The Truganini Track at Taroona, north of Bruny Island where Queen Truganini was born and Oyster Cove where she and King Billy lived.
The Truganini Track at Taroona, north of Bruny Island where Queen Truganini was born and Oyster Cove where she and King Billy lived.

Gruesome end of last ‘full blood’

The story of William "King Billy" Lanne is both tragic and macabre but the grisly fate of the person said to be Tasmania's last full-blooded Aboriginal man changed Australian history.

It is 150 years since March 3, 1869, when King Billy died and his body was dismembered in a gruesome fight between England and colonial Australia to dissect and study the body parts of the "end of the line" of a noble tribe.

King Billy's real indigenous name and his exact date of birth are unrecorded, but he is believed to have been born in 1835 in the north west of Tasmania, then known as Van Dieman's Land.

It was a pivotal time that was critical and ultimately fatal for the island's indigenous population, but it also threw together William with the legendary Tasmanian Aboriginal woman, Queen Truganini.

William would later make his own name for being the best whale spotter in the South Pacific, but he is also remembered as Truganini's much younger husband, her "king".

William ‘King Billy’ Lanne, the last male full blooded Aborigine in Tasmania, who died 150 years ago in 1869.
William ‘King Billy’ Lanne, the last male full blooded Aborigine in Tasmania, who died 150 years ago in 1869.

In 1824,when Britain appointed soldier George Arthur Van Diemen's Land's Lieutenant governor, he implemented two policies to deal with the conflict between settlers and the Aborigines.

Tough, ambitious and unflinching, the man after whom the most brutal convict prison - Port Arthur - had a primary mission to make it a penal colony.

Governor Arthur would succeed in turning the island basically into a jail, with isolation and severe punishments making it the most feared destination for convicts.

But he is also remembered for what happened to Tasmania's Aborigines under his governorship.

Governor Arthur's proclaimed Aborigines were equal in the eyes of the law to the white settlers.

But relations between the groups had escalated into almost open hostility.

Settlers had occupied native hunting grounds, and Aborigines suffered cruel treatment or killing and kidnapping of their children by shepherds, stockmen, bushrangers and sealers.

Martial law was declared in the colony to keep Aborigines out of settled areas.

King Billy (left) and Truganini have become legendary figures as among the last of Tasmanian’s full-blooded Aborigines wiped out by white settlement.
King Billy (left) and Truganini have become legendary figures as among the last of Tasmanian’s full-blooded Aborigines wiped out by white settlement.

Bounties were awarded for the capture of Aboriginal adults and children, and an effort was made to establish friendly relations with Aborigines in order to lure them into camps.

When this failed, Arthur appointed George Augustus Robinson, an unordained preacher, as the Protector of Aborigines.

Robinson established a "Friendly Mission" to relocate the dwindling Aboriginal community to Flinders Island in Bass Strait.

Wybalenna was established as the so-called "Aboriginal Settlement" in 1834, with 134 Aborigines, placed there for the purpose of being "civilised and Christianised".

Truganini, a chief's daughter of the Nuenonne people from Bruny Island, south of Hobart, was among them.

As a teenager she first met Robinson when he established an early mission Bruny Island where by 1829, Truganini had already lost many of her family to European settlement.

Sailors killed her mother, soldiers shot her uncle, sealers abducted her two sisters and timber-getters murdered her fiance as he saved her from abduction.

Her sisters, Lowhenunhue and Maggerleede, were taken to Kangaroo Island, off South Australia, and sold as slaves.

Truganini, left, pictured with husband King Billy, taught her culture and language to mission founder Robinson, but became disillusioned with European settlers.
Truganini, left, pictured with husband King Billy, taught her culture and language to mission founder Robinson, but became disillusioned with European settlers.

She married her first husband Woorady, at Robinson's Bruny Island mission, and the couple would travel around Tasmania with him, teaching him their language and customs.

In 1835 they went to the Flinders Island mission of Wybalenna, which was destined to become a death camp for most of Tasmania's remaining full-blooded Aborigines.

Woorady died in 1839.

In 1842, Robinson "found" a seven-year-old William Lanne living a traditional Aboriginal life with his family in northwestern Tasmania and took them to Wybalenna.

In the wild, cold environment of Flinders Island, in the path of the Roaring Forties winds, Tasmania's Aborigines dwindled and died.

Robinson promised he would return them to their traditional country on the mainland.

But by 1847, only 47 Aborigines remained and were transferred to Oyster Cove south of Hobart.

William Lanne, known as King Billy, changed Tasmanian legislation to protect all Tasmanians when they can no longer protect themselves.

The youngest of his family, William was sent to an orphanage in Hobart until 1851.

Aged 20 in 1855, he joined a whaling ship and returned regularly to Oyster Cove where Truganini lived.

At this settlement, Truganini resumed her traditional lifestyle, diving for shellfish, visiting Bruny Island and hunting in the bush.

After most of the Aboriginals died on Flinders Island, the survivors were removed to Oyster Cove, near Hobart, depicted (above) in this colonial sketch.
After most of the Aboriginals died on Flinders Island, the survivors were removed to Oyster Cove, near Hobart, depicted (above) in this colonial sketch.

William Lanne became Truganini's third husband and because of her status as the daughter of a chief known as "Queen Truganini", he became known as King Billy.

They are both referred to as the last full-blooded Tasmanian Aboriginals in existence before their deaths, although this has been disputed since.

At any rate, on 3 March 1869 King Billy died from a combination of cholera and dysentery.

