In 1834, ten convicts stole the Frederick, the last ship to be built at the notorious prison at Sarah Island, on Tasmania’s wild west coast. The convicts managed to sail the Frederick south of New Zealand and six weeks later arrived in Chile. They abandoned the ship eighty kilometres off the coast and rowed to shore, passing themselves off as shipwrecked sailors.

Tasmania and Patagonia, which encompasses the southern latitudes of Chile and Argentina, are long separated Gondwanan sisters. Gondwana, the ancient supercontinent, once contained most of today’s southern hemisphere land masses.

Exploring Tierra del Fuego, in Patagonia’s deep south, takes me back to Tasmania, something that hadn’t happened before in my year of travelling slowly southward from Guatemala. Isla Grande, the main island of Tierra del Fuego, is about two thirds the size of Tasmania and the dry sheep-grazing northern half mirrors our Midlands. The south is much more dramatic. Jagged mountains watch over deep green forests and rocky coastline. On the harbour of the main city, Ushuaia, glitters an uncanny reflection of Hobart.

At fifteen hundred kilometres further south, Tierra del Fuego reveals a glimpse of how Tasmania may have looked during the last ice age. Though thousands of miles apart, Tasmania and Patagonia share floras. Botanists speak of ‘Antarctic flora’, which includes plant families such as Nothofagus, found in Patagonia, Tasmania, and in fossilised form in Antarctica. Once a year, the Nothofagus sets fire to the deep greens of Tasmania’s alpine landscapes, with a festival of yellows, oranges and reds. Patagonia’s Nothofagus forests nurtured and gifted song to a young Pablo Neruda, and transport those who wander them today to an ancient world.

There are historical parallels too, in the establishment of penal colonies. Van Diemen’s Land was a penal colony from 1803 to 1856, while Tierra del Fuego followed suit in 1896. In Ushuaia a prison modelled on Tasmania’s Port Arthur was built to house Argentina’s more infamous criminals and political prisoners. Much of the town of Ushuaia was built by convicts, just as many Tasmanian towns were (see Sue Ballyn, ‘La Australia Argentina: from ‘Terra Nullius’ to Tierra del Fuego’, The Journal of the European Association of Studies on Australia, Vol.1, 2009).

It is, however, the original peoples of the Gondwanan sisters for whom scene and story are most closely mirrored. As I wander Tierra del Fuego, absorbing sights and smells that as a Tasmanian are strangely familiar, I’m unsure if it’s the ghosts of those earlier Fuegian Indians or of the Tasmanian Aborigines visiting my mind.

A vision of Tasmania past? Patagonia

People are thought to have crossed into Tasmania forty thousand years ago, via the land bridge that connected mainland Australia during the last glacial period. According to genetic studies, once the sea level rose again, flooding the Bassian Plain, these people were then left isolated for eight thousand years until European exploration in the late eighteenth century. Most anthropologists believe people crossed the Bering Strait from Asia to North America thirty thousand years ago, eventually making it to the southern tip of the Americas, Tierra del Fuego, ten thousand years later. The Fuegian peoples were left in peace longer than the Tasmanians, having little contact with Europeans until the mid-nineteenth century.

Though separated by a vast ocean, the Fuegians and the Tasmanians led similar lives. In fact, there were such racial and cultural similarities between the indigenous peoples of Australia and this part of South America that, despite the huge distances, some researchers believe there may have been a transpacific migration from Australia to the Chilean coast thousands of years before the escape from Sarah Island. Some anthropologists have gone further, arguing that the Fuegian Indians actually came from Tasmania, migrating across Antarctica when it was warmer, to the Fuegian islands.

Tasmania and Tierra del Fuego were both populated by nomadic tribes who didn’t practice agriculture. Unlike some other ancient cultures, these southern peoples didn’t write or build stone monuments. Perhaps for them, all that needed to be written was done so by nature, and no monument could be built that would compare to the natural features of both lands.

In Tasmania, there were thought to be at least nine distinct ethnic groups, and in Tierra del Fuego the Selk’nam, Yaghan, Haush and Alakaluf were also distinct from one another. However, the indigenous Fuegians and the Tasmanians all left middens, and made necklaces, bracelets and anklets of shells and small bones with threads of dried ligaments. They painted themselves, especially for ceremonies, they made similar baskets, cutting tools, spears and canoes. Neither constructed permanent shelters, and despite the harsh climate, the indigenous peoples of Tasmania and Tierra del Fuego were generally naked, often coated in grease and oil.

