Saturday, June 19, 2010


Something has happened, and is happening, to the ways in which we might see Truganini. How Truganini is envisioned seems to be in a state of flux. Likewise, there has been something of a paradigm shift in the ways in which we might envision “Truganini’s Necklaces”. That is the maireener shell necklaces Truganini is typically depicted wearing along with those attributed to her – plus those named after her.

In Tasmania’s ‘Antipodean Wunderkammers’ the Tasmanian Aboriginal people’s 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.

Then there is the Truganini story itself. Truganini and her shell necklaces are deeply ingrained in Tasmaniana storytelling. Somehow, Truganini seems to be somewhere in either the foreground or background of just about every story to do with Tasmania’s colonial history. For some Truganini is iconic; for others she has been canonised as a venerated ancestor; for some she is branded as a traitor, collaborator, bushranger and curio; for others she is remembered as a survivor. However, she is most contentiously spoken of “as the last of her race.”

Truganini is a complex identity, and an identity who is typically presented wearing a shell necklace. Truganini and her necklaces are a part of the ‘Tasmanian Brand’ – the quintessential Tasmaniana brand. It is not so surprising that necklaces such as hers were imagined as ‘Truganini Necklaces’ – albeit most often as a subliminal subtext.NOTE: Both necklaces above have unquestioned Aboriginal authenticity but the "Truganini Necklace" is circumstantially unlikely to have been made by Truganini as she was unlikely to have had access to these particular shells for the dates attributed to them.


Along with the Thylacine [1] extinction story, apple symbolisms, convict narratives, Huon pine furniture and boats, Lake Pedder and wilderness photography, forest protests, 'Jimmy Possum' chairs, stories about giant squid, enormous crabs, abalone, mutton birds and more, Tasmanians claim these shell necklaces – Hobart cum Truganini necklaces – as ‘theirs’. Unquestionably, shell necklaces figure large in Tasmania’s cultural imagination and for the Tasmanian Aboriginal people, they are emblems of their cultural continuum.

‘New Tasmanians’ need to know about these things before they can to begin to make sense of their new home. Inevitably these iconic shell necklaces along with the Truganini story will be quietly explained in the induction process. These are the kind of stories that one needs to have explained to you on an island with complex histories under almost every rock.

The story that is not told however is a century old one about the theft of an ‘industrial quantity’ of shell necklaces; necklaces like Truganini’s; necklaces sometimes called ‘Hobart Necklaces’. There were 100 dozen shell necklaces stolen from onboard the ‘Westralian’ berthed at the Hobart Wharf on April 2nd 1907. John Ward, a wharf labourer, was found guilty for having
  • “stolen, or otherwise [receiving], a large quantity of shell necklaces 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. [2] Hobart Mercury, May 20 1908.
The robbery itself alerts us to the scale of the shell necklace trade going on out of Hobart. This robbery was no trivial affair. Ward’s trial alerts us to the fact that these necklaces had been produced commercially and in large numbers, indeed by the thousands, and for some time. The robbery also alerts us to the fact that John Paget was not alone as a trader in shell necklaces.Given the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands possibly, of maireener shell necklaces produced commercially as 'Hobart cum Truganini Necklaces' it seems that it is now the case that any such necklace without strong circumstantial evidence to back up Aboriginal provenance needs to be regarded as having ambiguous Aboriginal authenticity. Indeed this is the case for a great many of these necklaces in museum collections around the world – even the one from the Exeter museum returned to Tasmania in 1997 and an unknown number in Tasmania's museums. At the time these necklaces were collected different imperatives and sensibilities were in operation. In the end curators can only work with the best available information to hand.This shell necklace 'industry' not only exploited the cultural knowledge of Tasmania's Aboriginal people but also the shell resource they alerted them to. Below the waterline in southern Tasmania it seems that kelp forests were 'clear felled' out of sight and out of mind. These shells were harvested by the bucketful over a long time. In many ways this harvest is analogous to the clear felling going on right now in Tasmania's old growth forests on land.


Stories about the Royal Society’s implication in the robbery of Truganini’s grave are spoken of – albeit in hushed whispers. Just a generation after her death the Tasmanian Museum put on exhibition that perplexing montage that included Truganini’s skeleton, her death mask, various photographs of her, bundles of her shell necklaces – euphemistically hers if not hers in fact – 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 most Tasmanian stories – even those to do with shell necklaces.

