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The Representation Of Trucanini

(Unfortunately the images referred to in this essay are not shown due to copyright restrictions. Please refer to the listing at the bottom of this page for details)


This paper will examine the visual representation of Trucanini, the last full blood Tasmanian aborigine. There have been a number of paintings, sketches and photographs made of Trucanini and her companions - those who survived the initial colonization of the Island. These images now form an important record; not only of an extinct race, but also of the way in which the Tasmanians were viewed by the European invaders. I will attempt to outline the way in which these ‘settlers’ applied pictorial devices to help classify and comprehend the position of the Tasmanian Aborigine.

Trucanini (1812-1876) is undoubtedly the most well known Tasmanian Aborigine due to her long and colorful association with George Augustus Robinson (or Black Robinson), a Methodist bricklayer turned self proclaimed Protector of the natives. She has been the subject of many works spanning almost 40 years, and will be the focus of this investigation.

The Tasmanians were a unique group of people whose origins have not yet been defined. They were different from the mainland aborigines in stature, facial features and appearance. Indeed, the Tasmanian Aborigines lived in complete isolation on their island for almost eighteen thousand years, undisturbed by the rest of the world.

Trucanini was born on Bruny Island, just south of where Hobart now stands. This tiny island played a significant role in the early exploration of the Europeans, with the likes of Cook, Bligh, Ferneaux and D’Entrecasteaux all being familiar with it, having stopped there to cut firewood and refill water casks before continuing on their respective voyages. The Bruny Island natives in particular were known to be very friendly and accommodating, with only one small confrontation recorded a few miles up the coast in 1772. Counting this as an exception, no fighting between Europeans and Aborigines had ever been recorded anywhere in or around Tasmania. However, by 1802 things had changed. Sealers and whalers operating out of New South Wales had begun to infiltrate the Bass Straight Islands and the coastal areas of Tasmania, raping and abducting the aboriginal women.

Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land) was founded in 1803 as a place of exile for the worst of Sydney’s convicts. Ironically, Tasmania had no prisons at the time, and some of the Colonies worst criminals managed to evade their captors to roam unchecked, committing fresh crimes in the Colony and later turning to bushranging – terrorizing the small and remote farms of the free settlers (1). For the native inhabitants of the land, this invasion caused a rapid decline in the population due not only to the bloody and indiscriminate killings, but to the exotic diseases brought to the island by the Europeans. Thousands of years of harmony and cultural identity were swept aside in the name of the Crown.

In May, 1804, the first real confrontation occurred at Risdon, near Hobart. A large hunting party including women and children was seen approaching the settlement, when a suspected drunken Lieutenant Bowen panicked at the sight and ordered his men to open fire. To make sure of things, he ordered the deadly cannon to be aimed directly at the natives, causing carnage in its wake. It is now believed that the natives were on a peaceful hunting party, never intending to provoke violence. A few days later a working party from the settlement was attacked – the first aggressive act by the aborigines was an act of retaliation. It was at this point that the conflict between the races began, the war developing slowly as the white man took more of the natives land and women for their own purposes.

George Augustus Robinson began his ‘friendly mission’ to the aborigines in 1829, by means of an appointment by Lieut.–Governor George Arthur. Robinson had immense goodwill towards the Aborigines, seeing himself as protector of a doomed race (by the laws of nature and the survival of the fittest)(2). Arthur’s previous attempts to get rid of the natives by rewarding £5 for the capture of adult aborigines was a complete failure, with only one man and a boy being deported. Through Robinson, the settlers were attempting to remove the native inhabitants and secure the country for their own unhindered exploitation.

