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Our Australian Cousins
Chapter V

Regaining health—An Easter trip up the coast—My travelling com­panion—We travel steerage—Experience of a colonial coasting trip—Ration tea—General discomforts of colonial travel—Across the bar—Our reception by our host—The fishing station—The Dugong—Mode of capture—Its uses—The black fellow assis­tants—A domestic squabble—Customs of the black fellows— A native battle.

I found letters waiting me on my arrival in the Queensland capital, and received a warm welcome from my kind-hearted cousin and boyhood's companion A.B. Long ago, when two little "callants," we had trudged down to the old boat-shed near the suspension bridge in the "auld fish toon o' Montrose," and there lying down among the dust and shavings, we angled for "podlees" through a hole in the rotting woodwork of the floor, which overhung the lapping waters of the "back sands." What a meeting! My cousin now a prosperous colonial merchant, and I a broken-down wanderer, roaming the world in search of health. Thanks, however, to a fine constitution, the sea air, and my naturally good spirits, I was fast regaining health and strength. I found the Brisbane Turkish Baths invest me with a new lease of energy, and I was very soon able to walk about, and begin to enjoy the novel sense of active locomotion once again.

As Easter drew near, 'I began to tire of inaction, and wished to see a little of the country. My cousin acted as agent for an energetic principal living far up the coast, who was seeking to found a new industry, and was gallantly striving to establish a Dugong Fishery, up at Hervey's Bay, near Maryborough. As the Mary River was the chief seat of the sugar industry also, and promised me abundant material for my letters to the Pioneer, besides holding out the inducements of good shooting and fishing, I resolved to pay the Dugong Fishery a visit; and I was intro­duced to a fine young fellow who held a post in the assembly, and who meditated a tour northwards during the Easter holidays.

"Ching," our prospective host, had been warned of our projected visit, and on his behoof we were the custodians of a huge drag-net, cases of brandy, fruit, sugar, flour, onions, tea, and other groceries or stores. The colonial synonym for these is Rations. The destined rations were for the use of Ching and his men in their faraway camp. We also had a copious and plentiful supply of beer and tobacco, for ourselves.

We determined to travel steerage, being prompted thereto both by curiosity and economy. Steamer fares are rather high in Queensland, they were then at all events. Steerage accommodation, from grim expe­rience does not commend itself much to my mind. It was a mistake. The bunks were between decks. The cabin a close, filthy, damp and utterly uncomfort­able hole. There was a bar, as there always is. The liquor was vile, as it generally is. The bar, however, was extensively patronized, and the steerage steward seemed to be doing a large business. He generally does, for the colonist on his travels drinks a good deal, although at other times he is temperate, and confines his libations to tea. The cabin was crowded, women, men and children huddled together, no attempt at ventila­tion. The tobies, tin plates, and iron two-pronged forks, were horribly dirty, and the cookery was execrable. To add to our misery it rained heavily the first after­noon and night, and many of our motley crew were not good sailors. At meal time, the big mis-shapen junks of half-cooked beef were tossed down in big battered dirty tin skillets, and each person helped himself, hewing and hacking off a lump with his sheath-knife if he had one, or else with his pocket-knife. The ship's knives, so far as a cutting edge went, were more like hoop iron, than anything else.

The national beverage, tea, was supplied abundantly, but chips, planks, sticks, faggots, stakes, barge poles, any word of similar import would better describe it, than the word, leaves. An infusion of a crow's nest, would give a fair imitation of it. Remember too, that the sheath and pocket-knives, which did duty as carvers from the common joint, were fragrant and redolent of the strongest "ration" tobacco, and you can then form some faint conception of the Lucullus- like feast of which we were supposed to partake.

Joking apart, steamboat travelling in the Austra­lian colonies, nay more, travelling generally is attended with drawbacks, disadvantages, and desagrements, to such an extent as to daunt and discourage all but the most daring. My picture of the steerage accommoda­tion in a coasting steamer is no over-drawn sketch. There is no set place for passengers' luggage as a rule, but it lies piled up all over the deck, exposed to wave and weather. The attendance is unutterably vile, and courtesy and civility are luxuries quite beyond the reach of the po'or steerage passenger. The landing-stages are slippery and unsafe, and are very seldom provided witli hand-rails. At none of the wharves almost are there decent waiting-rooms, or cosy shelter for poor faint women and miserable children. The steerage cabins are noisome dens of filth and vermin. Of course there are exceptions, yet I main­tain that the steerage accommodation in the greater number of our coasting steamers, is a disgrace to our age and nation.

