Niggerhead Rock is a craggy mass that juts out of the wild waters of Bass Strait off north-west Tasmania.
You won’t likely find it searching Google maps. And while it was visible as recently as May 2022 on a Tasmanian Crown Lands map, the culturally offensive name was hastily and apologetically scrubbed by authorities after it was called out by prominent Tasmanian Aboriginal campaigner Michael Mansell. He demanded that the government “pull the maps back, get rid of them, burn them”.
To locate the site, look instead for titima/Trefoil Island, an Aboriginal-owned, protected muttonbird colony about three kilometres over the water from Cape Grim on the north-west tip of the Tasmanian mainland. The rock at the centre of the storm sits just off the northern end of the island.
Despite broad agreement the colonial-era name with its racial slur should be changed, and campaigns urging that over several years, the Surveyor General of Tasmania has said his office is unable to do so until local Indigenous groups come to an agreement about an alternative.
And this is where the issue has become stuck, complicated by disagreements between local and state Indigenous groups around questions of language, phonetics and history.
An application for a name change was submitted by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) in 2017, surveyor general Michael Giudici told The Citizen.
“[But] the Aboriginal people and organizations that live in the northwest weren’t comfortable with the name that was being proposed, and the TAC subsequently withdrew [it]”, he said.
The location falls within the municipality of Circular Head. “Talking to historians in the Circular Head community, [the rock] wasn’t named after an Aboriginal person,” said the former CEO of the Circular Head Aboriginal Corporation (CHAC), Dianne Baldock. Rather, she said, it was named after the bows of boats which in colonial times were called “niggerheads”.
Baldock is an Indigenous leader with ancestral roots from the Coastal Plains Nation in north-eastern Tasmania. In her time with CHAC, and in consultation with people from the north-west she has played an instrumental role in renaming some of the landmarks in the Circular Head region.
The CHAC, a representative organisation for the Indigenous people of Circular Head, believes that the rock and its adjacent areas should be renamed by them in the local language, not by the TAC.
“All the other [places] dual named in that area, they were all primary sourced … from the language spoken … thousands of years ago,” Baldrock said.
The Aboriginal and Dual Naming Policy was established in 2012 to facilitate the renaming of Tasmanian geographic places and features to their original Indigenous titles.
According to a Tasmanian Government policy document, a naming proposal can be made by any individual, group or organisation. The proposal must be made to the Place Names Advisory Panel, of which Giudici is the chair.
The proposal must be accompanied by “a description of the historical origins of the proposed Aboriginal name”, “evidence that the local Aboriginal communities have been consulted” and “evidence demonstrating the support of local Aboriginal communities”, along with several additional requirements.
When activist and TAC legal manager Michael Mansell issued a media release on 18 May 202 criticising the publication of the name Niggerhead Rock in a recent government map, he described it as “a real failure of government”.
“Clearly, there is no system in place to ensure the Aboriginal community is consulted before new maps are created,” Mansell said. “The Nomenclature Board has failed to operate effectively. The Dual Names process is becoming a farce.”
Giudici has insisted these processes function well and have led to the successful renaming of around 40 places in north-eastern Tasmania.
“There is a robust place renaming process and there is a robust consultation process,” he said.
“I don’t agree that there isn’t a process and that there is a failure. There was a failure by the department or by the government to not deal with a name as contentious as Niggerhead Rock, but it wasn’t a failure of wanting to do something about it,” Giudici said.
“It was an inability to bring the parties together and have an agreement about it, about how to replace it, because the TAC did have a replacement name, which would most likely have been implemented if they hadn’t have withdrawn from the process.”
The history of the naming disagreement by the local and state Indigenous groups dates back almost 200 years.
The real name of the rock was lost when “the original people of Tasmania were rounded up and taken to [Flinders Island by the colonial government during the 1830s] with promises that they were to be returned back to their land,” Baldock said. “Of course, many of them died and [the survivors] were removed from their cultural practices and beliefs.”
“There were between eight and 12 distinct languages before European settlement,” said Giudici, “and because of the terrible nature of the colonial activity, those languages were gradually lost. So only fragments of the language remained.”
The best record of Aboriginal languages in Tasmania was made by early colonialist George Augustus Robinson, he said.
The CHAC and the TAC disagree about how to retrieve the cultural knowledge that was lost during that grim period of Tasmania’s past.
Both groups rely on Robinson’s diaries, however they diverge on matters of syntax, spelling and pronunciation of Indigenous words. They also use different sources to supplement what they gain from Robinson’s records.
In the early 1990s, the TAC instigated a program to reconstruct a language called Palawa Kani, said Giudici. “[B]ased on a particular syntax and structure, [Palawa Kani] uses the records in Robinson’s diaries and some other records that are available to basically start to reconstruct the language.”
“But people outside the TAC, and particularly in the north-west and the north-east, Aboriginal people and organisations, don’t agree with that process. They much prefer to have place names, in particular, spelt the same way as they were phonetically recorded.”
Baldock says her own research relied on the “Plomley Tasmanian Aboriginal Word List”, which is sourced from the different areas across the state.
Norman James Brian Plomley was a British historian who transcribed Robinson’s accounts of the Tasmanian languages. The Indigenous communities of north-western Tasmania rely on it for the retrieval of their language.
“I worked with the Circular Head Council and Aunty Patsy Cameron from the north-east … and [we] called in another researcher who is an Aboriginal … so [that we could] correct the spelling [and the sound of the words] because we believe that if you change the way a word is spelt you lose the concept of the whole word.”
“So it’s just a substantial point of difference,” is how Giudici summed up the rift.
“[O]ur door is always open to [the TAC] reengaging with that place naming process. But they really have elected not to because they don’t agree with the policy that the government instituted, which was to allow other groups apart from the TAC to also partake in the place consultation process,” said Giudici.
During the initial years of the Dual Naming policy, only the TAC was allowed to propose names, he said, and they had to be in Palawa Kani language. But other groups petitioned the government, so the government conducted a review.
“About five years later, it allowed other voices to join the conversation about place naming, and so they widened the policy to allow other place name spellings in addition to Palawa Kani,” he said.
But “[the TAC] doesn’t recognize anybody from the Circular Head area as really being a part of their family groups … [they] are not accepting of anybody in the Circular Head area,” said Baldock.
The TAC declined to comment for this investigation and no new name has been proposed for Niggerhead Rock since 2017, owing to these ongoing disputes.