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Drawing of Robinson from his diaries on a raft being pushed across a river, 1830. British Museum.

Truganini Swims

Cultural warning: Aboriginal & Torres Strait Island readers are advised this article contains images and names of deceased people.

Truganini (also called Lallah Rookh) c.1812 –1876 is an Aboriginal Tasmanian woman from the Bruni (later Bruny) Island clan, the Nuenonne, who was known for her athleticism and natural beauty. Truganini was also a superb swimmer and she was to become one of the most documented women from the pre-Federation era.

It was largely due to her swimming abilities that she was chosen to accompany George Augustus Robinson in 1830 to travel into the unknown wilderness and reach a conciliation with the First Nations people who were, at the time, waging a violent counter-offensive against the British colonial settlers during the so-called ‘Black War’ (1804-1830).

Truganini was expected to ‘swim’ rafts across icy rivers along the wild and unmapped west coast. Once, at the Arthur River, Robinson fell into the water and was saved by Truganini where he “would have been certainly drowned had not the courageous Native [Truganini] jumped into the water and rescued him”.

In 1838 Robinson became the Protector of the Aborigines of Port Phillip where he took Truganini, Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner (Truganini’s husband) and two other women (Planobeena and Pyterruner) from Van Diemen’s Land (later Tasmania) to become conciliators with the First Nations people in the Port Phillip area.

After two years living in and around the settlement, the five Tasmanians joined up and became outlaws, robbing and shooting at settlers, killing two whalers at Cape Paterson. The group was captured and sent to trial for murder.

Robinson was to repay Truganini for saving his life when, at the trial, he gave evidence that the three women were ‘in entire subjection to the men, in absolute thraldom’. The jury took Robinson at his word and pronounced the three women not guilty. However, Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner were found guilty.

Truganini by Benjamin Law, 1836. Australian Museum

A young Redmond Barry (later to sentence Ned Kelly to hang) acted for the defence and pleaded for their mercy, but the two men were sentenced to be hanged in public – the settlement’s first. The men were hung, gruesomely, on 20th January 1842 on Gallows Hill behind the current State Swimming Centre in front of a crowd of 5,000 people, 25% of Melbourne’s population. A monument commemorating the two Tasmanians was erected on this site in 2016.They were buried in unmarked graves thought to be between sheds E and F at the current Queen Victoria Market.

Truganini returned to Van Diemen’s Land and lived for another 34 years, dying on 8th May 1876 in Hobart but it was due to her swimming prowess that possibly saved her from the gallows in 1842. Truganini eventually returned to the sea in 1976 when her ashes were scattered in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel near her homeland on Bruny Island.

By Ria Bleathman, (Reproduced from the Brighton Iceberger Newsletter 11 April 2024).

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