of Australia 2003

2)http://www.utas.edu.au/library/companion_to_tasmanian_history/W/Walyer%202.htm - January 2009

3)http://www.utas.edu.au/library/companion_to_tasmanian_history/W/Walyer.htm - January 2009

4)http://www.adb.online.anu.edu.au/biogs/AS10455b.htm - January 2009

 

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"Let no-one say the past is dead, the past is all about us and within"(Oodgeroo)