Blacks possess acquirements which white people cannot successfully imitate, are industrious in fashioning weapons and in the invention and practice of primitive forms of amusement, and are in many respects entertaining subjects to those who apply themselves, though superficially, to the study of their habits and customs. On the impulse of the moment they are generous or cruel, erratic, purposeless, unstable as water.
The cat’s cradle of childhood’s days, in the hands of a black who has practised the pastime, becomes most elaborate. He makes complicated designs never dreamt of by the whites — fish, palm-trees, turtles, snakes, birds flying, men and women, etc. etc., the variety being endless. Toy darts and toy boomerangs are common, and the system of signalling by gesture comprehensive and excellent. The Queensland Government has taken means for the preservation of knowledge of many of the sports and pastimes, as well as the language and habits of the blacks, being impressed with the urgency of so doing by the rapid decrease in their numbers. Many have been hastened from the world by a new and seductive vice. Chinese cultivators of bananas found the blacks useful, and rewarded them with the ashes from their opium-pipes. Mixed with water the dregs form a warm and comforting beverage, but its effects were terrible. The fiery liquors of mean whites, and diseases contracted from the depraved, killed off many of the original lords of the soil. Opium was supplying the finishing touches when the Australian Federal Government, by an act of conscious virtue, forbade its introduction to the Commonwealth, save for use as a drug. Indirectly the blacks have been saved from demoralisation which threatened to become precipitate — that is to say, in those localities where the smuggling of opium has been suppressed.
The dwindling away of the race is, however, inevitable. A few anecdotes may perhaps throw unaccustomed light upon attributes not generally understood, and show that the Australian aboriginal, uncouth savage as he is, is not altogether devoid of smartness and good-humour.
Australian blacks have been referred to as socialists, and even communists. Certainly they repudiate thrift, and may therefore be said to side with some socialists, and their camp customs embody communistic principles. The cunningness and zeal with which they enforce individual rights in property may be cited in connection with a food tree. When a neighbouring estate was first settled, in the jungle on the site selected for the house were several magnificent bean-trees. One was about to be felled, when an old man, chief of the camp close by, made it known through an interpreter that food-bearing trees were not to be cut down. Eventually a bargain was struck, the whole of the trees on the spot being purchased from the old man, the pioneers being glad of the opportunity of establishing goodwill by a friendly understanding. The day following, another patriarch of the camp appeared and made it known that he, too, had property rights in the trees, and demanded payment. Without formally recognising his claim, but with the idea of strengthening the bond of good-fellowship, his price was also paid. Again a third old man made a similar demand, explaining that neither of the others had the right of disposing of his individual interests. He, too, was sent away content. In the course of a day or two a young man presented his claim, expounding the law of the country and the camp, which was to the purpose that no single person or any number of persons, individually or collectively, was or were entitled to barter the rights and property of another. The bean-trees especially were subject to the law of entail. The old men, the young soothsayer explained, could not legally deprive him of his rights to the fruit of the trees that had been the property of his as well as their ancestors, though he, disingenuously, was quite ready for a personal consideration to forego his privileges. He, too, was for peace sake made happy; and it was there and then explained by the settlers, definitely and determinedly, that no more payment for the particular trees about to be sacrificed on the altar of civilisation would be made. In future the laws of the camps were to be restricted to the hundreds of other bean-trees in the jungle, each of which, if wanted, would be the subject of special negotiation.
Blacks in their attempts to give verisimilitude to the “debil-debil” generally describe that personage as having hands fitted with hooks or sharp needles. An intelligent boy of the Cape York Peninsula added a few thrilling details on an occasion, when, to allay his fears, his Boss had promised to shoot the “debil-debil” should the boy be molested. “No more carn shoot that fella, Boss. All asame sum-moke.” The boy said that the “debil-debil” had arms like the lawyer vine — long and set with spurs — and dwelt in the heart of the mountains, in the thickest jungle. “Subpose,” said the terrified boy, “black fella might hear ’em, that debil-debil tching out, altogether no more yabber little bit (keep silence). Altogether tell ‘um um-boi-ya (medicine man). That one trow’um wookoo (message-stick) alonga scrub. He trow’um pire stick, ung-kurra, eparra ung neera, arwonadeer (north, south, west, east). He sit down little bit. Bi’mby that one ah-anaburra (scrub turkey) he plenty ‘tching out. Altogether black fella make ‘um big fella fire. He no more sleep. He look out all time. Bi’mby, longa morning he altogether yan. He looked out ‘nother fella yamber (camp). Ole man plenty time bin yabba me debil-debil before long time, bin catch ’em ole man ole woman. He no more see ’em. He find ’em little bit yetin (skin) longa yil-gil-gil (lawyer vine). Ole man bin yabba some time debil-debil ‘tching out like it big fella oor-bung-ah (big wind) first time; bi’mby tching out all asame youn-me bin hear ’em. Black fella he no more see ’em nuthin. One time altogether been see ’em like it sum-moke. Heyan. Debil-debil come up. Me no bin see ’em. Me bin hear ’em one time. Me close up ar-tum-ena (baby).”
Another boy gave quite a different personality to the “debil-debil!” “Big fella. All asame dead man. All bone, no more meat.” Eyes of fire were added as finishing touches.
