Narrative of a Voyage Round the World (Wilson)/Chapter 11


Description of Fort Wellington—General appearance of the Land on the North Coast of New Holland—Character of the Aborigines of Raffles Bay—Recapitulatory Observations—Alleged Causes of the Abandonment of Melville Island and Raffles Bay proved to be without foundation.

The bay (on the east side of which the camp was formed) is small, very safe, and of easy access; the water of no great depth, but sufficient for vessels of moderate burden. The fort, situated in latitude 11° 15' 4" south[1], and in longitude 132° 24' 57" east[2], was substantially built of wood, and surrounded by pallisadoes; the ground-floor served as a receptacle for provisions and stores, and above was the residence of the Commandant. To the south of the fort were the soldiers' quarters, and to the north, were those of the prisoners; to the east, the marines had erected their dwelling, on the roof of which, surmounted on a pole, were the cardinal points;—these, together with the hospital, guard-room, the cells, and a few straggling huts built without art or elegance, (except a neatly finished cottage, the residence of the Commissariat and Medical officers,) constituted the camp.

This deficiency of buildings did not arise from any supineness on the part of the existing authorities, but in consequence of orders from head-quarters not to erect any expensive buildings; as it was probable that the settlement might be removed to Port Essington.

The greatest attention was paid to horticulture;—besides the garden, sometime formed, and abounding in useful and ornamental articles, there was another of considerable extent, fenced in, and the ground properly prepared for use, when the orders came to abandon the place.

The site of the settlement was by no means judiciously chosen;—an extensive mud bank being right in front of it, through which, at low water, people embarking or disembarking were obliged to wade nearly a furlong. About a quarter of a mile farther to the northward, there was a much more eligible spot, where permanent buildings were intended to be formed, and which might easily have been erected, as good clay abounded.

Captain Stirling was actuated in his choice of the site by its being near a fresh water lagoon; that the people might be protected from the natives while procuring water—but water could not always be procured, as the lagoon was dry, excepting during the rainy season. The settlers, however, procured a sufficient supply of good quality from a well, about thirty-seven feet deep, within a few yards of high-water mark.

In selecting a spot for a settlement on the northern coast of New Holland, it is not essentially necessary that there should be water; as abundance of it might be caught during the rainy season, and retained in tanks and reservoirs, which could very easily be constructed. In this respect, therefore, there is a decided advantage over those places where the fall of rain is neither plentiful nor certain. Here it is invariably so;—and it is surprising that this circumstance has never been taken into consideration.

The appearance of the land about Raffles Bay has been compared by some to the coast of Orissa in Bengal, and by others to Demerara;—the fact is that the land here is exceedingly low, as it almost invariably is on the north and north-west coast of New Holland, and in this respect it bears a resemblance to either of these places; but the similarity exists no farther, as here there is neither underwood nor jungles to create and foster effluvia inimical to health.

But low land in a tropical latitude, although generally considered unhealthy, is not invariably so—neither are high lands always healthy. Raffles Bay, although little above the level of the sea, is decidedly healthy; while Timor, not much nearer the equator, although in many places exceedingly lofty, is (as well as Batavia) celebrated as the grave of Europeans.

It may be supposed that this remark applies only to Coupang, which, like Batavia, is situated low; but that the interior, like that of Java, may be comparatively healthy. While at Coupang I was particular in my enquiries on this head; and was informed that in the sickly season, which occurs shortly after the commencement of the easterly monsoon, (i. e. the cessation of the rainy season) the high lands afford no protection against disease, which rages there with as much fury, and as insidiously, as it does at Coupang[3].

The soil, as far as examined, cannot in general be called good; there are, however, several fertile patches; but it would not answer either in an agricultural or pastoral point of view. Admitting that the land was good, and capable of producing valuable crops, yet the price of labour would prevent its being cultivated with advantage, especially as it is situated so near to India, whence rice could be procured at a very low rate.

Although in the quality of wood it falls short of Melville Island, yet there is a sufficiency, well enough adapted for ordinary purposes.

The bay abounds with various kinds of excellent fish, but from want of a proper seine the quantity caught was not very considerable. The Satellite's people (being better provided) had no difficulty in catching an ample supply daily, not only sufficient for the ship's company, but also for all in the settlement. The Malays caught fish readily with a hook, but none of our people had any success by that method.

It may not be out of place now to give a few particulars as to the character of the Aborigines of this part of New Holland.

In personal appearance they bear some resemblance to the natives about Port Jackson. They are, however, better made, and possess more intelligent, and perhaps more savage countenances,—they go entirely naked, and their shoulders, breasts, nates, and thighs, are ornamented with cicatrices, resembling the braiding of a hussar's jacket. Their hair is long, generally straight, and powdered with red earth.

