Last of the Tribe

Last of the tribe

Last of the tribe

The last of the tribe is a phrase that was commonly used in the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. It was used by non-Indigenous Australians to mark the death of a prominent and elderly Aboriginal person who had generally been perceived to be the last remnant of a once proud people. Heavily laden with anthropological fascination, last of the tribe is also a reminder of how spectacularly ignorant white Australia was in its first two centuries, of both the land and its traditional custodians.

Some of this brutally savage form of ignorance can be attributed to the racist, government endorsed practice of classifying Aboriginal people via their ancestry.

Today we can look back and shake our heads at the folly of those who knew no better. This was a period where white Australia’s lack of interest in Aboriginal people was based on an earlier generation’s assumptions. Views of Aboriginal people were shaped in the early days of invasion by ignorance, fear and superstition, tied to an already mythologised view of dark skinned peoples wherever they may be found across the globe. Aboriginal peoples worldwide were constantly compared to other Indigenous populations, to apes and to each other via our skull measurements. Wholesale speculation was the foundation of Australia’s history books, which was coupled with the often aggrandizing, occasionally figmentary commentaries of those who had grown rich on the back of displaced Aboriginal peoples. It was this foundation of half-truths that shaped how Aboriginal people are perceived today.

Cora Gooseberry was dubbed in 1852 as “last of the Sydney tribe of Aborigines,” [1] despite her husband Bungaree having the same title bestowed upon him at his death in 1830 [2] and followed by “Boatswain Meroot” in 1850. [3] North to Newcastle and “Brown” who was part of Leichhardt’s party to Port Essington, passed away in June 1854 and is listed as “last of the Newcastle blacks”, yet in the same article he is described as having being fatally injured at the “black’s camp on the beach”, indicating clearly that he was not alone. [4]

Some of this brutally savage form of ignorance can be attributed to the racist, government endorsed practice of classifying Aboriginal people via their ancestry. Aboriginal people without European or other forms of non-Indigenous ancestry were considered “pure” blacks, or “full-bloods”, whilst those with a single non-Indigenous parent were “half-castes”. Thus, in the eyes of many at the time, anyone considered a half-caste was no longer an Aboriginal person, nor were they white or otherwise. It was a sort of ethnic and cultural limbo which resulted in a greatly misrepresented count of the Aboriginal population in many parts of Australia.

Another reason for the fantasy of last of the tribe is the romance with which white Australia had been quick to endow Aboriginal people with, based on the success in Australia of the American author James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel “Last of the Mohicans”, which was loosely based on some aspects of the Mahican and Mohegan tribes of the north eastern United States. A misrepresentation of First Nations peoples which was seen to parallel the view in Australia, that Aboriginal peoples across the globe were to face an inevitable extinction. This was a view that served to build up a simplistic idea, held as a bedrock of British empire and white Australia, that civilization as enjoyed by those of British stock was proof of racial superiority, despite the wide-ranging cultural and racial origins of said civilization.

Tasmania of course provides the best known example of a perceived last of the tribe experience. Even today many children are taught in schools in different parts of the country that (Truganini) Trugernanner was the last of the Tasmanian “Aborigines”. This is again based on the “full-blood” notion, which dismisses the lives of many generations of Tasmanian Aboriginal people, both living on the island state and the Australian mainland. The attempted genocide of the Tasmanian Palawa was unsuccessful, despite the falsehoods that continue to be perpetuated within the Australian education system.

Year after year, new names rung out in the Australian media, trumpeting the passing of another so-called relic of the stone age. Biebi, the “last of the Campaspe tribe” in 1865 [5]. In 1866 we saw the loss of Dan-dan-Nook or “Jerry”, the so-called “very last” of the Barrabool or “Geelong tribe” [6], followed by “Jemmy Man”, “last of the Yarra tribe of blackfellows” at Richmond in 1870. [5] These are but a few of many thousands who have represented “the last of the tribe” in the minds of white Australia as they attempted to “smooth the pillow for a dying race.” [7] In each case we can look to the regions in which these people had lived and know that their countrymen are alive and flourishing and are contining to maintain their identities and culture as Aboriginal people.

[1] 1848 ‘Police Sketches.’, Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer (NSW : 1845 – 1860), 13 May, p. 2. ,

[2] 1854 ‘Hunter River District News.’, The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (NSW : 1843 – 1893), 21 June, p. 2. ,

[3] 1850 ‘Family Notices’, The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), 2 February, p. 5. ,

[4] 1865 ‘THE BENDIGO ADVERTISER’, Bendigo Advertiser (Vic. : 1855 – 1918), 11 October, p. 2. ,

[5] 1866 ‘THE NATIONAL AGRICULTURAL SHOW.’, Geelong Advertiser (Vic. : 1859 – 1929), 27 October, p. 2. ,

[6] 1870 ‘No title’, The Ballarat Courier (Vic. : 1869 – 1880; 1914 – 1918), 4 June, p. 2. ,

[7] 1858 ‘No title’, The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), 28 October, p. 4. ,

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2 Responses

  1. Ryan Stewart says:

    Dear KooriHistory,

    Can you please provide the author of this article as I would like to cite it in my research.

    Thank you very much.

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