TRAGEDIES OF THE PALMER

Tragedies of the Palmer

Bribie Island

Mission to the Blacks

Death of Farmer on the Johnstone River

 

TRAGEDIES OF THE PALMER

STIRRING TALES OF THE EARLY DAYS

TUESDAY, JULY 20, 1919.

       The afternoon of a hot summer day and McLean and Bryant are ascending a rock ridge on the head waters of the Laura, the River on which Mr. McMillan bestowed the name of his wife. They heard two shots fired on the crest of the ridge, followed by wild ferocious yells from the blacks.

       Hastening to the summit they saw two white men running towards them for their lives, having fired their last shots, and close in the rear were 20 or 30 myalls thirsting for blood. Spears were flying over the heads of the fugitives, or quivering in the ground behind them, and from a score of throats there came the fierce and unimaginable war cry, such as woke the slumbering hundred diggers in the gray dawn of that memorable morning at “Battle Camp.”

       The blacks stopped as one man in sudden silence, when they saw the two strangers. The pause was brief. Then one tall, powerful savage called out, “Galga! Galga! Tanalmeea! Jetahra beeanee!” – “spear the white men to death”- and came on with a rush, followed by three of the most daring of the others.

       Bryant and McLean were not the sort of men to waste any time in hesitation, or sentimentalism, in a position demanding immediate action.

       Two double smooth bores loaded with round ball were fatal weapons at short range in the hands of cool, resolute men. The two leading blacks fell as if struck by lightning, and then two more came face downwards, their hands for a few seconds clawing at the dry dead leaves, their life blood trickling slowly away in red streams on the rocks of their native land. The others turned, ran down the side of the ridge, and disappeared.

       One of the fugitives had received three spears, and had fainted from loss of blood and exhaustion. The other was speared in the right arm, struck heavily on the shoulder by the woomera, and cut deeply across the back.

       A few minutes more would have sealed their fate, for men whose ammunition was finished had a small chance of escaping from the Laura blacks. Well, would it have been for those two fugitives if their rescuers had not appeared, Death from the spear was merciful, compared with that which awaited them.

       And who were these two men thus unexpectedly saved from becoming a feast for the myalls of the Laura? Eternal Powers! They were John Farran, the murderer of Jessie McLean, and Carran, the murderer of Cleora Bryant.

       They were instantly recognised by Bryant and McLean. Hate is as eagle-eyed as love, and no disguise availed against that merciless searching gaze. After 18 years those two murderers had come face to face with a Nemesis, pitiless as death, inexorable as the grave. Bryant looked at them, and laughed at them, a weird, unnatural laugh, terrible to hear, and frightful in the savage cruelty which it implied. Farran knew him them, and Carran remembered McLean. Both men knew that their fate was settled.

       “Gentlemen,” said Bryant, “we have been anxiously looking for you over a period of 18 years, and now the just Almighty God, who rules the Eternal Universe, has at last delivered you into our hands. Tonight you will pass through the fire to that Moloch, in whose worship you wrecked the lives of the men before you, and sent our parents in sorrow to their untimely graves. You will get such mercy as you gave!”

       Even across the iron heart of McLean there passed a transient spasm of horror at the doom foreshadowed in that brief address. Then he became once more emotionless as the granite rock around him.

       Midnight of a beautiful moonlight night. The mournful howl of a dingo mingles with the sad voice of the stone plover on the flat below. Soft winds murmur musically through the branches of the bloodwoods and box gums, and night birds flit like phantoms noiseless in the moonlight shadows thrown in the gloomy patches across the grey old rocks. Four blacks lie face downwards, cold in the dreadful silence of the dreamless slumber of death.

       Two men are tied fast, standing erect, lashed immovable to a small bloodwood, each with his back to the tree, on opposite sides. They are enclosed in a huge pile of dry wood: “We will have a grand auto date tonight,” said Bryant, and once more he uttered that unearthly laugh , more awful to the doomed men than the thought of death!

       The victims prayed for mercy, in the agony of terror at the fearful fate impending. As well might the lost man implore the starving tiger or the wrecked mariner call for mercy from the stormy sea. There is in man a depth of infernal rage and hate compared to which that of the bereaved lioness is a feeling of benevolence. He is the cruelest of all animals that inhabit this planet. His nature is the most divine and likewise the most diabolical.

