Aboriginal Convicts

Aboriginal Convicts - Australian, Khoisan and Maori Exiles by Kristyn Harman
Aboriginal Convicts – Australian, Khoisan and Maori Exiles by Kristyn Harman

by Kristyn Harman

Standing before a tall, lop-sided headstone in the colonial cemetery at Maria Island just off the east coast of Tasmania, I could just make out the inscription. It commemorated Hohepa Te Umuroa, a New Zealand Māori warrior, who had died there in 1848. It was one of those moments of profound separation that occasionally jolts those who have left behind the familiarity of home to experience life elsewhere. At the time, I could not fathom what particular circumstances might have brought Hohepa so far from home at the hour of his death. It was only some years later that I grew to understand that indigenous people such as Hohepa were transported into captivity at a time when Tasmania had been Van Diemen’s Land, and Maria Island a convict probation station. In his case, he and four of his companions had been found guilty of ‘being in open rebellion against Queen and country’.

Having learnt that a few Māori warriors had been transported from New Zealand to Van Diemen’s Land, I became intrigued by the notion that perhaps some Australian Aboriginal people had also been transported within the penal colonies. While some historians considered this unlikely, a foray into the colonial newspapers and archived convict records soon revealed that that indeed had been the case. At least ninety Australian Aboriginal people were transported as convicts. And, like the Māori, they were all men. Shocking stories began to emerge, all set against a backdrop of frontier conflict with the violence and intrigue that it had entailed.

There was Jackey who, in 1834, was shipped from Newcastle to Sydney to face trial, chained naked on the deck of the steamer William IV, with the leg iron cutting through his flesh to expose his ankle bone. He died just weeks after arriving in Hobart to begin his sentence. Then there was Yanem Goona, an elder from the Grampians, who was shipped to Norfolk Island for being part of a community involved in sheep stealing (read economic sabotage – they drove of hundreds of the woolly beasties) regardless of whether he was personally involved. He was said to have cried whenever he thought of home. He died at the convict hospital in Impression Bay in Van Diemen’s Land before his sentence had expired. And there was also Tommy Boker. Charged with cattle stealing, all he could tell the criminal court was that ‘the beef was good’. They had to let him go after that. He got discharged to the Benevolent Asylum. Of the Australian Aboriginal men who were transported to Norfolk Island, Van Diemen’s Land, and the penal islands at Port Jackson, very, very few survived to return home. Many died within their first year in captivity, some of wounds suffered when they were captured, others from illness, and heartbreak at separation from kin and country.

It didn’t end there. From the late 1820s until the 1850s, at least thirty-four Khoisan people were transported from the Cape Colony (now part of South Africa) to the Australian penal colonies. Some had been soldiers who were court martialled for mutiny and desertion. Others were farm labourers indicted for theft and other crimes against their colonial masters in outlying districts. Many served months or even years at Robben Island, waiting for a convict transport (ship) to call in from England or Ireland that had room to take a few more prisoners of the Crown to the Australian penal colonies. Perhaps one of the most poignant cases was Wildschut’s. According to the Vandemonian authorities, he was ‘an old Bushman whose language cannot be understood’. Shipped half way around the world, the Khoisan convicts had no means of returning home even if they survived their sentences. And, unlike Australian Aboriginal convicts, many did survive. Their convict records are peppered with numerous offences, many of which relate to escapism. Some escaped mentally through imbibing copious quantities of alcohol. Others physically escaped through absconding. Further punishments were meted out, extending their time in captivity. Once released, these men had nowhere to go. Willem Pokbaas, a ‘cripple’ who survived Port Arthur, later lived rough sleeping behind the lime kilns on the outskirts of Launceston in the north of Van Diemen’s Land where he eventually died of an aneurism. Willem Hartzenberg ended up in the pauper depot at Port Arthur after his sentence expired, and was perhaps buried on Dead Island, now known more romantically, if still somewhat darkly, as ‘Isle of the Dead’.

Remarkably for a population that had so recently sent the last known indigenous inhabitants of its acquired land off into exile on a much smaller offshore island, the colonists of Van Diemen’s Land expressed their collective indignation when the traditionally-clothed Māori warriors arrived on their shores in 1846. How dare their colonial cousins across the Tasman Sea treat their indigenous population so badly?! As astonishing as this outpouring of outrage may appear from a present day perspective, it worked in the favour of the New Zealand captives. While Governor George Grey desired for them to be sent to Norfolk Island or Port Arthur from where they could be encouraged write cautionary tales for the consumption of other Māori, public pressure locally saw the men shipped instead to Maria Island. Given an overseer conversant with their language, the five warriors were (unlike other indigenous convicts from across the Empire) housed separately from the general convict population. They were allocated gentle tasks such as vegie gardening, and were allowed to hunt and fish. Nevertheless, their health suffered.

All were grief stricken when Hohepa Te Umuroa eventually succumbed to tuberculosis. Most unusually for a convict (but in keeping with the esteem within which the Vandemonian public held the Māori prisoners), his burial site was marked with a headstone. It was the existence of that remarkable stone that enabled Hohepa’s whanau (family) to reclaim him, and to accompany his remains home to his beloved Whanganui River in 1988, where he was laid to rest more than 140 years following his death. The last of the exiled Māori had finally returned home.

Kristyn Harman is a New Zealander currently living in voluntary exile in Tasmania. She is a historian, university lecturer, and author whose monograph Aboriginal Convicts: Australian, Khoisan, and Māori Exiles (UNSW Press) recently won the AHA Kay Daniels Award.

 

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