I’m greeted warmly at the museum by two volunteers I’d met at the wall launch and they ask what I’m working on. When I tell them about my essay and interest in Wybalenna, they write out a whole reading list of books on the subject of Aboriginal history on Flinders Island. They know exactly what I need. The generosity of these people no longer surprises me but I will always be deeply impressed by it.
The afternoon flies as I tear through everything I can find with one eye on the clock. There’s some useful stuff but mostly it’s formal records, not really what I’m after. There are numerous reports about how uncooperative the aboriginal captives were, implying growing frustration with the plan that sending them all here and christianising them would somehow fix them. There’s tension in the correspondence between officials late in the period after so many people had died and a slight sense of urgent ‘buck passing’. But it’s the voice of the first Australians that I’m looking for, any snippets of quotes or oral history. History is written by the winners as they say and that is evident in the detailed government records stacked on the shelves in the museum, and the total absence of a single word from the people they were seeking to protect.
Wybalenna is just 10 minutes drive away from the museum. After reading about the place all afternoon, I finally decide to go see it for myself. It seems silly not to now.
It’s late afternoon and there’s some dying sunlight thrown against the old chapel. It sits abandoned in a stark landscape carpeted with colourless grass , under which lies the bodies of Tasmania’s last first people in unmarked graves.
A powerful sense of grief surrounds the chapel. Inside the semi restored building I recall a story I’d read earlier of the First People who were forced to attend church services and sing hymns in a language that was not their own, in worship of a religion that must have been incomprehensible to them. They would habitually throw in a ‘hey’ at the end of every verse and giggle. How that must have upset George Robinson. Sitting on the single bench where the pulpit would have been, I picture the scene and wonder at the absurdity of it. We’ll never know how much we lost with the passing of those last few tragic souls but I know that their spirits are far away from this place. There is nothing here to see but an empty building. I hope it stands forever as a monument to the futility and shame of genocide.
The long twilight is still lingering when I return so I grab my coat and gloves and head straight back out to hunt wombats. You only have to walk outside really but I’m told that the flats around Fotheringate beach are a major arterial road for them at dusk so I head down there with my camera. As soon as I arrive I spot a couple and spend some time quietly maneuvering over to them. One in particular is interested in me. He nibbles on the grass and then remembers I’m there and looks up at me, then gets distracted by his stomach and so it goes for about ten minutes. The wind is biting and my legs are cramping but I creep in, bit by bit. Both of us are equally curious about the other. He’s inching into the space between us too, one tiny wombat step at a time but growing wary until we are almost close enough to touch. But my crossed legs are tingling badly and I need to stretch them out. As soon as I shift weight he shoots off into the undergrowth like he’s on fire.
“It was nice meeting you” I yell as he disappears into scrub. I had no idea they could move that fast.
It’s been a long and productive day and I’m frozen to the core. I decide to light the wood fire in the restaurant on my last night, put on some music and spend some time processing all the information competing for space in my brain.
I connect with Anne on facebook and invite her to join me. I had one of the most interesting and delightful conversations ever with Anne that night. We talked about our writing projects amongst other things and I bounced my plot off her. That was so helpful. She is one of those people who inspires you to do what you love. She recited a little of her poetry that she uses in school performances with children and I was totally engrossed. What a ridiculously talented human being!
It was a perfect end to a perfect residency. I took a final look around as I switched off the lights and although it was sad to be leaving, I had so much material to work with that I was more excited than anything else. The next stage – the writing – is a slow burn inside me now, I just need some decent writing time to get it all out. Like six months!
Tomorrow: Launceston, for a one night stop over, then home.