       Bryant walked over and lighted the funeral pyre round the living men. He started the fire in three places. Then both the pitiless executioners stood back and watched in grim silence the fulfillment of their vow of vengeance. The sights and sounds were worthy of the more dismal horrors in the inferno of Dante. Even the gloomy Florentine never conjured up a scene like that. The hungry flames seized the light, dry bark and twigs, and shot far up into the night. The leaves of the tree itself waved and rustled overhead in the air currents of the fire. The trunks of surrounding trees stood in the firelight like ghastly tombstones commemorating a dead past.

       Bryant and McLean held their loaded revolvers in case the burning of the bands allowed either of their victims to escape. This was not likely in face of the fact that the bands were encased in wet clay, a device credited to McLean. Then the fire began to lick the victims like a hungry hyena, to singe the hair, and blacken and scorch the hands, to shrivel the skin and boil the surface blood. The midnight yells of those roasting men were heard a mile away by the listening blacks, who believed the white men were holding revelry with all the Infernal Powers.

       In a moment of weakness, McLean raised his revolver to end the agony of Farran, but his arm was seized by Bryant, who siad: “Their suffering are for a few minutes; ours have endured for 18 years and are not yet finished!”   

       Then the cries grew fainter, and the frantic struggles ceased as Carran’s hands were severed, and he fell face downwards into the centre of the fire.

       In the morning a heap of dark ashes varied by white streaks was all that was left of the death scene of the murderers of Jessie McLean and Cleora Bryant.

       The blacks have always shunned that dreadful ridge. They call it “Yooko-beea-nee,” or the “Fire Death.”

***************

       Old Palmer diggers will remember Cannibal Creek.

       A party of seven prospectors camped there were suddenly attacked by the blacks, who speared one and took him away in sight of all his comrades, whose anxiety to save themselves left their doomed mate to the mercy of the savages.

       The remaining six went up the creek to where Isaac Coates and his mates were prospecting, and, after narrating their adventure, asked permission to camp there for protection.  Coates’ opinion about their cowardice to their lost mate was so emphatic that he told them to clear out or he would shoot the lot.  They left. The bones of the speared man were afterwards found at a fire, where he had been the victim of a cannibal feast. Two or three years after the Palmer rush, the myalls were worse than the beginning. They then knew more about the white man, his habits and his powers of attack and defence. Guns no longer represented thunder and lightning, and the mysterious white strangers (“Jetashra”) had ceased to be regarded as deathless “immortals.” The spear (“galga”) went through the white man the same as through the black, and the tomahawk (“warpee”) brained both with equal impartiality. In a fight (“tamalmeea”), the white man occasionally “struck for home” and left the wild warriors of the forest in possession of the field.

       In the afternoon of a bright, hot summer day, two wandering prospectors erected a tent between two dwarf ironbarks beside a small rock pool on Cannibal Creek. About 9 or 10 o’clock they retired to the interior of the tent, and Saturday there conversing about the past and the future, calmly unconscious of the fact that the Palmer blacks were one of the very few Australian tribes who attacked at all hours of the night. Ferocious eyes watched them from a clump of acacias, and black hands grasped spears and woomera not more than a hundred yards away.

       At a given signal a score of black forms rose from behind those dark bushes, and advanced stealthily towards the white tent, on the thin calico of which the figures of the two men are plainly visible as shadows in the candle light. The bare foot advance in silence on the hard ground. The dark figures stand in a crescent so that spears shall enter the tent from three sides. One savage unearthly yell from a score of black throats, and a score of spears are driven by powerful arms with deadly aim into the figures shadowed on the tent. One man falls forward over the candle, and all is darkness. The other rushed outside the tent and fired five shots from a revolver.

       The blacks fled. Those shots and yells were heard by Isaac Coates, who was camped a quarter of a mile away along the creek. He seized his revolver and cartridge belt, fired a couple of answering shots, and ran down to the scene of the combat. One of the men had a spear in his side, one through both legs, and one through his lungs. The other was speared through the left arm and right shoulder. Coates saw at a glance that instant action was imperative. He went back to his camp, sent his mate over to look after the wounded men, caught his hobbled horse, and rode 15 miles to Oakey Creek to bring “Jack” Hamilton, then in charge of the Palmer hospital, and a sworn friend of the diggers.

