Fanny Smith: The ‘genocide survivor’ whose voice will resonate through the ages

For more than a century, it was claimed that Tasmania’s Aboriginal people – the Palawa – were “extinct”.

British colonists and their descendants claimed to have died with Truganini in 1876, which they called the last so-called “full blood”.

It’s a myth that has obscured the stories of many other indigenous Tasmanians, including Fanny Smith, who lived at the same time as Truganini and died decades after her.

This proud Indigenous woman was then, and still is, a powerful symbol of survival.

As Fanny’s people died around her, she created a vibrant community that is at the heart of much of the existing Palawa community today – her descendants are all over Tasmania.

And a choice she made in 1899 ensured that her voice will echo both symbolically and literally into the future.

Born in ‘a place of death’

For its indigenous peoples, Tasmania in the 1800s was a chaotic world.

“The British arrived here in the early 1800s – within 30 years 98% or more of the original population was wiped out,” said Fanny’s great-great-granddaughter Kerry Sculthorpe, at ABC RN’s The History Listen.

“My family and I are genocide survivors.”

Fanny Smith was a survivor.(Provided by: Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office)

After decades of war and disease that nearly wiped out the native population, the approximately 300 remaining survivors were taken to the settlement of Wybalenna on Flinders Island in Bass Strait in 1831.

Fanny was born there in 1834.

“Wybalenna was created with a huge sense of optimism and hope by the colonial government,” said historian Rebe Taylor of the University of Tasmania.

“It was hoped that it would be a place where Tasmanian Aborigines could become ‘civilized’, Christianized.

“In reality, Wybalenna has become a place of death.”

She says that of the approximately 300 people taken there in 1831, only 47 remained in 1847, when the colony was closed.

In 1846, the governor ordered an investigation into allegations of cruelty at Wybalenna. It gave insight into Fanny’s childhood and the brutal conduct of catechist preacher Robert Clark and his wife.

“He used to strip Aboriginal children naked and whip us on the table…I was whipped on my bare skin with a long stick. I was whipped several times in a week,” Fanny said , 13 years old, in the investigation.

A painting of two indigenous peoples, with a settlement, farmland and a creek in the background.
An 1846 painting of the Flinders Island Aboriginal settlement, where hundreds died.(Provided by: Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office)

Fanny also described how she was chained up, forced to sleep in a box and “never allowed to speak”.

She said the Clarks and Superintendent Wybalenna knew she was being sexually assaulted by a convict, but they did nothing to stop her. Instead, she was brutally punished and portrayed as depraved.

“What she went through, a lot of people never get over it. She was treated horribly… But there was Fanny ⁠—she survived,” said June Sculthorpe, another of the fullbacks. -great-granddaughters of Fanny.

In two worlds

When Wybalenna closed, its 47 survivors were transported from Flinders Island to Oyster Cove, a former prison near Hobart. This included Fanny, her mother Tanganutura, the man she called Father Nicermenic, her half-sister, her half-brother, and Truganini.

“[The huts] would have been so wet that they would never have dried out most of the winter. Those huts that were too damp for the convicts, they weren’t too damp for the natives,” says another great-great-granddaughter, Colleen Frost.

But when Fanny was 19, an ex-convict named William Smith offered her a different future.

June says her dad told how William saw Fanny running along the beach at Oyster Cove and fell in love.

“Fanny was so lucky that William Smith asked her to marry him, which was an escape for her from that colony, where her people were still dying,” Colleen says.

Fanny and William were married in 1854. They then had 11 children – all of whom survived.

A sepia-toned photo of Fanny Smith as an old woman and about 30 members of her extended family in front of a barn.
Fanny Smith and her extended family, in a photo believed to have been taken in Nicholls Rivulet around 1900.(Provided: Kerry Sculthorpe)

Upon her marriage, the colony government granted Fanny a grant of 100 acres of land at neighboring Nicholls Rivulet – in recognition of the dispossession of her people – and a pension of £24 a year.

Fanny became very active in the local Methodist community and held church services in her own home, often singing songs in her Pakana language.

A Reverend at the time said: “I have often heard her speak in public on religious subjects, and I have never heard a more original orator. She is extremely skilful in illustrations drawn from her life and associations indigenous.”

She was well-liked in her community – the Reverend said he was proud to call her his friend – but it was not an easy time.

