The Last Aboriginal: Tasmania’s Fanny Cochrane Smith

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.

Emma Miller: The Mother of a Revolution

Australia is in the habit of forgetting many of its brightest figures. A seamstress who led a political movement with both wit and grit is one of them. Emma Miller, otherwise known as “Mother Miller” was an Australian revolutionary. Seamstress, suffragette, leader and avid supporter of trade unions, Miller was working class hero.

Emma Miller

Born in England, Emma migrated to Queensland in 1879, bringing along populist ideals that would change Australia forever. Throughout Emma’s life, she was an active promoter of women, workers’ rights, and the idea one vote for every person. Emma was a small woman, yet her spirit and determination were larger than life.

As a prominent member of Brisbane’s Free-thought Association, she was an unyielding campaigner for equal pay and the rights of the working class. In that time, she built her reputation as a bold radical thinker.

She also developed a name as a strong and charismatic public speaker. Emma was invited to speak at numerous public meetings on women’s suffrage. In 1890, she took she created the first women’s union in Brisbane.

Being a tradesperson herself, Emma gave evidence at the Royal Commission into Shops, Workshops, and Factories in 1891. “Back in the day,” women workers commonly received less pay and were subject to harassment.

Emma was elected president of the Women’s Equal Franchise Association (WEFA) in 1884. Emma was a woman before her time, believing that gender inequality and class were overlapping issues. However, many disagreed with her, believing that the exploitation of the working class was a separate issue to the poor treatment of women.

Meanwhile, the upper class continued to rule over the country. Farmers were entitled to a vote for each of their properties. And the rich farmers would buy, or inherit multiple properties.

Emma continued to campaign for one vote for one person, and that included women. Something that was predictably unpopular with the elites. The Telegraph newspaper called Emma and the other members of WEFA “autocratic,” and accused them of “hijacking the Labor Party.”

Emma would accept nothing less than complete fairness in Australia’s voting system. And in 1904, women in Queensland were the right to vote in federal elections. Emma took another step in advancing equality one year later. She became a member of the Brisbane Political Labor Council.

But the battle for equality continued. After members of the Australian Tramways Association were sacked for being members of a union, the historical General Strike of 1912 began.

At 72-years-old, Emma played a pivotal and notorious, role in the protests. On 2 February, which would go down in history as Black Friday, protesters were denied permission to march that day. Still, Emma organised the 300 women who had come to protest, and they moved forward. When the police couldn’t stop the strike, they resorted to violence, lashing out at the women with their batons.

Emma fought back with only a hatpin. She stuck it into the rear end of the Police Commissioner’s horse. The Commissioner soon found himself on the ground, thrown from his stead in a very undignified manner! Emma’s actions that day were celebrated by her friends and fellow unionists as a victory against the oppressive authorities.

Even after being diagnosed with cancer, Emma remained active. During WW1, Emma joined the committee for the Anti-Conscription Campaign and often gave speeches on the need for peace.

In 1917, Emma passed away after a long struggle with cancer. On the day of her death, Trades Hall flew the Australian flag at half-mast in honour of Emma activism. Fiercely protective and brave, Emma Miller was called the “Mother of the Labor Party.” She was a tireless campaigner for the downtrodden and working class, making her story one that needs to be told.

Where are the Women? Lessons From Louisa Lawson

If you ask most people if they know the name Louisa Lawson, they’ll say no. Mother of bush poet, Henry Lawson, Louisa (1848–1920) played a vital part in women gaining the right to in NSW. Louisa Lawson’s struggle to find a voice can give us insight into our own times.

From the Museum of Australian Democracy website

Louisa possessed sharp wits and a gift with words, but poverty and family expectations held her back. She eventually rose to become an influential figure in Australian literature and politics. With ingenuity and business savvy, she created a platform for herself and other, traditionally unheard, voices.

As a teenager, Louisa’s mother denied her the chance to become a student-teach at Mudgee National School. The farm and her eleven siblings took priority in a family struggling with poverty. Louisa never forgot this missed opportunity, and it spurred her on to create success in adulthood.

