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Our Australian Cousins
Chapter VI

A corroboree—Discomforts of camp life—Treatment of the natives— The native police—British pluck and Christian courage—How the blacks are dealt with.

One evening after a tremendous meal of turtle-flesh and shell-fish, with wild plums by way of dessert, and with the promise of several bottles of grog and a pipeful of tobacco for each man, the tribe numbering from sixty to seventy men, turned out in full fighting costume, consisting simply of streaks of white pipe­clay daubed in eccentric patterns over the rude wiry frame, with here and there a hideous blotch of red clay or yellow ochre to relieve the monotony of the more simple black and white. One or two, whose native modesty or sartorial resources were greater than those of their poorer brethren, added a few cockatoo plumes to their spiral ringlets, and stood forth magnificently arrayed in nature's garments. Standing in a circle, with fires of bark gleaming fitfully all through the camp ; the sombre mass of shadow from the pathless bush forming a weird background; the rows of ragged, haggard, withered "gins" squatting on their hams, with their rags around them, more repulsive in their dirt and ugliness than any mob of ourang-outangs, the picture was truly a wild one. They have no musical instruments; but the gins, in a shrill treble, begin a wailing song, with long-drawn cadences, abrupt stops, and sudden rises and falls, ending in a prolonged half- guttural hum and peculiar liquid half-ringing sound, like y'ling, y'ling, y'ling, not at all unlike in modu­lation and tone, to the faint far-off murmur of a church bell.

The men, with their deep bass, then join in, and each cadence is so distinctly graduated, each sudden break so entirely in accord, each stamp of the foot, each motion of the body so homogeneous, that the time is absolutely perfect. It seems, however, to come naturally to them. Next the gins beat time, by slap­ping a folded piece of cloth held tightly between the thighs, whilst some of them clash two boomerangs together with a sharp click, which sounds something like the music of rude castanets.

They go through all sorts of antics—stamp the foot on the ground like a deer when it is alarmed; sway the body from side to side; raise, extend, depress, or wave their hands and arms; but all act in the most complete concert, and all seem actuated by but one idea. "When the leader makes a faint chirruping sound, the men stop singing, but redouble their violent antics, whilst the excitement gets greater and greater. Leav­ing the ranks, they spin round, toss their arms, stamp their feet, shout out hoarse cries of encouragement and approbation to each other; the shrill wailing treble of the women audible through it all. The dusky forms, with their streaks of ghastly white, whirl and gyrate in quaint outlandish evolutions. The camp-fires flicker and flare, and while the dance and sOng culminate in a fierce outburst of cries and howls, the myriads of stars look down on the lonely bush, and the cold night- wind sweeps by in moaning gusts. At the end of each corroboree the men go through any amount of laughing criticism on each other's performances, and then they prepare for the next representation. Each corro­boree is a complete act in itself, and is supposed to represent some event in their daily life. It was to me one of the most absorbing sights I had ever seen; and the evident interest we took in their doings seemed much to delight the poor savages.

Camping-out, however, is not without its reverse side; it is a hard, uncomfortable life. Sandflies and mosquitoes, when one is without curtains at night, are most intolerable plagues. The humpies are, after all, but poor substitutes for a neat little well-furnished cottage. There is not a chair in the camp, sheets are a luxury unknown, and if you expect to have your ' boots blacked, the nearest approach to that operation will be to rub them yourself with a piece of putrid shark's fat.

When a shark gets into the nets, the haul is certainly exciting; and the shooting at rabbit, Wonga-pigeon, or bush-turkey is not bad : but the long walk through the mud, with the hot sun scorching you; the weary pull out to the nets and back, with black, rank tobacco as your only standby, rather takes the romance out of the affair. One soon gets a surfeit of it, and begins to long again for the comforts and conveniences of city life.

