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Patsy Cameron, artist, writer, Aboriginal Elder and Inaugural member for Tasmania on the National Aboriginal Education Committee, 16 March 2016

PATSY CAMERON:  Drawing on my experience in particular with the Encounters exhibition, in this short time I would like to use some examples of landscape and portraits painted by John Skinner Prout to enhance the narrative of my ancestors who are now part of the Encounters exhibition.

Prout captured on canvas the essence of a people at the Wybalenna Aboriginal establishment on Flinders Island 1845. Wybalenna translates to ‘black man’s houses’. It has been described as a sanctuary, but many present day Tasmanian Aborigines refer to it as a death camp. A place where our people were taken into exile for a period of 16 years and where genocide took place. It is of great historical, cultural and spiritual significance for the burial ground, a sacred ground, contains the remains of several hundred of our ancestors.

When Prout visited this windswept place in remote Bass Strait islands in February 1845, he met the survivors. Fifty-seven Aborigines were all that remained alive after they were banished from their homelands on mainland Tasmania.

Prout sketched Wybalenna from a hill overlooking what looks like a small English village surrounded by fields of dry grass. It was late summer, there were many neat dwellings situated over a wide area that included a gaol, soldiers barracks, convict quarters and the  commandment’s house.

The chapel was at the centre and the 12 Aboriginal cottages joined to form the letter L, separated by an open space to the left and behind the chapel. You cannot see the rows of low mounds of the sacred burial ground that testify to the high death rate over the past 14 years, for the burial ground is located a short walk from the chapel to the far left of the painting. You cannot hear the wind that whistles through the stands of she-oaks, but we believe they are the sound of the spirits of our ancestors.

Wybalenna was established to Christianise and civilise the savages, to remove them from their traditional homelands, deny them their cultural traditions and turn them into sedentary agriculturalists, diligent housekeepers and obedient servants. Some of the survivors were traditional enemies and others were allies. A few could read and write and most could speak English.

Prout’s sketches are extremely important because his paintings depict where our people lived. All the buildings are now in ruin, paradoxically only the chapel has been restored. This is titled Grass Tree Plains where Prout depicts three hunters resting under the grass trees before going hunting for kangaroo. In the background are the peaks of the patriarchs, situated not far from wide lagoons where the people harvested swan and gathered their eggs. A gun and a tomahawk appear at first to replace spears and the stone axe, but if you look closely you might see that spear lying on the ground beside the man on the left. These hunters were clan related or allies, for even though they lived together only families and allies hunted together, never with enemies.

The paintings tell us that despite long periods being confined to their cottages, the survivors were experiencing a degree of freedom to practise in the bush away from the Europeanised world of Wybalenna.

Methinna’s journey – there are six original and 13 copies of Prout’s portraits in the Encounters exhibition and I will explore two further. Methinna was about seven years old when she was sent to the government orphanage school in Hobart Town, where most of the children from Wybalenna were sent to gain an education, or so we’re led to believe. She was chosen by Lady Jane Franklin and taken out of the orphanage school to live at Government House. Methinna took with her two precious cultural possessions – a string of shells and a pet ringtail possum – and so began her new life in colonial high society.

[points to a slide] Here Methinna is portrayed wearing a pretty red dress and painted by convict artist Thomas Bock. She stayed at Government House for a few years until Governor John Franklin’s term ended. When the Franklins returned to England they left her behind because they believed she would not survive the chill of the English winter. Her life changed dramatically when she was returned to the orphanage. You can only imagine how that final act of abandonment by her guardians affected her young mind and soul.

Methinna was returned to Wybalenna and when Prout sketched her, you can see she’s wearing a plain white dress, but she’s also wearing a string of shells around her neck. She’s about 11 years old in that sketch by John Skinner Prout.

Louisa’s journey – Louisa was born to the clans at Cape Portland located in the far north-east of Tasmania – that is clan country to me and Greg Lehman so Louisa is a descendant of ours, sorry an ancestor of ours.

As a young girl she was taken to live with James Munro on Preservation Island and later joined George Augustus Robinson as a guide on his so-called friendly missions around Van Diemen’s Land. She spoke English well and was said to be very intelligent, and if she stood up from sitting in that seat you’d notice that she’s about the same height as me and about the same build. So, she’s quite short, but beautiful just the same.

[points to a slide] The image of her on the ship wearing the bright red cap shows her looking relaxed, but I imagine that she’s relaxed on the ship because she would’ve had that experience when she was living with the Straitsmen of sailing many times across Bass Strait. But like most of the exiles at Wybalenna, she loved to wear the red cap. If you look in the gallery and you notice all of the images by Prout, many of the women are wearing those red caps to simulate the application of red ochre on her hair.

[points to a slide] The other sketch of her sitting is by Prout, on board the Alexander out of Hobart when they were heading to Wybalenna. The boat is sailing past – I’m out of time? Oh, okay  –  past the lighthouse. You can see a lighthouse in the distance perhaps, heading towards Flinders Island. It depicts her again wearing her red cap and looking quite relaxed.

Prout’s legacy is significant. His portraits and landscapes are poignant and powerful, for they depict people surviving between both worlds. Life in exile at a time when their population was so fragile, yet from the canvas I see the faces of a proud people and am therefore very grateful that we are able to honour their memory in such a dignified manner.

I think there has been a most wonderful outcome for us to see these original paintings and the copies come to the Encounters exhibition, so that we can see these beautiful images, and you can judge for yourself – with the other images that Greg has shown you in his presentation – that at a time they were there, and they are proud and dignified people. Thank you.

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Date published: 01 January 2018

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