Certain great crimes stain the pages of history – the Slave Trade and the Holocaust are two that spring to mind – while others fade with time and are downgraded to mere footnotes in nation-building. Such a case is the systematic genocide of the aborigines of a small island first called by the Europeans Van Dieman´s Land and later Tasmania off the south-west coast of Australia.
Never before had a race of men been utterly destroyed within seventy-five years.
Destroyed not only by a different manner of life and imported disease but also by sheer hostility and ill-will of the usurpers of the race’s land – colonial home-steaders, stockmen and ex-convicts backed by a sanctimonious Christianity.
At one point they organised themselves to form a human chain from the north coast to the south, armed with guns and knives, and walked from the top to the bottom of the island flushing out the natives (who had inhabited those forests since time immemorial) and slaughtering them. With no defences but cunning and the most primitive weapons, the natives had little chance and by 1876 the last of them was dead.
So perished a whole people.
On May 7, 1876, Truganini, the last full-blood Black person in Tasmania, died at seventy-three years of age.
Her mother had been stabbed to death by a European.
Her sister was kidnapped by Europeans.
Her intended husband was drowned by two Europeans in her presence, while his murderers raped her.
It might be accurately said that Truganini’s numerous personal sufferings typify the tragedy of the Black people of Tasmania as a whole.
She was the very last. Don’t let them cut me up, she begged the doctor as she lay dying. After her burial, Truganini’s body was exhumed, and her skeleton, strung upon wires and placed upright in a box, became for many years the most popular exhibit in the Tasmanian Museum and remained on display until 1947.
Finally, in 1976–the centenary year of Truganini’s death–despite the museum’s objections, her skeleton was cremated and her ashes scattered at sea.