Extinct Ancient Societies Tasmanians

About the Tasmanians, history of the extinct society, how they were destroyed and the last of them.



Their Society: According to different estimates, 2,000 to 20,000 native inhabitants were living on the island of Tasmania, 150 mi. south of Australia, when English settlers arrived there in 1803. Anthropologists believe the Tasmanians represented a physically distinct race. Unlike the aborigines of Australia, they had woolly black hair and reddish-brown skin. Tasmanian males sharpened sticks and obsidian knives to hunt kangaroo, wallaby, and opossum. The women dived in the ocean for shellfish.

Tasmanians wore no clothes (even in cold weather) but they adorned themselves with grease, feathers, and shells. They fashioned crude shelters from branches and leaves but built no permanent structures. They didn't know how to kindle fire, and they didn't make baskets or pottery. They were a generally peaceful society of primitive hunters and gatherers, divided into eight tribes speaking different dialects. Their basic societal group was the extended family.

How and When Destroyed: In 1803, 49 British settlers, most of whom were convicts from Australia, landed in southern Tasmania. At first the Tasmanians welcomed the British and traded with them. However, on May 3, 1804, an incident occurred which was to cause war. Three hundred Tasmanian hunters were chasing a kangaroo herd, which led them to the outskirts of a small British encampment. A nervous lieutenant by the name of Moore, thinking the Tasmanians were attacking the camp, ordered the cannons to be fired. The dazed and decimated Tasmanians picked up their dead and wounded and departed. In retaliation, they then attacked and killed several British oystermen. That was the beginning of a very one-sided conflict, which resulted in the extermination of the Tasmanians.

By 1820 some 12,000 British settlers and just 1,000 Tasmanians lived on the island. The settlers considered the Tasmanians as mere wild animals and actually organized hunts--complete with hunting jackets, hounds, and horns--to track and kill the natives. Innumerable atrocities were committed against the Tasmanians. Men and boys were castrated; women were gang-raped and murdered; the settlers even shot Tasmanians and fed them to their dogs. An Englishman was once sentenced to 10 lashes for chopping off a Tasmanian's finger, while a servant was given 50 lashes for the much more serious offense of smiling disrespectfully at his mistress.

The Tasmanian population was further reduced by European diseases, especially syphilis, which became epidemic because of the number of sexual assaults by Englishmen on Tasmanian women. In 1838 the remaining 187 Tasmanian people were transported to Flinders Island off the northeast coast of Tasmania. On this barren, almost waterless isle, the Tasmanians were placed under the care of Anglican missionaries, who forced them to wear clothes and learn Western customs. Demoralized, the few surviving Tasmanians lost their will to live and fell easy victims to disease. In one year 50 died of pneumonia.

Finally, in 1847, the survivors were returned to mainland Tasmania and resettled at Oyster Cove, near the capital city of Hobart. Most of the men became alcoholics, and most of the women turned to prostitution.

The Last of the Tasmanians: The last Tasmanian male was William "King Billy" Lanne, who became a local curiosity during the 1860s. An alcoholic, Lanne died of dysentery and cholera in 1869 at the age of 34. The last Tasmanian female was Trucanini, whose fifth husband had been William Lanne. Although friend and helper to British missionaries, Trucanini had firsthand experience of British violence against her people. When she was a girl, she was captured with a band of Tasmanians, and forced to look on as her companions were hanged. She had also watched white men chop off the hands of one of her husbands and stab her mother to death. During her later life she lived in Hobart on a small pension granted her by the British government. Trucanini died in 1876, and the local citizens hung her skeleton in the town museum.

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