The Passing of the Aborigines, by Daisy Bates

Chapter 8

South-West Pilgrimage

From the reserve at Maamba, with my old friends gone, I set out on a two years’ pilgrimage of the South–West, through all the old camping grounds which had become railway cities and towns and centres of industry, pastoral and agricultural. In the whole Bibbulmun area I sought the living remnants of the various groups, the turkey-totem, mallee-hen, oppossum, emu, fish, kangaroo. Many were completely extinct. Two or three old derelicts with women who were their unlawful wives according to aboriginal convention comprised the largest camps I could find, all of them Government pensioners or beggars.

As members of the groups died out, the ranks closed in, and men and women from east of the dividing ranges mixed with the river people (beelgar) and sea-coast people (waddarn-gur). The birth of half-castes still further broke up the wandering families, for the half-caste fears and dislikes his mother’s people, and objects to the communal food laws, while the natives despise the half-caste for his colour and his breed and his odour.

At Busselton the salmon trout group was represented by one old man, who sang for me the songs of the spawning season while he imitated the movements of the great spate, and told me the legend of huge cannibal dogs that daily hunted human flesh, carrying men in their mouths to the lair. This legend attained a curious significance when fossil bones of a flesh-eating sthenurus were discovered in the Margaret River caves in the vicinity. The last survivor of the Albany tribe, Kalgun or fish totem, was Wandinyilmemong, a solitary White Cockatoo. From Albany I went to Bremer Bay, and then fifty miles inland to Jerromunggup. There I found a five-generation family, but they were not all full-blood. Ngalbaitch, the matriarch, was a lively old woman, and might easily have survived to see the sixth successive branch of the family tree. As there can be no more than three generations in aboriginal genealogy, Ngalbaitch called her great-granddaughter “Mother” and her great-great-grandson “Brother.” The girl was a Chinese half-caste, born with no eyelids, and Ngalbaitch’s brother had performed a surgical operation with a skill and intelligence rare in a native. He had pulled out the skin covering of the eyes, held it vertically and slit it horizontally. As the cut edges healed, they had actually developed lashes.

At Ravensthorpe and Hopetown, the natives had almost completely died out. At Esperance there were but two old brothers, Deebungool and Dabungool, known as Dib and Dab. I rode a draught horse fifteen miles to interview Dib. He told me that the circumcised tribes had by this time encroached upon his home-ground. They had given him a woman, but had taken his little son Ro, and initiated him into their tribal practices. Between Esperance and Eucla, there were not half a dozen natives along the coast, but at Twilight Cove, where the explorer, Eyre, was rescued by an American ship, I found a true first cousin marriage, the only group of true first cousin lawful marriages that I could discover in the South–West. Another group also having true first cousin marriage laws was among the Roeboume area group of the North–West.

The mallee-hen group of the Palenup or Salt River area ended sadly. A special friendship called babbingur between certain brothers-inlaw prevailed among the Bibbulmun, and two Palenup babbingur were the last of their group in the district. These men dung to each other in an extraordinary comradeship. In the passing of the years one became emaciated and listless from some disease-or it may have been the loss of the will to live. His babbin cared for him devotedly, worked for him, hunted for him, fed him. At some white man’s farm or sheep-run he would find employment, but the white employer would tell the sick friend to work or get out. The moment his babbin heard the words, he would put down axe or spade and move on with his mate.

The wanderings circled their home ground, and one day the sick babbin lay down by the riverside and died. His friend dug the grave and buried him, lingered in the vicinity a little while in mourning, seeking no food, until he, too, became feeble and listless. He had lighted no spirit fire for the dead man, because there was no fear of the spirit of a friend so much beloved. All round the little area he walked with stumbling feet, and at last laid himself down near the new-made grave, and the two kaanya souls passed over to their heaven together.

