Books read February 2021

Cassandra Pybus: Truganini: Journey Through the Apocalypse, p/b,  Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2020 

Cassandra Pybus

Cassandra Pybus is descended from Richard Pybus, who having ventured to Australia from England in 1829 was handed a large grant of land on North Bruny Island in Tasmania while Truganini was still living on the island. Cassandra recalls family stories of her great-grandfather talking about Truganni’s exploits on the island as a young girl visiting the Pybus estate looking for gifts of tea, sugar or damper. Cassandra has lived for over thirty five years on Bruny Island, close to the site of the family’s original land grant. This historical examination of the complex life of Truganini, “the last Tasmanian aborigine” is her attempt to do justice to a remarkable woman who lived through the planned destruction and removal  of the culture and life of the indigenous peoples of Van Diemen’s Land (thought to be at least 4000 prior to European occupation) by white settlers in the nineteenth century. 

It is a tale that is inextricably mixed and could not be told without also telling part of the story of  George Augustus Robinson, an emigrant builder from England who settled in Hobart. Robinson’s Christian faith led him to seek a resolution to the inevitable and destructive clash of cultures between the new invading settlers, convicts and sealers  and the ancient indigenous tribes of Van Diemen’s Land of which there were at least eight major nations all with different languages.  

Truganini, painting in British Museum

Image of Truganini painted by artist Thomas Bock, 1835, British Museum

Robinson’s personal journal edited by N J B Plomley, along with a host of other historical records is the major source of Pybus’s information about a large part of Truganini’s life. For twelve years Robinson, Truganini and other indigenous leaders worked closely together in an ultimately flawed attempt to unite the scattered tribal groups and find a sanctuary where they could live and hunt in peace. Robinson at first made almost superhuman efforts to trek through impenetrable forest and untracked wilderness to form friendships with various native groups. He learned to communicate and attempted to encourage them to join his “mission” with Truganini as one of his most faithful leaders and trackers (although she did not once appear in his journal!). Robinson’s initial idealistic vision became increasingly coercive and self-regarding as he vaingrloriously sought to be the hero who solved the “native problem”.

In the end it all came to nothing with inter-tribal warfare and governmental pressure to get the native inhabitants off the island and resettled in the Flinders Islands. This was a physically unsuitable location which broke the spirits and  hearts of the migratory tribal groups and which was poorly provisioned and supervised by inappropriate white leadership. The indigenous peoples died rapidly in numbers during Truganini’s lifetime, with some of the worst atrocities being the dismemberment of their bodies and skulls for profit and “scientific investigation”. 

This is a an unrelentingly grim read. It is a tale of atrocious murder, rape and imprisonment of indigenous peoples by escaped and freed convicts, rapacious sealers and incompetent white leadership. Many of the British leaders and the settlers/convicts regarded the natives, like the Tesmanian Tiger, as an irritation to be rounded up, hunted down and destroyed  or dispatched to somewhere else. Licentious and evil men including John Batman, the so-called founder of Melbourne, created havoc murdering the men and enslaving the women.  Athough there were many individuals in the Colony who did seek unity and a solution, the official line was determinedly the ridding of the indigenous tribes from the island. 

A major strength of this book is the timeline and biographies of key people  and their various names at the end of the book which helps to make sense of the mixed relationships and names and demonstrates the complexity of the tribal groups and interactions. My wife’s advice to read the biographies first was very wise and helpful!

Cassandra Pybus has written a sensitive and powerful book. She does not glorify Truganini’s behaviour including her four husbands and unashamed use of sexuality for favours and survival, On the contrary Truganini several times risked her own life in extreme physical danger including floods and illness to protect Robinson and keep his dream alive. The tale of Homo Sapiens is a mixed one of extraordinary achievement and progress alongside the appalling destruction of cultures and the natural environment. 

This early Tasmanian chapter joins a very long and sad list of internecine destruction of cultures. In our prosperous and largely happy and safe nation today, Pybus has given us much to think about.  Five stars. 

Norman Davies: Rising ’44: ‘The Battle for Warsaw’, p/b, London, Pan, 2004

Norman Davies

For a start this is a huge book.  Over 750 pages in quite small print in this paperback edition. Davies is perhaps the preeminent modern historian of Europe, and his many works including the exceptional History of Europe (1997) and The Isles (1999).  With his Polish wife and complete fluency in Polish Davies has written two histories of Poland in addition to this major work on the 1944 insurgent uprising against the Nazi assault on Warsaw.  

The 1944 Warsaw insurgent uprising against the Nazi occupation of Warsaw is not to be confused with the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising in which brave Jewish fighters whose people were being systematically slaughtered and deported to death camps attempted against hopeless odds to break out from the ghetto and fight their way to freedom. That horrific and tragic  story also needs to be told but Rising ’44 is the story of the underground Polish army led byTadeusz-Bór-Komorowski  (‘Bor’ was one of his wartime code names). 

On the face of it, the uprising was a doomed contest with half-starved insurgents with minimal weapons and ammunition pitted against the combined power of the German Wehrmacht war machine and the Gestapo Secret police. General ‘Boor” thought that the insurgents might survive for four days preparing the way for Russian forces under Generals Rokossovski from the east and Berling from the south to finish the job. In the end the the German military through everything against both allied armies and it appears (though not certain) that Stalin felt that it was more convenient for the German army to put paid to the Rising while the Russian effort focused on controlling the Balkan war.  As it turned out the brave insurgents maintained their stand for 63 days with virtually no allied assistance except one flawed air drop from the England.  Working from bombed out buildings in underground and fortified  bunkers and operating through the sewer system, the insurgents, many of them teenagers or younger, fought with extraordinary and bravery and initiative killing many more opponents than their own losses and controlling significant parts of the city. 

Davies uses a vast array of official documentation (much of it in Polish) along with “capsules” of private letters and stories of individuals, many of them heart-breaking but all of them supremely courageous. The book has three main sections: (i) Before the Rising with particular attention to the allied coalition (pathetically ineffectual and confused  in the case of Warsaw as it turned out) alongside the brutally savage and destructive German occupation as well as approaches from the Russians in the East and the beginnings of resistance. (ii) The Rising itself from outbreak to finale over 63 days).  (iii) After the Rising. This is perhaps the most heart breaking part of this story, with the Russians choosing (it seems) to stay out until the Wehrmacht had totally slaughtered and smashed the city (worse than Dresden!).  When the Soviets finally move in the real heart break begins with the Russian refusal to recognise the insurgents in any way. Treating them as “pro-German” and as thieves and  criminals they murdered many, deported the rest to death camps and for almost forty years denied there ever was an uprising!

This is not a feel-good book about the great allied victory in World War 11. Apart from anything else, the little known story that without the courage and sheer weight of numbers of the Soviets the war would never have  been one by the “allies”. Alongside this is the duplicity and complexity of Stalin himself and the inability to clearly understand many of his decisions and directions. In addition the divided “official Polish government” sequestered in London, combined with the British War cabinet preoccupation with war theatres other than Poland meant that British assistance was minimal, too late and confused.

It is only in the last twenty years that the Polish insurgents have been recognised for their extraordinary courage and achievement with monuments in a rebuilt Warsaw and the true story finally allowed to be heard. Davies’ achievement in this book  is heroic in itself! Five stars and rising. 

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