The Passing of the Aborigines, by Daisy Bates

Chapter 16

A Revolution and a Royal Visit

In February, 1920, I was appointed a justice of the peace for South Australia, being the only woman at that time to hold such a commission in two Australian States at the same time. A few weeks later I was asked by the authorities to arrange a display of aborigines at Ooldea, in honour of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, who was to pass on the east-west railway on his tour of Australia.

There was excitement in the tiny outposts whose residents did their utmost to provide a worthy welcome at every stopping-place of the royal train in its passage of the desert. But the exhilaration of anticipation, the constant discussion of plans and the high enthusiasm found its reaction among certain strife-makers in the camps. I have said that the unrest of wartime was still in the air. Many of these men were unemployed, and found mischief and a certain type of humour in an attempt to stir up a rebellious spirit among whites and blacks. Soap-box oratory appealed to the scamps among the civilized natives. They listened with interest and mimicked it well.

It had been a trying summer, with temperatures for days at a time touching 120 degrees, and unending dust-storms and disappointments. The meat-supply of dingo and rabbit had failed. Little food remained in my store, and that was reserved for the delicate children, the ailing women and the old. A new mob was expected for an initiation ceremony, and the camps were hungry and disgruntled. As I went quietly about my work for the sick, I could hear the banging of boomerangs and clubs, and loud chatter of voices in the men’s camps, those of Nabbari, Dhanggool and Winnima, three of the most civilized, raised above the others. My only fear was for the safety of the newcomers. I never dreamed of anything so intense or so intelligent as an organized revolution among the world’s best communists, but I waited patiently for enlightenment.

In the afternoon of April 26, I was enjoying a cup of tea when one of the women, Comajee, sitting outside my breakwind, called a word of warning and, to my surprise, ran and hid among the trees. Down through the sandhills came an angry mob of about eighty men, not walking in single file, native fashion, but in a body, not a woman or child among them. I could see that something was seriously amiss. For the first and only time, I opened the breakwind and brought them in to sit round the fire before I would hear a word.

Ranging themselves according to their totems-kangaroo, dingo, eagle-hawk and mallee-hen-they took four fire-sticks from my fire, sign of blood-relationship. I then addressed myself to Nyimbana, one of the ring-leaders.


“Black-fella king belong to this country!” shouted Nyimbana in English. “We don’t want waijela [Corruption of “White-fellow.”] here! This gabbi our gabbi! Chasem waijela long way!”

I spoke quietly. “Yaal wonga?” (Who has said this?).

“I wonga!” said Nyimbana threateningly. “We don’t want waijela king. We want our king.”

When Nyimbana had finished, Waw-wuri spoke, in his own language.

“White-fellows have frightened all our game away and taken our waters. The Kooga will come back when the white men goes. This is our country. White-fellows took it away, and brought their sheep, bullocky and pony to hunt our totem meat away. You send paper to Gubmint and tell them we don’t want white-fellow king. We want our own king and our own country!”

I remained silent for some minutes-silence in a tense moment terrifies the natives. Then:

Who will you have for your king?” I asked.

“Nabbari our king.”

Nabbari, a dingo man, was the most cunning in camp, an excellent beggar, one who ate his meat in secret and always had money to spend. It was his brother, Dhanggool, who had spoken. Nabbari was conspicuous in his absence.

“Sit down, boggali,” I said. They sat down. “Kabbarli understands you now. This country belongs to black-fellow, and you want your own king. You all like Nabbari to be king?”

Cries of “No!”, “Yes! Yes!”, “I don’t want him”, Nabbari king!”

Which of you owns the water of Yuldil?” I demanded.

“Yuldil orphan water. People dead.”

I turned, to the kangaroo men. “Will the men of the grey kangaroo sit down under a dingo at this water?” I demanded. There was no answer.

Then Draijanu, one of the oldest and normally one of the gentlest, stood up and faced me angrily. “This country black-fellow,” he shouted, inexact reproduction of the soap-box manner. “Waijela gubmint take dousand, dousand, dousand pound-close up five pounds! Wheat-amanning (taking wheat), potato-amanning, waijela stealem our country. We take back. Yuldil we take, Tarcoola we take, Port Augusta we take, plenty flour black-fellow all time. We kill waijela!” There were grunts and shouts of approval. The temper of the crowd was ugly. I knew that there were but fifteen white settlers, men and women, and no policeman nearer than Tarcoola, 170 miles away.

