The Coming Colony/Chapter 16

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The Coming Colony by Philip Mennell
Chapter 16

XVI.


The New Norcia Settlement—Welcomed by the Lord Abbot—Rosendo Salvado. His Life and Labours—The Most Popular Man in Western Australia—Disappointing Result of his efforts to Christianise the Aboriginals—Return to Perth.

We were now nearing the great Benedictine settlement at "New Norcia," and were reminded of the fact on the fourth day by reaching one of the out-stations of the great central establishment at Marah. Here we were kindly received by the one "father," who directs the operations of the lay brethren employed in sheep-tending in this portion of the vast pastoral estate, held in fee or on lease by the Lord High Abbot, Bishop Salvado, on behalf of the community, which is composed exclusively of Spanish and a very few Italian monks and lay brethren—the latter being largely in the majority. It was Friday, and, of course, a fast-day, so the brethren were obliged to restrict their hospitalities to some tinned salmon and a plenteous mass of stewed lentils, followed by some excellent fresh figs and pomegranates, and a dish of dried almonds locally grown. All were served in tin dishes, and the modest beer we had also to imbibe out of the common or garden "pannikin." None of the wine for which New Norcia is famous appeared to have found cellarage at Marah, or perhaps it was not de règle to produce it on a fast-day. With our refreshed horses, for whom it was no fast, we bowled steadily along to Mr. H. B. Lefroy's station at Wale or Welbing, which we reached shortly after dusk, and were very hospitably received by Mrs. Lefroy, who comes of the well-known Western Australian family of Wittenoom. And here it may be remarked that entertainment for man and beast is a due which every traveller claims as of right, and which every rural householder concedes as of course, throughout the whole scantily peopled, wide-stretching realm of Western Australia. The custom is not often subjected to abuse, but it is open to it. On the other hand, in these out-of-the-way locations, a visitor from the outside world is a godsend to the pastoral exile, and if five out of every ten prove bores they are endurable for the sake of the other five who make themselves entertaining by their intelligence or their idiosyncrasies. It was indeed a joy to sit once more at a brightly set flower­ adorned table, and to luxuriate in the comforts of a downy bed and well-furnished English-like bedchamber. Our host, whom we met further along the road on his return home, is a grand­ nephew of that doughty old Lord Chief Justice of Ireland who, long after he was an octogenarian, held on to his office, in order that the privilege of appointing his successor might not fall to the lot of the Liberals whom his soul loathed. An inscribed cup in the dining- room showed that he had been "first in the mile" at Rugby as far back as 1870. We were thus in the midst of bush surroundings tempered by a pleasant admixture of English traditions.