The parents of our domesticated blacks not only never wore clothes, but hardly knew what clothes were. They needed none for warmth. At anyrate, blankets or cloaks beaten out of the inner bark of a particular fig-tree (FICUS EHRETIOIDS) were the only covering they had. Not every one possessed even a fig-tree blanket. During inclement weather they squatted in their humpies, or braved the elements “with honour clad.” Thinking no evil, clothing for decency’s sake was superfluous. Clothes are worn at the present day, partly as a concession to the fastidiousness of the whites, and largely from vanity. Our blacks are exceedingly fond of dress; the more glaring and clashing the colours the greater the joy of possession.
The party go off in the shimmer of Sunday’s finery, and just out of sight all will be discarded and “planted,” for the favourite costume for the walk-about is that of the previous generation. Having spent the whole day in blissful innocence of clothes, they return in the evening in their gaudy attire, fresh as from a comic garden-party.
As they grow up, brothers assume towards their sisters an attitude of reserve almost amounting to repugnance. The boy will not eat anything the sister has cooked, nor knowingly touch anything she has handled. The more contemptuous and austere his bearing towards her the more proper it is. Nelly’s brother paid a visit to the island, and she cooked a huge damper at the kitchen stove. When it was taken to the camp, hot and fragrant, “Billy” at once inquired who had cooked it. Nelly, wishing that her brother should not deprive himself of his share, told a white lie in the one word, “Missis!” Billy ate heartily and was none the worse, while Nelly, who is fond of Billy, notwithstanding his official detestation of her, chuckled at the successful deception.
One of childhood’s most fascinating fables was, that at the places where the rainbow touched the earth would be found a bag of gold and glittering gems. Among some North Queensland blacks almost exactly the same fairy tale is current. “Muhr-amalee,” remarked a boy, pointing to a rainbow which seemed to spring from the Island of Bedarra. “That fella no good. Hot, burning. Alonga my country too many. Come out alonga ground, bend over, go down. Subpose me go close up kill ’em along spear, run away and plant. Bi’mby come back, find plenty red stone, yalla stone. Fill ’em up dilly-bag. Old man bin tell ’em. Me no go close up along Muhr-amalee. Too fright!”
In their endurance as long-distance swimmers, and in the ease with which they perform various incompatible operations in the water, there are few to equal the coastal blacks of North Queensland. For a trifling consideration they will successfully undertake feats which prove that they are almost as much at home in deep water as upon land, and when put to the test their strength and hardihood are extraordinary. Boys employed on beche-de-mer boats become almost amphibious. Some, as they swim and dive, collect the fish into a heap on the bottom of the sea until they have a parcel worthy of being taken to the attendant dinghy, alongside which they will come with arms so full as to restrict movement to a singular wriggle of the shoulders. What would be an extremely awkward burden for a white man on shore, the expert black boy carries as he swims with case, in the course of his daily round and common task.
During the Princess Charlotte Bay cyclone one of the survivors, after an absence of nearly twenty-four hours, came ashore. He explained that the boat of which he had been one of the crew was “drowned finish,” and that the sea had taken him out towards the Barrier. He swam for a long time, and at last got tired and went to sleep, and for the best part of that frantic night he slept as he swam. Then the wind changed, and he came in with it, landing very little the worse. Others, on the same occasion, swam for fifteen and twenty hours; but “Dick” was the only one who went far out to sea, had a night’s rest, landed fairly fresh, and seemed to accept the experience as a matter of course.
Again, three boys and a gin — Charley, Belle Vue, Tom and Mary — were sailing out to a reef in a little dingy, when they sighted a turtle basking on the surface. Charley and Belle Vue jumped overboard and seized the turtle. It was a monster, and so strong that they called for help, and Tom plunged in to their assistance. Mary, frightened of being alone in the boat, also sprang overboard, taking her blanket with her, and the boat speedily sailed and drifted beyond reach. Charley and Belle Vue at once swam to a beacon marking a submerged reef about a mile away, but Tom and Mary, being caught in the current, were swept past the only available resting-place. They were 8 miles from shore. Tom soon began to flounder, but Mary, keeping her heart and her precious blanket, cheered him on, and, changing her course, took a “fair wind down,” as she afterwards said, towards a distant point of the mainland. Lifting the giant despair from her boy’s shoulders with encouraging words, holding him up occasionally when he got tired, and clinging all the time to the only piece of personal property she possessed, Mary eventually landed in a quiet bay. Tom was so exhausted that she had to drag him up on the sand, and having made him comfortable with her safe but sodden blanket, she hurried into town to report the circumstances to the police. A boat was sent to the rescue of Charley and Belle Vue, still clinging to the beacon, and the derelict dinghy was picked up. Nothing was lost but the turtle.
It is many years since a black boy at Port Darwin remarked casually to his master, a Government official there, “Steamer him come on; him sit down lame fella,” and began to limp across the room. He said that the steamer was a long way away; but “blackfella he make ’em smoke; blackfella bin tell ’em.”
Four days after the steamer GUTHRIE slowly entered the port with her machinery badly disabled.
A boy who had visited towns, listening intently to a reverberating peal of thunder asked —“How make ’em that row, Boss? He got big wheel?”
