Cassandra Pybus - Community of Thieves
Published by Minerva Australia (first published 1991)
Channel Country Dreaming
In April 1855 J.E.Calder, surveyor-general of Tasmania, set out from Hobart to walk to the old convict station at Oyster Cove. So lovely was the day and so beautiful the terrain that Calder made detailed notes of his impressions for a Hobart newspaper. After passing through the hamlet of Snug on the southern edge of North West Bay, Calder followed the road upward into heavily wooded hills from which he caught the occasional glimpse of a spectacular landscape.
Now and then only, when an opening occurred,...we greatly admired the varied and magnificent picture which lay before us. The dusky eminences of South Bruny stretched along the horizon, terminating in the bold and beautiful cliffs of the fluted cape. Adventure Bay on the east of Bruny -- the place of anchorage of the famous old navigators Cook, Furneaux and Bligh last century -- lies fully in view, separated from the nearer waters of the D Entrecasteaux Channel by the long, low thread-like isthmus that unites the two peninsulas of Bruny Island...and a vast extent of undulating country in the east and north east, fronting on the most varied coastline in the world, forming alto gether a picture which well repays the toil of a long journey to see it.
Nowadays the huge eucalyptus and myrtle have gone, and I can only imagine the magnitude of forests with gum trees reaching a hundred metres to the summit, thirty metres in circumference. Yet much of the essential majesty and extraordinary beauty of the sce ne remains as Calder encountered it in the autumn sunshine 133 years ago. This is the channel country, the home of my family for six generations.
From where Calder stood he could possibly have made out the homestead Sacriston, built by my great-great-grandfather, Richard Pybus, who took up a large land grant on North Bruny Island in 1829. Below him, nestling at the very tip of Oyster Cove, was the house and orchard of Richards eldest son and Calders brother-in-law, Henry Harrison Pybus. This house, inherited by my great-grandfather, is still there, behind its screen of trees, but only a huge scarred mulberry trees survives of Richards original homestead to testify to the good fortu ne of that first immigrant Pybus from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Not that physical presence matters, since on my morning walks over the old station road I can feel my ancestral bonds to this place. It is my place: the landscape of my dreaming.
As I follow the path of my distant kinsman over the steep and lovely hills that divide North West Bay and the D'Entrecasteaux Channel, I have the same destination. It is a good long walk for my dogs, while for me it is a profound and constant source of spiritual renewal. Like the tall timber, the old station is long since gone, and until recently the site was overrun with a tangle of bracken and blackberries. It was always sour and swampy ground, too low and damp for prolonged dwelling or productive use. Now it is cleared, l andscaped and signposted. The marker, regularly pockmarked with bullet holes and defaced with spraypaint, carried the Aboriginal flag. Recently repainted, it is now possible to make out the works, a quotation from Xavier Herbert:
Until we give back to th e black man just a bit of the land that was his and give it back without provisos, without strings. To snatch it back, without anything but complete generosity of spirit in concession for the evil we have done him -- until we do that, we shall remain what we have always been so far, a people without integrity; not a nation, but a community of thieves.
The clearing and sign are the work of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community who have a repeatedly unsuccessful land claim on the old convict station site. Their reasons for such a claim are simple and unassailable; this damp glen and swampy inlet is where the remnant of the tribal people of Tasmania was brought to die. On that April morning in 1855 Surveyor Calder was on his way to observe those few Aboriginals who remained at Oyster Cove.
Nearing his melancholy object, Calder found the glory of the landscape quite diminished by the forlorn spectre of the station.
But if the view were a hundred times more prepossessing than it is [he wrote], its attractions would be scarcely observed...when we know that within the walls of that desolate-looking shealing are all who now remain of a once formidable people, whom a thirty years war with our countrymen have swept into captivity and their relatives to the grave.
Within this dreary edifice, Calder found sixteen Aboriginal people living in a state of abject neglect and degradation, denied all but a naked sustenance...to prevent them dying from want . Mindful of the duties of man to his fellows , Calder was indignant that even at this late hour , something be done to improve the conditions of this pitiful remnant, for we cannot by mere maintenance in life repay the debt we owe a race whom we have forcibly dispossessed of everything but mere existence .
