An Australian Parsonage/Chapter XV


Schools on the Irish system—Roman Catholic schools—Schoolmasters—Scholastic squabbles—Convict tutors—Difficulties to educated convicts in earning livelihood—Festival of the Barladong Fair—Want of recreation—Silver mugs—Popular entertainment—"Paddle your own canoe"—Natives attracted to fair—Different costumes—Glass spears—Fights occasioned by betrothal and polygamy—Native laws respecting marriages—Sheep-shearers interrupted at dinner—Pitched battle in barley-field—Holding beard between teeth—Æsop's donkey—Khourabene in position of Mr. Swiveller—Khourabene brings home wife—Legacy of brother's widow—Khourabene's past history as married man—His escape from policeman—Finaly acquitted—Reasons for contracting additional marriage—First wife deputes making of dampers to second wife—Ladies' quarrels—Khourabene and his wives—Khourabene an outlaw—His aunt's lamentations.

The education of children in Western Australia was carried on in what were called Government schools, quasi National. The teaching in the Government schools was upon the Irish system in reference to the great number of Roman Catholic immigrants within the colony, whose children, it was supposed, would form the majority of the pupils. The concession thus made, of leaving out all distinctive religious instruction in the general course of education, met with as cold a reception abroad as it has done at home from those whom it was intended to please. The Roman Catholic clergy discouraged the children of their flock from attending any schools excepting those which had been established by themselves, and both priests and laity naturally felt aggrieved at having to pay taxes for the maintenance of Protestant schools whilst supporting in addition the entire burden of their own.

A great stimulus was given at the Government schools by the distribution of prizes twice a year, for the purchase of which an allowance was made of a shilling for each child, according to the average attendance. Also, whatever lines of distinction were drawn elsewhere between the classes of bond and free, none existed within the school walls, where the children of convicts and colonists, attended together, sat upon the same benches, and were treated in all respects alike. There was not any system of diocesan inspection of schools, and that of the Government had no home precedent, the Perth schoolmaster being permanently appointed as inspector of the schools of his fellow-masters, without any regard to the comparative value of his certificate and of theirs.

The amount of education acquired at these Government schools varied somewhat with the efficiency of the instructors who, in a struggling colony, must occasionally be such as it is possible to procure, rather than those really qualified to fill the situation. However, at the time of our arrival at Barladong, we found that the reputation which the climate of West Australia enjoys for checking incipient consumption had attracted thither, two years before, a schoolmaster, whose power of imparting knowledge was equal to that of any person whom we had ever seen at the head of a National school in England.

This painstaking gentleman, being under the impression that the faculties of colonial children could be drawn out by the same means as had proved successful with their English contemporaries, commenced a course of "object" lessons; and in order to make them more interesting procured from home, at his own expense, little specimens of coke, "Wall's End," Kentish filberts, and many other productions of the land of their forefathers of which his Australian pupils were necessarily ignorant. It unfortunately happened, however, that any method of instruction which appealed directly to the intelligence of the scholar was as great a novelty in Barladong as it would have been in some parts of England fifty years ago, and the local Conservatives, who had never before heard of such roads to learning as lessons on objects, denounced them as sheer waste of time, devices of the master's own invention to save himself the trouble of teaching.

These objections had but little weight with candid parents, who noticed the improvement of their children in spite of such unusual means of promoting it; but in the small society of Barladong there were some to whom a schoolmaster of the only type that they had as yet seen brought profit of another kind, and who little relished the appearance amongst them of one whose education and refined manner seemed to challenge a respect which had not hitherto been accorded, in that place, to a member of his profession. The publicans gained nothing by him, for he spent no money in drinking, and his thrift made him independent of the storekeepers, both of which classes had been used to consider that a schoolmaster was a creature habitually "out-at-elbows," who would thankfully receive payment in kind for posting up their books.

