Carmel Bird as a mermaid. Painted by Lisa Roberts. Bird On The Wire
an online column by Carmel Bird


No. 7
12 July 1998


Previous columns
The future of the book
Time Slices
Outside In
The Tried and Tested
The Man Behind The Woman
Uncorrected Proof

When I was a child we lived near a place I associated with mad dogs because it was called Rabies Hill. One time I asked my mother why it had that name and she lowered her voice to a whisper, explaining that it was really Reibey's Hill, named after Mary Reibey who had been a convict woman. Worse than mad dogs. Until then I had known only of convict men, part of a dark, cruel, hidden and romantically attractive Tasmanian past. My mother made it clear that Mary Reibey and other convict women were not a suitable topic for discussion.
Until recent times it has been quite usual in Tasmania for the evidence of convict history to be concealed and even destroyed. At the end of last century the Chief Justice of the colony publicly stated that convict buildings and relics should be removed in order to blot out the memory of past shame. In 1810 Edward Lord, who was temporarily in charge of the colony after the death of Governor Collins, and whose wife had been a convict, destroyed many of the records. These are but two examples of official and unofficial policy to bury the ugly past.
I suppose it goes without saying that from the moment my mother whispered the name of Mary Reibey I became keen to know more about the lives of women in the Australian penal colonies. A common pastime in my childhood was to seek out the marks of the broad arrow for evidence of convict construction of buildings. These were easy to find, compared with evidence of the work of women. I wondered very much about Mary Reibey, and about the other women who had been transported to Tasmania, who they were, how they lived, what they felt.
There are a few stones remaining to mark the place of the female factory in Hobart; none, as far as I know, marking the place in Launceston. The women washed and wove and worked as servants. Sometimes there is a relic of their needlework. Two of the most interesting and touching examples of this are the Rajah quilt, which is in the National Gallery in Canberra, and the christening gown in the Tasmanian Museum in Hobart. Both these articles were communal works that would have involved considerable co-operation between the women and they therefore cast a sweeter light on those women than might be expected.
Another thing is letters. In 1992 Nance Irvine published the collected letters of Mary Reibey (Dear Cousin: The Reibey Letters, Hale & Iremonger). The first letter was written to her aunt in 1792 as Mary was about to arrive in New South Wales, at the age of thirteen, having been convicted and transported for stealing a horse. The last of Mary's letters to be preserved was written in 1845, six years before she died. Hers is a story of a life of great triumph over the early fact of her conviction. It is, I think, a story my mother should have told me. But the only thing my mother seemed to know about Mary Reibey was that she was a criminal.
Not far from where I grew up is a colonial house called Entally, which was built by Thomas, the son of Mary Reibey, hence the name of the hill. There was really no need for my mother to associate the place with the convict past of Mary. Such attempts to conceal the past succeed only in revealing it in a more fascinating light. Entally was opened to visitors as an historic home in the late 1940s, and I was a frequent visitor, attempting to soak up the information and atmosphere, which I found compelling. And I was conscious that behind this charming place with its little bluestone chapel, coach house, glass house, and its broad lawns and romantic twisting narrow staircase there lurked the murky stains of crime and punishment.
There's a ghost at Entally. Sometimes at night, the temperature on the staircase drops dramatically and the shadowy figure of a turbanned Indian materialises, then disappears. I am sorry to say I never saw this ghost. I have never heard an explanation, a story behind the Indian, although there is a tale that one woman who saw the ghost ended up in the asylum at New Norfolk as a result. Nobody ever gives any names or dates for this case. But it has kind of poetic, gothic authority.
If ever there was a place riddled with ghost stories, it's Tasmania. I mean that in a serious way. I think that so much that was cruel and dark and terrible happened there in a concentrated form that the memories linger in the place itself, informing the stones, the air. The island was a prison. The indigenous people were invaded, dispossessed, murdered. It has to be haunted. I believe it is.
I don't know what you do about ghosts, exactly. However, one thing that seems to me to be important is the open study and acknowledgement of what happened in the past, whatever that may be. And furthermore I think it is important to cultivate a response to what happened. Something that kicked along my interest in the secret past of Tasmania happened when I was at high school. We were invited to write essays about our country to exchange with essays written by students at a high school in Missouri. My essay was about convicts and Aborigines, and the teacher said she could not permit it to go overseas because of the unsuitable subject matter.
The history of Tasmania is not pretty; it is not funny. Places I like to visit are the state museums in Hobart and Launceston, and some of the historic homes. There the relics of the past are treated with a sobriety and respect that can be absent from historic sites, which tend towards the theme park and can lead to the trivialisation of history. Or the prettification of the past. One of the Tasmanian telephone directories has on the cover a photograph of Queenstown where the landscape has been destroyed by mining. It is a picture of weird desolation. The caption to the photograph is 'Colourful Rocks'. That little phrase reminds me of my mother's whisper as she tried to deflect my interest in the gruesome facts of history.
 Copyright © Carmel Bird 1998. All rights reserved.