A sepia-toned file photo of an older Fanny Smith, William Smith and two of their youngest sons.
Fanny Smith with William and two of their sons.(Provided by: Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office)

“I can’t imagine how she felt when she watched everyone she had known from Flinders Island and Oyster Cove, all of her family and friends, slowly die. And there she was, left pretty much alone , living among strangers,” Kerry says.

“[But] she worked hard, she spoke her language and she looked to the future – looking after her family to make sure they were provided for.”

“Barbaric Ways”

When Truganini died in 1876, Fanny claimed the title of ‘the last Tasmanian’.

In recognition of this, the government granted him 300 acres of land and increased his pension to £50 a year.

But there has been debate over her claim in some circles – some said her cheeks were “too rosy”.

And it got way more dehumanizing than that.

English anthropologist Henry Ling Roth wanted to write the first comprehensive anthropology of the Aboriginal people of Tasmania. Amid incorrect claims that the indigenous people of Tasmania “died out” with Truganini, he heard of Fanny.

Roth tried to acquire photographs of Fanny, descriptions of her teeth, and then hair samples from her head and pubic hair.

For 10 years he tried, with some success, to take samples from Fanny’s body. He even wanted the promise of his skeleton when he died.

“Can you imagine how scary that would have been? Can you imagine? Can you imagine what barbaric ways they had? Was it in the name of science? I find that hard to believe. It was a scary thing to live for Fanny,” said Colleen.

As Kerry sums it up this time: “It was just the pervasiveness of the colonizers’ thinking that the Aborigines were now gone. White was good and black was not.”

Recordings that resonate through the ages

In this environment, Fanny embraced her Aboriginal identity and made a decision that would go down in history.

In 1899 and 1903 Fanny agreed to work with the Royal Society of Tasmania and make recordings of her voice in the language.

A sepia color photo of an older Fanny, with flowers in her hair and skins around her waist.
Fanny Smith has embraced her Aboriginal identity, proudly sharing different parts of her culture.(Provided by: Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office)

She spoke and sang into the bell of a gramophone in her Pakana language, which was captured on a series of wax cylinders.

“She says, ‘I’m Fanny Smith. I was born on Flinders Island. I am the last of the Tasmanians,’ June said.

According to National Film and Sound Archive of Australiathe recordings capture the “last fluent speaker of one of Tasmania’s original aboriginal languages”.

They are the oldest voice recordings ever made of an Aboriginal person, among the earliest sound recordings ever made in Australia. In 2017 they were added to Australia’s UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

And the recordings have played an important role in efforts to reclaim and reclaim Aboriginal language in Tasmania over the past decades.

“[The recordings] takes you back in time and takes you back to some of the sad things, and also the fact that we belong to this woman,” Colleen says.

Fanny died in 1905, but even in death she could not escape the racial politics of the time.

“It has been said that she was terrified that her body would be stolen and therefore was not actually in the coffin which 400 people followed to the Methodist cemetery when she died – which she has been buried somewhere else,” Kerry said.

Its impact today

What it means to be a Tasmanian Aboriginal has changed dramatically since Fanny’s time.

Kerry says she grew up in a world incredibly hostile to her people.

“When I was a kid, there was nothing worse in the world than an aborigine… I don’t remember Fanny Smith’s name ever being mentioned when we were kids,” she says.

Or as Colleen puts it: “[Family members] didn’t say they had native blood in them – it was a shame to have native blood in them.”

Kerry says things started to change in the 1970s and points to the activism of Tasmanian Aboriginal leader Michael Mansell.

“I think we just called ourselves ‘aboriginal descendants’ at that time. Then Michael started talking to us about actually being a people, rather than just being a descendant of someone… Are you just a ‘descendant’ or are you really someone? The black?” said Kerry.

“And we haven’t looked back from there.”

In 1984, the Tasmanian Aboriginal community – the Palawa – reclaimed the settlement land from Oyster Cove as Putalina. In 1995, the Tasmanian government officially returned this land to the community. These 10 hectares were part of the 3,800 hectares returned that year.

“I wondered recently what Grandma Smith would think about what we did today – in the fight we had,” Kerry says.

“In my lifetime, going from a little country thug, who grew up in a valley where there were no aborigines, no prospect of there ever being aborigines. Until now, being the aboriginal people of Tasmania, being the Palawa, with our own language and our own land, and getting more.

The family hopes Grandma Smith, the proud Aboriginal matriarch, would have been thrilled.

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