The Passing of the Aborigines, by Daisy Bates

Chapter 2

In a Trappist Monastery

I was awakened by the sound of the conch shell which did duty for a monastery bell in that primitive spot, and when I went out into the open I was surrounded by all the women and children, a bright, pleasant little crowd, but oh! how dirty! Although the monks for some years had issued the dictum “No bath, no breakfast,” the natives preferred the lesser of two evils, and went hungry until the ban was lifted. Shack dormitories had been erected for the unmarried girls and men, but most of the natives came in from the camps in the bush where they slept under the trees. Their beds were hollows scooped in the sand where a fire had been burning, the sand and the stones sometimes so hot that they left raw wounds in the flesh. Father Nicholas told us that they ate dirt in handfuls, and that the women sometimes ate their new-born babies, but that since the advent of the Mission, with its admonitions and its daily distribution of pumpkin and rice and tea and flour, cannibalism was not nearly so much in evidence.

Immediately after our monastic breakfast of coffee and Brother Sebastian’s rolls, we started off to inspect the Mission property and set it shipshape for the valuator’s visit. A survey of the whole lease was to follow. Although I had come up merely as a “child taking notes,” I started on the very practical manual labour necessary to improve the appearance of the place, sharing the toil with the brothers and the blacks, and the Bishop in his shirt-sleeves. The four months that I spent there were nothing but the sheerest hard work under the most trying conditions.

Manual labour has been the keynote of all my work for the aborigines. I have never made servants or attendants of them. I have waited upon the sick and the old, and carried their burdens, fed the blind and the babies, sewed for the women and buried the dead-only in the quiet hours gleaning, gathering, learning, always hastening, as one by one the tribes dwindled out of existence, knowing how soon it would be too late.

At Beagle Bay, the Spanish priests and monks had performed almost incredible labours in their ten years’ isolation, but there was little to show for it. Willie-willies and fires and tropic conditions had taken constant toll. When houses and crops and gardens were burnt, they had to start all over again. When their horses were lost, or died from eating poisonous weed, they harnessed themselves to the carts and logs, yet the conditions of the Mission seemed hopeless. The bark huts were dilapidated, the gardens smothered in growth of saplings and suckers, and some of the wells had fallen in.

I was sent in charge of some native women to do some “scrubbing”-that is, hoeing up the small shoots, or saplings, of uprooted trees, and to open up the fallen wells, of which the flooring was as shaky as an Irish bog. I worked like a Trojan, but the force of my example failed dismally. Day after day those women played with the babies, and laughed both with and at me, full of merriment and good feeling. Now and again, a few of them took up the spade or the hoe in a stirring of conscience, but not for long, and all my efforts to make it an interesting game failed to produce results. I tried to gather the babies and children and play with them, and let their mothers do a little manual labour, and I started “Ring-a-ring-a-roses.” No sooner had we go into the swing of the game than every woman and girl “downed tools” to join in. I compromised. We adults must work, and when the rest time came at hot midday or evening, we would have games. The little plan worked, and so we worked and played merrily throughout. As I worked they talked to me, and told me a little of their laws. Curiously enough, they had entered both the Bishop and me, believing him my brother, into one of their four-class divisions, the abbot and the monks belonging to another. The women quite frankly admitted to me that they had killed and eaten some of their children-they liked “baby meat.”

There was a fight, apparently to the death, between two of these women one day, one of them heavily pregnant and the other an aged creature, nothing but skin and bone. It was the old story, an eternal triangle. Some time before, a boy had come down from Sunday Island, and being of good conduct and a fair worker, had been duly married to one of the unallotted girls of the station, which was what he had come down for. All went happily until, with another batch of visitors from the northern land, there arrived an old lady with prior claims, and maledictions and a yam-stick to prove them. The women fought steadily, blow for blow alternately, each blow well-timed and aimed for the direct centre of the skull. As each one took her turn the other passively submitted. At length the younger woman fell unconscious, and the fight was over.

When these purely personal quarrels took place, the Trappist found it best to let them run their course, so that there would be no subsequent ill-feeling. In this case the old woman lovingly attended the other, and stayed with her peacefully in the camp until she returned home, minus the husband, but quite satisfied. This was another “law” universal throughout the groups. Twins were born to the young woman shortly after, and the Trappists named them Matthew and Daisy, in honour of the Bishop and myself-a doubtful compliment, but appreciated.

