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 XI. A Primitive Folk (1905)

"Wednesday, June 7, 1905. The boat due to-morrow. Mr. G.and I, with Grady and a native, left the station at 8.30 A.M., and came out on the beach at about nine miles, at a point two and a half miles from the mouth of the Trubanaman Creek. We went north along the beach for nine miles, more to the south mouth of the Mitchell, but could not see anything of the boat. Camped on the beach near the point. After a little search found the native well we had used on my previous visit in 1903. It was almost filled up, but the boy set to work to dig with his hands, after testing the ground with his spear, and at about four feet six inches found water in very small quantity. We had only a quart pot to water our horses with, but managed it by putting a piece of oilcloth over a hole in the sand. The quart pot was filled with a shell and the hole with the quart, but it took a great many quarts to satisfy four thirsty horses. As for ourselves, we had some ducks which we brought with us, and laid on the coals, and some solid damper. All our baking powder and nearly all our flour is gone. All the luxuries, such as sugar, etc., have been used up more than a week ago, so it is to be hoped that the boat will not be late, otherwise we shall be starved out altogether. In the afternoon Mr. Gribble and the boys went fishing for supper, and I looked after the camp and watched for the boat. We have fixed up a flagstaff on the beach, and got the material for a fire to-night.

"Thursday, June 8. Breakfasted frugally the four of us on a piece of cold fish and a few ounces of damper. No signs of the boat, she can hardly now be here up to time. Spent two hours watering with quart pot. Sent Grady in to Mission station for flour if they have any, of which I am doubtful. Boy speared a barramunda, so fortunately we have some dinner, but only a fragment of damper left. Grady should be back by dinner-time to-morrow. We are about thirteen miles from the station. Mr. Gribble has a touch of fever.

"Friday, June 9. Weather very calm, and fortunately not cold. Had a swim at daylight after making up the beacon fire. My birthday. Hardly the place and way one would have selected in which to spend it. No sign of the boat.

"Grady arrived at noon with a damper and a little flour. Man Friday caught some fine fish. Life not exciting--a sea without a ripple, a white beach, a few bushes, and that is all. The peninsula on which we are camped is only about a quarter of a mile wide, and all sand. In the afternoon had a walk, and collected a few shells.

"Saturday, June 10. Up four or five times in the night to replenish the signal fire. Another calm morning. Later, breeze from north-east sprang up and continued all day; ought to bring boat along. Went out with Man Friday, who speared two sting-rays. As soon as they were on shore he caught the end of the tail in his teeth, picked up a handful of sand and with it felt for and pulled out the sting, with which he pierced the brain. Many Koko Myndyuno about, to judge by the fires. These are the wildest tribe, and the only one with whom we have not come in contact. We are now on their territory. Sent Grady away to Bimbera water-hole, nine miles from here, with orders to go on to-morrow to Trubanaman for supplies if no sign of the boat, and return here on Monday morning. The situation is somewhat serious. We are out of almost everything at the Mission station, even cartridges to get game with. I have sent in to Rutland Plains station to borrow two bags of flour. I do not know what we should do if the boat does not come soon. It is a good lesson in faith and patience. Everything has gone so well so far that perhaps we needed it. I get on well with Man Friday. We neither of us understand a word of each other's language, but that does not seem to matter much. When he catches a fish or loses one, he looks for interest and sympathy, and encourages in his own language when the horizon is bare of every boat. I have been reduced to making shell necklaces for an occupation. We are very primitive. We have only one broken pocket-knife, and have to manufacture plates, spoons, knives, etc., of shells. When we get back to the Mission station we shall feel ourselves in the height of luxury, even though their cupboard is as bare as ours. We have not been able to take off our clothes except for a bathe.

"Whit-Sunday. I certainly did not expect to spend this great festival on a sandbank with no possibility of celebrating the Holy Communion, but as we are in great need of guidance as to what course to pursue if the boat does not appear within the next two days, it is a comfort to remember that they are the days consecrated to the Spirit of Guidance.

