The State and Position of Western Australia/Chapter 2


The Aborigines: Food, Clothing, Huts, &c.—Character—Natives of the Murray River—Recent Encounter—Mounted Police—Tendency of Penal Settlements—Native Claims—A Treaty recommended—Appeal for Missionaries.

The tribes who frequent the districts in the vicinity of the Swan, Port Augusta, and King George’s Sound (the territory now occupied by the settlers), do not exceed, perhaps, a thousand souls. The form of their government is patriarchal, and they live under independent chiefs; to whom, however, they are little in subjection, except when they are at war among themselves, which is not unfrequently the case. Their mode of life is migratory.

Their food is of various kinds, and as the season arrives for each, they remove to that part of the country most favourable for obtaining it. At one season they live principally on the kangaroo. This animal (of which there are several species) they kill with spears, and occasionally hunt with dogs. These dogs vary considerably in size, and, from their bushy tail and short pricked ears, resemble the fox. The natives also eat the opossum, an animal they find mostly in the hollows of trees: they show great agility in pursuit of it. At the fishing season they resort to the vicinity of rivers and lakes. Their mode of taking the fish is by spearing, at which they are very dexterous. They have most success at night, when the fish are attracted by the glare of torches, and in some places they take a great deal by means of weirs. In the vicinity of these, fish have been found left in heaps by the natives, after they had used what they needed.

They also live on the tortoise and land-crab, and eat grubs, which they find of a large size in the bark of certain trees. The principal root they use is the eringo, or wild parsnip, which grows to the depth of three or four feet in loam and other strong soils. Certain nuts of a bitter quality they convert into food, by previous rubbing over with clay, and baking in hot ashes. In the proper season, they get honey from the blossoms of the banksia tree, which they extract by suction.

As to their mode of cooking fish, the author has partaken of a specimen of it, that would have been no disgrace to a Parisian cook. It was a flat fish, which, after being washed and prepared, was wrapped in soft bark, and placed in hot ashes until dressed. By this process, an acid from the bark was communicated to the fish, imparting to it so agreeable a flavour, that it required the addition of no other sauce.

Their only clothing by day, and covering at night, is made of kangaroo and opossum skins, with which the women are tolerably well supplied; but the men, especially in summer, often go naked. Their huts, which in shape resemble bee-hives, are about four feet high, and capable of containing but three or four persons. They are constructed in a few minutes with sticks, and covered with the bark of the Melaleuka, or tea tree, as it is called in New Holland. This bark is of a soft cottony substance, and strips off the tree in large flakes. The entrance is on the side which is sheltered from the prevalent wind; where, instead of a door, fire is kindled, towards which the inmates stretch their feet when they lie down.

These savages, though exhibiting fewer marks of approach to civilization than any others the writer has seen, are yet far from being deficient in observation, quickness of apprehension, and docility. Like most savages, they set little value on human life, and eagerly avenge insult or injury: yet they are not so sanguinary as the North American Indians; and, except when provoked, they have seldom been known to attempt the life of a settler.

The talent of these natives for mimickry is considerable, and shows their habits of observation. They repeat with great accuracy the conversation of the Europeans, and pronounce each word correctly, excepting those beginning with an S; for instance, “Swan,” they call “On.” They have also been seen imitating the walk and gesture of a number of Europeans, some of whom they had but occasionally met, with such exactness, that the standers-by were instantly enabled to name the persons intended. This facility of imitation renders their pantomimic dances, which they delight in, lively pictures of some of their pursuits. In these dances, called by them corrobories, they engage generally at night, near a blazing fire. Their representation of killing the kangaroo is peculiarly striking. Two are selected out of the circle to represent the hunter and the kangaroo. One assumes the attitude of the animal when grazing, and exhibits the cautious timidity natural to it, pausing from time to time, rising upon end, looking about, and anxiously listening as it were, to ascertain whether an enemy be nigh. The hunter, approaching against the wind, with extreme caution steals on his prey; and, after frequent change of his position, retreating, or throwing himself on the ground, the scene at length closes with the triumph of the hunter, on his discharging the spear, which is supposed to pierce the animal.

The natives daily enter the towns and farm-houses with confidence, unless when an interruption occurs of the good understanding usually subsisting between them and the colonists. They are partial to our food, especially bread, for which they often ask, and are willing to perform short tasks of labour, or give in exchange spears, fish, or whatever else they may have. This taste has led them to occasional acts of plunder; and settlers having fired on them in defence of their property, the natives have retaliated, and thus blood has unhappily been shed on both sides.