Did this desire to soothe the dying brow bring with it any sense of culpability, I wonder? Was he moved to reflect on the role he might have played while on his surveying expeditions into various parts of Tasmania, marking out the landscape for future sett lement and cultivation? Did he have cause to consider that as a recipient of an original land grant on Bruny Island he had, in actuality, dispossessed one of the remnant whose plight now so moved him? As he admired the impressive terrain of the D Entrecasteaux Channel, did he observe that this temperate paradise contained both the beginning and the end of the fatal encounter of European and Aboriginal? Did it matter to him that the virtual genocide of the Tasmanian people occurred within his own lifetime and that he was both witness to and participant in the process? Sadly, these are not the kinds of thoughts to which Calders readers are privy. An old man, his intention is to immortalise his better moments, when he stood on the side of decency and pity. The recollection of his contact with the Aboriginal people in their tribal state is gone with a good many other things, into the kingdom of perpetual night .
It is a perverse desire to make the past bear witness, to own up to its grievous acts. After all, what difference could it possibly make now? What was done is done, the newspaper letter-writers remind me. Those early settlers, my ancestors, were simply creatures of their time, which is to say they were men like other men; no better, no worse. The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. Ah, but that is not how it seems to me on this morning, when a delicate shift of wind across the channel brings me the smell of broom on dancing white horses. In that instant of pure joy I am awash with memory reach ing back to earliest childhood and beyond to the accumulated memories of my father and my grandfather, to the ancient great-aunts who served up sponge cakes and family lore every Sunday in the house of Henry Harrison. We have been very happy here in the te rritory of the Nuenone people. Has any one of us paused to do a reckoning?
Our immigrant ancestor, Richard Pybus, struck good fortune from the moment he arrived in 1829 with his second wife Hannah, son Henry Harrison and daughter Margaret. First he was granted freehold title to a superb 2560 acres on Bruny Island and later was able to capitalise on his standing as a gentleman of probity and property to secure another land grant of 1030 acres along the Ouse River, north-west of Hobart. Nothing constrained him from selling most of this free gift of land when property values skyrockseted during the 1840s. Several acres were excised from his Bruny grant as his gift to the Church of England, and on the remaining 678 acres he built his second house, Sacriston. Another small land grant on South Bruny was kept for supplying firewood.
In farming and land speculation, Richard was not hugely successful. He was prosperous though, living in the style of the English gentry on his reduced acreage. Sacriston was a substantial timber house which featured interior fittings of cedar, imported from Canada. The furniture too spoke of privilege and comfort, especially the massive four-poster bed acquired from Governor Arthur. To get into the bed Richard and Hannah had to climb a small ladder, while the canopy and curtains would have enabled them to be enclosed in a tiny world of their own, should these pious folk have so desired. There, presumably, were the three Tasmanian-born sons conceived. Richard could afford to provide these three later sons with a gentlemans education, first as boarders at Hutchins School in Hobart and later in England.
On Richards death, the farm and orchards were inherited by the eldest son of his marriage to Hannah, Richard junior, returned from an unsucc essful stint on the goldfields. The second son, William, my great-grandfather, inherited his elder step-brother Henry Harrison s house and orchard at Oyster Cove, in 1875, since Henry Harrison has only daughters.
The youngest son moved to the land on South Bruny, close by Adventure Bay.
My great-grandfather, William, known unkindly by several generations as Snivelling Billy , was for many years the schoolteacher as Oyster Cove, tutoring the children of the steady stream of settlers wresting small farms and orchards from the deforested hills and valleys around. In 1877 the Tasmanian Gazetteer lists 250 residents of Oyster Cove, mostly wood-splitters and berry-producers. It was a regular occurrence in the summer for William s school to be closed while the entire community took part in fruit-picking.
Among William s pupils were children from the Davies and Trappes families who had taken allotments on the abandoned site of the Aboriginal station, and the Palmer family, who occupied the superintendent s residence . Another pupil was Charles Benbow who had been born on the Aboriginal station. His mother, Mrs Fanny Benbow, was the daughter of the sergeant-in-charge at Oyster Cove, and she relished vivid memories of the indigenous Tasmanians. She still had her childho od drawings of them. The most prominent of my great-grandfather s neighbours was William Crowther, wealthy businessman and Tasmanian Premier in 1878-9, who had initially established a timber business at Oyster Cove with Henry Harrison in 1850. His commerc ial association with the Pybus family ended in the 1870s. A familiar pattern, that. I often think we were the most downwardly mobile family in colonial history.
Crowther built a summer house on the southern side of the station in 1879, while buildings up his land holdings and commercial interests in shipping and forestry in the area. He maintained an active interest in the Aboriginal station amid rumours that he and his sons had already searched the site for remains in 1876. His son Edward eventually acquired the property in 1900.
The Crowther family did not attend William Pybus s school, as they were summer visitors only. Along with my grandfather, Alan, and his eleven brothers and sisters, the Crowther children found the old station an enchanting place to play. The mudflats were always a source of wonder and delight at low tide, as were the ruined station buildings, where clay pipes, bits of broken crocksery and tin mugs might be found. Games of hide and seek were facilitated by native tracks through the light scrub surrounding the cleared site.
