Tarkine History

The following is a long but exceptionally interesting excerpt from the document  AHC Tarkine Assessment Report  issued by the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, that was prepared sometime around 2012.


The Tarkine is named after the Tarkine [Tarkiner] tribe, the traditional owners of the Sandy Cape region located on the west coast of Tasmania (McFarlane 2008:220). The north west coast was also inhabited by three other tribes, namely the Pee.rapper (West Point), the Manegin (Arthur River mouth) and the Peternidic (Pieman River mouth)(McFarlane 2008:220).

These Aboriginal tribes inhabited the coastal areas of the Tarkine for at least 4000 years; the date for the oldest shell midden located at the mouth of the Arthur River (Stockton 1984b:61). During the last 2,000 years, Aboriginal tribes along the west coast, in particular the northwest tribes, exploited the rich and varied resources of the coast and the scrubby hinterland that fringed it.

During the summer months, semi-sedentary ‘villages’ were established at key resource rich locations such as West Point (known as Nongor) which was located next to an elephant seal colony (Plomley 1966:184; Jones 1967). Excavation of West Point midden has provided an important insight into Aboriginal life on the northwest Tasmanian coast (Jones 1966). During the summer months food, in particular seals and coastal birds, was available in its greatest amount leading to the development of semi-sedentary villages (Jones 1974, 1975:3, 1978:36, 1981:7/88). Winter on the other hand was a time when food was scarer, forcing the village groups to disband into smaller groups which fanned out moving up and down the northwest coast (Jones 1978:36). Aboriginal people also used the hinterland, an area thick with tea tree scrub in a complex of swamps, to hunt terrestrial mammals (wallabies, small marsupials), lizards and waterbirds, to gather plant foods, quarry spongolite for stone tools and to trade for ochre (Jones 1981:7/88).

The Tarkine area also contains extensive scatters of stone artefacts, rock shelters, human burials, petroglyphs of geometric forms and stone arrangements which add to our knowledge of Aboriginal life during this time (Jones 1965 and 1980; Stockton and Rogers 1979; Lourandos and Bowdler 1982; Stockton 1982; Cosgrove 1983 and 1990; Flood 1983 and 1990; Richards and Sutherland-Richards 1992; Collett et al 1998).

The first recorded sighting of the Tarkine region by Europeans was when George Bass and Matthew Flinders circumnavigated Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1798. In 1803, British settlement began in Van Diemen’s Land and explorations into the traditional lands of the Tasmanian Aboriginals were initiated (Plomley 1991:3; McFarlane 2008:xi). Very quickly, Aboriginal people’s land began to be acquired on the basis that Van Diemen’s Land was without settled inhabitants (McFarlane 2008:xi). James Kelly sailed up the west coast in 1815/16 and in 1823 Charles Hardwicke sailed from Launceston to the Arthur River, describing ‘rich grass pasture’. Later in 1824, James Hobb landed at the Pieman River noting the stands of timber. However, the earliest European extraction of resources from the Tarkine came in the form of ‘piners’, who from 1816 began navigating many of the coastal rivers to collect cargoes of Huon pine. In 1825 the Van Diemen’s Land Company (VDLC) was formed and granted land in the northwest part of Tasmania for wool production. The VDLC’s chief surveyor Henry Hellyer led an expedition in 1827 and mistakenly concluded that the Tarkine was suitable for sheep grazing, an impression reiterated by John Helder Wedge after his survey of the far northwest.

By 1826, the Aboriginal resistance to dispossession had reached ‘the point of all-out war’ (McFarlane 2008:xii). In 1826, Jorgen Jorgenson arrived in Hobart and was employed by the VDLC to lead expeditions into the interior, which had as their aim the opening up of stock routes (Plomely 1991:7). In 1827, he left for an expedition where he visited the west coast of Tasmania and made numerous diary entries regarding Aboriginal people’s way of life (Plomely 1991). The diaries of George Augustus Robinson (Aboriginal Conciliator) also provide detailed accounts of tribes in the northwest as he conducted his ‘Friendly Mission’ from 1830 to 1834 (McFarlane 2008:xiii). The aim of the ‘Friendly Mission’ was to ‘organise and effect the removal of the remaining Aboriginal inhabitants [in the northwest] from their tribal lands to permanent exile on Flinders Island’ (McFarlane 2008:xiii).