"Last night, immediately after tea, it began to rain. We gathered our scanty belongings into a heap, and sat on them with a bit of oilcloth over our heads. When the storm was over, we dried the sand by making small fires on it, and turned in; but we had more rain during the night and had not a very comfortable time, awaking very damp and cramped in the morning. At daylight I went out and cut wood for our signal fires, so as to keep the day free. Mr. Gribble, who has been more or less ill since we have been here, is better to-day. Man Friday has just brought a cold cooked fish for breakfast. No sign of the boat.

"What a comforting thought this day is of the Divine Guidance. There are so many contingencies in life when judgment is impossible to man because he has no data, an infinite number also where the data are inadequate to enable him to judge with any degree of security. What a thought of comfort is the Divine Guidance, which only asks to be allowed to teach and to guide. With man it is impossible--with God all things are possible.

"Whit-Monday, June 12. Grady got back about 2.30 P.M., and Mr. Gribble and I set off at once for the station, and riding fast got in about 6.30 P.M., though we were delayed by one of the pack-houses getting tangled up in the scrub and by having to go round a large swamp. We passed a number of natives who were out hunting. We found all well, though very short of provisions. We are not able to give any food away, not having enough for ourselves; fortunately we have plenty of tobacco. The sick people are improving, and 'Bowen-down-a-gully,' which is the nearest approximation to the name of our first pupil, is getting on well with his letters. More natives have come in, and some of the others gone out to hunt.

"Tuesday, June 13. Working hard all day clearing scrub from the banks of the lagoon with Mr. Millar, Mr. Gribble, and Mr. Williams. Sunk a temporary well about four feet six inches with a tomahawk, tin plate, and frying-pan, to such straits are we reduced for tools. A horse-yard enclosing about half an acre has also been made, and the beginning of a garden. In the afternoon a little drizzling rain, and weather turned cold. No news of boat.

"Wednesday, June 14. Clearing scrub in morning. In afternoon went with Mr. Millar along the lagoon for about two miles. Chose fine garden site, and a bend in the water will make a fine horse-paddock of about two acres with only 450 yards of fencing. It is about a mile from the station. In the evening saw the Koko Myndyuno corroboree at the camp. These people sing regular tunes, and have several unusual pantomimes. In one, the performers all lay down in a half-circle, feet inwards, while the fugleman beat time on a drum made of a bent root, and a second man went round and fanned them with a turkey's wing, while they sang and beat time with their feet. Then the same thing was repeated sitting, kneeling on one knee, and standing. Then one man knelt on both knees in the centre with his hands apparently tied behind his back, while another held and pulled tight an imaginary rope while the chorus danced and sung. Then there was dead silence and the kneeling man suddenly cried 'Ha ha ha!' and threw his head on one side as if his neck were dislocated. Then the scene was formed again, but this time the man behind stood in a throwing attitude and the man in front held a long spear so that it seemed to pass through the small of his back and repeated the 'Ha ha ha!' performance. Then they all cried 'Ha!' and had a final dance.

"Thursday, June 15. Mr. Gribble and Mr. Millar, with Bendigo, went off early to the South Mitchell, I clearing scrub and writing letters and telegrams for the mail, which we take to Rutland Plains to-morrow. Went the hospital rounds with Mr. Williams. Many very sad cases; much improvement in some instances, but we have no carbolic left and only a little boracic acid and permanganate; we miss the stores greatly, and our diet is Spartan in its simplicity except when we get game. To-day James went out shooting and returned with two ducks, two geese, and a turkey, weighing between them 80 lb. In the afternoon Mr. Field and I, accompanied by the four schoolboys, walked out to a curious blacks' wet-season camp on a platform of sticks, and I photographed it. At dusk Mr. Millar and Bendigo returned from the South Mitchell with the good news that Mr. Gribble, ascending the look-out at the last moment before starting back, had sighted through the glass a tiny sail to the north. He determined to stay the night, and sent back his horse. I am going down to the coast in the morning.

