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Who was Bet B?

Who was Bet B? She is recorded in a census taken in Van Diemen’s Land in 1843 as cohabiting with a ‘former whaler’ named Samuel Sawyer on a property near Launceston. The census included scraps of descriptive detail, according to the whim of the census taker. In the case of Bet, she was described as a ‘protected black’.

An Aboriginal woman living near Launceston, how did she avoid banishment to Flinders Island with Truganini and the rest of Tasmania’s ‘last’ Aboriginal inhabitants eight years earlier?

The initial ‘B’ implies she had a surname. ‘Bet’, of course, is a European name. The list of the people exiled with Truganini either shows Aboriginal names or the sort of demeaning nicknames white settlers gave tribal people (‘King Billy’ and so on). Bet’s possession of a European name, and more specifically a surname, suggests she was of mixed race, a likelihood increased by her description as ‘Christian’.

Tribal people in Tasmania had resisted the encroachment of white settlers with guerrilla warfare. The colonists’ solution was to remove them to the Bass Strait islands, a response that was presented by George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector of Aborigines, as a benevolent compromise: they could learn to farm and adopt Christianity while the lands they had defended were freed for white colonists to develop.

We know now, of course, that the way to genocide was paved with Robinson’s good intentions. All those who were removed to the islands died; the Aboriginal resistance was ended and the resisters were eliminated. However, black women who weren’t tribal – most obviously those of mixed race who had adopted white ways, especially those who professed Christianity and who were domiciled with a white partner, as was Bet B – may well have been deemed harmless and allowed to stay.

Tasmanian Aboriginal society was exogamous. Like most hunter-gatherers, the Aboriginals lived in small bands of (inevitably) closely related people, and they protected against incest by arranging marriages for women as soon as they reached puberty. Young women grew up knowing that they would leave to join another tribe, whose ways, language and totems they would adopt. So if they were married into the new white tribe they would naturally have expected to adopt its customs, including religion.

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, communities evolved on the Bass Strait islands based on Aboriginal women who had been married to, or in some cases kidnapped by, sealers. Aboriginal identity remained intact because the sealers were not, as it happened, a tribe with a historical and religious tradition, or with a totem. The women and their descendants did not completely adopt European ways, partly because the sealers didn’t care. They were hard men separated from their own society; they wanted sex, for the most part, and little else. In any case, they valued the Indigenous women’s ability to obtain food, a skill that was based on their knowledge of country. The women were mostly left to raise their children, and a community developed that continued to be understood both by its white neighbours and by itself as Aboriginal. Today’s Tasmanian Aboriginal community is descended from these people.

There are clues to Bet’s likely origin provided by the census and by the records of the Church of England parish in which she lived. Apart from Samuel Sawyer, the records mention two other people. One is Bet’s two-year-old daughter Elizabeth, who is also listed in the census, and the other is the twelve-year-old boy named as Elizabeth’s godfather at her baptism. His name is given as John Briggs and he is described as ‘black’ and, like Bet, a ‘Christian’.

There is an Aboriginal John Briggs in the historical record. He was part of the Bass Strait community, the son of a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman and a sealer named Briggs. John was cared for at one stage by a sealer named James Munro, a convinced Christian who took care to read the bible to his offspring and to those of his fellow sealers. John is also recorded as having three older sisters, all of whom were adopted by white families on mainland Tasmania. The oldest sister, Dolly Dalrymple, secured her place in history: after marrying a convict, she had the audacity to petition the governor to assign her jailed husband to her as a servant. The other two sisters are supposed to have died before 1843.

This historical John eventually married a woman named Louisa, whose mother was a mainland Aboriginal woman who had been kidnapped from Port Phillip by a sealer. Louisa Briggs is an even more significant figure: she now has an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. Together, John and Louisa moved to Victoria during the gold rush, and their descendants are prominent today in Victoria’s Koori community.

Who then was Bet B? The trail grows cold. We are left with speculation regarding Bet’s relationship to John Briggs, the godfather of her daughter. Does the B in her name stand for Briggs? Was she a fourth sister, or is the record of the death of John’s sister Elizabeth in 1839 false? Was Bet this Elizabeth?

