The Passing of the Aborigines, by Daisy Bates

Chapter 17

Introduction to Civilization

Ooldea Siding, in full view of the trains, with many passers-by, was scarcely the place to accomplish good work for the natives, and it was not long before I transferred my camp to a sandy gully a mile north, on the track that led to the Soak, with a convenient tap in the pipe-line for water supply. There I built an enclosing breakwind of mulga bushes, and set up the little household that was to be my domain for 16 years.

There was an 8 x 10 tent for my living and sleeping, an upturned tank which my natives and I rolled many miles across the plains where it had lain stranded for years, and which I utilized as library, storing there my manuscripts and my books; a bough shed “storehouse” that held everything from my daily provender and supplies for the natives to their most sacred totem boards and initiation properties, and a smaller bough shed on the crest of the hill, with a ladder leading to its leafy roof, that was my observatory. Here in the bright, still evenings, I studied the skies, astronomy being an old love of mine, and compiled my aboriginal mythologies, many of them as poetic and beautiful as are the starry mythologies of the Greeks. A prickle-bush-“dead finish,” as old white prospectors call it-was my barred gateway at night-time, a barrier for privacy passed by few in all my years of residence. Outside, the natives would come to await my attention, old friends sitting patiently beside the pipe-line, and naked newcomers shyly flitting about among the trees, sometimes two days before they summoned courage to approach this Kabbarli of whom they had heard so far away. Innocent as children, they would make their fires on the sand-hills and camp contentedly while I made or obtained from my store the clothing they needed before they approached the siding, too soon to learn the art of scavenging and selling all that was saleable.

They came to me from the Mann, the Gosse, the Everard, the Petermann and the Musgrave Ranges, occasionally from as far away as Tanami, from Kalgoorlie and Laverton in the West and Streaky Bay in the East, and from far across the north-western borders of the State. Sometimes two years on the journey, zigzagging in the desert for food and water, they followed the tracks of those who had come in before them, disintegrating, reuniting, mourning and rejoicing, and every moon fleeing farther from their hereditary waters. At last the remnants arrived on the rim of civilization outside my breakwind. As each little group appeared, I was made aware of its arrival by the wailing and shouting and spear-rattling of the groups already there. Every native who steps over his own boundary is in strange country and hostile. There are no groups in the lower centre now, only little mobs continually changing. The amalgamation of the totems is their frantic effort to coalesce. Each mob was more reckless and difficult to control than the preceding ones.

My duty, after the first friendly overtures of tea and damper, was to set them at ease, clothe them, and simply to explain the white man’s ways and the white man’s laws.

Sometimes a group of forty and more would arrive, families and vagrants following each other, finding their way across the desert, drinking water from the tree-roots, and setting fire to the bush as they came, hunting kangaroos and emus. They had fought and killed on the way south, and their only safety from each other now lay in their proximity to the white man. His novelties were also exciting. The first few weeks of their arrival were usually spent in ejaculating “Irr! Irr! Irr!” at the trains, the houses, the white women and babies, paper, pannikins, tea, sugar and all the mystifying belongings of the “waijela.” Biscuits and cake and fruit were thrown to them from the train windows, while their boomerangs and native weapons, and their importance in the landscape as subjects for photography, brought many a shilling and sixpence for them to spend, which they promptly did, without any knowledge of its value, and sometimes were wickedly imposed upon. The train was their undoing. Amongst the hundreds that “sat down” with me at Ooldea, there was not one that ever returned to his own waters and the natural bush life.

There was never a camp, through my thirty-five years of service, where my small mercies were not constantly in demand, but here they were called upon to the utmost. There were sometimes as many as 150 natives in the vicinity of Ooldea. Among them I found sufferers from venereal disease, debility, senility, ophthalmia, bone-magics, broken wrists, burns and spear-wounds, with the occasional outbreak of an epidemic of ring-worm, measles, sandy blight and pneumonia, which meant unending ministrations.

No more half-caste children were born in Ooldea from 1920 onward until the temporary cessation of my work there in 1934, nor was any half-caste ever begotten in any of my camps. I had my own way of dealing with the problem. Like Agag, I walked delicately, by quiet persuasion preventing the black girls from haunting the white men’s huts, and by equally quiet persuasion, from a different angle, deterring the white men from association with them, an appeal from a woman of their own race and colour to play the game that never faded. Three half-castes had been begotten at Ooldea in the year before my arrival. One was taken to the German mission on the west coast of South Australia. The other two were destroyed in infancy, one of them thrown into a rabbit-burrow, and the other scalded to death by a billycan of hot tea thrown over both mother and child by the black husband.

Never at any time in any Ooldea camp did I receive government rations for distribution or public charity of any kind. By this time the proceeds from my north-west station properties were wholly exhausted. I still possessed a freehold in Perth, a small residential estate overlooking the banks of the Swan River, upon which it was my intention to build a home for my declining years. So many times had I beguiled away the loneliness and hardship with architectural plans of that little home, envisioned its simple comforts, and worked and idled in its gardens-a dream that was not to be, for here I found a need far greater than my own. I ordered the sale of my freehold in my first year at Ooldea, with most of the personal possessions that remained to me, including my sidesaddle and bridle-last relic of a happy past. When this moneyy too, was engulfed in the usual routine order of flour, tea, sugar, onions, medical supplies, dress material, shirts, trousers, and a little tobacco for comfort, I depended wholly upon the earnings of my pen, contributing to Australian and Home newspapers my scientific gleanings of general interest, the legends that had occupied years in the collection, and the human stories of the curious people to whom I have devoted my life.

When visitors and friends from interstate and overseas showed interest in my work, and wished to send donations, my expressed wishes were always for flour and tea and sugar and porridge. It sounded greedy, but it meant so much to see the little ones jooni-bulga (tummy-full).

