Mathinna (1835 - 1856) Tasmanian Aboriginal

A seldom-seen image of Mathinna. For many years, most people's image Mathinna has shaped by Thomas Bock's well-known watercolor portrait, showing an almost-smiling girl wearing a red dress that had been given her by Lady Franklin. And yet now, from the archives of the British Museum, another, much less well-known portrait has emerged. A drawing by John Skinner Prout, it's monochromatic except for Mathinna's face, arms, and feet -- this may yet be the red dress, but its color has gone. It was among a series of portraits made in February and March of 1845 on Flinders Island; by that time, Mathinna's erstwhile adopted parents were long gone back to England, and Sir John was getting ready for what would be his final, fatal voyage. There is no smile on this girl's face, but there does seem to be a kind of clear-eyed reflection on her circumstances, and those of her people.

The portrait was among a series that Prout brought back to England, which he sold to Joseph Barnard Davis; when Davis died in 1881, he willed the collection to the British Museum. Davis, who himself has served as a surgeon aboard an Arctic voyage, may have been interested in the Franklin connection, but more pertinently it fit with his collector's interest in ethnographic portraiture; a special interest was early skulls from the British Isles. It was not published or widely known, and although several of Prout's portraits were exhibited in Tasmania in 2019 as part of an exhibition, "The National Picture: The Art of Tasmania's Black War," it's not clear whether his sketch of Mathinna was included. I reached out to Booker-Prize-winning Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan -- whose 2009 novel Wanting took up Mathinna's story -- he told me that he had "never seen the image, nor heard of it," calling it "beautiful and enigmatic." It's a small example of how sometimes, even work that has been consigned to the careful care of a national museum can lie hidden in plain sight.

Most of the towns, properties, mountains and land marks in the Fingal Valley were given names by the early settlers that related to their homeland, with the Irish theme being the most dominant. Two towns, however, both of which were established and became famous after gold was discovered in the area, ended up with Aboriginal names. One was Mangana, the other was Mathinna.

The story of the person behind the name Mathinna is of more significance than the history of the town itself, as it is a reminder of a chapter in Tasmanian history that should never be forgotten so that the ignorant acts of our ancestors will not be repeated.

Thomas Bock's portrait of Mathinna painted in 1842 when Mathinna was about seven years old (Thomas Bock - Public Domain)

The story of Mathinna is a sad story of a lost soul caught between two cultures, not able to properly connect with either. Mathinna was the daughter of a Port Davey chieftain, Towtrer (also written as Towgerer) and his wife Wongerneep. Towtrer and his family were some of the last to hold out against George Augustus Robinson's 'Black Line' plan to move all Tasmanian Aborigines to Flinders Island. Robinson was under orders from Governor George Arthur to relocate all Aboriginals from Van Diemen's Land to the Bass Strait Island to stop the ongoing conflict between the Aborigines and white settlers and give the Tasmanian Aboriginals a chance of survival.

Towtrer was suspicious of Robinson when he first approached him in 1830, so Robinson returned in 1833 to try again, this time with a plan to force Towtrer to come to him. Robinson captured Towtrer's child, forcing the man and his wife to come to Robinson and to agree to move to Flinders Island.

Robinson noted in his diary that Aboriginal families should not be split up by force, because ' they afterward pine away and die'. Despite this, Towtrer's first daughter was not returned to her family but was sent to an orphanage in Hobart where she died a few years later.

Mathinna was born to Towtrer and Wongerneep on Flinders Island in 1835. She was taken from her parents as a baby and sent to live with a school teacher as part of a policy to educate Aboriginal children in white ways as early as possible. From the very beginning of her life Mathinna was alienated from her own people. Her name was initially Mary, but was later changed by the whites to Mathinna, suggesting a rather complex and bewildering confusion of black and white identity, a confusion that would be like a shadow over her all her life.

Sir John Franklin, famed arctic explorer whose entire last expedition in 1845 to find the mythical Northwest Passage disappeared, was governor of Van Diemen’s Land at the time. In 1838, Sir John and his wife Lady Jane, visited the Aboriginal settlement at Wybalenna where they were entertained by the children with dance and song and in return gave out presents of knives, handkerchiefs, beads and marbles. One of the children who performed for them, a pretty three year old named Mary, was the daughter of a tribal chieftain.

Two years later the Governor and his Lady returned to Wybalenna, and this time they arranged for the child Mary (soon to become known as Mathinna) who was now five, to be sent to Hobart Town where she would become part of their household at Government House, a kind of black princess.