A clamour, in which the self-interests of different parties dovetailed, and in which each made a tool of the other, was accordingly raised against the schoolmaster, accusing him of indolence and inefficiency, and the Colonial Board of Education took advantage of the outcry to practise a little economy in issuing a completely new reading of the terms of the schoolmaster's appointment. He had been appointed in England to his post during the colonial secretaryship of the Duke of Newcastle, at a salary of one hundred and fifty pounds a year, with a free passage to Australia on the same conditions as those on which the Government chaplains receive their passage-money, namely, that half the sum shall be refunded to Government if they return to England before the expiration of three years. Ordinary minds had hitherto supposed that this stipulation was framed to prevent imposition upon the Government, but the new interpretation which was given to it by official intellect made it as clear as daylight that the appointment itself was good for three years only. It was therefore notified to the schoolmaster that, if he thought fit to retain his post beyond that period, he must content himself with receiving a payment of one hundred pounds a year only, instead of one hundred and fifty.

In this case the schoolmaster's course clearly was to commence an action at law against the Colonial Board; but to do so would have required a far greater sum than that which he sacrificed in resigning his situation. He shook off the dust of Barladong from his feet, and with his wife and family left the colony for Melbourne, proceeding thither by the advice of my husband, who felt sure that such real abilities as a teacher, although low-rated in Western Australia, would be certain of appreciation in Australia Felix. It was hard to be driven away, at the cost of all his little savings, from an appointment which he had received as permanent, and it was also hard that those who had learned to discern the merits of the master should be deprived of the benefit of them for their children, but in a few weeks after reaching Melbourne he obtained the charge of a school so far superior both in importance and in remuneration to the one which he had left, that his enemies, in causing him to quit Western Australia, eventually proved his best friends.

In the houses of settlers, who lived at a distance from any Government school, we sometimes found a convict engaged as tutor to the children and keeper of the farm accounts, but employment of this kind for those released prisoners who are capable of undertaking it is not so easily obtained by them as might be supposed. The truth is, that learning is of less value in a rough and but partially cleared country than a pair of hard hands, and the consequent difficulty that an educated man of the bond class finds in earning mere bread is sometimes so great that even the victims of his dishonesty at home would perhaps feel satisfied that his punishment was proportioned to his offence, if they could see his struggle for a bare existence. There is great inequality in the penalty of transportation, and although it may be truly urged that the educated criminal deserves a heavier punishment than his illiterate neighbour, yet the fact remains the same, and whilst the former class of offender is sometimes on the verge of starvation, the agricultural convict can become a landed proprietor on no worse conditions than those of being contented to work hard and to forswear drink.

Leaving the subject of schools and tutors, I shall now pass on to that of holidays and merry-makings.

The chief festival season in our little town was the annual cattle-show and fair, which was held in the month of October, the time of year when the country was in its most beautiful dress and the weather most pleasant for travelling. The neighbouring settlers were in the habit of inviting their friends and relatives to gather around them during the fair week, and there was more gaiety and merriment in those few days than in all the rest of the year put together.

On the Sunday the church was crowded, and our little choir generally got up an anthem in honour of the visitors. On the Monday the day was employed in preparing the pens and enclosures for the cattle-show, and in decorating the Mechanics' Hall with devices, made of everlastings and zamia leaves, in readiness for the forthcoming festivities whatever they might be.

Sometimes a ball would be given by subscription among the principal settlers; another year the attraction would be a fancy fair; another season, perhaps, the hall would be taken up for a large tea-party, followed by a concert performed by the musical talent of the district, assisted by friends from Perth and Fremantle. Whatever might be the amusement chosen there was always some kind of gathering, and the young people thought about it and talked about it for weeks beforehand, and vied with one another in the composition of elegant garlands and decorations for the walls of the building.

On the Tuesday the cattle-show and fair was held, followed by the annual meeting of the Agricultural Society, and by a public dinner in the evening at one of the principal hotels. On the Wednesday everyone flocked to the race-course, where the contests seemed to afford far more pleasure than is often created by the struggle between the high-bred animals at an English meeting, since everyone knows both the horses and the riders, and takes a deep interest in their success. The festivities are nominally over after the conclusion of the races, but the excitement has by this time risen to such a pitch that the remainder of the week is barely sufficient to cool it down, and no one thinks of returning into the beaten and monotonous track before Saturday night has passed.

In these six days seemed to be concentrated all the amusement of the year, and the shepherds and labourers from the bush farms, who could probably count every human face that they had seen for a year past, crowded into the town by scores, too often to return penniless after having spent a twelvemonth's wages in the tap-rooms of Barladong. There is no country in the world, I should think, where "Jack's dullness" is so excusable as West Australia if the old adage be true, for nowhere are there fewer means of recreation or amusement; in fact the labouring man, except perhaps at Perth, has literally no possible change of scene and companionship open to him, when wearied by long monotonous labour, except the public-house bar.

