Project Canterbury

Thirty Years in Tropical Australia

By the Right Reverend Gilbert White, D.D.
Bishop of Willochra

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1918.

Chapter I. First Impressions (1885)

A FEW personal preliminary words are necessary to the understanding of what follows. I was born in 1859 of English parents at Rondebosch near Cape Town, came to England a year later, was educated at Fettes College, Edinburgh, and Oriel College, Oxford, was ordained priest in 1884, and left England for North Queensland on account of my health in 1885. I became Bishop of Carpentaria in 1900, and fifteen years later I left the north, after thirty years' work there, for the new diocese of Willochra in South Australia.

On September 25 of the year 1885 I awoke for the first time on Australian soil, having landed at Townsville late the night before. My ears were full of the sound of the rattle and clash of the palm-trees by which the house was surrounded. I opened my eyes and was astonished at the brilliancy of the light. Through the open door of my room I saw, framed by the fronds of a great palm, the dazzling blue of Trinity Bay, and the wooded slopes of Magnetic Island bathed in a flood of sunlight of whose intensity we in England have no conception at all. Below was a high fence covered with brick-red bougainvillia, and on one side the billowy curve of a huge spreading poinciana, one entire mass of scarlet blossom. I came to the conclusion that, whatever else North Queensland might lack, it was not going to lack vividness of colour or startlingness of contrast, and I have never seen reason to change my mind.

My first duty was to go for a couple of months to the sugar-growing district of the Herbert River. The sugar industry was then flourishing and worked mainly with South Sea Island labour. Some time previously there had been gross abuses in the way in which these Islanders were recruited, and many of the notorious "black-birders" were still at large, but the Government had interfered effectively to put a stop to the evils, and I saw nothing of them. The "boys," whom I soon got to know well, were contented and happy, and many of them were profoundly influenced by the various missions established for their benefit. Their way of showing their loyalty was sometimes primitive. One lady missionary, who had acquired a wonderful influence over the Islanders on the surrounding plantations, incurred the enmity of some of the Islanders by persuading a number of them to give her their weapons, and to forswear tribal feuds, and the others threatened to take her life. This came to the ears of the Malayta men, of whom a number were working near, and they inscribed on Mrs. R.'s gate certain mystic signs which were interpreted to mean that if any man interfered with Mrs. R. in any way he would speedily find himself dying by the most uncomfortable and painful death known to the Island connoisseurs. A dozen policemen could not have protected Mrs. R. more securely than these rude signs. Although I believe these Islanders were well and justly treated, at any rate from 1885 onwards, I cannot but feel that much injustice was done when they were, in the name of a White Australia, deported to their Islands about fifteen years ago. They were brought over solely for the benefit of the Queensland sugar industry, and when their time was up, numbers of them were allowed to settle down, acquire land, and adopt European food and customs without any idea that they would ever be compelled to go. Then of a sudden the command was given that all who had not been twenty years in the country, or exempted for one or two other causes, must return to their own islands, where in many instances they had been forgotten, and in some cases were actually killed as intruders. Had the limit been fixed at ten years instead of twenty, little injustice would have been done, but men who had been living under civilized conditions for fifteen years or more were usually quite unfit to return, and bitterly resented their treatment. The farewell cry of a steamboatful of deported Islanders, leaving Cairns, leaves an unpleasant impression: "Goodbye, Cairns! Good-bye, White Australia! Good-bye, Christians!"

In 1885, however, these things were in the future, and the Islanders were like careless happy children.

I left Townsville by a small coasting steamer, and was landed off Lucinda Point in a small boat, considerately bailed out for the purpose with a coffee-cup! On our way to the shore we passed a notorious labour schooner, which had kidnapped hundreds of Islanders, but its misdoings were happily over. At Dungencss we changed to a boat that leaked a little--though only a little--less and set off up the river. I was much struck by the beautiful vegetation, especially the Moreton Bay chestnuts with red blossoms among which clouds of parakeets of all kinds were screaming. The river was shallow and full of snags. At the Victoria wharf our boatman adjourned to the hotel, and on his return he explained that the sun had affected his health, and all he could do was to go to sleep in the bow of the boat. I had to take charge, and considering the number of snags I considered that the passengers were lucky to get up safely. The snags were not so bad, but the river at this time swarmed with alligators. A friend of mine living far from any church used to put in his Sundays shooting alligators as the most pious work he could think of, and disposed of fifteen in one morning. There was then no bridge across the river, and when there was anything like a fresh, one crossed in considerable trepidation. Several persons lost their lives while drawing water. It is a mistake to think that alligators will not travel by land. A stockman met a great brute in a paddock opposite Macknade, over a mile from the river, and his horse did half a mile at a pace which would have won the Melbourne Cup. I have heard of them four or five and even seven or eight miles from water. I landed at Cordelia Vale, and was delighted with my first experience of a tropical garden--gorgeous scarlet hibiscus, the sweet-smelling frangipani, different varieties of bougain-villia, orchids of bewildering variety, yellow alamanda, passion fruit, grenadillas, grapes, guavas, pine-apples, pomegranates, mangoes, figs, coco-nuts, papaws, oranges, and limes made a walk abroad a wonderful experience for one just landed in the tropics. One must add the gorgeous butterflies, red, green, and a flashing metallic blue, and the quaint insects, especially the mantides, which assumed all sorts of curious shapes and disguises to entrap their prey, from an ordinary-looking orange-tree leaf to a bit of straw or an old stick.