The Hobart Mercury's report of Mathinna, one of the very few written records of the girl, said Mathinna arrived at Government House with a kangaroo skin, a rush basket, some shell necklaces and a pet possum.

Around this time her name appears to have been 'Aboriginalised' from Mary to Mathinna, perhaps as part of Franklin's attempts to convince the colonists that the government's experiment to 'civilise' Tasmanian Aborigines at Wybalenna was working. Parading the now 'civilised' Aboriginal chief's daughter was evidence of its success.

Suddenly, she was part of the Hobart upper-class. Mathinna rode in the carriage with Lady Jane, and shared a governess with Eleanor, the Franklin’s daughter. Lady Jane even had convict artist, Thomas Bock, paint Mathinna’s portrait while dressed in her favourite red dress. Eleanor Franklin kept a diary in which she mentioned Mathinna only twice, a significant revelation about Eleanor’s relationship or lack of it with Mathinna.

This period in Mathinna’s life, when she had her own bedroom and her pet possum, and danced for visitors in her English clothes, did not last long. Two years in fact, during which time she became the pet of the Europeans, but lost her ability to relate to her own people.

In 1843 the Franklins returned to England on completion of Sir John's term as Governor. The reality that they had in fact not adopted her was revealed when the devastated Mathinna was left behind. At just eight years of age, she was sent to St John's Orphan School in Hobart, the same orphanage where the sister she never met had died. She tried to fit in with the white students, but was rejected because she was Aboriginal.

Unable to fit in at the Orphan School, she was returned to Flinders Island in 1844, where was taken in by the minister and school master, Robert Clark, in whose home she was living when the Franklins found her. Fanny Cochrane Smith, Tasmania's oldest surviving full-blood Aboriginal, who was a year older than Mathinna, had also been 'adopted' by Clark. She later recalled that Mathinna was treated very badly by the preacher of Wybalenna, but other than that, no record is known of Mathinna's time there.

Mathinna’s step-father died when she was eleven – her mother was already dead and her father had died when she was two years old - and as a result, she was shipped back to the Orphan School in Hobart.

Whilst at the Orphan School, the students were taken as a Christmas treat to a country house at New Norfolk where she had visited as a member of the Franklin household. Governor and Lady Denison were the hosts; there was a tent on the lawn for the whites and a tent for the Aborigines.

By this time, Aborigines had not been seen in public in southern Van Diemen's Land for some time. There was a genuine desire to give them a good time, but there was also a sense that the Aborigines were being paraded as some sort of freak show. It is sad and poignant that only a few years earlier Mathinna had been paraded here in a similar fashion, but as a member of the colonial aristocracy, and now she found herself before the same European audience, but this time as an Aboriginal orphan.

The Orphan School was overcrowded and disease ridden, with many dying of scarlet fever. Hunger and unjust punishment were everyday occurrences. By the time Mathinna left the school at the age of sixteen, she was the only Aboriginal left, and because she was Aboriginal, Mathinna was sent to live. She went to live at the tragic settlement at Oyster Cove where the dwindling group of Aborigines who had been transferred from Flinders Island were dying of loneliness, disease and broken hearts.

It seems that Mathinna never settled into any community after her experience with the Franklins. She was now caught in a strange nether world between two cultures - she was rejected by white society that she longed to be a part of, but had a certain contempt for black society, which made her unpopular with and isolated by the aboriginals at Oyster Cove.

Mathinna ended up doing what many who feel they don't fit in anywhere do, she turned to alcohol abuse. In no time she was selling her body for alcohol and enough food to survive. As her drinking continued, she tragically drowned - according to one account - in 1856 in a puddle while drunk after leaving a pub in North West Bay. If that account is accurate, she was only 21 years old.

The memory of Mathinna became lost in the annals of time, recalled only in the name of an obscure Tasmanian mining ghost town and Thomas Bock's portrait of the bare-footed Mathinna, aged about seven, wearing a bright red dress, that for years had been locked away in a dusty Museum storeroom.

When he was about 20, author Richard Flanagan chanced upon the painting in storage. He was so haunted by the image of the pretty Aboriginal girl in the red dress he felt compelled to discover who she was and why someone had taken the trouble to paint an Aboriginal girl. "When I delved deeper into her story, what I discovered was that no one had really written anything about her since the 1870s," says Flanagan.

His research led him to write about a fictional Mathinna in his novel, Wanting. "[She was] spirited, smart, gifted; utterly destroyed by the intention of seeking to make her white."