Some of them wear a fillet of net work, about two or three inches wide, bound tightly round the waist, and a similar ornament round the head and arms; and sometimes a necklace of net work hanging a considerable length down the back.

Many of them have the front tooth in the upper jaw knocked out in the same manner as the Port Jackson natives mentioned by Captain Collins. They paint their faces, and frequently their entire bodies, with red earth; those who are inclined to be dandies, draw one or two longitudinal lines of white, across the forehead, and three similar on each cheek; and a few who appeared to be exquisites, had another white line drawn from the forehead to the tip of the nose. The nasal cartilage is invariably perforated; but it is only on particular occasions that they introduce a bone or piece of wood, and sometimes a feather through it.

In this part of the coast, the natives are divided into three distinct classes, who do not intermarry. The first and highest is named Mandro-gillie, the second, Manbur-gē, and the third, Mandro-willie.

The first class assumes a superiority over the others, which is submitted to without reluctance; and those who believe in real difference of blood amongst civilized nations, might find here some apparent ground for such opinion, as the Mandro-gillies were observed to be more polite, and unaffectedly easy in their manners, than the others, who, it was supposed, were neither so shrewd nor so refined: this, however, might be only imaginary.

Mariac (or Wellington as he was named by Captain Stirling), the chief of the country round Raffles Bay and Port Essington, is apparently about thirty-three years of age, nearly five feet eight inches in height: he limps in his walk, but whether from a wound received in foreign or domestic war, I did not learn. His features are regular, and, while he is in a good humour, placid and benign; but, on the least displeasure, which arose frequently from slight causes, they gleamed with savage fury.

He has evidently much sway among his tribe; as even Miago, although so much in favour with us, has been observed to fall back, by a look and a word from his chief. From Miago's possessing a turn for fun and mimickry, and his unrivalled dexterity in throwing the spear, he had become a favourite in the camp, to the great annoyance of Wellington, who seemed to view him in the same light that Haman did Mordecai.

Wellington gave Captain Barker to understand, that presents to any of his people should only come through himself; and he occasionally exhibited so much ill-humour at deviations from this request, that Captain Barker thought it prudent to cut him for some time.

The natives generally go in parties of from six to twelve; Wellington, however, usually went at some distance apart, accompanied only by one. When the settlement was formed, his attendant was Iacama, a Manburgē (called, by Captain Stirling, Waterloo).

Miago had then the honour of being his travelling companion, but lost the office, from the attention he received in the camp. He was succeeded by Olobo, a Mandrogillie, as timorous as a hare. When we left the settlement, Monanoo, the younger brother of the chief of Croker's Island, held that distinguished employment.

It is difficult to say whether they are accompanied in their excursions by their women, but it is probable that they are not. As far as we could learn, the natives never penetrate far into the interior, generally keeping along the shore, and occasionally cutting across any projecting point of land.

Their food chiefly consists of fish, which they spear very dexterously. Catching turtle seems to be a favourite occupation with them, and they appear quite adepts in that useful art. It is to point the spears, used for that purpose, that they estimate and covet iron so much. They also make use of shell-fish, which it is probably the business of the women to collect. They do not eat the trepang (so desired by Chinese epicures), which is in great abundance all along the coast; but the various native esculent roots and fruits, together with cabbage-palms, afford an agreeable addition to their usual fare[4].

They are very fond of honey, which appears to be in abundance, as they were seldom seen in the settlement without a supply of that article; and when they went into the woods on purpose to procure it, they soon returned successful. Their mode of proceeding was, to watch the movements of the bees, (which requires a keen eye, and long practice,) and as soon as they saw them settle on a tree, they proceeded to cut it down, which they effected with their stone hatchets, much quicker than could be imagined. It was for this purpose that Waterloo ran away with the axe, "after having seen and tried its use," judging, rightly, that it was preferable to his own ley-book (i. e. hatchet).

Respecting the number of the natives, there was no means of forming anything like a correct opinion; yet, judging from the rapidity with which they collected, when one of their countrymen was confined[5], it may be conjectured, that they are by no means thinly spread.

On the occasion alluded to, two natives, who had observed Luga taken into custody, left the settlement, and spread the tidings. In the evening, Wooloogary arrived, accompanied by fifty men at arms. From the time the two natives left, until Wooloogary's arrival, there was an interval of six hours; they had to walk two or three miles, and to cross and re-cross a strait two miles wide. It is difficult to know whether they would have acted hostilely, had their friend not been released; perhaps they only came to intercede in his behalf, and, according to the custom of civilized politicians, thought their request might be better attended to, by making a formidable appearance.

The only warlike weapons that they used (as far as we could learn) were spears, of different forms and sizes; the largest are from nine to ten feet long: some are serrated, and named burreburai; others are headed with a sharp stone, and named imburbē. They use the throwing stick, named rogorook, which is exactly of the same form, and made in the same manner, as that in use among the natives about Port Jackson. Besides these, they have small sharp-pointed spears, which they chiefly use in the spearing of fish.

