Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Devil Dance of the Difficult Women

 In the early 1800's, the Pallawah women of Tasmania were traded and abducted as wives for the sealers. They were given away as unrequited and misunderstood kinship obligations, traded for dogs and  seal carcasses or just simply taken - right off the beaches.

Pallawah women were famous for their swimming skills. They dived for 'muttonfish' (now called abalone) and all sorts of other ocean delicacies such as crayfish and groper. If they encountered sharks whilst lingering in those kelpy caves full of twitching crays, they covered themselves with seaweed and lay waiting on their reserves of oxygen for the Noahs to leave.
Such women as these are the makers of the mermaid myth.

When the Pallawah women were taken by sealers, they spent their child-bearing years hunting wallabies, tammar, echidna, possums and muttonbirds out on the islands of Bass Strait, between the mainland of Australia and Tasmania. They collected salt from the lakes, they cured seal skins, they worked for these men. They had no choice. There is a strong history of infanticide here. It also happened during the time when slavery was busy being abolished.

In Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) a war waged between the Pallawah and the colonisers. Few history books acknowledge this war. But the writings of the settlers, sealers, explorers and bureaucrats document the burnings of vulnerable outlying homesteads, the Black Line, the abductions of black children and women, the shooting on sight ...  oh fuck it ... it was a war. 

There were quite a few warriors from VDL who would be heroes in today's Disneyfication of world happenings. Aboriginal warriors in Australia tend to be kept rather quiet. Perhaps this is because we are a new country. Eurocentrically speaking, we are still trying to decipher our heroes and where they should be placed in our national 'psyche'. 

The women who were stolen by sealers and taken to the islands of Bass Strait, Kangaroo Island and later Breaksea Island in Western Australia were Pallawah women. As G.A.Robinson, self-proclaimed Protector of Aborigines, attempted to round them up, he began to realise that the sealer's women were "difficult women". He did have an agenda. To begin with, the bricklayer from Britain was evangelistic in his endeavours but then he got offered a bounty - five pounds a head for every Aborigine 'captured'. So in the end, 'Fader' was competing with the sealers for a human commodity. Do the maths. Five pounds a head in 1826.

He got some women back from the islands. They were returned to VDL. Then they found out about their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunties, babies - dead, hung, shot or crucified. They found the piles of bones on the beaches.They'd already been with those nihilistic, bastard sealers for a few years ...

... the Tyreelore, Pallawah language for 'Island Wives', became a 'significant dissident group.'

Some of the Tyreelore gathered guns from the sealers and went bush with their guerrilla bands after the 'white snakes'. (That was Walyer - more about her later.)
Other women invented the Devil Dance.
And they danced it. 
Whenever and wherever they could.

“Pyromancy or devil’s dance:
 The rite of the TYRE.RE.LORE women consist in devil worship. They affirm that the devil comes to the women when they are hunting on Flinders and has a connection with them, and that they are with child by this spirit and which they kill in the bush. They say that they sing to please the devil, that the devil tells them to sing plenty. These devotees of the devil are excessive in their devotions. They continue to chant their devil song and perform their rites at every opportunity.” * 

* Friendly Mission, The Tasmanian Papers and Journals of George Augustus Robinson, 1829 - 1835, ED. BJP Plomley, 2008, p. 335.


  1. That was interesting, Sarah. I can't believe (but do, of course) what used to go on. It must have been hell on earth.

    On a lighter note, and talking of Tasmanian Devils, have you got a better name than 'Snowball' for my little feller?

  2. You paint a clear picture. What happened was very primitive and very sad. I just read a story about gladiators and the moneyed politicians of old Rome. They killed there as a matter of course. People, I mean. It wasn't so much war as entertainment and an efficient means of eliminating problems. We should also be reminded that Sarajevo and Ruwanda are our modern day hell's on earth.
    I remain fascinated by that Breaksea story though, all that goes with it. Talk about the edge of existence.

  3. The pompous white men with their Christian God has an awful lot to answer for, in the way of abuse and murder of fellow human beings. There are times when I feel ashamed of their past actions.

    Has any apology ever been given ?

  4. The details you mention about the women covering themselves with seaweed when sharks approached are new to me.

    Might try it when I'm snorkelling next :)

    I've been introducing Indigenous Australian history to students at's harsh but needs to see the light of day...desperately so, perhaps.

    have you read Lyndall Ryan's book?

  5. Yes, love it.
    Interesting how she traces M.Mansell's roots back to the sealers and women.
    But my fave is Rebe Taylor's 'Unearthed: The Aboriginal Tasmanians of Kangaroo Island'. It is a beauty.
    Oh and 'Friendly Mission' of course. Robinson may have been an 'interesting' character - but the amount of information in that book is astronomical. Lost for days, I get.

  6. And a Heron's View, sorry I didn't answer your question before. Kevin Rudd, our recent Prime Minister, gave a national apology to the 'stolen generation' about three years ago now. The stolen generation are named so, for being indigenous Australians who were taken from their parents as a result of federal and state policies from 1905 until the 1960's.
    Howard, the previous PM had steadfastly refused to do this for his whole time in office. It was a refusal that ended up defining him and his term.
    However, there is still no treaty and many miles to go. It's a relatively new nation and like I wrote in this post, still smarting from a very recent history... very different to Europe!