Home keeping blacks have homely wits. Having no experience of the rumble and rattle of traffic they ascribe to thunder a mysterious origin, and indicate though with reserve, the very place where it is made. The swirl of a creek in the mainland has excavated a circular water hole in a soft rock, brick red in colour. This hole is the local thunder factory, and the blacks were wont to hang fish hooks across it from pieces of lawyer cane, with the idea of ensnaring the young thunder before it had the chance of becoming big and formidable.
Divination by means of the intestines of animals is practised by the blacks in some parts of North Queensland. A young gin died suddenly on the lower Johnstone River. Immediately after, the young men of the camp went out hunting, bringing back a wallaby. The entrails were removed, and an old woman — the Atropos of the camp — stretched them between her fingers in half-yard lengths, simultaneously pronouncing the title of a tribe in the district. The tribe, the name of which was being uttered as the gut parted, was denounced as the source of the witchcraft which had occasioned the untimely death of the gin. Vengeance followed as a matter of course.
Sam, a boy living in the Russell River scrub, spoke thus to his master:—
“One fella boy, Dick, he come up fight along me four days.”
“How you know, Sam?” asked the boss.
“Dick, he bin make ’em this one letter,” replied Sam, picking up a palm leaf from which all the leaflets save seven, had been torn. Three of the seven had been turned down at the terminal point, and Sam continued his explanation. “He no come Monday, he no come Tuesday, he no come Wednesday, he come Thursday,” indicating the first upright leaflet.
Sam said that he had an outstanding quarrel with Dick and had expected the challenge conveyed by the letter he had picked up on the track that morning.
When Thursday came Dick appeared well armed, and the two had an earnest, honourable and exhilarating combat and parted good friends.
A remarkable case is in the early records of the Lower Murray (between New South Wales and Victoria), and was quoted long since. A number of blacks died in agonising convulsions. Some thirty had succumbed, before a dear old German doctor, who wandered up and down the river, a loved and welcome guest at every station, happened along when a gin was stricken. He diagnosed strychnine poisoning. The greatest mystery surrounded the affair, and some of the whites undertook to watch the camp. A clue was furnished by the old doctor, who, when attending to the dying gin, noticed that one of the men seemed to find her sufferings most diverting. He laughed, wandered away, and returned time after time, repeating to himself before each outburst —“My word, plenty kick it, that fella!” Somebody remembered that this black, who rejoiced in the name of Tommy Simpson, had been almost tickled to death when he saw a dog dying at the station from strychnine. He was watched, and some of the powder he had stolen from a bottle in the store discovered in a piece of opossum skin inside a very dilapidated old hat. Taxed with the crime, he made free admission of his guilt, but was apparently incapable of realising that he had done any wrong. It seemed that his chief reason for keeping his secret so long was that he wanted to have the fun all to himself. The other blacks were very differently impressed; they surrounded Tommy Simpson and speared him until he died. To the last, Tommy’s ruling frame of mind was surprise, and he went to his death quite unable to understand why his fellows should have made such a fuss about his little joke.
Occasionally black boys have the misfortune to do exactly the wrong thing with the best intentions. A beche-de-mer schooner sadly in need of a coat of paint, ran into a northern port and brought up alongside a similar but tidy craft, which at the time was laid up. In obedience to natural curiosity the captain went on board the idle vessel and had a good look over her, paced off some of her dimensions and mentally approved her lines. In the morning he brought out a quantity of black paint with which a friend who had taken pity of the weather-beaten condition of his vessel had presented him, and ordered his boys to begin work. Then he went ashore, spending a most agreeable morning among his friends. just before dinner a chum asked him what his boys were doing. He replied, “Oh, before I left I set them to work to paint the ship.” “Do you know what ship they are painting?” asked the friend. “Yes! I am jolly well sure it’s mine.” “Well, you had better go and see how they are getting on.” He went, and found all hands merrily at work painting the strange vessel. They had in excess of industry covered one of her neat white sides completely, having jumped at the conclusion that the captain had bought her. It was an expensive blunder, and a practical lesson in the chemistry of colours. A large quantity of white paint had to be bought to smother the black coat, and another lot of black paint for his own woe-begone craft.
“Harry” was a splendid specimen of humanity. Tall, lithesome, handsome, intelligent, proud of superior abilities, prouder of his style. In his time he played many parts. A stockrider, when he would appear in a gay shirt, tight white moleskins, cabbage-tree hat, flash riding-boots with glittering spurs. A bullock driver, when his costume would be more subdued, but when he would be fully equipped, even to the chirpy phrases in which working bullocks are accustomed to be addressed. Then as a vagrant black, when his attire would be nothing at all in camp, and little more than a frowsy blanket when visiting the town. But in all of his characters he had an unconstrained contempt for Chinese, and delighted in ridiculing and frightening them. In the part of a bullock-driver he drew up his team in front of a store. The manager shouted —“Don’t want that load here, Harry! You tak ’em to back store. You savee?” The “savee” touched Harry’s dignity. “What for you say savee? You take me for a blurry Chinaman?”
Class distinction prevails even among the race. “Polly,” in her own estimation, was highly civilised, and posed haughtily before her uncultured cousins. Looking across to the mainland beach one day, she said —“Whiteman walk about over there, longa beach.” Then, gazing more fixedly, and with all possible disdain in her tones —“No; only nigger!”
