The Passing of the Aborigines, by Daisy Bates

Chapter 9

Isles of the Dead

In 1910, two international expeditions arrived in Perth to undertake field work among the West Australian aborigines. The leaders of both called at my office with introductions. The first was the Cambridge University Expedition, consisting of Professor A. R. Radcliffe–Brown [Now Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford.] and Mr. E. L. Grant Watson, both of Cambridge. The second was a party of Swedish scientists, led by a Mr. Laurell. This party was bound for Kimberley, and none of its members spoke English, depending mainly upon French as a medium of conversation.

Professor Radcliffe–Brown, on his introductory visit, informed me that he had finances for no longer than six months. Knowing that time to be inadequate for any research of value, I arranged an interview with the late Mr. S. P. Mackay, a well-known and wealthy pastoralist of Munda-bullangana Station, and asked him point-blank for £1,000, to make possible at least two years of field work for the Expedition. He immediately forwarded a cheque for the amount.

It was then suggested that I accompany the Expedition, and the Under–Secretary (Mr. North) obtained the Colonial Secretary’s consent. I was appointed a travelling protector, with a Special Commission to conduct inquiries into all native conditions and problems, such as employment on stations, guardianship and care of the indigent, distribution of rations, the half-caste question, the morality of native and half-caste women in towns and mining camps, and many other matters affecting their welfare from an administrative point of view. Sir Gerald Strickland, then Governor of West Australia, showed a deep personal interest in the expedition, and his wife, Lady Edeline, supplemented my equipment with a medicine chest.

Before we left Perth, news came that the civilized and semi-civilized circumcised groups of Lake Darlot had descended in a raid upon a native camp at Lancefield, near Laverton, killing eleven men, women and children. The groups had scattered, and the police had found none of the murderers, much to the consternation of the peaceable natives and white settlers in the district.

We booked our passages on the little coastal steamer Hobart, packed our equipment and supplies on board, and were so eager to be off that we embarked a few days early on a southern trip, and after an unpremeditated voyage to Bunbury, had to return on the vessel, and sail north with her to Geraldton, from which we went by rail to Sandstone. The party consisted of Professor Radcliffe–Brown, anthropologist, Mr. Grant Watson, biologist and photographer, myself as government attache, and Louis Ohlsen, a Swedish cook. A few miles from Sandstone, we pitched our tents among the natives gathered there, our travelling equipment consisting of a large fly for our dining and community room furnished with folding chairs and other luxuries, the men’s tent, Louis’s portable kitchen, and my quarters. We were surrounded by nearly, 100 natives from near-by districts, and there was obvious ill-feeling and friction among the groups. I spent the afternoon making new friends, greeting old ones, and, with their assistance, digging out some honey-ants, which I proffered to the Professor for supper. Grant Watson would have none of them.

It took some time to convince the natives that my companions were not policemen, of whom, for their own reasons, they lived in an unholy fear at the time. After some vain endeavours at explanation, I found it easier to introduce them as my two sons! Professor Radcliffe–Brown immediately interested himself in their string games, similar to cat’s cradle, and cross-sticks, and other small primitive handicrafts with which they occasionally pass the time.

After distributing generous rations and discussing family gossip, we were just beginning to make a little headway in questioning them regarding genealogies and customs when, to our surprise, a police raid was made upon the camps at dawn, and six of the natives arrested as the Laverton murderers. Several shots were fired by the police, and some of the fugitives tried to hide in our tents, but no one was hurt.

On the principle that “one nigger is as black as another”, the constables had arrested one Meenya, whom I knew did not belong to Darlot, and who had only just arrived from his own country. I saw Meenya in prison, quite naked, as he had been arrested while sleeping. After establishing his identity, I took him back to the camp, where his relatives cried with joy. The other five men, Gooll-gooil, Jooloor, Dhoolanjarri, Yoolbari, and Dandain, remained in custody.

After the raid, our natives scattered, but returned to tell me that there was another policeman coming with a “big mob.” This proved to be Constable Grey, appointed to inspect natives for symptoms of disease and to gather in half-castes from the camps. The natives were afraid to approach him until I explained that he was a doctor coming to look at us all. When I went myself into the tent, they followed with confidence.

With Professor Radcliffe–Brown’s assistance, Grey made his examinations, collected a few old men and women, and drove them away in his cart to join the unfortunates waiting in Sandstone. I shall never forget the anguish and despair on those aged faces. The poor decrepit creatures were leaving their own country for a destination unknown, a fate they could not understand, and their woe was pitiful. The diseased and the young half-castes were housed in different sections of the gaol in Sandstone, and the grief of the aboriginal mothers at this enforced parting with their children was pitiful to see.