There are other records in the archives, not of Bet, who disappears from history, but of her daughter Elizabeth. In 1878, she reappears in a marriage certificate, described as the thirty-seven-year-old daughter of Samuel Sawyer. Bet isn’t mentioned and was therefore probably dead. Elizabeth was marrying a widowed grazier named Robert Viney. A few months later she gave birth to my great-grandfather, Herbert.

What does it mean to have Aboriginal ancestry, especially so many generations back? Should I treat the revelation of my Aboriginal forebears as a curiosity, or should I embrace it at the risk of derision by the likes of Andrew Bolt, the self-appointed scourge of ‘white-skinned Aboriginals’? As happens with families in settler states, especially after a number of generations, mine has accumulated a bewildering range of antecedents. I have Irish and English convicts in the upper branches of the tree, as well as a Swedish sea captain and a Scottish coal miner. The English convict had a German name and my paternal grandfather was possibly the illegitimate offspring of Mark Foy, the department store owner (which, if it’s true, means you can add French).

Do I feel Swedish or French or Scottish? Does any of this affect my identity? For the most part, no. My ancestors emigrated from their homelands many generations ago and lost their languages and cultures along the way, blending into the beige homogeneity of Australian suburbia. The same is true for my Aboriginal heritage, though the forgetting in that case has a more sinister aspect: it was deliberate.

The first hint came from a chance remark by a doctor when I was born. My mother was a former public servant married to a public servant. They had met in a Canberra hostel, and she had been forced to resign when they married. My father was blond (the Swedish ancestry was on his side), as were my three siblings. Moreover, I was born two months premature and, apparently, among the various temporary disfigurements this entailed was an unusual colouring. Though I had quite dark skin, the palms of my hands were strikingly pale. The doctor, who had worked in Central Australia, remarked that this was ‘classic Aboriginal colouring’. Mum was somewhat taken aback by what she assumed was an attack on her fidelity, and she mentioned the comment to her father. My grandfather then launched into one of those conversations that begin with ‘Actually … ’.

This was the 1960s and views on race had shifted. My parents were left-wing Labor and considered Aboriginality something of which to be proud, but our descent was still little more than a curiosity. It was only in the early 1980s when my mother found herself working at the Victorian Health Commission that it became more. Mum had many Aboriginal workmates and they encouraged her to investigate her heritage. She made a trip to Tasmania and traced her descent back through birth and death notices to Bet B, the ‘protected black’ in the 1843 census.

By the time my Aboriginal descent was confirmed, I was in the midst of another revelatory journey. I had joined the International Socialists (IS) and was active on the far Left. You might think that this would make an embrace of Aboriginality straightforward, that I could have launched into a career as an Indigenous activist. But it wasn’t quite so simple.

In Mum’s case, she worked with Aboriginal people. They liked her and were delighted when she told them what she’d found in the archives. Some of the older Koori women immediately told her of the significance of the Briggs connection. To many Victorian Kooris my mother became and remains ‘Aunty Patsy’, an accepted community member. But I couldn’t just trade on her acceptance.

Like all far-Left organisations, the IS believed in land rights, and we did our best to support Aboriginal struggles. But left-wing politics is notorious for internecine warfare, and the relationship between the white Left and the Aboriginal community has not always been friendly.

In 1988, the Sydney branch of the IS was heavily involved in the protests at the bicentennial celebrations. There were two marches planned – one for Indigenous protestors and one for their white supporters – that would eventually converge into a mass rally. Exasperated at the failure of the white support group to adequately advertise the event, the Sydney branch made a decision to print, at some expense, their own glossy poster and to plaster it around the city. It had the branch’s phone number on it, and the decision was vindicated when they were inundated with calls from individuals and organisations desperate to find out where the rally started. Despite this enthusiastic response, accusations were made that the IS was hijacking the event.

We also held public meetings all over the country on land rights and the bicentennial. I did several talks on campuses. In many ways I wasn’t cut out to be a revolutionary, but public speaking was one thing I was good at. I certainly wasn’t picked because of my ancestry, which in any case didn’t give me any special insights into Aboriginal oppression. So when a leading comrade introduced me as Aboriginal, I was uncomfortable and a bit annoyed. I felt it smacked of tokenism, and in any case, what if someone called me on it? At Monash University, a white academic approached me after the talk and gave me what was, in retrospect, a gentle interrogation. She knew many people in the Aboriginal community and had never heard of me. It was an awkward moment, but it passed.