A country must have arrived at a certain stage of prosperity and wealth before any provision for public amusements can be made, or a class of public entertainers can be expected to arise who would provide such amusements as a matter of business. Much, therefore, as one would rejoice to see concert-rooms, public gardens, circuses, and even theatres, if well conducted, established in Swan River to provide innocent recreations for the large number of convicts sent out from England, there seems no hope of anything of the sort occurring, and things must remain as they are until the colony grows richer.

The principal feature in the fair was the show of horses, cattle, and sheep, prizes being given to the most successful exhibitors. One of our friends had won so many prize-cups that his children had not required the intervention of sponsors to supply them with silver mugs, since his sideboard was furnished with one apiece for the whole family. This, unfortunately, was the case only when we first visited our friend, for before we left the colony the cups had been stolen by a convict. As long as a thief could find no means of disposing of such plunder all articles of plate and jewellery had been safe, and money alone had presented any temptation to the evil-disposed. When, however, two or three silversmiths and jewellers of the bond or expiree class had been allowed to open shops, in which gold or silver bullion was a legitimate trade possession, the case was altered, and the thief was tempted to resort to the melting-pot if he could manage to lay his hands upon anything of value. I do not mean to say that any of these tradesmen would knowingly have received stolen goods, as I am aware of no grounds whatever for such a suggestion; what I wish to notice is that the thief now thought he had a chance of disposing of such property since it had become an article of daily sale and barter.

A popular form of entertainment often practised at the fair, and borrowed from the Wesleyans, possessed the advantage of combining the receipt of a fair sum of money for some local purpose with the pleasure of an evening's amusement. This was commonly known as a "tea-meeting," being a joint affair of soirée and conversazione, where a certain number of ladies banded together to provide each a tea-tray, containing twelve cups and saucers, and cake in a like proportion. The china and eatables having been conveyed to a given spot, the doors were thrown open at an hour agreed upon beforehand, and, on the payment of a fixed sum, usually one shilling, the public were admitted, for whom the ladies forthwith commenced pouring out tea. When this had continued a sufficient length of time the trays were cleared away, and speeches made, interspersed with singing.

There was generally a "tea-meeting" on occasion of the fair, and, as I have already noticed, sometimes a ball, the discussions as to which hotel it should be held at out of four that our town boasted, or whether it should be held, not at a hotel at all but at "the Mechanics'," occupying as much time as a long parliamentary debate, with such frequent adjournments as sometimes to threaten the young people with a total postponement of their dance for another twelvemonth.

The one week over, the curtain dropped on all gaiety, harmless or otherwise, and hard unremitting work had to begin afresh. An occasional wedding might have broken through the sameness of the routine had the spot been anywhere else in the world's geography, but in five years not one marriage of persons belonging to the upper class occurred in our district.

Sometimes the young people could not maintain the perpetual struggle with dullness until the fair again came round, but begged for an intermediate excitement (like a relaxation in Lent) no matter what, nor how humdrum, only something that should vary the tedium of their one-coloured every-day life. It would then be proposed that a lecture should be given, not that instruction of any kind was particularly wished for on its own account, but because, if divided into two parts, it admitted of an amateur performance, vocal and instrumental, being introduced between them.

At the close of one such entertainment an old colonist, who was member of the Honourable Council and a leader of the Wesleyan body, on the plea of thanking the lecturer, stood up to make a speech, when, instead of diverging into religion as was the general expectation, he launched out into political economy, probing the point on which most of his hearers were feeling very sore, "the withdrawal," as he expressed it, "of the convict element from amongst us," meaning in plain English, that the colony was no longer to enjoy a large and increasing convict expenditure. Having got thus far, he took it for granted that his hearers would ask him for the benefit of his advice, so assuming to himself the character of the god in the fable, and assigning to them the part of the man in the mud, he went on to say, "My nephew has been lately in England, and has brought back a song—one that I like, for it contains an idea;—it is called 'I have paddled my own canoe.' That's what you have all got to do now,—as my nephew's song says—Paddle your own canoe!"

