The Aborigines of Australia/Chapter 16

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The Aborigines of Australia by Roderick Flanagan
Chapter 16

CHAPTER XVI.

THE COO-EE—NUMBERS OF THE ABORIGINES.

Among the distinguishing peculiarities of nations, in all times, the war-song, or national shout, has occupied a pre-eminent position. Thus, the pæan of the Greeks, the ululatus of the Romans, the huzza of the British, the viva of the French, and the Allah of the Turks, are almost as much associated with those several nations as their language itself, of which, no doubt, the words form a part, but a very distinctive part. Even the Russians, whose vocabulary, like their civilization, is yet in course of formation, have adopted the "hurrah," so long in vogue among some of the Western nations, and intend to make it their own, as it appears by some recent despatches of their generals from the seat of war on the Danube. The distinctive cry of nations will, in general, be found, like their language, to be indicative of their character and habits. Originally, perhaps, they were the simultaneous outburst of passion or enthusiasm; the first uncouth and wild expression used being softened down and rendered more musical as language was improved, and as men became more polished. Thus the "huzza" of the modern British soldier bears no comparison with the old war-shouts of the Highlanders, the Welsh, and the Irish. In proof of this many truthful historians assert that the terrible farrahs and other shouts used by the latter in former times frequently proved more efficacious, by means of the terror which they inspired, in repulsing an enemy than even the lances and skeans of the kerns. If a peculiar shout, then, be a necessary appanage of every people, why should not the New Hollander have his? Accordingly he has his shout to distinguish him among "contemporaries," and one which will bear comparison with those of most of the more pretending families of mankind. The "coo-ee" of the Australian aboriginal is much more musical, and to the full as expressive as the ejaculations which many of the European nations use for the purpose of calling a comrade, saluting a friend, or bidding defiance to an enemy. Nor, indeed, is it much less celebrated at the present day than many of those, for throughout the interior of the country the coo-ee has been adopted almost universally by the whites, and many a traveller who has lost his way in the depths of the wood, or become benighted in a lonely spot, has regained the beaten track, or been introduced to a hospitable fireside by the assistance of the well-known sound; and an age hence, when some Australian lexicographer shall compile a dictionary for the use of his countrymen, "coo-ee" will, doubtless, be one of the words with which he will enrich and fertilize the English language. Even the streets of the great metropolis of Britain have resounded with the sounds of the coo-ee; and the way it came to pass, as recorded by general report and colonial tradition, was this:—A colonist, who, probably, had accumulated a fortune in the far interior of New South Wales by wholesaling and retailing slops, tobacco, grog, and other necessaries and luxuries to the settlers, shepherds, and blacks, and had returned to England to expend a portion of his wealth among the scenes of his youth, was passing through one of the most populous streets of the city in company with his wife. Unaccustomed to perambulating in crowded thoroughfares, the good lady unwittingly strayed from the side of her husband. The latter, on missing his charge, ran anxiously about for some minutes to seek her out, and, failing in his search, jumped on to the elevated footway of a neighbouring bridge, and, with instinctive forethought, "coo-eed" most lustily, to the utter bewilderment, of gazing Londoners. Nor was the surprise of the spectators in any way diminished when their ears were greeted with the repetition of the outlandish sound from a distant part of the street, where the lost wife, catching the familiar notes, responded in shrill treble to the reverberating tenor of her lord.

Even among those who have been long familiar with the call of the Australian forests, it may not be generally known that in one particular it bears the palm from all other known intonations. This peculiar excellence consists in its adaptation for conveying the voice to a distance. It is pretty well ascertained by those competent to decide on the question, that the coo-ee will be heard at a greater distance than any other sound which the human voice articulates—a fact which, in whatever light regarded, must be taken as some evidence of a keen perception, or intuitive sense of the perfect, being the gift of those with whom the word and sound originated.

The next point to be considered in connection with the coo-ee is its history—its origin and application. The origin of the coo-ee is readily guessed. The first thing which would suggest itself to the first aboriginal immigrants, previous to setting out from the northern coast, where they first landed, was the necessity of having some shout whereby they would be enabled mutually to hold converse amid the depths of the forest which extended before them. Whether the coo-ee was then for the first time invented, or whether the note was an importation which the first voyagers carried with them from the shares of Southern India; whether, in fine, the sound was that first adopted and used, or whether it was discovered at a subsequent period during the migrations of the tribes, it is impossible to say and of little consequence to know. Suffice it that the coo-ee was, when Australia was first discovered, and is at the present day, universally used by the aborigines from one extreme of the country to the other.