Robinson’s friendly mission began on Bruny Island, where no violent clashes incited by Aborigies had been recorded, even though the rest of the Tasmanians were effectively at war with the white man and the Island had fallen prey to the whims of the sealers. In fact, Trucanini had already witnessed her mothers murder at the hands of whalers, her sister being abducted, raped and shot by sealers, her husband-to-be murdered by timber fellers, and her own rape at the hands of the white men – all by the time she was aged seventeen. It was here that Robinson and Trucanini first met. Trucanini would play a fundamental role as one of Robinson’s ‘domesticated blacks’, going with him on long and arduous treks across the entire interior of Tasmania to make peaceful contact with the Aborigines and convince them to give up their land and accept the protection of the crown. The close ties with Robinson brought infamy for Trucanini and her companions, their names becoming well known and their appearance with Robinson readily expected throughout the colony.

However, the missions were largely a failure, with contact hard to maintain with the shy and elusive tribes. Indeed, by the time Robinson completed his mission, European diseases and slaughter had reduces the native population by 90%, to around 250 people. The Governments application of the ‘black line’ in which settlers progressively and systematically swept through the country in a line formation from coast to coast, killing any natives in their way, contributed to this end significantly.

It is important to note that all of the material that I will examine during this essay is in fact a fabrication, the result of a synthesis between European culture and its attempt to comprehend and classify a primitive people. For example: no remaining photograph depicts the Aborigines in their true environment or condition. Let me clarify this; no known photographic image shows the natives in a completely natural state, unaffected by the influence of European invasion.

The reason for this is twofold. Perhaps the most obvious is the lack of success the Europeans had in integrating with the aborigines, making it almost impossible for artists or photographers to witness first at hand the experiences of the subjects he was depicting. A compounding factor was that the Australian Aborigines (including the Tasmanian Aborigines) were a culture different from anything discovered previously. None of the primitive class systems, hierarchical structure or social systems Europeans would have come to expect were present, leaving the colonists with an inappropriate set of tools with which to view their subjects (3).

A popular notion during the 18th Century was one of the ‘Noble Savage’: Many educated people of the time firmly believed that all primitive people were naturally noble and heroic because their lives were close to nature and free from the complexities and temptations of civilization (4).

This view is evident in the earliest depictions of Australian Aborigines, represented now as engravings after the original sketches made by artists on earlier expedition parties. A common technique employed was to depict the subject in traditional poses taken from Greek mythology in order to portray the nobility and heroism assumed by the artist to be inherent with the ‘noble savage ’(5).

An example of this can be seen in an engraving by Thomas Chambers after the original by Sydney Parkinson: ‘Two of the Natives of New Holland advancing to combat’ 1784. (Fig 1.) This engraving was intended to depict the Australian Aborigine (a racial group rather than individuals), “but was accurate only in the rendering of the tattooing and the bone ornaments. Everything else… owes far more to the engravers knowledge of classical sculpture than to his knowledge of the Australian Aboriginal" (6). Indeed, the subject in the foreground appears to be holding a sword, something completely alien to the Aborigine. The result was that the first illustrations were of the ‘noble savage’ present in the mind of the artist, not in front of him.

Perhaps the first attempt to paint a detailed Aboriginal portrait in Tasmania was the watercolor Trucanini, produced by Thomas Bock in 1830 (Fig 2.). Bock was born in Hammerwich, near Lichfield in 1793 (7), and began his artistic life with a seven-year apprenticeship in engraving with Thomas Brandard. He was deported to Van Diemen’s Land in 1823 for fourteen years for assisting in an abortion, but in November 1832 he was granted a free pardon for exemplary conduct. Even before his pardon Bock was widely recognised as an accomplished portrait painter, historical writer and engraver (8).

Bock manages to provide us with an accurate (9) image of a young woman trying to come to terms with the irreversible changes to her world. There is a look of resignation in her eyes, but the vitality of her renowned youthful beauty is clearly apparent. She is seated facing the viewer wearing a traditional shell necklace and kangaroo a skin draped over right her shoulder. His painting was the catalyst for a series of fourteen portraits commissioned by Robinson of his missionary party during the years 1831-1835.