In their eyes was the fanaticism of initiation time, and nothing short of fire-arms and a posse of police would remove them from the district. It needed little encouragement to provoke serious trouble-a raid on the settlers’ cottages for the food there, with burning and violence; for all that the hungry black-fellow can think of is food, and these men, I knew, were hungry.

“Nyimbana, fill the big billy,” I said irrelevantly, and Nyimbana willingly went to do it, while a faint stir of ulterior interest ran through the mob. All were watching my face intently.

“Draijanu, Nyimbana, Dhanggool, Winnima there, hiding behind the bush, all boggali, you hear Kabbarli now,” I said. “This young white king come this country, my king, your king, too, father, grandfather, right back dhoogoor. Big flour-giver. He tells all his white men to be good to waddi. He tells me give you food.” (They knew that I had denied myself to give to them.) “When this young king comes, he will give you plenty flour, sugar, blankets, tobacco. But you don’t want that. You want to kill white-fella. When all the flour and tobacco that you take from the white men are gone, who will give you more? Who will plant wheat, who will build fences for nani and bullocky? Suppose you make Nabbari king, all right. Maadu queen. Our king’s wife we call queen, so Maadu your queen now.”

They all knew Maadu. A shrill little termagant, greedy and bad-tempered and ultra-civilized with a great command of black-fellow and white-fellow Bilingsgate and no mercy, Maadu was not popular. Their expressions changed. No aborigine will recognize the authority of woman. I knew that I had struck the right note, and went ahead in honeyed accents, selecting from the little crowd the ones that hated her most.

“When Maadu queen, Thanyarrie must build her breakwind. Dhanggool will bring her firewood. Maradhani will hunt for rabbits and snakes and mallee-hen’s eggs and bring them to Maadu, and Nyimbana will carry her gabbi. Everybody look out every day, plenty work, dig up ground, put up fences, grow wheat, make flour, and all will ‘eat behind,’ when Nabbari and Maadu have had enough. Everything Maadu say, you do. That good for Maadu when Nabbari king.”

There was a general scowl, and I heard mutterings and protests. The idea of raising the native woman to such a status appalled them.

“No Maadu!” shouted Draijanu.

“Very well. King must have wife. You give Nabbari one of your own women, which ever one he wants.” There was a loud outburst. I turned aside to hide a smile, then “Nabbari king?” I asked again pleasantly. This time there was silence. They were thinking it out.

“Boggali,” I said lightly, “I think those white men make mock of you. They not good white men. You see policemen take them away. Suppose black-fellow talk like that, he take black-fellow away. You know Nabbari can be old man only at Loondadhana-gabbi, his own water. Our king koojiba, koojiba, koojiba — different-big king all country, far over the sea. He lookout after dark one waddi, white one Koonga, just as Kabbarli looks out for you —”

Here the billy boiled. I brought out my tea-caddy, and used up the supplies of the month, making it very strong and very sweet. Everything edible in my little tent was needed to go round.

“Ngooranga-go to camp now!” I said, “and don’t let the white-fellow make mock of my boggali.”

They trailed out over the sand-hills and that night the camps were quiet. Next morning I was sharing my porridge with Angalmurda at the pipe-line when Nyimbana passed by.

“Going to find some grubs for Queen Maadu?” I asked mischievously.

“I don’t find grubs for any woman,” he grunted.

When the Prince of Wales passed by there was nobody in all Australia to give him a more exciting or more heart-felt welcome than the cannibal rebels of Ooldea.

The display was to take place on July 10 at Cook, eighty-six miles West of Ooldea Siding, and I started out to collect the natives at the various sidings within a radius of two or three hundred miles. They numbered about 150 in all, and I travelled the line with them in the goat-van of a goods train, the two distinct odours definitely conflicting. We brought supplies of wood and kangaroo-fur and other materials to be used in a demonstration of native arts-spear-making and spear-throwing, the manufacture of boomerangs, hair-spinning, flint-cutting, seed-sifting and other primitive aboriginal handi-crafts. A bag painted with the crude effigy of a human body was the target for the spears, and the Yuala, a dance of magic, was selected as the most spectacular.