Although it is certain that the chief purpose to which the coo-ee is applied by the aborigines, as well as by the Europeans, is that of maintaining a running correspondence when the tribes are engaged in hunting excursions, calling together the dispersed members of the same families, or regaining the haunts of men when an individual or a party may have lost the beaten path or strayed into the depths of the primeval forest, far from village or hut, still it must not be imagined that to those commonplace uses alone is the coo-ee applied. It has already been shown that some of the most deadly encounters which have taken place between the aborigines and the Europeans originated in the usurpation by the latter of the freshwater streams, creeks, and lagoons of the former. The banks of the rivers and other freshwater reservoirs were, to all intents, the homes of the aborigines, and accordingly these places they defended with that tenacity and boldness which attachment to home could alone inspire; and it has been observed by various explorers and travellers that tribes of blacks, otherwise frank and hospitable in their intercourse with the whites, have evinced considerable coolness and a lurking hostility whenever a body of the latter have approached suddenly or unceremoniously the banks of a creek. On these occasions it has not unfrequently happened that the whole tribe, with the exception of a patriarch who would come forward to hold parley, have remained seated close to the water, each individual preserving a sullen silence and keeping his weapons within reach of his hand, while the women and children would remain motionless at a short distance behind. Now, a jealousy of any encroachment on their water reserves, and a determination at all hazards to preserve them intact, are here manifested; but had it been known to the early settlers, or even to the European new-comer of later days, that the rules of aboriginal good manners forbade any individual or party to approach uninvited a watering-place in the possession of any tribe, the demeanour of the blacks on those occasions referred to would have prevented wonder, and might have saved many a fierce encounter. Yet such was and is the case. The coo-ee is not only used as a call, but is employed as a salutation or a warning; and thus when a tribe, in its migratory wanderings, approaches a lagoon, it is the invariable practice among the blacks to despatch one of their number in advance, who, standing at a distance from the water, "coo-ees" at the top of his voice. If the banks of the pool are already in the possession of a tribe the coo-ee is answered, and the approaching tribe, halting at some distance, never attempt to approach till invited by the pre-occupants of the place. Thus the coo-ee is to the New Hollander a most valuable and necessary auxiliary in all his enterprises and daily pursuits—his friend in the hour of peril, as it calls his companions to his side, or enables him to rejoin their society; his valuable auxiliary in his great enterprises, as by its aid every member of a family party or tribe are assembled at a moment's notice for council or for war; and, lastly, in his conventional usages, his note of salutation, enabling him to preserve that ceremonious and respectful demeanour in his relations towards his fellow-men which is the best safeguard against hatred and deadly strife.