This sympathetic view was not shared by everyone at the time, and an alternative opinion is depicted in Western View of Mountains 1835 (Fig 3.) by John Glover (1767-1849). Glover emigrated from England at the age of 63, a recognized and successful landscape-painter and teacher of art history. In fact, his financial means were considerable, and Glover went about setting himself up as a farmer and grazier. This also gave him the opportunity to explore a new landscape with his brush. Western View of Mountains is a fine example of Glover’s considerable powers of observation. His Tasmanian landscapes were the first to grasp the texture and feeling of the bush with honesty (10). However, his open dislike toward the natives and their primitive culture is clearly demonstrated:

… they are represented as small, dark, naked, and unattractive little people who dance and leap with quick and angular movements and grotesque gesticulations; he represents them, we might say, as the little black devils to be removed from his southern paradise (11).

Despite this animosity toward the aborigines, Glover realized that they were too much a part of the colony to be overlooked in an accurate rendition of the Tasmanian experience (12).

In the same year that Bock finished painting the Aborigines under Robinson’s care, another artist was embarking on a project never before attempted in the Colonies. Benjamin Law arrived in Hobart in February 1835 as a sculptor of considerable accomplishment, and within five weeks of arriving was working on his first portrait bust. The subject was Woureddy, Trucanini’s husband. Only two months later Robinson was inviting interested parties to “compare its very close and beautiful resemblance to the original" at his home (13). Woureddy, an Aboriginal chief of Van Diemens Land 1835 (Fig. 4.) was immediately recognized as a work of art by his contemporaries and considered a perfectly executed example (14).

Law’s careful observation is rewarded with a lifelike rendition of the sitter. The hairstyle unique to the Tasmanian aborigines (a mixture of ochre and ash worked into the hair) has been faithfully recorded, and the facial features are treated with compassion. The result is a detailed character study of Woureddy, a fine example of an Aboriginal man in his prime.

By October 1936 Law had completed his second bust (Fig 5.). The bust of Trucanini is cast with a foresight and understanding perhaps lacking in the first work. During the time spent with Robinson Law had discovered something of Trucanini’s past, and had become aware of her current predicament. This gentle rendition shows Trucanini “sorrowing, mourning the slain members of her family and race" (15). It is a sensitive and emotional portrayal of one of the last members of a dying race. Despite the accuracy of both of these works, and their claim to be of close resemblance to the original, we must take into consideration the fact that:

In accordance with the current European vogue for the neo-classical, Law converted the Aborigines’ kangaroo skins, which they wore only as mantles, into toga-like garments strongly suggestive of the antique (16).

The manner Law chooses to represent his subject (the use a classical portrait bust), and the subtle manipulation of the sitters clothing is evidence of an association with the ideals of the noble savage, although diluted sufficiently to mirror contemporary feelings (17).

The same year saw Benjamin Duterrau (1767-1851) paint The Conciliation (Fig. 6), the first ‘History Painting’ in Australia (18). Once again we find Trucanini represented, this time placed in the background alongside Wourredy. History painting traditionally represented heroes or events of great significance from the past; such as important battles or events from the Bible as this etching illustrates (Fig. 7). At the age of sixty five, Duterrau emigrated to Tasmania and was the first man in the colony to give an art history lecture at the Mechanics Hall in Hobart, 1833 (19). He had a strong moral sense, and immediately formed a rapport with Robinson and his mission’s ideal.

In this example, Duterrau is showing the conciliation of the Tasmanian aborigines. Robinson is seen to represent the virtues of civilization, a heroic white man stands unarmed amidst a band of savages, pacifying them with the promise of a better life under the protection of the crown. Natural enemies are symbolically brought together as a result of Robinson’s influence, with the inclusion of the wallaby and dog in the bottom right-hand corner. Although Duterrau’s goodwill towards the natives is clear, the figures are stiff and unconvincing, the composition awkward and the technique as basic as the moral principal he was celebrating.

Photographic records of the natives are limited. By the time photography arrived in Tasmania in 1858, the majority of the native population was dead; making photographic records difficult to obtain. I should also point out that there were few artists in the Colony during this time – after all, it was a penal settlement far from the comforts and culture of the civilized world of the day (20).