In Sydney, our members had a great success at the march. Our paper’s headline read in bold type: ‘Stuff the bicentennial!’ I had dutifully sold it in Melbourne’s Bourke Street mall along with a pamphlet on land rights. During the march in Sydney, both the paper and pamphlet sold like hotcakes, mostly to Aboriginal demonstrators. Stewards from the white support march tried to tell our members not to sell it, arguing that ‘the Kooris don’t want you to’. In between these little lectures from earnest white liberals, ‘the Kooris’ (including some of the stewards from the black rally) would demonstrate their supposed displeasure by buying the paper or the pamphlet.

Of course, support wasn’t unanimous. One prominent black activist ripped a backpack full of pamphlets off one of our members, even while an equally prominent leader stood on a chair elsewhere in the park waving the pamphlet around and telling all who would listen that they should read it. You can understand why I was nervous about how an aggressive embrace of my Aboriginality, tenuous as it was, would be received within the Aboriginal community.

More importantly, I would have felt like a counterfeit. I have white skin and a middle-class accent. My family was never rich, but we were almost always comfortable and secure. And, of course, we never had to experience racist oppression, at least not as victims.

I considered – and still consider – myself to be an internationalist. The rational, intellectual socialist in me eschews any form of national identification and is sceptical of identity politics. This is easy to maintain when the manifestations of such sentiments are clearly objectionable: yobbish crowds chanting ‘Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!’, leprechauns and Riverdance kitsch, or even the New Age packaging of Aboriginal spirituality.

But not all identifications are equal. Even the most sceptical, hyper-rational part of me recognises a positive identification by the oppressed, an embracing of that which others deride – the defiance of Black Power, of Gay and Women’s Liberation, or a nationality that others wish to expunge. The same grandfather through whom my Aboriginal ancestry is traced was brought up by his grandmother, the daughter of a famine-era convict, and a strain of Irish nationalism was intertwined with the left-wing politics I inherited from him through my mother.

There is a question that is routinely asked when applying for jobs or Centrelink benefits: ‘Are you of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent?’ I answer yes, because I am. At times there are consequences, like back in the mid-1990s when I was working for the Commonwealth Employment Service. My manager approached me about a new program for Indigenous public servants. If I applied successfully, I could study full-time and the department would pay my salary while I did so. I had dropped out of university when I became a revolutionary and had always regretted it. Here was my chance to make amends.

But I said no. There was no way I could justify applying. It was clearly an excellent initiative, particularly when you consider the barriers faced by Indigenous Australians. But I had never faced those barriers. I grew up in a house full of books, with tertiary-educated parents. I had gone to excellent government schools in Canberra and the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. Tertiary entrance in my family was considered almost as a given, as routine as puberty or having one’s wisdom teeth removed. Now I was working in an office where a majority of the staff were migrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Some of them had been boat people. Even those who were Anglo-Celtic Australians were mostly from working-class, western-suburb families. They were great people and most would have been delighted for me if I were accepted on the program, but I also knew that some of them, even if they would not say so, would feel it an injustice that someone like me was granted this privilege because of an accident of ancestry. Precisely because I approved of the program, I didn’t apply: I didn’t want to bring it into disrepute.

My attitude is different in situations where announcing I am Aboriginal is not to my advantage – most obviously, when faced with racists. I worked in an office attached to the Ford factory for two years in the late 1980s. One of my workmates was an Australian Alf Garnett type – an unapologetically racist, working-class Tory. Very early on I made a point of letting him know that I had Aboriginal ancestry. His racism was entrenched and confident enough that he didn’t react as many do by apologising and backtracking. It became a standard joke of his to gesture towards me and say, ‘Don’t ask him. He wouldn’t know anything; he’s only a blackfella.’ It’s the closest I’ve come to experiencing racism: the palest of pale shadows compared to the daily experience of most Indigenous Australians.

As I am now a historian, I’m used to accessing archives. Much of this material is now available online; my internet research uncovered the significance of John Briggs. Mum’s workmates told her that the Briggs family in Victoria had a Tasmanian connection, but she didn’t know precisely what that connection was. Now, however, there are entries in the online Australian Dictionary of Biography not only for Louisa Briggs but also for Dolly Dalrymple and James Munro.