       Jack was in bed when Coates arrived. He heard the account of the case given in a few sentences, and then told Coates to ride straight back, and tell the wounded man he would be there within three hours.

       Coates started back, carrying some medicine for immediate use, and in 10 minutes afterwards, Jack Hamilton started on foot, carrying his shoes under his arm and his pants over his shoulder, his favourite mode of travel in a district unknown to the fair sex. By fast walking, occasional runs, he covered the distance in about two hours, entertained during the journey by a heavy thunderstorm and torrents of rain. He arrived at the lonely tent to find one man dead, and the other dangerously wounded. The dead man was Cleo Bryant! The other was Harold McLean! One more result from the simple word spoken by a woman nearly 20 years before.

       On the afternoon of the next day Hamilton and Coates laid the dead man to rest in his lonely grave beneath the shadow of a box gum, on the bank of Cannibal Creek. Thus falls the Sable Curtain on the lover of Jessie, and the brother of Cleora. The vow of vengeance ends here abruptly in death and oblivion.

       Next day Hamilton and Coates obtained enough men to carry Mc Lean on a carefully prepared stretcher to Oakey Creek, where, under Hamilton’s skill and constant attention, the wounded man recovered.

       After recovering, he left the Palmer, and went away south, where he invested in a station, and settled down as a peaceful and useful citizen, with all men’s confidence and respect.

       He still lives, but his name is not that of his boyhood, nor that which he bore on the Palmer.

       Not a solitary circumstances of his past life is known to his dearest friends; the life of the rough bearded digger speared on Cannibal Creek.

       How the life story of McLean with all its terrible events and unimaginable sorrows came into my possession is a secret which cannot be included in this narrative, nor does it in any way concern the reader. No fiction can excel the lives of those two men in its Dantean gloom and horror, in its awful revelation of human love and human hate, human sorrows, and human crimes, such as ever have been, and ever must be, while men and women love and hate; and the human heart struggles with light and darkness in perpetual conflict between the Informal and the Divine.

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BRIBIE ISLAND

Historically, Bribie Island is the most interestingly on the Queensland coast. Apart from history, it is one of the meanest pieces of country in Australia.

       It lies at the north entrance to Moreton Bay, is twenty miles long, and two to three wide for the first sixteen miles, and a mile wide for the remaining four miles towards the north end.

       There is not an acre of useful soil on the whole island. It consists chiefly of tea-tree swamps, salt flats, low sea sand ridges, and slightly raised patches timbered by bloodwood, gray gums, and turpentine. On the sand ridges are cypress pines and honeysuckles. It is inhabited principally by snakes and kangaroos.

       I spent five days on Bribie, crossed it in two places and traversed it for fourteen miles. To anyone desirous of emulating my example, I have simply to say “You better stay at home.” And yet this howling desert of tea-tree swamps, rank aquatic vegetation, and unimaginable cussedness, is associated with several remarkable events in Queensland history.

       In July, 1799, Flinders landed on the south end of Bribie intending to explore round the Glass House Mountains. The blacks were friendly, but some misunderstanding arose. Flinders and his men got into the boats to pull away, the blacks walked into the surf to try to persuade them to stay, and Flinders in a sudden terror, of probably imaginary danger, fired and shot one or two, the first white man to shed the life blood of a Queensland native.

       According to Flinders own diary, the record of his experience with the Moreton Bay blacks is not very creditable to himself. He called the Bribie Passage the Pumice Stone River, from the pumice stone found on the shore. The south end, where he fired on the blacks, was called Skirmish point, the name it still retains.

       In Bribie Passage, he saw the first dugong seen by white men, and described them as a “species of sea lion.” He fired three musket balls into one, and Bungaree, a Sydney black, threw a spear into another, but both escaped. On the beach he found a dugong net with strands 1in in circumference. After the collision with the blacks, Flinders went up to the island of St. Helena, returned to Bribie Passage, beached his sloop at the White Patch (Paranggeer), went over to the west shore, and thence walked to the Glass Houses, ascending the small one at the present railway station; and from there he went to the foot of Beerburrum, he pronounced as inaccessible. Flinders was therefore the first white man on the summit of any one of these remarkable mountains.

       On the south end of Bribie Surveyor General Oxley landed in November 1823, when returning from the north after discovering the Boyne River. Flinders, in 1799, had actually landed on St. Helena, and gave the name of the “Fishermen’s Islands” to the two small islands at the mouth of the Brisbane River, without the remotest idea that behind those islands was the mouth of a noble river.