The perpetual bar-room traffic is an abomination, and should be done away with. Scenes of bestial drunkenness are of far too frequent occurrence on these steamers (although as a rule the colonists are a tem­perate race): and very little consideration is shown to poor sick women and frail children, who have not the protection of separate cabins, but must run the chance of being cooped up with drunken and desperate men.

On the railway's it is nearly as bad. The chief care and first consideration of the colonial official mind is not seemingly the comfort and ease of passengers. Our colonial cousins are certainly a long-suffering, law- abiding, good-natured people in the matter of railway transit, or their indignation would have demanded a radical change in their railway management long ago. It is only very lately that water-troughs have been considered a necessary appendage to a cattle-truck. It is only lately, that it has become possible in Sydney at least, to deposit a parcel for transmission by rail at a central office in town. The old exploded system of forcing you to buy your ticket through a sort of dove­cote orifice, a few minutes before the train starts, is still in vogue in the Queen city of the south. There is a. decided difference in this respect between our American and Australian cousins, and the comparison is certainly not all in favour of the latter.

On the second day, the sunshine put us all in a better humour, and we admired the bold broken out­line of the beautiful coast exceedingly. Crossing the bar near Hervey's Bay, to get between Sandy island, and the mainland, we watched the huge curling breakers surge and roar past our tiny-looking cock­boat, bearing us aloft seemingly to instant destruction; then shooting on ahead, they reared their towering crests, that reflected back a thousand prismatic hues from the white sunshine, until they broke in thunder on the cruel rocks, and corrugated sandy bars. At times one paddle-wheel would be fairly out of the water. We had barely depth enough, and the passage was not unattended with risk, but we got safely through. We then steamed up a beautiful series of still reaches, with wooded heights and bosky undula­tions and vales, stretching far back from the placid water's edge.' Sign of habitation there was none. Wild fowl seemed to be abundant, and we were now near- ing the feeding-places of the huge dugong. Turning short round a wooded promontory, we descried a whale- boat, manned by two black fellows, and a tanned little Anglo-Saxon mariner, who hailed the steamer and quickly pulled alongside. We were not sorry to quit our steerage companions, and hastily bundling our net and traps into the boat, the little man stepped a square sail, and off we scudded- before a smart southerly breeze.

We received a hearty reception from Ching. We could sympathize with each other, for I found liiin suffering excruciating agony from an acute attack of rheumatism. My knowledge of shampooing, acquired from long experience of its soothing effects, under the hands of my faithful old Bearer, now served me in good stead. When I had nothing else to do, during my stay, I set to work to shampoo poor Ching, and "before I left, I had taught half a dozen gins and black fellows the secret, so that shampooing had become quite one of the acclimatised institutions of the Hervey Bay Dugong Fishery.

Ching had set up his household gods in a very lovely spot. I have the picture clear and distinct in my mind's eye now.

A small clearing of some ten or fifteen acres, surrounded on all sides by the interminable bush, save where in front the sea ripples on the shelving beach, or surges almost noiselessly among the dense belt of mangroves that girds the coast.

When the tide is out, broad mud flats, extending for miles, till the eye meets the wooded heights and white cliffs of Fraser's island on the opposite side of the bay, lie sweltering in the afternoon sun; and on these flats, when the tide is in, innumerable fishes of all sorts find congenial feeding-ground. Huge green turtle, shovel-nosed sharks, stinging rays of enormous size, and the great elephant-headed dugong, all meet here and disport themselves in the creeks and currents of this charming bay. The deep-sea mullet, bream, guard- fish, whiting, flat-head, and many others, are procurable in any quantity; and crabs and oysters of unsurpassed flavour would tempt the epicure to here take up his abiding-place. In the middle of the clearing are a collection of rough sleeping-huts, colonially called "humpies," with one a little larger than the others, which serves as general dining-room, parlour, smoking- room, and library, all rolled into one. There are a kitchen, a store, a few other nondescript buildings for goats, fowls, &c., all formed of "weather-boards" roughly put together, and roofed with the long light slabs of leathery-looking stringy bark.