I reached Bridgetown in the wet and windy wintry weather. Its fertile hills and valleys are among the finest fruit-growing districts in Australia, and, as Bibbulmun country, had provided unlimited food for the groups for countless centuries. Bridgetown yielded one old man, living in his beehive hut on the side of the new road. His dwelling was sheltered from the bleak winds and rains, and he preferred his freedom to the comfort of a hut offered by the Bridgetown municipality. He received Government rations, blankets and tobacco, and lived contentedly by his little kalleep. I came upon him on a rainy morning, and I sat beside him in the shelter, with a thermos of tea, cake and tobacco that I had brought for him, listening as he explored the memories of his life history, genealogy, dialect and myths. Another winter, and he was gone from the place for ever.

The wild cherry groups (jeeuk) between Esperance and Katanning were few. At Kojunup and Narrogin the same sad state of things prevailed, the few derelicts eking out an aimless existence with no interest in the new life or people. The totem either preceded or followed its human borunggur. Food was supplied to them, but they were all wanderers. I would sit with them for an hour, a day, a week, learning from them, pitying them, but unable to bring back the old conditions. We parted always as “relations.” I knew their simple social organization, and could speak to them as one of themselves, a blood-relation, and listen patiently to the old songs and stories. Many a time I found the end of a legend begun at Albany or Pinjarra, or the beginning of another whose end I never heard, but they were always comforted by company and understanding.

Everywhere I heard the plaint-“Jarigga meenya bomunggur” (The smell of the white man is killing us).

The love for their own group area urged them to reach it and die on their own ground, but the spread of the white population sent them wandering ever farther and farther, so that they made superhuman efforts to reach their kalleep when they found themselves growing old and feeble, for fear that their spirit would be a trespasser upon strange country and lose the way to Kur’an’nup when the time came.

Old Yeebalan of Kendinup, a township east of Albany, found herself in the Dumbleyung district when palsy and blindness came upon her. Her white protectors tried to dissuade her, but she promised them she would go back to the Hassals of Kendinup whose sheep run had been her father’s group area, and who had been good to her in her young days. They gave her food and money for the journey, and she immediately handed it over to the derelicts in camp in return for their hospitality, as in their primitive sense of honour every native must. Months later, after a solitary journey through the white settlements, she crawled towards the old Kendinup homestead where she had so often sought and found food and clothing. It was empty and deserted. Yeebalan made her last camp in the gully, and died a few days later.

There was a native reserve in the Katanning area, where it was hoped the Bibbulmun relicts would find rest in the evening of life, with their own shelters and fires that no institution could give them. I, put up my tent near by, and made friends with my new “blood-relations,” gathered from near and far. Munggil, the oldest, of Ravensthorpe, a mallee-hen, had a grievance against the world, and in his moments of dementia would sing his woes the whole night through, in the shrill monotone of the joolgoo-kening of the forgotten corroborees. Among the Australian aborigines, as among the southern Irish peasantry, there is a curious sympathy and compassion for the mentally afflicted, so Munggil’s ravings were patiently listened to in silence.

Some half-castes were there, one, Henry Penny, with white completion and blue eyes, who easily passed as a white man at every hotel in Katanning.

A poor consumptive girl, Ngungalari, was one day brought in to me from Kojunup, carried in a stretcher by her father and sister for twenty-five miles. She had been reared by kindly and gentle white people, and had become used to their ways and refinements. While she lay dying, I took her a lace-covered tray and all the little appurtenances of afternoon tea. Although she was in the last stages of disease, she loved to handle the thin slices and dainty cups as she had seen her white girl companions do. She died very quietly a week after she arrived.

It was through the patriotic desire of Togur and Daddel to see the Coronation pictures, and the unlucky gratification of that desire, that brought the measles to the Katanning camp in the 1900’s. There were some fourteen family shelters at the camp, besides two bachelors’ huts, the total of inhabitants being between forty and fifty occupants. Togur and Daddel had come to my camp the morning after the visit to the pictures, to tell me in their own way what they had seen, and myself and the rest of the children who had all gathered to hear the account, were treated to a dramatic recital of the wonderful things seen and heard, the mimicked play of the various musical instruments; the manager’s high-toned announcement of the various pictures; the clapping; the crowd; the native comments on this or that series of films, and the sigh of regret when the wonderful sights were over. All these were presented with strong dramatic force, and we listened and applauded heartily. It was the last merry day at the camp.

