waranta tangara takariliya ngini, krakapaka pilri-ta. We mourn our ancestral dead murdered at Cape Grim.

 waranta tangara takariliya ngini, lungkana pilri-ta.
We mourn all our ancestral dead murdered at Cape Grim.

Timeline of atrocities at pilri/Cape Grim from the early 1800s

From the earliest years of the invasion and settlement of north-western Tasmania, dreadful atrocities were committed against Aboriginal people. These led to the massacre at Cape Grim on 10 February 1828.

Six Aboriginal women recounted some of these brutalities to George Augustus Robinson when he visited the camp they lived in with sealers on the NW coast directly opposite Robbins Island:

The aboriginal females said that the Company’s shepherds had got the native women into their hut and wanted to take liberties with them, that the men resented it and speared one man in the thigh; that they then shot one man dead, supposed the chief; that subsequently some natives killed some of the Company’s sheep and drove them off the rocks, and sometime after they took by surprise a whole tribe which had come for a supply of mutton birds at the Doughboys, massacred thirty of them and threw them off a cliff two hundred feet in altitude. Since the destruction of those people the natives call the white people at Cape Grim nowhummoe, devil, and when they hear the report of a gun they say the nowhummoe have shot another tribe of natives.” [GA Robinson journal 21 June 1830]

From about 1810, women had been abducted by sealers.

“McKay told me of nine men who were going asealing and who surrounded a tribe of natives between Cape Grim and Mount Cameron and got them hemmed in. The men resisted and some were shot. They then sent out the women, finding this was the nature of their business; and they picked out seven of the finest and departed.”  [GA Robinson journal 1 July 1830]

In 1820 a group of sealers hid in a cave at the Doughboys near Cape Grim to ambush a  group of women collecting mutton-birds and shellfish. As the women swam ashore the sealers rushed out with muskets, pushed fourteen women into an angle of the cliff,  bound them with cords, and carried them off to Kangaroo Island. Three sealers were later clubbed to death in retaliation.

Aboriginal man Penderoin described this 1820 attack and abduction:

Observed the cavern near the Doughboys; this excavation runs through the rock, Penderoin exclaimed on seeing it, ‘that’s where the white men hid themselves when they forced away the black women.’ Penderoin was one of those blacks I got at the time of my visit two years ago and he told me he was present on the occasion. [He] Said the two small islands near the cave was resorted to by the natives for mutton birds. This circumstance was known to those individuals who were sealers, an abandoned race. On this occasion they walked over from the north to the west side of the cape where those two islands were situated. This journey they performed at night. 
They then secreted themselves in the cave and when the people swum on shore they rushed out upon them with muskets and drove them into an angle of the high cliff , where they bound them with cords. The men were at this time away hunting for kangaroo. A few of the old men and all the children were there. These men also seized all the mutton birds which those poor creatures had been getting, the labour of many days. 

They carried away those poor creatures to Kangaroo Island on the coast of New Holland in a sealing vessel. There were twelve or fourteen women carried off on this occasion…. This account I have had before from others, Penderoin told me that the natives afterwards killed three men with waddies. Penderoin said the soldiers from Macquarie Harbour shot at the natives...” [GA Robinson journal 20 February 1834]

In 1826 the Van Diemen’s Land Company occupied key Aboriginal kangaroo hunting grounds at Circular Head and Cape Grim.

In November 1827 the West Point tribe visited Cape Grim for mutton-bird eggs and seals and found shepherds tending a large flock of sheep. The shepherds tried to entice some women into a hut, and, when the men objected, in the resulting skirmish one of the shepherds was speared in the thigh and several West Point men including a chief were shot.

In retribution, on 31 December, Aborigines returned to Cape Grim and killed 118 ewes from Van Diemens Land Company stock, spearing some and driving the rest into the sea.

A month later, in January 1828, Richard Frederick, master of the Van Diemens Land Company sloop, Fanny, told Mrs Hare, wife of the captain of the Caroline, that he and four shepherds of Van Diemens Land Company – Charles Chamberlain, William Gunshannon, Richard Nicholson and John Weavis – had searched for the camp of the Aborigines at night and killed twelve before retreating to their ship. Mrs Hare recorded this in her diary on January 19. The manager of the Company in a report to his superiors in London on January 14 acknowledged the attack but claimed there were no casualties because “the guns mis-fired.” [Lee 1927:41; AOT VDL 5/1 No.2]

A few days later, on 10 February 1828 the same four shepherds surprised and trapped a large group of  men, women and children at what is now called Suicide Bay as they were feasting on mutton-birds that the women had caught at the nearby Doughboy Islands. Many were killed. This was the Cape Grim massacre.