So far as the safety of the missioners was concerned, there had never been any trouble at Beagle Bay, but at every layingup season, when the pearling ships were off-shore, practically every boy who had a woman took her down to trade her with the Asiatics. These women returned dying and diseased, after the boats had resumed pearling. It was an iniquitous thing, but it could not be prevented. Some boats laid up at Beagle Bay during our stay, and to keep the women and girls away from them, the Bishop told Father Nicholas to lock them in the store for the night. There was only one small opening high up in the wall, fifteen or twenty feet above ground and no ladder. Even so, at daybreak when we went to the store there was not a woman there. They had piled up the store cases and climbed to the little window, dropping without hurt on the soft sand. The Bishop hurried down to the seashore to reclaim the girls, and ordered the coloured men away. Next night the blacks and their women joined them at another anchorage.

The association of the Australian native with the Asiatic is definitely evil. There were four Manilamen at Beagle Bay married to native women. By tribal custom the women had all been betrothed in infancy to their rightful tribal husbands. They were therefore merely on hire by their own men to the Asiatics, and, in spite of the church marriage, remained, not only their husband’s property, but that of all his brothers, and all of the Manila husband’s brothers who paid for the accommodation. It was hard to convince the Bishop and the little abbot of this fact and of the terrible cruelty to the women and girls of such a system, and I had to show the two priests a poignant example. I had visited the Manila quarters in Broome, and in one house found a poor aboriginal woman, the “wife” of a Manilaman, with five of his “brothers” waiting to have and pay for intercourse with her. The poor soul told me that this happened daily. A few days afterwards I took the two priests to this hovel, choosing the Manila rest hour of the day for our inspection. I knew the terrible shock this would be to the little abbot and the Bishop to realize what Manila–Aborlginal marriage meant for the native woman: but with these facts the Bishop gave his direct veto on the dreadful system and in future such marriages were prohibited.

For three months, and more, we had worked on the reclamation of the place, and the valuator arrived just as we had cleared the last corner. He was surprised to see a thriving property where he had expected ruin and decay. Every screw and post, every fruit and vegetable, buildings, wells, trenches and implements were meticulously valued, and with the livestock on the run, the supplies in the store, the sorghum and sugar-cane fields, the tomato and cucumber patches, and the orange, banana and coco-nut and pomegranate groves, the sum reached over £6,000. Even one Cape gooseberry bush and one grape-vine had to be valued. The Mission was saved for the natives. All together and in much jubilation we made the first bricks of sand and loam and clay for the new convent and monastery, of which I laid the foundation brick.

I had then, and have now in retrospect, the greatest admiration for the Trappist missionaries, and nothing I may say about the sometimes incongruous results of their self-sacrificial work implies any inability to understand its sacred purpose. Although I am an Anglican, I attended all religious ceremonies, morning and evening, during my stay, and loved to listen to the natives, with their sweet voices, intoning the Latin chants and responses as much as I loved to listen to their own weird music. There were innumerable baptisms and weddings. On one occasion a little wisp of a girl about 12 years old was married to a man old enough to be her grandfather, who had always been lucky in the allotment of wives. He was a good hunter, and the unborn babies were betrothed to him to excite his generosity. If they happened to be boys they became his brothers-inlaw. I spoke to the child-bride, Angelique, intending to rescue her from unwilling bondage, but she told me that she “likim that old man all right.”

The wearing of a wreath and veil at religious ceremonies is an old Spanish custom, and the Trappist fathers kept wreath and veil in stock. All of the newly baptized and the brides wore it in turn, a delightfully ludicrous touch it seemed to me, worn above wild hair and matted beards, and no respectable clothing to speak of.

Knowing that he would probably never pay another visit to the Mission, the Bishop announced his intention of making confirmed Christians of all the natives in the district, and I shall never forget the occasion. Dean Martelli and the brothers rounded up the mob. Crowded into that little bark chapel, and smelling to high heaven, sixty-five wild men and women and babies of the Nyool-nyool stood before a prelate of the Roman Church, in all his ceremonial robes of lace and purple and mitre, to be anointed with the holy oils and receive the papal blessing and the little blow on the cheek of the “Pax tecum.” Some of the men wore nothing but a vest or a red handkerchief, some a rag of a shirt, and the fraction of a pair of trousers. They had been told to keep their hands piously joined together, and their eyes shut-and the flies were bad.

Standing behind them, close to the door for a breath of air, I tried in vain to maintain a solemn countenance and a reverent mien, only to explode at least once in choking laughter at the antics of one boy. Knowing that I was behind him, he was at the same time desperately trying to keep his hands clasped in prayer, and a rag of decency well pulled down over his rear elevation. A frown of disapproval from under the dazzling mitre and an impatient jerk of the sacred crook m my direction sobered me up, but that afternoon, hearing a succession of loud shrieks of laughter from the camp, I went along to see how the newly-confirmed Christians were progressing.