In all of this, there was a final revelation regarding the Briggs family. John’s mother’s name is recorded: Woretemoeteyenner, the Aboriginal partner of the sealer Briggs. She was the daughter of Mannarlargenna, the leader of the Plangermaireener (or Ben Lomond) people of northeast Tasmania.

Mannarlargenna is even better known to history than any of the Briggs family. There are a number of contemporary drawings of him that reveal the magnificent figure of a Tasmanian warrior, his hair plaited with mud into a sort of dreadlock. He accompanied Robinson and Truganini on their mission to persuade the remaining tribes people to surrender. According to some accounts, he led Robinson deliberately astray on many occasions – which, if true, suggests a healthy distrust on Mannarlargenna’s part.

He was promised by Robinson that, in reward for his assistance, he wouldn’t be exiled. The promise was not kept and Mannarlargenna died in exile.

Robinson’s own account reads:

When we were off Swan Island MANNA-LARGENNA the chief gave evident signs of strong emotion. Here opposite to this island was his country; Swan Island was the place I brought him to when I removed him from his country. He paced the deck, looked on all the surrounding objects, fresh recollections came to his mind. He paced to and fro like a man of consequence, like an emperor. Round his head he had tied a slip of kangaroo skin, which added greatly to his imperial dignity. At one time he took the map in his hand and looked on it intently, took the spyglass and looked through it. It was amusing enough to see him. He allowed that I was equally great with himself, that I had travelled in all directions. Swan Island is called WALE.KOME.KUN.NER.

When I first read these lines, I reacted emotionally. John Briggs was Mannarlargenna’s grandson. If Bet B were indeed a Briggs, which remains the most likely explanation, then I too am a descendant of Woretemoeteyenner and, therefore, of Mannarlargenna.

I can’t know this for certain, but I know I am a descendant of Bet B, who was Aboriginal. Her location and choice of John Briggs as godfather for her daughter makes it overwhelmingly likely that she was a Tasmanian and that she was a Briggs. If she were a Briggs (and I acknowledge it is still an if) then I know that my ancestors lived in north-east Tasmania. I even know what their totem was: the peppermint gum.

I learned about Truganini in primary school, along with Ned Kelly and Captain Cook. I learned that she was the ‘last Tasmanian Aboriginal’. I learned about her trek through Tasmania with Robinson, unaware that I may have had an ancestor at the centre of that tale. I also remember the illustrated charts of racial types in the 1965 edition of World Book Encyclopedia that my parents bought to improve their children’s minds: ‘Alpine’, ‘Nordic’, ‘Southern Indian’ and so on. The charts distinguished between mainland and Tasmanian Aboriginals on criteria I now know were racist, pseudo-scientific claptrap. Here was, the charts implied, a curious category of an extinct people, a sort of Homo thylacine.

Then again there is the example of AR Neville, the villain of Rabbit Proof Fence. One of the ironies of Australian racism is that the doctrine of miscegenation, the great bogey of the American South, was considered positive by the guardians of white Australia. Neville believed that blackness could be bred out, a genocidal form of eugenics that went further than Robinson’s missionary ethnocide. That was why Neville specifically targeted mixed-race children for removal from their black mothers. He would have seen me as a validation of his life’s work – a white-skinned bloke with a PhD.

So am I Aboriginal? Yes, I am. I am Aboriginal. I am Irish and Scottish and all the rest. I am, of course, Australian, and I have a passport to prove it. But the most important part of my ethnic identity is the fact that I am also a Tasmanian Aboriginal. No-one has tried to wipe out the Swedes or the French or the Germans. No other part of my ancestral heritage bears such a burden, or has such significance. Only my Irish ancestry has a similar resonance, since ‘no Irish or blacks’ was the notorious admonition exhibited by landlords in London as late as the 1960s. I don’t sound Irish and I don’t have black skin, but wouldn’t I love to have had an opportunity to have subverted that discrimination in some way! At the very least I would like to say (and this is surely the point of it all): fuck you, Robinson and Neville – you didn’t kill us all!

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Robert Bollard is a historian living in Melbourne. He is currently writing a book about Australia during the Great War.

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