The Passing of the Aborigines, by Daisy Bates

Chapter 20


During all these years the conscience of Australia had been slowly but surely awakening to the tremendous human problem of the aborigines throughout the continent in the rapid dwindling of the native groups in all settled areas and the inevitable conflict as colonization extended. The desire of both State and Federal Governments was to preserve and foster the race, and to temper justice with mercy in their dealings with the native offender. The system of Police patrols, protectorships and Christian mission organizations could offer no satisfactory solution. Beyond the pale of civilization in the great Northern Territory there was unending trouble, cattle killing, tribal murder, the murder of white prospectors and the massacre of Japanese and Malay pearling-crews who entered new country. This was brought to a climax early in 1933 by the tragic death of Mounted–Constable McColl, speared by wild blacks at Woodah Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria in the course of a police patrol sent out to apprehend certain Caledon Bay natives guilty of the murder of five Japanese, who had beached their luggers on those sandy shores the year before.

Such was the revulsion of feeling of white colonists in the Territory at the death of the young policeman that a “punitive expedition” was mooted, an unfortunate choice of words reminiscent of past horrors that set the whole of Australia up in arms. Loath to sanction such a primitive revenge, and eager to give the savage in his nakedness a fair and just hearing according to the tenets of British law-of which he knows nothing-the Commonwealth Government called for practical advice on the subject from all qualified to give it, and was immediately inundated with conflicting counsel from all corners of the continent.

From my thirty-five years of closest association with the natives, and a comprehensive knowledge of their logics and their temperament, their actions and reactions and such of their own laws as in their universal tribal break-down still abide with them, I offered to travel to the remote native stronghold of Arnhem Land to investigate the matter in the same way in which I had investigated similar matters in Western Australia, officially and unofficially. In August, 1933, I received a telegram from the Minister for the Interior inviting me to visit Canberra immediately to place my plans for the proposed northward journey before Cabinet.

In haste I left my camp on the next passing express, and two days later enjoyed the first bath worthy of the name in twelve years-three quarts of water in a kerosene “bucket” cut lengthwise being the most luxurious that Ooldea, at its best, could provide.

My return to civilization was tinctured with a deep sadness. Gone were the Australia and the Australians I had known. In my brief and hurried glimpse of the now mature and graceful cities of Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, quite alone and in my old-world garb, I felt a stranger and an anachronism. New South Wales, that I had seen in the making in the eighties, had a brand-new and synthetic city to show me, a city strangely free of the multitudes of men.

It was desired that I should meet all the Ministers in a friendly informal way, and such was my meeting with the Prime Minister himself. The Ministers knew the results of my work, both in Western and South Australia, and their only fear was for the state of my health in an under-taking arduous in the extreme. I assured them of my abundant vigour and vitality, being fully restored to both in the holiday joy of unaccustomed comfort and good living, but their decision, as duly reported to me, was that the difficulties of such a journey into the unexplored wilds of the north, the rigours of the climate of Arnhem Land, the complete isolation of that dark corner of the world, and the possible dangers-though I would have none of them-precluded them from the selection of a woman, and a woman of seventy-four years of age, to carry out the commission.

I returned to Ooldea regretfully, but thoroughly stimulated and rejuvenated in mind and body from that brief but happy sojourn in civilization, as the guest of the Commonwealth Government, with all the luxuries and amenities of life at my command, the pleasant intellectual association of my kind, so long denied me, and a ramble in flowery places.

Quietly I took up the old life, tending the poor fragments of black humanity around me, slipping back once more into the aboriginal languages after that brief but stimulating airing of my almost-forgotten English.

It was at the following Christmastide, following our modest celebration of the festive season, with giant dampers and billycans full of good cheer, that I received news by telegraph, transmitted to the nearest station at Cook by the supply train and brought to my camp by the ganger, that my name was included in the New Year Honours. The Order of Commander of the British Empire had been conferred upon me. This recognition from our beloved Sovereign, coming as it did when my little camp was almost empty of provender and my heart of hope, has been the full reward of my life’s service.

I often asked my natives why they did not return to their own waters.

“No,” they said, “we can’t go back, we would be stalked and killed by the relations of those we killed and ate on our way to Ooldea Water. We are safe here with you, but if we went back we would kill and eat our own people again, and when those whose brothers and fathers we killed and ate came to Yooldil gabba, you ‘look out’ Kabbarli, and you don’t let them eat us or let us eat them and so we can all sit down with you, but in our own country we must kill and eat our kind, beegaringu [Faction fighting] always.” [A notorious instance of a group “running amok” was furnished by the so-called Laverton mob (Western Australia), in reality a collection of derelicts from the fringes of civilization in the goldfields area.]

When a white settlement was established in these areas, the natives from places far north, south, cast and west came in to “sit down” beside the whites. In the rush and glamour of those days the natives reaped a dreadful harvest. As fast as their women died from prostitution they sought recruits to fill their places and made “wives” of their own mothers, sisters, daughters, and as these passed out in agony they fought amongst their own peoples for the women so that life became a dreadful nightmare of quarrelling, spearing, clubbing and every native kind of war.

Among all the little groups that have come to my Ooldea camp from that great Central Reserve during my sixteen years’ residence there, there is the same promiscuity. A man is killed and eaten during their trek to Ooldea. His women and children are annexed by the eaters. Another, man is killed and his women are again divided. The actual killer may try to keep the women, but the fights and the end are always the same and while the poor derelicts live, these conditions will more or less continue in their Great Reserves. They were able to live without tragedy at my camp, but there was no possibility of any straightening out of the promiscuous tangle they have got into through the years. And so, to make their passing easy and keep them from conflict with the white man’s laws, a benevolent watchfulness was the most one could give, plus one’s own daily and hourly example which was so meticulously watched by them. Feed and help, encourage and advise, study and learn quietly while helping them always, without distinctions of persons or groups, bad or good.

The little factional mobs continued to come out of their hunting-grounds and put themselves under my protection and new little groups were hurried to me, so that I should be the first to greet and feed and restrain them from killing, and I was to sit down always with them.

When I mentioned my own passing, they talked with each other and later said that my grave [Kardal] should be in the bough shed I had built-and near the spot where they had brought the snake effigy and raised it up for me to see. “The little shed belongs to Kabbarli,” they said.

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