The Passing of the Aborigines, by Daisy Bates

Chapter 1

Meeting with the Aborigines

As I dream over the orphaned land of the Bibbulmum, [See Chapter VII.] my thoughts fly back, too, to the events which brought me on a second visit to Australia after a period of journalism in London with W.T. Stead, on the Review of Reviews, back to the stone-age nomads whom I had but glimpsed on my first visit to Australia, but among whom the rest of my life was to be cast. It was in 1899 that circumstances made possible my return to Australia.

Just before I left London a letter had been published in The Times containing strong allegations of cruelty to Western Australian aborigines by the white settlers of the North–West. I called upon The Times, stated that I was going to Western Australia and offered to make full investigation of the charges, and to write them the results. The offer was accepted.

While friends were bidding me farewell, one of them espied a kindly old Roman Catholic padre on deck, and asked him to “keep an eye” on me on the voyage out. The priest was an Italian named Martelli, and on the deck the first evening we embarked on a delightful friendship that lasted till his death. I studied Italian under his tutelage, until one day I mentioned the subject of the Australian natives, and showed Dean Martelli the letter in The Times. Italian grammars were promptly put aside as I gained my first knowledge of the remnants of a fading race, and the problem they afforded the Government and the missions in the Western State. I learned also of the Beagle Bay Mission, away in the wilds of the North–West, where the Trappist fathers had come from their beautiful old home monasteries among the vineyards of Sept Fons in France in rigours and difficulties to minister to the aborigines in the vicinity of Broome.

Shortly after I landed in Perth, I obtained a buggy and horses and camp-gear, and journeyed by sea to Port Hedland. Arrived at that remote port, I stayed at a licensed shanty with earthen floors and blue blankets, where the hermit crabs from the seashore nibbled my feet every time I put them to the floor. I then traversed in my buggy eight hundred miles of country, taking six months to accomplish it. I could not prove one charge of cruelty, except that of “giving offal to natives instead of good meat,” and “sending them away from the stations without food when work was slack.” So far as these were concerned, I found that the favourite parts of any animal, large or small, were the entrails, which were torn out of the beast and eaten half raw. Later, on my own station, I discovered that the blacks insisted on a “pink-hi” or walkabout season-they could not live without it-and that they would not carry flour and tea, preferring their own bush tucker. Once in my inexperience, I myself packed up a plenitude of provisions for them, tied neatly in bundles on their heads, with new shirts and trousers and medicines and other conveniences I thought they might need. A few days after they had gone, riding to an outlying windmill, I came across a snow-storm of the flour that they had playfully thrown at each other. The tea and sugar had been consumed at this first well, and the trousers and sundries were deposited in a tree-fork.

Care-free and unclad, gathering their native foods and bending to drink at the soaks and water-holes, the natives had taken a hundred-mile trail to anywhere, to call on their friends and relations, where they could play and quarrel till the desire for damper and tea saw them homing to the station again. So much for the allegations that awakened my interest in the Australian aborigines, and which were the beginning of my life’s work among them. The Times published the result of my investigations and the matter dropped for a decade.

It was while I rested at Sherlock River Station, near Roebourne, in 1900, that I gained my first knowledge of the natives’ social organization, and the classes into which they were divided, and was myself entered into one of these classes. The white people of the station, the well-known pioneering families of Withnells and Meares, were West Australians, and father, mother and children had all been classed by the natives according to their aboriginal relationships. I was so much interested in the systems of these primitive people that I inquired if I also had been classified.

“Oh yes,” Mrs. Meares told me. “You belong to my husband’s class, and you are his sister and my sister-inlaw, the paternal aunt of my children.”

Before I left Sherlock River, I had discovered the fundamental simplicity of the system. Later, at Beagle Bay, I found myself entered in exactly the same class division. This was enlightening and good news to me, and I utilized it later among the Broome groups, with excellent results.