Nearly all civilised blacks have exalted opinions of themselves. It is told that Marsh, the aboriginal bowler, of Sydney, wanted to join the Australian Natives’ Association, and on being black-balled said —“Those fellows, Australian natives! My people were leading people in Australia when their people were supping porridge in Scotland or digging potatoes in Ireland.” When Marsh and Henry met as rival fast bowlers in a match between Queensland and New South Wales, it was proposed to the former that he should be introduced to the Queenslander. “What!” he ejaculated —“that myall? No, thank you. It’s quite bad enough to meet him on the field. Why, the fellow would want to go in to tea with me. Give him a ‘possum.” These yarns may be too good to be true, but they at least illustrate a well-recognised phase of aboriginal character.
At rare intervals one finds a black who knows how to drive a bargain. “Yankee Charley” came, badly wanting a shirt. The only one available was valued at 2s. 6d., and Charley produced 2s., protesting that that represented his total capital, the extreme limit of his financial resources — his uttermost farthing, as it were. At that sum the Boss disposed of the shirt, for the need of the stranger within his gates threatened to become shocking, as “Yankee Charley” possessed few of the “artificial contrivances that hold society together!” Retiring to the scrub, Charley took off his ruined singlet, came back smiling in his new shirt, and with delightful candour tendered 6d. for a flash handkerchief. He got it for his smartness.
When blacks are introduced to the ways of white men, singular, often grotesque episodes occur. A big, shy, clumsy fellow endeavouring to put on a shirt as a pair of “combinations” does cut an absurd figure, and the first efforts of many meddling and unskilled cooks to make a “damper” are often pathetic failures. Not long since a beche-de-mer fisherman engaged a crew from the tablelands at the back of Princess Charlotte Bay. Never having been on board a schooner before, and being absolutely innocent of the ways of the whites, they found “damper” unpalatable, and flour was given them that they might prepare it after their own methods. Some nuts (“koie-ie,” CRYPTOCARIA PALMERSTONI, for example) blacks toast until the shell (impregnated with resin) starts into a blaze and the kernel falls out. The kernels are then chewed and ejected until sufficient dough is available for a cake, which is flattened out between green leaves and toasted. The dough “rises” as though leavened with yeast, but this lightness is considered a fault, for the dough is taken out, squeezed between hands moistened with spittle until it becomes sodden. Then it is bound again tightly in green leaves in long rolls, and buried in the hot ashes till cooked. Such cakes are said to be very nice. They must be nutritious for the blacks among whom Koi-ie is one of the principal foods are fat and agile fellows. These Princess Charlotte Bay boys cooked their flour in a somewhat similar way. The result was a sodden, tough, dirty damper, the sight of which roused the not usually tender susceptibilities of the owner of the boat. Taking pity on the untutored boys, he had a proper damper made with soda and acid and a due proportion of salt. It turned out a beauty, so spongy and light that it almost lifted the lid off the camp oven, in which it was baked. The boys accepted it, but not without manifestations of doubt and suspicion. They presently returned in a solid and unanimous deputation loudly proclaiming that the boss was a humbug, and had cheated them, the bread being full of holes containing no “ki-ki” whatever, while they made “ki-ki” as dense as the deck, which they tapped with their feet significantly and about which there was no palpably hollow fraud. At first the boss failed to understand, for the blacks had little even of pidgin English. When he did realise the true state of the case he wasted no breath in explanations. The blacks catered for themselves in the future, and got fat and saucy on the diet of plain flour and water, so cooked that sometimes it was like half-burnt deal, and as often a sticky, ropy mess.
To the blacks of North Queensland there is a great deal in a name. When a piccaninny is born, the first request is —“You put ’em (or make ’em) name belonga that fella!” When a strange boy, a myall, “comes in” he wants a name, and until he gets it he is as forlorn as an ownerless dog. Anything does, from “Adam” to “Yellow-belly” or “Belle Vue.” He seems as proud of the new possession as a white boy of his first pair of trousers, and soon forgets his original name. “What name belonga you, your country?” I asked an alert boy. “I bin lose ’em; I no find ’em. Boss, he catch ’em alonga paper!”
Wallace, in his MALAY ARCHIPELAGO, gives an amusing account of a native who was superbly vain of an isolated tuft of hair on the one side of his chin, the only semblance of beard he possessed. A black boy on one of the inland stations left with a mob of travelling cattle for the south. When he returned after many days, two hairs had sprouted from a mole on his cheek, and he was for ever fondling them with pride and pleasure.
“Hello! Jacky!” exclaimed the manager of the station, noticing him on his return for the first time. “You catch gem plenty whisker now,” and feinted to pluck out the twin hairs.
Jacky started back in dismay. “You no broke ’em! You no broke ’em!”
Another boy showed that the cruel edge of vanity which prompts others to dye their hair is felt by the race. White hairs began to mingle with the black of his moustache, and one by one he plucked them out. The moustache became thinner and thinner, until the lip was as bare as a baby’s cheek, while the fraudulently youthful appearance gave obvious satisfaction.