Accounts of the Cape Grim massacre


 As told to George Augustus Robinson in 1830 by Alexander McKay, a convict servant of the Van Diemens Land Company since 1826:

" [Robinson] ..went through the forest to view the rocks where the natives had been massacred ….came to a point of rock opposite the Doughboys. My informant [McKay] pointed out the spot, which was a point of land which runs into the sea opposite these two islands – on one side was a perpendicular cliff of not less than two hundred feet in altitude and the base washed with the sea; the other side was a rapid declivity. 

About two hundred yards from this cliff a steep path led down to the rocks at its base. At the bottom of the path was a beautiful spring of water … at which the natives used to quench their thirst and procure their water when they were wont to go to the [Doughboys] islands to get mutton birds. Two hundred yards further along the rocks was a large cave which had often served as a shelter for the natives during a storm. 

On the occasion of the massacre a tribe of natives, consisting principally of women and children, had come to the islands. Providence had favoured them with fine weather, for it is only  in fine weather that they can get to the islands, as a heavy sea rolls in between them. They swim across, leaving their children at the rocks in the care of the elderly people. 

They had prepared their supply of birds, had tied them with grass, had towed them on shore, and the whole tribe was seated round their fires partaking of their hard-earned fare, when down rushed the band of fierce barbarians thirsting for the blood of these unprotected and unoffending people. They fled, leaving their provision. Some rushed into the sea, others scrambled round the cliff and what remained the monsters put to death. 

Those poor creatures who had sought shelter in the cleft of the rock they forced to the brink of an awful precipice, massacred them all and threw their bodies down the precipice, many of them perhaps but slightly wounded… I was shewed a point of rock where an old man who was endeavouring to conceal himself, was shot through the head by one of the murderers-who mentioned these circumstances as deeds of heroism. I went to the foot of the cliff where the bodies had been thrown down and saw several human bones, some of which I brought with me, and a piece of the bloody cliff... Returned past Mount Victory.  Passed a number of huts in these walks.” [GA Robinson journal 24 June 1830]


Accounts from 2 of the killers

George Augustus Robinson “Interrogated a man of the name of Chamberlain, one of the four men who shot the natives. ‘How many natives do you suppose there was killed?’-‘Thirty’. ‘There appears to be some difference respecting the numbers’.-‘Yes, it was so. We was afraid and thought at the time the Governor would hear of it and we should get into trouble, but thirty was about the number’. ‘What did you do with the bodies?’-‘We threw them down the rocks where they had thrown the sheep’. ‘Was there anymore females shot?’-‘No, the women all laid down; they were most of them men’. ‘How many was there in your party?’-‘There was four of us’. ‘What had they done to you?’-‘They had some time before that attacked us in a hut and had speared one man in the thigh. Several blacks was shot on that occasion. Subsequently thirty sheep had been driven over the rocks’.... This man related this atrocious act with such perfect indifference my blood chilled. Still, I felt anxious to hear a full account. I am sickened at the remembrance of it.” [GA Robinson journal 16 June 1830, at Cape Grim]

Robinson later ”Interrogated Gunchannon respecting the massacre at Cape Grim…He acknowledged to having been one of the four men who massacred the natives. I asked him how many they killed. He said he could not tell whether any were killed, but they saw traces of blood afterwards. ‘How long was it after killing the sheep that this circumstance occurred?’-‘Six weeks’. ‘Were there any women among them?’-‘Yes, there was both men and women’. 

Finding this man was not willing to disclose, I told him that I had full information on the subject, both from blacks and whites, and it was of little consequence his keeping it back; he might prevaricate but I knew; Chamberlain, an accessory, had told me there was thirty killed. I severely reprehended him and assured him I was not certain he would not be cited to Hobart Town for the murder. He seemed to glory in the act and said he would shoot them whenever he met them. 

These circumstances may be worth recording; the four were John Weaver, Nicholson, Chamberlain and Gunchannon. Nicholson has been drowned; Chamberlain is at Woolnorth; Gunchannon was severely speared afterwards at the Surrey Hills, as was several others, when the natives came down and robbed the hut and made an attack upon the shepherds and speared them, a just retribution for the horrid deed; and Weaver is at Hobart Town. The white men at the Hampshire and Surrey Hills evince a hostile feeling towards the aborigines and declare they will shoot them whenever they may find them.” [GA Robinson journal 10 August 1830, at Hampshire Hills]

There is no definite record of which tribe or tribes the Aboriginal men, women and children killed there were from; given the season and trading and travelling patterns, they are most likely to be from more than one of the several tribes who owned and occupied these north western lands. The Pirapi were among them; Tanaminawayt said it was this tribe who had killed the Van Diemens Land Company stock in 1827. The Pirapi occupied the West Point area and from there travelled inland to Mt Cameron West (Preminghana) and across country as far north as Robbins and Walker Islands and in the direction of Circular Head.

After this, the NW tribes avoided the settlement at Cape Grim but plundered remote huts to obtain provisions.

[Additional information compiled from L Ryan: Tasmanian Aborigines: A History Since 1803. 2012]

palawa kani Language Program

February 2020