Maria Island: a history told through the eyes of a granary

The hulking ruddy bulk of the brick granary stands in stark vigil, where the land rises green and marsupial-cropped, toward Cape Boullanger. Its convict bricks darken in silhouette to the brilliant blue horizon, as the leaden promise of a storm creeps in from the north. 

The geometric, eaveless gable is somehow as rudimental as the prominence it commands in silhouette against the sky beyond. It overlooks the white and turquois convergence that is Darlington Bay, where Oyster Bay tribesmen once came and went in bark canoes, their dark nakedness elaborately scarified in ritualised patterns, hair close cropped and flocculent.

These people, the tyreddeme, had lived in harmony with the island they called toarra-marra-monah for millennia, but by the time the granary bricks were kilned, they no longer came. The first white ragi people had arrived with their muskets and odd ways. 

At first, in small landing parties bearing exotic gifts of mirrors and snuff boxes, interactions were largely amicable. One particularly piquant meeting is recanted by French zoologist explorer Peron, who visited the island in the summer of 1802. He wrote of the tentative curiosity of the tyreddeme. At firstly astonished by the Franco complexion, the natives’ curiosity soon turned to the strange visitors’ gender. After charaded answers failed to satisfy them, Peron allowed a young sailor to reveal his masculinity, resulting in such exclamations of “joy and acclamation that perfectly stunned us”.

The capricious nature of those early encounters was demonstrated, however, when on the same visit a tyreddeme man wanting Peron’s jacket became aggressive. Peron wrote of him “directing the point of his sagaie towards me”, and he seemed to say, “Give it to me, or I will kill you.”

In their inquisitive explorations, the Europeans unearthed peculiar bark huts on the island, resembling rustic teepees. These curious constructions were actually tombs housing cremated remains, revealing an insight into the death rites of the ill-fated tyreddeme.


. . .

Before long Europeans began building their own structures on the island. At first these were crude lodgings of sealers and whalers, then, by 1825, that most ubiquitous of Tasmanian Colonial settlement, a penal colony.

Darlington penal colony was built from the flesh of the island. Sandstone was quarried to the south of the Painted Cliffs, leaving great etched gaps in the picturesque coastline. Bricks were shaped and kilned by convicts on the island, and used for the lion’s share of the building, including the prominent granary. 

Darlington grew into an autonomous settlement of up to 900 convicts and their supervisors. Hundreds of acres of crops provided the grist for a two-storey commissariat store, large hop kiln and mill. 

But by 1850 the island had begun to depopulate. The granary watched silently as tall masted barques rested in Darlington Bay ingesting their human cargo, to be disgorged at Port Arthur and Hobart Town.

Then came a relative calm for more than 30 years, as a procession of farmers cropped and ran sheep and cattle on the island, Darlington gradually falling into dilapidation, the granary housing horse-drawn ploughs and reapers.

One of the more successful pastoralists of this time was 22-year-old Thomas Dunbabin, who with the help of his brother John managed to produce 3,600 bushels of grain a year, despite the frustrations of seals luxuriating on crops at Point Lesueur, destroying great swathes.

John Dunbabin divided his time between the island and land near Dunalley. A descendant of the brothers tells me of Dunbabin  family lore that contends communication was conducted between the two properties by smoke signal.

It’s unclear whether the Dunbabins used the old granary, but it seems likely the voluminous interior would have been utilised in some way. And the aged bricks certainly overlooked mutely as the Dunbabins swam their cattle out to the Guilded Star, and loaded their sheep into the whaling boat Marie Laure for relocation back to mainland Tasmania.

There would be other farmers, but the big noise wouldn’t start for another decade, with the arrival of King Diego.

. . .

Diego “King” Bernachhi was a mercurial, moustachioed Italian silk merchant who loved Maria Island like a convict loves an open door. Initially envisaging the island as a vineyard and mulberry orchards for silk production, he employed vigneron Marin Zanolla, previously of Château Lafite in Bordeaux, to plant 50,000 Bordeaux-origin vines.