The ethnographic records from Jorgen Jorgenson and George Augustus Robinson make numerous references to Aboriginal huts including their location, construction, size and use along the entire west coast (Plomley 1966; 1991, Mitchell 1988:14). The frames of these huts were commonly made with pliable tree stems and less commonly with whale rib bones. The frame supported walls made of bark, grass or turf: their huts are in the form of a semi-circular dome and are very commodious and quite weather proof. They are called GAR.DOWN. Some of these huts are from ten to twelve feet in diameter and eight feet in 39 height. The door or entrance is a small hole fourteen inches wide and two feet high, and this aperture is made to answer the threefold purpose of door, window and chimne.Their huts or cottages are constructed by first placing a long stick in the ground and bending it over and forcing the other end into the ground at the distance required for the diameter of the hut. This is continued until they have a sufficient quantity to support the weight of thatch that is to be put on. After the frame or skeleton of a hut is completed they thatch [with] long grass which they call NEME.ME.NE. Some of these huts are lined with the bark of tea-tree and are remarkable warm (Plomley 1966:175).

There is also a detailed account by Robinson on 28 February 1834 where the Tarkiner attacked the Tommyginny: They told my natives that they had fought the TOMMYGINNY but a short time previous and that one of their people, LOETH.GIDDIC brother to HEE.DEEK, had been killed and that they the TARKINE had also killed one of the TOMMYGINNY, LIN.NER.MER.RY.ROON, a big man they and the TOMMYGINNY have been at amity and at war alternately for a long period; that on this occasion the TOMMYGINNY came to them on a visit and brought with them a quantity of red ochre. They asked the TOMMYGINNY for some red ochre which they refused, which was the ground for the quarrel. It was then resolved by the TARKINENER to attack the TOMMYGINNY, and which was done accordingly and took place at the place of my encampment at Sandy Cape (Plomley 1966:854).

Other Europeans also witnessed aspects of Aboriginal way of life, in particular hunting and gathering practices. In 1921, J. Kelly reported how Aboriginal women hunted and killed seals on King George Rocks: We gave the women each a club that we had used to kill seals with. They went to the water’s edge and wet themselves all over their head and body as they said to prevent the seals from smelling them. As they walked along the rocks they were very cautious not to (go) windward of them as they said a seal would sooner believe his nose than his eyes when a man or woman came near him. The six women walked into the water, two and two, and swam to three rocks about fifty yards from the shore. Each rock had about nine or ten seals on it. They were all laying apparently asleep. Two women went to each rock with their clubs in hand. After they had been lying on the rocks for nearly an hour the sea occasionally washing over them and they were quiet naked. We could not tell their meaning for remaining so long. All of a sudden the women arose up on their seats, their clubs at arm’s length. Each struck a seal on the nose which killed him. And in an instant they all jumped up as if by magic and killed one more. Each of them dragged a seal into the water and swam with it to the rock where we was standing and then swam back to the rock and brought one more each which made twelve seals (Kelly 1921:177 in Hiatt 1967:207-8).

Women also dived for huge quantities of abalone (Notohaliotis) and warreners (Subninella) which made a large contribution to their diet (Jones 1981:7/88). There are also ethnographic accounts of shellfish collection practices. Hitherto we had but a faint idea of the pains the women take to procure food requisite for the subsistence of their families. They each took a basket, and were followed by their daughters, who did the same. Getting on the rocks, that projected into the sea, they plunged from them to the bottom in search of shell fish. They did this repeatedly until their baskets were full. Most of the them were provided with a little bit of wood, cut into the form of a spatula and with these they separated from beneath the rocks at great depths, very large sea ears. They also caught large lobsters which they had killed as soon as they had been caught (Labillaridére 1800:309-310 in Hiatt 1967:127-8).

