Some investigators tell us that the aborigines of Australia came out of Egypt carrying with them their ancient signs and totemic ceremonies; others, that they are representatives of the Neolithic Age; others assert that Australia is the cradle of the human race, the primitive inhabitants the stock whence all sprung.
Without pausing to hazard an opinion upon any of these theories, it may be said that stone axes, shell knives, and fish-hooks of pearl and tortoiseshell now in use are among the credentials of a people whose attributes and conditions are in line with those who, in other parts of the world, had their day and fulfilled their destiny ages upon ages ago, leaving as history etchings on ivory of the mammoth and the bone of the reindeer. Implements similar to those which are relics of a remote past elsewhere are here of everyday use and application. The Stone Age still exists.
To speculate upon those phases of aboriginal life and character which go to establish the antiquity of the race and its profound unprogressiveness, is no part of the present purpose, which is merely to relate commonplace incidents and the humours of to-day. Much of that which follows is necessarily matter of common knowledge among those who have studied the blacks of the coast.
There is nothing obscure, and but little that concerns even the immediate past, in the philosophy of those natives of North Queensland with whom I am in touch. With the black, to-day is —“to be, contents his natural desire!” The past is not worth thinking about, if not entirely forgotten; the future unembarrassed by problems. Crafts and artifices, common enough a few years ago, are fast passing away. New acquirements are generally saddening proofs of the unfitness of the aboriginal for the battle of life when once his primitive condition is disturbed by the wonder-working whites. Bent wire represents a cheap and effective substitute for fish-hooks of pearl-shell, which cost so much in skill and time, and ever so shabby and worn a blanket more comfortable and to the purpose than the finest beaten out of the bark of a fig-tree.
Many of the wants of the race are supplied through the agency of the whites, and there are so many new tasks and occupations and novelties generally to occupy attention, that the decent and often ingenious handicrafts lapse and are lost. Our blacks still decorate rocks and the bark of trees with rude charcoal drawings; but the art of making stone axes is lost, though trees yet exhibit marks of those handled by the fathers of the present generation.
In passing, an example of the difficulties that must inevitably be faced by inquirers a few years hence who may seek information first hand may be cited. The grandfathers of the blacks of Hinchinbrook Island and the islands of Rockingham Bay have been popularly credited with the art of making out-rigger canoes, such as were common a few miles to the north. One living representative of the race gave me a detailed description of this style of canoe, and pointed out with pride the particular tree whence it was invariably fashioned, by hollowing out a section of the trunk, leaving the ends solid and shaping them. A different and very buoyant timber, according to him, was used for the out-rigger. This boy had travelled. He had seen the canoes further north as well as those of New Guinea, and it was found on investigation that his description of the local craft was quite imaginary. Captain Philip P. King, who came hither from Sydney in 1818, anchoring at Goold Island, thus describes the canoe of the period —“Their canoes were not more than five feet long, and generally too small for two people; two small strips of bark five or six inches square serves the darkie’s purpose of paddling and for baling the water out, which they are constantly obliged to do to prevent their canoes from sinking.” These details are applicable to the canoes of the present day.
As a matter of fact, out-rigger canoes were not known in this locality, though but 20 miles to the north hollowed logs with out-riggers of the stems of banana plants were common. This fact definitely fixes the point — geographical and also historical — at which the advanced ideas of the Papuan in the science of boat-building ceased to influence the tardy Australian. Ere knowledge of the counterbalance crept further south, the advent of the arbitrary white man brought its progress to a full and final stop. Fragile single canoes of bark were the only means of navigation here, and not many men in these degenerate days can successfully imitate the work of their fathers. Owing to disuse, the talent in that direction has almost been lost. Lost, too, are many of the legends which were wont to be handed down from one generation to another, and forgotten the very names of common objects. But these investigations do not pretend to depth, nor are they presented in any authoritative manner. No attempt is made to discuss the Australian aboriginal in general nor from any particular standpoint. A few side-shows and character sketches, are offered in the attempt to interest and entertain.
In some respects our blacks, said to be among the finest physically in Queensland, and desperately deceitful, are cute and as independent of artificial aids as ever.
Generally unprogressive and uninventive, the aboriginals of the coast of North Queensland apply practically the result of the observation of a certain fact in the life-history of a fish in obtaining food. By them the sucker (REMORA) is not regarded as an interesting example of a fish which depends largely upon turtle, dugong, sharks and porpoises for locomotion, but as a ready means of effecting the capture of the two first-mentioned animals, always eagerly hunted for their flesh.
In the days of hoary antiquity it was believed that this strange fish was wont to affix itself to the bottom of a ship, and was able of its malice to hold it stationary in a stiff breeze though all sails were set. According to the legend (a popular method by means of which the descendants of great men explained away their faults and blunders), at the famous sea-fight at Actium, Mark Antony’s ship was held back by a remora in spite of the efforts of hundreds of willing galley-slaves. Shakespeare may say that Cleopatra’s “fearful sails” were the cause of Antony’s fatal indecision and flight, and a lesser poet may cast the blame upon her “timid tear”; but the tribute to the remora’s interference with the fate of nations was accepted in good faith at the time, and was, moreover, supported and confirmed by the inglorious experience of other great men who hung back when they should have sailed boldly on to victory or noble disaster.
Vulgarly known nowadays as “the sucker,” and to science as the “ECHENEIS REMORA” and “ECHENEIS NAUCRATES,” and to the blacks as “Cum-mai,” the fish upon which such grave responsibility was thrown by the ancients monopolises the sub-order of ACANTHOPTAYGII (DISCOCEPHALI). Its distinguishing feature is a shield or disc extending from the tip of the upper jaw to a point behind the shoulders, and said to be a modification of the spurious dorsal fin. This structure consists of a midrib and a number of transverse flat ridges capable of being raised or depressed. The disc has a membranous continuous edge or margin. When the fish presses the soft edge of the disc against any smooth surface and depresses the ridges and the intervening spaces, a vacuum is formed, giving it enormous holding power. Other countries have sucker fish of different form; but it remained for the benighted Australian blacks, among a few other savage races, to make practical use of the creature, which, as a means of locomotion, forms strong attachments to the dugong, turtle, shark and porpoise. It can hardly be called domesticated, yet it is employed after the manner of the falcon in hawking, save that the sucker is fastened to a light line when the game is revealed.
Some assert that the sucker swims on its back when not adhering to its host, but my observation denounces that theory. Becalmed among the islands, where the water is transparently clear, I have seen the sucker swim cautiously to the boat, apparently reconnoitring. Shy and easily startled, a wave of the hand over the gunwale is sufficient to scare it away; but it comes again, keeping pace as the boat drifts, and liking to remain in its shadow. Then it is easily seen that it swims with the sucker uppermost.
Occasionally when the blacks harpoon a turtle or a dugong a sucker is secured. They declare that it stays in one locality until a suitable host happens along, and then forms a life-long attachment.
If one is seen among the rocks the blacks are at pains to catch it, and as it is shark-like in its nervousness, the sport demands considerable skill and patience. “Feed ’em plenty” is the ruling principle. Delectable morsels of fresh fish are tendered abundantly until the sucker abandons his usual caution, and then when he is feeding freely a hook temptingly baited is let down casually among the other dainties, and if the fish has been liberally and yet not over fed, it will probably accept the line, and after protesting and holding back to the best of its ability, find itself flapping in the bark canoe. Should it get away —“Well! Plenty more alonga salt water. Catch ’em to-morrow.” When determined to secure a sucker whose haunt they have discovered, the blacks will feed it at intervals for a day or two to overcome its nervous apprehension. In other localities along the coast the fish is plentiful and by no means shy, taking bait ravenously.
Having secured the sucker, the blacks farm it in their haphazard fashion. They fasten a line above the forked tall so securely that it cannot slip, nor be likely to readily cut through the skin, and tether it in shallow water, when it usually attaches itself to the bottom of the canoe. When, as the result of frequent use and heavy strain, the tail of the sucker is so deeply cut by the line that it is in danger of being completely severed, a hole is callously bored right through the body beside the backbone, and the line passed through it for additional security.
Turtle being wanted, the blacks voyage out each in a bark canoe, which weighs about 40 lbs., is 8 feet long, 2 feet beam and 1 foot deep midships, where the sides are much depressed, leaving little more than an inch of freeboard. There is a good sheer forward and a slight tilt at the stern, while the bottom is level. Occasionally two men fit themselves into a canoe of the dimensions given. The canoe is constructed of a single sheet of bark, preferably of “Gulgong” (EUCALYPTUS ROBUSTA) or “Carr-lee” (ACACIA AULACOCARPA), or “Wee-ree” (CALOPHYLLUM INOPHYLLUM) brought neatly together at the ends, which are sewn with strips of lawyer cane. Pieces of lawyer cane are sometimes also stitched in to represent stem and stern posts, and the chaffing pieces also are of cane, though occasionally thin pliant saplings are strapped and sewn on. Across the bow and the stern are stays of cane, with generally a stronger thwart midships. When new, and the stitches of yellow cane regular and bright, the canoe represents about the neatest and nattiest of the few constructive efforts of the blacks, and is as buoyant as a duck. The seams are caulked with a resinous gum, “Tambarang,” of the jungle tree known as “Arral” (EVODIA ACCEDENS), and is prepared by being powdered on a flat stone previously moistened with water. The powdered resin is melted by heat, allowed to solidify, and pounded and melted again, and after being rolled and kneaded into a lump, is wrapped in a leaf until wanted. The finished article, which is also used as a cement, is known as “Toon-coo.”