       Oxley anchored the cutter, Mermaid, at the entrance to Bribie Passage, and hardly had the anchor fallen when those on board saw a number of blacks approaching from the north along the beach. As they came near, a white man was seen among the party, and Oxley, Uniacke, and Lieutenant Stirling pulled ashore in the whaleboat to meet them. That white man was Thomas Pamphlet, one of a party of four who had started from Sydney for the Five Islands, been driven far northward, and, finally, after extreme suffering and the death of one from thirst, were wrecked on the coast of Moreton Island, where they were kindly treated by the blacks, who finally passed them on to Bribie Island, where they had resided for five months when Oxley arrived. Pamphlet told Oxley that he and his two mates, John Finnegan and Richard Parsons, had started to walk to Sydney; that he became footsore and returned; that the other two subsequently quarreled, and Finnegan came back, being then somewhere on the mainland, about the present Sandgate, or possibly Redcliffe. It was during this overland journey that Pamphlet and Finnegan found the Brisbane River, which they had to cross. On Sunday, Finnegan was seen on a sand spit, near Toorbul Point, and the whaleboat went across and brought him on board.

       Next day, Oxley went away in the whaleboat with Finnegan, who took him straight into the mouth of the Brisbane River on the 2nd of December, 1823. And yet these two actual discoverers of the Brisbane River were never even mentioned by Oxley in his report to Governor Brisbane! Alas for the weakness of so many explorers in the realms of science and geography. Only for the journal kept by Mr. Uniacke, one of Oxley’s party, the names of those two shipwrecked men would have remained unknown to the present time. But for them, Oxley might never have seen the Brisbane River at all.

       While Oxley was away up the river, Uniacke remained with Pamphlet shooting bird specimens on Bribie Island. He gives a most interestingly account of the blacks, and includes a description of a single combat and a general battle witnessed by Pamphlet and Finnegan. In the single combat two men fought with spears in a 24ft ring 3ft deep, surrounded by a palisade of sticks. Five hundred blacks stood around the circle as spectators. The two fought until one missed his guard and his opponent’s spear was driven clean through his breast. Several men were killed in the other general engagement, and roasted and eaten by their own tribe. And yet these cannibals treated the two white men so kindly that they left with sincere regret, though many blacks would then remember the cowardly shooting by Flinders only twenty four years before.

       Uniacke found the main camp at the “White Patch,” called “Taranggeer,” the site where a previous Government of this great colony surveyed the Bribie township, a locality where no man yet has the reckless courage to reside.

       One man, whose outcast soul pined for a lodge in some vast wilderness, stole softly on to his allotment, planted some prickly pear, and fled. He died after bequeathing his twenty perches to an old man kangaroo, who indignantly refused the bequest.

       Andrew Petrie passed through Bribie Passage and anchored at the north end of the 4th May, 1842, when on his way to find Bracefield and Davis – “Durramboi,” correctly “Thurrimbie”- the kangaroo rat. Bracefield was known as “Wandi,” a word for wild and also a name of the dingo. He was ten years and Davis fourteen years with the blacks. In a map of 1845, drawn by Robert Dixon, I find that Caloundra was Point Wickham (all barren), Deception Bay was “Caboolture Bay,” north end of Bribie was Point “Hutchinson,” Coochin Creek was “Kerehar,” Elimba Creek was “Patter Creek,” Burpengary Creek was “Cuthbertson Creek. (missing pages)

       At the first settlement at Humpybong, the blacks killed five convicts and two warders and made everybody afraid to move outside the stockade. The German missionaries, who arrived in Brisbane in 1838, tried to start a branch mission at Redcliffe, but the blacks came in one day when only Mr. Hausmann was in charge, besieged him in his hut, and speared him badly. They had a big fire lighted to roast him, and he heard them say to each other that he was “tingal” – Fat, and would “jaleeba maroomba_- eat good. He managed to escape somehow and reach German Station. From “tingal,” a word for fat, comes “Tingalpa,” actually Tingal-bah, or “fat there”- a place of fat.

