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Straitsmen and Straits Women

Privacy Level: Open (White)
Date: Before 1800 to after 1850
Location: Australiamap
Surnames/tags: indigenous_australians australian_convicts Australia
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Categories: Indigenous Australians | Whaling | Sailors | Kangaroo Island, South Australia | Tasmania | Western Australia.

This Page has been provided by the Kangaroo Island Early Settlers Project

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that this Profile contains names and images of people who have died, and details about their lives that may be distressing.

Some People and Events from Australia's Colonial Sea Frontier.

Day told me that they sometimes made a voyage to the main land and had in this way provided themselves with women – whether by purchase or violence he did not say.
(‘Some early recollections’ by B.T. Finniss Transcript of original manuscript in The Borrow Collection, Flinders University Library)
Natives making cord for fishing nets, Encounter Bay,
by George French Angus. Note the hut made with whalebone.

In the early 1800s the coasts and waters of southern Australia were hunted for seals, whales, kangaroo and wallaby by mariners known as "Straitsmen". The practice in both sealing and off-shore whaling was to leave a crew on shore with supplies and return six months or a year later to collect them and their accumulated booty. Seals produced oil and skins, whales were stripped for bone and oil, which had to be rendered down in cauldrons called "tuns" or "trypots". Kangaroos and wallabies yielded skins, and salt was harvested from saltpans. Sometimes the ship did not return as promised and starvation threatened. Lawlessness was rife. Desperados such as runaway convicts and deserters from the military chose life on the Straits as a means to "disappear". There were at least two runaway African slaves from America; John ‘Black Jack’ Randall, and ‘Abyssinia Bob’.

The life was dangerous with few if any comforts and the sailors did not bring their British-born families along. Frequently, however, they had with them a number of indigenous women, who co-operated in their ventures; hunting, skinning, lugging bags of salt, finding eggs and shellfish and other foods for immediate use, even crewing the boats and sewing warm clothing from skins. These were the Tyerelore, the "Island Wives" #S6. There were occasional indigenous men, but mainly women because "There was a division of labour [In Aboriginal society], or a control of resources, that was split between men and women and by and large women had responsibility and therefore control of all the resources that came from the sea." #S13

It's not known exactly when the practice began of taking aboriginal women along on the hunting excursions, nor is it possible to generalise about the nature of the relationships between the men and the women. In some cases, the women went with the sailors by arrangement with their families, who wanted to establish reciprocal relationships. #S13 Other women were abducted with violence and treated brutally. So relentless were raids on the north coast of Tasmania that numbers in Palawa communities were decimated. There are examples of indigenous women eg Betty Thomas forming long standing relationships of affection and loyalty with the men whose children they bore, while others risked their lives to escape their captors. #S11 Formal marriage was unusual, but it did happen, while many women had husbands among their own people, and were cruelly separated from their children, eg Poolrerrener. Many part aboriginal children were born to the Tyerelore. #S5

Palawa women (from Tasmania) were preferred because of their superior hunting skills, and they and their descendants found themselves in far-flung places they might never otherwise have seen. There are descendants of Poolrerrener's son "Black Ned" Tomlins living in New Zealand today. #S10 Descendants of Betty Thomas still live on Kangaroo island. #S8 Woretemoeteyenner accompanied the Straitsmen on voyages as far across the Indian Ocean as Rodrigues/Mauritus islands off the east coast of Africa. #S5

Some Tyrerelore spent their final years at Oyster Cove, Van Diemen's Land. Middle row, second from left is Flora/Pelloneneminner and reclining, second from right, is Emma/Emue.

Whaling, sealing, and hunting for skins was conducted by companies, such as Griffith and Kable #S12 supplying their own ships and equipment, setting up stations at convenient spots along the coast, but there were also independent operators. The latter were often former employees of the companies who saw an opportunity for a more comfortable life and jumped ship to set up their own small operation, with an indigenous workforce. They built huts, grew vegetables in gardens and small crops to feed their pigs and chickens and hunted at their own convenience, trading their wares with passing vessels in exchange for rum and tobacco. With the women doing much of the work, it was a relaxed lifestyle, safer than life at sea and without the constraints of the law and civilisation. Robert Wallen cultivated land and bred animals on Kangaroo Island, so that when the official colonists arrived, he already had a thriving farm and had made enough out of trading wallaby skins to send his son Henry Whallen to get an education in Hobart.

What we know of the Straitsmen and Tyerelore comes largely from verbal accounts written down by others. Names and events were often learned by hearsay and related with varying accuracy. Both sailors and women went by more than one name. Red-headed George Bates was called "Fireball", but also the similar sounding "Piebald". Robert Drew was sometimes Robert Rew. Bulra had a daughter, Bullrer - or were they the same person? Sailors, defeated by the indigenous languages, often dubbed the women with nicknames. "Mary", "Sal" and "Betty" were popular, making it difficult to trace the movements of individual women and their children. #S1

By the 1830s colonisation was progressing in South and Western Australia. Samuel Stephens, arriving as first colonial manager for the South Australia Company, was astonished to find Kangaroo Island already populated with a number of "Robinson Crusoes" and their native companions. The response by the British authorities was twofold: clear out the lawless pirates and runaways occupying lands that were wanted for colonists, and take the aboriginal women and children to the "safety" of reserves where they could gain the "benefits" of Christianity and be trained for work as servants.

In Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) Protector of Aborigines George Robinson persuaded as many Palawa as he could to find safety at Wybalenna, on Flinders Island, and there are several accounts of Straitsmen handing their women over to Robinson. This was to have disastrous consequences when promised food and housing was not given and the Wybalenna population was decimated by hunger and white man's diseases.

On Kangaroo Island, Police Commissioner Alexander Tolmer had the task of clearing out fugitives from the law, including Straitsmen who remained there after colonisation. Tolmer was often aided in this by local aboriginal women as trackers. Some of the Straits people adapted well to the changes brought by colonisation and became permanent settlers and landowners. Some of the Tyerelore never returned to their homelands. Palawa women Suke, Little Sal and Bumblefoot Sal (Makekerledede, Sister of Truganini from Bruny Island) lived out their days in a little group alongside the colonial settlers on Kangaroo Island.

Blood alone cannot sustain memory.
Rebe Taylor


  1. Plomley, N.J.B. (ed) 1966. Friendly Mission; the Tasmanian journals and papers of George Augustus Robinson 1829–1834
  2. Plomley, N.J.B. and K.A. Henley 1990. The sealers of Bass Strait and the Cape Barren Island community. Tasmanian Historical Research Association Papers and Proceedings 37:37–127
  3. Tipping, M. 1988. Convicts Unbound; the story of the Calcutta convicts and their settlement in Australia"
  4. Cumpston, J.S. 1970. Kangaroo Island 1800–1836 Canberra: Roebuck Society Publication No 1.
  5. Dunderdale, George ([1898]:13) The Book of the Bush
  6. Birmingham, J. 1992. Wybalenna: the archaeology of cultural accommodation in nineteenth century Tasmania. Sydney: Australian Society for Historical Archaeology.
  7. Nash, M. 2003. The Bay Whalers; Tasmania’s shore-based whaling industry Woden: Navarine Publishing
  8. Index to Departures 1817–1867, from an original record POL (Port of Launceston) 458/2, p. 21, Tasmanian State Archives)
  9. Chamberlain, S. 1989. Sealing, whaling and early settlement of Victoria; an annotated bibliography of historical sources. Victoria Archaeological Survey Occasional Report 29
  10. Lambert, T. 1925. The Story of Old Wairoa Dunedin: Coulls, Somerville, Wilkie.
  11. Parsons, personal communication 2008.