The next morning we tore ourselves away from pleasant Welbing, and a little after midday found ourselves at the gates of the far-famed monastery of New Norcia, where Bishop Salvado for more than forty years past has conducted the most successful mission to the aborigines which exists in any part of Australia. The cruciform church and the brick monastery, with its wooden wings, its swarthy brethren, and its groves of oranges and almonds, loomed up before us like a piece of old Spain in this shrineless land. The abbot himself—a veritable "gentleman of Spain"—walked slowly across the courtyard to welcome us to his domain. With his whiskers and moustache and everyday style of dress he looked very little of the eccle­siastic, and still less of the mitred abbot of the Protestant imagination. Courteously entreating us, we were very shortly seated in his modest sanctum drinking of the home-made wine and eating of the home-dried almonds which are the speciality of the establishment. Guest-chambers having been assigned to us, the good bishop, who bears his eighty years better than common mortals bear sixty, showed us over the garden, with its acres of vines, its golden orange and lemon trees, its flourishing tobacco plants, which supply snuff to the brethren, and its wealth of various kinds of healthy vegetables. Wheat cultivation is carried on over a large area, but the sheep are the mainstay of the mission, the wool-money supplying funds for the purchase of clothing, farming utensils, and other things which are not producible on the spot. Horse-breeding is also found profitable. There are a score or so of married aborigines about the place, each of whom is provided with a separate cottage and paid an average wage of £1 a week. Having full liberty to leave when they like, they rarely or never exercise the privilege, and the mere threat of banishment is nearly always enough to restore them to order in cases when they display a disposition to be refractory. Besides these married couples there are a number of orphans and foundlings at the mission, the sexes being housed separately and taught useful trades and handicrafts, as well as the usual rudiments of secular and religious education. There are about 120 natives at the mission of all ages, and the tillage of the young minds and of the far-spreading lands of the community is carried on by about half-a-dozen fathers and seventy lay brethren, nearly all drawn from sunny Spain. One wonders what can have been the influence which made them give up country and home and every hope of domestic joys to settle in a strange land, under stringent rules, and with nothing in the way of remuneration for a life of unremitting toil beyond a bare subsistence, the least possible amount of sleep, and only the absolutely necessary modicum of bodily raiment. If one could be convinced that this life of sacrifice had been of practical avail, one would feel less grudging of its cost in narrowed lives and depleted human sympathies. But though I have spoken of the New Norcia Mission as being the most successful ever established in Australia, the expression really means very little, especially when one regards Bishop Salvado's attempt as the high-water mark of what has been done to civilise and regenerate the remnant of the dispossessed race. He has certainly been the means of a few families who might otherwise have gone to the bad living in comparative decency and happiness according to European ideas. But upon the mass of the genuine aborigines throughout the country the Benedictine Mission has prod11ced no more effect than if it had never existed. The little leaven has not leavened the whole lump. The New Norcia aborigines are mostly half-castes already, and will become more so as time goes on, and either be absorbed into the mass of the population or die out altogether. Upon the genuine aboriginal of the bush the Church has gained no hold through any efforts of Bishop Salvado. The Christianisation of the natives as natives has proved a complete failure, and it might seem that the Bishop had been merely beating the air all through his forty years of travail in the West Australian wilds. But it is at least something to have lifted the banner of the higher life, and to have lived it, too, all through these long years and amidst these rough surroundings, as rough almost for the pioneering whites as for the expatriated blacks. Hardly a West Australian exists who does not know Bishop Salvado, and the stranger who comes into the country must be a stranger indeed if he does not hear of him within the first week of his arrival. In his regard sectarian intolerance has absolutely no existence, and the most puritan Protestant unites with the most pious Catholic in extolling his virtues, and belauding his hospitality, which is extended without question to every visitor of whatever rank, race, or religion. Taking him all in all he may be regarded as the most striking individuality who has ever held episcopal rank in the Roman Catholic Church in Australia. Men of greater ability there have been, but none have im­pressed themselves in the same manner on the popular imagina­tion. His powers of organisation must be very great, as, though at one time large subsidies came from Spain, the community, with its couple of hundred or so of regular inmates and its hundreds of yearly guests, is now virtually self-supporting; and this despite the fact that the Bishop has learned farming, as he did the English language, as he went along, and without any previous training or experience.

Rosendo Salvado, to give him his secular name, comes of a family of high position, and was formerly organist at the Court of Spain, one of his brothers filling the much more delicate position of confessor to Queen Isabella. I fancied that there must have been some life-tragedy or love trouble at the bottom of Bishop Salvado's self-abnegation. But he assured me that it was no single sorrow or disappointment that had driven him to assume the cowl, but simply a general impression of the world's hollowness, derived from the contemplation of the social hypocrisies pervading the class amongst which he moved and to which he belonged. Once having taken the leap, the desire for self-immolation grew upon him, and all he asked his superiors was to send him amongst the heathen, a desire which was gratified by his being despatched to Western Australia in 1845, his sojourn in the wilds having lasted for forty years. He was at one time nominally Bishop of Port Victoria; but finding his lot cast at a distance from his proper official location, he asked leave to resign, and is now only Bishop of Adrana in partibus. He has, however, been "Abbot nullius" since 1867. The next day (Sunday) was the anniversary of the consecration of the church, Saturday being a fast-day; but, contrary to our experience at Marah, we were not called on to fast with the brethren, and greatly enjoyed some wild ducks with which the good Bishop plied our plates, though only eating bread himself. In the evening vespers were celebrated at the church, and I stood outside with Bishop Salvado listening to the singing; the deep voices of the brethren and the nasal quavering tones of the natives diffusing themselves through the darkness with a weird but softening effect. Far away in the wilds of this new land we were listening to the symphonies of Christian antiquity—the old wine put into new bottles—with a result strangely combining pathos and in harmony. There was a resigned pessimism about the Bishop's talk which made me think that he was not wholly unconscious of the comparative futility of his work, and he could not think much of his converts when he repudiated so strongly the idea of their ministering at the altars of a Church whose chief charm lies in the extraordinary universality of its functionaries. We left first thing on Sunday morning, but, early as it was, breakfast was provided, and the good Bishop was at the gate to wish us a safe journey. I shall never forget this mild-mannered man, with his collected demeanour and restrained smile, without sentiment and without fanaticism, resignedly doing his duty without doubts or re­morses, but with no particularly high-pitched enthusiasms of any sort to illumine the path of his life-sacrifice.