Aged just 34, he predeceased his wife Truganini, who would die aged 64 in 1876, by seven years.

Before her death, Truganini feared that after her death her body would be mutilated by "scientists", and it was the terrible events that happened to her husband that frightened her.

After King Billy's death, a morbid battle of dismemberment over his remains was waged between the England's Royal College of Surgeons and the Royal Society of Tasmania.

Both groups wanted to study the remains of the last male of what they believed was a dying "breed".

The stoush reached fever pitch when Dutch-born Hobart surgeon William Crowther - who was later Tasmania's Premier - cut off King Billy's head and replaced it with another.

Crowther was a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, England.

Windswept Wybalenna on Flinders Island, Tasmania photographed in 2005. Picture: Ricky Maynard.
Windswept Wybalenna on Flinders Island, Tasmania photographed in 2005. Picture: Ricky Maynard.

His application to the Tasmanian Government for permission to send the skeleton to London, was denied.

So he broke into the morgue, decapitated King Billy's corpse, removed the skin from the skull, and inserted a skull from a white man's body under King Billy's face and scalp.

When the Tasmanian Royal Society found out, they decided to counter any further body part theft by amputating King Billy's hands and feet.

William Lanne was then buried headless and with mutilated limbs.

Crowther's gross acts earned him the sack as honorary surgeon to Hobart Public Hospital.

But in the same year as King Billy's death and dismemberment the Council of the Royal College of Surgeons in London awarded Crowther a gold medal and its first Fellowship of the College (FRCS) to an Australian.

Crowther claimed that King Billy's life among the European settlers of Tasmania had changed his brain, evidence of "the improvement that takes place in the lower race when subjected to the effects of education and civilisation."

Crowther was selected Tasmania's premier in 1878.

Studio portrait of the last of the Tasmanian Aborigines (left to right), Truganini, her relative Bessy Clarke and William ‘King Billy’ Lanne.
Studio portrait of the last of the Tasmanian Aborigines (left to right), Truganini, her relative Bessy Clarke and William ‘King Billy’ Lanne.

King Billy's stolen body parts remained a mystery until several bodies in Crowther the surgeon's collection were eventually repatriated back to Tasmania in the 1990s, William Lanne's skull among them.

His remains were buried in his tribal land.

The community uproar at the fight over King Billy's body led to legislation being passed in the Tasmanian parliament.

The Anatomy Act of 1869 made it law that medical experiments of any sort could only take place if the deceased had agreed to it before they died or the relatives had given permission.

When Queen Truganini died in 1876 she was safe.

Her body, unmutilated, went on display at the Tasmanian Museum until 1951.

In 2009, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Justice Commissioner (ATSIC) Michael Dodson conducted an inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal children from their families, at Wybalenna, Flinders Island, Bass Strait, Tasmania

Like Queen Truganini, King Billy has entered Australian legend.

"He was actually really well known across the Pacific as having the best set of spotter's eyes of any whaler in the South Pacific," says Greg Lehman of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery's Aboriginal Advisory Council.

"He lives on not just in the name of an endemic Tasmanian species, but with all sorts of other mythologies and misunderstandings surrounding him."

candace.sutton@news.com.au

William ‘King Billy’ Lanne (centre), his wife Queen Truganini (front, lying), at Oyster Cover in 1860, the last of Tasmanian Aborigines wiped out by white settlement.
William ‘King Billy’ Lanne (centre), his wife Queen Truganini (front, lying), at Oyster Cover in 1860, the last of Tasmanian Aborigines wiped out by white settlement.
King Billy was taken to Wybalenna Aboriginal mission on remote Flinders Island in Bass Strait, a disaster for its displaced Aboriginal community.
King Billy was taken to Wybalenna Aboriginal mission on remote Flinders Island in Bass Strait, a disaster for its displaced Aboriginal community.
Flinders Island in the Roaring Forties zone in Bass Strait was a cold, inhospitable place for King Billy and the Aboriginals taken there.
Flinders Island in the Roaring Forties zone in Bass Strait was a cold, inhospitable place for King Billy and the Aboriginals taken there.
George Augustus Robinson who set up the Wybalenna mission.
George Augustus Robinson who set up the Wybalenna mission.
William Crowther, later Tasmanian premier, disgracefully dismembered King Billy's body. parts.
William Crowther, later Tasmanian premier, disgracefully dismembered King Billy's body. parts.
Colonial drawing of Tasmania’s Aborigines, who were wiped out by colonisation by the late 19th century.
Colonial drawing of Tasmania’s Aborigines, who were wiped out by colonisation by the late 19th century.
The fierce , intelligent gaze of Truganini, last of the Tasmanians.
The fierce , intelligent gaze of Truganini, last of the Tasmanians.
King Billy (centre) with Truganini and other Aborigines at Oyster Cove in 1858.
King Billy (centre) with Truganini and other Aborigines at Oyster Cove in 1858.
Former Tasmanian Premier Jim Bacon accompanies Aboriginal elders Ida West and Ruby Roughley on Flinders Island in 1999 as Wybalenna is returned to descendants.
Former Tasmanian Premier Jim Bacon accompanies Aboriginal elders Ida West and Ruby Roughley on Flinders Island in 1999 as Wybalenna is returned to descendants.
Portrait of Truganini in western dress by Henry Ball Baily circa 1870-75, before her death in 1876.
Portrait of Truganini in western dress by Henry Ball Baily circa 1870-75, before her death in 1876.

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