19th century tintype portrait of a young Aboriginal woman from Tasmania found

AUDIO: Treasure Trove: John Paul Janke from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs shares the story of the discovery of the rare 19th century tintype photo of a young Aboriginal woman. (ABC News)

(666 ABC Canberra)

A rare and haunting image of a young, unidentified Indigenous woman has been donated to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) after being discovered by a family living in the United Kingdom.

Louise Maher, 666 ABC Canberra 26 August 2014

The tiny tintype photograph, measuring about 2 centimetres by 3cm, is the only one of its kind to be held by AIATSIS and is believed to be the oldest in its 650,000-strong photographic collection.

The woman who contacted AIATSIS said her mother found the photo when clearing out old boxes after moving from Tasmania to Stratford-on-Avon.

The family has been unable to provide any further information about the photo's origin or the identity of the young woman portrayed.

They suggested she might be Truganini, an Aboriginal woman whose tragic life in the 1800s reflected the violence and dislocation experienced at the time by Tasmania's Indigenous people.

However, according to John Paul Janke, the director of communication and engagement at AIATSIS, the woman's youth and the likely date of the image mean it could not have been Truganini.

"If it's taken in Tasmania it’s very unique, given that the 1830 Black Line, the official removal of Tasmanian Aboriginal people across to Flinders Island, had happened," he said.

Scanning the tintype photo
The tintype photograph has been scanned into the AIATSIS database which contains over 140,00 images, about 20 per cent of AIATSIS's total photographic collection

(Andrew Babbington, courtesy of AIATSIS)

The Black War

In 1830, after years of conflict known as the Black War, Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur attempted to remove all Aboriginal people from areas where white settlement had occurred by corralling them on the Tasman Peninsula.

Over 1,000 soldiers and armed civilians formed a human chain that swept south and east for several weeks.

Historians note the exercise was a costly failure but more than 200 Aboriginal people were later persuaded, with promises of protection, to relocate to Flinders Island.

Most died there. The survivors, including Truganini, were moved back to the mainland in 1847.

When Truganini, the last survivor, died in 1876, the government erroneously claimed Tasmania's Indigenous population had become extinct.

Mr Janke is aware of tintype photographs of Aboriginal people in western dress that were taken in the late 19th Century in studios in Melbourne, but given the age of the photograph and the lack of information, he conceded it will be very hard to identify the woman in the photo from Tasmania.

"Ideally it’d be fantastic to identify who she is, her story, and connect that identity with either living relatives or the image that we hold in our archive," he said.

Tiny portraits

The tiny portraits, usually taken in a studio, were printed onto thin sheets of iron and often kept in decorative cardboard cases.

They were relatively inexpensive and could be easily copied to share with friends and family.

Mr Janke hopes that other portraits of this woman he describes as "a pensive, shy-looking person" may emerge to help piece together her story.

"It's hard to understand what she’s thinking," he said.

"You’ve got potentially a woman who was a traditional living woman in Tasmania who's now living in a western society, dressing in western clothing.

"What does she think of all that, what does she make of that? Is she the only one doing that or is she with family?

"To me it looks quite lonely but it’s a powerful image."