Fanny Cochrane Smith was our first Aboriginal recording artist

Indigenous music theatre Women empowerment

In 1899 and 1903, Australia's first Aboriginal 'recording star' Fanny Cochrane Smith leaned into the brass trumpet of the Edison phonograph and sang about flowers and birds in her language of Pakana.

Those recordings, etched onto wax cylinders, are the only ones ever made of Tasmanian Aboriginal song and speech and are a precious archive of Australian history.

Fanny was born on Flinders Island in 1834, but at age seven she was sent to a harsh orphan school in Hobart. At 12, she was forced into a brutal life of servitude, living in squalor and neglect.

She married William Smith, an ex-convict and sawyer, when she was 20. The couple ran a boarding house and worked splitting shingles and fencing.

Fanny raised the couple's 11 children in a five-room wooden house and sometimes walked 50 kilometres to town to buy supplies.

A regular visitor to their home was Truganini, one of the most famous Tasmanian Aboriginals.

When Truganini died in 1876, Fanny was recognised by the state government as the "last Tasmanian" and was granted a land and a small allowance.

While Fanny was married to a white man and was an early convert to Methodism, she stayed proud of her Aboriginal identity and moved easily between it and the European world.

She was a successful businesswoman, organising church picnics, fundraisers and held services in her kitchen on Sundays while continuing to hunt, gather bush foods, dive for shells and weave baskets.

She also found time to appear on stage with Hobart's Theatre Royal and it was from this that Fanny was approached to make the famous recordings.

Her descendant Rodney Dillon, an Indigenous campaigner, says she refused to tell the stories behind those songs to the white men who recorded them.

Fanny Cochrane Smith died at Port Cygnet in 1905, aged 71.

The church she built on the Nicholls Rivulet on Melukerdee country was restored by the Aboriginal community and is now the Living History Museum of Aboriginal Cultural Heritage.

Source: ABC


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