Extirpation is an ugly word: it describes the form of extermination that comes from digging out a living thing, roots and all. Of all the sites of colonial atrocity in Australia, Wybalenna in lutruwita/Tasmania most embodies that practice.
It was the first colonial mission, in operation from 1834 to 1847, set up by the man still problematically known as the “great conciliator”: the missionary George Augustus Robinson. After the violence of the Black War, and the failed military campaign of the Black Line, Robinson was tasked by Governor Arthur with convincing the remaining, conflict-ravaged palawa to “temporarily” retreat to a remote outer island, which he described as one of safety and succour. But this was no deliverance: it was an exile. The promised sanctuary on Flinders Island was closer to a concentration camp. Faced with white people’s diseases against which they had no immunity, exacerbated by damp, unsuitable accommodation, dislocated and dispossessed, the imprisoned palawa became sick and died in horrifying numbers.
More than 250 people were incarcerated at Wybalenna, of whom 107 are buried in unmarked graves in the cemetery there. Only 47 survived to be eventually relocated back to mainland Tasmania following a successful petition to Queen Victoria.
Historians universally describe Wybalenna as a place of terrible suffering – a camp where the “chief business was dying”, a prison where “the disintegration of the culture of Van Diemen’s Land Aborigines was achieved”. Bruce Elder wrote that “if ever a group died of broken hearts it was the Aboriginal people who spent their last days on Flinders Island”.
There is a mythic power in the story of Wybalenna, one of duplicity, betrayal and exile – and by all accounts a potent sense of tragedy remains in the place itself. Located on the floor of a wide, windy valley on the western side of Flinders Island, today the site has a desolate kind of beauty. The brick chapel, completed in 1838 and later reconstructed, is a material reminder of the mission to “civilise” the palawa through Christianity. Meanwhile, the traces of those people themselves, where they lived and died, have been all but erased: in the cemetery the headstones of white settlers lie on one side, while a hauntingly larger expanse of ground, a field of unmarked Aboriginal graves, stretches out on the other.
Many architects would be afraid to venture into such a domain. Most would not be trusted or invited to. But Taylor and Hinds Architects have a deep, longstanding relationship with the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania, custodians of the site since 1999, who have asked them to consider what could be done here. Principal Mat Hinds is very definite on the limits of this role, emphatic that this is not the architects’ story to tell. He won’t discuss Wybalenna at all except in the presence of a community leader – in this case Rebecca Digney, current Land Council manager.
Digney herself is carefully non-specific about what might be proposed for the place. There is mention of important truth-telling, although not singularly for tourists or visitors, perhaps specifically for palawa. There might be some restoration of the ruins of the cells. But most of all, she says, it’s about telling the story in a way that “honours our Old People but tells the truth”.
Maybe there won’t be buildings at all: both Digney and Hinds seem quite comfortable with that prospect, thinking instead of design as “an act of healing” and a “means of restitution – absolutely determined by questions of being in Country”. That’s the essence of the architectural work here: it’s a process, based on a relational practice of empathetic listening. This is long, slow, trauma-sensitive, political work, and indeed it is the main work – only palawa themselves can decide how this truth should be told.
Digney, who has never worked with an architect before, is effusive about the possibilities of design in such a process. The thing that’s struck her, she says, is Taylor and Hinds’ “ability to take people’s feeling about something and … and come up with something tangible. I mean, that has blown my mind … just to sit with people and hear their stories and hear them talk openly about things and then to go away and take that on and create something that kind of breathes life into those emotions… I mean, that’s incredible. Really, like magic.”
Taylor and Hinds are among the most interesting architectural practices working in lutruwita today. Theirs is a small office, founded in 2013 and based in Cremorne, a town outside of Hobart. Both directors were marked early as talents to watch, each winning the Institute of Architects’ coveted Tasmanian Emerging Architect Prize: Poppy Taylor in 2011, and Hinds in 2018.
They came to further national and international attention in 2017 with krakani lumi, the standing camp for wukalina Walk – a four-day, Aboriginal owned and led walk from wukalina (Mount William) to larapuna (Eddystone Point) in the Bay of Fires region, also designed for the Land Council. Unlike other prominent Tasmanian walks focused on wildlife and “wilderness”, this one emphasises the landscape as a place of cultural practice, management and meaning.
The design process for krakani lumi took six years of concerted trust-building, community engagement and careful spatial research. The result is that rare thing: a culturally sensitive and allusive design that is neither extractive nor overly didactic, and that tells stories about Indigenous occupation in a language that is also architecturally sophisticated and highly formally refined.
In other words, it’s a beauty. Individual sleeping pavilions of dark shuttered timber are settled among the banksias, linked via zigzag boardwalks to a stunning communal gathering area, where a circular fireplace is semi-enclosed by a scooped-out, timber-lined, half-dome apse: a place for Aboriginal people to speak Country into being, and for visitors to listen, learn and watch the stars.
If krakani lumi was the first engagement with the Land Council and Wybalenna the most recent, there have been others – including consultations with the outer island communities on how to support muttonbirding as both a commercial and cultural practice. As always, the challenge is funding. As Hinds says in some exasperation, “no agency ever asks what the cultural benefit analysis is, because it would be exponential”.
Funding for work at Wybalenna is also scarce. A submission is under consideration for the Commonwealth Growing Regions Program, and there’s a current “Truth telling at Wybalenna” crowd-funding campaign – to raise money for site analysis and modelling, consultant fees, and facilitating discussion among the palawa.
It’s tempting to draw a clear line between Taylor and Hinds’ highly charged work for the Land Council and their other architectural projects – including some beautiful houses. Certainly the two kinds of work operate on very different cultural and commercial premises. But even in the houses, there is an approach to history – to latent stories and material traces, the making-manifest of what has been hidden – that shows a common thread. The acclaimed Bozen’s Cottage, for example, was originally built in 1842 in Oatlands, in the midlands “settled country” from which the Big River people had been driven less than a decade earlier. It tells of a different colonial history, having been under continuous occupation for 180 years. But again the architects have chosen restitution and uncovering – removing a lean-to that had been added on the back, stripping away asbestos repairs and accretions of internal wall and floor covering, shoring up a sandstone wall in danger of collapse. Now refitted throughout with intricate timber cabinetry, it’s like the interior of some exquisite, fretted musical instrument.
Taylor and Hinds have other interesting projects on the books – including a “monumental” brick house in Launceston, conceived as a three-storey volume entwined in a dance with a walnut tree; a Cottage School, stitched together from three cottages each remade into a classroom; and the refit of a heritage coffin factory in Hobart into a housing and hospitality precinct. But it’s clear the work at Wybalenna is the closest to the architects’ hearts – and it’s easy to see why. The true history of Tasmania is the true history of Australia. This was not a benign and peaceful annexation and “settlement”, but a violent uprooting and displacement.
Wybalenna embodies this history but it also holds a story of endurance. The Old People held there “continued to practise culture, they continued to resist”, says Digney. “That’s the story that needs to be told – that we survived.”
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 10, 2024 as "Honouring truth".
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