So turbulent and so distressed was now the condition of all camps in the vicinity that it was useless for us to remain longer. Professor Radcliffe–Brown, Grant Watson and Louis the cook sailed for Carnarvon. I returned to Perth with my reports and notes. The Laverton murderers were travelling in custody on the same train, and my special commission entitled me to question them in private For some hours I sat alone with the chained prisoners in the railway carriage, and learned the reason of the raid.

They explained that the Lancefield and Laverton camps had transgressed the bounds of every native law, that they were living in incestuous depravity with sisters and immature children to such an extent that the usual marriage exchanges were not possible. So the Lake Darlot tribes, unable to procure wives, took the law into their own hands, and planned to kill the men and seize the women. They had descended on the camp at dawn, and in the battle of flying spears some women and children were accidentally killed. I reported the circumstances to headquarters, and there was no trial. The natives were detained only until the departure of the next train. I later sailed north to rejoin the expedition at Dorre and Bernier Islands.

Dorre and Bernier Islands: there is not, in all my sad sojourn among the last sad people of the primitive Australian race, a memory one-half so tragic or so harrowing, or a name that conjures up such a deplorable picture of misery and horror unalleviated, as these two grim and barren islands of the West Australian coast that for a period, mercifully brief, were the tombs of the living dead.

In accordance with its policy of safeguarding the aborigines, the West Australian Government, in 1904, had authorized Dr. Roth, a Queensland anthropologist, to inquire into native conditions. After intensive study of the problem, Dr. Roth made the suggestion, among others, that all diseased natives from the whole of the north-west should he isolated for treatment. The Government immediately adopted the suggestion, the unhappiest decision ever arrived at by a humane administration, a ghastly failure in the attempt to arrest the ravages of disease, and an infliction of physical and mental torture that it could not perhaps have been expected to foresee.

At the cost of many thousands of pounds, the authorities established an isolation hospital on two islands bordering Shark Bay, some thirty miles from Carnarvon. These islands-Dorre and Bernier-have never been inhabited before or since. A medical officer and staff were installed in permanent residence, and two or three little cutters plied backwards and forwards carrying medical and food supplies. Diseased natives were gathered in, by policemen and other appointed officers, over an area of hundreds of thousands of square miles. Regardless of tribe and custom and country and relationship, they were herded together-the women on Dorre and the men on Bernier. Many had never seen the sea before, and lived and died in terror of it.

When I arrived at Carnarvon, I found the town inundated by the Gascoyne River in flood, and lost no time in arranging my passage to the islands. There was no regular communication, but two cutters, the Shark and the Venus, were at my disposal, and one of them would sail whenever the skipper, an old sea-dog named Henrietta, felt inclined. In due course, with my baggage and provender, I boarded the Shark and crossed to Bernier, where the expedition had already established itself in a cove of the lee shore. I selected a neighbouring cove, and there Louis set up my camp.

Dorre and Bernier, with a smaller island, Koks, shelter Shark Bay from the Indian Ocean. Barren and forbidding, a horror of flies in summer-time, their western shores are undermined by the sea into steep overhanging cliffs, which sweep down in terraces of sand to the calmer waters of the bay, covered by sparse scrub with never a tree worthy of the name. A narrow race of water runs between them with sweeping tides and tremendous tide-rips tumultuous in wild weather.

On Dorre, where the women were segregated, was a well equipped hospital with doctor’s residence, laboratory, nurses’ quarters and dispensary. A skilled bacteriologist was in charge. His staff consisted of dispenser, matron and two nurses. In his own cutter the doctor periodically crossed the strait to attend the men on Bernier, but sometimes when he was needed most a storm or heavy swell made it impossible for him to come.

When I landed on Bernier Island in November 1910, there were only fifteen men left alive there, but I counted thirtyeight graves. The doctor’s assistant and the orderly staff occupied a wooden building on a rise, the hospital was a tent, and the sick were housed in three-sided huts of canvas, each with a half-roof of corrugated iron. The natives on both islands preferred the open bush to all the hospital care and comfort.

Deaths were frequent-appallingly frequent, sometimes three in a day-for most of these natives were obviously in the last stages of venereal disease and tuberculosis. Nothing could save them, and they had been transported, some of them thousands of miles, to strange and unnatural surroundings and solitude. They were afraid of the hospital, its ceaseless probings and dressings and injections were a daily torture. They were afraid of each other, living and dead. They were afraid of the ever-moaning sea.