Bernachhi demolished many of the convict buildings, using the bricks for construction in the resurgent Darlington township, which had surged to more than 250 people, boasting its own state school, bank and post office. There was a baker and a butcher. There was a grand Coffee Palace and a palatial Grand Hotel. This last stood near the granary, and contained a billiards room, dining hall, smoking lounge and lodgings for more than 30 guests. 

New vineyards were planted sloping away to the north of the granary. As the vines spread to almost 100 hectares, the town was modestly renamed San Diego. It had become a  cosmopolitan place, with a dozen nationalities mixing cultures over coffee and Cascade beer. The Federal Club, amongst other diversions, offered newspapers from Germany, Britain, France and Italy. San Diego was a European oasis, the town shaded by willows, elms, maples and pines. There were orchards of pomegranates, olives, lemons, Kentish cherries, pears, nectarines, oranges, figs and quinces.

In this idyllic setting, King Diego was famous for wining and dining the establishment. For one soirée, he chartered the Warrentinna to ferry the dignitaries from Hobart. The guests were serenaded by an Italian string band as the ship steamed up the east coast, bound for a lavish banquet and party that was to climax in a fireworks display.

In 1887 The Mercury claimed that the Maria Island vineyards were amongst the most important in Australia, but two years later King Diego had found a new focus. He opened Australia’s first Portland cement works on the island, chipping away at Maria’s limestone interior and erecting the grim edifices of industry on her flanks.

Like some enclaved microcosm of industrialised environmental neglect, the vineyards began to wither with the onset of cement, only for Diego’s foray into building materials, despite promising early signs, to die on the vine with the coming of the 20th century.

. . .

San Diego dwindled back into the Darlington it had been. Many buildings were inhabited by pigs and poultry, with a handful of farmers remaining on the island. The Coffee Palace was reborn as Mrs Adkin’s Boarding House. 

This serenity persevered for a couple of decades, but by the early 1920s the grunters and brooders were being evicted to make room for another wave of residents, as a second tilt was made at cement production. 

The National Portland Cement works saw Darlington again surge. Up to 500 people called Darlington home, enough to establish football, tennis and cricket clubs. For the less physically inclined, there was a glee club, dances, campfire socials and the latest moving pictures. The bay where the granary had watched barques load convicts was now scarred by a rail, snaking off towards the clay of Chinaman’s Bay. A monstrous chimney stack loomed over the granary, belching smoke. 

Despite the boom, this venture too fell on stony ground. After only five years the chimney stack let out its last smoggy gurk.

As the reticence of farming yet again settled over the island, several buildings were relocated to the mainland. The Grand Hotel and the state school (which had stood where vineyards once prospered) found sites on the east coast. Eleven of Diego’s original workers cottages (the full set was known as the Twelve Apostles) were resurrected in Maria Street, New Town. 

The granary survived. It watched the chimney stack crumble, and the rail disassemble. Under its mute gaze, the beach returned to its white splendour, lapped by turquoise waters ebbing and flowing, like the attempts to tame toarra-marra-monah.

. . .

In the winter of 1971 the island became a national park. Sheep were given their marching orders and new residents took occupancy: Cape Barron geese, Flinders Island wombats, the Bennetts wallaby, the forester kangaroo, brown bandicoots, bettongs, barred bandicoots, echidnas, marsupial mice, pademelons, native hens (fondly known as turbo chooks for their bursts of speed), bushtail possums, ringtail possums, black swans  and ducks.

The island’s future is now assured as a sanctuary for Tasmania’s intrinsic natural beauty. There are no permanent human residents, and the animals have become bold and unafraid of Joe Public.

As I hunker at the base of the old granary, its bulk casting a shadow over my left side, the sun warms my right flank and I sip a contemplative shiraz. A blonde wombat ambles stoutly by. A turbo chook appraises me with one crimson eye, and utters a sharp vociferation like the dull ping of a golf ball hit against concrete. 

Looking down over the bay, past the old commissariat store and crumbling cement works, the white and turquois convergence of the beach lays immutable. It’s possible to imagine it unchanged from the time of the tyreddeme, the languid, and now protected, entrance to toarra-marra-monah. 

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