It suffices to say that in every native group throughout all Western Australia, and passing from group to group in South and Central Australia, I assumed as a matter of course my proper relationship. Even when I went to my camp in the desert at Ooldea, I found the natives there in touch with those of the west a thousand miles away across the border, and the western class divisions remembered.

On my return to Perth, Dean Martelli invited me to the Bishop’s Palace to meet Bishop Gibney, Roman Catholic Bishop of the State of Western Australia. Bishop Gibney and the Dean were about to pay a visit to Beagle Bay. I was invited to go with them and see this Mission for myself, and to tell of its benefits, or otherwise, to the natives. I was told that the fate of the Mission hung on the report of the government valuator, who would make a patrol almost immediately to see if the scheduled improvements that would entitle the Mission authorities to a fee-simple over 10,000 acres had been carried out. These improvements must total £5,000, otherwise the grazing lease must be forfeited. I accepted with alacrity, and made my preparations, with stores of clothing, food and sweets for distribution.

In July, the two priests and I were under way for the port of Broome, from which we were to tranship to Beagle Bay. At Broome the Sree pas Sair, at one time the yacht of Rajah Brooke, was placed at our disposal. It had been stripped of every comfort. Cleanliness there was none, as it was the “feeding-lugger” of the pearling-boats owned by a Manila-man, and brought back the shell from the luggers. After an interesting voyage round the fleets in the Sree pas Sair, we returned to Broome, and with three of the Trappists waiting there, loaded up the yacht. I learned that not only was there no accommodation for a woman at the monastery, with all its rigid poverty and simplicity, but, according to Trappist principles, no woman except a queen could be allowed within its walls. However, there I was, and the dear little acting abbot took it upon himself to grant a dispensation, and went out to see what furniture he could buy for me, making wild guesses at what a female might need. His bewildered and exaggerated idea of hospitality filled me with astonishment.

We all worked hard at the loading and packing of the lugger, and in the beginning of August the Sree pas Sair set out northward. There were eight of us on board-the Bishop, the Dean, the acting abbot, two brothers, Xavier and Sebastian, the owner and helmsman, his Malay uncle and a small Malay child. We reached Beagle Bay on the high tide that rises thirty feet in a few hours, and the whaleboats took us, and eventually the stores, to land. Just near the beach was a primitive turtle-soup factory and in the fenced-in enclosure an unfortunate turtle awaited transformation into eighty tins of soup. We inspected the factory, but were not impressed by the dirty native women and girls loafing about it, so we did not accept the turtle soup.

Mounting from the ship’s deck on horseback, we set out, the Bishop and I, across the nine miles of bleak flat that lay between the beach and the Mission, Dean Martelli and the brothers following with the bullock-team which had been sent in for the stores. I rode side-saddle on a stride-saddle-a painful ordeal. A few half-clad natives straggled along behind us. As we jogged on through the heat and flies and blankness, the Bishop intoned the rosary, and the natives joined in when they knew the words. The horses were Trappists, too, skin and bone in their poverty. They stopped so often for their meditations and devotions that the bullock-team arrived before us.

At last in the early moonlight we pulled in to a few tin buildings in a clearing. About 150 natives, men, women and children, shouted a welcome to us from the shadows. None of us had eaten anything to speak of for three days on the Sree pas Sair, and the lay brother had set about unloading the stores and preparing a meal.

Beagle Bay had been founded by Bishop Gibney ten years before when, with two little exiles of Spanish priests, he had taken a long pilgrimage through the bush from Derby, at last finding suitable country with ten precious acres of wonderful springs, natural wells and extensive swamps, the best water in the North–West. He had secured a lease, under certain conditions, of 10,000 acres, and the native reserve which extended for 600,000 acres about it. The Trappists there established the first Mission in the far North–West. Unable to speak English and quite unused to Australian conditions, the two little pioneer priests and the sixteen ordained men who had followed them from the old French monastery had endured years of unbelievable hardship in a remote wilderness. Some had died there, under the saddest conditions. Others, blind and emaciated, had been rescued from their fate and invalided home.

