Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Low Head Paper– January 2010

NOTE: To enlarge an image simply click on the image you wish to enlarge
As any New Tasmanian will tell you, every New Tasmanian needs an induction into being Tasmanian. They need to know about:
  • FoodApples, Lamb, Cheeses, Mutton Birds, Scallops, Trevalla, Abalone, Leatherwood Honey, Pink Eye potatoes and more recently cool climate wines
  • Tasmania’s Colonial history – Georgian buildings, convicts, some bushranging, etc.
  • Things endemically Tasmanian – Huon Pine and The Piners, Blackwood, Tasmania Devils and the Thylacine
  • Tasmanian Hot Issues –Forest debates, The Hydro, Lake Pedder and ‘The Wilderness’.
Up there with all of this is Tasmania’s Aboriginal history, 'The Truganini Story' and Tasmania’s ubiquitous shell necklaces.

This is the kind of crash course that takes place over morning coffee, at barbecues, over dinner tables, at parties, over a drink at exhibition openings, etc. It all comes with ABSOLUTE authority and based on irrefutable evidence. All this is especially important if you have been imported to, among other things, write speeches with cultural messages for politicians and others who are trying to appear ‘erudite and informed’.

Somehow the TIP (Tasmanian Induction Process) is more intense than similar inductions seem to be almost anywhere else.

About the first thing a New Tasmanian, or a visitor who feels somewhat obliged to feel connected, needs to do is get some Huon pine. It is that quintessential thing to be sending friends and family back ’home’ to prove that you have indeed moved to, or have been, elsewhere. A little bit of Huon pine carries so many stories.

Very high on the list of must-know-abouts is Tasmanian necklace making. To anyone who has lived in Tasmania for any time, they would know something about shell necklaces, Truganini, her necklaces and other necklace stories. Truganini seems to be the usual starting point.

Almost like ‘white noise,’ apple stories proliferate in Tasmania. Again, anyone who has lived in Tasmania for any time will know someone who was, or is, or whose family is/was involved in 'the apple industry’. Along Tasmania’s highways and back roads apple trees have gone feral. It is not for nothing that Tasmania is known as the Apple Isle.

Like Huon pine, an ‘apple souvenir’ of some kind works very well as a placemarker and story carrier. These days vintage apple box labels, and their reproductions, are fantastic souvenirs. After that if you are an antique hunter – and antique hunting in Tasmania has that special something – a Tasmanian apple seed necklace comes close to being something like a Holy Grail. They are terrific finds!

Perhaps the most spectacular find is that apple seed necklaces are not all they seem. There is a hidden story here! It turns out that there are a number of Tasmanian collectors who collect these objects and the apple seed place mats, purses, belts, etc. sometimes found while hunting necklaces. Indeed some ‘apple seed’ collections are quite extraordinary and quite beautiful.

There has been some speculation that there is a connection between apple seed necklaces and shell necklaces. It is an interesting proposition. That there may be some kind of crossover between apple seed necklaces and indigenous shell necklace making. On face value, it seems plausible. In a kind of a way there is a connection but not quite in the way expected.

Anyway, it turns out that apple seed necklaces are in fact ipil seed” necklaces – note the phonic slip – and research seems to be telling us that they were in fact made in The Philippines and imported in to Tasmania, not made in Tasmania.

But so many Tasmanians, and Tasmanian visitors, have adopted them. Somehow they have become a kind of 'surrogate Tasmanian Necklace.’ There may be an apple seed necklace out there somewhere but someone is yet to find it. Until then it is relatively safe to say, “there are no Tasmanian apple seed necklaces.”

On the other hand there are quite a few Tasmanian shell necklaces around and not only in Tasmania. Until recently it seems that it was safely assumed that if it was a recognisable “Tasmanian Shell Necklace” it was likewise safe to assume that it was an Aboriginal shell necklace. However, recent research has shown that like with so many things, assumptions are never really all that safe to make.

It turns out that in Hobart from at least 1875 to the 1960s shell necklaces that are virtually indistinguishable, for all intentions purposes, from some Aboriginal shell necklaces, were in fact made commercially – and by by non-Aboriginal makers. It also turns out that they were known as “Hobart Necklaces”. It seems that they were popular ‘Tasmanian souvenirs’ in the later part of the 19th C and right up until the 1960s it seems.