Motor power for the canoe is a shovel-shaped piece of bark 5 inches by 3 1/2 inches, each man having a pair. Ever and anon the aft man ejects leakage by a rapid succession of dexterous back strokes of his paddle.
Naked and unashamed, the blacks are well equipped for sport. They may have three or four harpoons of their own manufacture, besides a live fire-stick lying on a piece of bark sprinkled with sand, or they may carry a couple of dry sticks for raising a fire by friction. The haft of the harpoon is probably red or orange mangrove (BRUGUIERA RHEEDI), heavy and tough. It has been duly seasoned and straightened by immersion in running water and exposure to fire. At the heavy end it is hollowed out to a depth Of 4 inches. The point is preferably of one of the black palms (ARCHONTOPHOENIX JARDINEI), and a barb is strapped to it with the fibre of the “Man-djar” (HIBISCUS TILIACEOUS) and cemented with “Toon-coo.”
I have never known one of these barbs to break or come loose, so adept are the blacks in securing them. The point is about 6 inches long, and on the barbless end is tightly wound successive layers of fibrous bark, until its size is adjusted to the socket in the haft. Above the swathing of bark a strong line is made fast; the padded end is fitted into the socket, the line is made taut along the whole length of the haft, and secured by three or four half hitches about a foot from the thin end. A neat coil of perhaps 50 yards of line lies in the bottom of the canoe. Probably each of the blacks will have his fishing-line, for sometimes the turtle do not rise according to expectations. At high tide these feed among the rocks close to the shore, at low water out among the coral on the reef, and the hunters wait and watch and fish silently and with all passivity. Then, when maybe they have caught schnapper, red bream and parrot-fish, they drift among the turtle, and the sport begins.
In sight of the game the sucker which has been adhering to the bottom of the canoe is tugged off and thrown in its direction. As a preliminary the disc and shoulders of the sucker are vigorously scrubbed with dry sand or the palm of the hand, to remove the slime and to excite the ruling passion of the fish. It makes a dash for a more congenial companionship than an insipid canoe. The line by which it is secured is made from the bark of the “Boo-bah” (FICUS FASCICULATA) and is of two strands, so light as not to seriously encumber the sucker, and yet strong enough to withstand a considerable strain. Two small loops are made in the line about an interval Of 2 fathoms from the sucker, to act as indicators.
As soon as the sucker has attached itself to the turtle, a slight pull is given and the startled turtle makes a rush, the line being eased out smartly. Then sport of the kind that a salmon-fisher enjoys when he has hooked a 40-pounder begins. The turtle goes as he pleases; but when he begins to tire, he finds that there is a certain check upon him — slow, steady, never-ceasing. After ten minutes or so a critical phase of the sport occurs. The turtle bobs up to the surface for a gulp of air, and should he catch sight of the occupants of the canoe, his start and sudden descent may result in such a severe tug that the sucker is divorced. But the blacks watch, and in their experience judge to a nicety when and where the turtle may rise; telegrams along the line from the sucker give precise information. They crouch low on their knees in the canoe, as the game emerges, with half-shut eyes and dives again without having ascertained the cause of the trifling annoyance to which he is being subjected. The line is shortened up. Perhaps the turtle sulks among the rocks and coral, and endeavours to free himself from the sucker by rubbing against the boulders. Knowing all the wiles and manoeuvres, the blacks play the game accordingly, and hour after hour may pass, they giving and taking line with fine skill and the utmost patience. The turtle has become accustomed to the encumbrance, and visits the surface oftener for air. One of the harpoons is raised, and as the turtle gleams grey, a couple of fathoms or so under the water, the canoe is smartly paddled towards the spot whence it will emerge, and before it can get a mouthful of air the barbed point, with a strong line attached, is sticking a couple of inches deep in its shoulder.
There is a mad splash — a little maelstrom of foam and ripples, the line runs out to its full length, and the canoe careers about, accurately steered by the aft man, in the erratic course of the wounded creature. As it tires, the heavy haft of the harpoon secured by the half hitches round the thin end being a considerable drag, the line is shortened up, but too much trust is not placed on a single line; some time may pass before the canoe is brought within striking distance again. When that moment arrives, a second harpoon is sent into the flesh below the edge of the carapace at the rear. Unable to break away, the turtle is hauled close alongside the canoe, secured by the flippers and towed ashore. I have known blacks, after harpooning a turtle, to be towed 6 miles out to sea before it came their turn to do the towing.
How they accomplish the feat of securing a turtle that may weigh a couple of hundredweight from a frail bark canoe, in which a white man can scarcely sit and preserve his balance, is astonishing. In a lively sea the blacks sit back, tilting up the stem to meet the coming wave, and then put their weight forward to ease it down, paddling, manoeuvring with the line and baling all the time. The mere paddling about in the canoe is a feat beyond the dexterity of an ordinary man.
It must not be concluded that these blacks invariably have the co-operation of a sucker in securing turtle. Its use is comparatively rare. Generally both turtle and dugong are harpooned as they rise to the surface to breathe, the sportsmen being very cunning and skilful. They descry the turtle on the bottom, and softly follow its movements as it feeds on the marine vegetation, and then as it rises harpoon it; or they follow one that has betrayed itself by rising, observation and experience enabling them to judge fairly accurately when and where it is likely to rise again. But patience, solemn silence, and the avoidance of anything like sudden movements, are among the principal rules to be observed.
In passing, on the point of the turtle endeavouring to rid itself of the sucker, a European pearl-sheller told me of a unique experience that befell him in Torres Straits. Groping along the bottom, pushing his way against an impetuous current, he was almost knocked down by a move-on sort of shove. Instinctively his hand clutched the life-line, when he was again pushed disrespectfully, and in the greenish light saw that a monstrous turtle was using him as the afflicted Scotch were said to use the stones set up by the humane and sympathetic Duke of Argyle, and without so much as invoking a blessing.
Having caught their turtle and brought it ashore, and having seen the extent to which the tail of the sucker (which has been faithful to its host to the death) has been cut by the line, and having decided that it will do one time more and put it back in the water tethered, or “that fella no good now,” and cast it callously on the sand, to writhe about until dead, the blacks proceed to the cooking. Possibly the camp decides upon a “Kummaorie.”
A big fire is made and a dozen or so smooth stones about the size of saucers put on the embers to get red hot. In the meantime the turtle is killed, the head, neck, and sometimes the two fore flippers, removed. The entrails and stomach are taken out, and after being roughly cleansed are put back into the cavity. A hole is scraped in the sand, and the turtle stuck tail-first into it, the sand being banked up so that it remains upright. Then the red-hot stones are lifted with sticks and dropped into the turtle, hissing and spluttering, and stirred about with a stout stick. Another hole has been scooped in the sand and paved with stones, upon which a roaring fire is made, When the stones are hot through, the fire is scraped away, and the steaming turtle eased down from its upright position, care being taken not to allow any of the gravy to waste, and carefully deposited on the hot stones — carapace down. Quickly, so that none of the “smell” escapes, the whole is covered with leaves — native banana, native ginger, palms, etc., and over all is raised a mound of sand. In the morning the flesh is thoroughly cooked. The plastron (lower shell) is lifted off, and in the carapace is a rich, thick soup. No blood or any of the juices of the meat have gone to waste — the finest of meat extracts, the very quintessence of turtle, remains. What would your gourmands give for a plate of this genuine article? Who may say he has tasted turtle soup — pure and unadulterated — unless he has “Kummaoried” his turtle to obtain it? With balls of grass the blacks sop up the brown oily soup, loudly smacking and sucking their lips to emphasise appreciation. Then there are the white flesh and the glutin, the best of all fattening foods; and having eaten to repletion for a couple of days, the diet palls, and they begin to speak in shockingly disrespectful terms of turtle.
In the arid parts of Australia, where rain rarely occurs, the blacks have acquired much out-of-the-way knowledge on the means of obtaining water. White men, unable to read the secret signs of its existence, have perished in all the agonies of thirst in country in which water, from a black fellow’s point of view, was plentiful and comparatively easy to reach. Here there is never any anxiety on the subject. The minds of the blacks turn rather upon attempts to account for the rain, at times excessive and discomforting. Bad weather, in common with other untoward circumstances, is frequently ascribed to the machinations of evilly disposed boys. A boy may accept the credit or have the greatness thrust upon him of the manufacture of a gale which has brought about general discomfort, and to spite him, regardless of consequence to others, another boy will promise a still more destructive breeze next year. And so the game of wanton interference with the meteorological conditions of the continent proceeds, each successive infliction being arranged to serve out the author of the one preceding. It may be that the instigator of a gale lives far away, at the Palm Islands, or on Hinchinbrook, or at Mourilyan. Those who are terrified or inconvenienced agree to ascribe it to him, and having done so there is nothing of the mysterious to explain away. Usually the boy upon whom the responsibility is fixed is not available for cross-examination; but that renders the fact all the more conclusive. Here is the storm. Peter of the Palms must have made it.
