Bruny Island: a beautiful destination with a dark past

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this blog article contains the name and image of a deceased person.

Bruny Island has always been spectacular.  Before European colonisation, it was home to the Nueonne clan who knew the island as Lunawanna Alonnah. The island was rich in natural resources and wildlife, like wallabies, mutton birds, penguins, abalone, scallops, oysters, mussels and crayfish. A short ride in canoes to nearby islands gave access to numerous fur seals, which were hunted. Black swans produced eggs that were harvested by the First Nations people on the island. They shared their abundant resources with clans on the nearby larger island that we now call Tasmania.

Today it is a popular tourist destination.  It is located off the South-eastern coast of Tasmania and can easily be accessed from Hobart.  It is separated from the Tasmanian mainland by the D’Entrecasteaux Channel. North and South Bruny are separated by an isthmus of land known as The Neck.  There are open pastures in the north while the south is characterised by rainforests that house plants that can be seen in fossils in Antarctica, a tangible reminder that they were joined as part of Gondwanaland in deep time.

The island provides splendid coastal and bushwalking tracks and beautiful coastline. It still hosts an abundance of wildlife, including little penguins, albatross, wedge tailed eagles, rare white wallabies and fur seals. It is particularly famous for its local produce, including seafood, artisan cheese, berries, wine, whisky, gin and beer.

European history and colonisation

Tobias Furneaux was the first European known to have landed on Bruny Island.  He named his landing site Adventure Bay after his vessel.  Captain James Cook had a brief stay on the island in 1777 and it was visited by William Bligh in 1788 and 1792.

In September 1791, the French Assembly sent an expedition headed by Bruni d’Entrecasteaux to search for Jean-Francois de La Perouse who had disappeared after leaving Botany Bay in 1788.  D’Entrecasteaux commanded the frigate, Recherche.  He travelled with another frigate, Esperance, commanded by Jean-Michel Huon de Kermadec. Part of the expedition involved sailing down the east coast of what was then called Van Diemen’s Land. His hydrographical engineer, Beautemps-Beaupre, was exceptional and produced very detailed charts of the coastline in 1792. He found that Adventure Bay, which had been described by Furneaux in 1773, was on an island that was separated from the main island by a navigable channel.  This was named the D’Entrecasteaux Channel and the island was called Bruni Island.  It was renamed Bruny Island in 1918.

Image: Ian Hansen, The Lyluequonny People Farewell D’Entrecasteax’s Ships “Recherche” &”Esperance” Recherche Bay, Tasmania 1793.

The island was subsequently exploited by sealers and whalers. Indigenous women were often abducted to capture seals and were made “wives” to the sealers.  The timber industry and pastoral settlements were developed in the 19th century. Some coal was also mined, and a sandstone quarry was established that exported stone to Melbourne and beyond. Part of the Melbourne Post Office is constructed from Bruny Island sandstone.


In the early years of the 19th century Manganerer was the senior man of the Nueononne clan.  His third daughter, thought to have been born in about 1812, was called Truganini. She entered a world that was irrevocably disrupted by the people who came to colonise Bruny Island and the nearby Tasmanian mainland. Before she reached the age of 20, her mother had been killed by sailors, her sisters kidnapped by sealers and her uncle shot by a soldier.

Governor Arthur appointed George Augustus Robinson to attempt to provide conciliation and civilisation to the Indigenous population.  Unfortunately, this apparently well-meant aim led to the destruction of a population. Robinson named the waterfrontage of his land grant on Bruny Island Missionary Bay with the intention of developing a Christian community for the Nueononne people. Truganini married her first husband, Wooredy, on Robinson’s mission.  From 1830-1835 they accompanied Robinson on his travels around Tasmania as guides, teaching him their language and customs. In 1835 they went to Wybalenna on Flinders Island.  This was established by Robinson as part of his so-called “Friendly Mission” in 1834. Many of the Indigenous people who were housed there died and in 1847 the remaining 47 inhabitants were resettled South of Hobart in Oyster Cove.  One of these people was Truganini, her first husband, Wooredy, having died some years earlier. Her second husband, Maulboyheener, had been found guilty of murder and executed in 1842 and her third husband, Mannapackername, died some months before her transfer to Oyster Cove. Her final partner was William Lanne who died in February 1869.

Truganini would often travel across the D’Entrecasteaux Channel from Oyster Cove to Bruny Island to engage in traditional activities, with a fellow kinswoman, Dray. They would collect penguin and swan eggs, scallops, oysters and mussels, dive for crayfish and fossick for tiny mariner shells, which would be polished and strung into necklaces.

