When Sir John Franklin was Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), he and Lady Jane adopted a local Aboriginal girl, Mathinna. By this time virtually all Tasmanian Aborigines had been removed from the main island, making Mathinna the only Aboriginal person, save for those at the Orphan School, still allowed to live there. Sir John’s daughter Eleanor was put in charge of Mathinna’s education, and a diary entry from Eleanor from 14 September 1841 suggests the two girls got on well, with Eleanor describing Mathinna as ‘affectionate and intelligent’.
The entry also mentions Mathinna had been given a doll with a petticoat – amazingly we have come across a small black doll in our Franklin collection that matches the description! Could this be Mathinna’s doll?
There is also a pincushion, neatly labelled as having been made by Mathinna, which was clearly part of Lady Jane’s Museum, alongside some other mementos from Tasmania.
When the Franklins left Tasmania in 1843, they left Mathinna behind; apparently doctors were concerned that she wouldn’t survive the British climate. She was sent to the Orphan School – perhaps she wasn’t allowed to take her doll? – and then back to Flinders Island. Abandoned to a life of poverty, she lived at Oyster Cove, south of Hobart and died at a young age, the precise date of which is unknown.
Mathinna’s life has inspired literary works and dance productions in Australia, where she has come to symbolise the way colonists treated all Aboriginal people.