An old gin known as Kitty, and who lived on Hinchinbrook Island, was famed on account of her successful manipulation of the weather. She was a grim personage — held in respect, if not awe, because of the peculiar distinctions ascribed to her. She could command not only the wind and the rain, but the thunder and lightning also, and to offend her was to run the risk of bringing about a terrifying storm. Years after her death blacks had faith in her potency for ill. One of the few white men who have attempted to climb the highest peaks of the island mountain, informed me that when he reached a certain elevation, the boys who accompanied him never spoke above an awe-struck whisper, and solemnly reproved him whensoever he uttered an unguarded exclamation. They were afraid that the debil-debil might be aroused; that Kitty would resent the intrusion of her haunt. At last they refused to go higher, and the ascent up in the dreaded regions was continued alone, while they abandoned themselves to sinister prognostics. One lonely night was spent high up on the mountain, and when the adventurer came back on his tracks in the morning, the boys were surprised to find that no harm had befallen him. To go into the very stronghold of mischievous and vindictive spirits, and to come away again, was to them almost beyond comprehension, and because no hurricane swooped down upon them, as they hurried to the lower and safer levels, nothing short of the marvellous.
However fantastic this supposition of human influence on the weather, there is an inclination to treat it with a semblance of respect when it is borne in mind that up to a comparatively recent date a similar belief prevailed even in enlightened England. Addison has a sarcastic reference to the superstition in one of his delightful essays. Detailing the news brought from his country seat by Sir Roger de Coverley, he says that the good knight informed him that Moll White was dead, and that about a month after her death, the wind was so very high that it blew down the end of one of his barns. “But for my own part,” says Sir Roger, “I do not think that the old woman had any hand in it.” In this particular, blacks are not so very far in the wake of races quite respectable in other points of civilisation.
Among other causes to which bad weather is ascribed is the eating by the young men of the porcupine (ECHIDNA), a dainty reserved for the wise, conservative old men. If young men should eat of the forbidden flesh, a terrible calamity will befall — the clouds will “come down altogether!” One day Tom picked up a young porcupine before it had time to dig a refuge in the soil, and took it to his camp alive. That afternoon a south-east gale sprang up, masses of rain-clouds driving tumultuously to the mountains of the mainland, but Tom was still youthful, and we felt fairly safe in respect of the stability of the dull and heavy, and wind-swept firmament. As we watched, a cloud settled on the summit of Clump Point mountain, assuming shape as fancy pictures the Banshee — drooping head and shoulders, and arms with pendant drapery uplifted as in imprecation. The boys, in awe-struck attitude, pointed to the vapoury spectre, and prognosticated fearsome rain and wind. It all came during the night. Next morning one of the boys was eager to declare that the nocturnal tempest was due to Tom, who had eaten the porcupine. We had seen his weird mother-in-law, aged and decrepid, preparing it for supper. When Tom appeared, he was duly denounced, and challenged with the responsibility of the storm. “No!” he cried with scorn. “Me no eat ’em that fella porcupine; chuck ’em away!” He had intended to, but the thought of the apparition on Clump Point mountain, and of the awful responsibility of causing the collapse of the clouds had taken away his inclination.
But the other boy was not to have his theories as to the weather brushed aside lightly. It was “that fella along a mountain,” who caused the trouble, or else “another boy alonga Hinchinbrook!” Having thus completely and satisfactorily settled the point, his face assumed a slow, wise smile, and his agitated mind rested. Was it not all another palpable proof, a precedent to be cited, of the manner in which a no-good-boy wantonly brought about a big wind?
Most of the dainties are forbidden the young members of the camp. Bony bream and bony herring will be passed on to the boys and girls, and, so too, the rough parts of turtle; but the sweet fish and flesh are retained by the old and lusty men, who proclaim that they alone may eat of such things with impunity. No youngster will dare to partake of ECHIDNA (“coom-be-yan”) at the risk of the prescribed consequences; and to the old men the fiction stands in the place (as was recently pointed out) of an annuity or old age pension.
To fare sumptuously every day was not the lot of the natives of Dunk Island. In excessively rainy weather they were often glad of the coarsest and hardest of foods. Certain sharks are eaten with avidity whenever they are secured; but some species are too rank and tough to be endurable under any but extraordinary circumstances. Oysters were always plentiful, but a diet restricted to the most delicate of molluscs palls on the palate even of a black fellow. Ordinarily, food was abundant. For the most part it had only to be picked up and cooked. Frequently it was eaten on the spot, fresh from bountiful Nature’s hands; but blacks appreciate changes of diet — even when the change is retrogressive — from the well-cooked, clean food of a white household to that of the sodden and strong stuffs common to the camp. When, as sometimes happened, the desire for novelty came, the whole population would paddle away to the mainland or to one or other of the adjacent islands, voyages being undertaken as far away as distant Hinchinbrook. Turtle do not favour the beaches and sandbanks of Dunk Island generally as safe depositories for their innumerable eggs, and when the longing came for these delicacies the inhabitants would with one accord travel to those islands in the security of which turtle still exhibit faith. The drift of the population hither and thither was not due to the scarcity of food but to a wayward impulse. As a rule there was little for the population to do save to eat, drink, laze away the hotter hours of the day, and “corrobboree” at night.
Astonishment can scarcely be withheld when an attempt is made to catalogue the available foods of the island, the variety and quantity. No effort was made at cultivation. Blacks took no heed of the morrow, but accepted the fruits of the earth without thought of inciting Nature to produce better or more abundantly, and yet how plenteous were her gifts!
Permitting imagination to soar away into regions of romance, one might picture a dinner-party of the bygone days, the lap of Mother Earth furnished with edibles and dainties, and the hungry and expectant members of the camp squatted round in anticipation of the various courses. Such a scene would be worthy of being classed among the most improbable; but as it would not be absolutely impossible, may not an attempt be made to treat it as a reality?
The repast might be initiated with a few oysters on the shells (with a choice of three or four varieties); a selection of many fish would be succeeded by real turtle (“padg-e-gal”) soup (in the original shell), and made as before described; the joint, a huge piece of dugong (“pal-an-gul”) kummaoried, rich and excellent, with ENTREES of turtle cutlets and baked grubs (“tam-boon”), ivory white with yellow heads, as neat and pretty a dish as could be seen, and rather rare and novel too. When the beetles (APPECTROGASTRA FLAVIPILIS) into which these stolid grubs and fidgetty nymphs develop, are chopped out of decayed wood, they have the odour of truffles, and emit two distinct squeaky notes from the throat and the abdominal segments respectively. Each maintains a duet with itself until the hot embers impose silence and convert them into dainty nutty morsels. Roast scrub fowl eggs would be no novelty, and baked crayfish (“too-lac”), bluey-white and leathery —“such stuff as dreams are made on”— might lend a decorative effect. Raw echinus (“kier-bang”), saline and tonic, would clear the palate for succeeding delicacies.
The tough sweet yam (“pun-dinoo”), the heart of the Alexandra palm (“koobin-karra”), the hard rhizome of BOWENIA SPECTABILIS (“moo-nah”) after being allowed weeks to decompose, the core of the tree fern (“kalo-joo”), the long root-stock of CURCULIGO ENSIFOLIA (“harpee”) crisp and slightly bitter, the broad beans of the white mangrove (“kum-moo-roo”), would stand as vegetables.
Sweets would be the weakest part of the menu. One pudding might certainly be included, VERMICELLI (shredded bean-tree nuts —“tinda-burra”) with honey and orange-coloured balsamic custard, scraped from the outside of the drupes of the PANDANUS ODORATISSIMUS (“pim-nar”).
Dessert, on the other hand, might be plentiful and varied. “Bed-yew-rie” (XIMENIA AMERICANA), thirst-allaying and palate-sharpening; “Top-kie” (Herbert River cherry, ANTEDISMA DALLACHYANUM), resembling red currants in flavour; “Pool-boo-nong” (finger cherry, RHODOMYRTUS MACROCARPA), sweet, soft and appeasing; “Panga-panga,” raspberry (RUBUS ROSAEFOLIUS); “Koo-badg-aroo” (Leichhardt-tree, SARCOCEPHALUS CORDATUS), resembling a strawberry in shape, but brown, spicy and hot; “Murl-kue-kee” (snow-white berries of EUGENIA SUBORBICULARIS), vapid, and as insipid as an immature medlar; “Raroo” (CAREYA AUSTRALIS), mealy and biting. Various figs, ranging in size from a large red currant to a tennis-ball, and in colour from white through all the tints from pale yellow and green to red, purple and black, sweet and generally mawkish. The banana would be there in the MUSA BANKSIA (“boo-gar-oo”), although “close up all bone”; but the Davidsonian plum, plentiful on the mainland, would be absent. The scape of the ELETTARIA SCOTTIANA, oozing viscid nectar, might stand as a sweetmeat.