The second morning after the visit to the pictures, they came to tell me that Togur and Daddel were sick, and would I come over and see them. I went over, and knowing that measles was rife in Katanning, I turned down their lips-the easiest way to tell when a native has got measles-and found of course what I looked for. It seemed to me a case of doctor and hospital, so I sent a messenger post-haste to town, and on the heels of the messenger came the doctor.

“Yes, it’s measles,” he announced, “and Daddel has got it rather badly.”

“When will it be convenient to take them to the hospital, Doctor?”

“Can’t do it. The hospital is full to overflowing with measles and other patients; they’ll have to remain in camp, and I’ll come out daily to see them. You’ll have to do the best you can, and I hope it won’t spread amongst them. Give them gruel, milk, soup, tea, any liquid food for a few days,” and the busy doctor hurried away, leaving me stranded with two measles patients.

To begin with, I can’t cook. I had never made gruel. I had, however, either heard or read somewhere that properly made gruel took four hours in the making. I wish I could put all the native magic I possess into the fiend who made that statement! My fire was an open one, and the winter winds of Katanning are not faithful. I sat down by the fire on a kerosene case to make my first billy-can of gruel, the billy being a two-gallon one. There was an east wind when I began, and I sat to the eastward of the fire and commenced to stir the oatmeal into the cold water. The wind shifted suddenly, and the fire caught a handful of my hair and singed it. I changed my seat, but the wind changed too, and blew smoke and flames against my scorched face. I stirred the gruel steadily, discarded the kerosene case, and walked round the fire and billy-ccan to the forty-eight points of the compass with which the wind was flirting that dreadful afternoon. I had started the gruel-making at 2 p.m., and at six exactly I took it off the fire. By that time I had recited Fitzgerald’s Omar at least six times, each time with increasing vehemence, the while I monotonously stirred the gruel. It wasn’t the words of the poem that brought the relief to my feelings, but the way they could be uttered that helped. There are times when Bajjeejinnajugga suffices, but that afternoon was not one of them, and after repeating it about ten times I fell back on Omar. Neither quite filled the bill, however, and I found out afterwards that gruel took at most only half an hour to cook.

Togur proved an excellent little patient, taking the medicine, gruel, or anything I gave him obediently. Daddel was a horror to nurse. The measles had touched him rather heavily, and he became too “slack” to lift even the spoon, so I had to spoon-feed him four times daily, and coax him to take the necessary nourishment and medicine, and even when he was recovering he would hide the food I brought him rather than sit up to eat it, and so I had to sit beside him until he had finished the last bit.

On the top of nursing there came Nung’ian from Kojunup, a poor girl in the last stage of consumption. She also had to be kept in camp and ministered to, though one could only tempt her with a few “white” delicacies, for the poor girl-she was only 26-had gone beyond the coarse damper and black tea; indeed she only ate a few trifles I brought her out of regard for me. On the evening of the sixth day she died in her sleep.

Meanwhile Togur and Daddel became convalescent, and just when I was in sight of a little rest from nursing and cooking, Daddel’s own mother, and his “second” mother, and his seven brothers and sisters all caught the infection, and the real work of nursing and cooking began. Baiungan, the older wife, got the measles very badly and lay absolutely helpless for days. Her little baby, Muilyian, was also, very ill, and not having been weaned, there was the added trouble of special baby food. Baiungan and her five children occupied her half of a beehive shelter, a space not more than five feet in diameter holding the family! They lay with their heads within the shelter, their feet towards the open fire-place between the two huts, and to reach one I had to lean over the others, who were huddled up at either side. They lay like peas in a rounded pod, in that dreadful hut, with the smoke blowing in upon them at every gust of wind.