The treatment of the poor dusky aborigines, by the Queensland government, indeed their treatment by the Australian governments generally, is not a matter for much pride or congratulation. We occasionally hear with a thrill of horror, that another parcel of redskins have been " wiped out " by the United States soldiers. Well-meaning philanthropists make spasmodic but abortive efforts at intervals • to get government to interfere actively in abrogating slavery in Cuba, but few, very few, ordinary newspaper readers, we imagine, at home, ever give a thought to the poor "black fellows" of Queensland, and yet the Queensland govern­ment stands charged with a callous disregard of their first duty towards these fast-lessening tribes of savages, and with the systematic perpetration of abominable cruelties, that would disgrace even Tartar, Zulu, or Bashi-Bazouk. The facts are well known among Queen slanders themselves. But the black fellows are repulsive clients. They are not interesting proteges to the squatter aristocracy, the money-grubbing store­keepers, or the polemical sectaries who in many cases represent religion. The working man has not arisen in his might, to claim them on the platform of Man and Brother. " Let it slide," says expediency and indifference; and so the poor savages are fast being "improved off" the face of the earth. There is no room for them on their native soil. Civilization in the shape of cattle and sheep, stockriders, wandering dig­gers, and goldsprospectors, find that their presence is incompatible with its requirements, and the survival of the fittest receives another illustration of its stern logic.

A clever and authoritative writer in The Australian magazine, on this subject says,—

"Probably no worse system of dealing with abori­ginal races has ever been adopted than that in use in Australia; and the system is probably worse at the present time than it ever was. Our authorities main­tain, systematically, one function of government, and one only, in dealing with the first residents, and that is, extermination. This action, as a policy, is of course neither professed nor acknowledged, very likely the circumstances in connexion with it are not even known to many of the functionaries who conduct the formal official routine; but still the work goes on regularly."

He goes on to describe the modus operandi, with all the graphic vividness of one who knows his facts, and can vouch for their accuracy. His expose amounts to a virtual impeachment of the Queensland government. The superintendent of the absentee squatter is a man who may never have seen a black fellow in his life. "His instructions, if he have any," pursues the writer, "are, if he anticipates annoyance from the blacks, to send for the native police. If he should chance on signs of their being in the neighbourhood, he sends for the officer in charge at once. If a travelling tribe has crossed the run, it is possible that they may have startled the cattle off their camps, and in the season when bullocks are 'topping up,' such a scare may take from off the fat mob—say three hundred beasts—some­thing like four pounds of tallow each, worth four pence per pound; a value of some twenty pounds sterling, a very serious matter."

Therefore the missive is sent, and Lieutenant Blood, with Gigwa, Wabrigan, and the rest of the gang, ride up some day soon. Each of the troopers has one spur only; consequently, one side of the horse goes faster than the other, and the result is a peculiar amble, called the "Policeman's jog."

They arrive at the "station."

Next morning they take a circuit of ten miles, and quarter the ground back and forward till they hit on a solitary track; they run this track with a speed and certainty that the trained bloodhound alone can equal, no impress on the soil, no bent blade of grass escapes them; presently more tracks join, all going in the same direction; they dismount and hobble their horses in a hollow. Wabrigan and Charley peel themselves of every rag of uniform, and glide on a-head, crawling and dodging; they come back in an hour, there is a camp of blacks on the edge of a scrub two miles off. By the first streak of day the party is mounted, and. they push quietly but rapidly over the ground. When the smoke of the fires is seen, they rush in at the gallop, The alarm is given: the camp is empty in a few se­conds; but the troopers are off their horses and into the scrub carbine in hand, throwing off their clothes as they go in hot pursuit. The Lieutenant waits out­side, smoking his pipe, and meditating over the deal for the " azeppa" colt, which he has opened with the Super.

"Shots are heard; the troopers come back after an interval; they have cut off some half-dozen of the last of the fugitives, and their dead bodies are lying in nameless gullies under bush and thicket.

"The leading men of the tribe have, of course, es­caped; broken-hearted women and wailing children shriek to heaven and appeal against the horrible ' white-fellow.' { They had touched neither him nor his bullocks—what a fearful God is the God of the white man—what a powerful fiend he must be!'

"'Walli, walli, areiro! the days of the blacks are numbered. We are slaughtered to feed the dogs, to fatten the bullocks of the white man!'

"Now, it is possible enough that Brown himself never pulled a trigger on a black, and it is as likely as not that he may never even hear of what Blood's men have done in the way of 'duty.' Besides, he would be infinitely shocked and indignant if any one proposed to hold him accountable for what took place at the edge of that scrub.

"Moreover, his proprietors never know anything about the matter, and being merely business specu­lators, working the station with bank-money, they consider that questions of policy and humanity in re­ference to the blacks are the very last matters that they have anything to do with. Blacks on our property! why, then, they are trespassing. It's clearly the business of the authorities to turn them off.' That's all they know or understand about the matter.