With the help of this quotation, falling back on it as on a text whenever he did not quite know what to say next, the old colonist made a long and amusing speech, interspersed with anecdotes of his own early adventures in the colony, but offered no suggestion as to the best, or indeed any means of "paddling" beyond propounding that if somebody could find rock oil, or as he expressed it "find an oil mine," it would be a good thing. However, the discourse was deferentially listened to, on account of the speaker's position, which was a very substantial one, and when he sat down the nephew good-naturedly responded to the call for the song to which such frequent reference had been made.

The attraction of the fair, but especially that of the races, never failed to fill the town with natives, who always congregated to merry-makings of any kind whatsoever, and Khourabene used to extort promises from us, months beforehand, of being granted various articles of dress, in which he might make a becoming appearance upon the race-ground. Neither was it for the white people only that the fair was an occasion for a dance; the natives must also have their ball or "corobbery," the dressing for which is quite as important a business to them as the preparations for a presentation at court would be to any lady or gentleman at home, only that the style is left to the discretion of the guests, and no one is limited to any costume in particular. The greatest amount of fancy is shown in the arrangement of the hair, which is adorned with emu's or cockatoo's feathers, or bound round the temples with the yellow tail of a wild dog, or with anything in fact that is thought to have a suitable and distinguished effect.

Bunches of scarlet feathers are often fastened on the upper part of the arm like a pair of short sleeves, and a defiant look is given to the countenance by sticking a smooth white bone, the length of a quill pen, through a hole in the cartilage of the nose, just as a careful henwife will run a feather through the beak of a fowl that persists in sitting at an inexpedient time.

On one occasion Khourabene affected a pointed beard in the style of Louis Napoleon, having shaved off his whiskers in the most faultless manner with a piece of glass; he next proceeded to cover his head with a shock of minute ringlets, using the stem of a tobacco-pipe as a substitute for curling-irons.

Warlike accoutrements are, of course, as much de rigueur at a "corobbery" as a sword in court dress, and the weapons in which most pride seemed to be taken were the formidable "glass spears," so called because they are armed for about the length of a foot with small bits of broken glass stuck firmly to the shaft with the resin of the Xanthorrhoea. In former days these spears were armed with sharp fragments of quartz, the glass being an improvement dating from the arrival of the English, and the consequent strewing of the country with broken bottles. These last, beside being useful for arming spears and for shaving purposes, are employed by the natives in cutting deep decorative wounds several inches long upon their shoulders and chests which, when healed into wide-seamed scars, are highly prized as personal improvements, and certainly have this one advantage over all removable ornaments that they are not affected by the native rules for exchange of portable property. Both men and women were embellished in this manner, and I believe that the ornamental process takes place in early youth. My husband used to say that these scars reminded him of the self-inflicted wounds of the priests of Baal, who "cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets" in honour of their god.

"Corobberies" end with fights more frequently than not, for which, were all other causes lacking, the native customs of betrothal and polygamy would alone afford plentiful excuses. There is the mariage de convenance, and the marriage by entail, and there is the runaway marriage which is the most illustrious of all. The first is a family arrangement between the parents in which the parties most interested have no voice, though they render their lives forfeit if they do not carry out the domestic contract.

A settler told me that he and his wife had had a native girl in their service for two years, when one day her affianced husband appeared at the door to claim his bride. It seemed a very matter-of-fact business, and scarcely a word passed between them; she did not show any wish to leave her place, nor any partiality for the bridegroom, and, in the words of my informant, "the two walked away together as sulky as bears."

After marrying his betrothed the man is at liberty to increase his number of wives if he can; but, unless he becomes the heir of a deceased relation, each fresh alliance must be one of theft, both the girls and women being all either married or betrothed and therefore the legal property of somebody or other from their earliest youth. However, as nothing tends so much to raise a native's own opinion of himself as the stealing of a wife, aboriginal society is in a permanent state of broil, whereby the peace and quiet of white people is sometimes disturbed in a most unexpected manner.

The wife of a small farmer told, me that whilst presiding at her sheep-shearing dinner the house door suddenly flew open, and a native stalked in, dragging after him his recaptured wife by the hair of her head. Several other natives trooped in behind, apparently as spectators, for none of them seemed disposed to rescue the unfortunate woman. The mistress of the house, however, played the part of good "Sister Anne," and, hustling the wife from the clutches of the black Bluebeard, pushed her into an inner room, the door of which she defied him to enter.