Young and old, they were all my children, children always hungry, and my love for them was interpreted always in the litany of flour, tea and sugar. No sooner did I obtain supplies than they wanted to sit down and eat up the whole lot “quickfella.” It was of no avail rationing them weekly, for they would promptly devour the lot. My own living never cost me more than 10s. a week and sometimes considerably less. My own food-bill from December to March totalled £4.

The weekly stores obtained from the supply train consisted of two loaves of bread, toasted to the last stale fragment, one tin of powdered milk, a pound of rice or sago and a pound of butter when I could get it. A tin of jam lasted six weeks, and a pound of tea over two months. An occasion cabbage or lettuce was eaten leaf by leaf, day by day, and 12 lb. of dried potatoes lasted nearly four months. When friends sent me delicacies such as preserved fruits or tinned goods, gladly I exchanged them with the fettlers’ wives for flour and tea and sugar. When times were lean, and the natives had only a small damper, they could be sure that I had an even smaller piece of toast. One day Gindigi misunderstood me, thought I was hungry, and brought me a billy-can of broken bread he had begged from the train-passengers.

I discouraged this begging to the best of my ability, but it was of no avail. Occasionally trouble came of it. One day a mean-spirited tourist, after some twenty minutes’ haggling over the customary “tchillin” for a boomerang, kept possession of the curio till the moment of the train’s departure when, with a wink at his fellow-passengers, he climbed on board and threw the puzzled native a penny. The enraged boy hurled a stone that broke the carriage window, and the natives were warned from the line for a period, but they were flies about a honeypot and it was impossible to keep them away. It was old Kattigiri, climbing a moving van eager to be first for the sheep’s head and other butcher’s offal, who fell beneath the train and was cut to pieces. On another occasion, old blind Janjinga, something of a wit and always lucky, struck a group of particularly generous travellers, who loaded her with good things. As there were still more gifts and givers coming, Janjinga ripped off the travesty of a frock that was her only garment, spread it on the ground, and stood with arms outstretched, wearing nothing but her smiles of gratitude. She could never understand why all her benefactors suddenly disappeared, fleeing for the carriages to hide their blushes, while the siding rang with shouts of ribald laughter.

It was no unusual sight to see anything up to 100 of these cannibals, men, women and children, several of them but a week in civilization, climb aboard an empty truck and go off to an initiation ceremony farther up the line. I use the word cannibal advisedly. Every one of these central natives was a cannibal. Cannibalism had its local name from Kimberley to Eucla, and through all the unoccupied country east of it, and there were many grisly rites attached thereto. Human meat had always been their favourite food, and there were killing vendettas from time immemorial. In order that the killing should be safe, murderers’ slippers or pads were made, emu-feathers twisted and twined together, bound to the foot with human hair, on which the natives walk and run as easily as a white man in running shoes, their feet leaving no track. Dusk and dawn were the customary hours for raiding a camp. Victims were shared according to the law. The older men ate the soft and virile parts, and the brain; swift runners were given the thighs; hands, arms or shoulders went to the best spear-throwers, and so on. Those who received skull, shoulder or arm kept the bones, which they polished and rounded, strung on hair, and kept on their person, either as pointing-bones or magic pendants.

Every one of the natives whom I encountered on the east-west fine had partaken of human meat, with the exception of Nyerdain, who told me it made him sick. They freely admitted their sharing of these repasts and enumerated those killed and eaten by naming the waters, and drawing a line with the big toe on the sand as they told over in gruesome memory the names they dared not mention.

My first words to them were always “No more man-meat.” From the weekly supply train, I would procure part of a bullock or sheep and show them the game food areas, mallee-hen’s eggs, rabbits and so on, that must be their meats now, with as many dampers as I could provide, and a drink of sweetened tea.

One morning very early, the news came that Nyan-ngauera had left the camp, taking a fire-stick and accompanied by her little girl. No one would follow her or help to track her. For twelve miles I followed the track unsuccessfully, but Nyan-ngauera doubled many times and gave birth to a child a mile west of my camp, where she killed and ate the baby, sharing the food with the little daughter. Later, with the help of her sons and grandsons, the spot was found, nothing to be seen there save the ashes of a fire. “The bones are under the fire,” the boys told me, and digging with the digging-stick we came upon the broken skull, and one or two charred bones, which I later sent to the Adelaide Museum. A grown man will never avenge the death of his own child, nor will he, under any circumstances, share the meal.

The late Frank Hann, on a survey exploration, conferred the name of Mount Daisy Bates upon a height a little south of Mount Gosse. I discovered that it was the area of one of the worst groups of cannibals in the Centre.

Such were the men and women who came to my camp at Ooldea during the whole of my residence of sixteen years. Derelicts of the desert, these people knew no marriage laws nor traditional relationships, for their groups were scattered and mixed. All were potential enemies living in an armed truce, with fires lighted about their shelters to shield them from each other’s magic, and spears standing ready. As each little group arrived, I was advised of the fact by wailing and shouting and rattling of spears. There were many family wrongs to be avenged. Thigh-spearing and duelling were frequent, but I knew the dangerous sounds and I casually asked them to tell me when they wanted to fight. They laughed, and said, “We will tell you, Kabbarli, if a spear is thrown to hit.”

Certain duels, among brothers, I allowed, always standing by the duellists. When a slight wound was inflicted as punishment, a brother would invariably share food with the wounded, and the quarrel was forgotten. On one occasion, a boy ran away from his initiation and placed himself under the protection of the white settlement. He later aggravated the offence by taking a wife. He was caught by one of his initiated brothers, and a duel with clubs ensued. The kindly but mistaken intervention of the offender’s white friends resulted in his being taken to a hospital, and that quarrel is neither avenged nor forgotten to this day.

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