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Tanganutara (Sarah) (c. 1805–1858)

by Gaye Sculthorpe

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Tanganutara (Sarah) by J.S. Prout, 1845

Tanganutara (Sarah) by J.S. Prout, 1845

British Museum, 76114001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Tanganutara (c.1805–1858), palawa woman, also known as Tarenootairrer, Taenghanootera, Tibb, Sarah, and Ploorenelle, was born in the early 1800s in the North East Nation of lutrawita (Tasmania). She was likely a member of the Pinterrairer clan—from Layrappenthe country at Mussel Roe, to the south of Cape Portland—one of the clans of the North East (Cape Portland Tasmanian) people. Tanganutara was one of the women who survived the brutal effects of colonisation and whose many descendants formed a link among the palawa.

As a young girl, in about 1815, Tanganutara was abducted from her family by James Parish, a sealer in the Bass Strait. It was a common practice of Bass Strait sealers to steal young women and girls, to keep them in sexual slavery, and use as labour. Traded between sealers, she was sold by Parish to John Smith in around 1818 for the price of four seal skins and, within a year, Smith sold her to a third man, George Robinson. She lived with Robinson, a man in his late fifties, on various islands, firstly in the west of Bass Strait—at King Island and thereabouts until 1825, then at Woody Island in the east. Life with Robinson was harsh; she was frequently beaten with sticks, and she witnessed the brutal murder of Woorethmakyerpodeyer, her kinswoman from Piper’s River, who was shot by the sealer James Everitt because he did not like the way she cleaned mutton birds.

When George Augustus Robinson, the Aboriginal ‘protector,’ visited Bass Strait in November 1830, Tanganutara was one of two Aboriginal women living with the sealer Robinson on Woody Island. G. A. Robinson took away the other woman and left Tanganutara to assist the sealer, who was by then blind in one eye. The following month, on 11 December 1830, James Parish, then working as a coxswain for G. A. Robinson, took her and several other women away from the sealers to join others in exile on the islands of Bass Strait.

In May 1831 Tanganutara returned to the mainland of lutrawita with G. A. Robinson and his Aboriginal guides to look for all remaining Aboriginal people as part of his mission to corral them into a controlled settlement offshore. Tanganutara’s knowledge of the North East Country aided the search in that region. After locating Multiyalakina (Eumarrah), an important palawa leader, in August 1831, she continued travelling with Robinson in search of the Big River people of central Tasmania. During this time, her knowledge of language was occasionally recorded by Robinson, who noted words such as nereenner (caterpillar), lackkerrer (fern root), and toppelteenne (make haste). After the surrender of the Big River People on 31 December 1831, Tanganutara walked into Hobart with them where they were paraded before the lieutenant-governor and the townspeople.

The following month, Tanganutara was taken back to Flinders Island, leaving Hobart on 17 January 1832. She firstly lived at The Lagoons, and then at Wybalenna, the Aboriginal settlement, where by 1837 she had formed a relationship with Nikamanik (Nicermenic). Like other women at Wybalenna, she was required to learn sewing and knitting, and undertake some schooling.

Tanganutara gave birth to at least four children, including a girl named Mary Ann, who were fathered by sealers. Her second known daughter, Fanny, was born in 1834, but the father’s name was not recorded. Nikamanik was the father of Tanganutara’s son, Adam (1838–1857). Another son died of influenza when ships arrived carrying the disease. In accordance with traditional customs, she kept the child’s skull to wear as an amulet.

Determined to protect the interests of her children, Tanganutara, with Nikamanik, protested against Fanny being sent to the Queen’s Orphan School, Hobart, in 1842. In 1846 she gave evidence to Captain Matthew Friend who was conducting an inquiry into the treatment of children on Flinders Island—including Fanny, who was then living in the home of the catechist Robert Clark.

Along with the remaining Aboriginal people at Flinders Island, Tanganutara was moved to Oyster Cove station in 1847, where Nikamanik, recorded as her husband, died in 1849. At Oyster Cove, Tanganutara lived with her daughter Mary Ann and son-in-law Walter George Arthur, a palawa man probably part of the Ben Lomond Nation. After Fanny married William Smith, an English sawyer and ex-convict, in 1854, she was a frequent visitor to their house at nearby Irish Town (Nicholls Rivulet). Their son, William Henry, was born in 1856. Tanganutara passed her knowledge of palawa traditions, songs, stories, and language to Fanny, who made recordings of the songs on wax cylinders in 1899 and 1903. She also taught Fanny how to work fibre, and some of Fanny’s baskets survive in the collections of Museums Victoria, Melbourne, and the Museum für Volkerkunde, Leipzig, Germany.

Tanganutara’s portrait was painted several times: at Flinders Island in 1845 by the visiting artist John Skinner Prout, and at Oyster Cove or in Hobart by Ludwig Becker in 1852. After a short illness, during which she was attended by her family and visited by a doctor, Tanganutara died at Oyster Cove on 3 October 1858 and was buried in the station’s cemetery. In 1909, William E. L. H. Crowther dug up many Aboriginal skeletons from the graveyard at Oyster Cove for his study and collection; Tanganutara’s remains may have been among them.

The meaning of Tanganutara’s name, ‘weeping bitterly,’ was apt. She lived through a tumultuous period of conflict and dispossession of the palawa people, suffered untold hardships at the hands of sealers, and was confined to poverty in exile from her Country, giving her many reasons to weep. Although our memory of her is overshadowed by that of her daughter, the singer Fanny Smith, Tanganutara played a key role in transmitting cultural knowledge that was used in the twentieth century to revitalise palawa language and traditions. The British Museum, the National Gallery of Australia, and the State Library of Victoria hold her portraits.

 

Gaye Sculthorpe is palawa and a descendant of Tanganutara.

Select Bibliography

  • Coad, D. Port Cygnet 1860-1900. Vol 2 of A History of Tasmania. Kingston, Tasmania: D. Coad, 2010
  • Clark, Julie. ‘Hell’s Child: The Triumphant Story of Fanny Cochrane Smith.’ Unpublished manuscript, n.d. Copy sighted, held by Gaye Sculthorpe
  • Plomley, N. J. B. Friendly Mission: The Tasmanian Journals and Papers of George Augustus Robinson 1829-1834, 2nd ed. Hobart: Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery. Quintus, 2008
  • Plomley, N. J. B. Weep in Silence: A History of the Flinders Island Aboriginal Settlement. Hobart: Blubberhead Press, 1987
  • Sculthorpe, Gaye. ‘Weep Bitterly: The Life of Tanganutara.’ Unpublished manuscript held by Gaye Sculthorpe

Citation details

Gaye Sculthorpe, 'Tanganutara (Sarah) (c. 1805–1858)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/tanganutara-sarah-30701/text38044, accessed 17 April 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012

Tanganutara (Sarah) by J.S. Prout, 1845

Tanganutara (Sarah) by J.S. Prout, 1845

British Museum, 76114001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

More images

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Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Taenghanootera
  • Tibb
  • Ploorenelle
Birth

c. 1805
Tasmania, Australia

Death

3 October, 1858 (aged ~ 53)
Oyster Cove, Tasmania, Australia

Cause of Death

unknown

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Occupation