Tarereenore, or Walyer, also known as the Amazon of Van Diemen's Land, was born near St Valentine's Peak, Tasmania. She was a Plairherehillerplue, of the north tribe, who were under pressure from three sources: white sealers seeking Aboriginal women; other Aborigines also seeking women to trade with sealers; and the expansion of pastoralism. In her teens Walyer was abducted by Aboriginal men and sold to sealers living on the Bass Strait Islands. As the number of seals declined the labour of Aboriginal women was used more widely in hunting kangaroos and other game, and also in the muttonbird trade. Some women were brutally treated. Without their skill and labour the white men could not have survived.

By 1830 Walyer had returned to mainland Tasmania and was reported to be the leader of a small group of Aborigines much feared by other Aborigines and by whites. In June 1830 she was reported leading a group of eight men, a boy and a woman. George Augustus Robinson, appointed to round up all surviving Tasmanian Aborigines, first made contact in September 1830, by which time her group had grown to include a number of women and children. He narrowly escaped being ambushed by her warriors, whom he saw heading towards his previous day's camp carrying spears. Robinson believed that Walyer's 'mob' was responsible for 'nearly all the mischief perpetrated west of the Tamar'. According to his Aboriginal informant, 'She carried a little fowling piece and would fire at the white men's huts and call them to come out and the blackfellows would spear them, and would make use of bad language'.

In December she was again in the Bass Strait Islands, perhaps in flight from Robinson and assisted by sealers. She was taken to tiny Penguin Island where five other Aboriginal women and a white man were working. She tried to persuade the women to murder the man and steal his boat. When they refused she was effectively trapped on the island, where one of Robinson's men found her and took her to the Swan Island Aboriginal station. There she refused to answer to Walyer, calling herself Mary Ann, but she revealed her identity by calling her old dog Whiskey by name. Robinson kept her isolated from other Aborigines, fearing she would incite revolt. She was 'desperate - and possessing a deal of cunning'.

She managed, nevertheless, to alarm the others by telling them that soldiers were coming from Launceston to shoot them all. She boasted to the other women that she had taught her people how to load and fire guns, and that she and her people had killed many white people and robbed their huts. She expressed implacable hatred of the invader: 'she liked a lutetowin (white man) as she did a black snake'. Female leadership seems unlikely to have been a feature of Tasmanian Aboriginal culture, though many of the women who had lived with sealers emerged as very strong leaders on Flinders Island Aboriginal station. For years they were thorns in Robinson's side with their refusal to submit to his program of enforced 'Christianisation and civilisation'.

Walyer did not survive long in captivity. She died on 5 June 1831, no doubt to Robinson's great relief. She had inspired great loyalty and great fear.

Julia Clark

Lyndall Ryan The Aboriginal Tasmanians 1982.