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 IX. Looking for Charlie (1902)

I LEFT Thursday Island at daylight on May 4, 1902, in the ketch Melbidir, in company with Dr. R., Protector of Aborigines. About 8 A.M. we struck heavily about five miles from land on one of the banks projecting from Prince of Wales Island. The tide was very nearly full, and our position an uncomfortable one. We lay about one hundred yards from the edge of the bank, which was very level to all appearance. As the newspapers say, "There was no panic among the passengers," and the crew worked hard to retrieve our misfortune. An anchor was got out, and the boat's head got round, and then all sails were reset, and we tried to force our way out. At first we did not move at all, but gradually an imperceptible motion began which at its quickest did not exceed a foot in a minute, not an exhilarating rate of speed when you know that the tide is beginning to fall, and that it will not rise again for twenty-four hours. Inch by inch we made our way, and happily the tide fell very slowly, and after four hours we reached the edge of the reef, without any deepening of water or increase of speed, until we slid down into deep water amid a general cheer. We had to keep far out to sea after this, and had a rough passage, making the land again soon after daybreak, and reaching the mouth of the Batavia River about 11 A.M. The land is very low, and the opening about two miles across, expanding into a fine bay some seven miles in diameter, into which the Batavia River runs. The river is navigable for some twenty-five miles, and there is no bar of any kind. Some day it will probably be a much-frequented harbour.

The Mapoon Mission Reserve occupies the southern headland, and is situated in a sheltered bay with a most beautiful beach. The superintendent, the Rev. N. Hey, kindly offered hospitality to the whole party, which was very welcome, as the vessel had to be careened and cleaned. The Mission station had been in existence for ten years, and it is practically the work of one man, the Rev. N. Hey. Originally he had with him his brother-in-law, the Rev. J. G. Ward, but since his death, some six years previously, Mr. Hey had had no assistance whatever save his wife, sister-in-law, and one South Sea Islander for part of the time. The soil is sandy, and the natural advantages very few indeed. Both Mr. Hey and Mr. Ward were Moravians, but the Mission is under the auspices of the Presbyterian Mission Board in Brisbane.

The work accomplished by Mr. Hey and his few helpers, both in regard to material adaptations and influence on the natives, was simply marvellous. There were some hundred and fifty aboriginals living permanently on the station, about twenty married couples, in good houses, a number of young and old men, and the boarded children. Most of the young men go beche-de-mer fishing and earn a few pounds. All their money is put into a common fund, and they are supplied with tools, etc., as they want them. Before a man can marry he has to give six months' work on the garden, or at timber-getting and cutting, and a house is then built for him.

The hours of work are from early morning to four in the afternoon, and the men work well and steadily, though slowly. All the timber is got and sawn and dressed by the natives, almost without direction.

The soil of the garden had been all made by sea-weed manure, carried from the beach with incredible labour. It is now very productive. The beaches are very beautiful, and are covered with lovely and, sometimes, rare shells, in the most bountiful profusion.

Nothing could exceed the kindness and hospitality of Mr. Hey and his party. The day after our arrival was made a holiday, and the sports excited the most lively interest.

We left Mapoon in the Melbidir early in the morning of Saturday, May 10. There was scarcely enough wind to take us out of the harbour, but it gradually freshened, and we ran down the coast about two miles from the shore, passing the mouth of the Pennefather River about midday. About sunset we anchored to the north of Duyfhen Point. There was a heavy swell, which made the boat ride uncomfortably. The land is all low. Standing well out from the land to avoid shoals, we made an early start, and stood across the Bay, which is about seventeen miles wide, nearly to Pera Head, and then up the southern shore, towards the mouth of the Embley River, which we reached about 4 P.M. The entrance is difficult, as sandbanks stretch on either side of the narrow channel, up which we had to tack against a stiff breeze. The captain felt his way in over the uncharted banks with great skill. Fortunately the tide was running in, as the channel just at the entrance is only about a hundred yards wide or less. Inside it widens to half a mile or more, and the river is over a mile wide. In the deepening twilight we tacked up for about twelve miles, and it was quite dark when we reached the junction of the Embley and the Hey Rivers, where we were to meet the Mission cutter, the J. G. Ward, which had left Mapoon the day before we did, and arrived a few hours before us. We had to fire a gun to ascertain their whereabouts, but finally succeeded in getting a light, and anchored under a low red cliff.

At daylight on Monday we transferred ourselves to the J. G. Ward, as the Melbidir drew too much water to go up farther. The wind was light, but the tide was with us, and we drifted and sailed up the river for about five miles until the tide turned and we had to anchor. The river is about a quarter of a mile wide, with high mangrove-covered banks. When we were at anchor a native, attired in a piece of string, came alongside in a bark canoe. These canoes, of which we saw several at Mapoon, are made of a single sheet of bark, with a triangular piece cut out of each end and sewn up. A couple of sticks are tied across, and the canoe is complete, save for a shell to bail with. The paddle is made out of the stem of a mangrove, with the natural spread of the root for blade.