When I arrived, the Mission was but a collection of tumbledown, paper-bark monastery cells, a little bark chapel and a community room of corrugated iron, which had been repeatedly destroyed in bush fires and hurricanes. There were four monks left on the station. They were Abbot Nicholas, a Catalonian Spaniard, father confessor, doctor, teacher and overseer; Brother Sebastian, a Mailaman who was the cook; Brother Xavier, a Broome constable who had laid down his baton for the rosary-beads on the Bishop’s first visit, and was gardener, store-keeper and handyman, and Frere Jean, stockman.

Frere Jean had been dedicated to the service of God at Sept Fons in his early childhood. I was the first white woman, other than his mother, he had seen or looked at in his life. As I came into the community room, which had been set aside for our living-place, eager for my supper, Frere Jean fled from the world, the flesh and the devil that I represented, but before I left Beagle Bay he had so far overcome his religious horror of me that he made and fitted me with a neat little pair of kangaroo-skin shoes, and even slept trustfully in my company when we all camped out on our survey expedition.

The Trappists led a life of rigorous poverty, intensified in this barren remote land to the point of starvation. There were cattle on the station, but meat was excluded for religious reasons, and the monks existed on one meal a day of pumpkin and rice, and a little beer they had made from sorghum grown in the garden. Rising at 2 a.m. they kept vigil in the dark chapel till dawn, then worked till daylight’s end, speaking no word save in necessity, and closing the day with some hours on their knees on the bare earth. I was the first white woman to appear among them at the Mission, and the first that the natives of the region had seen.

From the newly arrived stores, Brother Sebastian had provided a strange and varied meal for us according to his lights, extraordinary stews and puddings served in any order and all strongly flavoured with garlic; milkless tea in a huge jug that was both teapot and cups for us all. Poor Brother Sebastian may have been a paragon of piety, but he was no cook. In my keeping today is a fragment of petrified bread roll he made for me in 1900! It has been mistaken for a geological specimen, and, always carried with me in loving memory, it has survived, without losing a crumb, thousands of miles of rough transport.

Perhaps the first woman in history to sleep in a Trappist bed, I was allotted the abbot’s bag bed and seaweed pillow, and the sawn-off log for my chair or table. I woke to hear the natives singing a Gregorian chant in the little chapel near by. Half clothed and, for all the untiring work of the missioners, still but half-civilized, they comprised the Nyool-nyool tribe, of the totem of a local species of snake. Most of the women and men had their two front teeth knocked out, and some still wore bones through their noses. Infant cannibalism was practised, where it could not be prevented-as it still is among all circumcised groups. One of the old men, Bully-bulluma, having been an epic meat-hunter in his day, had eight wives. Another, Goodowel, was dressed in trousers and shirt, one stocking, his face painted red with white stripes from each corner of his mouth in broad lines. A red band was round his head, the hair drawn back to form a tight knob, and stuck in the knob was a tuft of white cockatoo feathers and a small wooden emblem. I know now that he was in the sixth degree of initiation.

Although they had tried their hardest, with prayer and precept, to teach these natives cleanliness and Christian living, giving their very lives to the work in torture and privation, those Spanish priests could hope for little headway in the first generation. There was one terrible manifestation of savagery that I can never forget.

A man had been found dying of spear-wounds out in the bush, and carried to the Mission as he was breathing his last. I watched two of the lay brothers bearing the stretcher to one of the huts, a horde of natives following. I noticed that they held their burden curiously high in the air. Suddenly, as it was lowered for entry to a doorway, the natives crowding round, to my horror, fell upon the body of the dying man, and put their lips to his in a brutal eagerness to inhale the last breath. They believed that in so doing they were absorbing his strength and virtue, and his very vital spark, and all the warnings of the “white father” would not keep them from it. The man was of course dead when we extricated him, and it was a ghastly sight to see the lucky “breath catcher” scoop in his cheeks as he swallowed the “spirit breath” that gave him double hunting power.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31