Down near the beach are the salting, drying, and boiling-houses, while a wooden tramway running into the sea offers facilities for hauling up boats, nets, and the carcasses of the spoil which the fishing affords. Scattered at intervals on the little ridges near the bush-fringed beach are the gunyahs of the aborigines "black fellows," who assist the enterprising owner of the fishery in his toil.

Ching, the owner, is a fine specimen of the adven­turous Englishman. He comes of a good old Cornish family; has been at sea for years; has travelled much, and read much ; and can tell many a tale of peril and adventure by sea and land, to amuse us when we have "cleared up" after dinner. He has, of course, European assistants, and these with the small tribe of black fellows who hang around the camp, do all the work, and are helping him to open out a new enter­prise which deserves well of the colony, and which, were the merits of the dugong oil but once fairly known, would become, I am sure, an industry of some commercial importance.

Harpooning was originally the mode adopted in capturing the dugong, but it has now been superseded by the use of huge nets, which at low water are placed across the creeks which everywhere intersect the flats.

The dugong, with his great bristly snout, and tusks like the sea-horse, comes up at high-water to feed on the algce, or marine grass, which grows luxuriantly in the bay. As the tide recedes, he betakes himself to the creeks, and there gets entangled in the nets. The boats and black fellows then put out, secure the car­casses, and tow them ashore to be cut up and boiled down for oil, or the flesh salted and preserved in casks like beef.

The oil is unlike anything I ever tasted. It is a pale yellow, clear oil, exceedingly sweet, and forms a perfect substitute for butter. All our cookery in the camp was done with it. It makes capital pastry, fritters, and cakes, and the weakest stomach can retain it. In curries it would be delicious, and it has already won a great reputation in the colonies for pulmonary affections. It is extremely strengthening, and as it can be taken in the ordinary way as food, there is no difficulty in administering it. As a tonic, and as a corrective in diarrhoea and stomach-disorders, it has already proved its worth, and is now extensively used in preference to cod-liver and other oils.

The dugong itself is on a par with the other strange creatures found in this paradoxical land. With a head somewhat resembling that of the elephant without the trunk; tusks something like those of the wild boar; a very minute perforation for an car; but which can catch the slightest vibration in the air; an eye like a pig; flippers like a seal, and a tail like the sperm- whale, it looks the oddest fish you can imagine. It chews the cud like a cow, and yields delicious milk. It is not an aggressive beast, being extremely retiring, shy, and suspicious.

At high tides the natives used to harpoon them, as I have just stated, and this was a work of great delicacy. With muffled oars and bated breath the silent boat crept noiselessly along. The keen eye of the tracker has discerned the bulky body of his un­suspicious prey. The slightest noise and he would clear off at once; but nearer and nearer creeps the boat, the tall black fellow in the bows fairly quivering with-suppressed excitement. For a moment the glit­tering harpoon is raised, then, sharp and swift as an arrow, the keen blade pierces the yielding flesh, and the dugong is fairly struck.

It was in fact whaling on a miniature. scale, and intensely exciting. A small keg was fastened to the end of the harpoon line. This was followed up, and when the wounded. animal rose to the surface to breathe, it was lanced until death ensued. The spoil was then towed ashore, and cut up as already described. Several large orders have now been received for skeletons and skulls for museums. The hide is enor­mously thick, and makes splendid leather for belting, valves for pumps, drags for carriages, &c. The flesh is very like tender veal, and if salted down, makes delicious bacon, that is, if the name be applicable to fish flesh. It is largely eaten by. the farmers and settlers in the neighbourhood. The bones are heavy and solid, make splendid knife handles, and the tusks are the finest ivory known.

No part of the carcass is ever wasted; and when there has been a good haul, the camp presents a busy scene. The tawdry, hideous, old "gins" come up in files from the boat, bearing off huge mangled portions of turtle, dugong, or shark. They are like savages all the world over. One day they will gorge themselves with huge junks of half-roasted meat, roughly thrown on the ashes, the outside charred like charcoal, while the inside is as raw as green hide. Next day, if there is nothing in the net, they make their meal off the refuse scraps that even the dogs have refused the day before; and if bad luck continues, they betake themselves to wild plums, roots, berries, snakes, and other vermin. These people make no provision whatever for to-morrow: with them "sufficient for the day is the evil thereof" with a vengeance. They seem merry and good-humoured enough as a rule, but they are excitable, and their moods vary much. Louisa, the cook, a pleasant-enough-looking gin, as gins go, aroused us all one morning, with a succession of such hideous yells and piercing cries, that I thought no­thing short of murder was being perpetrated. But I was astonished to see the other hands take it so cooly, and felt rather disgusted at the want of feeling dis­played, when Ching informed me, "Oh, it's only Louisa getting toko from Fred." Fred, her lord and master, had been a most cheery and amiable fellow in my esti­mation hitherto. It seems, however, that Louisa had got a new pipe from the store, and demurred to yield­ing it to her husband, whose covetous eye had at once lit on the treasure.