By midday we were amongst the navvies again, the line being in a forward state, a good many miles north of Gingin. The tents have a picturesque look, but the life is a rough one. The navvy is a nomadic animal, with very little turn towards settlement and domesticity, and the amateurs imported from home soon fall into the wandering ways of the old colonial hands. The wages seem good—1s. an hour for an eight hours day, with occasionally a good deal more for overtime. Most of the men live in tents, and get their meals at the boarding­ houses which spring up like mushrooms along the line. For these meals, which are plentiful if rough, they pay £1 a week, so that they have 28s. a week left for clothes and drink, on which the balance too often goes. There is, however, a fair sprinkling of saving men, many of whom "batch" for themselves, as they call it. The difficulty is in getting supplies at reasonable rates, the contractor's underlings having a virtual monopoly of the importations, and a species of truck system thus comes into vogue. This had become so much of a grievance that soon after my visit the men struck, on the plea that their wages were not high enough with the exorbitant prices ruling for provisions.

With just a few more general observations I will have done with the Midland Railway Company, which I take as my text simply because its career is yet virgin before it, not a single acre of its vast concession having yet been alienated. It has, therefore, the proud opportunity of proving that the much-abused land­ grant railway system may minister to national development in superior proportion to individual profit. It is very much to the interest of the Government to keep this and other companies of the kind in the right way, as they are likely to become an intolerable evil, and to form a sort of imperium in imperio, which would overshadow even the Executive, unless they are encouraged, nay, compelled, to retail their lands with all possible promptitude to a yeoman proprietary. With regard to the Company's territory (and, of course, this applies to the adjacent Government land), the poison-plant has got very slight hold of it, and with the exception of the sheep-worrying native dog, whose existence necessitates a little extra expense in wire ­ fencing, there are no natural pests of any importance to interfere with the farmer's prosperity. The rainfall is sufficient, even with the carelessness with regard to its conservation which now prevails. Water can also be got at a shallow depth by digging, and there are numerous natural springs which the Government, with culpable negligence, has in many cases allowed private owners to monopolise by the purchase of small strips of land around them. This may some day prove a serious obstacle to popular settlement on the public lands, as the run­ holders no doubt designed that it should be, and at a future date the resumption of springs may have to be enforced in the national interest. The rabbit has not yet got any foothold in Western Australia, though he is said to be slowly burrowing his way across the South Australian border. In any case, he has a vast desert to luxuriate in before he touches the settled districts of Western Australia. Here I may ad d that settlers taking up farms in the Irwin, Strawberry, and Victoria plains districts, which I traversed, have plenty of room for expansion eastward, where there is a vast area of good sheep country, with the drawback, of course, of an uncertain rainfall. The existing settlers in the districts named manage to do well with flocks "eastward," so that with improved methods of water conservation, the future settler may expect to do still better if he has capital enough to adopt a policy of pastoral extension in addition to the less ambitious pursuits of agriculture. English and artificial grasses are almost unknown in Western Australia, and the majority of the settlers say that "they won't do" there, but this is a superstition which time and "new blood" will dissipate, with the result of revolutionising the grazing and dairying industries in the colony.