The shells that were used in the Hobart Necklaces for the most part were a group of shells generally known as ‘rainbow kelp shells’ and shells that the contemporary Aboriginal necklace makers call maireenershells – “maireener” being the Tasmanian Aboriginal word for these shells and sometimes the necklaces made from them.

Interestingly, the word maireener has won currency on eBAY and it has been increasingly used to assert a kind of Tasmanian authenticity, and sometimes Aboriginal authenticity, for necklaces made with these shells.

By 1908 it seems that the ‘Hobart Necklace Industry’ had grown to be quite large as demonstrated by the advertising and articles appearing in Hobart’s newspapers. One particular story that year seems to provide a starting point for beginning to visualise the scale of this “industry.” The story told of the theft of 100 dozen shell necklaces from the Hobart Wharf. The necklaces were destined for Sydney – and possibly for export beyond. There were two trials that year for the same offense. The first produced a hung jury and the second a conviction.
At the second trial three dealers in necklaces, furs and taxidermy attested to the fact that the stolen necklaces were those of another dealer who claimed that they were stolen from him. This was sufficient to see the thief convicted. It is hard to imagine how such a felon could expect to sell his spoils unnoticed in a town with less than 40,000 people or on an island such as Tasmania with a population of something less than 200,000. However, thieves have forever been careless about such details.
It seems that these necklaces had currency as a kind of local Tasmanian fashion item that asserted ‘Tasmanian-ness’ and as a souvenir – or Trophy of Empire. It also seems that they were in demand far beyond Tasmania – the mainland states, the UK, the USA and Hawaii in particular.

Interestingly, in 1908;
  • Truganini’s skeleton had been on exhibition in the Tasmania Room at the Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery for four years;
  • It was 29 years, a generation, after Truganini's death; and
  • It was just three years after the death of Fanny Cochrane-Smith.
Both these women have iconic Tasmanian Aboriginal ancestor status and both were known for their shell necklaces.
All of this must have lent something to the curiosity value, and souvenir value, Hobart Necklaces held given that they so closely resembled, mimicked even, the necklaces these Aboriginal women were by then famous for wearing. A great many Hobartians at the time would have had quite vivid living memories of both women.
Even if it was somewhat late, on November 11 2009 (Remembrance Day!) The shell necklaces “made by Tasmania Aboriginal women” were granted Icon Status by Tasmania’s National Trust. Just a little over a century after John Ward was convicted of stealing 1,200 shell necklaces that mimicked ‘The Real McCoy’, those made by contemporary Aboriginal makers win recognition for their iconic Tasmanian-ness. It is all somewhat ironic.
It seems that for about a century non-Aboriginal makers in various guises have been making shell necklaces using the same kinds of shells that Tasmania’s Aboriginal people use. They were using the same kind of shells as those used on Flinders Island in 1837–38 at the Thursday markets at Wybalenna – and for millennia beforehand albeit in a slightly different format. Since then their necklace making has evolved and accommodated the new materials and technologies that came with the colonisation of Tasmania.

One of the trade marks of a Hobart Necklace it seems is the use of dyed shells. Aniline dyes were used to ‘jazz up’ the necklaces and make them more appealing to a wider market. The dying of these necklaces seems to have been going on since the earliest days of commercial shell necklace production in Tasmania. Nonetheless, it seems that it was not until post WW2 that the dyeing became more blatant.
‘Bertie’ May, a Hobart souvenir manufacturer and trader, was producing and marketing quite large quantities of shell necklaces for the souvenir and fashion market in the late 1940s, 1950s and possibly into the 1960s. It seems that a significant proportion of his production was dyed in a wide variety of intense and bright colours. Earlier dyed necklaces – late 19th, early 20th C – it seems were dyed more subtly if at all.
These necklaces have been globalised and largely 'deplaced' culturally until more recently when Tasmania’s Aboriginal makers have won recognition for the necklaces they make using a much larger variety of shells than were used in Hobart Necklaces. Along with the globalisation comes cultural homoginisation. All this is more to do with blanding than blending.

It is interesting that a Tasmanian shell necklace manufacturer, M M Martin, should see an opportunity to set up a branch enterprise in Honolulu in the early 20th C. It is also interesting that it seems that this enterprise may well have supplied the last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, with Tasmanian shell necklaces that it seems she may have understood as ‘lei’. It is also interesting that these necklaces are turning up on eBAY in somewhat unexpected numbers far beyond Tasmania.
It is only possible to speculate upon the size of the ‘Hobart Necklace Industry’. Once it seemed most likely that it was not much more than a cottage industry that was being aggrandized in colonial times. However the Ward Case of 1908 suggests that it was indeed something more than a cottage industry. A back of the envelope calculation seems to suggest that working back from the evidence in the Ward Case this was indeed so.
For 20 years of production straddling the turn of the 20th C, and depending on various variable factors , it is possible to arrive at estimates ranging from 30,000 to 60,000 to even well over 100,000 necklace that were likely to have been produced commercially in that 20 years.