I had two things to learn, to ride and to find my way. The first was a simple but painful process. On the day after my arrival Mr. W., who had kindly consented to show me round, mounted me on a very lively young mare, and galloped me round for most of the day over what he called roads, but which seemed to me only places where there were stumps instead of trees, and holes instead of stones. I got stiffer and sorer as the day went on, and would have given anything to call a halt, but I was young and did not like to give in, and finally learnt, if not to ride, at least to stick on, which is, after all, one of the most useful things in the bush. As to finding my way I soon found that it was not so easy as I thought. I left a "Selection" with full directions as to how to reach the next one, four or five miles away, and took for my guidance a forest fire, which was a mark I could not miss. Carefully keeping my relative position I arrived at my destination after about an hour's travelling, and was taken aback to be greeted by the question, "Have you lost your way?" It was the house I had started from an hour before. I often lost my way after that, but had sense to remember which way to go to find it again. I lived in the Rectory by myself, and one day just as I was having tea a most terrific thunder-storm came up. A tree close to the house was struck, and the whole room was filled with blue fire. I felt pretty scared and made a bolt for the kitchen, which was lower, and as I thought safer. When I arrived there I found that I had a big teapot in one hand and a slice of bread and butter in the other! How I opened the doors I could never find out.

The scenery north of the Herbert is some of the most beautiful in the world. Off the coast lies a great rocky island named Hinchinbrook, which is 4000 feet high, and covered with virgin tropical scrub. The island is thirty miles long and separated from the mainland, which here runs up into mountain ranges nearly as high as Hinchinbrook, by a channel only a mile wide. This salt-water river, for such it really is, can be traversed by small passenger steamers, and the views are surpassingly beautiful. In fact, the whole coast up as far as Cooktown is most remarkable, and as the water is deep the largest steamers are able to approach it closely.

It was rather a trial to leave this fascinating country for an uninteresting mining town like Charters Towers, whither I went by train from Townsville. The railway to Charters Towers was built on the system of "compensating grades," or the switchback principle, little effort being made to level the undulating country. In one place the train ascended the Range, a height of several hundred feet, with a grade of, in places, 1 in 25. Only by terrific groaning and several times almost stopping did we arrive at the top. I heard it was not unusual for the train to slide all the way back to the bottom, sometimes more than once, before it succeeded in the ascent. About fifteen miles from Charters Towers the train used to cross the Burdekin River on a low-level bridge a quarter of a mile long, rushing down a steep incline on one side, and thundering across the bridge at full speed in order to get up sufficient impetus to get up the incline on the other side. On a later occasion we stopped at the top of the incline, and the guard and engine-driver held a council to which the passengers were not invited. Looking out of the window I saw that the bridge had totally vanished and a turbid flood was rushing over the place where it should have been. At this moment the engine gave a shriek, and we started off down the incline in the hope and faith of finding the rails somewhere under the water. We got across safely, though there was an anxious moment when a big log came down the stream, and it was a question whether it would hit the bridge before or after our passage. At Ravenswood Junction I noticed a number of cases of dynamite packed between the two lines of rail so carelessly that the corner of one case was about two inches from our train as it passed. Railway travelling in those days was not without its excitements, as when on one occasion the guard got drunk, and the train dashed down the Range with its 1 in 25 gradients at full speed without any brake. Of course all these things have changed long ago, and the line is now as safe and prosaic as any in Australia.

The town of Charters Towers was at this time rapidly growing, having some years later a population of over 25,000. A number of Germans were among the fortunate owners of the famous Day Dawn Mine, but most of them made but a poor use of their money. The methods of gold extraction were, of course, of the latest, and a visit to the mine or mill was always interesting. It struck me one day to look up the chapter on gold-mining in Pliny's "Natural History," and I found to my surprise the old Roman knew just as much about gold-mining as we do, and the methods in his day were precisely similar. He describes the method of signalling by means of knocks, which is still in use; he describes the bringing of water for hundreds of miles by means of races hung to the face of the cliffs, and by inverted siphons which conveyed it across the valleys. He describes minutely the tables on which the gold was collected, the bushes through which the waste water was passed, and which were afterwards burnt for the gold they had caught, and he even--greatest surprise of all--describes the quicksilver amalgam process, though the quicksilver had to be recovered by a mechanical process, and the method of separating the gold from the quicksilver, the amalgam being put in chamois-leather bags which were pressed and rolled until the quicksilver came out through the pores. Verily there is little new under the sun!

