Benjamin Branham: On "Truganinny"

"Truganinny, the last of the Tasmanians, had seen the stuffed and mounted body of her husband and it was her dying wish that she be buried in the outback or at sea for she did not wish he body to be subjected to the same indignities. Upon her death she was nevertheless stuffed and mounted and put on display for over eighty years."

Paul Coe, Australian Aborigine Activist, 1972 -from Wendy Rose, "Truganinny"

Wendy Rose's appeal to historical documentation evokes the dynamic relationship between history and text that permeates the poetry of many American Indians. Rose positions her work in symbiosis with history, both extracting life from and injecting life into a narrative of desolation, agony, and genocide that spans hundreds of years.

"Truganinny" provides an ideal starting point for an analysis of this relationship. The poem's outgrowth from a quoted source firmly anchors it to history, but at the same time declares its relative autonomy by assuming the voice of a long-deceased individual. In this sense, the poem is unique. For whereas many poems invoke historical events, names, and places, most avoid an unconcealed reliance upon a specific text. This is not to say that "Truganinny" depends on the words of Paul Coe for its poetic identity, but rather that it directly illustrates the intermingling of elements comprising it. Furthermore, Rose addresses not her own history of Hopi and 'Me-wuk ancestry, but rather that of the Australian Aborigines, the two groups joined by their common heritage as indigenous and oppressed. We might consider this a deviation from the efforts of other American Indian poets who often focus on topics and issues extending from their own roots.

Yet the possible inaccuracy of Coe's statement, implied in numerous sources, demands further historical scrutiny. Although there is a dearth of scholarship on the island of Tasmania and its former inhabitants, the land's fated encounter with a colonial rule that would lead to the "extinction" of an entire race has nonetheless generated a number of historical accounts. Most sources (indeed, all of the ones I came across) acknowledge the woman Trucanini (spelling varies, but Ellis makes a claim that "Trucanini" reflects the correct pronunciation) as the last surviving Tasmanian before her death in 1876 (Bonwick, Ellis, Davies, Robson & Roe). The death of her third husband, William Lanne, considered the last male Aborigine, in 1869 provoked a dispute that saw the mutilation of his body in an attempt to obtain his skeleton (Robson 35). No source other than the quote attributed to Paul Coe makes any reference to the stuffing or mounting of Lanne's body, or even that Trucanini ever saw the corpse of her dead husband. Her sense of devastation and her wish to avoid the desecration of her own remains is well documented, but again Coe's account clashes with those that report Trucanini was indeed buried at the time of her death and later disinterred by the Royal Society of Tasmania. Early in the century, the Tasmanian Musuem and Art Gallery displayed Trucanini's skeleton, not her stuffed corpse, in the Aboriginal exhibition room, where it remained until 1947 (Ellis 156). In response to a wide controversy surrounding the issue in the 1960s and 70s, the Tasmanian Museum transferred possession of Trucanini's remains to the Tasmanian government in 1975. In May of 1976, 100 years after her death, Trucanini was cremated and finally granted her wish when her ashes were scattered over D'Entrecasteaux Channel near the place of her birth.

With this information apparently refuting the scenario presented in the epigraph to "Truganinny," what significance does the discrepancy between these competing representations of history contribute to our reading of the poem? To indict or discredit Rose for such an "error" would be preposterous. It is unlikely that she knows Coe's account might be in error. And yet, the conflict encourages an examination of the profound complexity of representing an unfixed history.

Rose's poem opens with the speaker conceding the fragility of her own voice. The dying Truganinny, an old woman, addresses the frailty of age yet proclaims a strong vocal insistence:

 

You will need

to come closer

for little is left

of this tongue

and what I am saying

is important. (1-6)

 

In drawing attention to the deterioration of her vocal apparatus, the speaker summons a "closer" attention and proximity from her listener. By entreating such nearness with urgency and "need," the textual Truganinny seeks to narrow the gap between speaker and listener, mimicking that between poet and reader, text and history. Rose crafts an intriguing matrix of these binaries, deconstructing them by illustrating both their mutual reliance upon one another and their multiple permutations. The voice extends outward from the historicity of Truganinny's time--but within the poet's perception--Rose herself functioning as a reader of Coe's text, and he a reader of a larger text still. In the poem, she synthesizes her own voice with that of the individual she portrays, thus merging historical perception with historical representation, art with history, present with past. Simultaneously, we as the audience remain spectators to the "actual" history as well--not to claim that any history is authoritative--perpetuating the cycle that the poem initiates.

The speaker's voice, however, presents problems. How does such a vocal assimilation affect the agency Rose intends to ascribe Truganinny? Does the impersonation of voice risk additional objectification by usurping it from its owner and fixing it upon the page? And do we, as readers, contribute to this objectification by virtue of our subsequent gaze upon the narrative? The answer to these questions resides in the acknowledgment that all narratives necessarily contain some element of objectification; otherwise, they would fail to function. And a relatively little amount of narrative objectification does not quite impose the same intense oppression as does the objectifying weight of history. Rose makes the recovery of Truganinny's voice her imperative. Whether the real Trucanini can speak for herself at all is a matter justifiably complicated by Gayatri Spivak's influential essay, "Can the Subaltern Speak?," in which she suggests the impossibility of recovering an authentically autonomous voice. In addressing Spivak's theories, Ania Loomba observes a number of critical issues:

Do we necessarily position colonised people as victims, incapable of answering back? On the other hand, if we suggest that the colonial subjects can `speak' and question colonial authority, are we romanticizing such resistant subjects and underplaying colonial violence? In what voices do the colonised speak--their own, or in accents borrowed from their masters? Is the project of recovering the subaltern best served by locating her separateness from dominant culture, or by highlighting the extent to which she moulded even those processes and cultures which subjugated her? And finally, can the voice of the subaltern be represented by the intellectual? (Loomba 231)

These crucial questions pertain to our reading of Trucanini the person and "Truganinny" the poem. However, part of the poem's success lies in its deviation from history, even if unintentional. Through these differences, or innovations, Rose uses history to engender a new narrative, transforming silence into an empowered voice.