I daresay the very mention of the "sand plain," to which I have often had occasion to refer, will damp the pioneering ardour of some of my readers; so I will just quote from the evidence given before the Royal Commission a. single expression of opinion on the subject, and also on the matter of "mixed farming." Mr. Oliver, a farmer of twelve years' standing on the Lockyer River, was asked, "Do you think that the sand plain country here could be utilised for corn-growing?" and his reply was, "I have broken up some poor sand-plain country, and got twelve bushels to the acre off it; I believe I am the only one who has tried it in the district. It was in a dry season; I rather fancy it would be too cold in a wet season. It was simply £allowed out of the bush, and the yield was as I say." "Then you think," the chairman asked him, "that there is some good even in the sand plains?" "I think a great deal of them," was his reply, "especially for fruit­ growing. It is this yellow sand which seems to suit fruit­ growing. There is plenty of this kind of land alongside all the flats." I need hardly say that with 15,000,000 of acres to choose from, the Company will take as much of the good agricultural land and leave the Government as much of the sand as possible. Still, despite all their efforts, they will have to take a certain proportion of sand plain, and I only quote Mr. Oliver to show that even then the case is not so utterly desperate.

With regard to "mixed farming," a witness named Maley was amusingly emphatic. "They say," was his response to a question on the subject, "that the farmer is the backbone of the colony; but I say that if he does nothing else than grow wheat there will soon be nothing left of him but his backbone. Unless he goes in for mixed farming, unless he goes in for stock, he may as well give up the ghost. That's my opinion." I may add that the Midland Railway Company have got 154 miles of their railway open for traffic, or more than half of the whole length, and they expect to get the balance in working trim by the end of June next. The selection of the vast area accruing to the Company, about 3,540,000 acres, has been completed, and embraces an area of country such as probably forms the finest agricultural territory, possessed by one interest, in the whole of Australia. The surveys have been rapidly pushed forward, and the end of last year saw the plans of nearly a million acres in the hands of the Western Australia Land Department, the preliminary to the issue of certificates of title.

In the evening of the same day on which we quitted the Benedictine monastery we reached Gingin, which is an agricultural township forty-eight miles from New Norcia and fifty-four miles from Perth. We had to wait here till the following morning, when a special train was to run us to Guildford, where the Midland and the Government lines join, some nine miles from the capital, which, with its select little society and quiet ways, re­ minds one of some English cathedral town rather than of one of the pushing metropolises of the eastern colonies. I have, how­ ever, said nothing of Gingin, of which the future settler will hear a good deal. Dr. Robertson speaks of Gingin as "one of the prettiest and best settled districts in the colony." Proceeding, he says, "A considerable area of land, probably 2,500 acres, is under cultivation. Gingin Brook is a clear, copious, perennial stream. The rainfall averages twenty-five inches. Principally wheat is cultivated, and the yield averages about twenty bushels per acre in an ordinary season; but oats and barley grow well; for the latter a good market does not yet exist. No fertilisers are used. The land is fallowed. No attention has apparently been generally paid to the land that yields the best crops of wheat or of barley. Potatoes and root crops, such as beet and mangold, grow luxuriantly, but are not cultivated as crops. Vegetables of all kinds and of great size are raised without trouble. The finest and largest oranges I have ever seen are grown here. Citrons, lemons, and vines grow luxuriantly, and, if cultivated on intelligent principles, would materially augment the returns from the land. A few cattle are fed, but if root crops, peas, cabbages, beet, mangolds, &c., were raised, with the advantage of ensilage and the railway, a profitable dairying trade could be conducted."

I was not much impressed with the country between Gingin and Guildford as seen from the railway. Dr. Robertson says: "The railway from Guildford to Gingin passes over a level and uninteresting sand plain, covered with worthless vegetation and surcharged with water. A few miles to the east, however, and running parallel to the railway, is the Chittering Brook (a tri­butary of the Swan River), and along the course of this brook a large number of small farms have been selected. Surrounding these farms a proportion of the open land is of good quality, and is fitted for cultivation. The soil here is reddish clay or light sandy loam, and in this magnificent crops are raised. The district, likewise, is suited for growing vegetables, oranges, grapes, lemons, fruits of all kinds, and root crops. The largest lemons and the most prolific vegetables I have ever seen grew in this district. The traffic from the lower part of Chittering would naturally gravitate along the main north road to the railway."