Diary of ten years eventful life of an early settler in Western Australia and also A descriptive vocabulary of the language of the aborigines/The colony (8)

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THE COLONY.

SERVANTS—FARMING—THE NATIVES—SHEEP—WHITE ANTS—DEPREDATIONS OF THE NATIVES—WOOL—A BOY KILLED—DEATH OF YA-GAN.

Hermitage, Swan River, Western Australia,
June the
6th, 1833.


I closed my last letters to you this day at Perth, at one o'clock, in a very hurried way, as I had known nothing of the sailing of the vessel until I had gone down to attend my duties at court; it was fortunate that I had taken my journal with me, and every day's experience convinces me the more that this mode of writing a letter from day to day is the best I can adopt, though it may not be the most satisfactory to each of you individually; the arrangement of separate letters I never can accomplish, however much I may desire it; indeed they could be nothing but hurried pieces of unmeaning or unsatisfactory scribbling, and could never by that mode convey to you the least notion of my own occupations and the real condition of the colony.

My fears were not altogether groundless, for my shepherd informs me that he misses one of the sheep which James had in his charge, and he attributes the loss to the natives; but I have no clue to the truth: the native dogs prowl about like wolves, and might easily carry off a straggler from such a guardian as James. If the natives had been the delinquents, they would have taken more than one, in my opinion.

It may strike you as singular, that my servants do not send letters home. It arises partly from our knowing nothing of the sailing of the ships until it is too late, and greatly (I am sorry to say) from their being too fond of playing cards, carousing, and singing, which makes them inattentive to any of their duties. I often ask them to write, yet they forget to do so; I am obliged to say they seem to have very little care or solicitude about my affairs, and I have proportionably lost my interest for them: for the satisfaction of their friends, I will tell you how they live; and let them judge between us. At early morning, they get a breakfast of bread and tea, with sugar and milk; at midday, bread and meat, with flour pudding, and potatoes, or other vegetables, without restriction; at evening, bread and tea—without limitation of allowance at this or any meal. They now get two glasses of wine, and one of rum, in the day, and they have abundance of clothing from head to foot. If this be not improvement in their condition, I know not what their condition was; and yet they are dissatisfied. * * * has grown a fine manly-looking youth; but he is self-willed and passionate to a great degree, and fonder of his grog than any one of his age ought to be. You may, if you please, tell my opinion to his father, in a way least likely to distress his feelings. To the use of "grog" I attribute all my troubles with my people: we were compelled at first to give it, and immediately lost all control over our servants. I have great reason to be dissatisfied with mine; for I feel that they are no longer my friends, as I fondly hoped they would be; they care no more for me than for the merest stranger, and look upon me in no other light than that of one who is bound to feed and clothe them, and give them grog, and for whom they are not under obligation to do anything willingly—whose wishes, interests, and happiness, they need not regard, farther than as it suits their own convenience. I am sorry to make such an exposé. I approach the subject with reluctance, dwell upon it with sorrow and pain, and shall never touch upon it again, unless forced by some very peculiar occurrence.

7th.—Mr. Bull has been here, on his return from the agricultural meeting; at which there was much discussion about banks, and natives, and taxes, but nothing done.

8th.—Sowed some wheat, mangel wurzel, and turnips (broadcast), and got all harrowed in. Had the "honour" of a visit from ten natives; among whom were two well-looking young women, with children at their backs. These were brought here and introduced by "Beelycomera," Weeip's son. On their going in the direction of our sheep, I was alarmed (as the shepherds had come to dinner), and wished them to cross the river; but Beelycoomera took a piece of evyay[1] root and put it in the ground, and began to dig; then pointed where he wished to go. I told him my sheep were there, and expressed my fears; which he removed by assurances that he would do no harm. They passed on. I put a pair of pistols in my pockets, and walking leisurely after them, found them busy digging. They were quite amused at my repeating the words which I had heard them sing at a corrobbery * * *

I conveyed them to the ford over which I so often crossed myself on my first coming here, and bade them each by name "good bye," as well as I could: a youngster continued calling frequently "good bye," and kissing his hand.

Doodyeep, the girl whose name I mentioned in my last letter, has been married within these few days, and has been the occasion of a great corrobbery, which I have heard them speaking of. I suspect that Weeip is now on the Canning, by invitation, to eat the remainder of the sheep and goats they had stolen for the entertainment.

9 o'clock at night.—These plaguy natives have stolen one of my pigs. They are sad hypocrites: those very four who were here were, I suspect, privy to, if not active in, the theft. I had some suspicion on this point in the morning, but they assured me "No, no, Mitzer Moore; no, gyddyell;"—and pretended to be so very angry with some whom they named, that I believed them sincere. It is difficult to ascertain the real fact. I wish it was either peace or war between us; but now we must not touch them, for by proclamation they are declared under the protection of the law, as British subjects.