In seeking to fix the numerical amount of the aboriginal population of New Holland, as a matter of course approximation alone can be aimed at with any prospect of success. Notwithstanding, however, that no complete or well-sustained statistical information with regard to the aborigines has ever existed, sufficient data is available to enable their numbers to be fixed with a tolerable degree of accuracy. As our facts and figures are founded principally on the ascertained condition of the blacks in those districts where they have but little or no intercourse with Europeans, it will be more satisfactory and will involve less difficulty if we fix the period of our census about the time of the first colonization of Australia. Commencing with New South Wales, it has already been shown that the aboriginal population of the district included between Port Jackson and Broken Bay amounted, at the time of the arrival of the first colonizing expedition, to 1,500 souls. Now, although the country which formed the possessions of this population possessed some natural advantages, which would be certain to attract and retain a considerable number of inhabitants, yet in most respects it was not more favoured than other parts of the colony. Although the facilities for saltwater fishing were great, fresh water was scarce, and the soil comparatively barren. Here was no great river nor wide-spreading verdant plain, such as stud the vast interior, to render game abundant, or afford a promising hunting-ground, or develop an abundance of esculent roots. Thus it is apparent that if the aboriginal tribes spread over the entire colony did not exceed in numerical ratio those contained within the scope of country in question, they were not much deficient in this respect. An official, who had charge of a missionary station at Port Macquarie in 1840, speaks of the aboriginal population in that district as having been numbered at one time by thousands. If, in addition to these data, we take the testimony of various travellers, so often adduced in these papers, to the frequency with which tribes of blacks were met with throughout the colony; if, more particularly, we reflect on the numbers of aborigines which must have been engaged throughout the colony in the disturbances of 1841-2, in order to produce the results previously described; and if we consider that the tribes of Moreton Bay at the present day possess sufficient numerical strength, as well as sufficient daring, to offer very effective resistance to the progress of colonization, the conclusion becomes inevitable that the entire population of the present colony of New South Wales could not, at the period of the first settlement of Australia, have been less than 50,000. Proceeding to Port Phillip, our data become still more satisfactory. A gentleman who has been for several years connected with the Protectorate of Aborigines in that colony recently stated in public that in 1843 he found, as the result of an imperfect census, that the aboriginal population of the district of which he then had charge was 1,000, and expressed his belief, founded on extensive experience, that at the period of the foundation of the colony the number of the aborigines in the same district was not less than 8,000. From recent reports of the Protectors throughout the colony we find the present aboriginal population of the Portland Bay District, which is one of the chief centres of the European population, set down at 700 souls; of the Western Port District, 300; of the Wimmera District, 1,200; of the District of Grant, 70. These numbers, although only a fraction of the entire colony is embraced in the census, show a total of considerably more than 2,000. Now, taking this as the present population of a small section of the colony, and placing the fact thus arrived at in conjunction with the opinion of one well informed in these matters, that the population of another district of Port Phillip was originally 8,000, we are enabled, by a glance at the geographical features of the colony, which includes the great stronghold of the aborigines on the southern coast, Gippsland, to arrive at an estimate of the entire population. That population could not have been numerically much less than that fixed upon for New South Wales. Proceeding to South Australia, we have the testimony of Captain Sturt that, in the course of his explorations, his party once met with a concourse of aborigines numbering 600, nearly all of whom were full-grown men, while he described a native village which was met with at another place during the course of his travels as numbering seventy substantially-constructed huts, each of which was capable of accommodating fifteen persons; and in the entire progress of the expedition large tribes were continually met with. In the young colony of Western Australia, where colonization has yet made but comparatively small progress, all accounts tend to show that the aboriginal population is at the present day so numerous that they still divide the mastery of the country with the colonists. The most recent accounts, while they speak of the old settlements as the biding-places of large numbers of aborigines, set forth that there was considerable danger that many of the more remote stations and villages would have to be abandoned, in consequence of the hostility of the numerous tribes who inhabit the borders of the colony. Advancing to the north, the only information which we possess is that derived from the explorations of Leichhardt through the interior, and the surveys of Stokes and others on the coast. The former, in the journal of his first expedition, speaks of meeting with tribes of aboriginals almost throughout the entire course of his travels, and where the tribes themselves were not visible, traces of their wanderings, as the tracks of their camp-fires, the remains of their mia-mias, burying-places, utensils, and weapons were almost continually observable. Stokes, on the other hand, describes huts of a very superior character, bearing a stronger resemblance to the wigwams of the North American Indians than to the temporary sheltering places of the New Hollanders, which he met with on the northern coast of Australia, indicating a higher degree of culture in the architects than belongs to the more southern tribes, and, as a consequence, indicating a more numerous and a more comfortable population. Aboriginals were continually met by the surveying parties who landed, the tribes being in most instances friendly and hospitable, although in some instances they displayed great ferocity and treachery, the life of the commander himself having been on one occasion placed in imminent peril by a spear hurled by a skulking black who concealed himself in a neighbouring scrub, and who succeeded in fixing his weapon in the shoulder of Captain Stokes. In the explorations of the Albert and Victoria Rivers evidences of a numerous population were constantly observed along the banks, the chief of which were several cemeteries, in which the dead were wrapped in sheets of bark and placed on hurdles elevated by means of forked supports. Passing round to Moreton Bay and Wide Bay, we find the strongest evidence in support of the supposition that the northern parts of the territory are even more thickly inhabited than the southern, in the frequency of the daring attacks of the aborigines on the stations and settlements, and in the numbers of aboriginals who have been made subservient to the advancement of colonization, whether in the capacity of native police, or as stockmen, shepherds, and hutkeepers.

Now, taking the estimated population of New South Wales at the period of the foundation of the colony as the basis of our calculations, and dividing the entire country into divisions of an area similar to that of New South Wales, allowing to each division an amount of population equal to that of the same colony, the result of our calculations would be about half a million of inhabitants for the whole territory of New Holland. The population has been estimated at infinitely less than this, but if reliance is to be placed on the early historians of the colony, and on the reports of those at present officially interested in the question in the neighbouring colonies, there is no reason why we should not take the number above given as a very near approximation to the truth. When we reflect that the experience of each day tends to show that the country possesses the means of affording all the means of sustenance, to an extent before unthought of, and when we consider that there is no reason for doubting that those regions still untrod by Europeans are among the most prolific of all Australia—prolific, at all events, in the necessaries of aboriginal life—the conclusion becomes established, beyond doubt, that each hundred square miles of New Holland supports as many sable inhabitants as any equal extent of country yet explored. If this be admitted, to set down the aboriginal population at half a million will not be to overrate its numerical amount.

It is not necessary to consider whether the aboriginal population of the entire country has decreased or increased since the landing of the first colonists, or to what extent such increase or decrease may have taken place. No good purpose could be served by such speculations. It is sufficient if, by fixing with any degree of accuracy the numbers of the aboriginal race, we have indicated for the benefit of such statesmen, legislators, philanthropists, missionaries, and others as may, either from a sense of duty or from feelings of humanity and religious obligation, be disposed to turn their attention to the reclamation of that race, the extent of the field on which they purpose to expend all or a portion of their labours.