Her refusal fired his savage nature at once. Seizing her by the hair, he cudgelled her brutally and abused her; but an hour after, when Louisa had been pacified with a pinch of tobacco, she was smiling as usual, and apparently as loving with her tyrant as before.

The power of sight possessed by these people is, I think, the most remarkable thing about them. It is truly astonishing. When Ching, our host, was looking at the steamer through the binoculars, he could not see what was passing half as well as the "gin" standing beside him, and she had but the use of her naked eye. I subsequently had ample evidence of this marvellous faculty of vision, and many stories are rife in colonial back-country circles, confirmatory of my observations. When through my glasses I failed to discern even the place where the nets lay, Billy and Fred, two of the black boys, or any of the gins, would tell us, standing alongside, not only the number of fish in the net, but what sort of fish they were, whether dugong, turtle, sharks, or saw-fish. This may sound exaggerated, but it is the simple truth.

In the bush, when they wish to communicate with each other, they do so by means of smoke. From the kind of smoke they can tell what event has occurred at vast distances within ten minutes of the occurrence, and this fact also, many of my colonial readers can substantiate. Thus, should a member of the tribe fall off a tree, get hurt, or die, on Fraser's island, fully ten miles away, every mother's son of them on the mainland would know of the occurrence within ten minutes, at least so I was informed.

When death takes place the name of the deceased is never mentioned; and the mourning customs are very curious. The women execute a kind of dance, cutting their heads all the time with a sharp hatchet till covered with blood. They also gash their bodies; and there are few old women but what are so seamed and scarred all over, that you could scarce cover a space the breadth of your thumb without encountering an old wound. They also crop their hair close, and glue tufts of feathers close to the roots. The men show their grief by cutting and lacerating their bodies fearfully with bits of glass. They are constantly fighting amongst themselves, but their mode of com­bat, as I observed in a former chapter, is certainly unique. If two men wish to fight, they previously arrange the mode between them with all the gravity and punctilio of our own forefathers on like occasions.

Their general plan is to grasp each other by the shoulder and leaning over, with each a knife' in his right hand, to cut each other, turn and turn about, on the muscles of the shoulders, across the back, or down the hips and thighs. They begin with surface wounds, but gradually go deeper and deeper, till one or the other thinks he has had enough, and gives in. The vanquished party not unfrequently, smarting under his defeat, calls on his tribe to help him to his revenge.

Signals are sent abroad, a meeting of the tribe con­vened, and after a grand "corroboree," war is declared. When the opposing parties meet, one or two step out from each side. They have a small wooden shield with which they ward off spear-thrusts and blows. Jumping about and taunting the opposite party, they gradually excite the on-lookers, till suddenly a flight of spears is levelled at the dancing warriors. Avoiding these with the greatest dexterity, dodging, bending, doubling, and twisting, while shouts and cries now arise from either side, the excitement gets intense.'

Larger parties now leave the ranks; more spears hurtle through the air, till at last all mix together in a mad melee, a wild hand-to-hand encounter. Hatchets, knives, clubs, and spears are used until some one or two get severe wounds, when, as if by mutual consent, the battle ceases, everybody's honour is satisfied, and the war is at an end. It is very seldom that any lives are lost in these skirmishes. .

Being anxious to see as much of this strange, and to me quite new people as I could during my stay amongst them, I begged and prayed our kind host, to get up a grand corroboree, that I might see with mine own eyes what I had so often heard about. It has been so often well described, that I feel somewhat diffident in laying my recollections before the reader, but as it forms one of the most interesting remini­scences of my trip to Maryborough, I hope it may arouse the interest of my friends as much as it did my wonder and delight, when first I witnessed the display.

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