The conduct of the local government towards the natives has been characterized by lenity; but, a short time previous to the author’s leaving the colony, it became necessary to have a public execution under the following circumstances:—a native had been shot in the act of breaking into a store by night; and, to revenge his loss, the remainder of the tribe had put to death two servants of a settler. The chief and his son, having been identified as principals in these murders, were outlawed; and, shortly after, the former was captured, and executed at Perth, and the latter was shot in the woods. These acts of justice so completely succeeded in their object of intimidating the natives on the Swan and Canning rivers, that recent accounts from the colony represent the shepherds and others in the habit of going about the country, as having for a considerable time laid aside their usual precaution of carrying fire-arms; so peaceable had the conduct of these tribes become.

Another proof of the good effects of the course pursued by the local government was, that a native who had been outlawed with the chief and his son, and subsequently pardoned, requested an interview of the Governor, which he obtained: when, after stating the injuries his tribe had suffered from the colonists, he begged that a permanent treaty of amity might be made with them: and, in reply, was told that it was the earnest wish of the Government to effect this object—to protect them from injury, and benefit them in other ways, if they would only abstain from aggression on the lives and properties of the colonists. The result of the conference seemed to give great satisfaction to this native, and to others along with him; and a very marked change for the better was observed in his subsequent behaviour.

The natives of the Murray river, forty miles to the southward of the Swan, are a more warlike and athletic race than those already mentioned. They have, from the first, evinced a desire to dislodge the settlers located in their district; and have, from time to time, killed and wounded several of them, with little or no apparent provocation, contriving, on repeated occasions, to evade parties of military sent against them after these outrages.

Recent accounts from the colony contain the report of an encounter with this tribe, wherein they lost from twenty-five to thirty men, of whom fifteen were recognised as having been noted offenders. The party engaged with them was under the conduct of the Governor, who was proceeding on an excursion to examine a fertile district, with the view of forming a settlement there. It consisted of some gentlemen, and a few soldiers and mounted police, twenty-four in all. On arriving at the place, they heard the natives talking loudly in the vicinity; and the party, with the exception of the police, halted at a ford. The police rode forward, when the natives, who proved to be seventy in number, and well armed with spears, seeing only five men, commenced the attack. This little band, however, repulsed them; but the natives continued the fight, retreating until they reached the ford, where they found themselves placed between two fires: they, notwithstanding, fought on resolutely, till they had sustained the above severe loss. That on the part of the colonists, was Captain Ellis (commanding the police), and a constable wounded; the former mortally. Captain Ellis had served in the 14th Dragoons in the Peninsular war, and was a gallant and enterprising officer. The great utility of a few mounted police in the colony was very apparent in this skirmish.

Though the loss of life in this affair is a very painful consideration, and deeply to be deplored, yet it seems manifest that without some severe defeat to convince this tribe of their inferiority in power to the whites, a petty and harassing warfare might have been indefinitely prolonged, with ultimately much heavier loss on both sides. It may now be confidently expected that this tribe will cease to assume a hostile attitude, and will follow the example of the tribes on the Swan and Canning rivers, who are evincing, as before shown, a desire to be on friendly terms with the settlers.

The author cannot let this opportunity pass, without calling the attention of the public to the claims which the natives of New Holland have upon it. It must be confessed that to those tribes, hitherto, British example and connexion have, for the most part, been found the very reverse of beneficial. It is impossible for a moment to maintain or vindicate the abstract right of civilized nations to establish themselves in the territories of savage tribes, without, at least, acknowledging that such intrusions involve the settlers, and the nation to which they belong, in deep and lasting responsibilities: in other words, that the latter are bound, by the strongest ties of moral obligation, to assist the natives in accommodating themselves to the great changes they have to undergo; for it is incumbent upon us ever to bear in mind that, by our entry into, and establishment in the country, the natives are gradually deprived of their hunting and fishing grounds, and are consequently forced, unprepared, into new modes of life, and new conditions of society. The equitable and liberal fulfilment of the obligations thus incurred, is indispensable to any case of justification, which even the least scrupulous advocate of such intrusions might attempt.

Among the primary measures which he is anxious to see adopted, now that we are possessed of a sufficient knowledge of the natives of Western Australia and of their language, the writer would suggest that a formal treaty with them be speedily entered into. As a measure of healing and pacification, he is persuaded it would do much to prevent irritation and heart-burnings, and to promote a permanent good understanding with them. The advantages of such an arrangement could not fail to be shared by both parties. It is a favourable circumstance in this view, that the colony has, in the person of Mr. Moore, the Advocate-General, a public officer peculiarly gifted for conducting such a negotiation. The extraordinary aptitude he possesses for holding intercourse with the natives, has been strikingly exhibited in the accounts published in the Western Australian journals of July 12 and 19, 1834. The particulars of his conference with an outlawed chief of one of the tribes are so interesting, that want of room alone prevents their insertion in the Appendix.

