Mathinna was a Lowreenne Toogee woman – no, a girl, still only a girl when she died – from Port Davey on the east coast of Tasmania. She was born in 1835 to tribe chieftain Towtrer and to Wongerneep, and only five years later she was used as bait in a traumatic episode of forced removal to lure the Lowreenne people off the mainland and onto Flinders Island. Stolen from her parents, Mathinna was adopted by the Governor of Tasmania, Sir John Franklin, who was so taken by the charm of her appearance and the agility of her mind that he set out to raise her in the same privileged environment as his own daughter. Sadly, this whim passed; Governor Franklin was a colonial explorer, more interested in the Antarctic than in his own home, and when on returning to London in 1843 he had the option of including Mathinna with his family, he left her instead, at age eight, in a Hobart orphanage – the same orphanage where her sister had died.
Mathinna didn’t last long in that place, and was sent to the Flinders Island Aboriginal settlement , but years of living in the world of white privilege had unsettled the little girl, making the adjustment very difficult. Others in the community didn’t know how to treat her, and, unfortunately, they did not treat her well, and she moved to the Oyster Cove Aboriginal settlement. Across this time was abused, mistreated by a priest, raped, and ultimately turned to alcohol. Mathinna is thought to have died of drowning, at age seventeen, while drunk, and in nothing but a puddle – but her dismal story doesn’t end there.
After being buried in 1852, some years later Mathinna’s remains were exhumed and taken along with other buried remains into the scientific collection of the University of Melbourne, where they could be used as a curiosity for students interested in the inferior races. It was only in 1985 that she was finally returned to her homeland, laid to rest with dignity in a four-day ceremony at Oyster Cove.
That this story should have inspired one of the first Australian-born ballets over sixty years ago is nothing short of astonishing.
A century after Mathinna’s death, the legendary ballet maker Laurel Martyn created a work based on Mathinna’s all-too-brief life, and her Victorian Ballet Guild presented it as part of their program. In 1954. In the year of the Queen’s visit. And more than a decade ahead of the referendum that would finally begin to recognise First Nations people as people. Martyn and the Guild, a small company working with rigour and dedication, were eager to present stories that were truly Australian: that weren’t imported, that weren’t confected, that were real. All around them, they witnessed the scramble to manufacture the social and cultural sophistication that might impress the Queen. Martyn had left the Borovansky Ballet in 1945 with the express intention of building an Australian canon rather than committing her talents to the work of other cultures, which was the direction Borovansky faced. Through works like Mathinna (1954), as well as The Sentimental Bloke Who Couldn’t Be a Man (1952), she sought to achieve just that.
As an Australian story, Mathinna’s is astonishing – both in its tragedy, and in its power to keep inspiring artists to respond. When she was just seven years old, convict artist Thomas Brock painted Mathinna’s portrait in the red dress that Governor Franklin so loved to see her wearing, dolled up like his little princess. In 1967 Nan Chauncy wrote a children’s book of literary non-fiction called Mathinna’s People. Gordon Bennett’s 1998-1999 paintings Home Decor (Relative/Absolute) Flowers for Mathinna #1 and #2 are collages composed of problematic depictions of Aboriginal people made both with and without their permission, with Brock’s 1842 painting a prominent reference. Bangarra presented their version of Mathinna in 2008, choreographed by Stephen Page, and premiering at Arts Centre Melbourne. Bangarra’s work was the result of extensive research and collaboration with Elders, and they produced educational resources aimed at high school students, as well as touring the work regionally. Richard Franklin researched and wrote about her life in his 2008 novel Wanting. In a 2011 interview with Radio National, Franklin was careful to note that his presentation of Mathinna’s story is a fictionalisation, and that others more expert should be consulted on the details of her life. More recently, Palawa artist Nick Kupetsky’s Mathinna, a charcoal portrait shedding a very pronounced tear, was a finalist in the Victorian Indigenous Arts Awards in 2014.
Mathinna’s life continues to be interpreted, and yet her symbolic role in ushering in a thwarted new era in Australian culture is forgotten. The story I have told here has been pieced together from dozens of sources, many contradicting one another. It is a story that continues to ask questions of us. I owe this story to Cynthia Troup, whose mother danced with the Ballet Guild and with the phenomenal Laurel Martyn (1916-2013). And now I’m itching to know what other Australian stories were developed and then forgotten during that rush… This is the heritage that should be inspiring and motivating every Major Performing Arts company: Tell us what Australia means to you.
Today’s Oyster Cove is Aboriginal land recognised by the Tasmanian Government and formally handed back to the community in 1985. A former convict station, Oyster Cove became a place where Aboriginal people were forcibly relocated prior to being shipped to Flinders Island. In 1999, Oyster Cove was recognised as an Indigenous Protected Area, managed and governed by traditional owners. The Putalina Festival, taking the town’s local name and held each January since 1984, celebrates the people and the culture that survived the forced removals from the Tasmanian mainland. It receives no public funding.
IMAGE: Mathinna (1842) by Thomas Bock. Watercolour. Copyright: public domain.