Then, dallying with tomahawks and flat stones with the tough nuts of the “Moo-jee” (TERMINALIA MELANOCARPA), and the drupes of the “Can-kee” (PANDANUS AQUATICUS) to extract the narrow sweet kernels, and sipping the while cordial compounded of the larvae of green tree-ants (“book-gruin”), acidulous and nippy, the men might indulge in after-dinner stories and reminiscences, as the gins and piccaninnies drink heartily of water sweetened with sugar-bag (honey-comb), and chew the seeds contained in the china-blue pericarp of the native ginger —“Ool-pun” (ALPINIA CAERULA).
Many vegetable foods would still be unenumerated, and there would be numerous shell-fish — periwinkles, cockles, mussels, scallops, dolphins, besides crabs. On rare occasions a scrub fowl (the blacks had no reliable means of capturing that wary bird, and when fortune favoured, it was an instance of bad luck on its part), with pigeons, carpet snakes, and sea-birds’ eggs might make high tea.
Time, and diligent search revealed the location on the island of two art galleries, or rather independent studios, where there are exhibited works of distinct character. Tradition points to the existence of a third, the discovery of which gives zest to each exploratory expedition. Possibly it may also display original exploits in the realms of fancy, and so confirm the opinion that the black artists were not mere copyists of each other, but belonged to different schools, each having his own method and allowing his talent free and untrammelled development.
What may be designated the Lower Studio is on the eastern slope, and is only to be approached from the sea in calm weather, the alternative route being a tiresome climb, a long and tormenting struggle through the jungle, and a descent among a confusion of rocks and boulders. It is situated about a couple of hundred feet above sea-level, quite hidden in the leafy wilderness which covers that aspect of the island from high-water mark to the summit of the ridge. Unless the spot was indicated, one might search for it for years in vain, and though I had made frequent inquiries, its existence was made known only by chance, its importance being considered insignificant compared with the other studio, the glories of which had frequently been descanted upon. Taking the sea-route, there is a natural harbour available, just capacious enough for a small dingy, and up above the rocks, swept bare by the surges, a dense and tangled scrub “whereto the climber upwards turns his face,” and taking advantage of such aids as aerial roots, slim saplings, and the reed-like growths of the so called native ginger, begins the steep ascent. Where the rock does not emerge from the surface, the black soil is loose and kept in perpetual cultivation by scrub fowl, the wonder being that earth reposes at such an angle. But for interlacing and matted roots all must slide down to the sea.
A few minutes’ exertion lands one at the portal of the studio, which is of the lean-to order of architecture, a granite boulder having one fairly vertical face being overshadowed by a much higher rock having a dip of about 60 degrees.
Here originally there were five exhibits. Two have weathered away almost to nothingness, some faint streaks and blotches of red earth, in which medium all the pictures have been executed, alone remaining. Those subjects that are readily decipherable are mutilated after the style of certain much-prized antiques.
Of those which have successfully withstood the ravages of time, two apparently represent lizards, and the third seems to portray a monstrosity — a human being with a rudimentary tail. A German philosopher might possibly build upon this embryonic tail a theory to prove that the Australian aboriginal is indeed and in fact the missing link, and thereby excel in ethnological venture those who merely recognise in him the relic from a prehistoric age of man. Could it not be argued that the picture reveals an act of unconscious cerebration — an instinctive knowledge of ancestors with tails?
However that may be, the unconscious artist took further artless liberties with the human form divine. He had been at pains, too, to smooth down the face of the rock for the reception of the unshaded daubs of terra-cotta, using peradventure the flat stone upon which he was wont to bruise the hot and biting roots of the aroid (COLOCASIA MACRORRHIZA) which formed part of his diet. The utensil lies there at the entrance where he left it; the plants grow in profusion close by among the rocks; but of the artist there is no record, save the crude and grotesque figures in fading red on the grey granite.
Most of the central figure is clearly discernible; but parts of the outline have become blurred and irregular. Tradition says that all the figures once had black heads — the only attempts at the introduction of a second colour — but no traces of the black heads are now visible. They must have succumbed to the tender but irresistible assaults of Time long ago. In one case, fact seems to belie tradition, for there exist faint suggestions of a red head — and a red-headed black is as rare as a black with a tail; but the traces are so extremely vague and indeterminate as to render any attempt at restoration hopeless. But does not this obscurity and partial dismemberment lend an air of antiquity, much prized elsewhere, to these savage frescoes?
Of quite a different order are the works in the Upper Studio at the sign of the White Stripe. This lies close to the backbone of the island, in the heart of a bewildering jumble of immense rocks overgrown with jungle. Circumstantial accounts of the treasures there to be seen had determined me to persevere in attempts to discover it; but though the traditions of the blacks were strengthened by a mild sort of enthusiasm, and the exhibition of no little pride, they did but slight service towards revealing the precise locality. None of the living remnants of the race had seen the paintings. All trusted to the saying of “old men” and had faith. Experience had taught me to accept with caution and reserve legends founded on the unverified testimony of “old men” which had passed down to the present generation; but being much interested, and having become elated with the hope of discovering that which had not been seen by white folks, nor, indeed, by any living person, I also trusted and persevered.
From ships that pass to the East may be seen a bold white streak on the face of a huge rock, so sharply defined and accurate in alignment that it might be mistaken for a guide to mariners, or rather a warning, for the floor of the ocean is strewn with patches of coral, and the rocks are singularly forbidding, save on calm days. Opinion current among the blacks asserted that the paintings were on a rock below the disjointed precipice on the top of the ridge made conspicuous by the broad white band. The sign was found to be due to the bleaching of the rock face by the drainage from a mass of stag’s horn fern. Possessed of this information, which proved in the long run to be trustworthy, several exploratory trips were undertaken. To reach the locality from Brammo Bay, one must cross the middle of the backbone of the island, and descend some little distance on the Pacific slope.
I scaled and scrambled over and crawled upon huge rocks, peered into gloomy crevices with daylight edges fringed with ferns and orchids, squeezed through narrow tunnels, and groped in dark recesses without finding any evidence of prehistoric art. Blacks do not care to venture into places where twilight always reigns, though they are curious to learn the experiences and sensations of other explorers of the gloom. At last, however, patience was rewarded, and beneath a great granite rock, which on three previous excursions had been overlooked, the paintings were discovered. In their execution the artist must have lain on his back, for the “cave” does not permit one to sit upright in it, except towards the wide and expansive front, and the subjects are on the ceiling, which is fairly flat. The floor, thick with a fine brown dust mingled with shining specks of decomposed granite, and dimpled with hundreds of pitfalls of the ant-lion, slopes upward. It is cool, and a dry, secure spot. Not even the torrential rains of many decades of wet seasons have damped the floor. One feels as though he were disturbing the dust of ages; when sitting back to admire the decorated ceiling, he necessarily imprints patterns which are the replicas of those made by flesh and bone long since numbered among the anonymous dead.
The sea laves the hot rocks 600 feet below, and booms and gobbles in the cool crevices; but up here the outlook is obscured by rocks and giant trees, and an artistic soul, longing for some method of expression, might serenely gratify itself in accordance with its lights — crude though they were. Here, at the entrance, lie a couple of charred sticks, significant of the last fire of the artist, which smouldered out perhaps half a century ago. On the very doorstep is a disc of pearl-shell, the discarded beginning of a fish-hook. These relics give to the scene a pathetic interest. As I looked at them ponderingly, a frog far in the back of the cave gave a discordant, echoing croak, which started the sulky and suspicious black boy who attended me into an abrupt exclamation of semi-fright; while a scrub fowl, scratching for its living overhead, dislodged a chip of granite which went clicking down the rocks. “Tom,” at the instant, felt that the spirit of the departed was manifesting, in the hollow tones of a frog and the activity of a bird, resentment at the intrusion of his haunts, and was warning us to begone. But we had come far on a toilsome errand, and were not to be scared away by trifles, though a transient feeling of reluctance to disturb the solemnity of the studio could not be withheld.
Remembering the fervid praises of the treasures by those who had not seen them, a sense of disappointment when they came to be examined was inevitable. They are not to be classed in any standard beyond that displayed on early school-slates; but imperfect as they are, they possess a certain symmetry and proportion, and the facts that they are where they are, and that the artist — dead and forgotten — had no light or leading, and was in other respects probably one of the most rude, most uncouth of human beings, are sufficient to lend to the drawings an interest as absorbing (though of a nature quite apart) as that with which the average individual contemplates the stiff works of masters of Continental fame.