None of these indigenous groups had chiefs or leaders, though commonality of views and the opinions of elders did carry weight. This was one of the cultural fundamentals that contributed to the difficulties of interacting with the strange new settlers, especially the soldiers and missionaries who embodied a culture of hierarchy and obedience.

The Midlands? Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego means ‘land of fire’, so called because the inhabitants of those cold southern islands lit large fires on their beaches, thought to have been emergency signals when the ships of explorers passed. It is also believed that Tasmanian Aborigines lit fires to guide French explorers Péron and Freycinet back to shore, after they shared of food, song and dance with a tribe near Cygnet. In both places, much of the early contact was gentle and respectful. But explorers and scientists were one thing, convicts, soldiers and settlers another.

The tribes of America’s far south didn’t first excite European interest, as they didn’t produce raw materials or goods for commerce. Having nothing worth stealing protected them for centuries. However, late in the nineteenth century, as sheep graziers pushed further south, European interaction with the indigenous peoples of the region intensified.

As the governments of Tasmania, Chile and Argentina granted huge areas of land to graziers and farmers, inconceivable concepts surrounded the nomadic tribes. That these new animals were not to be hunted was unintelligible, especially when the directive was given in English or Spanish. Settlers in Patagonia reacted brutally to the loss of small numbers of sheep, hunting the Selk’nam tribes, and even paying rewards for their corpses. A few years earlier, the same had been happening in Tasmania. The indigenous peoples found it as impossible to comprehend the concepts of private property and obedience to strangers, as the colonisers found comprehending life without these deeply engrained social rules.

Gold was discovered in Tierra del Fuego in 1878, causing a sudden influx of prospectors, who treated the Indians terribly, often killing the men to steal the women. The world of the prospectors in Tierra del Fuego was not unlike that of the sealers in Tasmania.

The Tasmanian sealers came mostly from Britain and North America. Many of them established semi-permanent settlements and had Aboriginal wives, some obtained as an item of trade, others via murder and abduction. Many of these women were treated horrendously, tortured, killed. Some escaped, including Tarerenorerer, who attempted to kill sealers in response to their brutality and went on to lead attacks with other escaped women.

With the arrival of Europeans, Tasmania and Tierra del Fuego became harsh, unruly places, where opportunists would let little inhibit their dreams of wealth, especially not ‘uncivilised natives’. For some, the slaughter of Aborigines and Indians became a sick sport. Tribes were hunted down on horseback, steel traps set near food stores, babies thrown into fires. In The Tasmanians: The story of a Doomed Race (Cassell, 1968, p. 147), Robert Travers relates the following incident. An Aboriginal man, intrigued by a white settler repeatedly pulling the trigger of an unloaded pistol against his head, was invited to come closer and try. He did, and was handed a loaded pistol.

Mural in main street, Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego

In 1824, The Hobart Town Gazette stated that ‘perhaps taken collectively, the sable Natives of this colony are the most peaceful creatures in the world’. But as they were forced into more remote areas, the spread of settler society pursued them. Exclusion from hunting lands and sacred places, brutal treatment and unprovoked attacks soon ensured the Tasmanian Aborigines fought back.

Aborigines, and later Indians, retaliated, attacking settlers and property, provoking disproportionate retribution. Both peoples were diverse, with different languages and beliefs, making it difficult for the various groups to come together to face a common threat.

Argentina’s General Julio Roca decided he would ’settle’ the Indian problem. General Roca used disappearance, a fate worse than death – a constant death – and still a popular means of resolving problems in Latin America. The Indians were disappeared before they even appeared. The invasions were described as conquests of ‘desert’ and ’empty space’.

In 1879, with a force of eight thousand men in five columns spread across the country and moving south through Patagonia, his forces overwhelmed the mostly unarmed Indians. This was repeated for three years. About two thousand Indians survived the genocide and were taken to Martín García Island far away in La Plata River delta, where most died of disease. As in Tasmania, children were often taken as servants to their parents’ killers.

