For most people, Tasmania is simply the complement to the name of a carnivorous marsupial that inspired the Looney Tunes character called Taz; likewise, movie buffs might know that the famous actor Errol Flynn was Tasmanian by birth. But Tasmania is also an Australian island with a sad history, as its Aboriginal population was virtually exterminated by the British Empire during the so-called Black War. This conflict left, as its most curious protagonist, an indigenous woman who led a guerrilla war against the settlers: Tarenorerer.

Tasmania, we say, is an island of 68,401 square kilometers located at the southern end of Australia. The natives called it Iutruwita, as the name we know was given in honor of the first European to sight it in 1642, the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman, although this happened later because he named it Anthoonij van Diemenslandt in honor of the governor of the Dutch East Indies who had sponsored his voyage, Anthony van Diemen.

The British arrived in 1777 under the command of James Cook and established themselves in 1803, Anglicizing that name as Van Diemen’s Land, which they retained until 1856. Initially, the settlement was a penal colony, and soon other similar colonies were founded despite the presence of its natural inhabitants, whose population is estimated to have been between five thousand and seven thousand people – the calculations vary. Their ancestors originally came from Australia, to which Tasmania was connected eleven thousand seven hundred years before, until they were separated by the rising sea level caused by the end of the last ice age.

Obviously, the natives posed an obstacle to colonization, which until then was not part of any plan other than preventing Napoleon from claiming that land as his own, given that between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries several French ships explored its coasts. At first, there were no problems, as the intruders were few and could not stray far from their settlements – remember they were prisoners and their guards. But by 1819, they were practically as numerous as the Aboriginals, and the situation worsened a couple of years later when free settlers began to arrive.

These settlers came in large numbers, attracted by promises of land and free labor – the prisoners – supported by the Van Diemen’s Land Company, one of those chartered companies that worked in monopoly and managed to concentrate a third of the non-indigenous Australian population in Tasmania, as well as having the island accumulate half of the total cultivated land. A dark shadow began to loom over the Aboriginals, whose discontent grew increasingly.

They had always looked askance at the luta tawin (white man) because they had to endure the plundering of natural resources by whalers and sealers from time to time for over two centuries. But, after all, it was something occasional; now it was continuous and exacerbated by the kangaroo killings carried out to free up pasture for livestock, not to mention land seizures and divisions. The natives were progressively pushed towards the coast, and the first confrontations erupted.

In reality, there had been clashes since 1804, only that the Black War was never officially declared; therefore, the start date is usually placed when the situation was completely degraded, in 1828, shortly after sporadic attacks on settlers led Governor Sir George Arthur to authorize them to defend themselves with gunfire. That opened the floodgates, and the figure of fifteen colonists killed was balanced with the massacre of two hundred Aboriginals, numbers that continued to increase on both sides.

It was then that the charismatic figure of Tarenorerer emerged. Also known as Walloa, Walyer, or Tuculillo, she was born around 1800 near Emu Bay, where three decades later Burnie would be founded, a small port town named after the director of the aforementioned Van Diemen’s Land Company. She belonged to the tommeginne people, who had joined seven other clans to form the Northwest Nation. They generally obtained their resources from the sea, so they moved along the coast, although the tommeginne spent almost all their time on the Table Cape Peninsula.

Tarenorerer was kidnapped as a teenager by other indigenous people who sold her as a slave to sealers on the neighboring islands of the Bass Strait (which separates Tasmania from Australia); in fact, the archipelago is a remnant of the ancient isthmus, and ironically, it is now home to the last aborigines. Neither slavery was rare at that time (the United Kingdom would abolish it in its colonies in 1834) nor were there any qualms about engaging in commercial relations with those types of settlers who, like sailors, were only passing through and had no interest in taking over their lands. That forced submission to the whites – whose duration is unknown – allowed Tarenorerer to learn English and handle firearms (for hunting), albeit at the cost of the treatment befitting her condition.

However, Tarenorerer managed to escape somehow in 1828, returning to Tasmania and becoming the leader of the Plairhekehillerplue clan of Emu Bay, which probably consisted of survivors of others, as by then the tension had led the settlers, fearful of attacks, to shoot any native they saw. Thanks to now knowing almost all the secrets of the white man, Tarenorerer gathered a band of fighters to confront him, embarking on a guerrilla war that was fundamentally based on raiding farms, as would happen in the US with the Indians or in Kenya with the Mau-Mau guerrilla.

The insurgents not only attacked the settlers but also killed their livestock – they had filled Tasmania with thousands of sheep and cows – knowing that families could not survive without them and would be forced to leave. Additionally, Tarenorerer taught them to lie down when the soldiers shot at them and to quickly rise to counterattack without giving them time to reload their muskets. That surprised the colonial troops, accustomed to stopping the mass of enemies with shots and putting them to flight, and for a while, the Tasmanian guerrillas were able to somewhat balance the unequal skirmishes.