The hospital was well kept and the medical work excellently performed, but the natives accepted all the care with a frightful fatalism. They believed that they had been brought there to die-what did it matter if the white man had decided to cut them to pieces first? More, they were undernourished. They were strangers to the island, and the seeds and berries and fish food it could have yielded them. There were plenty of wallabies, but most of the natives were too emaciated and ill to go hunting. Sometimes, when the Shark and Venus were weeks late, the position became pitiable.

When the bleak winds blew, the movable huts were turned against them, facing each other, regardless of tribal customs, which meant mistrust and fear. Now and again a dead body would be wrapped in a blanket and carried away to burial in the sands, and the unhappy living could not leave the accursed ground of its spirit. Some became demented, and rambled away and no one of an alien tribe would go to seek them. One day an old man started to “walk” back over thirty miles of raging waters to the mainland. These shores are infested with sharks, and he was never seen again. Another hid in the thick scrub and died there, rather than be operated upon. A third sat on the crest of a little rise all day long, pouring sand and water over his head, wailing and threatening, in his madness.

There were seventy-seven women on Dorre Island, many of them bed-ridden. I dared not count the graves there. A frightful sight it was to see grey-headed women, their faces and limbs repulsive in disease, but an even more frightful sight to see the young-and there were children among them. Through unaccustomed frequent hot baths, their withered sensitive skins, which are never cleansed in their natural state save by grease and fresh air, became like tissue-paper and parted horribly from the flesh.

Companionship in misery was impossible to them, for there were so many spiritual and totemic differences. Some of them were alone of their group, and they could not give food or a firestick to a possible enemy or a stranger for fear of evil magic. A woman would be called upon to bath and feed or bury another woman whose spirit she knew was certain to haunt her.

Restlessly they roamed the islands in all weathers, avoiding each other as strangers. Some of them cried all day and all night in a listless and terrible monotony of grief There were others who stood silently for hours on a headland, straining their hollow, hopeless eyes across the narrow strait for the glimpse of a loved wife or husband or a far lost country, and far too often the smoke signal of death went up from the islands. In death itself they could find no sanctuary, for they believed that their souls, when they left the poor broken bodies, would be orphaned in a strange ground, among enemies more evil and vindictive than those on earth.

The benefits devised by the white people and the endeavours to lighten their pain were only so much the greater aggravation of their exile. Such benefits left no impression because the iron of exile and the frightful condition of rubbing shoulders with possible enemy magicians had filled their souls. All was new and strange to them, but endured often with that fatalism that lets the white people go on in their own way. These haunting terrors they could not communicate to those who were set to guard over them and who, without knowledge of these tribal beliefs, could only reply by kindly efficiency. They wanted nothing in the world but their old sand-beds and shelters and little fires, the smell of their own home area, every secret familiar to them, and the voices of their own kind. There is nothing you can give them but freedom and their own fires-heartli and home.

The horrors of Dorre and Bernier unnerve me yet. There was no ray of brightness, no gleam of hope. In an attempt to escape them I too would roam the islands, finding them grim and dreary. The wail of a curlew crying along the sands would startle me and set me shivering with remembrance of the dying, and the soundless wings of the giant wedge-tailed eagles, as they flew over, cast a sinister shadow on the sunny day.

To question the poor shuddering souls of these doomed exiles was slow work and saddening, but as I sat with them in the darkness of their mias at night, the torture of hospital routine was forgotten, and harking back to thoughts of home, they were, for an hour or so, happy. Of all the tribes there so dismally represented, from Hall’s Creek to Broome and Nullagine, from the Fitzroy River to Winning Pool and Marble Bar and Lake Way, I learned much of infinite value in vocabularies and customs and pedigrees and legends. The scientists, I think, made intermittent headway.

“Your two sons-why are they afraid of us?” I was asked more than once. The answer was obvious. Grant Watson was physically ill one day after taking a photograph. However, they helped him to collect shells and insects occasionally, and obligingly sang the songs of woggura and wallardoo-crow and eaglehawk-into Professor Ratcliffe–Brown’s phonograph. He in return regaled them with Peer Gynt and Tannhauser and Egmont, to which they listened politely.