As we sat enjoying the cool moonlight, Mickie announced that Jinny desired an interview. “All right, Mickie, tell her come along.” “No, bi’mby. When finish wash ’em plate.” That duty disposed of, Mickie —“Now Boss.” “Well, come along, Jinny. What you want?” “No, Boss; I no want talk alonga you, Mickie humbug you. What for you humbug Boss, Mickie?” Jinny was bashful, for the subject was momentous, touched her pride, and had been depressing her gaiety for many weeks. Presently she came and with emphatic deliberation said —“Boss — No — good — Missis — call — out — Jinny! Jinny! When want wash ’em plate. More better you hammer ’em that fella, all asame Essie!” Jinny did not wish that the missis should be chastised, but that she should be summoned to the plate washing with the pomp and ceremony of a dinner gong, as the maid used to do in a more civilised home.
Mickie and Jinny once paid a visit to town, and Jinny, making an afternoon call, was invited to have a cup of tea. She said, “Never mind, Missis. Fire, he no burn.” A gas stove was available, and Jinny jumped and exclaimed as the blue flame sprang from nowhere. Wherever the lady of the house pleased to apply a match the fire came. Next morning Mickie was brought round to witness the wonder, Jinny asking —“Missis. You show ’em Mickie fire jump up all about!”
A lady up North was asked by her black maid, whose face had been terribly battered by her infuriated husband, to send to the shop for new teeth, in payment of which she tendered half-a-crown, promising “two bob more” as wages accumulated. This is a fact, and therefore comparable with the anecdote which tells that a military bandmaster demanded the return of a set of teeth supplied at the regiment’s expense to a cornet player who had been granted his discharge.
Seas swamped a small cutter as she was beating across the bar of a Northern river. Exerting themselves to the utmost, the owners, with two black boys, managed to save the boat, but all the food on board was ruined, and blankets and clothing saturated. Hungry and dejected the party prepared to put away the time until the weather calmed. In the afternoon, fortune smiled. Another cutter came in sight, and with the assistance of those on shore, managed to get into safety and shelter. All hands were liberally treated to needful refreshment. “Say when!” said the cheery Boss, as he poured a revivifying dose of whisky into a pannikin held by the expectant but shivering boy. The elixir gurgled and glittered before his fascinated eyes until the pannikin held enough for two stiff nobblers, without evoking any polite verbal restraint. “My word!” said the Boss, at last, “that boy can’t say when.”
Mickie and Jinny being privileged became familiar, and spoke all sorts of confidences in the ears of their mistress. Visitors came, an old friend and her daughters, a blonde and a brunette. The contrast in the types of the girls puzzled Mickie. He took an early opportunity to cross-examine one from whom he thought he could obtain confidential information. “What Gwen sister belonga Glad?” he asked. “Yes, Mickie” “Same mother?” queried Mickie. “Yes, of course.” Then came without hesitation or reserve the dumbfounding question: “Same father?”
Some may sneer when absolute originality is claimed for the following little anecdote, for almost a facsimile of it happens to be among the most time-honoured of jests. Rounding Clump Point in a light centre-board cutter, the Boss, who was steering, asked Willie, whose local knowledge was being relied on: “Any stone here, Willie?” “Yes,” was the response, “one fella.” The words were yet on the lips of the boy when the centre-board jumped with a clang. “Why you no tell me before?” angrily remonstrated the Boss. Willie —“No more. Only one fella. You catch ’em!”
Our blacks saw “friends” on the mainland beach, and lit two signal fires. Mickie said, “Me tell ’em that fella bring basket.” Cross-examined, he had to admit that the two fires merely signified a general invitation to his mainland friends to come across. Then —“That fella got ’em basket, me get ’em.” A friend doubted the range of the black’s vision, which was truly telescopic, as we frequently verified with a pair of powerful field glasses, but not to be thought inferior in this respect, he solemnly declared that he saw Jinny’s cousin on the beach strike a light for his pipe. At first the irony of the remark was not appreciated, then Jinny (after vainly peering across the sea), saw the joke and gave a wild exhilarating exhibition of amusement. She sat down and rolled about shouting and screeching, hardly able to tell Mickie the fun, and when he was let into it the pantomime was the more extravagant. The outburst continued throughout the day at intervals, Jinny apologising for her boisterousness with reiterations —“Misser Johnssing say he been see ’em cousin belonga me light ’em pipe!” Jinny still rehearses the story at frequent intervals, and with hysterical outbursts.
To half civilised blacks a racecourse is an earthly paradise; a jockey, a sort of demi-god. A lady shut up her house one race day, leaving “Zebra” in charge. Returning, she was amazed to find one of the big rooms open, and to hear the buzz of a sewing machine. Zebra, trouserless, scarcely took the trouble to look round as he informed her —“Me make ’em trouser all a same Yarraman (horse).” His desire for tight riding breeches was not restrained, and the consequence was in the nature of a disaster.