The man had been employed in shelling, and spoke a little English. The lobe of each ear was cut out in the centre, and distended into an enormous loop, capable of holding a small Van Houten's cocoa tin. When not thus ornamented the loop is hitched up round the top of the ear.

We got under way again about 3 P.M. and floated up the river until dark, when we ran upon a shoal, and took the dinghy and rowed up the river by moonlight for about six miles to the Weipa landing, where we fired a shot to attract attention, and were met by Mr. Brown, in charge of the station, which is about three-quarters of a mile distant.

Two of the men from the Moreton telegraph station came to meet us with horses, and we left Weipa about 9 A.M., and travelling through good cattle country, very green in spite of the drought elsewhere, passed York Downs station at fourteen miles, and camped at Fox Creek, ten miles beyond. We got a good start next morning, and rode through very fair country, still green, and with very long grass, to Moreton telegraph station, on the Upper Batavia River, a beautiful and always running stream.

The telegraph station is ingeniously built to resist attack. The whole exterior is of iron, and the buildings are on piles about ten feet high, in the form of a square, enclosing a small courtyard. A space of a few inches is left between every few sheets of the iron enclosure, so that the courtyard and space under the building command all the country round by a series of loopholes. The windows are fourteen feet above the ground. The stairs open upon the interior court, so that when the entrance gate is closed the occupants can sleep in peace and safety, and one man could repel a large number of natives. One operator, two repairers, and a cook form the staff of each station. Happily the relations with the natives in the neighbourhood are now such as to render these precautions no longer necessary.

In the morning we visited the native camp, and saw one very tall man, six feet three in height. These natives go down to the east coast, which is said to be not more than thirty miles distant, though no one has been across.

After breakfast we set out to visit the telegraph master from the Mein, who had arranged to come halfway to meet us. We camped for dinner at a fine lagoon, which, as yet lacking a name, was named Bishop's Lagoon in my honour. After supper one of the men rigged up a tent fly with an end of coloured blankets, in front of which were stuck in the ground two tall sticks split at the end to hold a candle, making quite a little chapel, where we had service for the first time on this telegraph line, which does not appear to have been ever visited by a clergyman.

Next morning we set off on our return journey, and camped for dinner again at Bishop's Lagoon. Here Dr. R. showed me an interesting thing he had learnt from the natives. Choosing a ti-tree with a narrow longitudinal bulge on one side, about six feet above the ground, he struck it with a tomahawk, and a plentiful stream of water gushed out, fully half a gallon in amount. We caught some of it in a pannikin, and found it perfectly good and drinkable, though it had a somewhat saline taste. Many a man is in urgent need of water when passing a dried-up ti-tree swamp, and few know how easily it may be obtained. We got back to Moreton about 6 P.M. on Saturday, and were not sorry to learn, after our four days' ride, that we could spend a quiet Sunday there, having been afraid that we should have had to go straight on in order to keep up to time with the arrangements that had been made.

On Monday morning Dr. R. and I set off on a fresh expedition to investigate certain charges that were made with regard to the alleged murder of certain aborigines a few weeks before. We were accompanied by one of the line repairers, who afterwards met with a tragic fate. He was a cheery and steady young fellow, and had saved enough money to go home to Scotland to be married. Shortly after our visit he got a severe attack of dengue fever, and when in delirium shot himself dead.

We rode all day and camped at night by a water-hole in fresh country. A runner had been sent to warn the natives of our coming, and to ask them to bring the body of one of the supposed murdered men for Dr. R.'s inspection. The charge was that a certain white man, who had been sent on certain business connected with the natives, had allowed the armed natives by whom he was accompanied to attack and kill the members of a certain tribe without warning or provocation, when he might have accomplished his mission without bloodshed or trouble, and that he had returned and reported that he had never seen the natives at all.

About 10 P.M., just as we were turning in, we heard a plaintive wailing cry in the far distance gradually approaching us, and presently lights gleamed among the trees, and we saw a procession of about a hundred natives with torches, bearing the body of the man. As they gradually advanced with shrill cries of lamentation among the flickering shadows of the trees the scene was inexpressibly weird.