* * * * * *

The British lucerne which I sowed, is coming up well: our native lucerne is like it in woody stem, but stronger; its leaves are more like those of the pea, and taste like them; it bears a pea-pod also, and has a red pea blossom. Red clover thrives here better than white. A person who has got Col. Laton's grant, on the opposite side of the river (opposite J. H. Wright's), is parcelling it out to labourers, and there are already four different lots taken by persons of that class, from twenty to one hundred acres. This has cut up all his grant, for the whole frontage is given away; but he is no farmer; and as he intends keeping a store, it will answer his purpose. This subdivision of land will be very serviceable to our neighbourhood, as it will afford a supply of labour, and create a small demand for meat.

I have seen nothing of the natives since they killed the pig; perhaps they wish to give themselves time to digest it, and me time to digest the loss of it. However, I feel inclined to apply to this loss what the Spanish proverb says to misfortune—"Ben vengas si vengas sola." I shall get off cheaply, when compared with last year, if I lose no more.

14th.—Mr. Bull came this evening to consider what was to be done about the natives. He wishes still to exercise hospitality towards them; and I agree with him, that if we do not make an effort to come to a friendly understanding and arrangement with them they will annoy us, for we are not able to drive them away so as to secure ourselves, without their extermination. Each tribe has its distinct ground; and they will, of course, rather adhere to it, dispute its possession, and take their revenge on the intruders, then fall back on other tribes of their own countrymen, and fight their way inch by inch with them. It is our interest to show them, first, that we set such a value on our stock as will make us resent and punish any aggression upon them; and next, that we are so united together, "so much brothers," that any injury committed against one will be resisted by all. It was agreed at last, that on their coming to any of our houses, we should intimate our displeasure at what had been done—our determination to be friends for one month, and then to continue so, if no mischief were done within this period of probation. If we all act on the same principle, it will show a combination and concert among us, which may make them respect individual property. In short, to teach them that we make common cause is our only safety, as it is our truest policy.

This is an experiment worth trying, at all events. We cannot be much surprised at their taking a pig or sheep which they find in the bush; for we know that, even in civilised life, the fear of well-understood laws, both human and divine, does not secure property in tempting situations. These savages consider a successful piece of theft as a laudable act, and estimate it according to the skill displayed in the accomplishment; like the Spartans, who considered that the dishonour lay not in the act of robbery, but in the discovery of it.

Hermitage, Swan River, 2lst June, 1833.—It was but yesterday I sent off my last journal letter to you, by the brig Dart, viá Mauritius. I perceive that the Saxony wool is now coming into great repute. M'Dermott has a few sheep of the finest breed, for which he expects a very high price. I look now upon the flock of sheep as a mere matter of profit, having lost that sort of domestic or family interest which I felt in the first year, when I had only a pig and a goat; but I still feel it with respect to my old pets. My ancient goat had three female kids to-day—five within a year; there have been instances here of nine in one year. My pigs eat down my cabbages and peas as fast as they recover, so that I find myself induced to exchange them for sheep; but I am unwilling to part altogether with the breed of my old Bessy, whom I brought out of the Cleopatra on my first arrival.

The natives have had some row among themselves: one of them has come to tell us that Ya-gan is the person who has been doing all the mischief; that he killed my pig, and speared two of Mr. Burgess's; and declares that he will kill cows, sheep, and every living thing he can come at; if the white people will accompany my informant with a strong party, well armed, he will lead them within a short distance of Ya-gan, so as to take him. Now, whether they find Ya-gan interfering with their assumed privileges of plundering us, or encroaching on their grounds, or are really in earnest in their desire to prevent mischief to our flocks, it is an opportunity that ought to be taken instant advantage of.

I have a piece of natural history for you, regarding the white ants.

These make their approaches so stealthily under their covered ways, and, like the wise Dutch, at Antwerp, on a late occasion, so keep within their strong casemates as to be tolerably secure from observation, as well as annoyance. I had an opportunity lately of seeing some of their domestic arrangements, the description of which may interest you.