Another time, a neighbour of ours, on looking out of his window, espied a fight going on in his standing barley—kylies were flying, and the combatants had crammed their beards into their mouths in true martial fashion. Our friend hastened to the spot to save what remained of his crop, and his acrimony against trespassers in general was not diminished by the alighting in his own leg of a spear which had been aimed at one of the combatants. His wife ran gallantly to his assistance with their gun, but as it proved to be unloaded, she did not effect much by her good-will.

The cause of the quarrel proved to be that their own native servant had stolen another native's wife, and the barley-field had been selected to settle the matter in, not from personal malice to the owner, but simply because the place was convenient. The same might be said of a good many historical battle-fields.

The holding of the beard between the teeth is as regular a preliminary before beginning to fight, amongst natives, as the taking off of a coat might be with English people, and I have read of a hill tribe in India who follow the same fashion.

I do not know in what light the women regard their abduction; they are often, no doubt, consenting parties, and at other times, perhaps, their feelings resemble those of the donkey in Æsop's fable. That sagacious animal, it may be remembered, showed no anxiety to escape from the pursuing enemy, who could not, he was convinced, load his back with heavier pack-saddles than had already been laid on it by his own master.

The first instance that we met with of wife-inheritance was when one day Khourabene marched up proudly to our door, holding by the hand a little girl of five years old, well wrapped up in furs, with a string of blue beads round her throat. He introduced her to us with a beaming smile as his little "Gorda," or sweetheart, and explained that she had originally been betrothed to his cousin, who had lately died, and to whose property in her as a future wife he had succeeded as heir-at-law. In fact, his position was precisely that of Mr. Swiveller with a young lady "saving up" for him. "Gorda's" education was in the meantime entrusted to an old native lady, from whose hands Khourabene had borrowed her for the day that we might see the chattel which his relation had bequeathed to him. He seemed to have very correct ideas as to the propriety of making his betrothed bride a present, and asked my husband to give him sixpence that he might buy her a whistle. Some weeks afterwards Khourabene entered our kitchen followed by a very ugly woman who looked a good deal older than himself, and whom he introduced to us as his wife Sarah. I asked him what had become of his little "Gorda," and he said that he had made over his right in her to another relation, and I fancy that Sarah must have been thrown into the bargain as a sort of make-weight. I looked the bride over to see what feature I could compliment, and was able, with truth, to praise her small hands and feet. She was a poor depressed-looking thing, but raised her eyes with a faint pleased smile on hearing what I said. However, Khourabene seemed quite proud of her, and though my suffrages were gratifying they evidently were not needed to increase his admiration.

The word "settled," which has become a sort of colloquial synonym for married life with us, does not at all apply to that estate amongst natives. The passion for roving, as I have already said, is stronger in the women than the men; so that natives with wives are far less desirable as servants than those who are single. Poor old Sarah, however, seemed no great gadabout, and everything might have gone on comfortably, only that just about this time Khourabene came in for another legacy in the shape of a second wife. This was his brother s widow whom, by native customs, he inherited as if she had been an estate, with the liberty of cutting off the entail if he thought good, by bestowing the property upon another native, a privilege of which my husband earnestly begged the heir to avail himself, as we knew that the widow was a good-for-nothing creature, and Khourabene's history as a married man had not hitherto been so fortunate as that he could afford to run any more risks.

His first wife had given him reasonable ground for a divorce and he had obtained one by the native rule of spearing her; if he had not done so, he would have infringed his country's laws, but by his obedience to them, he laid himself open to the penalties of our code. The colonial Government has, naturally, proscribed all native customs which involve homicide, and, a police-warrant being issued for his apprehension, Khourabene could evade it only by hiding himself in the bush. At the end of two years he was captured; but it is difficult to find handcuffs that shall fit aboriginal wrists, and Khourabene slipped himself loose when the policeman who had apprehended him lay down to sleep under a tree, doing so, no doubt, with a safe conscience, as he had not only manacled the prisoner, but had also fastened him to himself with a chain.

The eyes of our wily friend twinkled with fun as he described to us his cautious lifting of the links, and the manner in which he had tickled the face of his snoring captor with a bit of grass to make him move into a convenient position whilst he worked his own release; so confident too was he in his noiseless tread, and in the soundness of the enemy's sleep, that on second thoughts he even risked a return to the same spot, after he had freed himself, in order to secure a loaf of bread from the policeman's wallet.

