Tuesday 16 April 2024

Fanny Cochrane Smith (1834-1905): The last speaker of a Tasmanian Aboriginal Language

Fanny Cochrane was born in 1834 at Wybalenna on Flinders island. Her mother was Tanganutura of the North eastern tribe. As a young girl Tanganutura had been moved to Wybalenna on Flinders Island with others of her tribe and family by George Augustus Robinson, Protector of the Aborigines. She was abducted soon after her arrival by a sealer named James Parish. Upon her return to Wybalenna, Tanganutura took Nicermenic as her husband.

Fanny was the first child born at the Wybalenna settlement, and that put her in a unique position. As a youngster she learnt songs, stories and culture from the different language groups across Tasmania. At the age of five, Fanny was taken from her parents and fostered to the settlement catechist Robert Clark on Flinders Island. Clark's wife is said to have given Fanny her surname, Cochrane, after her own maiden name.

Fanny spent the rest of her childhood in white homes and institutions. She was sent to the Queen’s Orphan School in Hobart at the age of eight to learn domestic service skills but disliked the prison-like discipline there. She was returned to Wybalena to work for Clark as a domestic servant until the settlement closed in 1847.

Clark treated her with appalling neglect and brutality. An official investigation into allegations of cruelty by Clark to children in his care found he had "on several occasions chained and flogged Fanny Cochrane". Another of the Wybalenna Aboriginal children who suffered at Clark's hands was Mathinna, a young Aboriginal girl who was rescued from Clark by Lady Jane Franklin, the wife of Tasmanian Governor and explorer, Sir John Franklin, by adopting her. 

After the closure of Wybalena the Palawa people who survived, including Fanny and her family, were sent to Oyster Cove (south of Hobart). Fanny’s father died there in 1849.

In 1854 she married William Smith, an English lawyer and ex-convict who was trandported for stealing a donkey. She became Fanny Cochrane Smith. For many years they ran a boarding house in Hobart, before moving to Nicholls Rivulet near Oyster Cove, where she was granted 100 acres. Fanny raised their six boys and five girls in a simple wooden house. The family grew their own produce but their income came from timber; Fanny worked in the bush splitting shingles and carried them out herself. She would walk 50 km to Hobart for supplies. The grant was a government compensation to aboriginal persons. 

In 1899 and 1903 Fanny Cochrane Smith recorded some Aboriginal songs on wax cylinders. One evening, Horace Watson attended one of Fanny Cochrane Smith’s concerts. He was so impressed, and conscious of the historical moment, that he decided to make phonograph recordings of the songs. These are the only recordings ever made of Tasmanian aboriginal songs and speech. There were two recording sessions, the first of which was made in the rooms of the Royal Society of Tasmania in 1899, followed by sessions in 1903 at Barton Hall, where the photo was taken.

The original recording of Fanny's songs was the subject of a 1998 song by Australian folk singer Bruce Watson, "The Man and the Woman and the Edison Phonograph". Watson's grandfather, Horace Watson, had been responsible for making the Smith recordings.

As a convert to Methodism, she hosted church services in her kitchen until she donated some of her land for the building of a church, an act of generosity that constituted a rare case of an Aboriginal person giving land to whites, rather than having it expropriated.

One of their sons became a lay preacher and Fanny was active in fund-raising and hosted the annual Methodist picnic. She was known for her generosity and culinary skills, with people travelling long distances to sample her cooking.

Through all of this, Fanny Cochrane Smith kept close ties with her people, including Truganini, who taught her bushcraft and with whom she would fish, hunt and collect bush tucker and medicinal herbs. She also adorned her Edwardian dresses with traditional accessories – shell necklaces, feathers and animal furs. Likewise, she reconciled her traditional spirituality with Christianity and was a bridge between two cultures. Reconciliation personified.

After Truganini's death in 1876 Fanny made claim to be the last surviving full-blooded Tasmanian aborigine. Parliament recognised her claim and increased her annuity to £50 and in 1889 gave her a free grant of 121 ha.

This set off spurious pseudo-scientific attempts to establish if she was a 'full blood' or whether she was, in the language of the day, a half-caste. The community was bitterly divided. Contemporary witnesses, Fanny’s own testimony and her parents’ claims all concur that her father was indeed Nicermenic and not the white sealer James Parish. Scientists took samples of her hair, took facial measurements and closely examined photographs of her pronounced 'European'-like facial features to see if they were original or touched up. Questions were asked as to why she never had an Aboriginal name, all of which fueled the speculation about her full Aboriginality.

At that time Europeans conceived Aboriginality differently from today. Where we understand aboriginality to reside in identity and community acceptance - and not just DNA, their thinking was that they were savages; their Aboriginality was a negative thing that had to be 'bred out' of them by training them to be 'civilised people', not savages.

In her later years Fanny was conscious that she was the last person on earth who knew the language, songs and stories of her people. Her reaction was to share her culture by giving recitals of traditional songs, stories and dance across the state.

Fanny Cochrane Smith died at Cygnet, about 15 km WSW of Oyster Cove, on 24th February 1905, two years after the death of her husband. Her funeral cortège was followed by more than 400 people and she is still remembered warmly as 'one of nature's ladies' who could entertain any gathering with her sparkling eyes and ready wit.

She was buried secretly to avoid the desecration that happened to so many of her people. Her children’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren make up a large proportion of the current Tasmanian Aboriginal population. The church built on her land at Nicholls Rivulet is now a museum in her honor. 

Source: Our Tasmania

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