Upon the brow of a small rounded eminence there stood a sort of a pillar of clay, about five feet high, which had once filled up the centre of a hollowed tree; the shell of which had been from time to time broken and burned away. This pillar was the work of white ants. As it interfered with the working of the plough, I commenced breaking and digging it down; not without some small curiosity. Numbers of centipedes were found about the outside, where pieces of the wood still remained. The clay, which was surprisingly stiff, hard, and dry, broke off in large fragments. At length, near the level of the surface of the ground, a rounded crust was uncovered, looking like the crown of a dome. On breaking through this, the whole city of the ants was laid bare—a wonderful mass of cells, pillars, chambers, and passages.—The spade sunk perhaps two feet among the crisp and cracking ruins, which seemed formed either of the excavated remnants of the tree, or a thin shell-like cement of clay. The arrangement of the interior was singular: the central part had the appearance of innumerable small branching pillars, like the minutest stalactical formations, or like some of the smaller coralline productions. Towards the outer part, the materials assumed the appearance of thin laminae, about half the substance of a wafer, but most ingeniously disposed in the shape of a series of low elliptic arches, so placed that the centre of the arch below formed the resting-place for the abutment of the arch above. These abutments again formed sloping platforms for ascent to the higher apartments. In other places, I thought I could discern spiral ascents, not unlike geometrical staircases. The whole formed such an ingenious specimen of complicated architecture, and such an endless labyrinth of intricate passages, as could bid defiance alike to art and to Ariadne's clue: but even the affairs of ants are subject to mutation. This great city was deserted—a few loiterers alone remained, to tell to what race it had formerly belonged. Their great store-houses had been exhausted—even the very roots had been laid under contribution; till at last its myriads of inhabitants had emigrated en masse, to commence anew their operations in some other soil.

We have had a long discussion about establishing a paper currency among the agriculturists, in which was proposed, that each of a certain number, in proportion to their actual possessions, should be privileged to draw promissory notes payable in colonial produce at market rates. I am opposed to this, and see many objections to it; but have not yet considered the matter so fully as to state them definitely. Where are we to draw the limit? and how are we to ascertain the actual circumstances of any man? How are we to avoid jealousies, feuds and mortifications? What nice distinctions will be necessary? If the privilege be confined to men of real property, they will be but a favoured few, and who will take their notes but those of this particular class? Will the captains of ships? No!—The merchants? I doubt it! Of what use to them would be "Three months after date, I promise to pay six pigs, a gander and a goose, &c., &c.?"

I treated Doolup, one of our natives, with a ride on the mare to-day; he sat well, and was martial looking; his head adorned with red cockatoo feathers, his face with white paint.

29th.—Weeip and Doolup have come here. I brought Weeip into my room, and had a long conversation with him. He told me that he had dismissed Ya-gan from his grounds. While he was here, my dinner was brought in; he paid the greatest attention to my manner of eating; tasted the salt, and said "no good;" was very inquisitive to know what the meat was. Kangaroo? No.—Beef (cow bullock)? No.—Pig? No.—Sheep? Yes, which he seemed hardly persuaded of. Doolup took such a fancy to his quarters, that he would not go away. I shot two wild ducks on the river, with which act of sportsmanship he was greatly delighted. He has just taken tea, and is sitting quite at home with the men in the kitchen. Weeip did not know what to make of the milk he saw me drink. Was it moco (water) ? No. Grog (he had heard of grog at Bull's, and said it was "no good")? No.—Wine?—No. Cow? No. He was puzzled till I imitated sucking; he at once understood me, and said "piccanny cow? yes! yes! yes!" and seemed quite satisfied. He looked at the guns, pistols, swords, bellows, tongs, &c., and now has much to talk and think about; in short, he has acquired new ideas.

This has been a very wet day, with thunder and lightning. I fear we shall have a flood this year like that in 1829 and 1830.

Sunday.—Rain, rain, rain; but it looks a little better this evening—river high. I have agreed to go to Perth with Weeip, when the rain ceases. The weather became milder last night, and continued so to-day, though there was some gentle rain. I thought we were likely to have it fine again, but this evening the wind is rising from the north-west (a bad sign).

Some natives have again been scraping up Edward's potatoes. I suspected some of our white people; but after examining the footmarks, it is evident that they were not the rogues. The footmarks are all in one line, one before the other; while a European's go in a double course the great toe of the natives is always in a straight line with his foot. The great toe of those wearing shoes turns in towards the others. A butcher came from Perth, but would not give me fifty shillings for one of my choicest sheep, though I know he makes four pounds of them. This is not fair to the grazier or to the public.

Ya-gan was seen to-day behind Dring's, on the other side of the river, and Edward's wife saw some of the natives busy at the potatoes in the middle of the day; putting these things together, they show he is the delinquent.

I have been thinking it would be an excellent speculation to get out woollen weavers to make our coarse wool into blankets, and none but the fine qualities will be sent home; none other would be much worth the expense. I have a quantity of coarse wool at this moment, and I know not what to make of it. I sold my merino-wool at one shilling per pound; there were only sixty pounds of it last year. It would require spinners and carders to carry my plan into effect, but I think it would be a profitable way of disposing of the wool.

5th.—Our pet natives have been playing their tricks to-day at Edward's Ground. They waited till after the dinner bell rang; and when they thought all the people were at dinner, they came into the garden and scraped up the potatoes with wonderful dexterity, but were suspected, and narrowly escaped injury by one man's firing too soon. I am sorry to say friend Weeip, and my body guard Doolup, are said to be among the number.