Dillungan, the younger mother, whose attack was not nearly so severe as Baiungan’s, did nothing but grunt and groan, and open her mouth to be fed, and resume her groaning. Her two little children, the baby and his brother, howled and roared, and refused to take nourishment and medicine without endless coaxing. Their mother, scarcely more than seventeen years old, paid no heed whatever to them. She suckled her baby by fits and starts, but the disease had dried both her breasts and Baiungan’s and the poor little children suffered greatly from the sudden stoppage of their natural food.

Dillungan had slightly more room in her tent, there being but three of them in it, and so the feeding of her and her two little ones was not such a hard task, except that the closeness of the fire, the difficulty of getting the babies to eat artificial food, and the coaxing and pleading necessary to induce them to accept some nourishment, often resulted in my forgetting that the fire was close, and boots and clothes suffered now and then from burning. There came a time, however, when children and mothers took all and everything I gave them, medicine or food or whatever it might be. A little variety was added to the nursing of these two mothers and children by old Mungail going temporarily off his head and making the nights hideous with his monologues. In those temporary aberrations, Mungail harked back to his early days, and in a recitative that lasted one night for three hours, he harangued all the members who, now long dead, had once been his companions and his kindred. He hunted and fought with the young men of those long-past years; he made love to their women; he ranted his prowess in the hunting field, in the fights-in the hundred and one affairs of gallantry in which he was the moving figure, and old sinner that he was, within the last few years he had captured a Balladonia woman who was shepherding at Ravensthorpe and carried her away with him to places far removed from any possible revenging husbands. This woman bore him two children, the younger not four years old. Mungail was approaching the seventies and his woman was not much past twenty. In his non-lucid moments he was obsessed with the idea that she wanted to kill him, and he often rose in the night and ran away from her, either wandering off into the bush, or taking refuge in some of our camps. To keep watch and ward over Mungail was no light task.

Before Baiungan and Dillungan and their families had got rid of the measles, Mungail’s wife, Warinyan, and her two children were down with it, but they were good little patients and gave no trouble. Then Kaiar, his wife Wirijan, and their four grandchildren, Wenyil, Genujan, Florrie, and Bobbie, caught the infection, and after them came Derdingburt, his woman, Yoolbian, and their little adopted child Win-ngur-man. All these at once, and in the rain and cold they claimed my services. At 7.30 a.m. I took them some food, bread and milk, tea and toast, an egg here, a few sardines there, and so on, till all were satisfied. Then at 11.45 bread and soup — tinned something and bread and jam and tea. Then afternoon tea for all-then evening gruel, and to bed. I believe it was about this time that all of them got it into their heads that it was good to have the measles and have their mother, sister, auntie, granny, or whatever relation I was to each one, to wait upon them, and bring them their food in nice clean mugs and cup and saucers and plates.

I had improvised a wooden tray out of the side of a kerosene case, and this I carried to and fro four times daily to each family. Now and again I essayed to hold an umbrella to keep myself and the food dry, but at those times I generally bumped my toe against a stump or rut, upsetting tray and contents, and had to rerun to camp and do some fresh cooking. And my patients had their fads, as sick white people have, and their wants multiplied as they became convalescent and hungry. I frequently felt like the old woman who lived in a shoe, for these poor people were children in every sense of the term. But their little fads and fancies were gratified as much as possible. And they were patient and willing, and obedient, and everything that one could wish for in sick nursing. The older patients would laugh with me when I announced fresh cases, and the new ones would settle themselves comfortably to go through the ordeal, taking medicine and food with equal readiness. Barderuk-a woman of many husbands-and her latest conquest Yiner, and their son Roy, wandered from sick camp to sick camp, seeking infection. They caught it at last, to their great delight, and I used to see Barderuk, when she got better, go over to the other camps and play cards and talk gossip, until she saw me coming over with a meal, when she would return to her camp and pretend she had never left it, lying down, and assuming all the airs of the pampered invalid. Their little tricks to gain special attention were so palpable, so transparent, that I quite enjoyed falling into the humour of the thing, and being their victim.