Even though Robinson successfully completed his mission in 1834, there was still a number of small family groups of Aboriginal people living in and around the Tarkine region (Plomley 2008:959-960). On 10 December 1842 Mr William Gibson, the newly appointed Superintendent of the VDLC, informed the 40 Court of Directors that: the natives who had hitherto been so troublesome were captured upon the 4th instant near the River Arthur and forwarded them yesterday to Launceston, their party consisted of a middle-aged man and female, two males about 18 and 20 years of age, and three male children between 3 and 7 years old (in Murray 1993:514). Records indicate that the man and woman were John Lanna (also spelt Lanne) and his wife Nabrunga and their five children Banna, Pieti, Albert, William and Frank (Murray 1993:514). Gibson wrote that the Aboriginal family was captured near the Arthur River by sealers and that they were the last Aboriginal people ‘at large in [the] colony’ to be removed (in Murray 1993:514). The family was removed to Flinders Island and by 1847 the removal of Aboriginal people from the Tasmanian mainland to Flinders Island ceased (Ryan 1996:199, 202).

William and Banna were the only family members to have survived internment at Flinders Island (Plomley 1987:882). William was moved to Oyster Cove south of Hobart with 46 other Aboriginal people (Ryan 1996:203). William lived until 1869, leaving behind his wife Truganini (Petrow 1997:93, 94). At the time, William was considered to have been the last full-blood Aboriginal man to die in Tasmania (Ryan 1996:214).

The dispossession of Aboriginal people opened up the Tarkine for European use. As early as the 1830s squatters were using parts of the Tarkine coastal region for cattle grazing. However, large-scale commercial grazing did not begin until 1875 when a contract was signed to deliver cattle to supply the Mount Bischoff mining community. The development of other mining communities in the Tarkine, such as Balfour, and at Zeehan provided impetus for stock rearing, especially in the use of the coastal region between the Pieman and Arthur Rivers as a stock route from the north. Although by 1840 Temma (Whales Head) had become established as the best landing place along the coast, the overland route between here and the Pieman River remained undeveloped. Moving cattle from this region to markets remained problematic until the late 1870s, by which time miners had cut coastal trails north and south of the Pieman River. In 1878 a punt was established at Arthur River. From this time cattle could be transported across the Arthur River, driven down the coastal route to the Pieman River, and then across the Pieman to Zeehan and elsewhere. This coastal trade peaked in the late 1880s when the Zeehan silver lead field began to become a substantial enterprise. More than a dozen huts and/or stockyards were built by drovers using the coastal route. Coastal droving began to be phased out in the 1890s in the face of cattle shipment by sea and increasingly by road and rail, and competition from graziers closer to markets. The decline of the Zeehan market in World War One assisted in this decrease. The last coastal drive probably took place in 1936.

Increasingly the plains along the coastal route began to assume an importance for agistment, allowing graziers to move stock to the coast to allow the home pastures to recuperate. A sharp increase in this activity occurred with the formal creation of the South Arthur and Marrawah Agistment Areas in 1934. By the 1950s the coastal region between the Arthur and Pieman Rivers under Crown ownership had been divided into the Sundown Run and the Southern Run. Agistment continues to the present time, although it is now firmly regulated to ensure sustainable grazing.

The explorers and prospectors S.B. Emmett and W.R. Bell and Leopold von Bibra used information gathered by Hellyer and Wedge in expeditions during the 1860s, with the latter following rivers and streams to enter previously unvisited territory. James ‘Philosopher’ Smith explored the upper reaches of the Arthur River in 1871 and discovered Mount Bischoff and its tin deposits. In 1876-77 Charles Sprent discovered tin and gold near Mount Heemskirk, iron ore at Savage River, and osmiridium and copper at Whyte River. The discoveries of Smith and Sprent inspired widespread prospecting of the west coast. Alluvial gold was discovered at the Brown Plains in 1879, attracting 250 miners to the lower reaches of the Pieman and Savage Rivers. Silver-lead discoveries in the Heazlewood-Whyte River districts in 1879- 41 90 spurred mining activity, but most of the mines in this area did not last beyond the 1890s. Only the Magnet mine managed continuous operation into the twentieth century. An unsuccessful attempt was made to employ a hydraulic boom to extract the gold deposits at Corinna in the mid-1890s, a unique adoption in the Tarkine of a technology developed in New Zealand. The final phase of mining prior to rapid decline in the northwest occurred in the period from the late 1890s to World War One. The early 1900s witnessed a decade of intensive copper mining in the Balfour area, but shallow mineral deposits caused the field’s eventual collapse.