In her last years, Truganini formed a friendship with the Reverend Henry Atkinson, who was the Anglican parish minister to the Oyster Cove parish between 1869 and 1874.  He often took her to Bruny Island or fishing in the channel in his boat.  Atkinson reported that not long after her final partner, William Lanne’s death in 1869, Truganini asked him to take her to a spot known as ‘the Shepherds’ and told him to:

“Bury me here.  It’s the deepest place. Promise me.”  In tears she said that “all her people, excepting herself, were now dead and the people in Hobart had got all their skulls.”

Image: Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office

Truganini had good reason to be fearful about what would happen to her mortal remains. William Lanne had been subjected to what could only be described as shameful treatment by any standards.  There was a great deal of interest in documenting what was considered to be the extinction of a ‘race’ and scientists vied for the skeletal remains of the diminishing Tasmanian Indigenous population. Both the Royal College of Surgeons in London and the Royal Society of Tasmania wanted his skeleton. His head was stolen from the morgue the day after his death and replaced with the head of a nearby body. Other individuals came and cut off his hands and feet.  His mutilated body was then buried, subsequently exhumed and allegedly taken away in a wheelbarrow with only the substituted European head left in the grave. Patty Clark, who also lived at Oyster Cove, was never even buried. When she died in 1868 her skeleton was dissected out from her body and sold to a British collector.

Truganini died on May 8, 1876, in Hobart.  The Secretary of the Royal Society requested to have her body the day after her death.  She was erroneously considered to be the last Tasmanian Aboriginal and therefore of great scientific importance.  The request was denied as a result of the appalling treatment of other First Nations people in Tasmania in the preceding years and she was buried in front of the Chapel in Yard One of the former Female Factory. The Royal Society persisted in its requests for her skeleton and two years later she was officially disinterred, and the skeleton was acquired by the Royal Society Museum, though there were reports that it had already been in their possession for some time. It was stipulated that her body was not to be exposed to public view and that it should be “decently deposited in a secure resting place where it may be accessible by special permission to scientific men for scientific purposes.” Despite this, her remains were displayed at the Melbourne Exhibition in 1888.  In 1904 Truganini’s skeleton travelled to Melbourne for a second time, where her skeleton was rearticulated and cast. On return to Tasmania, the skeleton was placed on public display at the Tasmanian Museum until 1947.

Various people in the 1950s, including the son of Reverend Henry Atkinson, also Reverend Atkinson and Archdeacon of Launceston, lobbied for the reinterment of Truganini’s skeleton. The scientific community opposed the return of her remains arguing that it would be a crime against science.

It is important to understand that archaeologists and anthropologists traditionally excavated and collected human remains without permission or any thought of the communities that claimed association with the earthly remains of their relatives and ancestors. The case of Truganini’s remains was seminal for the development of policies for the return of Indigenous human skeletons in Australia as it represented the first time that the wishes of an individual were clearly recorded.

The most successful champion of the campaign to repatriate Truganini’s skeleton was an Indigenous law student, Harry Penrith, who later took the name of his great grandfather, Burnum Burnum.  He argued that retaining her skeleton against her wishes and the traditions and beliefs of her people reflected the continuing oppression of Aboriginal people.  He also noted that precious little scientific work had been done on the skeleton in the years that it had been in the collection of the Royal Society of Tasmania and the Tasmanian Museum.  He organised demonstrations.  Over time, there was a shift of opinion, not just from the general public but also from the broader archaeological and scientific community.

Truganini’s remains were finally cremated in 1976 and her ashes were scattered in the D’Entrecasteaux channel as she had requested.  A memorial to her has been placed at The Neck on Bruny Island.

Further reading:

Ford, Collecting the dead: archaeology and the reburial issue. Duckworth, 2004.

Lovell Chen Architects and Heritage consultants, Cascades Female Factory South Hobart Conservation Management Plan.  Prepared for Tasmanian Department of Tourism Arts & Environment, June 2007.

Pybus, Truganini: Journey through the apocalypse. Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2020.

L. Ryan, The Aboriginal Tasmanians,Sydney, 1996

Explore Bruny Island with Dr Estelle Lazer

Explore Bruny Island as part of a 5 day tour, Exploration of Hobart, includes visits to Port Arthur,  MONA, TMAG,  limited places available for our February 2022 tour . More information >


Dr Estelle Lazer

Dr Estelle Lazer is an archaeologist with an international reputation for her work on the human victims of Pompeii. Her PhD studied the site’s human skeletons, and her current project is to CT scan and X-ray the unique casts of these victims. Estelle’s book, 'Resurrecting Pompeii', was published by Routledge and her work forms a core part of the Ancient History syllabus for the NSW Higher School Certificate. Estelle is an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney. In October 2017, the University of Sydney and the Pompeii Archaeological Park signed an historic Memorandum of Agreement to partner in an important new scanning project led by Estelle. Her research has received considerable media attention in print, radio and television, with two documentaries (one for the BBC and Smithsonian, and another in production for Britain’s Channel 5) ensuring a wide audience for her fascinating findings.


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