Only two portfolios of the Tasmanian Aborigines are known. The first was produced by the First Bishop of Tasmania, Francis Russell Nixon. Nixon was born in Kent in 1803, second son of Rev. Robert Nixon. He was consecrated First Bishop of Tasmania in 1842 and the following year he sailed via Cape Town for Van Diemens Land, arriving on the 18th July, 1843.

An amateur painter and prolific sketcher, Nixon photographed the remaining fourteen or fifteen Aborigines in the squalid conditions at Oyster Cove Aboriginal Station south of Hobart in 1858. Nixon, a respected and gentle man by nature, was very comfortable with his subjects and they show little hesitation to relax in his presence. In the photograph Tasmanians at Oyster Cove Settlement 1858 (Fig 8), the natives appear at ease in the familiar settings, surrounded by their dogs and personal possessions. From the left is Emma, Trucanini (aged forty-six), Flora (standing), and Wapperty. The educated amateur reveals individuals personalities, and his photographs convey the former nomads’ air of “resigned submission to imprisonment" (21). Little effort has been made to arrange the sitters in formal poses, as Nixon discards the tradition of the noble savage in favor of a depiction based on the situation before him, adopting instead a social documentary viewpoint.

Flora, an Aborigine of Tasmania 1858 (Fig 9), is a good example of Nixon’s approach. Although the portrait is simple, it is an honest and clear account of the situation. The corner of a window protrudes the top of the frame, and the subject wears the clothing she wore every day, including a crude beanie on her head. Without formal training and free from official bias or constriction, Nixon chose to make a frank and honest record of the Aborigines, confined as they were as prisoners in their own land. His images were included in the International Exhibition on his return to London in 1862, before he retired to Vignolo, Italy in 1866. He lived there until his death on 7th April 1879.

Robert Dowling (1827-86) came to Australia with his father in 1831, and became a pupil of Thomas Bock before returning to study at the Royal Academy in London in 1856. The painting Group of Aboriginals 1859 (Fig 10) is influenced by a number of sources, including memories of his childhood in Tasmania, time he spent with Bock, and the teachings of the Academy and its penchant for ‘History Painting’. The plight of the Tasmanians deeply touched him (22), and can be seen in the treatment of his subject matter. He portrays the aborigines sympathetically, providing rich detail about their dress and personal appearance.

There were very few full-blood Aborigines alive at the time (23) and Dowling drew much of his inspiration from Bock’s sketches rather than from first hand experience. It is an extremely sensitive portrait none the less. He has succeeded in evoking an atmosphere of melancholy over an already condemned people. Some of the natives sit around the dying embers of a fire amongst the blackened stump and log – a symbol of their predicament. In the left corner stands a dead tree, its branches shattered and deformed.

The composition, a history painting in the full sense of the word, not only provides a valuable record of the last members of ‘the most primitive people in the world’ but also serves to celebrate another death of the noble savage – that enduring symbol of civilized man’s guilty conviction that he is at heart far more savage than the savages (24).

The second portfolio of photographic work to be produced in Tasmania was compiled by Charles A Woolley. One of the first in a generation of ‘home grown’ artists, Woolley was born in Hobart Town on 17th December 1834, the son of a cabinetmaker. He opened a photographic studio in Macquarie St, opposite his fathers upholstery and carpet warehouse, which he operated during the period from about 1859-1870 (25). Although Woolley produced many photographs of the Colonists and their families, his best known photographs are the portraits taken of the few surviving Aborigines at Oyster Cove in August 1866, of which William Lanne is an example (Fig 11). It was suggested to Woolley that he photograph the few remaining Tasmanian Aborigines for the Islands entry to the International Exhibition to be held in Melbourne in 1866 (26). Unlike Nixon, he decided to reject Oyster Cove as an appropriate setting to produce the images. He may have been discouraged by the authorities from using Oyster Cove to avoid negative public reaction to the squalid conditions in which the Aborigines were forced to live.