       Fifty years ago there were from 600 to 1000 blacks on Bribie Island. Today there is not a soul left. And there are only three or four living representatives of the race, one of whom is in St. Helena for killing a gin, and another, a smart intelligent woman, lives near Toorbul Point, where she has resided for seventeen years, and borne seven children to a white father. The Bribie blacks were a tribe called Jindoobarrie, who spoke a dialect called “Oondoo,” closely related to the Cabbee of the Mary River and Wide Bay, the negative in both being “Cabbee,” and yes – “Yo” and “yowi.”

       In Moreton Bay there were no less than five dialects: “Oondoo,” at Bribie; “Coobenpil,” at Lytton; “Balloongan,” at Dunwich; “Noonuccal,” at Amity; and “Gnoogee,” on Moreton Island, the latter differing considerably from all the others. The negatives were: Cabbee, janderr, moonjine, yuggar. Intermediate tribes formed connecting links of communication. The Brisbane blacks could only talk to those on Dunwich, through those at Lytton and St. Helena. The Bribie blacks were the interpreters between the Bay tribes and those of Wide Bay. To show how this system worked, I may mention the following incident: in the year 1844, an ex Brisbane convict, a Calcutta half caste named John Brown, and three others started from Cleveland for Wide Bay in a whaleboat. When leaving they forcibly took away a couple of gins from Cleveland. The Cleveland blacks reported to Lytton, Lytton to Dunwich, Dunwich to Amity, Amity to Moreton Island, Moreton to Bribie, and Bribie to Wide Bay. When Brown arrived at Wide Bay, he and all his party were instantly killed, the two gins being sent back unharmed to Cleveland, overland. This was, of course, described as a “brutal and unprovoked murder by the Wide Bay blacks.”

       In Mr. Uniacke’s description of the Bribie blacks in 1823, he says the men all had the cartilage of the nose pierced, while the women had the first two joints of the little finger amputated like those of the old Sydney tribe. Both sexes were entirely naked. Pamphlet says he never saw a woman struck or ill-used in any way. All early writers, Flinders, Uniacke, Leichhardt, Bunce, and Lang describe the Moreton Bay blacks as tall, graceful, powerful, athletic men. In one of his letters to Lieutenant Lynd, Leichhardt describes the Turrabool and Bribie tribes as “a fine race of men, tall and well made, and they and the groups they formed, would have delighted the eye of the artist.” Leichhardt and David Archer came down to the coast from Durundur station in September, 1848, and stayed a couple of days with the Nynga-nynga tribe, camped beside the swamp at the rear of Turrabool Point. They lived on crabs and oysters.

       In twenty more years there will likely not be a soul left of all the Moreton Bay tribes. I can only find three who speak Oondoo and two who speak Churrabool at the present time. Around us day by day a race is rapidly vanishing in annihilation. As Dr. Von Martins said of the American Indians, “it is a monstrous and tragical drama, such as no fiction of the poet ever yet presented for our contemplation. A whole people are perishing before our eyes, and no power of princes, philosophy, or Christianity can arrest their proudly gloomy progress towards a certain and utter destruction.”

       Is there not something unspeakably solemn in this awful drama of the last death scenes of the Australian races? Only the cold heart, frozen by sordid selfishness, or blackened in the smoke of the fires in the Temple of Mammon, can contemplate unmoved that Dantean picture from the realms of gloom – the shadowy forms and naked feet of a doomed race marching swiftly and softly by us to where the dark ocean of oblivion ruthlessly swallows them all. And yet our poets and artists, in the deplorable poverty of their resources, strangled by the Simian imitative faculty so fatal to originality, must needs search for subjects in the dustbins of the past, glorifying events that never happened, and heroes who never existed; or wasting marble and canvas in perpetuating the apotheosis of improper females and disreputable ancient celebrities who, if living today, would spend three-fourths of their lives in gaol, if fortunate enough to escape the gallows.

       Around us everywhere are true heroes and heroines, living comedies more grotesque than those of Aristophanes, and tragedies more terrible than the Eumenides and Prometheus Vinetus. Earthquakes, and buried cities, eruptions of volcanoes, civil wars, famine and pestilence, shipwrecks, Mammon worship crueler than Moloch, and dying races going down unheeded to the grave! Are we approaching the midnight which is to witness the second occultation of genius?

MISSION TO THE BLACKS (ca 1890)

“deep subtle wits,

In truth, are master spirits in the world,

And brave man’s courage, and the student’s lore,

Are but as tools his secret ends to work,

Who hath the skill to use them.”