One able critic of aboriginal art refers to similar rock paintings as frescoes, for lack of a significant title. Apparently the rock surface was slightly smoothed where inequalities existed — in one case the design follows the ridges and hollows — the subjects being worked in, in dry earth of a chalky nature, dull red in colour. Animated nature and still life have been studied and reproduced. The turtle is true, and the most conspicuous and sharply-defined study the least convincing. It resembles those fantastic interwoven shapes that some men in fits of abstraction or idleness sketch on their own blotting-pads, and which signify nothing.
Comparing the works of the two studios, there is little doubt that there were at least two artists native of Dunk Island in times past, and in that respect the island was infinitely superior to its present state. Each appears to have effected a different kind of work — one devoting himself to realistic reptiles and the human form debased, and the other almost solely to the creation of conventional designs, and the representation of the animals and of weapons of his age. One illustrated man, and even gave to one of his reptiles a semi-human shape; the other exercised an exuberant fancy for ornamentation. Each bequeathed to the present day and generation works that are at least free from the subtleties of art.
Most of us have had moments of rapture before the glowing embodiment of the inspiration of some great artist, whose gifts have been developed to maturity by enthusiastic and patient striving for perfection. Do not these clumsy drawings, too, reveal that which, considering their environment, is talent — original and unacademic. Here is the sheer beginning, the spontaneous germ of art, the labouring of a savage soul controlled by wilful aesthetic emotions. For these pictures are not figurative, not mere signs and symbols capable of elucidation, but the earliest and only efforts of an illiterate race, a race in intellectual infancy, towards the ideal — a forlorn but none the less sincere attempt to reach the “light that quickens dreams to deeds!”
The last of the series of “Black Art” pictures is not local. It occurs on the reverse of a shield, the spear-punctured lower edge of which verifies its eventful history. The warrior-artist silhouetted a sweetheart’s figure, where, at supreme moments, it came before his fancy and gave the battle to his hands.
One of the chief vegetable foods of the blacks is the fruit of “tinda-burra” (Moreton Bay chestnut — CASTANOSPERMUM AUSTRALE). The plentiful pea-shaped flowers range in colour from apple-green, pale yellow, orange to scarlet, and contain large quantities of nectar, which attracts multitudes of birds and insects. Blacks regard this tree with special favour and consideration. A casual remark, as I observed the industry of insects about the flowers, that the bean-tree was good for bees, elicited the scornful response, “Good for man!” The tree is of graceful shape, the bole often pillar-like in its symmetry, and the wood hard and durable and of pleasing colour, and so beautifully grained that it is fast becoming popular for furniture and cabinet-making. It bears a prolific crop of large beans, from two to five in each of its squat pods, but they are, as Mr Standfast found the waters of Jordan, “to the palate bitter, and to the stomach cold,” and require special treatment in order to eliminate a poisonous principle. Many chemists analysed the beans (one finding that they may be converted into excellent starch) without discovering any noxious element; but as horses, cattle, and pigs die if they eat the raw bean, and a mere fragment is sufficient to give human beings great pain, followed by most unpleasant consequences, the research was continued, until within quite a recent date the presence of saponin was detected. Before science made its discovery, the blacks were very positive on the point of the poisonous qualities of the bean, and took measures to eliminate it. In some parts of the State the beans, after being steeped in water for several days, are dried in the sun, roasted in hot ashes, and pounded between stones into a coarse kind of meal, which may be kept for an indefinite period. When required for use the meal is mixed with water, made into a thin cake or damper, and baked in the ashes. Prepared in this way the cake resembles a coarse ship’s biscuit. In other parts, the beans are scraped by means of mussel-shells into a vermicelli-like substance, prior to soaking in water. Our blacks have a more ingenious method of preparation, and employ a specially formed culinary implement, which is used for no other purpose. They take the commonest of the land shells —“kurra-dju” (XANTHOMELON PACHYSTYLA)— and breaking away the apex grind down the back on a stone until but little more than half its bulk remains. The upper edges being carefully worked to a fine edge, the only housewifery implement that the blacks possess is perfect. With the implement in the right hand, between the thumb and the second finger — the sharp edge resting on the thumb-nail — the beans are planed, the operator being able to regulate the thickness of the shaving to a nicety.
It is women’s work to collect the beans, make the shell-planes, and do the shredding. In the first place the beans are cooked, the oven consisting of hot stones covered with leaves. In three or four hours they are taken out and planed, a dilly-bag (basket made of narrow strips of lawyer cane or grass) full of the shavings is immersed in running water for two or three days, the food being then ready for consumption without further preparation. In appearance it resembles coarse tapioca, and it has no particular flavour. To give it zest, some have a shell containing sea-water beside them when they dine, into which each portion of the mess is dipped. As saponin is very soluble in water, by soaking the shredded beans for a few days the blacks resort to an absolutely perfect method of converting a poisonous substance into a valuable and sustaining, if tasteless, food. No doubt, made up into a pudding with eggs, milk, sugar and flavouring, shredded beans would pass without comment as a substitute for tapioca.
There came to our beach one afternoon some poor exiles from Princess Charlotte Bay — 300 miles to the north. Exiled they felt themselves to be, and were longing to return to their own country although their engagement for a six months’ cruise in quest of the passive beche-de-mer had but just begun. One boy stepped along with an air of pride and importance. His companions were deferential to a certain extent, but they, too, exhibited an unusual demeanour. Some of the glory and honour that shone in Mattie’s face was reflected in theirs. With the assurance of an ambassador bearing high credentials he saluted me —
“Hello, Mister! Good day.”
“Good day,” I responded. “You come from that cutter?”
Mattie —“Yes, mister. Mickie sit down here, now? Me got ’em letter. Brother belonga gin, belonga Mickie; him gib it!”
“No; Mickie sit down alonga Palm Islands. Come back, bi’mby.”
Mattie (with a downcast air)—“My word! Bo’sun (the brother-in-law) gib it letter belonga Mickie.”
“Where letter?” I asked.
Mattie —“Me got ’em,” and drawing out a very soiled little parcel, he proudly exposed a piece of greyish wood, about the size and shape of a lead pencil, on which had been cut two continuous intersecting grooves. “Me giv’ ’em Mickie; Bo’sun alonga Cooktown. He want to come up this way now.”
The letter was a mere token of material expression of the fact that the sender was in the land of the living, and of his faith in the bearer, who was charged with all the personal messages and news. It was a sad rebuff to Mattie, elated with responsibility and eager to unburden himself of the latest domestic intelligence, to find that Mickie was not on the spot to receive it all. And, after fondling the wooden document for a while, he wrapped it up and carefully bestowed it within the bosom of his shirt. The disappointment was general. The gleam faded from the faces of the boys. For several days, first one and then another was entrusted with the honourable custody of the missive. Whoever possessed it for the time being was the most favoured individual. His worthiness for the office he acknowledged with an amusing air of self-consciousness and pride. The transmission of a letter is not an ordinary occurrence, and though there is an entire absence of form and ceremony in its delivery, the rarity of the event lends to it novelty and importance.
Aboriginal letters are of great variety, and some there are who profess to interpret them. The despatches are, however, invariably, in my experience, transmitted from hand to hand, the news of the day being recapitulated at the same time. It is not essential that the unstudied cuts and scratches on wood should have any significance or be capable of intelligible rendering. Though blacks profess to be able to send messages by means of sticks alone, the pretension is not recognised by those who have crucially investigated it
On a certain station a youthful son of the proprietor was accidentally drowned in a creek not far from the homestead. The grief of the parents was participated in by all engaged on the station, for the boy, full of promise, had been a general favourite. None seemed more sorrowful and gloomy than the blacks camped in the neighbourhood, and when the first shock of sorrow was of the past, they were eager to send the news to distant friends. A letter was laboriously composed. It was a short piece of wood, narrow and flat; an undulating groove ran from end to end on one side, midway was an intersecting notch. These were the principal characteristics, but there were other small marks and scratches. Bearing this as his credentials, a messenger departed, and in a week or so members of camps hundreds of miles away had seen the letter and were in possession of all the details of the sad event, the messenger in the meantime having returned. The letter was duly credited with having conveyed the particulars. Is it not obvious, however, that the news had been transmitted orally, and that the crude carvings on the stick merely indicated an attempt to give verisimilitude to the intelligence — the wavy line indicating the creek, and the notch the fatal waterhole. If not, then a black’s message-stick is a model of literary condensation, their characters marvels of comprehensiveness and exactitude.
