Australian Film > Writing > O'Regan, The Last Tasmanian

Documentary in Controversy:
The Last Tasmanian

Tom O'Regan

Tom Haydon's The Last Tasmanian (1978) was by far the most ambitious and controversial Australian documentary in the past decade. It was ambitious in the scope of its material; a 109-minute documentary on the independent existence and extermination of the Tasmanian Aboriginal in the nineteenth century. But for its Australian audience the film's subject matter was not new. From primary school on, Australians have learnt the story of the Tasmanian Aborigines.

Part of the pleasure of the film for its local audience lay in the retelling and elaboration of the familiar, half-remembered story. With its modern awareness of past racism, and of the immorality of some forms of scientific inquiry, with the rigour of its historical and anthropological analysis and the new evidence it had gathered, The Last Tasmanian appeared to be a thorough-going revision of a chapter in Australian history. The film was shown widely. It had its premiere on BBC Television. After subsequent showing at film festivals and art cinemas, it was picked up by television in Australia, Europe and North America. In Australia the Ten Network televised it. Subsequently in the annual Australian television awards in 1979, the film received the best single documentary award.

But in telling the story of 'the swiftest and most complete genocide on record', the film was cutting across present Aboriginal land rights claims in Tasmania. The film's political status was ambivalent enough for the national television network, the ABC, to devote its then weekly current affairs program, Monday Conference to these issues. On Monday Conference (4 September 1979) the film-maker, Tom Haydon, and Tasmanian Aboriginal land rights activist, Mike Mansell, were the principal protagonists.

The film was also caught up in another controversy over its speculations about the Tasmanian Aboriginal society as a degenerating, contracting culture. This 'dying race' theory led to accusations of and unprofessional conduct against the film and its makers, Tom Haydon and the Tasmanian 'expert', Rhys Jones.

The film raises important issues about the representation of Aborigines and the politics surrounding them, issues as pressing today as they were in 1978. I will come back to these issues after some necessary discussion of the narrative and dramatic strategies film.

Textual Features

The Last Tasmanian 's genre is that of the quest. This form for a highly episodic structure, each episode held together presence of the central character, Jones. Jones' quest, to discover the story and fate of the Tasmanians, takes the film-makers to many different locations Ñ archives and museums in France, Britain and Tasmania, historical locations at Flinders Island, Cape Barron, Hobart and archaeological sites on the wild Tasmanian coast. At these different locations, Jones, in person or through the voice-over narration of actor Leo McKern, attempts to envisage, even inhabit, the consciousness, outlook and daily circumstances of different historical characters. In addition, leading ideas of the nineteenth century ('the Empire', 'evolution', 'the noble savage', 'missing link' and so on) are canvassed in the relations of the Tasmanians and the whites.

This representation of the past also involves a dramatic perfomance of activities. Thus Jones dines on shellfish, a staple of the Tasmanians diet; he throws spears fashioned in the Tasmanian mode; he sits in an old hut in the manner of the settlers on the pastoral frontier; he patrols the 'fortress' outpost of an out-of-the-way pastoralist built for protection. Mostly, however, the film depicts Jones as 1ooking contemplating, explaining, showing, speculating and directing the audience's attention.

Through the sheer accumulation of this central figure's varied acts of understanding and vicarious participation in the history, the life, times and outlook of the film's varied personae (squatters, nineteenth century anthropologists, Aborigines and so on) are fleshed out. ByJones' filmed performance and presence at a variety of historical locations, the film sets up a relation in which what he says seems to be determined by his experience of the locations themselves. The prehistory and the history he articulates grows out of the mise-en-scene The landscapes, the old buildings, intimate the necessity for and the veracity of the narration.

For the film's purposes the Tasmanian Aborigines have no existence in the present. The 'Tasmanians' so-called in the film are a culture and a people of the past, whose links with the present are severed. Paradoxically, they achieve a new life in the documentary's own accounts of them. They are reincarnated for the viewer. Haydon made no bones about his intentions here. For him the Tasmanian Aborigines no longer exist, and he must therefore 'imaginatively recreate' their history so that Australia and the world can 'bear witness'.

The 'Difference' of the Past

The Last Tasmanian is constructed on the premise that Aborigines of the past are different from those of today. This difference is maintained by drawing the material under scrutiny into a single definite moment, an 'early' and necessarily finished one in Australian history. Its emblem is Truganini, the last of the Tasmanians. Inasmuch as it is a 'finished' episode, it allows the documentarist a synoptic overview, one apparently not limited by fragmented vision and topical political partiality, dangers a film dealing with the present would be bound to suffer. Haydon was explicit on this point. He slated a fellow historian for making 'a fine emotional and political speech' about Tasmanian Aborigines and their descendants; he claimed, in contrast, a respect for 'the facts'.