Joanna Baillie.

“The devil loves to make a Christian look as if he needeth liver medicine- if preachers would bear continually in mind that they are working for God, there wouldn’t be so much anxiety about wages.”

A tramp charged before French Magistrate with begging, was asked what he had to say in his defence. To this enquiry the sundowner replied that “He must live.” Thoughtfully stroking his chin, the Magistrate said, “He did not see the necessity for that.”

       That is the position of the blacks. Society has declared that it see no necessity that the blacks should live, and the old law of the survival of the fittest, with its multitudinous proofs furnished by the experiences of centuries, will one again be exemplified in the history of the aborigines of Australia. The person credulous enough to believe in the march of the inevitable being checked by psalm singing cant, would doubtless believe in the possibility of emptying the Pacific Ocean with a teaspoon. It is clear that from the start, the governing powers of Queensland have neglected their responsibilities with regard to native tribes, and in exchange for the land they have annexed, they have given literally nothing to the native owners of the soil. 

       The protection afforded the wretched outcasts has become a mockery. The reserves have been so well reserved that the poor devils have scarcely ever seen them; the presentation of the blanket business has always been more or less a farce; and the distribution of rations has never been attended to in a “rational” way.

       True the British flag waves proudly over the nigger, and under this noble banner, no man can be a slave. This important fact would doubtless prove of immense comfort to the downtrodden races had it ever been properly explained to them.

       Then again with the advent of the white cause, that blindfolded lady, Justice, but unfortunately the myall has no chance of making an intimate acquaintance with her until he finds himself in a dock in a court of law, where he is tried in a jargon of which he knows nothing, and sentenced by a code of which he knows less. Frequently the offence with which he is charged, a little cannibalism, murder, or what not, is according to his religion, traditions and customs exceedingly meritorious, and if he possesses the brains of an average chimpanzee he will probably wonder why he is tried by laws in the making of which he had no voice. And here it may be asked, is it fair and square that the blacks should be held amenable to our laws, until at all events, the privileges and penalties of the law are equally divided. I will make myself clear by an illustration. What is the result if a nigger interferes with a white woman? The machinery of the law, that beautiful goddess, who has no respect for persons, is immediately put in motion, and a wail of horror ascends to the sky. But reverse the case and imagine a white man interfering with a gin, and how then. The nigger who is wronged has no redress at law, excepting that which he may take into his own hands. He may follow and do unto death the destroyer of the peace of the family gunyah, or he may offer up a vicarious sacrifice, the first white he may come across. This sort of thing has often happened with the result that the initial wrong perpetrated by a white has resulted in the destruction of an innocent fellow white man and the extermination of half a tribe of equally innocent blacks. Thus, naturally, while the law stands as it does, while it is possible for natives to be punished but not protected by laws not their own, it stands to reason that they require something more practical and solid than missionary drivel if they are to be made comfortable during the process of their quick and certain extermination. The law must protect them if any good is to be done; they need a doctor, not a parson. A medical crusade might prolong the existence of the tribes already contaminated by contact with the whites, that is if such prolongation is necessary.

       As an intelligent African chief once said: “Splendid country, England. It first of all sends a missionary, then it sends a soldier to protect the missionary, then it sends an army to protect the soldier. Then it annexes the country, and imports muskets, rum, and bibles in the name of the Lord.” In this interestingly and useful work, the missionary should be kept until he has assisted in annexing any part of the world that remains  to be annexed from its rightful owners. North Queensland is annexed so there is nothing for the “bible in one hand and sword in the other” religious exploiter to do. In the South Sea Islands missionaries are as plentiful as wallabies, and I understand that the majority of them make excellent traders, and that they lay up treasures where it is possible for the moth to get to, and that they wax fat. But it is significant that, if the Kanakas imported into Queensland are to be believed, the noble army of martyrs are as a whole wolves in sheep’s clothing. There is a general consensus of opinion, with regard to the business, among the dusky sojourners from the Pacific that “missionary no good.” He is accused of annexing pigs, yams, and copra and other trade for his own personal advantage, of looking on the wine while it is red, and of often being a “father” to the flock in a too literal sense of the word.