In 1866, Louisa married Norwegian sailor Niels Hertzberg Larsen at 18-years-old. Niels spent much of his time away from home mining during the Gold Rush and working for his father-in-law. In, 1883, Louisa moved to Sydney with her and Niels’ four children, Henry, Charles, Peter, and Gertrude. She worked as a seamstress and boarding house manager to support her family. In 1887, Louisa used the money she’d saved to buy a journal called The Republican.

The Republican was Louisa’s gateway to realising her ambitions. While the publication only ran for a year, The Republican let Louisa share her poetry for the first. The Reformers created a public storm with its daring challenge to corrupt authority.

“We lead the way, we lead the way …

We turn the sod, we stir the pool,

We point the way to those who rule.

We cheek the rogue, we chide the fool,

We point the way to those who rule.

Louisa started a new journal called The Dawn in 1888. This journal, “led the way” for women to have one of few public voices at a time when they couldn’t vote. In its 17-year run, The Dawn became a popular monthly journal both in Australia and overseas.

The State Library of New South Wales

In The Dawn’s first article, Louisa Lawson spoke about the need for women to have representation in the political sphere:

“Men legislate on divorce, on hours of labor, and many another question intimately affecting women, but neither ask nor know the wishes of those whose lives and happiness are most concerned.”

Louisa’s words reflect someone who’d known hopelessness because of circumstances beyond their control. So, she created the first journal ran and produced entirely by women. The Dawn covered subjects considered taboo at the time, like divorce, domestic abuse, and legal rights.

Shortly after the launch of The Dawn, Louisa founded The Dawn Club. Louisa created it as a space for women to gather and discuss issues of the time. Louisa’s group soon became the centre for the New South Wales Women’s Suffrage League.

Thankfully, we no longer live in such restrictive times. Women can vote. Women can be politicians. Although, a lack of representation in parliament probably still sounds familiar to most modern-day Australians.

You can hear echoes of Louisa ’s concerns in recent controversies over a lack of women in parliament. The resulting debate prompted the idea of quotas to be put forward. This was met with protests that women should be hired based on “merit.

Former Chief of Staff for John Howard, Grahame Morris scoffed at the idea of quotas. He referred to the women in the opposition party, who do have quotas, as “dregs.”

Although, he did apologise for his comments, admitting that they might discourage women from entering politics. However, Grahame Morris’ comments still sting when you consider the International Parliamentary Union’s findings. Australia is ranked 54th in the world for representation of women in parliament.

If Australia is only 54th in the world when representing women, and appointments are based on merit, then that implies Australian women just aren’t suited to politics.

By Ron Tandberg

People talk about merit like it’s a hard-and-fast metric system for measuring someone’s worth. This attitude seems odd when you consider there’s a proven connection between height and leadership positions.

Tall men are more likely to gain managerial positions than shorter ones, because of an association with height to dominance and power. Science Direct says, “the current study found a positive relationship between male leaders’ height and their followers’ perceptions of charisma, while no such relationship was found for female leaders.”

In the famous Harvard study, “Heidi vs. Howard,” students were handed the same CV, but with different names. The students had a much harsher opinion of “Heidi” Roizen’s CV than “Howard” Roizen’s. According to students, Heidi was too aggressive to hire.

One thing we can take from Louisa’s story is that change takes time and work. In 1888, Louisa launched the first journal for and by women, speaking out about issues of the time. In 1902, 14 years after the launch of The Dawn, the bill allowing women to vote passed in NSW.

At the “dawn” of the twentieth century, Louisa achieved her goal of giving herself and other women a voice in politics. The Women’s Suffrage League introduced Louisa to members of parliament as, “The Mother of Suffrage in New South Wales.”

Her journey from a poverty-stricken young woman, to an icon of a movement, was long and hard. And overcoming old ideas about who does and doesn’t belong in power will take many generations of work.

Louisa Lawson’s son, Henry, carried on his mother’s legacy of expressing truths through the written word. Henry’s poems and short stories were known for their boldly realistic insights into the everyday struggles of Australians. The Drovers Wife was a short story about a woman’s struggles to care for her four children while isolated in the outback.

Henry Lawson has earned a place in history for his unique take on Australian life in his writing. Louisa’s name isn’t as well recognised. But, from her writing and activism, it seems fair to say that Louisa has earned enough “merit” to be remembered as well as her son.