Spinifex and Sand/Part V/Chapter XVII
Part V: The Outward Journey
Chapter XVII: Aboriginals at Hall's Creek
It may not at first be very clear what the gaol and police force are used for, since the white population numbers so few. However, the aboriginals are pretty numerous throughout Kimberley, and are a constant source of vexation and annoyance to the squatters, whose cattle are frequently killed and driven wild by native depredators. A squatter, far from being allowed to take the law into his own hands, even when he catches the blacks in the act of slaying his cattle — not only for food but as often as not for mere devilment — has to ride into Hall's Creek and report to the police, and so gives time for the offenders to disappear. The troopers, when they do make a capture of the culprits, bring them in on chains, to the police quarters. By the Warden, through a tame boy as interpreter, they are tried, and either acquitted and sent back to their country or sentenced to a turn of imprisonment and handed over to the gaoler. In gaol they have a remarkably good time, fed upon beef, bread, jam, and water, and made to do useful work, such as drawing and carrying water, making roads, &c. They work in small chain-gangs — a necessary precaution since there is only one gaoler to perhaps fifteen prisoners — are clothed in felt hats and short canvas kilts, and except that they are deprived of their freedom have probably as comfortable a time as they ever had during their lives.
From time to time there have been grave accusations of cruelty made by well-meaning busybodies against the squatters of the North and North-West. Occasional cases have been proved beyond all question, cases of the most revolting brutality. But from these exceptional instances it is hardly fair to class the whole squatting population as savage. ruffians. Since I have had the opportunity of seeing what treatment is meted out I feel it is a duty to give every prominence to what has come under my notice. First of all, let us take it for granted that the white men's civilisation must advance; that, I suppose, most will admit. This being the case, what becomes of the aboriginal? He is driven from his hunting-grounds and retaliates by slaughtering the invading cattle. What steps is the white pioneer, who may have no more than one companion, to take to protect his own? If he quietly submits his herd will be wiped out, and he and his mate afterwards. By inspiring fear alone is he able to hold his position. He must therefore either use his rifle and say nothing about it, or send perhaps 150 miles for the troopers. After a time, during which he carries his life in his hands — for a couple of hundred natives, savage and treacherous, are not the pleasantest neighbours — he succeeds in convincing the natives that he intends to stop where he is. What then do they do? Do they move to fresh hunting-grounds? They might, for there is ample room. No, they prefer to live round about the station, a source of constant anxiety and annoyance. Consequently we find to-day a large number of natives permanently camped round every homestead, living on the squatter's bounty. Too lazy to hunt, too idle and useless to work, they loaf about the place, living on the meat that is given them on killing-days, and on figs and seeds, when in season, between times. Thus, though the squatter takes their country he feeds them for ever after. A smart boy may be trained and partially educated, and becomes useful amongst the horses and so forth, and some few are always employed about the station — the rest just lie about and gorge themselves at the slaughter-yards, and then wait until they can again do so.
It has been suggested that reserves should be set apart for the dispossessed natives. This would, in the opinion of those best able to express one, never succeed, for once the white man is established the blacks will collect round him, and though, as I have mentioned, there remains more than half the Kimberley division untouched by whites, forming a reserve ready to hand, yet the natives prefer to live a hand-to-mouth existence where food can be obtained without trouble, rather than retreat into another region where game abounds, and there continue their existence as wandering savages. Round Hall's Creek there is always a camp of blacks, varying from twenty to fifty or one hundred, who live as best they can without hunting.
On Christmas Day a hundred or so rolled up to receive the Aboriginal Board's liberal bounty — a Board fortunately now reconstructed, for it was continually the cause of much friction between the squatters, the Government, and itself, in the days when it was not controlled by the Government, as it now is. Six pounds sterling was set aside for the Warden to provide food and raiment for the natives under his jurisdiction. Six pounds per annum per two thousand aboriginals — for such is their reputed number — seems hardly adequate. Perhaps if the gentlemen responsible for this state of affairs had concerned themselves more about the aboriginals, and less about the supposed barbaric cruelty of the squatters, the objects of their mission would have been better served. However, whilst the black-fellow must remain content with his scanty allowance, it is found expedient to send an inexperienced youth, fresh from England, from place to place to make a report on the treatment of the aboriginals, at a salary of 500 pounds a year. And a fine collection of yarns he produced — for naturally no one could resist "pulling his leg" to the last degree! However, this question has at last been put into the hands of those best calculated to know something about it; for though the Government is neither perfect nor infallible, yet the colonists are likely to understand a purely local matter better than a Board of gentlemen lately from home.
They were a merry lot of people, the blacks round Hall's Creek, and appeared to see the best sides of a deadly dull existence. Their ways and habits are now so mingled with ideas gathered from the whites that they are not worth much attention. Dancing is their great amusement, and though on Christmas Day we made them compete in running, jumping, and spear-throwing, they take but little interest in such recreations. Though known to Australian readers, a description of such a dance may prove of interest to some in the old country.
