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.