Laura was a bad girl. Like Topsy, she acknowledged her naughtiness, but never attempted to reform. A considerable quantity of milk had disappeared from a jug, and her mistress asked —“You been drink milk, Laura?” “No, missis, me no drink ’em.” But the tell-tale moustache of cream still lingered on her lips. Laura lived in a quiet home, where there were no children, and few dishes to wash. The State Orphanage was not far away, and the children thereof paraded every day on their way to the State school. Gazing at the long procession marching two by two Laura, with a far away look in her eyes, said —“Missis. Me no like wash ’em plate belonga these fellas!” Laura was wont to be sent to Sunday school, where her ways were precise and demure, and where her natural smartness gained her credit, and many good conduct tickets. Once she was overheard at her devotions —“Please, Mr God, make missis strong woman, make missis good woman!” She was sick, and her mistress insisted upon administering castor oil, but Laura made a fuss. At last her mistress said —“All right, Laura, suppose you no take ’em medicine, I go for doctor.” “No, no, missis. Me die meself!”
A variety troupe visited the town, and Laura was taken to a performance. Among the “freaks” were General Mite and his consort. Laura came back with this proud boast —“I bin shake hands alonga piccaniny!”
Nelly was extravagantly fond of pictures; anything, from an illustrated advertisement up, pleased her, and when the subject was not very obvious to her she would indifferently gaze lovingly upon it upside down. A pair of fine photographs of King Edward and Queen Alexandra in all the sumptuousness of their coronation robes was shown her, and she was told that “fella King belonga whiteman. That fella Queen wife, you know.” Putting her democratic forefinger on each alternately, Nelly said —“That fella man; that fella Missis! My word! Got ‘nother kind blanket!”
The Government of Queensland is conscientiously performing the duty of smoothing the pillows of the dying race. On the coast several mission stations have been established where the blacks of the neighbourhood are gathered together and, under discipline tempered with a strong religious element, taught to take care of themselves. The system is under the supervision of an experienced official, entitled the “Chief Protector of Aboriginals,” and he tells a story which throws rays of light in more than one direction.
A plump boy, who several months before had been consigned to a mission station quite out of the neighbourhood, presented himself at the head office, and with a rather rueful countenance answered a few of the preliminary inquiries of the Protector. Confidence having been gained, particular questions were asked.
“Yis,” said the boy, “me bin stockrider belonga Yenda. Come down alonga town have spell.”
“But you belong to Fraser Island mission station!”
“Yis, me bin alonga that place.”
“Why you no stop? That very good place.”
“Nahr! No blurry good.”
“You get plenty tucker — plenty everything that place!”
This provoked a trailing exclamation of dissent and disgust. “N-a-hr! Blenty ask it — no get ’em. Ebery morning tell that big fella Boss (with an upward jerk of the head) gib it daily-bread. Dinner-time tell it gib it daily-bread. One time more alonga tea tell it that big fella Boss gib it daily-bread.”
“Well, you get plenty.”
“N-a-hr! No get ’em. Get ’em corn (with a spit) all asame horse.”
Hominy, with prayer, is the standing dish at that station.
Among the most cunning of civilised blacks was a gentleman, well up in years, known as Michael Edward. He had been everywhere and had seen everything, and was full of what we call worldly wisdom. His conceit in himself led him to eat abundantly, drink all he could and at anybody’s expense, smoke continuously, do as little work as possible, though apparently with lavish expenditure of industry, dress flashily and talk big. In pursuit of these things he behaved as should a cute student of human nature. Sent by Mrs Jenkins, his then mistress, with a message, he arrived as some tempting pastry was taken from the oven. He eyed it all with such riotous admiration, that an invitation to taste a tart was felt compulsory. Michael Edward assented with a “Yus, please, Missis.” The tart was but a trifle light as air in his capacious maw, and another went the same way with loud smacking of huge lips. Then, with a lively sense of the continuance of such favour, he said —“My word, Missis you mo’ better cook than Missis Jenkin!”
A police magistrate had a blackfellow in his employ very much addicted to beer. The black was brought before His Worship charged as a “drunk and disorderly.” The magistrate lectured him severely, but paid his fine on condition that he would never drink again. A month later the culprit was again in the court, and the magistrate, who was rather in love with his own eloquence, proceeded to read the offender a severe lecture and to threaten him with awful punishment At the most impressive point the black broke in with —“Go on, Croker! Shut up and pay ’em money. Me want finish ’em fence!”
A meeting between a steamer smartly captained and a sailing boat steered by a smart black boy familiar with the rules of the road at sea was taking place. The steamer having too much way on, the boat narrowly escaped being run down. “Why didn’t you keep out of the road,” yelled the captain, “Why do you let the nigger steer?” Tom in reply, “Why you no luff up? You got blurry steamer, I no got ’em!”
Lady Constance Mackenzie is not the only bold female who rides astride in befitting costume. On some North Queensland cattle stations, squatters’ wives and daughters have adopted divided skirts, and black gins employed as stockriders wear shirts and trousers, which are returned to the store when not in active service. One bleak evening — and it can be bleak on the North-Western Downs — the tender heart of a new jackeroo storekeeper was touched by the sight of two black boys quaking with the cold, the attire of each being limited to a singlet tugged down to its extreme limit.
“You no got trousers?” he asked.
“Baal got ’em!”
“All right. Me give you fella some,” and the storeman produced two pairs well worn, which were thankfully accepted.
Half an hour later one of the boys returned, bursting with indignant language. “What for, you blurry fool. You bin gib it my missis’s trousers?”