"A CORROBOREE," OR NATIVE DANCE.
The entertainment begins after sundown, and on special occasions may be kept up for two or three days and nights in succession. A moonlit night is nearly always made the occasion for a corroboree, to which no significance is attached, and which may be simply held for the amusement the actual performance affords.
Descriptions of the great dances attendant on the initiation of a boy into manhood, and its accompanying brutal rites, find a more suitable place in scientific works than in a book intended for the general reader. I will therefore merely describe some of the dances which are performed for entertainment.
The word corroboree is applied equally to the dance, the whole festival, or the actual chant which accompanies the dancing.
Men and women, the men especially, deck themselves out with tufts of emu feathers, fastened in the hair or tied round the arm, or stuck in the waist-belt of plaited hair; paint their bodies with a white paint or wash made from "Kopi" (gypsum similar to that found by the shores of salt lakes), with an occasional dab of red ochre (paint made from a sandstone impregnated with iron), and fix up their hair into a sort of mop bound back by bands of string. Thus bedecked and painted, and carrying their spears and boomerangs, they present a rather weird appearance.
A flat, clear space being chosen, the audience seat themselves, men and women, who, unless the moon is bright, light fires, which they replenish from time to time. The dancers are all men, young warriors and older men, but no greybeards. The orchestra consists of some half-dozen men, who clap together two sticks or boomerangs; in time to this "music" a wailing dirge is chanted over and over again, now rising in spasmodic jerks and yelled forth with fierce vehemence, now falling to a prolonged mumbled plaint. Keeping time to the sticks, the women smack their thighs with great energy. The monotonous chant may have little or no sense, and may be merely the repetition of one sentence, such as "Good fella, white fella, sit down 'longa Hall's Creek," or something with an equally silly meaning. The dancers in the meantime go through all sorts of queer movements and pantomimes. First, we may have the kangaroo corroboree, in which a man hops towards the musicians and back again, to be followed in turn by every other dancer and finally by the whole lot, who advance hopping together, ending up with a wild yell, in which all join.
Then we may have the emu-corroboree, where each in his turn stalks solemnly around with the right arm raised, with elbow bent, wrist and hand horizontal and poked backwards and forwards, to represent the emu's neck and head. The left hand held behind the back, like that of a shy official expecting a tip, stands for the emu's tail. Thus they advance slowly and jerkily with back bent and arm pointing now this way, now that, like an inquisitive emu who is not sure of his ground.
Next the mallee-hen builds her nest, and each dancer comes forward at a mincing trot, in his hands a few twigs and leaves, which he deposits in front of the "orchestra," and, having built his nest, retires. And so they go on mimicking with laughable accuracy the more common beasts and birds.
The most comical dance in which they all joined — that is all the dancers — was one in which they stood on tiptoe, with knees bent and shaking together as if with fear, then giving forth a sort of hissing noise, through fiercely clenched teeth, they quickly advanced in three or four lines and retired trotting backwards. This ended with a prolonged howl and shrieks of laughter. The energy with which they dance is extraordinary — shaking their spears and grunting, they advance with knees raised, like high-stepping horses, until the thigh is almost horizontal, now one leg now the other, with a will, and then one, two, down come the feet together with a thud, the dancers striking their spears in the ground, growling out savagely a sound that I can only express as "woomph, woomph" — with what a smack their flat feet meet the ground, and what a shrieking yell goes up from all throats as they stop!
To enliven the performance they use flat carved sticks, some eight inches long, and of a pointed oval shape. Through a hole in one point they thread a string, with which the stick is rapidly swung round, making a booming noise — "Bull-roarers" is the general white-fellows' name for them. Amongst some native prisoners brought in from the Sturt I saw a primitive wooden horn, on which a sort of blast could be blown. No doubt this, too, has its place in their performances.
I am told they keep up these corroborees as long as three days and nights, though certainly not dancing all the time. Probably the stick clapping is kept up by relays of performers. I have heard the chant go on all one night and well into the next day, with hardly a break.
Hall's Creek is a great place for corroborees, for there are gathered together boys from all parts of Central Australia, Northern Territory, and Queensland, brought by coastal overlanders. These boys all know different chants and dances, and are consequently in great request at the local black-fellows' evening parties. Warri told me he had learnt several new songs; however, they appeared to my evidently untrained ear to be all exactly alike.
We were to have had a very swell festival at Christmas, but it somehow fell through. I fancy the blacks were not given sufficient notice.
The blacks, in addition to these simple festive gatherings, have solemn dances for the purpose of promoting the growth of edible seeds and roots, of increasing the rainfall, or the numbers of the animals and reptiles on which they feed. But more important still are those connected with their barbarous, but sacred, rites and ceremonials.