Woolley transporting his subjects over forty kilometres to the unfamiliar environment of his studio in Hobart Town, where he produced a series of portraits seen later as alarming parodies of those taken of his white clients (27). He used the same studio, background and an identical pose to photograph Louisa Anne Meredith (28) earlier in the same year. It was here that arguably the most infamous portrait of a Tasmanian Aborigine was taken. Trucanini 1866 (Fig. 12), is a sombre portrait which remains as one of the most widely known representations of her people, despite the fact that it isolates her completely from her traditional roots or current situation. By his choice of location, clothing and technique, Woolley successfully turns Trucanini into a lasting example of the misunderstanding and false representation of an entire race.

The only reference to Trucanini’s indigenous culture is the shell necklace, here seen worn about her neck. In their natural state the Tasmanian Aborigines lived almost entirely naked, wearing nothing more than a single kangaroo pelt and a covering on their skin of a combination of animal fat and ash to ward off the cold (29). However, Trucanini and her companions were dressed in European clothes from early in their association with the Europeans. Even though the Oyster Cove inhabitants were fully clothed when Nixon photographed them some six years earlier, Woolley seems to convey that the Aborigines had been successfully Christianized and civilized – however there is no evidence to support this fact. Nixon’s photographs, however, do not attempt to suggest this. His are images concerned only with depicting the Aborigines as he found them, not as he wishes to see them.

An important element of Woolley’s photographs is the vignette around his subjects. Although commonly used at the time as a presentation technique, its application to these particular photographs could be seen as evidence of the difficulty faced by both artists and the public to represent Aborigines within contemporary society. “The vignette device, although occasionally seen in other kinds of portrait, can be particularly closely associated with Aboriginal portraiture; as a decontextualisation device"(30). It removes the defined edge of the frame; suggesting that the subjects past, and indeed future, are insignificant – but nothing could be further from the truth. It is important to note that the Aborigines had no recorded history, and no apparent future, so by implication;

The vignette device seems to have been the most appropriate form in which an artist could record his doomed subject. The Aboriginal portrait thus becomes in more ways than one a melancholy focal point for contemporary ideas relating to the race (31).

Woolley was obviously delighted by his creation of ‘Black Europeans’; choosing one of them to be printed on his business cards. Public opinion at the time was encouraging, and widespread attention culminated in the images being reproduced as engravings in a number of books internationally, including E. H. Giglioli’s I Tasmaniai (1871) and James Bonwick’s Last of the Tasmanians (1870), Daily Life and Origin of the Tasmanians (1870), and The Lost Tasmanian Race (1884)15. The publications, which appeared before the death of Trucanini in 1876, established Woolley’s head and shoulder portraits as the accepted images of the Tasmanian Aborigine. Woolley’s photograph was used to convey the official image of ‘The Last Tasmanian’, and as a direct consequence the official image of an extinct race. The benefit of hindsight should redress this, but the extent to which the media adopted this image can be seen as late as 1973 when Woolley’s image was used on the cover of David Davies’s book The Last of the Tasmanian’s.

Even contemporary thinking of the day challenged the sincerity of these portraits. After viewing Woolley's photographs, whaling master Captain James Kelly, who had been closely associated with the Aborigines for many years, claimed that no true assessment could be made from “the few weird-looking old creatures that photography has preserved (32)".

As demonstrated, a contemporary study of the representation of Trucanini must refer to a number of sources, including painting, sculpture and photography. As we have seen, the portraits of Bock were executed when Trucanini and her associates were relatively young, full of vitality and the youthful beauty for which Trucanini was legendary (33). In contrast, Woolley’s photograph of Trucanini is memorable not as a valid document of truth, but because of the tragic and haunted look in the eyes of an old woman, completely alienated, watching the last of her people die. It is clear that no archival photograph of the Tasmanian Aborigine can be viewed as a document of truth, as the decisions of the photographer inadvertently affects the way in which the subjects were represented. The remaining photographs are only valid in expressing the attitudes and bias of the colonial artists, and do little to further our understanding of the misrepresented and now vanished Tasmanian Aborigine.