There was of course much speculating in shares, and as I was a disinterested spectator, never having felt any inclination to own shares, I sometimes noted curious things. On one occasion a party working at the Black Jack some six or seven miles away came upon good gold and set off in the only cab to bring the news to the Towers. A thoughtful young man set off at the same time on foot through the bush at his best pace. The party in the cab were so elated at their good fortune that they had to stop at two hotels on the way to celebrate their luck, and on arrival at Charters Towers they found that the man on foot had arrived, bought up all the shares that were to be got, and then announced the news, so that not a share was to be had.

There seems to be something about mining which often fails to bring out a man's highest qualities. I remember, for instance, an account of a shareholders' meeting of a mining company in a little mining town which was given me by one who was present, though not as a shareholder. It was discovered that the secretary of the company had been misappropriating its funds. There was no question of calling him to account for such a venial offence; besides, it might form an inconvenient precedent for some of the shareholders who were secretaries also of other companies. Finally it was resolved to offer the secretary £20, out of the funds of the company, if he would resign. The secretary accepted the offer and resigned, and a meeting was held to authorize the payment of the £20. Upon this a shareholder got up and said, "Mr. X owes me nearly £20 "; and another shareholder said, "He owes me £20 too." Finally it was resolved to divide the £20 fairly between the two shareholders, and the matter was thus amicably settled. One wonders what the secretary thought and said!

One day I received a request to take a wedding at a mine some twenty miles distant. This mine had recently been floated on the English market, and an enormous sum had been spent on erecting a magnificent mill, a tramway to the mine, a great manager's house, and every conceivable contrivance for extracting and treating the ore. I took the coach for Y, and as there had been a good deal of rain there was much discussion as to whether we should be able to cross the river which we had to pass about half-way. We managed to negotiate the yellow flood in safety, and the driver then turning to me remarked, "It would have been all right if she had been up. I promised Jim, the chap you are going to fix up, that if the water was too high, I would take out one of the coach horses, tie you on, and bring you up to time somehow!"

I arrived at the mine in due course, and the manager showed me over the great buildings and laid especial stress on the labour-saving tips at the mouth of the mine, which would enable so many hundred tons of ore to be conveyed to the mill in so many hours without handling. He then invited me to go below with him, pointing out the double shaft and its heavy timbering made to facilitate the getting away of enormous quantities of ore in the shortest possible time. "Show Mr. White some gold," he said to the underground boss. "There is none to show, sir," was the reply, and though the manager became furiously angry and discharged the man on the spot, what he said was quite true. The total amount of ore raised from the mine was 180 tons, and the total amount of gold was less than as many pennyweights.

I like to think, however, that such cases are the exception and not the rule. There have been and are some splendid mining men in the north of Australia, men who mine to get the minerals and not to sell the mine, and have faced ill fortune with heroic fortitude, and success without being spoiled by it, men like Mr. E. H. T. Plant of Charters Towers, Mr. John Moffat of Irvinebank, and Mr. John Munday of Herberton, whose consideration for their men, and whose courage and foresight made their names household words in the north.

The north of Queensland is extraordinarily rich in minerals, especially gold, tin, and wolfram, and though high wages and difficulties of transport have in many cases kept the mines back, they will come into their own as other sources of supply tend to diminish. Some of the mines at Charters Towers were so rich that the men had to be closely watched to prevent thefts of ore, and on one occasion some clever thieves actually succeeded in stealing a red-hot crucible containing several thousand pounds worth of gold out of the very furnace itself.

The climate of Charters Towers was dry and very hot in summer. I have seen the thermometer under a veranda up to 115°, but that was exceptional. The heat is not like the heat of India or Ceylon, where 95° is harder to bear than 115° in Australia. Sunstroke is much more rare than in England, and is usually a euphemism for an overdose of whisky.

Charters Towers had at that time no water-supply, and it could not be described as a beautiful place, the view consisting chiefly of poppet-legs and engine-houses, but the sunsets were wonderful and compensated to some extent for the lack of natural beauty.

While at Charters Towers I saw a good specimen of those terrific dust-storms to which most parts of Australia are occasionally liable. The weather had been exceptionally hot, when, about 6 P.M., we noticed a very lurid purple and indigo cloud with a light-coloured base due east of the town. It approached with great rapidity, and resolved itself into a mammoth dust-storm. Great columns 100 feet high were whirling along, as far as the eye could reach, with vivid flashes of lightning playing among them. We rushed for doors and windows and got them shut just in time. The wind rushed down with terrific force, shaking the house and carrying before it sheets of iron and roofs of old buildings and outhouses. The great clouds of dust, just as in the pictures of "Arabs overwhelmed by a dust-storm in the desert," hid everything from view. Three children were passing just as the cloud came down, and I saw them all thrown down and, as it seemed to me, whirled away into the air. I rushed to the rescue, but they had disappeared, and I hope were blown to their own door. There was not much rain, but the thermometer fell 20°.