To fully appreciate the intricate dynamic of history and its representations, we must look more comprehensively at the events surrounding the death, burial, and display of Trucanini. In the poem, the speaker's self-reflexive concern for a part of her body, her tongue, directs attention to the colonial commodification of the body that the poem addresses. Even prior to the death of William Lanne, the colonizing world's obsession with Tasmanian physiognomy culminated in a mad dash for bones:

As it became obvious that the end of the race was near, scientists all over the world became anxious to obtain skeletons before it was too late. Years before, in 1856, J.B. Davis had realised the importance of preserving skeletal material. He had written to artist Alfred Bock pressing him to find some medical gentleman connected with public hospitals who would be willing to help him acquire Tasmanian skulls. "Were I myself in the colony I could with very little trouble abstract skulls from dead bodies without defacing them at all, and could instruct any medical gentleman to do this," he wrote. He also suggested raiding the old cemetery at Flinders Island to get skeletons. "Difficulties always stand in the way and may always be overcome," he stressed. Judging by his results, he overcame his difficulties with the greatest success. (Ellis 133)

This ruthless quest exemplifies the colonialist gaze, exoticizing the body of the Tasmanian as other. Davis expresses a concern for "preserving skeletal material" and extracting skulls without damaging them, but makes no mention of keeping the skin and body of the dead in a respectable condition suitable for a funeral. Although the practice of raiding graves for the study of medicine occurred across the globe at this time, the particular fetish for Tasmanian bones embodies something more: the colonial regime's suffocating surveillance. Davis' description of "difficulties" blocking the path to skeletal possession characterizes his brutality as a contest, one offering various obstacles to make the challenge more exciting.

Such a narrative of mystery and conniving accompanies Lanne's death in 1869. The body was initially entrusted to Dr. G Stokell, Resident Medical Officer of the General Hospital, for him to look after, as the Colonial Secretary realized the potential value of the skeleton. The general consensus among the public held that after a proper burial and appropriate passage of time the Royal Society would exhume the body for its collection. Dr. W. L. Crowther, however, intended to ship the skeleton to colleagues at the Royal College of Surgeons in London and executed a plan that saw him extract Lanne's skull in the middle of the night "by the light of a candle illuminating the macabre interior of the dead-house" (Ellis 136). After replacing the skull, inside the skin, with one that had been similarly extracted from a white man, Crowther and accomplices made their escape. Upon discovery of this deceit, Stokell grew irate and, determined to stop Crowther from obtaining the rest of the skeleton, cut of the hands and feet of the corpse to secure them, an effort sanctioned by the Royal Society. Following the funeral, which made the body appear unmolested to dismiss developing rumors, Stokell arranged to have the remainder of the skeleton stolen from its fresh grave that evening. A public uproar arose over these events, and the government appointed a Board of Enquiry to investigate the case, the details of which were published in The Mercury, a newspaper for the town of Hobart (Ellis 138-140). Crowther lost his position with the hospital, and Stokell was cleared of all charges. Because of an abrupt end to the enquiry, the Board never required Stokell to provide a full account of what happened to the body after its removal from the grave. The whereabouts of the remains of William Lanne, including his skull, have never been traced. Years later, without certainty, speculation arose that Lanne was not, in actuality, of pure Tasmanian descent, casting a much deserved air of futility on the competitive grave robbing by Crowther and Stokell.

The physical and cultural usurpation at work in this account grants even more salience to the poem's eerie forecast: "They will take me" (29). Truganinny speaks with the knowledge that a colonizing force plans to incorporate her body into its own consuming discourse:

 

Already they come;

even as I breathe

they are waiting for me

to finish my dying. (30-33)

 

The speaker's sense that the people who will ultimately make her a spectacle "already" envelop her stems from the remorseless progress of an encroaching gaze. Her status as "the last one" (8)--a status conferred by the very colonialists who administered her people's genocide--attracts the eyes that wish to put her on display as evidence of a culture long since extinct. As they wait, like vultures, for her to "finish" dying--as if completing a task demanded of her--the agents of hegemony move ever closer, infringing, as they always have, with a claustrophobia that asphyxiates. The desire to accumulate artifacts supersedes the value of human life, and the eager "waiting" to redeem the corpse at the nearest pawn shop only precipitates death.

Wendy Rose's reappropriation of history that she accomplishes by generating a new voice succeeds in shifting savagery from the colonized to the colonizer. She crafts "Truganinny" with a delicacy and insistence that forces readers to challenge the representations of history we take for granted and presents an example of how to recover lost voices.

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Title Benjamin Branham: On "Truganinny" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Benjamin Branham Criticism Target Wendy Rose
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Jun 2020
Publication Status Original Criticism Publication No Data
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