Another letter is before me — one of the best specimens with regard to workmanship I have ever seen. Upon one edge of a piece of brown wood 6 inches long, 1 inch broad, flat and rounded off at the edges and ends, there are five notches, and on the opposite edge a single notch. Close to the end is a faint, crude representation of a broad arrow, below which is a confusion of small cuts, in a variety of angles, none quite vertical, some quite horizontal. On the reverse is a single — almost perpendicular — cut, and a bold X, and near the point, two shallow, indistinct diverging cuts. So far no one to whom the letter has been submitted has given a satisfactory reading. Blacks frankly admit that they do not understand it. They examine it curiously, and almost invariably remark —“Some fella mak’ em.” No attempt to decipher it is undertaken, because no doubt it was never intended to be read. Yet a plausible elucidation is at hand. The single notch, let it be said, represents a black who wishes to let five white fellows (who have made inquiries in that direction) know that a corrobboree is to begin before sundown, the setting sun being represented by the broad arrow, which seems to dip over the end of the stick. The guests are expected to bring rum to produce a bewildering, unsteady effect upon the whole camp — none, big or little, but will stagger about in all directions and finally lie down. On the other hand the guests are not to bring “one fella” policeman with handcuffs (the cross), otherwise all will decamp — the two last are seen vanishing into space. By a rare coincidence this very free interpretation could be made to apply to an actuality at the time the “letter” was received, but as a matter of fact it came from quite a different source to the black fellow who had engaged to let some students of the aboriginal character know when the next corrobboree would take place. It still remains undecipherable. My investigations do not support the theory that the blacks are capable of recording the simplest event by means of a system of so-called picture-writing, but rather that message-sticks have no meaning apart from verbal explanations. Blacks profess to be able to send messages which another may understand, but the tests applied locally invariably break down.
Another message-stick was made on the premises by George, but not to order. A genuine, unprompted natural effort, it is merely a slip of pine, 4 inches long, a quarter of an inch broad and flat, upon which are cut spiral intersecting grooves. George’s birthplace is Cooktown, and his message-stick resembles in design that brought by Mattie from Bo’sun of Cooktown for Mickie of the Palms. Now George professes to be able to write English, but he is so shy and diffident over the accomplishment that neither persuasion nor offer of reward induces him to practise it. When he produced the “letter,” more than usual interest was taken in it, for it seemed to offer an exceptional opportunity for ascertaining the extent of his literary pretensions. I asked him —“Who this for, George?” George looked at the stick long and curiously with a puzzled, concentrated expression, as one might assume when examining a novel and interesting problem demanding prompt solution. With an enlightening smile he in time replied —“This for Charlie.”
“Charlie” is the name of a boy who recently visited the island, but who hitherto had not been known by George.
“Well, what this letter talk about?” A very long pause ensued during which George appeared to be putting his imaginative powers to frightful over-exertion. His forehead wrinkled, his lips twitched, his head moved this way and that, once or twice a gleam of inspiration passed over his face, and then the expression of the deep and puzzled thinker came on again. Finally he said —“Y-e-e-s. Me tell ’em, sometimes me see Toby.”
Toby is the tallest of the survivors of Dunk Island, another acquaintance of George’s, who refers to him as a hard case, for it is said Toby’s affections are very fitful and uncertain.
“Then that letter tell ’em something more?” The strenuous pause, the desperate plunge into thought again, and George continued —“This for Johnny Tritton, before alonga Cooktown; now walk about somewhere down here. Might be catch ’em alonga mainland!”
This message-stick was freshly made, and its meaning, had it possessed any, might have been repeated pat. But it was evident that the boy was putting a devastating strain upon an unexuberant and tardy wit when he endeavoured to ascribe to it a literary rendering. His hesitancy and contradictions were at least amusingly ingenuous.
Exceptional opportunities were available in this neighbourhood recently for the formation of an opinion upon the value of message-sticks for the transmission of intelligence. The bushman who on horseback carried His Majesty’s mails inland among the settlers and to distant stations, was frequently also entrusted with the delivery of message-sticks by blacks along the route. Invariably the stick was accompanied by a verbal communication — a request for some article (a pipe, a knife, looking-glass, handkerchief) or an inquiry as to the whereabouts or welfare of some relative or friend. The mailman quickly found that the often elaborately graven stick was to no purpose whatever without the verbal message. Frequently the sticks would become far more hopelessly mixed up than the babes in PINAFORE; but as long as he recollected the message aright, not the slightest concern or dissatisfaction was manifested.
In this neighbourhood the making of pearl-shell fishhooks is one of the lost arts. The old men may tell how they used to be made, but are not able to afford any satisfactory practical demonstration. Therefore, to obtain absolutely authentic examples, it was necessary to indulge in the unwonted pastime of antiquarian research. During an unsystematic, unmethodical overhauling of the shell heap of an extensive kitchen midden — to apply a very dignified title to a long deserted camp — interesting testimony to the diligence and patience of the deceased occupants was obtained. It was evident that the sea had been largely drawn upon for supplies, if only on account of the many abortive and abandoned attempts at fishhooks in more or less advanced stages of completion. The brittleness of the fabric and the crudeness of the tools employed had evidently put the patience of the makers to severe task, who for one satisfactory hook must have contemplated many disappointments. The art must be judged as critically by the exhibition of its failures as by its perfections, as Beau Nash did the tying of his cravats. “Those are our failures,” the spirits of the departed, brooding over the site of the camp, might have sighed, as we sorted out crude and unfashioned fragments. Presently the discovery of a small specimen established the standard of perfection — a crescent of pearl, which alone was ample recompense for the afternoon’s research. Smaller than the average hook, it represented an excellent object-lesson in patience and skill. Many other examples, some complete, have since been found, and have been arranged for illustration to exhibit the process of construction in several stages. Do they not confirm the opinion that the maker of shell fish-hooks suffered many mishaps and disappointments, and that he had high courage in discarding any that evidenced a fault?
The method of manufacture was to reduce by chipping with a sharp-edged piece of quartz a portion of a black-lip mother-of-pearl shell to a disc. A central hole was then chipped — not bored or drilled — with another tool of quartz. The hole was gradually enlarged by the use of a terminal of one of the staghorn corals (MADEPORA LAXA) until a ring had been formed. Then a segment was cut away, leaving a rough crescent, which was ground down with coral files, and the ends sharpened by rubbing on smooth slate.
Discs were also cut out of gold-lip mother-of-pearl shell, but by what means there is no evidence to tell. When such a prize as a gold-lip shell was found, it was used to the last possible fragment. Most frequently the black-lip mother-of-pearl was the material whence the hooks were fashioned, and, when none other was available, the hammer oyster. In one case an unsuccessful endeavour had been made to fashion a hook from a piece of plate-glass, obtained, no doubt, from the wreck of some long-forgotten ship. The fractured disc lying among other relics of the handicraft spoke for itself.
Not only have many samples of partially-made hooks been found, but also the tools employed in the process. The sharp-edged fragment of quartz used to chip away the shell, the anvil of soft slate upon which the shell rested during the operation, the quartz chisel for chipping the central hole, the coral terminals, resembling rat-tail files, and the smooth stone upon which the rough edges of the hook were ground down and finished.
Hooks without barbs and manufactured of such materials as pearl-shell and tortoiseshell may throw light upon the Homeric quotation “caught fish with the horn of the ox.” In those far-off days, bronze wire rope, similar in design to the steel rope which is of common use in the present time, was employed. Ancient Greeks, though they anticipated one of the necessities of trade nowadays, depended upon fish-hooks resembling those just being abandoned by the Australian blacks. Fish are guileless creatures. They are captured today with hooks of the style upon which fishermen of the Homeric age depended.
From the appearance of the camps, and the age of the islander who took part in the various searches, and who was ready to admit that though pearl-shell hooks were used when he was a piccaninny he had never seen one made, I judge the age of these relics of a prehistoric art to be between thirty and forty years.
This boy has supplied samples of hooks made by himself with the aid of files, etc., in imitation of the old style, being careful to explain that the old men made them much better than any one could in these degenerate days of steel. Two of these modern hooks bound to bark lines are illustrated. What was the origin of the peculiar pattern of the pearl-shell fish-hooks? To this question, those who maintain that no handiwork of man exists which does not borrow from nature, or from something precedent to itself, may find a satisfactory answer offhand. As it weathers on the beach, the basal valve of the commonest of the oysters, of these waters occasionally assumes a crude crescent. Indeed, several of these fragments have at odd times attracted attention, for they have so closely resembled pearl-shell hooks in the rough that second glances have been necessary to dispose of the illusion that they were actually rejects from some old-time camp. Is it not reasonable to suppose that the original design was copied from this elemental model, as, in like manner the boomerang is traceable to a leaf? The pattern is so profoundly persistent in the minds of the blacks of to-day, that in fashioning a hook from a piece of straight wire they invariably form a crescent, though the superiority of the shape approved by civilisation must have been exemplified to them times out of number. In this particular the blacks seem unconsciously to follow the idea of their ancestors as birds obey instinct in the building of nests and in migratory flights.
Piccaninnies at this date remind us of the genesis of the boomerang as they sport with the sickle-shaped leaves (or rather PHYLLODIA) of the ACACIA HOLOCARPA as with miniature boomerangs. The piccaninny of the remote past chuckled gleefully as the jerked leaf returned to it. As a boy he fashioned a larger and permanent toy, surreptitiously using his father’s stone tomahawk and shell knife, while the old man was after wallaby with a waddy. As a young man, hunting or fighting, he found his boyish toy a very effective missile. Even for a straight shot it had a longer range and far higher velocity, with less strength expenditure, than the waddy or nulla-nulla; and its homing flight had practical if not frequent uses. In his childhood, adolescence and maturity the black of to-day so graphically summarises a chapter in the history of his race that he who runs may read.