6th.—My shepherd has given notice that he will leave me, if I do not give him three pounds a month, and four glasses of rum in the day. I refused to comply, so I suppose he will go.

14th.—Called this morning on Mr. Harris, and there heard that Ya-gan had been shot at the head of the river; and that a settler had been speared, and an inquest held. You may be sure I was uneasy, and rode home as fast as I could.

On Sunday, when Weeip came here, I charged him and Doolup with stealing the potatoes at Edward's; he indignantly denied it, and ably proved an "alibi," in which he was confirmed by Mr. Bull. He has told since that Ya-gan was the person who was nearly shot then; that the ball went through the hair at the back of his head.

15th.—This has been a day differing in its incident from my usual routine. At breakfast time, two men of Mr. Bull's came for my praam, to take the body of a boy (killed by Ya-gan) across the river, to the burial ground near Mr. Shaw's,—of course I gave it. Soon after I went up to see Mrs. Shaws, and coming home I was witness to rather a ludicrous disaster; James, desiring to cross the river, and having no boat, put his clothes into a bucket and swam across, pushing it before him; but on reaching the middle of the river, he upset the bucket by awkwardness, and all his clothes, from his shirt to his shoe, went to the bottom: I could enjoy the joke better if I had not to pay for another suit.

After dinner I went to call on Mrs. Bull, and met the funeral of the deceased boy, named Keates, which I accompanied to the grave. Mr. Shaw's eyes being delicate, I, for the first time in my life, was called on to read the burial service; the deceased was about eighteen years old; the survivor, his companion, about thirteeen. The arrest of Ya-gan was man's work! Boys unfortunately undertook it, without sufficient steadiness; they were frightened at their own act, discharged their guns injudiciously, and ran away, by which the life of one of them was sacrificed.

16th.—On Saturday I saw at Mr. Bull's the head of Ya-gan, which one of the men had cut off for the purpose of preserving. Possibly it may yet figure in some museum at home. I should have been glad to get it myself, as the features were not in the least changed. He must have died instantaneously. The other native was not yet dead when the party went to look after them; the accidental passing of two soldiers frightened the natives (it is supposed), or they would have carried off the bodies.

Ya-gan had a very particular mark of tatooing extending over his right shoulder and down his back, by which many of the settlers recognised him. He wore a soldier's old coat under his kangaroo clock, to hide this mark, as he had been often warned of his danger. This peculiar cicatrice was flayed from the body by the man who is preserving the head. I have rudely sketched this "caput mortuum" of Ya-gan, which was ornamented with a twisted cord round the forehead.

18th. After dinner went up to Mr. Bull's in a boat to get seed wheat for two acres, which I shall still be able to accomplish. I shall thus have eight acres of wheat, one of barley, one and a half of oats, and about the same quantity of potatoes, turnips, cabbages, &c., besides an acre and a quarter of lucerne. This will, I think, be ample for my supply. We want seed potatoes in the colony very much; they grow at any season of the year, but succeed best if planted in March and September. I tasted some excellent beer which Bull is brewing.

24th.—The shepherd and James sat up all last night in the sheepfold, watching the native dog, and determined to shoot it; yet, with all their watching, when daylight came, they found two lambs torn to pieces in the fold. What exquisite watchmen! I have now 226 full-grown sheep, besides 9 blind ones, and 101 lambs.

29th.—The shepherd has sent in word that if I buy a set of bells for him, he will stay with me. I have bought 20 sweet musical regularly tuned bells, with straps and buckles, at three shillings each. I have before mentioned the very pleasing tone of these bells; it is delightful to hear them on a fine evening. Had a dish of turnips to-day;—by the way, the last seeds you sent me were too old; those of mangel wurzel, parsnip, carrot, cabbage, arid onion, failed altogether; the lucerne alone is growing; the flower seeds do not show yet.

31st.—To my surprise, Mr. Whitfield brought me letters and papers this day. You say "there are so many that they will take me a month to digest!" you little know my powers of digestion in that way. I am a most insatiable glutton in such respects. It was dinner time to-day when I received them. I have already gormandised every syllable of all your letters, aye and washed them down with the whole contents of four newspapers which came along with them; "my great revenge had stomach for them all." Thanks, thanks to Almighty God for the measure of health and mercy vouchsafed to you all, and may they be graciously continued! My people have been spelling hard at their letters, and at some of the papers; this part of the business devolves on Johnny, but there is generally a complaint that he cannot "make it out right," and an appeal to me.

By the way, my own letters are an odd medley; I hope that no stranger[2] sees them. * * * * *


  1. I doubt the correctness of this word, which unfortunately is blotted in the original MS.—Ed.
  2. How astonished Mr. Moore will be when he sees them so unceremoniously brought into print, and hears that they have been read, and, as I trust will be the case, by hundreds, or perhaps thousands of strangers.—Editor.