Strangely, it was reported in the Hobart Mercury sometime in May 1945 that four shell necklaces were stolen from The Tasmanian Room at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Interestingly, this was while Truganini’s skeleton was in ‘safe keeping’ elsewhere for the duration of the war and just three years before its removal from public exhibition altogether.

The potency of these 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’ status or the bleak cultural cargo that comes with them. For Tasmania’s Aboriginal community, clearly the necklaces are cultural property and cultural 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 that is ordinary about a maireener shell necklace. Together these maireener necklaces evidence the continuity of Aboriginal Tasmanians’ presence and identity – while those that mimic them carry other stories.


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". Dr. David Hansen[6] in his recent essay ‘Seeing Truganiniamong other things talks about the ways we might look at Benjamin Law’s bust of Truganini and says:
  • “Representations of Aborigines are not calibrated against the lie of the land, the history of the invasion, the character of the parties involved, the specific sequence of particular incidents or the sensitivity and technical accomplishment of the artist. Instead we are presented with an abstract zone of retrospective judgement, a killing field of theory, a terra nullius where imported European aesthetic stock – the Picturesque, the Sublime, the Grotesque, the Melancholy – may safely graze”.
Hansen looks for another way to look at Truganini and one that allows us to speak about everything that we can see in how she is represented.

Mixed up within Social Darwinism are ideas to do with ‘survival’ and ‘fitness.’ Survival quite often has something to do with the need to identify and to be identifiable. Typically, body ‘adornments’ are sophisticated identity tools. Yet a ’necklace’ can be translated into many things – a talisman, a souvenir, a token, simple adornment – yet almost always there are issues of identity present. In the context of the Western Industrial era, ‘necklaces’ are generally designed to come without inbuilt meaning. Generally that is something that has to be added later.

Necklaces are given their meaning once possessed and by their possessors. Typically they wait to be given a social function or perhaps some personal significance once they move out of ‘the market place’ and are contextualised as a possession.

Essentially, a “necklace” is a commodityincreasingly its a globalised idea, a globalishword/idea if you like. It’s not an idea that fits at all well within local or Indigenous peoples’ naming and belief systems. ‘Necklace’ is nonspecific, its the kind of idea that best fits the imperatives of hegemonic and homogenised globalism. It’s a catchall term, a lowest common denominator, something that comes to a wearer via ‘commercial’ production, and at best, ready to be invested with meaning.


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

Hawaii's Queen Liliuokalani[6], the last of the Hawaiian monarchs, owned a number of Tasmanian kelp – maireener – shell necklaces, ‘Truganini Necklaces’, that seem to have come to her via a retail sale in Honolulu – and quite possibly understood by her as lei[7]. 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”[8]

Undoubtedly Queen Liliuokalani’s 'shell necklaces/lei' originated in Tasmania. Most likely they found their way to Honolulu via the M M Martin[9] enterprise of Hobart, and Honolulu, to be recontextualised as, and marketed as, lei – and ultimately accepted by a Polynesian monarch as such. They left Tasmania as ‘Hobart cum Truganini Necklaces’ and immediately turned into ‘lei’ when they landed on the wharf in Honolulu.

When Tasmanian Aboriginal shell necklaces – maireeners – are claimed as “necklaces,” or ‘lei’ even, it says nothing at all about their ‘original’ cultural context. It is a blatant and opportunistic act of cultural-blending. Moreover, it is more to do with "blandingthan it might have anything to do with blending." Dr. Rod Ewins paraphrased[10] . What is missing, indeed what’s washed away, 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 ‘maireener’ has been added to the globalish [11] eBAY lexicon. It seems that when it is necessary to find a key word, and distinguish one iridescent shell necklace from another, in this case only ‘maireener’ will do. 'The word' has currency when it comes to asserting a 'necklace's' Tasmanian Aboriginal cum Truganini credentials and connections. Indeed, ‘maireener’ has come to carry layers of meaning to do with identifying a class of personal adornment cum cultural identifier on eBAY. In the Aboriginal community, it is also the word used to describe the kinds of shells [12] used to make necklaces and increasingly, the necklaces themselves.

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, cultural meaning and cultural significance.

Firstly it seems, it is itself, a maireener, and almost coincidentally it is a necklace. But a maireener is something more than a necklace. In their Tasmanian Aboriginal context 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’and a word that has seeped into eBAY globalish.

However, in the end, the Aboriginal 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. Given the colonial appropriation of, the sanctioned plunder of, and the global commodification of these ‘appropriated necklaces’ by the thousands, the question is, is all that tantamount to the theft of identity and innocence?