In his later life, Edward Crowther s son, another William, remembered this carefree playground at Oyster Cove with great pleasure. His affectionate nostalgia for the site is cloudsed by the memory of his adventure in the spring of 1907 when, as a medical student aged eighteen, he and his friends located and exhumed the bodies of twelve Aboriginal people who had died at the station. Those bones not too badly infiltrated with tendrils of fern roots were sent to Melbourne for examination. The remainder were reverently reinterred, Crowther recalled. At the age of eighteen, the enlargement of science seemed to justify such action. The reification of science was an unfortunate family trait among the Crowthers.
With an ineffectual father, and too many siblings jostling for space, my grandfather Alan Pybus followed the lead of his older brothers by striking out for new territory. He was drawn to the booming mining town of Zeehan, on the west coast, but returned to the channel country just before the Great War. With a job assured at the Carbide works, newly opened on the edge of North West Bay, he built a charming weatherboard house on ten acres in the hamlet of Snug, within fallout distance of the works . Most of the family had dispersed, although several sisters had married within the district. The younger sister Minnie stayed on at Oyster Cove keeping house for her parents. The house of Henry Harrison became hers after their death.
I still dream of my grandparents garden at Snug. Although I regularly pass the house, its surrounding acres now subdivided, it seems quite unconnected with the magical realm of my childhood. My most persistent memory is the overhung path, which led to the rocksy shore beneath the house where we woul d play among the pools left by the receding tide. The path was deeply shaded in parts, and bordered with towering agapanthus; a riot of mauve and white alyssum grew among the paving stones. At one particular bend I can see, clearly as forty years ago, a cluster of primroses, the earliest of spring. The orchard bore varieties of apples unheard of today, small, sweet ones with the whitest flesh. In spring the mingling scent of blossom would make me dizzy, and in winter I could recreate a goblin forest beneath the gnarled branches. Inside the house were leather chairs and Toby jugs, a huge expandible cedar table spread with cream cakes, and macaroons, delicately flowered teacups of the finest bone china, pantry shelves stacked high with multicoloured Fowlers jars, and a mysterious room covered with dustcloths where children were not allowed.
Great-aunt Minnie's house at Oyster Cove, visited dutifully on occasional Sundays, was dark and cool, smelling of musty cupboards and overblown roses. But at high tide the water lapped the very edge of the garden and we kids could push the clinker dingy ou t into the channel to catch small flathead. My father, Don, was a late addition to the family of Alan and Kyra Pybus, many years younger than his two brothers. So children had become tiresome by the time I was around. Cousin Dennis and I were the only kids left, free to run wild with the careless confidence that no harm could possibly befall us. All the other cousins were grown up, or acted as if they were, anxious to get aw ay from the narrow confines of the channel, of Tasmania.
My father, too, had stars in his eyes about the world outside this exquisite backwater he knew too well. It took me many years to forgive him for wrenching me away, aged ten, to a place of concrete f ootpaths and home units where he could eat Peking Duck, as well as swim and sunbake, for most of the year. Then I forgot about it. Recurring images in dreams lost their point of reference, and I learnt it was prudent not to speak of a Tasmanian connection. A quarter of a century later as the plane lowered itself down over the Derwent Valley, I turned to my companion with a remembered aside: I was born here, you know. I come from a place called Snug.
So it is that I now inhabit the landscape of my dreams. I live in the house that was built by my fathers brother beside a narrow unsealed road which winds along the very edge of North West Bay and over the hill to descend somewhat precariously into Oyster Cove -- Old Station Road, the original road to the Aboriginal station. Now, with greenhouse tides, the water threatens to erode that section of road I have walked so many years in my dreams and which catches my breath for joy and surprise every various day I turn into it, just as it did five years ago when I remembered having been here before.
I am the last Pybus in the channel country. The others, those many cousins once, twice, thrice removed, have all quit the region, leaving only the occasional family memento on church headstones, school honour rolls, a streest sign. Their name has potency, though, in most parts of Tasmania. One of the old families, once the landed gentry. It has cachet, I have found, a respectability money could not buy. The 2560-acre land grant on Bruny may have been dissipated, but it has stood us all, even me, in good stead.
