Sending Sorry to the Old People
On this day ten years ago, Ngambri Elder Matilda House witnessed Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations. She carried a message from a friend.
Aunty Matilda’s friend had sent her maireener shells collected near Wybalenna on Flinders Island, Tasmania. Beautiful, glistening maireener shell necklaces are an important cultural tradition of Tasmanian Aboriginal women. But these shells were not for a necklace.
Wybalenna is Tasmanian language for ‘black man’s house’. During the 1830s, after the intense frontier conflict called the ‘Black War’, more than 200 Aboriginal people (including 14 children) were forcibly removed from mainland Tasmania to Wybalenna. They were told Wybalenna would be a safe refuge from the conflict. The white administrators aimed to ‘civilise and Christianise’ them.
But the terrible housing, insufficient food and water, disease and despair devastated the Tasmanians. When Wybalenna closed in 1847, only 47 inmates were still alive. They were again forced to move, to the damp ruins of an abandoned convict settlement at putalina (Oyster Cove), south of Hobart. Most of the children were sent to Hobart’s Orphan School. They were among the first of many Stolen Generations.
Fittingly, in 1995 Flinders Island was the location of the first hearing of the national inquiry into the Stolen Generations. The Inquiry’s findings were published in the landmark Bringing Them Home report in 1997. On 13 February 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered his Apology to the Stolen Generations in Parliament House, Canberra.
Aunty Matilda’s friend asked her to take the maireener shells into Parliament House that day. Her friend wrote: ‘by listening through the shells the old people who have gone before us can hear the Apology.’
Aunty Matilda did as her friend asked. The Museum now displays these shells in our Designing Democracy gallery.