In the morning Dr. R. examined the body, which had been roughly embalmed and was well preserved. It was enclosed in bark and tied to a horizontal pole for carrying. The natives described to us the attack with extraordinary vividness. They were all bathing in a certain water-hole when suddenly the assailants galloped up from the south-west and opened fire; two old men, so old that they had to be carried on the shoulders of their great-grandchildren, had fallen at the first discharge, and two young men, Charlie and Jimmie, had been shot as they were trying to get away. The rest had managed to escape by swimming under water to the farther end of the lagoon, and one woman was taken away, but afterwards released. The natives had immediately removed the bodies of Charlie and Jimmie, and on the following day the attacking party had returned and burned the bodies of the two old men which had not been removed. Dr. R. knew Charlie well as a boy of excellent character and much intelligence and a steady upholder of law and order; the body showed a wound such as might well have been made by a bullet, but of this there was no sign. We were informed that the body was that of Jimmie and that the body of Charlie had been placed in a tree about twenty miles towards the east coast.

We determined to visit Charlie's grave, and also to see the place of the supposed massacre, and set off, accompanied by three natives as guides.

It was a wild and lonely part of the country, and we travelled with some difficulty owing to a number of creeks, and in some places thick scrub. Our guides were not prepossessing, the chief being distinguished by a bright blue forehead over red painted cheeks, and his reputation did not belie his appearance. All three were rather shady characters, but it was very interesting to ride behind and watch their alertness for every movement of the bush; each tree was scanned for a possible lizard or bees' nest, each likely tuft of grass prodded with a spear for a kangaroo-rat or bandicoot, each hollow trunk searched for an opossum. They moved through the long grass with bare feet and legs and apparently little fear of snakes, though once they came on one and jumped high into the air to avoid it. We reached our destination on the eastern watershed, not many miles from the coast, and found the body of Charlie, also carefully embalmed and hung up in a tree. An examination of the body again showed a wound through the body, but no bullet. We camped near by, and next morning the line-repairer went out to look for the horses. He had a revolver with him, but Dr. R. and I were both unarmed.

I had an idea that it was rather a noble kind of thing to do not to carry arms, but as we waited with the natives, of whom one we knew had committed a murder and the other two had attempted it, I came to the conclusion that it was rather silly. Engaged as I was in missionary work I should have objected to kill a native even in self-defence, but I saw that to be unarmed was simply to invite attack and to put temptation in the way of a savage who would never dream of attacking one whom he knew to have weapons. We were careful not to show that we were unarmed, and presently our friend turned up with the horses. That day we travelled through forest country to the south-west, and camped for the night at a fine water-hole. The whole of the country through which we passed was wonderfully green and well watered. I was astonished to find so much excellent country uninhabited and unstocked. I had thought that the northern part of the Peninsula was a sandy waste, but I doubt if any part of Queensland, that year at any rate, had been so blessed with rain and good grass, and it will probably one day be closely settled, as the nearness to the sea on both sides renders it practically all coast land, and it is deeply indented by fine navigable rivers, such as the Batavia, Ducie, Bertiehaugh, Embley, and others.

In the course of the afternoon we had noticed that one of our guides had disappeared, and we had taken good care that the other two did not get an opportunity of following his example, as we needed them to show us the water-hole where the attack had been made. It was a beautiful moonlight night. I was sleeping in a hammock slung between two trees, and the line-repairer underneath me, while the two natives slept by the camp fire a little way off. I do not think any of us slept very soundly. About midnight I woke up and looking towards the fire saw the two natives gradually raising themselves inch by inch. When they got to their hands and knees the man under me suddenly sat up and the natives dropped instantly and began snoring loudly. This was repeated at intervals during the night, and we were glad when morning came. We soon reached the water-hole, and found the recent tracks of shod horses at a gallop leading to it from the south-west. As there had never been any white man in this part of the country the fact was a strong corroboration of the statements we had heard, but we had further.

On the banks of the creek we found the remains of a big fire, evidently made by a white man, as the natives never make a fire of big logs lighted in the centre. On searching the ashes we came upon several knee-caps and other human bones and two skulls. Under one of the skulls was a little lump of lead of the exact weight of the bullets which had been supplied, as we knew, to the assailants, a large and unusual size. We could find no cartridge-cases--they had evidently been care-fullv picked up--but we had sufficient evidence to induce the Commissioner of Police to make the journey up from Brisbane to investigate for himself, and such justice as was possible was eventually done.

I may say here that then and always afterwards I found the Queensland Government most anxious on all occasions to do impartial justice to the natives. Undoubtedly the latter have often suffered cruel wrongs, but these were owing to the vast distances and the impossibility of getting evidence to convict the wrongdoer.

They were the acts of irresponsible individuals secure in the loneliness of the bush, and the Government and the police were always anxious to protect the blacks. The chief trouble lies in the jury system, as it was almost impossible to get a white jury to convict a white man of any outrage, however flagrant, on an aboriginal. I cannot personally recall any case in which a prosecution has been successful, but cases of cruelty and murder have become much fewer of late years, partly because of the increase of Missions, but also very largely because it is known that the wrongdoer can expect no sympathy or connivance on the part of the authorities, and even if he escapes conviction he is now likely to have a bad time with public opinion.