We could not learn whether they were in the habit of fighting with each other, or with neighbouring tribes; but spear wounds being by no means uncommon among them, it is probable that, in this respect, they also resemble their eastern Australian brethren. It is well known, however, that they wage continual war with the Malays, who, it was evident, both hated and feared them.

It does not appear that the Marēgĕ (the name given by the Malays to the natives) are altogether to blame, or, at least, they may plead in extenuation that, as the Mulwadie (as they call the Malays) come to their coasts without leave asked or obtained, and carry away the trepang, and, more particularly, the much-valued madjendie (i. e. turtle), it is but fair that they should catch a canoe whenever they can; and that they are pretty successful in this way, appeared very evident to us,—all their canoes being of Malay construction.

Although it may seem rather paradoxical, yet I do not hesitate to say, that the natives, far from being such untameable savages as originally represented, are, in reality, a mild and merciful race of people. They appeared to be fond of their wives and children; at least, they talked of them with much apparent affection. They have frequently interposed their good offices in preventing the soldiers' children from being chastised: I have seen them run between the mother and child, and beg the former to desist from her (as it appeared to them) unnatural conduct, in punishing her own offspring.

They are, like all uncivilized people, very irascible, but easily pacified; in short, they require to be managed just like children. They were easily taught to distinguish conventional right from wrong, and many instances occurred, which proved their aptitude in this respect.

Miago, after having become honest himself, once detected one of his companions endeavouring to secrete a spoon, while they were about to partake of some rice prepared for them[6];—provoked by this ungrateful behaviour, he instantly took it from the delinquent, and sent him away, without permitting him to have any share of the food.

On first visiting the settlement, a native would invariably pilfer anything that came in his way that he could secrete, but the article was always brought back by those who knew that such conduct was not tolerated by their civilized visiters.

They also soon learned to place confidence in a person whose word was to be depended on. Some of our people acted, perhaps, in rather a reprehensible manner, by promising the natives a mambrual (or some other present), merely to get rid of their importunities, without any intention of performing their promise, thinking the natives would forget the circumstance; but, in this supposition, they were completely deceived, being invariably and pertinaciously reminded of their promise, and the natives looked on them as not to be trusted in future;—on the contrary, they placed implicit reliance in those who, having given a promise, performed it punctually.

The chief objects of their desire were tomahawks, large nails, and iron hoops; but, in the progress of time, they took a fancy to various articles of dress. To obtain a shirt, was a great object with them; and they soon became so particular, that if a button were wanting in the collar or sleeves, they were not satisfied till the deficiency was remedied. A coloured handkerchief, which they used to roll neatly round the head, was also much prized.

After they became somewhat polished in their manner, if they saw anything that struck their fancy, they asked for it; if given them, they shewed no visible marks of thankfulness; and, if refused them with firmness, they laid it down quietly.

Some time before we left the coast, they could be trusted implicitly, even with those articles they most highly prized.

It may be justly presumed, that living, as they do, more agreeably to nature, they are subject to fewer diseases than man in a civilized state. But, that they are not altogether exempt from the ills attending animal existence, was very obvious.

"During the inclement and wet weather at the commencement of this year," observes Dr. Davis, "a party of the Aborigines was discovered, labouring under acute bronchitis, on a low neck of land, near the western boundary of Raffles Bay. During the continuance of the disease (which, in many instances, was severe,) they were very abstemious. The only remedies which we saw them employ, during the acute stage, were cords tied very tightly round their heads, over which they poured cold water.

"On one occasion, the chief (Wellington) lay down on the sand, and caused one of his tribe to stand on his head,—most probably for the purpose of deadening the acute pain he was suffering.

"Several of these people have deep circular impressions,—on their faces in particular,—as if caused by the small-pox. From the inability of making myself understood, the nature of the disease which produced these marks is not yet ascertained."

The natives described, in language, or, rather, by signs sufficiently significant, the history of this malady, which they call oie-boie, and which appears to be very prevalent among them. It evidently bears a resemblance, both in its symptoms and consequences, to small-pox,—being an eruptive disease, attended with fever, and leaving depressions. It frequently destroys the eyes, and I observed more than one native who had thus suffered. Mimaloo's left eye was destroyed by this disease; hence, his English name, One-eye, to which he appeared particularly partial. We could not learn whether they used any remedy, except abstinence.

They are also frequently affected with ophthalmia.

It is a singular circumstance, that the Aboriginal tribes of New Holland should possess so very little affinity of language, while in personal figure, manners, mode of life, and implements of war, there is so striking a resemblance.