       But all this, however, is by the way, and I can pass from reports as to the way missionary enterprise is conducted in the South Seas with the reflection that, as far as Exeter Hall is concerned, where ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise. This noble institution is naturally blind in one optic, and can scarcely see out of the other, for the very simple reason that the members are entirely dependent for information on one side only, and that side, the missionary side, as a matter of course, takes particular care to present only its side of the shield to the sweet philanthropists of Exeter Hall. There is a good deal of “side” in this last paragraph of mine, but not more than it deserves. I am aware that it is fashionable for those who live on cream – the crème de la crème – if you prefer it, to pay peripatetic apostles to instruct the heathen to live on skimmed milk in this world in the hope of butter in the world to come; but I notice this, that men of the Gribble sort make sure of the butter in this world, and chance the skimmed milk in the next.

 

WILD DAYS

A MESTONIAN MEMORY

ADVENTURE AND TRAGEDY

WHEN THE NORTH WAS NEW

SUNDAY OCTOBER 7, 1917   

In the year 1881, there was a wild rush for sugar land in North Queensland from Mackay to Cooktown, and men had a fixed belief that to secure a good selection of 1280 acres, suitable for cane growing, was to command a fortune in three or four years.

       Among the men who went farthest north was W. R. Guilfoyle, the present curator of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens. He selected 640 acres on the McIvor River, near Cooktown. James Tyson, the millionaire squatter, selected three blocks on the Tully River, each of 5120 acres, with the intention of creating a large sugar mill.

       In 1881, he went up to have a look at the land and I met him in Townsville. I met him a week after in Cardwell, where he had a small steamer called the Talisman, bought for the use of his manager, one of his nephews, Mr. Hewitt, a fine specimen of a man, with jet black hair and long black beard. He was well known to me in after years as manager of Meteor Downs, one of Tyson’s stations in the Springsure district. In reply to my question of what he was going to do with sugar land, Tyson replied, “Well, look here, mister, I grow beef and mutton for Australia and don’t see why I shouldn’t grow sugar.”

       I reminded him that he understood cattle and sheep, and would likely be sorry when all was over. After mature consideration, he wisely left the sugar problem to others.

       Just north of the Tully is another river called Liverpool Creek, also running into Rockingham Bay, but only navigable for small boats for about a couple of miles.

       In 1881, the first two selections on that creek were selected for Cooper and Mills, two well known mining men on Charters Towers. In that year the first scrub was felled on the Johnstone River, on Innisfail plantation, and all the country from Cardwell to Cairns was in its primitive state, occupied only by wild tribes in no sense friendly to white men. And they had dismal and terrible reasons for not being friendly.

       In the morning of a perfect tropical day myself and two others left our camp on Dunk Island in a whaleboat for the mouth of Liverpool Creek. We entered round a long sand point into a calm stretch of water, about a mile in length.

       I was not aware at the time that a considerable number of blacks had been shot by the native police three months before, about five months north of the Johnstone, and that all the blacks on that coast, men of kindred tribes, were burning with a thirst for revenge. Nevertheless, I was not moving around with my eyes or ears shut, though no amount of precaution can always guard against a surprise by that eagle eyed agile race, with the panther movements, in country where there is cover of rocks, grass or trees.

       The danger was from blacks where trouble would arise before there was any chance of establishing friendly terms. In the bend inside the creek there was a fringe of dwarf mangroves, and I decided to land there, as the creek ahead appeared too narrow and offer east facilities for blacks to spear us from the banks.

       These tribes use the woomera spear, and can use it effectively. It is a dangerous weapon in skilled hands. When just nearing the beach, a black rose suddenly from behind the mangrove, threw a spear point blank at us, and vanished.

       The two men, Barclay and Farmer, were pulling, and I was in the stern seat steering, the rifle across my knees ready for use, as we had just sighted a large crocodile. The escape of all three from the spear seemed miraculous, as the black was not more than 20 yards away. It passed under Barclay’s right arm and stuck in the stern of the boat, leaving the shaft quivering between my legs.

       It was apparently not thrown at anyone in particular, and doubtless the black was too excited to make good practice. It was a black palms spear, with a grass tree shaft, and thrown with great force that would have sent it through one of us as easily as through a sheet of cardboard.

       I fired a shot from the revolver, ran along the seats of the boat, and jumped on shore, telling Farmer to follow, and Barclay to take the boat in midstream and stay there. Knowing that the black had left his first position, and that already others had signaled to him that two men were ashore with firearms, I pushed quickly through the fringe of mangrove into the clear space beyond.

