If you ask about the Aboriginal population, or lack thereof, in Tasmania today, it raises a huge question mark. The answer is tragic and seldom addressed. Colonialism either killed or drove away the Palawa, which translates to Tasmanian Aboriginals. Fanny Cochrane Smith was officially the last Indigenous Australian in Tasmania. Her voice carries the only records of the Palawa people.
Abducted in early childhood, Fanny endured abuse and attempts to indoctrinate her and her family into Western beliefs. Fanny’s mother and father, Tanganutura and Nicermenic were sent to Flinders Island, where their lives were ruled over by Rev. George Augustus Robinson and the other religious authorities.
Fanny was born at the Wybalenna establishment on Flinders Island. There are no records of Fanny’s original name. Reverend Robinson chose Anglo names for all the children on the Island.
However, she still had a connection to her culture, that lasted throughout her life. Fanny’s parents and the other Aboriginals on the island often escaped into the bushlands. Away from the Colonial authorities, they would perform the dances of their people, told stories of the Dreamtime (creation tales) and sing their traditional songs.
Likely fearing this connection, the religious authorities removed Fanny from her parents care at only five-years-old. She was forced to live with Robert Clark, the preacher at Wybalenna.
Judging the spirited Fanny as too unruly and independent, Clark sent Fanny to an orphan school in Hobart when she was eight. There, she was taught domestic skills and subjected to harsh punishments for refusing to throw away her culture. She was returned to Wybalenna at thirteen and continued to work for Clark and his family. He kept Fanny in squalor and beat her whenever she rebelled.
Thankfully, Fanny would eventually escape from her life as a domestic servant. In 1847, the Wybalenna settlement was closed down. The 46 survivors, including Fanny and her family, were relocated to Oyster Cove in the south of Hobart. After many years of forced separation, she was finally able to live freely with her family and community.
Fanny married an English sawyer and ex-convict in 1854. William Smith was a dependable hardworking man, who was sent to Australia after committing the of stealing a donkey.
The two developed had a deep respect for another and developed a strong partnership. Wanting to provide a safe haven for the downtrodden, Fanny and William started a boarding-house in the centre of Hobart.
Fanny’s brother, Adam frequently stayed with them, along with the rest of her people from Oyster Cove. Fanny worked to ensure her boarding house was one of the few places her people could find refuge.
When Adam passed away in 1857, Fanny and William moved to Oyster Cove, so Fanny could be close to her mother. She also opened the doors of her home in Oyster Cove to her people whenever they needed somewhere to stay.
Fanny welcomed her friend Triganini into her home, who is often, mistakenly, recorded in history as the last of the Tasmanian Aboriginals. However, that title fell on Fanny’s shoulders when Triganini died in 1876.
After the loss of Triganini, Fanny felt the weight of an entire culture’s legacy rested on her shoulders. With an ever-pressing need carry on her people’s culture and beliefs, Fanny performed the songs and dances of her people for the public.
In recognition of her status as last Aboriginal, the Tasmanian government granted her 300 acres (121 ha) of land. Fanny spent the rest of her life there.
Fanny spent her life navigating between the European world, and the world of her people. As a devout Methodist, Fanny hosted an annual Methodist picnic. People would come from all over the country to see her perform the Palawa songs and dances.
In 1899, she shared the songs of her people at a concert held in her honour. Out of fear they’d be lost forever, Fanny recorded the Palawan songs on wax cylinders. When not performing, Fanny spent her time on the land diving for shellfish, hunting, and basket weaving.
Throughout her life, Fanny experienced great brutality and witnessed the subjugation of her people. Her passionate voice that proudly carried the language of her people, remains in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Today, it is the only known recording of the Palawan language. It is at least one successful attempt to keep something of Aboriginal culture in Tasmania alive.