In the origin of the boomerang and the shell fish-hook we have instances, hardly to be doubted, of direct inspirations from Nature, proofs of the art and the infinite patience with which she sets her copies and expounds her texts.
All the blacks of my acquaintance have had the rough edges of savagedom worn down. Consequently I lay no claim to original research or to the possession of any but common knowledge of the race at large. Learned societies and learned men have done and are doing all that is possible to acquire and accumulate information of the fast vanishing race. I merely record odd incidents, which may or may not prove useful and of interest, or which may bear repetition. An occasional gleam of satisfaction is vouchsafed even to casual and superficial students of human nature.
The supply of bait run out one day when we were fishing off the rocks with throw-lines. Mickie said —“We catch ’em plenty little fella fish with wild dynamite!” I asked him what he knew about dynamite. “Not white fella’s dynamite. Wild dynamite — I show you.”
Growing on the blistering rocks, with roots, down in the crevices, was a lowly vine, or rather a diffuse, creeping shrub with myrtle-like leaves and racemes of white flowers. “That fella wild dynamite,” said Mickie, as he tore up several strands of the plant and bunched them, leaves and all, in his hand. He made a small bundle, and going to an isolated pool in the rocks in which were small fish he beat the leaves with a nulla-nulla, dipping the bruised mass frequently in the water. In a few minutes the fish were darting about erratically, apparently making frantic efforts to get out of the water. One by one they became stupefied and helpless, floating belly up. Mickie filled his hat with them, and as the soporific effects of the juice of the leaves passed off, the remaining fish recovered and were soon swimming about again as if nothing had happened. Mickie had seen dynamite used to kill fish wholesale, hence his adaptation of the name of the plant known to him as “Paggarra,” and to botanists as DERRIS SCANDENS.
Another method by which the blacks secure fish in pools left by the receding tide is to scrape off the inner bark of the “Koie-yan” (FARADAYA SPLENDIDA) with a shell and spread it evenly on the bottom of a shallow pit in the sand, and place thereon stones made hot in the fire, or they may rub the powdered bark on hot stones. While still warm the stones are thrown into the water, when the fish become helpless. They die if left in water so impregnated; while the effects of the DERRIS SCANDENS is merely temporarily soporific. How blacks became acquainted with this process of speedily extracting the toxic principle of the FARADAYA, and as speedily dissipating it, is unknown. One generation passes on the knowledge to the other without explanation, and it is accepted as a matter of course, without comment or inquiry.
Caves and caverns in the rocks and the tops of the mountains are not favourite resorts of blacks. According to them nearly every mountain has its mysterious lagoon, which none but old men have visited, but which teems with fish and waterfowl. When direct inquiries are made as to the precise locality of any particular lagoon, invariably inconclusive evidence is tendered. “Old man, he bin see ’em;” and, the old man is never forthcoming for cross-examination. The origin of the romance, no doubt, is to be attributed to the desire of the blacks to account to themselves for the water which glitters on the face of the rocks far up the mountains. One boy gave an exceptionally graphic description of a lagoon on the top of one of the highest peaks of Hinchinbrook Island, in which all manner of sea fish revelled. When doubt was expressed as to the possibility of sea-water and sea-fish getting up so far “on top” and it was suggested —“What you think, that old man humbug you?” “Yes,” was the ready response; “me think that old fella no tell true. Him humbug.” Some blacks possess something wiser than knowledge.
On the northern aspect of Dunk Island, where the sea swirls about the buttresses of the hills, there is a cavern only approachable by boat. The mouth is overhung by vines and ferns, and through the moss which covers the lintel water trickles and splashes with pleasant sound. When the bronze orchid lavishly decorates the rocks with its crinkled flowers of dull gold, the entrance has a specific character; and quite another when the glossy leaves of the umbrella-tree form the relief and its long radiating spikes of dull red, bead-like flowers attract the brilliant sun-bird, and big blue and green and red butterflies. Even when the sea is lustrous the cavern, with all the artfulness and grace of the decorations of its portals, is a black blotch — the entrance to something unknowable and unknown — at least to the blacks. None had ever ventured near it and they never will. They tell you how it came to be made. How a long, long time ago, a big man, “all a same debil-debil,” took out with his mighty fingers a plug of rock and put it “on top alonga Hinchinbrook.” Now the particular decapitated pinnacle of Hinchinbrook is 20 miles away, and out of all proportion. But these facts do not affect the legitimacy of the legend. There is the hole, and there on the top of the far-away mountain the prodigious plug demonstrative evidence too obvious to be set aside on any such plea as the eternal fitness of things. Is not the blue point of the mountain a defiantly triumphant fact? Is not the legend authenticated by tradition and confirmed by topography?
Why, therefore, doubt it for a moment?
And the hole — it goes a long, long way under the mountain. It is a bad place, a very bad place. No one has ever been there. Suppose any fella go inside, bi’mby that fella sick, bi’mby that fella die.
Braving all the honest traditions, one fine day I took a lantern in the boat and induced the boys to row to the entrance of the cave. Neither would venture in; indeed, they did all they could to dissuade me, protesting that evil was sure to befall. A minute’s exploration showed that the cave did not extend 30 feet, and that it was dry, and resonant with “the whispering sound of the cool colonnade,” with no suggestion of unwholesomeness or weirdness. But the blacks still pass it by. The legend is as indestructible as the odour of attar of roses. Although the boys persist in their account of the origin of the cave, it is known to them as “Coo-bee co-tan-you,” which signifies “that hole made by the meteor,” or, literally, “falling-star hole.”
Romance, too, follows the Hinchinbrook pinnacle. Some local blacks regard it with awe, believing that it covers a deep hole in the mountain in which the winds and rain are pent up. When a malignant “debil-debil” lifts the peak away the elements escape, roaring and hissing with anger and mischief. When tired, they retire sulkily to the hole, which the “debil-debil” blocks with the monstrous rock. Fine weather then prevails, and the rock, which has been hidden away among the mists by the fiend, becomes visible once more.
Of the many corrobborees that I have witnessed, the most novel in conception was performed on Dunk Island by blacks who came from the neighbourhood of Princess Charlotte Bay, some 200 miles to the north.
The imitation of the frolicsome skip and wing movements of the native companion is one of the typical dances of the aboriginals frequenting open plains where the great birds assemble. In its performance the men — decorated with streaks and daubs of white and pink clay, and wearing in their hair down and feathers — form a circle, and bowing their bodies towards the centre, chuckle in undertones to the pianissimo tapping of boomerangs and the beating of resonant logs. In strict time, to a crescendo accompaniment, the performers throw out their arms, extend their necks downward and upward, simultaneously utter squawks in imitation of the bird, and finally whirl about, flapping their arms, ceasing instantly by a common impulse. The ballet is modelled in accordance with a study of Nature.
The corrobboree of the Princess Charlotte Bay boys also owes its origin to Nature, but Nature in one of her most unpoetical moods — a mood as typical of Constantinople as of their native shores, for its motive is nothing more than an everyday dogfight.
Shall the uncultured blacks not have their own way when they seek entertainment, holding “as it were the mirror up to Nature,” and finding that it reflects the commonest of all themes? They among all the nations of the world alone have discovered what to them is music and the poetry of motion in an occurrence that has no geographical limitations, is not restricted by language, nor to be withered by age.
While the orchestra taps its boomerangs and claps its hands and grunts, two boys in mere nature progress towards the fire in a series of stiff, stilty jumps, the legs from the hips to the ankles being rigid; then the knees shake in a rapid succession of spasmodic jerks; the actors emit sounds resembling the preliminary growling and snarling of a couple of angry dogs. Action and utterance develop in speed and time as the fight begins in earnest, and the art of the performance consists in its duration — the powers of sustained effort, the accuracy of time maintained between the orchestra and the actors, and the fidelity to nature of the vocal effects. A singularly uncouth subject for an opera or even a ballet — the snarling, scuffling and snapping of quarrelsome dogs whose fury is working up to a climax, and it soon becomes as monotonous to unaccustomed ears as the masterpieces of some German composers to those whose musical education is below the required standard; but the boys will spend the best part of the long night in its unvarying repetition.
Once a variation did take place. “Yellowbelly” (pronounced decently “Yellowby”) danced first in the company of giggling “Peter;” and then fat “Charley” and big “Johnny,” shy “Mammeroo” and little deaf “Antony,” in turns, his body glistened with perspiration, and his eyes sparkled with the joy of a phenomenal accomplishment. All beholders were filled with wonder and gratification. It was Yellowby’s night out. The spirit of Terpsichore was upon him. His enthusiasm amounted to exultation. He was astonishing not only the silent and subdued natives of Dunk Island, but even his own familiar friends. Never had any seen such a classic interpretation of the theme, such brilliant leg movement, nor heard such realistic growling and snapping and intermittent yelps, such muffled, sob-like inspirations. Yellowby danced as dances the artist, so graphically interpreting the subject that the bewildered orchestra forgot itself. All were borne away in spirit to the scene of some far-off, familiar camp, where the scents of decayed fish and turtle-bones, and of a multitude of uncleanly dogs commingled with the bitter smoke of mangrove wood fires, where amid the yells of gins and the screeches of piccaninnies and the walloping of men, two mangy curs noisily wrestled. It brought home sweet home to each of the exiles, so vividly that all sat still and transfixed, and as the last chord of the orchestra “I trembled away into silence,” Yellowby, panting and sweating, gasped as he fell flat on the sand —“No good you fella corrobboree like that fella, belonga me fella.” But for the collapse of the orchestra, due to his own inimitable art, he would have danced till dawn.
