Fanny Cochrane Smith & Horace Watson - photo credit TMAG
The Huon Valley Tasmania is a site of key Australian Aboriginal historical & cultural significance in 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages, courtesy of one of its most notable inhabitants Fanny Cochrane Smith. Fanny lived in Nicholls Rivulet near Cygnet in the Huon Valley & was recognised by the Tasmanian government in 1889 as the last surviving Tasmanian Aboriginal. In 1899 she made the ONLY recording of Tasmanian Aboriginal song & speech in existence using the new Edison phonograph. In 2017 this immensely important record was inscribed into the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register alongside some of Australia’s greatest cultural treasures, including James Cook’s journal & the world’s first feature length film, the 1906 The Story of the Kelly Gang. Fanny’s voice speaking through 50,000 years of Australian Aboriginal history can today be heard by anyone with an internet connection via the Australian National Film & Sound Archive.
The United Nations is campaigning to promote awareness of the precious nature of indigenous language - its significance to individual & community wellness, development & reconciliation. The importance of Fanny Cochrane Smith’s legacy to Australian culture today cannot be underestimated, with approximately 90% of indigenous language in Australia considered endangered by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Studies. According to the notable Australian violinist Jon Rose at the 2007 Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address, the recording of Fanny Cochrane Smith is arguably one of the most important 19th century musical artefacts from anywhere in the world - even more important than the recording of Brahms playing his piano in the same year.
Fanny was an influential, civic minded woman who made great contributions in her lifetime to the Huon Valley community & actively participated in the customs & rituals of the Palawa people. Fanny was born on Flinders Island in North East Tasmania & her native tongue was Trawlwoolway. In her teens, she & the surviving members of her people were moved to Oyster Cove around 30km south of Hobart. After her marriage, she moved to Nicholls Rivulet in the Huon Valley, where she remained for the rest of her life. Along with her friend Truganini - perhaps historically the world’s most widely known Aboriginal woman - she would hunt, fish, cook, gather bush tucker & bush medicines & teach her knowledge including the making of tribal shell necklaces & plant fibre baskets from the native white lily. She was known to rise early at different seasons to welcome the appearance of certain stars & would walk 40km to Hobart for supplies.
She was able to nurture her people’s traditional cultural life while successfully navigating European society. Surviving a background of childhood colonial institutional abuse, she rose to prominence as an adult & ran a Hobart boarding house & sawmilling business with her husband William Smith. She was known as a generous host & fund raiser instrumental in donating land & building the Methodist church in Nicholls Rivulet (then known as Irish Town) in the Huon Valley near Cygnet. The church still exists & can be viewed by arrangement with the South East Tasmanian Aboriginal Corporation who have preserved it as the Living History Museum of Aboriginal Cultural Heritage. In her spare time, she birthed & raised eleven children, a feat almost unimaginable by today’s standards.
Fanny Cochrane-Smith church in Nicholls Rivulet, Huon Valley Tasmania
Fanny attracted the limelight at Hobart’s Theatre Royal where she performed Aboriginal song, stories & dance at a concert in 1899. It was here that she drew the admiration of Hobart businessman Horace Watson, something of an amateur audio engineer in the very earliest days of sound recording history. Using the newly invented Edison wax cylinder phonograph, he recorded Fanny in 1899 & 1903. The phonograph allowed people to hear something played back to them for the first time in history. Horace & his collaborators at the Royal Society of Tasmania had the additional inspiration & foresight to visually record the event using another relatively new invention, the Eastman Kodak camera only released in 1888, thus allowing generations of Australians to see & hear the moment this remarkable woman’s indigenous language was captured. For many, the recordings represent resilience of spirit at a time of catastrophic disruption for Australian Aboriginal people.
114 years later, Fanny Cochrane Smith inspired Aboriginal singer-songwriting duo Nardi Simpson & Kaleena Briggs of the Stiff Gins to make their own indigenous language song recordings using the wax cylinder phonograph in 2013, adding another layer to sound recording history. "When we heard it, it was not just of another time and place, that's simplifying it," said Stiff Gins singer Nardi Simpson. "It was spiritual." Their song Dust, speaks to the idea of culture & stories living on after death. "We've been doing gigs for 15 years and finally this is something that speaks to our place in the world."
The Melukerdee language of the Huon Valley region is actively being revived by the South East Tasmanian Aboriginal Corporation based in the vibrant arts & cafe hub of Cygnet. In recent years the Tasmanian Aboriginal community has drawn on the recordings in working to painstakingly reconstruct the many different languages spoken by Tasmanian Aborigines & restore the palawa kani – the only Aboriginal language in lutruwita (Tasmania) today. Children are taught palawa kani with the help of an app & a dictionary, which are also available for people of all ages to use.
The original Fanny Cochrane Smith wax cylinders are on display at the Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery in Hobart.
Watch now - the Stiff Gins pay homage to Fanny Cochrane-Smith 114 years after her recording - footage credit NFSA
The original wax cylinder recordings by Fanny Cochrane-Smith, aptly housed in a Huon Valley fruit box - photo credit TMAG
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