Fanny Cochrane Smith’s death was a terrible blow to Tasmania’s languages but, nearly a century later, the Pakana people decided to revive their native tongue.
At first her voice seems to drown in static, as if the soliloquy was delivered into a heavy rainstorm, but with repeat listens her words gain clarity. She speaks with the slow deliberation and careful enunciation of a high-flown orator and, according to the archives, describes being “the last of the Tasmanians”.
This is the voice of Fanny Cochrane Smith, known as one of the last fluent speakers of the Tasmanian language, and in sessions that took place between 1899 and 1903 it was engraved into wax. Made by the chemist and dentist Horace Watson, they are the only recorded examples of a traditional Tasmanian Aboriginal language and can be heard at Australia’s film and sound archive.
Before colonisation the island had at least nine native languages. But with the arrival of Europeans came a merciless extermination campaign that ended thousands of Tasmanian Aboriginal lives. Those who survived were rounded up, forced off their traditional homelands and shipped off to a remote island.
Cochrane Smith’s death, in her early 70s, two years after the last recording took place, represented a terrible blow to the island’s native languages, which quickly declined in use. A few phrases persisted, including “tapilti ningina mumara prupari patrula” (go and get a bit of wood and put it on the fire). But it wasn’t until nearly a century later that the community of modern Tasmanian Aboriginal people (or the Pakana people) – including descendants of Cochrane Smith – quietly made a monumental decision: they would revive their native tongue in full. Since the early 1990s the language revival work has been spearheaded by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre.
Attempting to reinstate all the Tasmanian Aboriginal languages to their pre-colonial condition would be impossible but what the community could do was bring together what they knew and devise a “composite language”, leaning heavily on the language of the island’s north-east as it is where many contemporary Pakana people come from. They named it palawa kani, which the Pakana woman and linguistic consultant Theresa Sainty translates into “Tasmanian Aborigines speak or talk”.
The non-Indigenous linguist Leo Edwardsson was enlisted to help the community devise an alphabet, eventually using a modified version of the Latin alphabet, to write down what has otherwise always been an oral language. A set of principles was devised dictating the spelling of certain sounds and their variations.
Fanny Cochrane Smith, pictured wearing a belt with wallaby pelts, said she was ‘the last of the Tasmanians’
With no remaining traditional speakers of any Tasmanian language, Sainty says the revival work involves pooling together knowledge from the community – not only songs, words and phrases but also cultural knowledge. They also judiciously draw on records by early European explorers and settlers, including the French d’Entrecasteaux expedition of 1793. Such authors were not linguistic experts and viewed Indigenous people as curios to be studied – their notes and word lists were far as you could get from an equal collaboration between two cultures.
Clearly, there is little in language revival that is straightforward. As Sainty says, “It’s not just a matter of going through a word list, looking up the word for ‘boat’ and saying, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll take that one.’” Consider the way “boat” and “ship” in English have slightly different connotations, or how “skiff” might be used in one region and “dinghy” in another. All such subtle variations must be accounted for. “It’s a very lengthy process and it’s a very thorough process, I would say.”
Those of us who have studied a major world language may take for granted the wealth of language resources available to us: from textbooks to language apps, translated films and exchange programs. But imagine trying to learn, say, Mandarin, without so much as a translated dictionary. For many Indigenous Australians whose languages declined under colonial rule these are the kinds of challenges they face in revival work.
By 2013 enough work had been done to produce their first palawa kani dictionary, with Sainty describing it as “an historic occasion”. The dictionary includes some place words, people’s names and names of tribes. It is not available to the general public. “One thing the community said all those years ago back in the 1990s when the question came up, ‘Well, who can use our language? We’re just going to let anybody learn our language?’ The community was quite clear and has continued to be clear that, ‘No, we do not want to be teaching our language into the [wider] community yet.’
“It’s really about us getting used to it, working on our stuff for a bit, because there’s so much of our stuff that has been misappropriated and continues to be used completely out of context. It’s about our community refamiliarising ourselves with largely unfamiliar sounds and becoming confident in using those words.”
Fluency levels range in the community from conversational to those confident enough to use palawa kani to write a welcome to country or for songs, with hopes there will be completely fluent speakers in the near future. Sainty finds special joy in seeing children taught to speak palawa kani at the Aboriginal Children’s Centre in Risdon, north of Hobart. “We have little ones singings songs in language, fellas at the age of three being able to do a little welcome to country, which is just amazing.”
After years of lobbying by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, Tasmania also became the last jurisdiction in Australia to have a dual naming policy. It was announced on a windy day in 2013 on Kunanyi, which Sainty says is “a beautiful word, way better than Mount Wellington”.