"Friday, June 16. A heavy day. I left at 8 A.M. and rode down ten miles to the mouth of Trubanaman Creek, expecting to find the boat, but, alas, no sign of it. Then I rode eleven miles along the beach to the South Mitchell, where I found Mr. Gribble camped without a coat or rug and hardly any food. He told me that the boat had been clearly seen off the Main Mitchell yesterday, from 3 to 6 P.M., tacking about. He had kept up a big fire, but in the morning the boat had disappeared. I gave him my oilskin and a piece of damper which I had, and set off for home, distant about fifteen miles, to try to get a boy off in time to send a telegram to Normanton by the mail from Rutland Plains. Not very easy finding one's way alone on these big plains with their occasional scrubs, but got in at 5.30 P.M., having ridden thirty-six miles with only one drink of muddy water. I cannot understand the boat coining so far and no farther on the South Mitchell. We are only eight miles from the Main Mitchell, but it is impossible to get there.

"Saturday, June 17. Got Bendigo off with pack-horses to Rutland Plains to borrow some flour. Sent off Ernie with some provisions for Mr. Gribble, with a boy to guide him. Confess to some slight depression at our continued ill-fortune with the boat, but reflected that we had done all that lay in our power and that God often orders things for our good differently from what we expect and think right. Worked at clearing scrub on the bank of the lagoon all the morning. It is cheering to look up from any point and see our Mission flag flying with its white cross reminding us of the aim and purpose of the whole thing. Everything works smoothly and well, the different duties being well divided and apportioned. Mr. Gribble returned about 6.30 P.M. and reported no signs of boat. About 8 P.M. Bendigo returned. The mailman had left, but Mr. Bowman most kindly rode on to Lochnagar hoping to catch him there. Mr. Bowman most kind in lending flour, etc. Got Croydon paper of June 1, with full account of the fate of the Baltic Fleet.

"Sunday, June 18. Had our Trinity Sunday celebration at 7.30 A.M., with fresh lilies from the lagoon on our little altar. Just as we were finishing breakfast a fearful din broke out in the camp, and James Noble ran over followed by the rest of us. We were just in time to prevent a fight which was beginning between two tribes over rights of hunting. The protagonists were Urdell the giant and a Koko Widdee man. Both were furiously angry, and we had to stay some time for the tumult to subside. I took Morning Prayer and Mr. Gribble Evening.

"Monday, June 19. Mr. Williams and Bendigo went out to South Mitchell to relieve Grady, who returned in the evening with no news of the boat. We spent the day making a garden and putting in seeds. All the digging had to be done with a tomahawk, as the picks and spades were on the boat. Our four schoolboys are improving, and are bright little lads, full of fun. More want to come, but we cannot take them till the supplies arrive.

"Tuesday, June 20. Working all day clearing scrub. In the evening it threatened rain, and the blacks began bringing in palm-leaves to shelter under. I have now got the correct names of our four resident schoolboys. They are Boendoangadolin, Lenga, Boengabadu, and Mengadolin. They are rapidly acquiring some idea of order and discipline.

"Here are the words of a favourite corroboree song, sung over and over again about two hundred times;

Denna Wapomi
Yetta Molliburra
Dabondi nai ai mai mai.

I cannot discover that they have any meaning.

"Wednesday, June 21. Clearing scrub. Our first act of discipline. Mengadolin was detected in an act of petty larceny and formally sent back to the camp. He wept copiously.

"Thursday, June 22. Left the station with Grady at 8.45 A.M. to relieve Mr. Williams, who, with Bendigo, has been watching for the last three days at the mouth of the Mitchell. Found that Mr. W. had been spending his time making a spacious house of saplings and green boughs. Very comfortable and homely after our former desolate camps here. Soon after Mr. W. left for the station eighteen Koko Myndyunos appeared, considerately leaving their spears outside the camp. I had a talk with them as well as one can talk without understanding each other's tongue, and gathered that they intended to camp for the night with us. It is pleasing to think that the Mission has already rendered it possible for a single white man to camp in safety among these wild people.