       There was only the track of one black on the sand and he had dropped two of his spears, a proof that he had left in a hurry. How many more were within easy distance we had yet to learn. Advancing with considerable caution and very much on the alert, giving at intervals a friendly double cooee, and a friendly sign with a small green bush for the benefit of those who I knew were watching us, we reached a spot about 300 yards from the boat. Here two blacks gave answering cooees, one on each hand, about 200 yards away, one being visible standing on the branch of a fallen tree, , both hands above his head, with palms outwards, and waving them across each other from side to side, a friendly sign common to all Australian blacks.

       Farmer at the time was about 10 yards away, standing beside a sapling, holding the revolver with both hands behind his back. Suddenly, on the left, about 30 yards away, a black rose from behind a bush and threw a spear with deadly aim at me, but I promptly evaded the weapon. And it stuck, quivering in the sapling beside Farmer. I had just told him to lie flat on his face when a spear, “too near and deadly aimed to err,’ struck him in the chest. I heard it strike, and the half groan, half cry, which came from poor farmer’s lips, but dare not take my eyes off the foe in front.

       A wild shout of savage triumph came from the black who threw the fatal spear, and he actually stood on an ant heap and shook his woomera defiantly – for the last time!

       It seems well to pass over the next half hour and come back to farmer when the row is over and the blacks have gone. Alas! The spear had gone through him, and the unbarbed point protruded 2in under the right shoulder blade. It was a short spear, and the black palm point was only about 16in in length, so, to save him the pain of cutting it through, I broke it off at the join with the grass tree. To draw it out meant certain death. That mistake was made when Gilbert was speared in Leichhardt’s expedition of 1845. When a black does draw a spear out he pulls it through thick wet clay, pressed against the skin, so as to shut all air out when the point is withdrawn.

       Farmer felt surprisingly little pain, and with a few stoppages on the way, and my arm around him, he walked slowly to the boat. His courage was magnificent, and only the ghastly whiteness of his face gave any sign of that fatal spear. In the boat, we made him as comfortable as possible with three rugs, which made a couch on which he could lie on his left side.

       Once out over the bar, we hoisted the sail and a high west wind off the coast ranges took us away at fair speed towards Dunk Island.

       We had not gone a mile when we saw certain signs that Farmer was dying. Bright red frothy blood came pouring from the wounded lung, a few groans, a clutching of the hands convulsively, a dreadful gurgle in the blood filled throat, one final shudder of the whole stalwart frame, and Barclay and I were alone with the dead!

       My resolve had been taken, and we went on our course to Dunk Island, a boat party sad as that which bore the body of King Arthur on its last journey, though no spectral arm, clothed in white mystic samite, had uplifted a shining sword Excalibur above the green waves of that coral paved tropic sea.

       We ran the boat on the coral strewn beach of Dunk Island, whose jungle clad hill of 800 feet rose in front, lifted the body of Farmer out of the boat on a broad driftwood plank, and laid it on a flat rock above high water.

       Then I pulled out the accursed spear, and had to place my foot on his chest, so firmly was the weapon fixed. Seeing fresh tracks of blacks on the beach, I knew that if we buried the body either there or on the mainland, it would be dug up and eaten, so decided at once upon an act of cremation.

       The beach was strewn with drift wood, partly from the wrecks of many vessels, and partly from dead timber brought down by the floods in the river of the adjoining coast. So Barclay and I heaped dry wood on and around the body of our dead companion until there was a funeral pile like that over Agamemnon; planks and spars and masts and cabin fittings that could have told as varied a tale as Longfellow’s “Fire of Driftwood,” and at sundown we applied the match. That fire burned far into the night, fed from time to time with more driftwood.

       It was a wild, weird scene. The flames shed their glare far over the water where the myriad fishes left their pathways in the phosphorescent depths. They radiated far through the trees into the silent dark depths of the jungle clad hill. Foam crested waves broke, unceasing, on the beach, and the disturbed coral complained in metallic murmurs.

       Thus passed that desolate, lonely night, the spectral winds playing the dead man’s requiem on their Aeolian harp of pines, accompanied by the moan and the wail of the weary sea, until the morning came and all the sky grew radiant with the glory of the dawn. And in the centre of the dark brown rock was the heap of grey ashes streaked by a few bars of white, the last traces of the bones of Alick Farmer.

 

      

      

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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