It was a woeful Christmastide at Dorre Island. There were six operations that morning, but a Christmas dinner, with pudding and gifts and sweets were provided for the other sixty women, with some semblance of goodwill and pleasant contact on their part. A few days later the schooner Anthons arrived, bringing eighteen natives from Broome. A nurse travelled with them, but some had died on the way down. The Anthons was followed almost immediately by the Venus from Carnarvon.

Corporal Grey was due to arrive with new consignments of unfortunates collected throughout the vast State, and I went over to Carnarvon to meet him. He was camped four miles away on the outskirts, with about 133 natives, all stricken with disease. Carnarvon citizens justly objected to their entering the town.

Shall I ever forget the surge of emotion that overcame me as they saw me, and lifted their manacled hands in a faint shout of welcome, for many of them recognized me? There was a half-caste assistant with Grey, and the natives were chained to prevent them from escaping on the way, as it was quite probable that they would have been murdered had they attempted to reach their homes through strange country. In one donkey-wagon were forty-five men, women, and children, unable to walk.

During the week that followed, 122 natives were shipped to the islands in cutters. On one occasion 90 were slung from the high jetty at Carnarvon in baskets, and, the boat being overloaded, many were taken off again and walked back to the camp. I returned to Dorre on an 18-feet cutter with 27 natives in the hold, all suffering from sea-sickness and weakness and fright. Although I had been but a short time absent, I found 14 new graves there. When natives were discharged as cured, they were generally sent in charge of a nurse by steamer to their nearest port or landed upon the mainland and left to find their own way to their homes, sometimes hundreds of miles eastward, and through the country of stranger tribes. Now and again I arranged a passage for them with a camel team, or under the protection of a travelling station owner.

It was my adopted kinship that made it possible for me to be accepted by all aborigines. At Dorre and Bernier, among the central and north-west groups gathered there, I was again allotted my proper class division, Boorong, which corresponded to the Pooroongooroo of Broome, and the Tondarup of the Bibbulmun. This relationship opened the way to their confidence. For me these travesties of humanity tried to dance their old-time dances, but being among hostile groups, these were invariably war-dances, the jallooroo, dhoolgarra, djoolgoo, corroborees of defiance. Those unable to stand upright swayed their bodies to the tune of remembered songs, beating the ground with little bushes. Some groups were represented by one aged man, or one or two old women, and the voices were so low and feeble that I had to stoop to catch the weak words. Often, in the midst of their posturing, they would crawl whimpering with pain into the darkness of their shelters.

In the course of my official duties I was a constant traveller between the two islands and the mainland, sometimes journeying far inland. On every journey I became postman of a score or so of letter-sticks (bamburu), the crudely marked piece of wood that is the aborigines’ only attempt at a written language, saying little, and that only by signs, but carrying loving wishes and assurances to wives and husbands and friends. To watch the poor fellows in their fatal lassitude trying to mark the bamburu they wanted to send along to their women was a pitiful sight, but to see the joy on their faces when I returned with bamburu from the absent loved ones was heartrending.

Between Dorre and Bernier and all over the central north-west, I delivered these letter-sticks, bringing back the gossip of camps, news of the births, deaths and marriages, of initiations and corroborees and quarrels, to the interest and delight of the dying exiles.

I did what I could among them with little errands of mercy; distributing rations and blankets from my own government stores when boats were delayed; bringing sweets and dainties for young and old, extra blankets in the rain, and where I could a word of love and understanding. To the grey headed, and the grey-bearded, men and women and children alike, I became kabbarli, the Grandmother. I had begun in Broome as kallauer, a grandmother, but a spurious and a very young one, purely legendary. Since then I had been jookan, sister, among the Bibbulmun; ngangga, mother, among the scattered groups of Northampton and the Murchison, but it was at Dorre Island that I became kabbarli, Grandmother, to the sick and the dying there, and kabbarli I was to remain in all my wanderings, for the name is a generic one, and extends far among the western-central and central tribes.

Our Expedition parted company in March 1911. Professor Radcliffe–Brown continued his researches, taking a northward route through the sheep and cattle stations of the mainland. Grant Watson sailed for Perth. I turned my footsteps to the head of the Ashburton, Gascoyne, Murchison and Fortescue Rivers, once a great highway of aboriginal trafficking.

Upon the ghastly experiment of Dorre and Bernier Islands it is not good for me to dwell. Not very long after our visit, the costly hospital project and the islands of exile were abandoned. On his return to England, Grant Watson made them the fantastic setting of a novel Where Bonds are Loosed-a story of illicit love with a background of horror and heartbreak and unutterable woe.

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