My fame as a nurse and healer-for although the kindly doctor visited them daily during the progress of the epidemic, they looked to me for their condition, and I always treated their attack lightly-spread amongst them, and two cases came up from Broome Hill, sick with the complaint, and Daiamirt and his wife and child came in from their camp some twenty miles away, where they had been bark stripping, and Nellungan and many others. I enjoyed the task, and revelled in the gratitude and affection of those poor people who considered themselves my kindred, and who were so proud of their relative, and although I had to chop and carry home my own wood and buy my own water-for only once did Kaiar bring me two big logs-I could not ask or compel them to do work for me, if the offer did not come spontaneously from them.

When all were convalescent, and everyone was inordinately hungry, the trouble with the children was the impossibility of my being able to feed them all at once. At the double camp, as soon as I arrived with the food, every child began to howl for its share, and while I was feeding one the other six were bawling at the top of their voices. I tried letting them feed themselves, but the poor little things had not the strength to hold the mugs or cups-they have little real vitality-and I found it easier to spoon-feed all, and resign myself to the howling chorus, which rose to Wagnerian pitch at times.

And those awful huts! How we all escaped fever I don’t know. They lived, ate, slept in, and never moved out of these huts for days, and in all that stench one had to lean over to the patients, who might be huddled in their farthest corners, and inhale the germs of every filth producing disease. Bending over them to cleanse them and give them food, I was so sorry for them that I would not be sick. I believe that in Heaven, in 40,000 years’ time, if somebody uncorks a bottle of native odour, I shall be able to tell them the tribe it comes from.

During the whole of my stay at the Katanning camp, a “spirit” fire (beemb) was lighted every evening at a spot a little distance from the camp. The beemb was lighted to the south-east of the huts, and round it a low semi-circle of bushes was arranged, with the opening also facing the south-east. The beemb was placed there to warm the spirit of Nebinyan, the last remaining Two People Bay native, who had died at the Katanning camp. Nebinyan’s shelter was to the northwest of Baiungan’s hut, and it was Baiungan who lighted the fire nightly in order to intercept Nebinyan’s spirit, which she said might return to his own fire, in which case he must go through her hut, and perhaps injure herself or her children, and so the fire was lighted so that the spirit on its way back would rest and warm itself beside it, and come no farther.

In my two years of constant travelling, by railway train, by coach and buggy, I followed the nomads, seeking for camps, learning and noting the legends and relationships, groups and totems and way of life, and compiling my scientific data hand in hand with the unwritten literature of the race, so far as I could elicit it from shreds of song and story.

Northam, Goomalling, Kellerberrin, Merredin, Toodyay and Moora; through all of these towns I wandered in search of the old home people, and found a few, living in armed neutrality with strangers from the northwest collected on station and farm as cattle men. Each feared the magic of the other, and when he felt it in his body the white man’s tools were put down and wandering was resumed, so that neither reserve nor institution could hold for long the opposing elements.

In the streets of Geraldton I met a solitary old Bibbulmun with a brass plate dangling from his neck-“King Billy of Geraldton” inscribed thereon. He was dressed in an old frock-coat, trousers and top hat given him by John Forrest. We talked for a little while of the rites and true relationships, and then I touched the plate and asked:

“What is this, brother?”

“That is a lie,” said Dongaluk, “but the jangga give me ‘bacca and money for it when they laugh at me.”

A little ashamed, he held it out to me. “No, Dongaluk,” I said, “let the white men give you ‘bacca and money. You can’t tell the white men about our ancestors (demma goomber).”