After Roca’s crusade, over four million hectares of land were then distributed to sixty-seven officers, soldiers and Government officials, including Roca himself, who gained sixty-five thousand hectares, proclaiming Patagonia: ‘Forever free from Indian domination in this incredibly vast territory that now offers astonishing promise to immigrants and foreign capital’ (Eduardo Galeano, Mirrors, Portabello Books, 2009, p 248).

Tasmania, of course, had its own southward-travelling wave of ‘war’ designed to consume the last of the original Tasmanians. The ‘Black Line’ was actually a white line; Governor Arthur’s giant comb made from soldiers and volunteers that would force the Aborigines southward, gradually narrowing to eventually trap them on the Tasman Peninsula. It was a farce, and merely served to show how little Tasmania’s new establishment knew the land or its people. As the prongs of the great white comb starved and struggled, often barefoot in very uncomblike formation, Aborigines easily passed through undetected.

Eventually, though, in Tasmania and in Tierra del Fuego, the last of the nomadic indigenous peoples were transported to island reserves, out of the way of settlers. To get them to accept the plan, said Tasmania’s Executive Council, it was necessary ‘to inspire them with terror’ (Travers, p 156).

Not all settlers agreed with the savage treatment of the original inhabitants. ‘Border Settler’ wrote to the editor of The Tasmanian in December 1827, warning against sending the Natives to offshore islands and describing how fear and hatred had affected the settlers so that they shot Aborigines at any opportunity. He argued that the dominant view was based on biased reports from stockmen and farmers, and that a genuine means of communication must be sought.

Nothofagus, Tierra del Fuego

As in the rest of the Americas, and indeed most European colonies, the ‘sword and the cross marched together’ across these two distant islands. The Church supported concepts of European superiority and the need to ‘civilise the savages’. But from the Church also arrived two unique men: George Robinson in Tasmania, and later Thomas Bridges in Tierra del Fuego.

When most white settlers were calling for the army to be deployed to exterminate the native ‘vermin’, Robinson convinced Governor Arthur to let him hike the wilderness to persuade the Aboriginal peoples to come peacefully to mission stations on islands off mainland Tasmania. For several years he wandered the forests meeting Aborigines and speaking to them in their language. His actions undoubtedly saved hundreds from death by musket fire, but he would later oversee their death by disease on the mission stations on Flinders and Bruny Islands.

Bridges, who had been found as an orphan on a bridge in England by Chaplain George Despard, was in charge of the mission on Keppel Island, Tierra del Fuego, by the age of seventeen. He would later run the main Fuegian mission near Ushuaia, established in 1869, from where he would travel to resolve disputes between the Indians, settlers and seamen. His mediating influence was so strong that British admiralty publications stated that, thanks to his influence, ‘the Natives are to be trusted’.

Bridges learnt and documented the language of the canoe-dwelling Yaghan people, who had an incredibly complex language with over thirty-five thousand words, sixteen vowels and fifty-four sounds. Foreseeing the dangers that colonisation would bring to the Indian population, Bridges lobbied to have the sale of tobacco and alcohol to Indians banned, to have Indians paid the same as settlers when engaged in work, and to guarantee Indian possession of land.

But Bridges, as Robinson before him, was powerless against Europe’s most efficient microscopic armies. Diseases such as typhoid, whooping cough, smallpox and tuberculosis decimated the native populations all the more quickly once they were in permanent close contact with Europeans at the missions.

Scores of Indians and Aborigines ended their days succumbing to disease on tiny islands, off small islands, at the southern end of the earth. Wretched mission stations on Flinders and Bruny Islands in Tasmania, followed a few years later by similar missions on Isla Navarino, Isla Keppel and Isla Hoste, were the last places for those living the old ways. When the San Rafael Mission closed, only twenty-five of the thousand who entered between 1889 and 1898 were still alive.

While there is much debate over whether both Robinson and Bridges were really great men of compassion, or merely egoists, opportunists or religious fundamentalists, at the very least they were nonconformists who saw a situation and a people differently to that of the dominant view of their time.