The dialect of the natives of Baffles Bay is by no means inharmonious, but it was extremely difficult to obtain the true sound of their words, as it frequently happened, that the words (the correct sound of which not being caught at first) were repeated by us as near as we could guess, when they, either through indifference or complaisance, adopted our mode of pronunciation; and it required some pains, on our part, to obviate the effects of their apathy or inconvenient politeness[7].

Whether they have any idea of a Superior Being, or of a future state of existence, it was impossible for us to ascertain. It was easy enough to reciprocate communication, as far as regarded objects evident to the external senses; but, as may be imagined by those conversant on the subject, any attempt to talk of abstract principles must have proved altogether fruitless.

When it is called to mind that they were just beginning to lay aside suspicion, and to visit the settlement without fear, not long before it was abandoned, it will not seem strange that these particulars, relating to them, are so scanty and imperfect. A little longer intercourse would have enabled a person (inclined to observe their manners, and learn their language) to obtain more correct and extensive information respecting the various Aboriginal tribes on this part of the coast, who, to say the least of it, were treated so cavalierly, in the first instance, by the civilized intruders on their native land.

Before concluding this brief account of Raffles Bay, I may be permitted to offer a few general remarks in recapitulation.

Not long after the formation of this settlement, unfavourable accounts were sent from it to Sydney, which, being transmitted home, completely sickened those having the direction of colonial affairs, who gave orders that it should be abandoned.

Captain Barker (who was in charge when these orders came) hesitated some time before he decided to obey them. It appeared evident to him, that the Home Government had acted solely from the unfavourable information they had hitherto received; and had they been aware that, at the present moment, the settlement was in so flourishing a condition, and that there was every reason to suppose the desired object was on the point of being obtained, these orders would have been gladly countermanded.

I say, he hesitated some time; but, recollecting that "obedience is better than sacrifice," he carried the orders into execution, though with extreme reluctance.

The alleged causes of abandonment were—1st, The unhealthiness of the climate;—2dly, The hostility of the natives;—and, 3dly, The non-visitation of the Malays.

Now, from a perusal of the preceding pages, it may appear sufficiently evident,—1st, That the climate is not unhealthy;—2dly, That the hostility of the natives was caused, or, at all events, aggravated, by the conduct of the settlers; and that as soon as conciliatory measures were adopted, their hostility ceased[8];—3dly, The Malays did visit Baffles Bay, in considerable numbers; and, had the settlement continued in existence a few months longer, not only the Malays, but also many Chinese, chiefly from Batavia, would have migrated thither.

These three causes, therefore, which influenced His Majesty's ministers to abandon the north coast of New Holland are, I think, proved to be without foundation; and it is deeply to be deplored, that these shores should have been thus deserted,—after so much expense had been incurred,—after all the difficulties, necessarily attending a new settlement, had been overcome, and pleasing prospects of future prosperity had opened into view.

The principal object in forming a settlement on the north coast of New Holland has been already mentioned[9]; but it is not altogether the intercourse with the Malays and Chinese that would render it of such importance,—there being other circumstances which would, at least, add to its utility. Ships proceeding to India, from the colonies on the eastern coast, would touch there, with obvious reciprocal advantage. Moreover, it would prove a convenient place of refuge in cases of shipwreck, which so frequently occur in Torres Straits, and the adjacent seas.

It is, however, hardly worth while to expatiate on the numerous advantages to be attained by colonizing this part of the coast, as it is not very likely that the British Government will, at least for some time to come, make any further attempt; but it is not improbable that the French or Dutch may be induced to make a trial; and there can be no doubt that a settlement, judiciously chosen, and properly conducted, would, in a very short time, become, both in a mercantile and political point of view, a place of considerable importance in the eastern world.

  1. By means of many meridional altitudes of the sun, and of stars, south and north of the zenith.
  2. By means of upwards of one hundred lunar observations.
  3. I am surprised that Captain Stirling mentions Coupang as a healthy place. It may be so at certain seasons of the year; but I found it widely different.
  4. They are cleanly in their manners, and, in some respects, superior to the Europeans,—fulfilling the injunction of Moses in the twelfth and thirteenth verses of the twenty-third chapter of Deuteronomy.
  5. Vide page 76.
  6. Captain Barker made it an invariable rule to give the natives a mess of boiled rice, at his own expense, whenever they visited the settlement. He strictly prohibited their receiving any spirits; and, as that article was very precious, his orders were the more readily complied with.
  7. A few words of their language will be found in the Appendix.
  8. In the formation of a settlement on a coast inhabited by savages, it would be worth while to be rather liberal of old iron hoops, nails, hatchets, tomahawks, &c., inasmuch, as acting in this manner would certainly prevent many annoyances, and probably save many lives, both of the intruders and of those intruded on.
  9. Page 123.