The natives now understood that the coming of the King–King-Kadha (the King’s son) meant new blankets and pipes and unlimited food and tobacco, and they were all excited and eager to do their best. There were innumerable deputations to Kabbarli for advice and encouragement, and I knew not a moment’s peace.

Cook Siding, in the very heart of Nullarbor, is bleak and cold in July, but boughs and branches had been freighted in by the trains for over 100 miles across the treeless plain to provide shelters and camp-fires. A temporary platform of railway sleepers was the royal dais. My presence was necessary throughout, there were so many mixtures, uncivilized, semi-civilized and fully civilized, the last named by far the worst to deal with. As there was nobody to feed and care for Janjinja, Jungura and Angalmurda, three of my oldest and most helpless charges at Ooldea, I decided to bring them with me. Two newly circumcised boys, who must on no account come in contact with the women, travelled with me in the goat-van. With the extreme courtesy and delicacy of feeling that I have always encountered when dealing with native men, they were good travelling companions, and always turned their backs to look out of the window while I was dressing.

I superintended the preparations with much anxiety. I was afraid that a sudden outburst of hostility, personal or tribal, at any moment would result in chaos. Carefully choosing my words, I explained the position to the natives in that, as they sent their sons to their people, so our great and good white King had sent his son to us all as we are his people. Some of them may have had the idea that the Prince of Wales was on his way to our initiation ceremony. Loyalty and enthusiasm ran high, and by keeping them busy, and stressing the importance of their best and brightest, I looked forward to success.

Cook Siding in 1920 was a long string of two-roomed houses, a bare little village of the Plain, with the two steel lines of the railway running east and west to infinity. I camped in my railway-van and busied myself with the arrangement of the fantastic decorations, and with rehearsals, a railway employee representing His Royal Highness on the dais, and I joining the dance and the singing by way of exhortation. There were many small squabbles that might have become serious, but somehow trouble was avoided for the time being, and I spent the eve of the royal visit cleaning my goat-van, which was in a woeful condition. There was no broom available, but I managed to achieve some effect with newspapers and an old totem board with the sacred woman markings, and boiled a little water for my bath at an outside fire.

At last the great day dawned. Stripped to waist, decked in corroboree paint and feathers, the mobs quietly awaited the arrival of the royal train. Among the gifts they had made was a boomerang with a welcome inscribed in Central Australian dialect-“Gan’ma nyinnin nyoora nongu; wan’yu ngalli-anning” (Glad you here to see-come again).

At 3.45 the train stopped half a mile from the siding, and the Prince and suite alighted. H.R.H. first inspected a corps of returned soldiers under Captain Lindsay, and then took his place on the dais. The corroboree began with a native shout of welcome and the singing of the women, and in a few minutes the Yuala was in full swing.

Lord Claud Hamilton had been requested to present me to His Royal Highness, and when I made my curtsy, the Prince asked me to join him on the dais, where I explained both dance and dancers, both being cinematographed and cabled round the world. The Prince, deeply interested, then came down from the platform for a closer view of their native crafts, and tried his skill at flint-chipping and spear-throwing, to the delight of both natives and white residents.

Marburnong was the flint-chipper. Without any self-consciousness, he guided the Prince’s hands in the art. “Balya! balya!” he grunted at last, giving praise, but not until it was due. Inyadura ground the seed splendidly, and blind Janjinja wove the string on her thigh like a seeing woman. Men, women and girls brought their gifts to the platform. “Thank you very much!” said His Royal Highness to each and every one, with a smile of appreciation.

“Dango berra-anujy,” they gravely replied, while the women and children lowered their heads and hid their eyes. The two young initiates were brought forward, with their elaborate decorations and head-dresses of string, emu chignons, cockatoo feathers and paint. And the greetings ended with the booming of the big bull-roarer, the welcoming voice of the wilderness and its savage people. His Royal Highness remained some two and a half hours at Cook, intensely interested throughout, and as the royal train pulled out across the Plain, the Prince driving the engine, the natives gleefully turned to the feast of roast sheep and flour and tobacco that their King’s son had given them.

Joonguru died that night. We buried her about a mile from the siding in the hard limestone of the Plain, her head towards the East. I returned to my goat-van, but not to sleep. So intense had been the anxiety of preparation and the excitements of the day that I could not rest. I remember that I sat up all night, trying to read Our Mutual Friend by the glimmer of a solitary candle I had bought from a fettler’s wife.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51