At a western station the manager, in order to save a fence newly erected, thought to satisfy the blacks by leaving a loose coil of wire here and there for spear heads. But instead of taking that generous hint, the natives invariably cut out from the fence what they wanted. On another station in the same district, when a fence was under construction small coils of loose wire were left every few hundred yards as a tribute or free will offering; but in this case they again overlooked the loose stuff and cut what they wanted from the strained wire.
Incomprehensibly dull as blacks frequently are they occasionally exhibit shrewdness which is all the more remarkable because of its unexpectedness. As the station hands were busy erecting buildings in newly opened up country, the blacks sent an envoy to engage their attention while others of the tribe cut off the iron bracing from the paddock gates wherewith to make tomahawks. They succeeded in completely despoiling one gate before they were disturbed.
A black boy of more than ordinary intelligence, who had been sent to fill a couple of tubs with water, sauntered back with a self-satisfied air and said —“Me finish ’em!”
The master found that the boy, as a preliminary, had fitted one tub into the other.
Under the spell of the first sensations of Christianity, Lucy found and took unauthorised possession of a gold cross. Retiring to a secluded spot on the bank of the river, she hung the cross to a string round her neck, imagining it to be a charm, by the magic of which she would become a white girl. Twenty-four hours of patient expectancy passed without any change in Lucy’s complexion, so she lost faith in the golden symbol, and bartered it to a Malay pieman for cakes. Then good Christian folks charged her with the theft of the cross, and the pieman with receiving it, knowing it to have been stolen. Lucy was pardoned, but the pagan went to prison.
A boy was asked if he thought Jimmy Governor (a notorious desperado who had given the New South Wales police much trouble) ought to be hanged. “Baal. No fear hang ’em; too good.”
“What you do then?”
“Me! me punch ’em nose!”
Ponto, a boy well known in North Queensland, and one of the few aboriginals whose memory is honoured by tombstones, was once taken by his master to Sydney. He saw many wonders, being particularly impressed by the appearance of the men-of-war’s-men.
A month or so after his return he was away among the mountains with his master and a friend who was wearing a jersey.
“You sailor, Bob?” asked Ponto.
“Yes, Ponto. I’m sailor-man.”
“No. You no sailor,” responded Ponto decisively.
“Yes. I tell you true. I’m sailor.”
Ponto: “Ah! me think you no big salt-water sailor. You only little fella creek sailor. You no got jacket — flash collar, knife alonga string!”
A squatter, travelling on foot with his black boy, came to a river almost a “banker,” and there was no recourse but to swim. After Charcoal had taken a couple of trips with the clothes, the Boss told the boy to swim alongside him, in case of emergency. Halfway across, just as the Boss was feeling that there was some risk in swimming a flooded river in which were many snags, Charcoal cheerily observed —“Suppose you drowned finish, Boss, you gib me you pipe?” Summing up all the possibilities in a second, the Boss gasped out —“No; you bin get pipe when I’m across!” The boy’s aid was prompt and effective.
Two of the beachcombing class resumed an oft-recurring discussion on the seaworthiness of their respective dinghies. Tom, the silent black boy, a more experienced boatman than either, listened as he watched his own frail bark canoe dancing like a feather in response to every ripple.
“Tom!” shouted one of the disputants, “suppose you want to go out in big wind and big sea, which boat you take? This one belonga me, or that one belonga your Boss?”
Tom glanced at the boats with the eye of an expert, paused in the exercise of his judgment, and said with emphasis —“Me take ’em my boat!”
“Boiling Down,” a boy with a not very reputable past, had once stood his trial for a serious offence. On returning to his free hills, he was wont to describe with rare art the trial scene.
Clearing a patch of ground, he would place one chip to represent the judge —“big fella master”; a small chip would be His Honour’s associate; twelve chips were the jurymen; three were the lawyers; a big chip between two others was “Boiling Down” with attendant policemen, and many scattered about stood for the audience.
Having arranged his properties, the boy would proceed.
“Big fella master, he bin say —‘Boinin’ Down, you hear me? You guinty — you not guinty?’ Me bin say ‘Guinty!’”
At this point “Boiling Down” invariably broke into such paroxsyms of laughter that further utterance was impossible. Often as he attempted it, his narrative of the proceedings ended in such violent mirth that his hearers could not restrain themselves from joining in. They were obliged to acknowledge that he looked upon the affair as the funniest incident of his life.
A boy accustomed to see his master — the owner of a station — jump his horse over the gate instead of stopping to open it, tried to follow. The horse cantered up grandly, seemed to gather himself for the jump, and baulked. The boy shot out of the saddle and over the gate. As he picked himself up and shook the dust from his clothes he glared back at the horse, saying —“You blurry liar!”
Out on a station in the Burketown district an athletic black boy was employed. Trained by some friends, Charley developed such fleetness of foot that it was decided to enter him in sports which took place at Normanton and Croydon. In order that the public might be properly surprised, it was planned that Charley should run into second place at Normanton, and that at Croydon all possible honours were to be his.
Immediately before starting at Normanton, Charley was told that he was not to win, because his backers wanted to make big money at Croydon.
Charley ran a good second most of the way, made a spurt, and breasted the tape yards to the good.
Taken aside, his friends angrily remonstrated with him. “Look here, Charley, what’s the matter? I bin tell you run second. You come first — you spoil everything!”