"Meantime, these half-dozen bronze corpses lie in their blood in that acacia thicket, and so it is because the tribe they belong to, or some other tribe unknoiv?i, are suspected of leaving gone near the Gondary cattle-camp.

"Of course this is no business of the station-owners, or of any one else—their concern with Gondary is simply one of pounds, shillings, and pence, and as long as the money comes out right, what more is wanted?

"So the station is sold at a profit to somebody else, who works on in the same way, and Brown's pro­prietors pocket each 10,000L clear gain; and they are generally complimented on their ' pluck and enter­prise,' and at public dinners they invariably reply to all toasts given to pioneers and squatters.

"And this is the way that our standard religion of the nineteenth century deals with the facts of life and humanity."

The above is written by a hard-headed, practical Scotchman, who knows the country well, and has lived in the interior for many years. He is not likely to under-estimatc the predatory proclivities and trea­cherous, bloodthirsty character of the aborigines, but surely his picture, which-is on overdrawn sketch, con­stitutes a grave impeachment of a professedly Christian and civilized government, and steps should surely be taken by the Queensland executive to remove this heavy reproach from their door.

That the picture is not overdrawn, my own expe­rience and knowledge bear witness. Not long ago near Cooktown, almost within gunshot of a populous town, a whole tribe of poor black fellows were shot down in cold blood. Several of the wretched creatures, to escape the bullets of the police, swam out to sea and never returned to shore. The sharks probably had a feast. Out of a party of thirty-five men, women, and children, if I remember rightly, only three women and one child were allowed to escape the revolvers and "persuasions" of the police.

On another occasion in northern Queensland, two white men had been speared. The whites met and deter­mined to hunt the blacks out of the district. A party was organized. They were armed with revolvers. Well mounted and fully equipped, they set out on their expedition. They were not desirous of making cap­tives. They did not know the guilty parties. Their object was to take black lives, and they cared not a jot whether the innocent suffered with the guilty. Could the fiercest' Corsican vendetta, stretched to its extremest limit, equal this? Our brave guerillas then went forth on their mission of blood. They were sober British subjects, not Indians on the war-path, not Zulus or Arab slave-stealers, but Queensland bor­derers. They came upon' a tribe of blacks camped near a water-hole, as the lagoons or desert pools are there called. Fearful of reprisals, if they were the guilty parties, or apprehensive of danger at the hands of the whites, the black men, many of them, took to the water, and diving like water-fowl, tried to elude the bullets of their foes. It was a vain hope. Our gallant band of white men surrounded the water-hole and deliberately "potted" the poor wretches, as they swam about in wild terror, and in that one water-hole fifty black fellows were murdered in cold blood by these heroic pioneers of progress.

The white man has ousted the black fellow from his own ancestral domain. In nine cases out of ten, he is himself the aggressor. In any case he is the more educated, the stronger, the more enlightened; to his eternal infamy be it said, he is often the more bloodthirsty, cruel, treacherous, and savage. My story is true. My informant had it from the unblushing lips of a participant in the dastardly deed.

The commissioner of police in his report for last year, 1878, says, "The complaints of cattle-killing and hut-robbing by the blacks along the northern coast, from Cairns to the north of Cooktown, are never end­ing, and never will cease as long as there are blachs there." The italics are mine. "The whole coast from the Mulgrave to the Mossman, is studded with timber-getters and settlers, by whom the blacks are disturbed and prevented from obtaining their natural food in that direction, while on the other side of the range the country is all occupied by small cattle-stations, which again cut them off from their hunting and fresh-water fishing-grounds. The intervening scrub is small, affording but a scanty supply of fruits in their season, and the natives are thus literally starving, and take advantage of the cover afforded by the scrub to make sudden raids on the cattle and huts, which is rendered more easy by the carelessness of the owners, the huts being left unguarded and the stations insufficiently looked after. Too much dependence is placed on the police, and too much expected from them, the ordinary precautions that all persons should take for the safety of their lives and property being almost systematically neglected."

The last paragraph, part of an extract from "The Queenslander," is pregnant with meaning, and affords but one more instance of the cursed system of centralization, and beggarly dependence on government, in every affair of life, from building a bridge or court­house, down to putting up a fence or locking a stable-door, which is one of the most contemptible characteristics of colonial national life. But of this more anon.

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