So much so that there was fear that this unusual situation would lead to a widespread rebellion. Therefore, the lieutenant governor, George Arthur, a man imbued with Lutheran faith and abolitionism, decided to try unofficial mediation; for this, he sent George Augustus Robinson, an official who had been in Tasmania since 1824 and who was considered the right person due to his spiritual convictions, as he was secretary of the Bethel Union (a religious organization for sailors) and a member of the committee of the British and Foreign Bible Society (a charitable society to spread the Bible worldwide).

Robinson left his wife and children in Hobart and set out to fulfill the mission, his first initiative being to investigate the Cape Grim massacre, which had occurred two years earlier and during which workers from the Van Diemen’s Land Company, avenging a previous attack, shot Aboriginals gathering food on a beach and killed about thirty of them. Robinson managed to gain the trust of Truganini, an indigenous woman who served as his guide and interpreter in his negotiating work. Thanks to her, he convinced several tribes to resettle on Flinders Island, in the Bass Strait, where they could preserve their traditional way of life.

It was a measure similar to what the United States was applying at that time with the forced displacement of the Five Civilized Tribes to the newly created Indian Territory, the famous Trail of Tears. Robinson’s good intentions, embodied in the appointment he received as Chief Protector of the Aborigines, would gradually dissolve irretrievably as they collided with the harsh reality that his charges were an obstacle to the empire. Even Truganini abandoned him, something that Tarenorerer did not have to do because she never trusted him or any white person. He himself compared her to an Amazon and believed she was a frightening danger because he thought she was capable of uniting all the tribes against them.

He spoke from experience, as he personally saw her in battle. It was when, trying to negotiate and trusting the invitation she made for him to advance with his soldiers towards the hill where she was entrenched with her warriors, he was greeted with an unexpected rain of spears. Robinson managed to escape that and another ambush, making it clear that only the path of arms remained. The nature of that irregular war made operations difficult, and a price was placed on Tarenorerer’s head, although she managed to escape the pursuit time and time again. However, her modest army was gradually cornered, having to eke out a miserable existence with fewer and fewer resources.

Finally, this and the ancestral rivalries between tribes led to her authority being challenged by other aspiring leaders. She then chose to flee, taking refuge in Panatana, which the natives called Burgess (Port Sorell since 1822). It is currently a popular vacation spot, but then it was a modest fishing port where sealers also landed, and it was precisely they who caught Tarenorerer along with her brothers Linnetower and Line-ne-like-kayver, plus two sisters whose names have not been passed down.

She was taken to Hunter Island, off the northwest tip of Tasmania, a piece of land barely twenty-five kilometers long by six and a half wide. But she didn’t stay there long because she was then taken to Bird Island, even smaller, less than forty-four hectares. It is still a game reserve, and there that young woman had to work, hunting seals and shearwaters, the former for their skins, the latter for down and eggs. A few months later, following a sort of hunting circuit, there was a new transfer, this time to Swan Island.

Swan is a bit larger (two hundred thirty-nine hectares), but its use was the same: a hunting ground for seals and waterfowl. Since it was reasonably close to the Tasmanian coast, Tarenorerer hoped to find a lapse in her watcher’s vigilance to kill him and try to escape by swimming. She was discovered, revealing her true identity, hitherto unknown because she went by the name Mary Anne. Consequently, she was handed over to the authorities, who immediately decreed her imprisonment. It was December 1830.

Robinson defined that arrest as a matter of considerable importance for the peace and tranquility of those districts where she and her formidable followers had become famous for their unrestrained and barbaric aggressions. Tarenorerer’s fate was in line with those words: to separate her from the other captive Aboriginals, whom she incited to rebellion by telling them that soldiers were coming to kill them all, she was taken to Gun Carriage Island, now better known as Vansittart, another site frequented by sealers until Robinson drove them away with the idea of using it to relocate the indigenous people.

It is a granite outcrop of about eight hundred hectares that was not going to be useful for the intended use, and so the sealers ended up returning. Tarenorerer no longer cared because she died shortly after, between May and June 1831, a victim of the flu epidemic that had halved the Tasmanian indigenous population, of which only a few hundred individuals remained; moreover, her death came in sad solitude. It is unknown what happened to her body, although it is unlikely that it was buried according to Tasmanian tradition (which was usually on the beach or cremated).

The Black War continued for another year. The various groups of resistance gradually surrendered, and there are no reports of violence after 1832. It is estimated that the conflict cost nearly a thousand Aboriginal lives, compared to two hundred twenty-five white settler lives.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on March 21, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Tarenorerer, la mujer que lideró la resistencia de los aborígenes tasmanos a la colonización


Murray Johnson e Ian McFarlane, Van Diemen’s Land. An aboriginal history | Tom Lawson, The last man. A british genocide in Tasmania | James Boyce, Van Diemen’s Land | Valorie Castellanos Clark, Unruly figures. Twenty tales of rebels, rulebreakers and revolutionaries you’ve (probably) never heard of | Vicki Maikutena Matson-Green, Tarenorerer (en Australian Dictionary of Biography) | Wikipedia

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