Imagine my mingled horror and delight to find Goodowel, one of the corroboree comedians, sitting on a tree-trunk with a red-ochred billy-can on his head, and a tattered and filthy old rug around his shoulders. In front of him pranced every member of the tribe, all in a line, and each wearing a wreath and veil that were a bit of twisted paperbark and a fragment of somebody’s discarded shirt. As they passed Goodowell each received a sounding smack under the ear with a shout of “Bag take um!” Hilarious and ear-piercing shrieks of laughter followed each sally. I went back in glee to tell the Bishop. He shook his head. “Ah, the poor craytures!” was all he said.

There was yet another ordeal before us, a never-ending ordeal it seemed. In a few days’ time, we set out again, with the natives and the bullock-dray, to survey the whole leasehold of 10,000 acres. Our only surveying instruments were the compass of an old lugger and a chain. The Bishop and I were the chairmen, and we walked in a steamy heat, of 106 degrees at times, sometimes twelve miles in the day. Over marsh and through the pindan, now lame from the stones and prickles, now up to our thighs in bog, we plodded on, the Bishop in the lead, throwing down a small peg to mark the chain limit, the brothers and the blacks and I behind him. I was always in difficulties owing to my small stride and high-heeled footwear, and many a time, seeing me perched perilously on the edge of a bog, the Bishop would give a mischievous twitch to his end of the chain, and land me deep in it.

We were all always hungry. Brother Xavier, in charge of the commissariat, was very good so far as he went, but he never seemed to come as far as we did, and we were always faint from lack of food. In the simplest meal-and they were all simple meals, of bread and beef-he would forget the salt, or the bread or the meat, or the place where he had arranged to meet us, or that we existed at all, but in hunger and hardship we managed to keep our good humour throughout our whole long stay, strange companions in the solitude of the bush.

On the night-walkings, rosaries were chanted all the way home, the natives and brothers responding. I often stumbled and fell in the dark, but that rosary never stopped. Sometimes we washed our faces in water from a bottle-tree. Felix, the native guide, chose his tree, chopped at a spot with his tomahawk, left the axe sticking in the cut, and the water came out clean and sparkling like a miniature waterfall. One morning, just before dawn, we came to Argomand Water-a glorious pool of still silver, where there was a sudden whirr of myriad wings to greet us, and thousands of birds of brilliant plumage rose in a cloud, screaming. That was the happiest circumstance of the long and arduous circuit. I compiled all the survey notes at night. Those survey notes were later a source of great amusement to the Bishop and his staff, but the Bishop received the title-deeds of his ten thousand acres, so the mud-stains and blots scarcely mattered. Later, in Perth, he presented me with an inscribed gold watch, in memory of our survey work, and the saving of the mission for the natives.

The valuation was satisfactory, and the valuator departed. Travelling with the bullock-dray our next journey was to Disaster Bay, twenty-five miles north, to bring the consolations of religion to those not yet converted. The Bishop and I rode ahead, with two native women, the bullock team, Father Nicholas and the boys bringing up the rear.

It was a two-days’ journey, and on the first we out-distanced the bullock-dray, camped in a good spot, and hobbled out the horses. Hour after hour we waited in the moonlight, but no dray appeared. At length we made back on foot to meet it. We found it three miles behind, all its party settled down for the night and fast asleep. The bullocks refused to move on after that day of blazing heat. Coffee and damper improved our spirits, and then we too settled down.

In the morning, Father Nicholas made some coffee of the last little supply of water left on the wagon, and we were on our way before the sun was up. It rose hot and fiery. There was no more water, and no water-hole until we reached disaster Bay. We had been able to find neither drum, keg, nor water-bag at the mission. We tried to hurry, but our horses were bad-tempered and thirsty. Now and again we dismounted to let the black women ride. Lake Flora we found to be a hard, dry claypan, which would not yield to spade or shovel. We went on as quickly as we could, the black women leading, the Bishop keeping them in sight, and I vainly trying to keep the Bishop in sight.

That night again found us far from our haven, as we had been zigzagging to try and find water. The Bishop suffered greatly from thirst, but he was a good bushman, and plucking a gum-leaf held it between his teeth to stimulate the saliva. At length one of the women cried “Ngooroo!”-fire or camp-and in a few minutes we were beside the water. Everybody rushed to the open well. It was sweet magnesium water, but they drank and drank, insatiable. I wisely waited for the boiling of the billy and the making of tea. During the night, or what was left of it, the whole party was convulsed with sickness and pain, and I produced my flask of brandy, that I have always carried throughout my travels, to accord each of them, Bishop and monks, a little relief.