The determination of the Pakana people to speak their own language is set against a backdrop of 40,000 years of Tasmanian habitation, disrupted by brutal frontier-era violence.
Nineteenth-century confrontations with the pastoralists saw thousands of their people killed and horrific stories of women abducted by sealers and other mariners to slave camps on the Furneaux islands of the Bass Strait, where they were forced into marriages, made to hunt seal and do other work, and were mercilessly flogged for any disobedience.
It was a time of great violence for the native locals as towns and farms spread over the island. A piece published in the Launceston Advertiser in June 1831 reflects the prevailing pastoralist attitude:
“Are our columns never to be free from the details of murders and atrocities by the natives? Shall we never live to see the extinction of that vindictive feeling, which actuates these benighted savages? Is there nothing which can be done either to pacify, quiet, exterminate, or capture the blacks? Is a colony of 20,000 Englishmen to be kept continually in terror by a handful of naked savages? Ridiculous. Fie for shame, ‘out upon it’ as Sterne would have said. False humanity must be laid aside. Our own safety demands it. The blacks must be sacrificed if no other plan can be hit upon.
Many of the Pakana people were indeed “sacrificed” and by that year survivors numbered a mere several hundred. Over the following years many were rounded up and shipped off to the even smaller island-off-the-island Wybalenna, to be “civilised and Christianised” on a mission.
Sainty says at Wybalenna they were discouraged from speaking their own languages. The fact that it was not their homeland and shared by Pakana people of many differing language groups also exacerbated language decline.
“The country up the west coast [of Tasmania] is completely different to the country up the north-east. So can you imagine being removed from your place, from your country – where it is your world, where your language comes from – and then taken to a completely foreign place with different cloud formations, different types of rock, different types of vegetation you cannot really describe.”
They were given European names such as Alfonso, Mary and Elizabeth and made to dress in colonial garb. The site, badly chosen, was exposed to the weather, unsuitable for growing food and offered a poor supply of water. Most of the Wybalenna refugees would never live to see again their home countries they so desperately yearned for. (There graves can still be seen on Wybalenna Island and are cheerfully sold as a “must” visit for history lovers by the local tourism authority.)
By 1847 the settlement was finally closed and the surviving 47 men, women and children shuttled back to the mainland (other Indigenous people continued to live on the smaller islands of the Bass Strait). Among them was a young girl by the name of Fanny, daughter of Tanganutara and Nikimenic, who had been working on Flinders Island as a domestic servant in “appalling squalor, neglect and brutality”.
She would eventually marry William Smith, an ex-convict and sawyer. As Fanny Cochrane Smith she would forever live with her feet in two worlds.
The young couple moved around a bit, presumably following work, before Cochrane Smith received a land grant from the Tasmanian parliament in recognition of her claim as the “last surviving Tasmanian Aboriginal”. On the 300-acre piece at Nichols Rivulet, within walking distance of Oyster Cove, she continued to “hunt and gather bush foods and medicines, make baskets, dive for shellfish and carry out Aboriginal religious observances” and was also a key figure of the growing local Methodist church community.
The chief executive of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, Heather Sculthorpe, says throughout her life Cochrane Smith was “much studied, prodded, poked, measured and photographed”. An 1899 article in the the Mercury described her at a church benefit as giving a “neat, intelligent and amusing little speech, in good idiomatic English. She vindicated the good character of her race; described their love of honesty, and said that unlike white people, they disliked kissing, which they looked upon as an insincere method of salutation.”
Sculthorpe says: “Right until the last she was regarded as a subject of study, a curio, a museum piece, an amusement for those whose invasion resulted in the dispossession of her own people. She made the most of what was left to her.”
In 1905 her funeral cortège was followed by more than 400 people. Having left behind 11 children, her descendants still live in Tasmania today. A number of words, phrases and fragments of song have always been passed down through that family and are also remembered by Aboriginal people living on the Bass Strait Islands, including Cape Barren Island.
Sainty says she feels “so proud” that she can now deliver a welcome to country, write and sing songs and is planning to write stories, all in palawa kani. “It’s something that reconnects me with those old fellas by being able to speak these words again.” She says acknowledges the language isn’t exactly the same – “but no language is the same today as it was yesterday” .
“Bringing these words to life again is an extension of our identity, I suppose.”
Learn some palawa kani words and phrases
Ya pulingina / Hello, welcome
Nayri nina-tu / Thank you
Kunanyi / Mount Wellington
Takayna / The Tarkine
Kanamaluka / Tamar river
Titima / Trefoil Island
Tapilti ningina mumara prupari patrula / Go and get a bit of wood and put it on the fire
- This article originally appears at:
- Article taken from the following publication:
- The Guardian
- Article submitted by:
- Monica Tan