"Still they are very suspicious. I had a long talk with them in the afternoon and they were all sitting down when I suddenly got up and went into the house to get a piece of paper to draw on for them. Two or three immediately jumped up and ran for their lives, thinking I had gone for a revolver. When I reappeared with the paper, the rest, who had not moved, though I think a little apprehensive, greeted the runaways with shouts of laughter. About 5 P.M. they went off to their own camp for the night. Cut down some trees that obstructed somewhat the view of our high flagstaff.

"Friday, June 23. This place is now provided with flies, mosquitoes, and sand-flies; there were none of these things when we came here a fortnight ago. I suppose they are among the blessings of civilization. Very high tides yesterday and to-day. Life is not exciting here. Grady has gone to see if he can catch some fish for dinner. I forgot to bring a candle, and as it is dark at 7 P.M. and not light till 7 A.M. there is plenty of time for sleep. This I should say was an ideal place for a man suffering from brain-fag.

"Saturday, June 24. Nothing much to record. I made some johnny-cakes this morning, and that sums up my personal exertions for twenty-four hours. Grady caught some fish, and that sums up his. Inclined to doubt the sweetness of far niente.

"After tea Grady brought news that there was a very big alligator in the river. I went and had a look at him. He was on the opposite bank, and I fired at him, but the distance was too great. He did not even move for two or three minutes, and then slid into the river and watched us lazily with his head out.

"Sunday, June 25. The last morning of exile. There has been a strong south wind the last two days, and the sea has been rough for the first time. The highest tide was on the morning of the 22nd, five days after full moon. There is only one tide here in the twenty-four hours. Mr. Millar, who came to relieve me, did not turn up till nearly 3 P.M., and told me that they had run out of flour, and Mr. Gribble had gone into Rutland Plains to borrow some more, and he only had a damper for himself and the boy until we could send him some more. Grady and I came home fast and got in soon after 6 P.M. This constant difficulty of supplies is very harassing. Half our time is taken up in hunting up horses and sending hither and thither to supply people for a day or two with food. The exclusive diet of meat and bread for so long is beginning to affect our health somewhat.

"After tea we went over to the camp and I held service. Fully two hundred were ranged in a compact semicircle awaiting us. They were very quiet and. attentive. We sang some hymns and chants, and I spoke to them through Grady.

''Monday, June 26. In the morning we marked out a rectangular space, with a frontage of 212 feet to the lagoon and a depth of 270 feet, as a Mission compound, on which to align the permanent buildings. Had a number of natives clearing the grass. All very anxious to work. In the evening a number of the Koko Wangara arrived (Bendigo's tribe). I went and had a talk with them. Their country is some way up the river, and many of them speak English (of a sort). I took the schoolboys this afternoon, and find they are making good progress. Ernest came in with a 50 Ib. bag of flour (which, alas, only lasts us four days), some meat, and a little sugar and jam, so that we fared sumptuously.

"Tuesday, June 27. In the morning I rode down the south bank of the Trubanaman Creek towards the sea, to inspect it, with a view to judging the length of the windings. Mr. Gribble returned from Rutland Plains. At night news brought in that the boat had returned to the Main Mitchell yesterday, and was anchored there.

"Wednesday, June 28. Mr. Gribble and I rode out to the South Mitchell, and found report of the boat's appearance to be false. We waited till 4 P.M., and travelling fast got back to the station at 7 P.M., after disappointing day.

"Thursday, June 29, St. Peter's Day. A number of Koko Myndyuno from the islands at the mouth of the Mitchell arrived, both men and women. Fancy it was from their story of the boat, which they saw a fortnight ago, that the story of its second visit came. These women are all strong and healthy--a great contrast to the tribes nearer to the white settlements. Mr. Gribble and I, with three boys, fenced in a bend of the creek to serve as a small paddock. Mr. Millar met with a nasty accident to his shoulder from a falling log a few days ago. It is getting better, but slowly.

"Friday, June 30. In the morning rode down to the landing-place at the head of the salt-water navigation, and fixed up a notice board with "Mission 3 miles E." on it, pointing to the blazed track. The distance is not more than two and a half miles. In the afternoon

I rode up Trubanaman. Found that it is a creek, not a lagoon; followed it up for about seven miles above the station; still plenty of water. I think that it must come out of Magnificent Creek; probably it is one of its mouths, and Topsy Creek another.