I camped in the hut that the previous missioners had erected at Disaster Bay, and the others camped outside it in the moonlight. I had scarcely snatched an hour of sleep in one of the four dust-bag bunks that hung to the walls when I was rudely awakened by the presence of thirty naked women, of all sizes, giggling at me. From the neighbouring camps the natives had been rounded up by one of the Beagle Bay boys for the Bishop’s visit. Being quite unsophisticated they were as much amused by my appearance as I at theirs. I have always preserved a scrupulous neatness, and all the little trappings and accoutrements of my own very particular mode of dress, sometimes under difficulties, but I think I never made a more laughable toilet than that one. Every motion of mine, as I laced my corsets and eased my shoes on with a shoe-horn, brushed my hair and adjusted my high collar and waist-belt, was greeted with long-drawn squeals of laughter and mirrored in action, though the slim black daughters of Eve about me had not even a strand of hair string between the whole thirty.

We could not spend more than a few days at this outpost, and next morning my Lord the Bishop baptized and confirmed every man, woman and child that could be gathered in, including babies in arms. Father Nicholas dutifully had brought along the wreath and veil, and there it was, the only article of wearing apparel in evidence. Vividly I can see again the spectacle of a hairy savage with a bone through his nose, a wreath and veil, and nothing else whatever.

Food was given to the natives from the bullock-dray, also the rest of the clothing I had brought for them from Perth, but they had in mind the tail of a “‘gator” they had seen in a nearby creek, so, eager for my first sight of a crocodile, while the priests were attending to their plans and duties, I rambled away with them. Wading barefooted in the shallow waters of the mangrove flats, now deeply embedded in the grey mud, now scratched by the shells and suckers, my feet immediately swelled with some swift poison, until I could fit them into nothing smaller than two sugar-bags. There was little pain but much inconvenience as, with my poor nether limbs like hills in front of me, I endured the carriage in the dray back to the Mission at Beagle Bay.

The valuator with Dean Martelli, an aged man worn out with his exertions, had made overland with the only horse vehicle, to Broome, but the ship was again waiting for us. So the Bishop and I, and the four natives carrying our luggage, set out to walk the nine miles to the Bay, anxious to catch the tide as the ship’s captain, Roderiguez, was eager to be off. After a last meal of grimly abstemious Trappist fare, we bade farewell to the heroic little brothers, and began our journey at 2 p.m. on a day of century heat in November. We talked as we walked, of the work done and the joy of its successful accomplishment. But presently the Bishop, who had never lagged before, showed signs of collapse. He laid his hand, and then his increasing weight, upon my shoulder, and so we crept on.

The journey would ordinarily have taken three hours, but we had only reached the five-mile well when darkness came. The Bishop showed signs of slight delirium, calling me “Margaret,” the name of a beloved sister in Ireland. It must have been ten o’clock when the natives whispered to me that we were at the beach, where he sank down unconscious. We straightened his weary body, the natives and I, with part of my rug-strap under his head. There we camped, unable to see the ship offshore, and I quite ignorant of our surroundings. The only sound I heard was the tide sucking at the mangroves. To make matters worse, the natives came, in frightened whispers, to tell me that “big pindana (inland) mob blackfellows come up” close by, strangers from the inland bush. I said “Don’t be afraid. Eebala (father) and I will take care of you.” Then I placed two of them lying one at each side of the Bishop, and I lay down with my head on the rug-strap and my feet in the opposite direction, the other two natives on either side of me.

The Bishop slept in utter exhaustion, and I not a wink. Stamping of feet and wild cries came to us clearly. Now and again a black form between me and the stars told me that our natives were listening, and in terror they would whisper to me of these bad pindana-womba who sometimes hang about the outskirts of the Mission to steal their women and to fight. I changed the subject to the stars and the sky, and they told me of the dark place in the Milky Way which was once a native road to the sky country, until one day some women on the way lighted a fire and burned the road, which was really a sacred wooden emblem. Our heads were together as we whispered, the Bishop’s white unconscious face beside us. Then a fiercer chant and the mound-beating of the pindana men would send us all noiselessly on our backs again. Through the false dawn we were particularly watchful, but nothing happened.

Broad daylight brought a boat from the Sree pas Sair, four months dirtier than when we boarded it at Broome in August. The Bishop was laid on deck. Only Manilamen were on board, and I sat near the Bishop through the hundred-mile journey. An uncle of the Manila owner there was, a naked cheerful old man, who sang one tune the whole way down. That lilting little tune always brings the scene vividly to my mind-the filthy boat that was once a miniature floating palace, the sleeping Bishop lying on a sail-cloth, and the Manila helmsman looking up at a sort of calico cornucopia which, when filled with the winds, was his steering compass.

Just before we entered Broome waters the Bishop opened his eyes and looking round wearily, saw the old Manilaman lying naked and unashamed nearby.

“Go and put your clothes on!” he called to the poor old fellow, who had neither clothes nor need of them in his rough life on the sea.

A typically Irish ending to a difficult work accomplished.

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