Following the familiar route of the old station road to its end, my dog beside me, I pause at the top of the hill to look back over North West Bay: tranquil, domesticated, shimmering in the sunshine. On the other side, the majestic vista of the D Entrecasteaux Channel opens out before me. Here the water is always ruffled by wind and currents, creating a marbling effect within the succession of fiords and bays. On either side the water is framed by steel-grey hills, the forests cleared, here and there, for emerald pasture, while the distant blue defiance of the great fluted cape dominates the entire scene. A square-rigged sailing boat, astoundingly white against the blues and greys of the channel, manoeuvres soundlessly with the wind. It could be 1877. The familiar whine of a chainsaw reminds me it is not.
Leaving the grand sweep of vista, my walk descends into a perpetually damp gully of man ferns and musk trees. From habit I tug at a handful of musk leaves to release their heady, evocative smell and I am aware of the melancholy that always seems to emanate from Oyster Cove. Crossing Mathinna Creek I catch the sounds of revelry from the old station site. Smoke rises above the trees and the strains of a country-and-western band carry to where I stand among the damp, aromatic trees, waiting for my dogs. In contrast to the usual reflective silences of my walk, this day Oyster Cove is reverberating with noisy activity. It is a festive day to celebrate the survival of Aboriginal ity in Tasmania at this place of great significance.
When I arrive the crowd has already spread over the grass and under trees around a makeshift stage. There are many hundreds, from every part of Tasmania; from Cape Barren and Flinders Island, from Devonport, Smithton, Launceston. It is a huge family gathering. On the stage two youngsters perform a wickedly suggestive mime of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers to wild applause. At a nearby table Aboriginal activist June Sculthorpe is selling T-shirts. Everyone is wearing them. In the land rights colours of yellow, red and black the message proclaims the reoccupation of Oyster Cove and Aboriginal sovereignty. I am wearing another message in the same colours. Mine says: Two hundred years of T-shirts. We laugh at that and suggest a swap. Long ago we were close neighbours here, her family and mine. I feel absurdly pleased to be welcome at this celebration of their reoccupation. The mood is infectious, every face is beaming. People hug each other with spontaneous joy. Beside the barbecue Michael Mansell, recently returned from his meeting with Colonel Gaddafi, is coaxing the Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs to eat a wallaby patty. The pungent smell of muttonbirds hangs in the air.
On the edge of the crowd I find my cousin Dennis and his wife Carol. We remember our games here and try to reconstruct the site as it was then. The Aboriginal community has done a lot of work in the last few years. As well as the lawns and barbecue there is an interpretation centre for Aboriginal history and a ceremonial burial site, which now contains the cremated remains of the famous Crowther collection and others, recovered, after decades of effort, from museums around the country. Small cairns protect each burial plot. An Aborigi nal elder tries to keep the children s play away from them. On the mudflats a game of rounders is in full swing and too often a ball comes perilously close. It has always been a great place for kids. Denniss sons collect mussels with throngs of Aboriginal kids so that they can cook them the Aboriginal way.
On the stage performers come and go, white politicians say encouraging things about possible title to the land, and events wash around us with waves of joyful satisfaction. Apart from the occasional spat between the many dogs, the atmosphere is as clear and sunny as the day. Everyone is pleased. Something momentous has happened here. Enmasse the Aboriginal people of Tasmania have said: We are here, We belong here. This is our sacred place. In an act of great symbolic and spiritual significance, they have taken back the one last piece of land which was allowed their tribal ancestors, which has over generations remained the symbol of the continuity of their culture. Occupation of the old station is at once a homage to the past and an affirmation of the present. It matters not what the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs or the Tasmanian Government says about the legalities of it.
The sailing ship seen earlier is now directly across the water, sails furled. On stage a group from Flinders performs the muttonbirders dance. A shift in attention brings two centuries of history full circle.
It s appalling to think that almost no-one knows the story of what happened here, I am moved to declare. I think I should write a book about it.
Amid the murmur of assent Carol says sharply: First we steal the blackfellas land, then we deny them an identity and now you want to steal their story for your own intellectual purposes. Don't you think thats just another kind of colonialism? Carol is enrolled in an Aboriginal Studies degree, by correspondence, in Adelaide. She has a point.
I think a good deal about this point. It seems to me that the stories contained in this landscape I love so immoderately are critical to my self-definition; to my pride in being Australian and a fifth generation of white immigrants born into this benign and lovely place. We are shaped by this past, I clumsily try to tell her, and we need to know about it. We need to know how it is we white Australians call this country home.
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Cassandra Pybus is represented in North America by Bella Pomer Agency and in the UK by Carol Blake of Blake Friedman.
Contact Cassandra Pybus by email
AHR/ Ed Board/ Cassandra Pybus / Raven Road
Community of Thieves/ Gross Moral Turpitude/The Devil and James McAuley
Till Apples Grow on an Orange Tree/ White Rajah