“Carn help it, Dick. Carn help it. Me bin bolt.”
Miners in isolated camps where writing paper is not always available, scribble their orders for rations upon hastily tom margins of newspapers. A cute old black fellow named Bill who had frequently been entrusted with such notes and had borne away goods presented a scrap of paper innocent of writing at the store.
“What? This from Tom?” asked the storekeeper naming one of his customers while he ran his eye over the paper.
“Yowi! Tom bin make ’em.”
“What this fella talk?”
“That fella talk plour; sugar, tea; two stick Derby,” and, as a brilliant after thought —“bottle rum!”
“All right, by and bye,” remarked the storekeeper.
The old man waited, and when it at last dawned upon him that his dodge for the pledging of Tom’s credit had failed, stole away, convinced no doubt that there was some magic in the making of letters that he did not quite comprehend.
A tracker, known as Billy Williams — who had passed out of the police service after many years of duty during which he had added largely to his burden of original sin and knowledge of English — stole a valuable diamond ring from the landlord of an hotel. Detected, and promptly brought before two justices of the peace, Billy pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment.
While escorting him to the lockup, the officer in charge remarked — “Well, Billy, you lucky fella. You only get three months. I been think you in for a sixer.”
Billy —“By golly, Jack, me bin think me be disqualified for life.”
Mickie is apt at repeating the sayings of others. Often his rendering of a commonplace becomes humorous by reason of a slight verbal twist. As the boys toiled to supplant a glorious strip of primeval jungle by a few formal rows of bananas, the boss, glancing over the ruined vegetation, remarked in encouraging tones
“Well, we are getting on fine! Getting on like a house on fire!”
For half an hour or so the boys hacked and chopped away at the vines and trees, and then Mickie swept the scene with a comprehensive glance, saying —“We getting on good fella now. All a same burning down house.”
Johnny was much averse from work. “Work, work, work, all asame bullocky,” as he put it, rasped on his feelings. At midday he was taking his case, while others toiled packing stones on a breakwater. One of them called out —“Why you no work, Johnny? You sit down all the time.” Johnny —“Me bin work close up daylight. You lazy black niggers only work when Boss look out.”
The wife of a squatter was about to leave the station for a few years, that her daughters might have the opportunity of acquiring accomplishments unobtainable in the Bush. When the hour of departure arrived, the blacks about the place loudly expressed their sorrow. One softhearted creature exclaimed amid the tears —“Good-bye, Miss Madge — good-bye, Miss Yola; me no see little girls any more. Two fella going away, try learn be lady!”
A boy who had visited a town and had been taken to a circus, gathered the camp together on the night of his return, and having given an account of the wonders he had seen, announced that he could make money. Satisfaction at such gift being tempered by doubt, the boy took his stand before the expectant semicircle, and having admirably mimicked a conjuror’s patter, shouted —“Money!” A half-crown flashed in the air-to be deftly caught and exhibited on the boy’s palm.
This trick was repeated nightly. Conscious of the independence that money gives, the whole camp became demoralised, until investigation showed that the boy had a trained confederate in the person of his gin, who, standing apart, on the word, flicked the half-crown in the air. The boy lost his reputation as a maker of money, and his sole coin that self-same night.
At a camp of the Native Mounted Police the sergeant reported a trooper for beating his gin. “What you bin doing, Paddy?” asked the sub-inspector. “You bin hammer ’em Topsy?” Paddy, at the salute —“Yes, sir, please sir, me bin hammer ’em that fella. That fella too flash; me no bin hammer ’em all asame black-fella. Hammer ’em all asame white man, alonga strap.” Considering the customary means a black adopts to correct the indiscretions of his spouse, Paddy’s offence was judged far too trivial for punishment. Topsy, too, was quite vain that Paddy had chastised her with all dignity and indulgence of a white man.
Two ladies, who were wont to meet at infrequent intervals, spent the delightful morning in the settlement of arrears of gossip, while two black gins sat in the shade of a mango-tree, smoked incessantly and did nothing placidly. At dinner-time the latter began to chatter volubly, and the mistress of the house, in an outburst of vicarious energy, called from the verandah —“Come, Topsy — come, Rosey. You do nothing all day. You two fella talk all the time.”
Rosey —“Yes; me fella yabber, yabber, plenty — all asame white woman.”
The beliefs of blacks on the subject of “the otherwhere” seem to be varied and adjustable to individual likes and predilections. Some indeed have no faith whatever in statements as to existence following upon death. Others assert that a delightful country is reached after a long and pleasant journey, that there reunion with relatives and friends takes place, and happiness is in store for all, good and bad alike.
An intelligent boy was asked if after death all went along the same road to the aboriginal paradise. He was reminded that he was a good fellow, and that one of the members of the camp was notoriously a rogue.
“Mootee go along a you, all asame place? That fella no good. You good fella.”
“Yes,” he answered. “All one track me fella go. Good track — blenty tchugar-bag, blenty hegg, blenty wallaby, close up. You no wan’ run about. Catch ’em blenty close up. Bi’mby me go long way. Me come more better country — blenty everything. Father belonga me sit down. He got two good young fella gins. My word, good one gins. He say —‘Hello! you come up? You sit down here altogether. Two fella good gins belonga you!’”
This was paradise!
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50