It is open question as to just how many necklaces came out of this industry and as to how large the industry actually was. Nonetheless there is a great deal of scope for further research to put this somewhat new understanding in a clearer perspective.

Ray Norman 2010


In Tasmania’s ‘Antipodean Wunderkammers[12] the Tasmanian Aboriginal people’s [12] shell necklaces figure large. Deep in the museums’ memory banks, and in their exhibition spaces, they have catalogued the shifting paradigms within which these ‘loaded artifacts’ are, and have been, imagined.

Curiously these necklaces seem omnipresent in ‘Tasmanian Branding’, along with the Truganini story; the Thylacine extinction story; apple iconography; convict narratives; Huon pine furniture and boats; Lake Pedder and wilderness imagery; forest protests; stories about giant squid and enormous crabs; mutton birds; trevalla; pink eye potatoes and much more that Tasmanians claim as being uniquely ‘theirs’. Unquestionably, shell necklaces figure large in Tasmanians’ cultural imagination.

‘New Tasmanians’ need to know about these things before they can begin to make sense of the place. Inevitably these iconic shell necklaces will be quietly explained in the induction process – typically over coffee and quietly. These are the kind of stories that one needs to have explained to you on an island with histories all of its own under almost every rock.

The story that is not told is the one about the theft of an ‘industrial quantity’ of necklaces from the Hobart Wharf in 1907. John Ward, a Hobart wharf labourer, was found guilty for having
“stolen, or otherwise [receiving], a large quantity of shell necklaces [100 dozen], consigned to a wholesale firm in Sydney by Mr. Paget, fur dealer, Elizabeth Street. At [his] previous trial the prisoner pleaded not guilty, and the jury failed to agree as to a verdict, whereupon the accused was remanded on bail, to be retried. On this occasion John [Ward] again pleaded not guilty, and was defended by Mr. Harold Crisp, the Solicitor General (Mr. E. D. Dobbie) prosecuting for the Crown ." TRANSCRIPT – Hobart Mercury, 20.05.1908.

Yet the story about the Royal Society’s implication in the robbery of Truganini’s grave is one that is spoken of – albeit in hushed whispers. Just a generation after her death the Tasmanian Museum put on exhibition that perplexing and macabre tableau that included Truganini’s skeleton, her death mask, various photographs of her, shell necklaces and ironically one of Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur’s famous ‘proclamation boards’ plus other Aboriginal artefacts. It’s legendary that there are Gothic resonances to Tasmanian stories – even those about necklaces.

The potency of the shell necklaces famously worn by Truganini is palpable. For the colonials cum settlers cum ‘invaders’ there is almost no escaping these necklaces’ ‘trophy of empire’ cultural cargo. For Tasmania’s Aboriginal community, clearly the necklaces are cultural property and treasures invested with the continuum of their being; charged with connections to place; and endowed with linkages to elders and ancestors. In Tasmania there is nothing ordinary about all shell necklaces – they evidence the continuity of Aboriginal Tasmanians’ presence and identity.

Unraveling the narratives that attach themselves to necklace making in Tasmania is an exercise full of irony and there is no comfort whatsoever to be found in the postmodern proposition that truth is myth, and myth, truth.

Mixed up within the Social Darwinian idea of “survival of the fittest” is the need to identify and to be identifiable. Body ‘adornment’ can be a very sophisticated identity tool and a ’necklace’ can be many things – souvenir, token or simple adornment. But ‘necklaces’ usually need to wait to be given meaning, a social function or perhaps some personal significance.

Essentially, “necklace” is a generic European cum globalised idea. It’s not an idea that fits at all well within local or Indigenous peoples’ naming and belief systems. ‘Necklace’ is a kind of generic term that best fits the circumstances of globalisation and the imperatives of industry. It’s a catchall term, a lowest common denominator, something that comes to a wearer via ‘commercial’ production ready for it to be invested with meaning.

In a postcolonial cum ‘global’ paradigm, various kinds of ‘necklaces’ – rosaries, chains of office etc. – carry subtexts that typically emerge from the ether to haunt us in various ways. Interestingly, they are rarely referred to as "necklaces."