As historical documentary, the film seems to shy clear of the inevitable partiality that a participant in the history might have. The story of the Tasmanian Aboriginal becomes a site upon which a monument to a fully-known Truth can be erected. In doing so the Tasmanian chapter represents for its audience a putative point of agreement over the substance of its narrative. In The Last Tasmanian, through a bringing to life of that which has disappeared, the forgotten, the legendary and the obscured, in a word, the past, an Australian social origin is recovered. The Tasmanian Aborigines are constructed as those elements white Australian society excluded in order to become what it is today. Further, the fate of Aboriginal culture is more generally our Australian colonial original sin. In the film the testimony of guilt is provided by the old gentleman Crowther whose relatives made off with the body of Truganini.

From the documentary viewpoint of The Last Tasmanian, access to the past is obviously mediated. The seizing of shepherds by Aboriginal bands could not be replayed in the same way that present day events depicted on newsreel could. Faced with this problem, The Last Tasmanian opted to show the marks, the surviving relics of these events: old photographs, ruins, recreated boats, huts, the display of bones. According to the sound track, the real events -the independent existence and the extermination of the Tasmanian Aborigines prior to white settlement Ñ had to be 'imaginatively recreated' on top of these marks. The film was this imaginative recreation.

This imaginative recreation by the anthropologist-historian of the past in the film took the form of an ability to identify with and to 'relive' past experience. Their ability to use creative imagination presupposed an essential 'humanity' which was continuous and unchanging. It seemed that only the implements of culture and the terrain of life changed, but not the core of humanity. By calling upon the core of his own eternal, fundamental humanity, the anthropologist/historian identified with this past experience and relived it for the camera. This turned the fact of differences between the Tasmanian culture and present Western culture into a confirmation of a fundamental and familiar identity. Ironically it was the evident differences between past/present, Aboriginal/Western society that the film consistently and ostensibly looked for. Through this sameness in difference, difference in the same, Aboriginality and Aboriginal culture have come to be accorded a place in the Australian public mind.

The idea of Australia as having two distinct cultures, Western and Aboriginal, with their own trajectories and perspectives is an important part of the film's public statement. In this, it is far from racist. The 'original' Tasmanians are assigned their own culture. The film insists upon their society as a workable one. Their culture and their society once again exist, function, and possess a mythic, even tragic, perspective. Here the film is part of a wave of recently that offer a reinterpretation of Australian history; Australia no longer begins with Captain Cook, 1788, and the convict settlement. Far from having no traditions, no history, Australia has a very long one. Through the acknowledgement of an Aboriginal presence, the image of Australia as a spiritual and physical 'desert' and 'emptiness' is swept away. The Last Tasmanian is in part a popularisation of this 'new wave' of historical and cultural commentary. It is part of an ongoing process of re-evaluation of Aboriginal culture. For Haydon as for Bernard Smith, for example, the spectre of Truganini is a problem for white Australian society and culture. As Haydon puts it:

This [Tasmanian] community was responsible for committing, in my view, the world s only case of a genocide so swift and so complete and the guilt of that, I think, has lain very strongly, though not often expressed, with the white people of Tasmania.

The audience is invited to try to understand the inexplicable. Why does mankind in general, and 'we' Australians in particular, choose atrocity over decency? Why was the Tasmanian Aborigines' fate chosen for them completely outside of their own volition? With these questions, human history enters the film. The film-makers do not attempt to undo what has occurred. The moment when that was possible is past. Instead, they scrutinised this historical event for the slightest clue that would indicate why members of a society in the past chose rape, plunder and other monstrous actions.

Thus, in The Last Tasmanian, history tends to get played out through the internalisation of affective states. Guilt, sombre awareness and moral outrage are the responses the film seeks and promotes. The 'reasonableness' of the present, which it is the strategy of the film to locate in Rhys Jones, Jim Allen, Leo McKern, and by extension, the film-maker, is made manifest through the failings in Australia's past.

The film institutes the emotions, tolerance and understanding lacking in the past. An instance of a rather sordid British colonisation is translated into a great cosmic story of Man against Man, Nature against Culture. The audience is moved to link the fate of the Tasmanian Aborigines to other atrocities in the past, for instance, the Jews' fate in German concentration camps. The screening of The Last Tasmanian became for many a collective act of contrition.


Punctuating the exposition of The Last Tasmanian is a series of landscape shots usually orchestrated with appropriate mood music. These serve as points of expressive summation. They join together the various sections of the film while recalling what has been told In the section immediately before it. On television, they also served as convenient commercial breaks.

