Moondyne/The Land of the Red Line

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Moondyne by John Boyle O'Reilly
The Land of the Red Line

Western Australia is a vast and unknown country, almost mysterious in its solitude and unlikeness to any other part of the earth. It is the greatest of the Australias in extent, and in many features the richest and loveliest.

But the sister colonies of Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland are famous for their treasure of gold. Men from all lands have flocked thither to gather riches. They care not for the slow labour of the farmer or grazier. Let the weak and the old, the coward and the dreamer, prune the vine and dry the figs, and wait for the wheat to ripen. Strong men must go to the trial—must set muscle against muscle, and brain against brain, in the mine and the market.

Men's lives are short; and unless they gather gold in the mass, how shall they wipe out the primal curse of poverty before the hand loses its skill and the heart its strong desire?

Western Australia is the Cinderella of the South. She has no gold like her sisters. To her was given the servile and unhappy portion. The dregs of British society were poured upon her soil. The robber and the manslayer were sent thither. Her territory was marked off with a Red Line. She has no markets for honest men, and no ports for honest ships. Her laws are not the laws of other countries, but the terrible rules of the menagerie. Her citizens have no rights: they toil their lives out at heavy tasks, but earn no wages, nor own a vestige of right in the soil they till. It is a land of slaves and bondmen—the great penal colony of Great Britain.

"There is no gold in the western colony," said the miners contemptuously; "let the convicts keep the land—but let them observe our red line."

So the convicts took the defamed country, and lived and died there, and others were transported there from England to replace those who died, and every year the seething ships gave up their addition to the terrible population.

In time, the western colony came to be regarded as a plague-spot, where no man thought of going and no man did go unless sent in irons.

If the miners from Victoria and New South Wales, however, had visited the penal land some years after its establishment, they would have heard whispers of strange import—rumours and questions of a great golden secret possessed by the western colony. No one could tell where the rumour began or on what it was based, except perhaps the certainty that gold was not uncommon among the natives of the colony, who had little or no intercourse with the aborigines of the gold-yielding countries of the south and east.

The belief seemed to hover in the air; and it settled with dazzling conviction on the crude and abnormal minds of the criminal population. At their daily toil in the quarries or on the road parties, no rock was blasted nor tree uprooted that eager eyes did not hungrily scan the upturned earth. At night, when the tired wretches gathered round the camp-fire outside their prison hut, the dense mahogany forest closing weirdly round the white-clad group, still the undiscovered gold was the topic earnestly discussed. And even the government officers and the few free settlers became after a time filled with the prevailing expectancy and disquiet.

But years passed, and not an ounce of gold was discovered in the colony. The Government had offered reward to settlers or ticket-of-leave men who would find the first nugget or gold-bearing rock; but no claimant came forward.

Still, there remained the tantalizing fact—for, in the course of years, fact it had grown to be—that gold was to be found in the colony, and in abundance. The native bushmen were masters of the secret, but neither bribe nor torture could wring it from them. Terrible stories were whispered among the convicts of attempts that had been made to force the natives to give up the precious secret. Gold was common amongst these bushmen. Armlets and anklets had been seen on men and women; and some of their chief men, it was said, wore breast-plates and enormous chains of hammered gold.

At last the feeling in the west grew to fever heat; and, in 1848, the Governor of the penal colony issued a proclamation, copies of which were sent by native runners to every settler and ticket-of-leave man, and were even surreptitiously distributed amongst the miners on the other side of the red line.

This proclamation intensified the excitement. It seemed to bring the mine nearer to every man in the colony. It was a formal admission that there really was a mine; it dispelled the vague uncertainty, and left an immediate hunger or greed in the minds of the population.

The proclamation read as follows:

£5.000 REWARD!
The above Reward will be paid for the discovery of the Mine from which the Natives of the Vasse obtain their Gold.
A Free Pardon will be granted to the Discoverer, should he be of the Bond Class.
No Reward will be given nor terms made with Absconders from the Prisons or Road Parties.
By order,
Official Residence,
Perth, 28th June, 1848.

But nothing came of it. Not an ounce of gold was ever taken from the earth. At last men began to avoid the subject. They could not bear to be tantalized nor tortured by the splendid delusion. Some said there was no mine in the Vasse, and others that, if there were a mine, it was known only to a few of the native chiefs, who dealt out the raw gold to their people.

For eight years this magnificent reward had remained unclaimed, and now its terms were only recalled at the fires, of the road-making convicts, or in the lonely slab huts of the mahogany sawyers, who were all ticket-of-leave men.