Hawaii's Queen Liliuokalani, the last of the Hawaiian monarchs, owned a number of Tasmanian kelp maireenershell necklaces that seem to have come to her via a retail sale in Honolulu – and possibly understood by her as lei . They are now in the collection of the Bishops Museum in Honolulu.

“Queen Liliuokalini lived until 1917, and thus it’s most likely that she would have either bought them at a store, or perhaps someone might have given them to her, but probably (again) just by having purchased them commercially. By the time she was an adult, Hawaii had a completely westernized economy, particularly in Honolulu”

There is no doubt that Queen Liliuokalini’s 'shell necklaces/lei' originated in Tasmania as ‘Hobart Necklaces’Hobart’s quintessential souvenirs. Most likely they found their way to Honolulu via the M M Martin enterprise of Hobart [23] established in 1875 and with Honolulu “branch factory”. Once in Honululu Hobart Necklaces could be recontextualised as, and marketed as, lei – and ultimately accepted by a Polynesian monarch as such. They left Tasmania as ‘Hobart Necklaces’ and immediately turned into ‘lei’ the moment they landed on the wharf in Honolulu.

When Tasmanian Aboriginal shell necklaces maireenersare claimed as “necklaces,” or ‘lei’ even, it says nothing at all about their ‘original’ cultural context. It is an act of cultural homogenisation. Moreover, it is more to do with "blandingthan it might have anything to do with blending." Dr. Rod Ewins paraphrased. What is missing is the accommodation of differing cultural sensibilities in a global context. Ultimately, all this is to do with colonising ‘identity’.

On eBAY at least, it seems that the Tasmanian Aboriginal language word maireenerhas been added to the lexicon when it is necessary to distinguish one shell necklace from another. 'The word' has currency when it comes to asserting a 'necklace's' Tasmanian Aboriginal bona fides. Indeed, maireenerhas come to carry layers of meaning to do with identifying a class of personal adornment cum cultural identifier. In the Aboriginal community, it is also the word used to describe the kinds of shells used to make necklaces.

In its Aboriginal context, it seems that a maireener is not by necessity a necklace any more than a lei is a necklace A lei is a lei. A maireener is a maireener. Like a lei, a maireener has cultural functions and cultural significance.

Firstly it seems, it is itself, a maireener, and almost coincidentally a necklace. But a maireener is something more than a necklace. They seem to embody a bond with place and carry the imprimatur of cultural continuum. Possibly, a maireener might be a necklace of a kind sometimes. In a way a maireener cum necklace may be significant as a kind of cultural crossover when it is used as a memento of ‘place’ – a souvenir. Arguably the maireener idea’ is somewhat ‘liquid’.

In the end, however, the maireener continues to be what it has probably always been: a 'connector'; a bonding agent; a ‘gift’ that connects people. The making of one clearly seems to connect people to place. Likewise, the receiving of one seems to connect people to a set of beliefs and imaginings to do with a place and its stories. In so many ways a maireener seems to be something like a symbolic umbilical cord that connects people to both place and culture – ways of believing and being.

There is something primordial about a Tasmanian Aboriginal maireener. There’s something there that refuses to be diluted by colonialism, golobalisim or cultural imperialism. Is the colonial appropriation of, the sanctioned plunder of, and the global commodification of these so-called ‘necklaces’, and by the thousands [ 1 2 ] it now seems , tantamount to the theft of identity and innocence? On the one hand, appropriated Tasmanian shell necklaces – Hobart Necklaces? – are exactly what they are, mere shadows of the maireeners they mimic. They are simply a ‘commodity’ analogous to grain before it becomes bread – cake even. You cannot steal, subsume or overtake history – written or oral. Then again, when a shell necklace is understood as “a flapper’s Art Deco necklace” on eBAY, somehow in that naivety there may be a glimmer of innocence. Yet, despite this destiny as cliché, the presence of the maireener remains. Certainly, its present Indigenous makers aim to take back this presence from its colonial commodification as a necklace and an artefact of Tasmania.

Ray Norman, Tasmania, February 2010.
A work-in-progress

ENDNOTE: The Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery has within its exhibit of Tasmanian Aboriginal shell necklaces six necklaces described as 19th C 20th C exemplars, which given their apparent lack of provenance, and the information currently to hand, must be regarded as of ambiguous Aboriginal authenticity.