Western Australia, apart from the continent to which it belongs, has an unquestionable demand upon us for such a solemn compact and treaty as that already alluded to. It has every right to expect that a benevolent line of policy will be pursued; but, on a professedly Christian country, it has a peculiar and irresistible claim that the blessings of Christianity should be extended to it. Let it not be said that a nation which includes among its far-famed institutions, Missionary establishments, designed to promote the conversion of the heathen in general, passes by or neglects a country on whose shores it has planted a colony for its own convenience and advantage. To the religious part of such a nation, at all events, the appeal seems one that has only to be made, to be immediately successful.

But if these remarks necessarily apply to Western Australia, considered apart from the continent to which it belongs,—if they cannot be gainsaid or resisted when the case is thus limited—with what accumulated force do they apply when we look at the connexion which all the while subsists between this settlement and that great continent, a country equal in extent to Europe; the eastern shores of which have not only sustained all the common and inseparable injuries attendant upon colonization conducted under ordinary circumstances, but have had superinduced all the evils of a penal settlement! Not only has Australia, in that quarter, experienced none of those compensating results which every right-minded and considerate person must in all instances desire; but, on the contrary, evils which are of rare occurrence in colonization—evils the most afflicting and appalling, have been—thoughtlessly, it is hoped, but on an extensive scale, inflicted.

It is now about half a century since a penal settlement was formed on that coast. To those shores a moral pestilence has since been wafted. The scum and refuse of the civilized nation (men whose education in their own country has only served to render them adepts in villainy) have been let loose upon the natives—for it seems an almost inevitable result of a penal settlement, that some of the most desperate and depraved of the convicts will, from time to time, escape, and lead on the native tribes to the commission of every enormity that malignant ingenuity can devise. Such has been the case in New South Wales, and in Van Diemen’s Land.

For proof that this statement is not overcharged, it is only necessary to refer the reader to the testimony of the Rev. Messrs. Watson and Handt, who were sent out in 1832 by the Church Missionary Society. These gentlemen commenced their labours at Wellington Valley, in the interior of the country; and, in the Church Missionary Record of November 1834, is given the first account of their mission. The following remarks, with which that account is there introduced, but too fully corroborate what has been already stated of the injuries inflicted on the savages, by a penal settlement having been fixed among them:—


“In the following extracts from the communications of the Rev. Messrs. W. Watson and J. C. S. Handt, such particulars only are presented to our readers as are fit to meet the public eye; for we are grieved to say, that such are the miseries, diseases, and degradation, brought on the Aborigines of this vast country by their intercourse with Europeans, that decency would be shocked at the recital of their state. Suffice it to say, that, surrounded by wretchedness of the lowest description, the missionaries and their wives are giving themselves to their work of mercy with zeal and self-denial. Without this, it were impossible ever to hope to see righteousness prevail over a scene of such complete moral desolation!”

Many individuals, as well as societies, it is probable, justify their having turned a deaf ear to the urgent appeals for relief which have doubtless, from time to time, been made to them on behalf of such a complicated state of wretchedness, by the apparent hopelessness of the undertaking; while they have been induced to direct missionary efforts to other parts, such as New Zealand, and the various isles of the Pacific Ocean, where missionaries have long been labouring; though such quarters have not the claims which the natives of Australia have upon us, on the ground of the deep injuries inflicted on their eastern coast, as well as of their being our fellow-subjects. The writer himself is not aware that, in a missionary point of view, any thing whatever has been done for that country, except by the Church Missionary Society, in the instance of the two missionaries already referred to, towards whose support his Majesty’s Government contribute 500 l. a-year. But, if difficulties deemed almost insurmountable have hitherto stood in the way of all attempts to benefit Australia from that side on which alone we had till lately gained a footing, it must be encouraging to the Christian philanthropist to learn, that, on its western coast, an opening is now presented for missionaries to the native tribes, unaccompanied by any of those peculiar obstacles and discouragements, which are so deeply to be lamented on the opposite side. The writer has great pleasure in announcing to the public, that some friends of the cause in Dublin have just established a society, called the “Swan River Mission.” To this institution he solicits attention; and, for further particulars respecting it, refers his readers to the Appendix.[1]

  1. See Appendix, No. 5.