The persistent shots of landscape do however come to serve a more positive function in the film. At one moment, a symptomatic speak. The landscape, it is implied, knows what happened to the Aborigines but has kept this as its secret. The film attempts to coax this from the landscape by lingering on and over it. Thus, just as the old colonial buildings become a marker of the white man's full possession of the land after the extermination, so landscape is personified as the vestiges of the original Tasmanians. However, the landscape itself is mute; hence the need for Leo McKern's narration; he speaks what it shows about the Aborigines and their death.

The Aborigines are not just identified with the landscape; they are the landscape. They have gone into it and it has become them. The fact that it is still untouched today, becomes a sign of the Tasmanian Aborigines' final and most successful resistance. In their living absence, the landscape protects their heritage and is the heritage. They bequeath it to Australia and to the world.

In a Public Context

The Last Tasmanian is then concerned to emphasise the destruction of a people and its culture, with the conscious absence of that people testified to by the wilderness. Consequently, it is at first surprising that for the film's theatrical release (prior to television screening), a poster announcing, 'Racist! This film denies Tasmanian Aborigines their Land Rights', was pasted over the film's own advertising poster. In the context of the Monday Conference discussion of the film, Mike Mansell, an Aboriginal Tasmanian, made a parallel point: we are the only race of people on Earth who have to daily justify our existence'.

To many of its Australian audience, the existence of descendants comes as a surprise. After all, one learnt in school that Tasmania had wiped out all of its Aborigines. The film does acknowledge the existence of descendants; but this acknowledgement is not allowed to detract from the potent image of an Australian holocaust -'the swiftest and most complete genocide in history'. Indeed, it enhances it.

Some recent Australian cultural texts and attitudes would see the descendants, today's Aborigines, as 'survivors', to be embraced and lionised for the very fact of their survival. The Last Tasmanian however, assimilates them to older images of white Australia. The descendants are barbarised by the sealers, they are still imprisoned in that moment of piracy. They still carry the effects of brutalisation with them. Old photographs of black women dressed,up and numbered for a still photographer are edited next to images of descendants caught in similar poses today. They look mutely at the camera. Elsewhere in the film they look out to sea from doorways for the arrival of anthropologist Jones who sets them talking. Even a child leaning over a barrel stares instead of plays. These, it is implied, are people caught in a limbo without a culture of their own.

The film-making gives them a direct affiliation with that ancient rape to which their present day condition testifies. Images of sealers clubbing seals to death are edited next to wailing mutton birds being clubbed to death by the descendants. Thus, their history is reconstructed as a sealers' history, in other words a white's history, rather than an Aboriginal one. One of the descendants, Annette Mansell, addresses the camera, telling it and us that she is not an Aboriginal. The descendants' history is then a tributory history, part of a larger (white) Australian history. The descendants' presence in the film enhances a realisation of the enormity of the white colonisers' deeds. No space is made available for the descendants to claim a traditional (Aboriginal) lineage. The Tasmanians are an Australian legend for all Australians, black and white, representing the debit side of a ledger that white Australia still needs to make up with the remaining Aborigines.

This aspect of the film takes on more importance when seen in relation to the development of land rights politics in Australia. In 1967 a referendum conferred equal rights and voting power on Aborigines. Particularly since then, there has been an increased media and public visibility of Australia's original inhabitants. Aboriginal affairs have become an integral part of the portfolio of election issues. Being seen to support Aboriginal social development, self-determination, equality of opportunity and health; counteracting and denouncing white Australian racism when and where it occurs Ñ these are now acceptable planks in the policies of different political parties. It is no longer defensible to suggest the wholesale sterilisation of Aboriginal peoples, as it was a little over a decade ago.

The land rights campaign is at the centre of the new awareness. The recognition of Aboriginal entitlement to traditional land, ncluding any minerals on and beneath it, has a wide local and lnternational currency. There are even proposals for an Aboriginal Treaty between white and black Australia, implying a black nation within Australia. Where once a policy of assimilation implied that the Aborigines were a 'primitive' people who required philanthropy and advancement~ there is now a rhetoric which evokes a special CUlture and people. In this body of commentary, Aborigines are keen on economic independence, the pursuit of their identity and traditional beliefs. Land rights seems to make this a real possibility. There is too, an unparalleled respect for Aboriginal culture, particularly tribal Aboriginal culture. What is particularly relevant here is that culture's own respect for and 'at oneness with' the land. The Last Tasmanian is an important index of this new awareness even as it seeks to propagate it.