We travelled along a native track the whole of the following day, through good forest country, back to the telegraph line near the Moreton. A very striking native camp was passed, called Olbeli. It is situated right on the top of a hill in a grove of zamia-trees, in a carefully chosen strategic position, and different from any other camp I have seen, consisting of two or three long tunnel-like humpies some thirty feet or more in length. They were fully weatherproof and.very picturesque. About two miles farther on the same native road we passed a second native village, Apre-ino, built in the same way, but the tunnels were shorter. Every hut had stones for grinding the arrowroot, as they call the zamia-nut, which is eaten after being soaked to deprive it of its poison.

We had not intended to be out so long, and we were very glad to see the Moreton again, with empty pack-bags and hungry stomachs.

Next morning, Friday, we left the Moreton with agreeable memories of the kindness with which we had been welcomed, and reached Weipa Mission station on the Saturday evening. As we were already three days behind time we made no delay, but embarked with four boys in a whale-boat, which Mr. Brown kindly provided, and leaving the landing at 10.15 P.M. had a heavy pull of seventeen miles down to the mouth of the Embley. We took one of the oars in turn, so as to give each of the boys a spell, but the tide soon turned against us, and we were very glad to reach the Melbidir at 4 A.M. on Sunday morning, having ridden two hundred and fifty miles in ten days and ended the last day with a hard night's work, the three boys together doing about as much work as the one white man who was rowing. They were beginning to be anxious on board, as they had been waiting for us since Tuesday. We turned in for a couple of hours, and managed to put about six hours' sleep into it. I was much pleased with the result of my journey, as it not only enabled me to visit and minister to the whites, but gave me an insight into the life and character of the real myall native, and an incidental opportunity of aiding the Doctor in his efforts for their welfare.

About 1 P.M. we left the anchorage and went down the river, getting on to a shoal and remaining there for several hours. About sunset we got outside the point and anchored close to the beach. We saw a large number of natives, and Dr. R. landed to settle a dispute. It appeared that a certain man had duly bought his wife and paid full value to her two brothers, who admitted that they had made a good bargain. However, a third brother turned up and demanded to be paid too, but the bridegroom objected that he had already paid quite enough. In the meantime the family removed the wife until the bridegroom should pay up, and had tried to quicken payment by spearing both the husband and the wife. A kind of court was held, and the matter finally arranged by the bridegroom consenting to pay the third brother a pint of flour, in full satisfaction of all claims. A simple calculation will show the currency value of a native Australian bride.

The coast south of Pera Head is somewhat difficult to navigate, the land being absolutely flat, with a stretch of sandy beach backed by low trees, running, without a break other than a few almost invisible river-mouths, for nearly three hundred miles. It is consequently rather difficult for the amateur navigator to be sure of his position, even if he is lucky enough not to strike one of the numerous submerged sandbanks which extend in places six miles from the land. A nasty sea gets up very quickly in the shallow water. We resumed our voyage to the south, and on reaching the mouth, or rather mouths, of the Mitchell River, waited several days for the Rev. E. R. Gribble and an inspector of police who were to travel overland and meet us.

One day I went with the captain in the dinghy up the North Mitchell. We reached a spot where a native track came down to the river and led from it on the farther bank. Drawn up on the shore were a dozen swimming logs. A native of this part never crosses a river without such a log. It is of light mangrove, about eight feet long and about seven inches in diameter, tapering to about three inches. The native swims with his breast on the thick end and the thin end projecting behind him. I frequently asked the natives why they would not swim without a log, and they said that it was on account of the alligators, as the crocodiles are always called in Queensland; they declared that when the alligator saw them on the log he thought it was another alligator and left them alone. I am not prepared to say that their explanation was correct, but we saw a very big alligator lying on the bank about a hundred yards below the crossing, so that their precaution may have been justified. On our return we took a wrong channel and found our way blocked by a sandbank. We had to get out and walk in the water nearly up to the waist to get the boat off again. As we were in the water we saw the fin of a shark rapidly approaching.

The skipper offered to get into the boat and shoot him with his revolver. He got in accordingly, while I and the two men waited in the water. As the shark came close he looked uncomfortably big, and we were relieved when the skipper fired and he sheered off. "Just as well," remarked the skipper. "I forgot to say that my revolver always jams after the first shot, and if I had missed him I could not have fired again."

We were short of water, and I did not then know that fresh water could usually be found just above high-water mark by digging in the sand. We waited four days after the set time for the land party, and then sailed away for Normanton. We afterwards heard that the travellers reached the beach just as we were leaving. They made frantic efforts to attract our attention, but we were too far away, and they had to turn back and retrace their steps for over three hundred miles. On their way they narrowly escaped being killed by the natives.

Project Canterbury