© John Russell 1999



1. Cato, Jack. The Story of the Camera in Australia. P164.
2. The Australian Eye (Video). Lindfield. NSW., 1985.
3. R. Ward, Australia since the Coming of Man, 1987. Pp16-19.
4. Barwick. Beckett. Reay. 1985
5. B. Smith, Australian Painting, 1991. p2
6. Ibid.
7. This date is somewhat disputed – J. Kerr, The Dictionary of Australian Artists: Painters, Sketchers, Photographers and Engravers to 1870, 1992. p79.
8. ‘Andrew Bent’s Tasmanian Almanac for the years 1825-1829’. J. Kerr, 1992. p79
9. The portraits of Thomas Bock in particular were widely regarded by contemporaries as being highly accurate likenesses. V. Rae-Ellis, (The representation of Trucanini) Anthropology and Photography, 1992. p232
10. The Australian Eye (Video). Op. Cit
11. B. Smith, European Vision and the South Pacific, 1916. p268.
12. Ibid.
13. D. Thomas, Creating Australia: 200 Years of Art 1788-1988, 1988. P92
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid.
16. B. Smith, op. cit., p268
17. The idea of the ‘Noble Savage’ was most popular during the 18th Century.
18. The Australian Eye (Video). op. cit.
19. J. Gleeson, Colonial Painters 1788-1880, 1971. p101.
20. Culture is a requirement of artists.. G. Serle, From the Deserts the Prophets come – The Creative Spirit in Australia 1788-1972, 1973. PpP52-59.
21. V. Rae-Ellis, (The representation of Trucanini) Anthropology in Australia, p232.
22. B. Smith, Australian Painting, p51.
23. D. Hansen, The Face of Australia – The People – The Past, 1988. p37.
24. B. Smith, op, cit., p58.
25. Exact dates are not known; J. Kerr, 1992. p881
26. V. Rae-Ellis, op. cit., p231.
27. Ibid.
28. A mutual friend of Nixon and Woolley. Ibid.
29. V. Rea-Ellis, Trucanini – Queen or Traitor, 1976.
30. I. Donaldson, Seeing the First Australians, 1985. p100.
31. Ibid., p102.
15. State Library of Victoria records.
32. The Mercury, Hobart, July 6, 1874
33. She had many admirers, both Aboriginal and European, including George Robinson, the Conciliator.




• Fig 1. Two of the Natives of New Holland advancing to Combat, engraving by T. Chambers after Sydney Parkinson, 8 7/8 x 7 ½, from Voyage to the South Seas.

• Fig 2. Thomas Bock. Trucanini, c.1830. Watercolour. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

• Fig 3. John Glover. Western View of Mountains, 1833. canvas, 30 x 45 in. Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

• Fig 4 & 5. Benjamin Law. Woureddy, an Aboriginal chief of Van Diemen’s Land. 1835, Hobart. Trucaninny, wife of Woureddy. 1836, Hobart. Bronze-painted plaster, pair, 75 x 48.3 x 27cm, 66 x 42.5 x 25.7cm. Australian National Gallery, Canberra. Federal Government Funds 1981.

• Fig 6. Benjamin Duterraue. The Concilliation. 1836. oil, 47 x 66 in. Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

• Fig 7. (Illustration from: Charles Foster. The Story of the Bible, 1887. p599.)

• Fig 8. Bishop Francis Nixon. Tasmanians at Oyster Cove Settlement. 1858. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, PRM. B44. 24a.

• Fig 9. Bishop Francis Nixon. Flora, An Aborigine of Tasmania. Oyster Cove. 1858. From the album assembled by Alfred Abbott 1858-1870. Albumen Silver Photograph, 10.9 x 8.7cm. Crowther Library, State Library of Tasmania, Hobart.

• Fig 10. Robert Dowling. Group of Natives of Tasmania.1859. Canvas, 60 x 120. Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston.

• Fig 11. Charles A Woolley. Willian Lanne. 1866. Photograph. Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

• Fig 12. Charles A Woolley. Trucanini. 1866. Photograph. Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.




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