Some time afterwards Khourabene was again caught, and carried down to Perth to take his trial, but the ease was dismissed, either for want of evidence, or as he himself believed, because he had "done the state some service" in preventing the escape of another prisoner. No past experience, however, could induce Khourabene to forego the increased importance that he would gain in the eyes of other natives by the possession of two wives, though, perhaps, it is a want of charity to disbelieve his own assertion that he "must marry Polly" to ensure her being treated kindly. "Another black fellow," as he said to me, "would beat her if she lost his pipe."

I was vexed at the introduction of this second wife on Sarah's account, for, though she made no complaints, nothing will ever persuade me that any woman, though a Mahommedan or a savage, who has once been "the better half," is otherwise than chagrined at becoming a third or quarter partner in the matrimonial firm.

The manner, however, in which human beings receive the unavoidable circumstances of their lot varies with the disposition of the individual. A native man and his one wife had worked together so long and so harmoniously for a friend of ours that he had ceased to remember polygamy as one of their national institutions, and felt himself rudely recalled to consciousness of its existence by the return of his man-servant from a short absence, carrying a young native girl upon his back, whom he deposited amidst the family circle, and formally introduced as his spouse number two.

Our friend, much disturbed at the incident, remonstrated against such unworthy treatment of the first good old partner, but receiving no other answer than the repeated assurance—"new womany quorba"—meaning that an additional wife was a good thing, he appealed, in perplexity, to the elder wife herself (as if, poor soul, she had had any voice in the matter!) and was more than ever taken aback by the coldness with which that lady heard his condolences. "Let her come!" said the original mistress of the hearth, waving off sympathy with a contemptuous air; "let her come—she'll do to make the damper!" Whether in this particular instance the baking of dampers by the second wife helped to extinguish family feuds I never heard, but judging from what we saw of other cases I should imagine that the contrary was to be expected.

In the presence of white people one native wife will sometimes content herself with making faces and shaking her fist at the other behind her back, but these demonstrations are mere amenities when compared to a real and serious quarrel, fought out with the long wands which the women habitually carry, (as the men their spears,) and which, in action, they handle like the English quarterstaff. In one such duel, which was described to me by an eye-witness, one of the women dropped dead upon the spot.

Khourabene's wives, however, being hardened women of the world, and too wise to quarrel, found a common bond of union in making him a regular slave to them both. They played upon his love of flattery, (which he possessed to as great an extent as if he had been highly civilized,) and by dint of calling him "fine gentleman fellow," and praising his kindness, persuaded him to fetch and carry for them like a dog. Though we always paid him in money they grudged his doing a day's work for us, and were never contented unless he was escorting them hither and thither to this or that "corobbery." The last sight I had of him he was sitting on the ground, twisting scarlet worsted into fillets for the hair of these two baggages who stood by him overlooking his work. They took no share in winding the worsted, but he had made himself independent of help by stretching the skein from the toe of his right foot to the thumb of his left hand. A few days afterwards we heard that Khourabene was again a fugitive, accompanied by Sarah only. The quondam widow, adorned in her becoming head-dress, had given him cause for jealousy, and he had speared her.

We never saw our wild man again, though he sometimes sent us secret messages, and would have paid us visits on dark nights if we had given him the least encouragement, but to all hints of this kind we turned a deaf ear, lest by his venturing near the town he might fall into the hands of the law. We missed him sadly, and the place did not seem like itself without him; it was some consolation that the police could not find him, and we earnestly hoped that they never might. His faults were those of a savage, and his virtues also; neither was it ourselves only who regretted him. Natives are very kind to their aged relations, in fact Bishop Salvado goes so far as to say that if ever an Australian woman can be called happy, it is when she is old; and Khourabene's outlawry was much deplored by his poor old toothless aunt, who would come creeping up to our fire, and dropping herself and her smoke-dried kangaroo skins down beside it in what looked a very homogeneous heap, would beg for a little list of excisable articles, tea, sugar, and tobacco, bemoaning with tears that her children were all dead, and now that "her boy Khourabene was run away, there was nobody to 'look out'[1] for poor old Caroline."

  1. Look out, in english, as spoken by the natives, is the received expression for taking care of anything.