On the one hand, appropriated Tasmanian shell 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.

Then again, when a shell necklace is understood as “a flapper’s Art Deco necklace” on eBAY, somehow in that disconnected naivety there is a glimmer of innocence. Despite the cliché, Truganini’s maireeners are right there in all their glory waiting to be known for what they are.

Aided and abetted by the spectre of Truganini’s persistence in various histories, contemporary Aboriginal maireener-makers have taken back their cultural presence from the colonial appropriation of, and commodification of, their ‘necklace maireeners’. Curiously, and somewhat counter intuitively, eBAY and the Internet have turned out to be agencies for the reclamation and deblanding of euphamistic Truganini necklaces that carry her memory.

Undoubtedly, the ways in which Truganini’s necklaces are envisioned is changing. Whatever else, her necklaces, those that mimic hers and those made today as a celebration of the cultural continuum of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people, each in their own way are quintessential exemplars of Tasmaniana. There are stories there that time refuses to sweep away.
Ray Norman Launceston, June 2010



[1] The Thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus: dog-headed pouched-dog) is a large carnivorous marsupial now believed to be extinct. It was the only member of the family Thylacinidae to survive into modern times. It is also known as the Tasmanian Tiger or Tasmanian Wolf. REFERENCE LINK

[2] Hobart Mercury, 1908 – click here for the full transcripts transcribed online

[3] Lieutenant Governor George Arthur of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) 'Proclamation Boards' Image of the ‘proclamation boards’ and context information online

[4] Truganini, often known as Trugernanner (circa 1812–May 8, 1876), and there are a number of different versions of her name, including Trugannini, Trucanini, Trucaminni and Trucaninny. Trugernanner was also widely known by the nickname "Lalla Rooke". She was typically depicted wearing shell necklaces – REFERENCE LINKImage Links: 123 45 6 791011

[5] Ernest Mawle 1918 – Report on the shell necklace IndustryREFERENCE LINK

[6] David Hansen – - The author of The Australian Book Review’s 2010 Calibre Prize winning essay ‘Seeing Truganini

[7] Queen Liliuokalani, Liliuokalani (2 September 1838 – 11 November 1917), born Lydia Kamakaeha Kaola Mali‘i Liliuokalani, was the last monarch and only queen regent of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. She was also known as Lydia Kamakaeha Pa¯ki¯, with the chosen royal name of Liliuokalani, and her married name was Kaolupoloni K. Dominis. – REFERENCE LINK

[8] Lei – a customary Polynesian gift REFERENCE LINK

[9] Pers Com. DeSoto Brown, Curator Bishops Museum Honolulu – REFERENCE LINK

[10] M M Martin shell necklace manufacturers Hobart & Honolulu – REFERENCE LINK

[11] Dr. Rod Ewins, artist and anthropologist, paper “Fijian Art” presented to the Oceanic Art Society, Sydney, March 17, 1999 REFERENCE LINK

[12]Globalish’ = Global English, the kind of English used as a kind of lingua franca and used when the nuances of meaning are abandoned

[13] King maireener, Phasianotrochus eximius, maireener (Pink-tipped Kelp shell) Phasianotrochus apicinus, maireener (Rainbow Kelp shell) .Phasianotrochus irisodontes REFERENCE LINK


Tasmania’s ‘Antipodean Wunderkammers
  1. Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery Hobart TAS
  2. Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery Launceseton TAS
Wunderkammer Links
  1. Royal Albert Museum Exeter UK
  2. A Suggested History of Tasmanian Aboriginal Kangaroo Skin or Sinew, Human Bone, Shell, Feather, Apple Seed & Wombat Necklaces – J. B. Hawkins Published Australiana, November 2008 Vol. 30 No. 4
  3. Australian Aboriginal Art: A Reading Group
  1. Displaying Trugernanna
    Frost, L (2001) Displaying Trugernanna. In: Storykeepers. Duffy & Snellgrove, Sydney, pp. 69-93. ISBN 1876631104
  • Abstract: Trugernanna acquired iconic status in colonial history as "Truganini, the last Tasmanian", whose articulated skeleton was on public display in a glass-fronted cabinet in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery from 1904 until 1947. This chapter considers the implications of displaying the indigenous body. CLICK HERE TO MAKE THE LINK


Dyed maireener shell: Aniline dyes were invented in the 1890s and it seems that they quickly found a place in Tasmania's shell necklace industry. Interestingly it seems that the process used early on gave a more subtle result than examples known to have been dyed post WW2