Sally O’Wheel, Tasmania Regional Meeting

This is the hardest thing I have had to deal with since I accepted the position as co-convenor of the Friends in Stitches, Australian Quaker Narrative Embroidery. I have had the job of creating the Friends in Stitches web page for the new Australian Quaker website. One day I was proudly showing my work in progress to my friend, Maureen Davey, who some Tasmanian Friends will know as she is a long time Hobart resident and doctor associated with the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre Health Services. She looked askance at the Francis Cotton panel and referred me to an article by a Tasmanian historian, Nick Brodie.[1] 

The article is about the record of our East Coast Quakers, Francis Cotton and George Story and relates to the book Land of Sleeping Gods, by Jane Cooper, a Cotton descendant.[2]  Although our panel about Francis Cotton was designed before this book was published, it has raised questions about the whole Cotton story.

I was very troubled by Nick Brodie’s article and had to re-write the blurb that goes with the panel on the web site. This is a work-in-progress and keeps changing as I learn more about it.

Here is the current draft:

Myths of Tasmanian Legends as recorded by Francis Cotton

 When this panel was designed and stitched the designers believed a story which had apparently been passed down through generations of the Cotton family. We now have doubts about this.

 Francis Cotton, Anna Maria Cotton and their family of five children arrived in Van Diemens Land in 1828. They arrived right in the middle of the Black War.

 Since Van Diemens Land had been invaded by the British in 1803,  the Aborigines, (palawa[3]), had been under attack: their land, the material foundation of their life, altered permanently.  The British lived on the palawa land, cleared the bush, made fences, tilled the land and introduced sheep and cattle. Murders and rapes were perpetrated. Women and children were kidnapped. The very foundations of their lives were disrupted by the British invasion.

 The palawa fought back. By the time the Cottons took up their selection on the east coast, at  trayapana,  traditional land of the Oyster Bay Tribe,  and started to build their homestead and create their farm, war was waging between the palawa and the British.

 In 1829 the British military were following a group of Aborigines and wanted to rendezvous at Cottons hut. Palawa attacked the hut.  The guns, which had been left at the butt of a tree, were seized by the palawa, several British workers were speared. Cotton met one who was running away and reported the attack to the Military command and soldiers set out to the spot, but of course the palawa had long gone.

 In 1831 prominent men of the District of Great Swanport, including Cotton, met to write a letter of thanks to Governor Arthur for his actions in clearing the land of the palawa.  They seem to have drafted the letter several times, careful of the wording. On the one hand they wanted to stress the extreme danger they had been under: the atrocities, outrages and murders, continual Fear and Alarm for our lives and property whenever these people are at large.  But on the other hand, they wanted to call on the Government to continue to work towards ameliorating the condition of these benighted people. This latter addition was unusual in letters of this kind which were commonly sent to the Governor by settlers in these years.

 Indeed Cotton believed that the solution lay in negotiation and non-violence and thus they were in full support of George Augustus Robinsons Friendly Mission, to gather together the remaining palawa from across Van Diemens Land, and remove them to Flinders Island. We now know that their removal to Flinders Island was catastrophic for the palawa. However, without the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to understand that Quakers would support the Friendly Mission and, indeed, the party of Aborigines accompanying Robinson stayed overnight at Kelvedon. At the most they probably stayed for fifteen hours and during that time the Cotton family story has it that they played ball games and demonstrated their climbing skill. It is also claimed that most other farms would not have hosted the Aborigines. 

 The designers of this panel believed that it was during this visit that Cotton recorded the legends.

 After Francis died in 1884 a grandson, Edward, became very involved in collecting Aboriginal skulls which were dug up on their land and he had a large collection which were eventually donated to the University of Melbourne.

In 1979 another grandson of Francis and Anna Maria Cotton, William Jackson Cotton (1909-1981), published a small book, Touch the Morning, stories which he said he had found in his fathers desk and he believed them to be the stories his grandfather had collected when G A Robinson and the Aborigines stayed overnight on his land.

 In fact this was the only occasion where there is any documentary evidence that Francis Cotton had any direct contact with the palawa.

 The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre says this about the legends:

The authenticity of Jackson Cotton material has yet to be proved. Most of the stories themselves are just like the type of European fairy tales popular in the nineteenth century, featuring little folk, bush elves, medicine men, dreaming clouds, rain children and talking birds and animals. Stories of the births of Moinee, Dromerdene, the first animals and man, and the stars (all these feature in the Cotton tales) were publically available from 1966 in the publication of George Augustus Robinsons journals.

 History is written by the victors and stories may be made up to assuage feelings of guilt and loss, especially in the context of the widely held belief that Tasmanian Aborigines were extinct and the consequent void needing to be filled. The Cottons were the beneficiaries of stolen land and murder, but can we judge them when we dont know how we would have behaved in similar historical circumstances? All of us today who are non-Aboriginal have benefited from the theft of Aboriginal land and the destruction of their society. We live uncomfortably with that truth. How do we do justice?

 As regards this panel, it depicts the stories the Cotton family may have passed down, believing them to be authentic Aboriginal legends. The truth remains elusive.


The blurb then goes on to describe the images on the panel and how they relate to the stories,

In the 1980s and 1990s the William Jackson Cotton Touch the Morning stories were widely accepted as authentic. The Tasmanian Education Department wrote them into the curricular and apparently Tasmanian Aboriginal groups accepted them. However this is no longer the case. The publication of the Land of Sleeping Gods has placed great doubt about the authenticity of the legends and of Francis Cotton’s role. The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, the longest standing recognised body of Tasmanian Aborigines, does not accept the legends as authentic.

The story that pretty much confirms for me that these are European stories is the one about the platypus: created by a melding of the duck and the water rat. This whole concept seems to rely on a European understanding of ideas of biological classification, distinguishing birds from mammals. I don’t think the palawa would have imagined that.

The panel was certainly designed and stitched in good faith, believing and trusting William Jackson Cotton, who they believed to be a Quaker. But was he? He is not listed in the Australian Quaker Dictionary of Biography. What is the truth about the Legends? Who collected them? Are they Aboriginal legends or made up by Europeans? What was the role of Cotton and his Friend, George Story, in the Black War? What do we do with this knowledge? If we find out that these legends were not collected by Francis Cotton and are not authentic Aboriginal legends, what implications does that hold for our panel? Should it be exhibited if it perpetuates ‘fake news’? Can it be amended to better reflect the truth?

This issue needs to be considered by a larger Quaker group than Friends in Stitches. It is relevant to all Friends. The tapestry panels represent our public face and will continue to do so for a hundred years or more, long after we have gone.


[1]Brodie, Nicholas: Quaker Dreaming:The ‘Lost’ Cotton Archive and the Aborigines of Van Diemen’s Land. Journal of Religious History. Vol 40. no 3. Sept 2016

[2]Cooper, Jane: Land of Sleeping Gods, the Writings and drawings of William Jackson Cotton. Wellington Bridge Press, 2013

[3]Palawa kani is a reconstructed Tasmanian Aboriginal language. They do not use capital letters.

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