The end of the nineteenth century was the era of the horse-drawn mining tramway. Tramways connected many mines to the Waratah Corinna Road and one, in use until 1911, was constructed to connect Balfour to the port of Temma. In 1902 a steam tramway replaced the horse-drawn tramway at the Magnet mine, connecting the mine to the Emu Bay Railway which was constructed in 1898 to link Zeehan and Burnie. Although osmiridium mining partially offset the mining decline after World War One, only the Magnet mine carried on substantial work in the Tarkine. This mine was decommissioned in the 1930s and the invention of the ballpoint pen in 1945 killed the demand for osmiridium (used in fountain pen nibs).

The Tarkine mining industry experienced rejuvenation in the 1960s. The Savage River iron ore mine was reopened in 1967 and an 83km long pipeline was constructed to carry iron ore slurry to Port Latta on the north west coast of Tasmania. This represented the first use of this technology in the world. Other mines have been developed near Corinna, on the Arthur River, and at Mount Cleveland, among other localities.

During the mining period forests were cleared to provide fuel and industrial timber, as well as to clear paths for tracks, roads and tram and railways. Piners offset some of their costs by ferrying stores to miners, before collecting timber for the return journey.

The Pieman River was a main focus of the early timber trade from the 1850s, directed principally to the extraction of Huon pine, King Billy pine and Stringybark. Owing to transport difficulties and a plentiful supply, the early industry was wasteful and inefficient, with perhaps not more than one quarter of the timber removed from some logs. The mining boom in the 1870s caused a rapid increase in timber extraction, with wood required for fuel, buildings, sleepers, and shaft and adit shoring. The introduction of steam sawmills resulted in greater forest destruction and the creation of bush tramways, which enabled large logs to be hauled by bullocks to transportable sawmills that could be moved after resources became depleted. By 1910 steam locomotives had largely replaced bullocks. Demand for timber increased after the Great Depression and better communications enabled the establishment of mills in previously inaccessible places.

From the 1960s millers began turning their attention to the formerly untapped resources of the Arthur River valley. The increasing use of heavy equipment in the decades after World War Two destroyed forest habitat, hindering regeneration. Improved roads and the consequent use of logging trucks saw the end of the bush mill and the centralisation of milling in Smithton on the north coast. Clear felling for the woodchip industry began in the 1970s and in the 1980s lesser quality Category 2 logs began to be used for timber. Concern over the loss of old-growth forest and decreasing biodiversity led to restrictions being placed on timber harvesting.

Throughout the period of European colonisation of Tasmania, the land and sea in and around the Tarkine have always held a special significance for Tasmanian Aboriginal people (Ryan 1996). Ever since their removal from traditional lands the Aboriginal community has maintained a strong interest in and connection to their country, actively petitioning the British and Tasmanian Governments in pursuit of the return of land and recognition of land rights. In the 1970s the Aboriginal community formed representative organisations to actively campaign for their recognition as the first Tasmanians and for their rights. In 1973 and 1976, the Tasmanian Government recognised the cultural significance of the petroglyphs at Sundown Point and the shell middens and hut depressions at West Point by declaring them State Reserves.

Aboriginal people continue to play a key role in the management of these places to ensure that they are preserved for future generations. In 1977 a petition for the recognition of prior Aboriginal ownership, return of all sacred sites, mutton bird 42 islands and Crown land in addition to compensation was presented to Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Tasmania (Ryan 1996:166). Another attempt for land rights was made with the Tasmanian Government in 1985 which included the request to return Mount Cameron West, just to the north of the Tarkine (Ryan 1996:275-6). It wasn’t until 1995, when the Tasmanian government passed the Aboriginal Lands Act that Perminghana (Mount Cameron West), was returned with another 11 places across Tasmania to the Aboriginal community because of their cultural importance.

The Aboriginal community continue to pursue the return of land at West Point and Sundown Point as these places have a particularly strong connection for them.

This entry was posted in Arthur River, Corinna, Pieman River, Savage River, Tarkine, Waratah, Whyte River and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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