To the end of his life he used it as a catch-penny. These plates should be preserved in our museums to demonstrate how little we could fathom the universal kinship and absence of lordship that mark the aboriginal, the true child of Nature, the great mother that knows no class distinction. John Forrest’s bungalow in Hay Street gave shelter to Dongaluk whenever he visited Perth.

Southern Cross was the eastern border of Bibbulmun country. In 1909 all remaining members of its group had been drawn in to the circumcised tribes on their eastern boundary, the last natives of Merredin and Burracoppin also having been circumcised before they died out.

When I reached Kellerberrin in the early morning, some poor old derelicts were just being taken away by a good-natured farmer to his place. I came upon them near the Bank of Australasia, and we sat down on the doorstep and talked about family matters, quite oblivious of the curious crowd that collected. Throughout the whole of my Bibbulmun pilgrimage I found full and clear evidence of the kindliness of my British kin to the people they had inevitably supplanted, but-they could not understand.

Somewhere about this time, Perth held a carnival fortnight, and the Government lent my services to the committee to arrange native displays. Twenty Bibbulmun and twenty nor’-westers had to be collected and after much travel and trouble I camped with them on a vacant allotment in Hay Street West. The two factions were already eyeing each other with hostility. To keep drink from complicating the problem and derelict native and half-caste women from the camp was a full-time task. The city council gave them abundance of meat and bread and tea and tobacco, and pannikins and billycans, but neither spears nor clubs were allowed. When we needed them, we obtained them from the Museum.

In full corroboree paint, the natives marched mornings and afternoons along the Hay Street pavements, two abreast, to the recreation oval. They were a great attraction, and their progress drew dense crowds to the streets. At the Oval, they threw their spears and boomerangs to shouts of admiration, and danced a weird conglomeration of native dances highly popular with the crowds. The itinerary was drawn up by the Carnival Committee. I bought a red umbrella and, when my charges had to appear at Oval or park or suburb, walked on the opposite side with it unfurled. The leaders were to keep an eye on the umbrella, and follow its vagaries, and the white crowd invariably commented upon their orderly rank and file, their apparent familiarity with city traffic, and the “prodigious Mrs. Daisy Bates who slapped and washed and put them through their paces each morning!” And certainly I was with them day and night, save for a few hours of sleep at the home of a friend nearby.

The last evening was a memorable one. Only through unremitting watchfulness had I succeeded in keeping the peace between the two factions. Just as I was congratulating myself on an unexpected success, one of the nor’-westers missed a new pannikin, and tracked it to the Bibbulmun camp. War was declared on the spot. I was in the act of returning the casus belli, without undue display, when I met Wajji and his mates coming through the low scrub, armed with shillelaghs they had rooted out of the ground in just but exaggerated anger, intent on a little “diversion.” I temporised and turned them back, then marched the whole crowd urgently out into Hay Street. I had been making small collections among my pastoral friends during the carnival, and carried the money visibly with me in a little bag. They knew it was their own, and eagerly anticipated the division, but for many reasons I did not wish to give it to them in the city.

I remained with them in the temporary camp all night, and just before the Bibbulmun were timed to leave for the southern train at daylight, obtained a candle, and seated the whole mob of forty in a circle about me. I sat in their midst, and made forty little piles of silver, one for each, naming each pile. Forty pairs of dark eyes watched me closely, shining as the piles grew higher. Each native received his share gladly. Then the bundles were collected.

The natives had kept their paint and decorations fresh during their fortnight’s exhibition, and wore nothing but loin cloths. We were a weird spectacle, delighting the early morning milk-men, as I moved the camp of Bibbulmun off to the railway station in the dimly-lit streets at 4 a.m., myself in the midst of the apparent horde of cannibals, which the Bibbulmun were not, leading an old blind corroboree-singer by a long staff.

I later received a letter of thanks from Police Commissioner Hare who told me that I had saved him the necessity of placing six constables in relays of two over the mob during the fortnight, as never before had two different tribes camped together without the breaking of heads.

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