Mickie is a famous vocalist, although his repertoire is limited. He sings lustily and with no little art, putting considerable expression into his phrases, and ever and anon taking a sharp but studied rest to increase his emphasis, when he will burst forth again with full-throated ease. His masterpiece is not original. Indeed he claims no title to the gifts of a composer. “Jacky,” a Mackay boy, taught Mickie his favourite romance, and it came to Jacky in a dream. Mickie explains — “Cousin alonga that fella die. Jacky go to sleep. That fella dead man all a same like debil-debil — come close up and tell ’em corrobboree close up ear belonga Jacky.”
“What that debil-debil say?”
Mickie —“No talk — that fella. Just tell ’em corrobboree. No talk.”
It was just a song without words — the final phrases being three guttural gasps, diluendo, which Mickie says represent the wail of the “debil-debil” as he retires into the obscurity of spirit-land.
Mickie sings this song of inspiration most vigorously, when Jinny, his portly spouse, comes to “wash ’em plate” in the evening, and she explains with a fat chuckle —“Mickie corrobboree loud fella. He fright. He think subpose he corrobboree blenty debil-debil no come up.”
Blacks are students of natural events. The winds have their specific titles, and they catalogue all the brighter and more conspicuous stars and planets, while their astronomical legends are quaint and entertaining.
According to Mickie, the Southern Cross is of earthly origin. He thus “repeats the story of its birth.”
“You see that fella. That one me call ’em dooey-dooey — all a same shubel-nose shark, like that fella you bin shoot longa lagoon. Two fella, more big, come close up behind dooey-dooey, two fella black boy. Black boys bin fishing alonga reef close up alonga where red mark, alonga Cape Marlow — you know. They bin sit down alonga canoe. Bi’mby spear ’em that dooey-dooey — beeg fella, my word! That dooey-dooey when catch ’em spear he go down quick, come up under canoe capsize ’em. Two fella boy swim about long time by that reef; no catch ’em that canoe. Swim; swim l-o-n-g way; no catch ’em beach; go outside; follow canoe all time. One fella say —‘Brother, where we now?’ ‘Long way yet. Swim more far, brother.’ Bi’mby two fella talk —‘Where now, brother?’ ‘Long way outside. Magnetic close up now. We two fella swim more long way. Bi’mby catch ’em Barrier.’ One fella catch ’em hand —‘Come along, brother, youn-me go outside.’
“Two fella boy swim-swim-swim. Go outside altogether; leave ’em Barrier behind. Swim; finish; good bye; no come back! Swim where cloud catch ’em sea. Swim up-up-long way up! You see now. Sit down up there altogether. Dooey-dooey first time; two fella boy come behind!”
Does not this stand comparison with that referred to by the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN in answering the question, “Why do you refer to the Great Bear as feminine?” We must go back into the age of classical mythology for the reason. It was known to the Egyptians, who called it hippopotamus. The people of southern Europe saw in the same stars the more familiar figure of a bear, and the legends which grew up around it were finally given permanent shape by Ovid in his METAMORPHOSES. As he tells the story, Callisto, an Arcadian nymph, was beloved by Jupiter. Juno, in fierce anger, turned her into a bear, depriving her of speech that she might not appeal to Jupiter. Her son, Arcas, while hunting, came upon her, and failing to recognise her in her metamorphosed form, raised his bow to shoot. Jupiter, moved by pity, prevented the matricide by transforming the son into a bear, and took them both up to the heavens, where they were placed among the constellations.
Though they have a wholesome dread of crocodiles generally, the blacks of the Lower Tully River (some 5 miles down the coast) have, in a limited circle, the reputation of indulging in the sport of catching them for food. Natives of the locality tell me that the last occasion of the death of a crocodile in the manner to be described was very many years ago. Some would have you believe the practice is of common occurrence. The story goes (though for its truth I do not vouch), that having located a crocodile in a reach of the river when the tide has run out, the blacks form a cordon across, and harry it by splashing the water and maintaining a continuous commotion. The crocodile is poked out of secluded nooks beside the bank and from under submerged logs, never being allowed a moment’s peace. When it is thoroughly cowed (and it is an undoubted fact that crocodiles may be frightened into passiveness), a rope of lawyer vine is passed round a convenient tree and held by half a dozen boys, while a running noose is made on the other end. A daring black dives into the water, and cautiously approaching the bewildered creature, slips the noose over its head and backs away. Should he turn his face, the blacks say the crocodile would immediately seize him. The party on the bank hauls on the line, and in spite of protests and struggling the game is landed, to be chopped and beaten to death with tomahawks and nulla-nullas. Then follows a feast, the inevitable surfeit, and the dire conclusion that crocodile as “tucker” is no good. The flesh is said to be “All a same turtle. Little more hard fella!” My investigations lead to the opinion that a crocodile was once caught in the manner described, and that upon a single instance the proud feat has been multiplied by the score.
It has been said that Australian blacks never commit suicide. An instance which goes in proof of the contrary occurred not many months ago. All the creeks and rivers flowing from the coastal range to the sea are more or less infested with crocodiles. In crossing creeks, blacks take every precaution against surprise, rafts of buoyant logs strapped together with lawyer vine being used. These rafts are continually drifting across to the island, proving how general is their use. Maria Creek (about a dozen miles or so up the coast) is well known to be a popular resort of the crocodile, and at the mouth, where the blacks wade at low-water, an unusually big fellow had his headquarters. A member of the Clump Point tribe, painfully afflicted with a vexatious skin disease, was fishing at the mouth of the creek when his hook fouled. To a companion he said he would dive to get it clear. His friend endeavoured to dissuade him, reminding him of the crocodile which they had, seen but a short time before. But the boy, worn with pain and weary with never-ending irritation, said if he was taken —“No matter. Good job. Me finished then.” He dived, and there was a commotion in the water. The boy appeared on the surface, making frantic appeals for help, while the crocodile worried him. He escaped for a moment, and his friend clutched his hand and drew him to the bank, only to have him torn from his grasp. The blacks believe the crocodile took the fish bait in the first instance and lured the boy to dive. The boy certainly knew the risk he ran when he did so.
A new, if not altogether agreeable, sensation is added to the gentle art if it is realised that a cruel and stealthy beast is engaged in a similar pastime, with the fisherman as the object of its sport.
The rapid disappearance of blacks from localities which held a considerable population causes wonder. In the early days — less than a couple of decades past — they swarmed on the mainland opposite Dunk Island. Now the numbers are few. Within sight of Brammo Bay is the scene of an official “dispersal” of those alleged to have been responsible for the murder of some of the crew of a wrecked vessel, who had drifted ashore on a raft. One boy bears to this day the mark of a bullet on his cheek, received when his mother fled for her life, and vainly, with him an infant perched on her shoulders.
In those days “troublesome” blacks were disposed of with scant ceremony. An incident has been repeated to me several times. A mob of “myalls” (wild blacks)— they were all myalls then — was employed by a selector to clear the jungle from his land. They worked, but did not get the anticipated recompense, and thereupon helped themselves, spearing and eating a bullock, and disappeared. After a time the selector professed forgiveness, and, the fears of the blacks of punishment having been allayed, set them to work again. One day a bucket of milk was brought to the camp at dinner-time and served out with pannikins. The milk had been poisoned. “One fella feel ’em here,” said my informant, clasping his stomach. “Run away; tumbledown; finish. ‘Nother boy runaway; finish. just now plenty dead everywhere. Some fella sing out all a same bullocky.” Possibly this may be greeted as another version of the familiar story of poisoned flour or damper. It is mentioned here as an instance from the bad old days when both blacks and whites were offhand in their relations with each other. Such episodes are of the past. The present is the age of official protection, and perhaps just a trifle too much interference and meddlesomeness.
Two blacks of the district confessed upon their trial that they had killed their master for so slight an offence as refusal to give them part of his own dinner of meat. On the other hand, an instance of the callousness of the white man may be cited. In a fit of the sulks one of the boys of the camp threw down some blankets he was carrying, and made off into the scrub. It was considered necessary to impress the others, and unhappy chance gave the opportunity. A strange and perfectly innocent boy appeared on the opposite bank of the creek. The “boss” was a noted shot, and as the boy sauntered along he deliberately fired at him. The body fell into the water and drifted down stream. One of the boys for whose discipline the wanton murder was committed related the incident to me.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50