Australia

The tragic story behind this doll has been revealed as it’s finally returned to Australia

A precious doll has this week finally arrived back in lutruwita (Tasmania) after being lost for decades in England.
With it comes the story of its owner – believed to be a Tasmanian Aboriginal girl named Mithina (also spelled Mathinna), whose short life was marked by tragedy.
Mithina was born on Flinders Island, Tasmania in 1835. Her father Towgerer (also written as Towtrer) was the chief of the Lowreenne tribe – where modern-day Strahan and Macquarie Harbour is located.
Towgerer – and Mithina’s mother Wongerneep – were captured by George Augustus Robinson, who was Protector of Aborigines (using the offensive misnomer), in 1833. They were taken to Flinders Island to an Aboriginal settlement called Wybalenna.

From the early 1820s to about the mid-1830s, the Black War raged in Tasmania. Exact figures are unknown, but it’s estimated that at least 900 Tasmanian Aboriginal people and 200 British colonists were killed.

A portrait of Mithina by Thomas Bock. Source: Supplied / TMAG

Robinson had started travelling the state in 1830, rounding up the surviving Tasmanian Aboriginal people and sending them to the settlement on Flinders Island.

Julie Gough is a Trawlwoolway woman and curator from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) First People’s Art and Culture Team.

“It was like offshore detention for almost 20 years,” Julie says of Wybalenna.

It was like offshore detention for almost 20 years.

Julie Gough

“From 1830 to 1847, Aboriginal people were continually taken there after they had either been captured or surrendered.

“It was misconstrued to them [Tasmanian Aboriginal people] about what was happening, where they were going, and for how long they’d be there.”

A woman standing in front of a wall display

Trawlwoolway woman and curator Julie Gough. Source: Supplied / TMAG

Sir John Franklin was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Van Dieman’s Land in 1837, for a four-year term. Julie says that he and his wife, Lady Jane, requested an Aboriginal boy and girl.

“Mithina was sent to Hobart [from Flinders Island] even though she was not an orphan,” Julie says.
A rural locality in modern-day northeast Tasmania is named after Mithina, and a plaque there reads that she was “kindly adopted” by the Franklins.
“But it appears more that she was to be a servant for the family,” Julie says.

Eleanor Franklin – the daughter of Governor Franklin and his first wife Eleanor Porden – was 11 years older than Mithina, and wrote in her diary at the time of Mithina being given a doll with a petticoat.

Mithina's doll

The doll believed to have belonged to Mithina. Credit: DERBYSHIRE D8760-F-OBJ-3 Mathinna’s doll Mithina’s doll, c.1840 manufactured, modified doll Collection: Gell Trustees via Derbyshire Record Office, UK D8760/F/OBJ/3 DO NOT USE PHOTO WITHOUT PERMISSION

Mithina lived with the Franklins for four years, but four months before his term as Governor was due to end, Mithina was abandoned by the Franklins and left at the orphan asylum in Hobart.

“The fact that they basically sent her to the orphanage that much earlier before they departed for England is painful to consider,” Julie says.
It also appears the doll did not stay with Mithina but rather went to England with the Franklins.
Mithina was only 17 or 18 years old when she died at an Aboriginal settlement at Oyster Cove, south of Hobart.
“She died in mysterious circumstances,” Julie says.

“Some of the terminology is that she drowned in a puddle or a creek at Oyster Cove, after such a horrendous young life.”

A chance discovery

In 2017, the Derbyshire Record Office in Matlock, England, had received about 100 boxes from the well-known local Gell family.
The doll was found inside one of those boxes, along with a pin cushion.

The pin cushion had a label on it that identified it as being made by “Tasmanian girl, Methinna [sic].”

A brown circular object

The pin cushion that was found with the doll. Source: Supplied / Gell Trustees via Derbyshire Record Office, UK

The Derbyshire Record Office contacted TMAG, who contacted the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre.

Dr Gaye Sculthorpe, a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman, who until recently was the head of the Oceania section at the British Museum, travelled to Matlock to view the doll.

“Fortunately, the historic label on the cushion identified Mithina. Without that, [finding the doll] may never have eventuated,” Julie says.

Artefacts return home

The doll and pin cushion will now feature in a new exhibition that opens this week at TMAG, titled taypani milaythina-tu: Return to Country.
The exhibition “presents creative work from 20 Tasmanian Aboriginal artists responding to the relationships between community and Ancestral objects, particularly those held in institutions outside of lutruwita/Tasmania”.

It sees a number of ancestral objects from around the world returned to their home. The objects will be displayed alongside the Tasmanian Aboriginal artists’ work.

A painting of a doll

An artwork depicting the doll by Janice Ross. Source: Supplied / TMAG

Three of the artists – Janice Ross, Cheryl Rose, and Lillian Wheatley – have created contemporary pieces influenced by Mithina and her pin cushion and doll.

Janice Ross says Mithina’s story was much like her own.
Born in 1969, she was adopted by a non-Aboriginal family when she was a year old. It took 23 years for her to re-connect with her Aboriginal community.

“As the Aunties always said to me: ‘oh you’ve never been gone, you’ve been always with us, it’s just that sometimes the spirits in our young Aboriginal children, they’re sleeping for a while until they awaken,’” Ross says.

For her installation in the exhibition, Ross has painted Mithina’s doll, pin cushion, and homelands in southwest Tasmania, imagined as they were before colonisation.
She has also incorporated stringy bark collected from her sister’s property, to help visitors to the exhibition have a deeper connection to the Aboriginal stories.

“Having a natural resource within an institutional setting [a museum] can bring about the story for people to connect with,” she says.

The exhibition is the result of years of hard work by the Tasmanian Aboriginal community and TMAG. Much of the groundwork started in the 1970s, with the community searching for the remains of ancestors who were taken from Tasmania to museums across the world during colonisation.
“Our ancestors have been held in many institutions around the world – human remains – so how our objects and our ancestors ended up overseas, sometimes it’s possible to know the details, but other times it’s less clear,” Julie says.
“The ancestors are connected to the objects that they made, and many of our ancestors have been coming back slowly since the 1970s, to be laid to rest on home ground.

“But the cultural objects, I suppose, have been waiting their turn, because bringing back the ancestors has been the primary responsibility of community.”

The cultural objects … have been waiting their turn.

Julie

The returned objects are on time-limited loans of about two years.
Julie says the negotiations with institutions, archives and museums around the world have been a careful, respectful task of conversation and diplomacy.
“This is a step towards repatriation,” she says.
taypani milaythina-tu: Return to Country runs at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) in Hobart until 12 February 2023.
palawa kani, a Tasmanian Aboriginal language, does not use capital letters.

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