"Saturday, July 1. We had no bread to-day until 2 P.M., when the boys brought in some flour from Mr. Bowman's. I started at 2.30 P.M. to take some on to Mr. Millar at the South Mitchell. Stayed the night there.

"Sunday, July 2. Left Mitchell after an early morning service, and got back to the station for dinner. In the afternoon walked with Mr. Williams round the head of the freshwater, and down the opposite bank as far as the station. Finding it too far to go back, we swam across. On the way we passed a number of platforms five to six feet above the ground, on which the natives sleep in the wet season Much talk about the Mission, for which there is little time during the week. The words of the Gospel for the day so appropriate to our work: "Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in." At night had service at the camp for Bendigo's tribe, the Koko Wangara, who are going back to their own country to-morrow. They were very attentive, and Bendigo interpreted very quickly and, apparently, well.

"Monday, July 3. Mr. Gribble and I left the station at 1.15 P.M. and spent a couple of hours or more horse-hunting; then we followed down Topsy Creek, and after some difficulty found the place where it joins the Trubanaman Creek, here a broad river. We returned from here straight to the Mission, and found the distance only five miles due east. By landing here, eight miles of windings could be saved up to the landing-place we had fixed on three miles below the Mission. I do not think that the junction can be more than two miles from the sea. Topsy Creek runs in at right angles, and is a much smaller stream.

"Tuesday, July 4. Mr. Gribble, James, and I set off for the South Mitchell after breakfast, to relieve Mr. Field in his watch. About half-way we met a boy bringing a letter to say that the boat was in sight. Mr. Gribble and James went back to muster horses, and I pushed on for the beach. It was a case of more haste less speed, for I got tangled up in the scrub and lost half an hour extricating myself. When I reached the beach I saw a boat two or three miles south of Trubanaman, so I concluded that she must have been in and taken Mr. Field on board. This I found to be the case from Grady, whom I met soon after, walking down the beach. I could see that it was not the Minnie, and from Grady found it was the Melbidir. I rode a mile or two south, and seeing that the wind was failing I made a smoke signal, and the vessel anchored and sent a boat on shore. I immediately sent Grady off with my horse to tell Mr. Gribble, and went on board, to learn to my great distress that nothing had been heard of the Minnie or her crew. Anxiety having been aroused, the Government Resident had kindly arranged to dispatch the Melbidir to make inquiries, and just before she sailed my telegram arrived from Normanton. She had also on board a few hundredweight of provisions, and some much needed tools. So quickly did Grady go in, and Mr. Gribble travel out, that he was down with pack-horses soon after dark, but not seeing him we did not land till next morning. Captain Schluter had carefully searched the whole coast on his way down, so he determined to lose no time, but to go straight for Mapoon to inform Mr. Hey of the fruitless result of his search. I determined to accompany him, to make sure of the dispatch of another boat, if, as we fear, the Minnie has been lost, and I brought Mr. Field to accompany the boat back, and make sure of its finding the Mission. After a hurried interview we went on board, and set sail for the north at 9.30 A.M. on Wednesday, July 5. I felt very sad at leaving without farewell the Mission and the people among whom I had spent five weeks, so happy but for the anxiety about the boat.

"Thursday, July 6. We reached Pera Head about 5 P.M., and met the John Ward, with Mr. Richter on board. From him we learnt the welcome news that the lost cutter was at Mapoon. Anchored about 10 P.M. off Duyfhen Point.

"Friday, July 7. Under way about 7 A.M., with a fresh breeze, and reached Mapoon at 4 P.M. Found the Minnie at anchor. Bob had apparently mistaken the Coleman for the North Mitchell. He had returned from the Main Mitchell to the Archer, being short of water, and then gone down again, but not far enough. Mr. Hey most kind in giving every assistance. Sailed again at 3 A.M. Rough sea and head winds all the afternoon. Anchored off Friday Island at 10 P.M.

"Sunday, July 9. We waited till the tide turned, and reached Thursday Island about 11 A.M."

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