The two missionaries showed that a mutual respect and peace could be achieved more easily through a fusion of cultures than war of cultures, despite prevailing views to the contrary. Robinson wrote in 1830:

When I reflect how these people had been calumniated and had every vice attributed to them, when I reflect upon the dire alarm that pervades the settlements of this island on account of them, it may appear a matter of surprise to many that I should sojourn with thirty-three of them for nights together, the only white man in the recluse of the forest, far from my people and a means of protection. (in Travers, p. 165).

Tierra del Fuego’s convict past

Throughout most of the twentieth century in both lands, the dominant teaching of governments and schools has been that these peoples were extinct, they had ceased to exist. Even in the 1980s, while Tasmanian children were being taught that the story ended with Truganini’s death, General Pinochet was circulating government posters affirming, ‘In Chile, there are no Indians: just Chileans’.

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego

The more I learn of Tasmania’s history, the more I am shocked at how little I know. I was educated here during the 1980s and 90s, yet while I learnt of Captain Cook’s life and of a long list of bushrangers, governors and penal settlements, all I learnt of the Aboriginal story was that Truganini was the last full-blooded Tasmanian. I was never taught any more about her people, their troubled interaction with colonists, or the continuation of cultures.

I never learned of Truganini’s childhood, watching her mother being stabbed to death by settlers. Nor was I told the story of the boatmen who tricked Truganini and her husband into a friendly ride to Bruny Island. Once in deep water her husband was hurled overboard. He managed to swim back to the boat and tried to pull himself up. As Truganini was held back, has hands were chopped off, and she watched him drown.

Yet, somehow Truganini trusted Robinson, travelling with him and acting as interpreter and mediator. She even saved him from drowning, after he plunged into a river to flee a hostile tribe. Truganini, born in 1803 in a world uninhabited by Europeans, was said to be the last of her people when she died, in a different world, in 1876. Her story is a skeleton of the story of her people post European settlement.

Why did I hear so little of the Tasmanian story at school? It would have been distressing, but that didn’t stop us learning of world wars. Perhaps in part, it is because we still struggle to talk about this past without resorting to ideas of good, bad, fault, guilt, at the expense of peoples, stories, culture, being. Yet, surely we must wander our troubled past, as Neruda suggested in The World’s End, to die with every death, in order to live again, bound by our testimony, and our unyielding hope.

Sitting on the edge of the Southern Ocean, in Ushuaia, I look past the red Antarctic icebreaker resting in the wharf, to the small city nestled at the feet of its mountain guard on the southern shores of its island – my mind drifts back to Hobart. I feel a closeness to this place, as if it is somehow family of my home – a true sister city.

Today, in Tasmania and Tierra del Fuego, around three and a half per cent of the population identify as indigenous. These peoples continue in the bodies, words and souls of today. Yet, there is a difference. In Tierra del Fuego I am constantly aware of the indigenous presence. There are museums solely for the Indian story, bookshops are dominated by it, murals don’t shy away from the brutal and tragic story of two worlds colliding. I sit and wonder why the Tasmanian story, so similar, is still so obscured.

The white hand holding the gold and the anguished Indian, Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego

Many read of these collisions of cultures, and console themselves – ‘we didn’t know any better’. But ‘Border Settler’, and many other dissenters, dissolve that comforting myth. As many read of the violence, lack of empathy, and eventual imprisonment of a displaced people on offshore islands, will they see it as the inhumane mistakes of a time past, or will they think of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers today? When reading of entire peoples consumed for the ‘progress’ of another people, do we think, ‘Thank god we would not do that today’, or does our mind wander to the Amazon or West Papua, and wonder, have we changed at all?

Each place is a palimpsest. Ancient layers can be obscured or buried, but they never cease to exist. My journey from Tasmania to South America passed through a different world to the one sailed by the escapees of Sarah Island – and yet, it is also the same. This Gondwanan mirror remains intact, and the distant cousins reflected in it today face similar struggles to preserve communal knowledge, ritual, tradition – culture.

This culture is a richer and more complex reality than the conquerors’ histories or today´s obscurers assume. As the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano suggests in his Days and Nights of Love and War, culture is foremost a human relationship: ‘testimonies of what we are, prophecies of the imagination, denunciations of what prevents us from being’.

Republished with the permission of Island Magazine, from Island 127, out now. Island Magazine