Here the politics of the film are against the Aborigines, even while the film-makers are at pains to be sympathetic to the Aboriginal culture and experience of the original Tasmanians. For historically, the granting of land rights has involved anthropological proof of continuity in tribal practice and an ongoing affiliation with the land in question. Yet the film leaves no place for the claims, of the Tasmanians' descendants to their own separate identity and authentic Aboriginal culture. Indeed, it outlines a number of reasons which work against these descendants. They lack continuity with the original Tasmanians. They are not fullblood tribal Aborigines. They were removed from Tasmania to a small island off its coast. Their traditions have as much, if not more, to do with the sealers who abducted them than with the Aboriginal Tasmanians.

In making these 'observations', the film removes a crucial proportion of any land rights claim: that the descendants in question are Aborigines and should be officially regarded as Aborigines. The film affects land rights claims not only for the descendants, but also for that large percentage of the Aboriginal population which does not live on reserves, and for whom many of the practices associated with traditional 'Aboriginalism' (corroborees, nomadic wandering, living off the land, possessing their own languages and so on) are things of the past. Lyndall Ryan, a historian of the Aborigines, in the Monday Conference program on the film, succinctly described the issue at stake in The Last Tasmanian's controversy:

If you're going to deny that the culture of the Tasmanian Aborigines has continued on from that period in the nineteenth century the fullbloods were all wiped out, you're going to deny any cultural existence to any modern Aboriginal community in the rest of Australia.

The Sea and the Extinction

Related to the film's story of the 'genocide' of the Tasmanian Aborigines are Rhys Jones' speculations about the Tasmanian isolation and its consequent effect upon their culture and psyche. this point in the film, Jones exposition is even mythical:

Generation after generation for two hundred and fifty generations there are no new ideas coming into the system and what we find is a slow, inexorable squeezing and simplification of the technology... But you can think of the Tasmanians sitting on their island, with water all around them and knowing every human being inside of the universe. As if there were no other human beings, as if there wasn't a possibility that other human beings existed outside of that system. It ends in catastrophe but in a sense the catastrophe began 12 000 years ago. The sea coming in slowly but surely, one day that sea blocked off Tasmania. In a sense their doom was sealed by that event.

With this dialogue, different images of the sea are intercut. Articulated in a public arena, these speculations are political and highly controversial. They belittle the Tasmanian Aborigines. Dispossession is glossed over, naturalised by the verbal and visual allusion to a natural destiny. Even though it is not Jones' or Haydon's intention, Aboriginal culture is implicitly ridiculed on the grounds of cultural regression. Even before any colonisation took place, the Aborigines were destined to suffer a tragic fate. Thus it is implied that white colonisation only speeded up a relentless, inevitable process of isolation, regression and ultimate extinction. When the sea cut Tasmanians off from the mainland, nature pulled Tasmanians away from all the things that might have prevented regression. For the film, then, the sea is a signifier of the Tasmanians' enclosure and isolation. But the same sea is also the provenance of the white man. His arrival by sea hastened a process begun much earlier. The extinction of the Tasmanian Aboriginal is the final phase of an already ongoing, well-advanced process of merging into the landscape. Even before the arrival of white colonisers, the Aborigines are an exiled people, unable to look beyond the limits of their horizon. Like Narcissus, they came to forget their culture and merged into nature.


The film's use of prehistory and the expert Rhys Jones raised a sore point in the context of the anthropological/Aboriginal interface in Australia. As Bobbi Sykes, an Aboriginal activist, put it in Filmnews:

Anthropologists seek to establish or foster a unique relationship between themselves and traditional Aborigines. Only they, the anthropologists, can 'really understand', presumably by virtue of their studies. Blood relationships must be secondary to the depth at which the scientist can 'understand' his subject. Therefore Rhys Jones can understand better than blood line Tasmanian Aboriginals can understand. 1

The issue of who tells the story came very much to the fore in criticism of The Last Tasmanian. The dispute was over who possesses the Tasmanian archive, the white anthropologist or the black descendants. In a way which would have been unthinkable barely five years ago, the work of anthropology itself has become politicised. Since then it has become necessary for anthropologists to be defensive about their priorities and about related archaeological practices.

Since The Last Tasmanian was made in 1978, there has been an increasing awareness of the politics of the depiction of Aborigines and the politics of that depiction. Indeed in a re-release of the film the controversial parts, on which I have focused, were deleted. I have dwelt upon these because of the issues they raise. The fact that they were controversial tells us something about the differing and evolving ways in which Australians understand the Aboriginal question.

Perth, 1984


'A Re-make: This Time with a Camera', Filmnews January 1979, p.13.

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