With a large and growing population and only two clergy the work was pretty heavy, but was occasionally lightened by quaint experiences.

One day a stout, florid man of between forty and fifty rolled his way up to my gate, and leaning on it commenced as follows: "Hi, parson, are you Mr. White?" I meekly admitted the fact. "Well, I want to see you about a very important matter. You see I am a jobmaster by profession, but all the people I had to do with were such rogues that I've had to go through the court; but that is not what I came about. The fact is, sir, that I have been thinking that I ought to be confirmed, and I've come to you to arrange about it." I mildly questioned whether the bankruptcy court was the best of preparations. "Not at all, your honour, I'm a true Christian. Why, I went to church when Bishop Stanton was up here last, and I gave a subscription to the Sunday School Picnic last year, or else it was the Jockey Club; I know it was one or the other." "But are you a member of the Church of England?" I queried. "I don't seem to remember you." "Yes, shure, your reverence; didn't I black Pat Molloy's eye when he said that he had heard that the Church of England was a branch of the Catholic Church?" "But do I not perceive a certain aroma somewhat suggestive of recent acquaintance with spirituous liquors?" "Me drinking, your lordship, no, not the leastest little drop have I tasted for the last hour or more, and then 'twas to oblige a friend who felt lonely like by himself." "Well, I am afraid you will have to be a little less ambitious, and begin knocking off drink and come to church a little oftener than once a year." "Well, your eminence, I thank you very much for your good advice, and maybe you'll speak to the Bishop about the confirmation." "Well, well, we'll see about that when you have begun to show some signs of being in earnest in your request." "Indeed, and that I am. Could your holiness see your way to making me a trifling advance of half a crown?"

Another day an Italian bridegroom, who understood but little English, had to repeat after me a long declaration ending up with the words that there was "no relationship or affinity, or want of consent of parents or guardians, or any other lawful cause to prevent my being married." He blundered through the declaration with growing bewilderment, until at last coming to something he could understand he said with heartfelt emphasis, "or any other awful cause."

Occasionally weird worshippers used to stray into church, and on one occasion I found after service that a dark gentleman declined to leave, declaring that the church belonged to him, or he to the church, I was not clear which. On asking him what his own views might be, he replied with drunken dignity, "I am a Protestant Mohammedan," and it was only by assuring him that the police were specially looking out for a Protestant Mohammedan that he was induced to leave.

On one occasion a farmer, who did not believe in the law as a remedy for breach of promise, appeared to arrange for the marriage of his daughter to a young man whom he suspected of trifling with her affections. "I've told him," he continued, "that if he don't turn up I'll thrash him till this carriage whip is broke." Next day he came galloping along cracking the whip and shouting, "They're coming! They're coming!" All through the ceremony he stood behind the doubly nervous bridegroom nursing his whip, and finally departed in charge of the somewhat depressed wedding party.

One day a gentleman resident in the town called to see me and said he wished to consult me on a serious matter. He had lately been married a second time, and his second wife was exceedingly jealous of his wearing his first wife's wedding-ring. What was he to do? Loyalty to his first wife's memory compelled him. to wear the ring, but his second wife's jealousy left him no peace. While we were talking there was the sound of a cab driven rapidly up, a whirlwind passed up the garden path, and a hurricane in the shape of the wife burst into the room. "What do you mean by daring to talk to my husband without my knowledge, you meddling, interfering idiot?" and then turning to her husband she let loose on him a perfect volcano of abuse as long as her breath lasted. When I could get in a word I said: "I think your question has answered itself. It does great credit to your heart to want to be loyal to number one, but you have got to live as best you can with number two, and my advice to you is to take off the ring and bow to the storm, if you cannot control it." He was taken away in the cab and I saw them no more.

Shortly after this I had one of the very few attacks of fever that I ever had in tropical Australia. I dreamed that I had to move my house about a quarter of a mile, and as some low ground had to be crossed I had gone to some trouble to make a huge embankment on which to slide it across. This embankment was composed entirely of Chinamen's heads, and whenever I tried to move the house those grinning heads would start to roll down the embankment in the most disconcerting way. I finally became so much annoyed that I began to doubt whether the house was worth all the trouble and expense of my elaborately prepared embankment. It was, I think, this unpleasant experience (for then as now I had a real respect for the patient and good-natured Chinaman) that convinced me that I had been working too hard, and induced me to ask the Bishop to give me work for a time in one of the country districts.

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