The Last of the Tasmanians/Chapter 1
THE LAST OF THE TASMANIANS.
VOYAGERS' TALES OF THE TASMANIANS.
It was at the close of 1642 that a couple of small Dutch vessels were struggling with the rough billows of the Southern Ocean, Their prows were plunging into unknown seas. The adventurous commander, Abel Jansen Tasman, sought new fields of discovery, new homes for his roving, thrifty countrymen. Glistening peaks of quartz ranges emerged from the waters. A white crest adorned the eastern horizon for many miles, succeeded by darker columnar masses of rock. A stormy bay was traversed, a frowning peninsula was rounded, and in a little cove the weary voyagers found rest and shelter. The startling novelties of that southern land, its charming climate, its animate and inanimate wonders, attracted attention and extorted applause. A name must be given to it. In the colony from which the captain had sailed, the Dutch settlement of Java, lived a fair girl, the daughter of the governor, whose sweet image followed the wanderings of the good ship Zeehaarn. Tasman called the country after the name of herself and parent,—Van Diemen's Land.
But my object is to introduce the sailor's first notice of the inhabitants of this new region,—the hapless Tasmanians. I cannot do better than give an extract from his journal:—
"I anchored," said Tasman, "on the 1st of December, in a bay which I called the Bay of Frederick Henry. I heard, or at least fancied I heard the sound of people upon the shore; but I saw nobody. All I met with worth observing was two trees, which were two fathoms or two fathoms and a half in girth, and sixty or sixty-five feet high from the roots to the branches. They had cut with a flint a sort of steps in the bark, in order to climb up to the birds'-nests. These steps were at the distance of five feet from each other; so that we must conclude that either these people are of prodigious size, or that they have some way of climbing trees that we are not used to. In one of the trees the steps were so fresh, that we judged they could not have been cut above four days. The noise we heard resembled the noise of some sort of trumpet; it seemed to be at no great distance, but we saw no living creature notwithstanding. I perceived also, in the sand, the marks of wild beasts' feet, resembling those of a tiger, or some such creature. I observed smoke in several places; however, we did nothing more than set up a post, on which every one cut his name or his mark, and upon which I hoisted a flag."
The steps cut in the bark were not, however, for the search after birds'-nests, but for the capture of opossums. The trumpet sound could be none other than the coo-ee of the foresters assembling the tribe, doubtless to consider the mysterious invasion of their land by the white-faced and pantalooned strangers.
As the Dutchmen sailed away in a day or two, they had no opportunity of intercourse with the wild men of the woods. But the visit was a memorable one; and posterity, in spite of the worthy old governor and his beautiful daughter, have recorded their estimate of the good fortune of the captain, by calling the southern isle Tasmania.
The first French navigator who came to the fair island was Marion du Fresne. He had heard of the discovery by Tasman, and paid a visit to the spot on which the Dutch had landed, Frederick Henry Bay. He arrived there in two vessels, on the 4th of March, 1772. The French author, Domény de Rienzi, informs us that "the Aborigines came with confidence down to the boats, and remained near the French, with their children and their wives." As this was the first time the Tasmanians had come in contact with Europeans, it is pleasing to record this evidence of their frank cordiality with the strangers. A number of presents, usually most esteemed by savage nations, were tributed among them. M. Rienzi then proceeds with the story of the conflict,—the first blood drawn by the whites:—
"About an hour after the French landed, Captain Marion landed. Advancing in front of him, one of the Aborigines offered him a lighted firebrand, that he might set light to a heap of wood heaped up on the flat shore. Marion took it, believing that it was a formality intended to give confidence to the savages; but hardly had the little pile of wood been enflamed, when the Aborigines retired in mass toward a little height, from which they threw afterwards a volley of stones, which wounded the two captains. They (the French) repelled them by several discharges of musket. They killed one aborigine and wounded several others, and the others fled howling towards the woods."
From another historian of the voyage we learn other particulars. A party of thirty Natives came down, the women carrying their children behind their backs, fastened on with ropes of rushes. The men were said to be carrying pointed sticks (spears) and stone axes. Presents of pieces of iron, looking-glasses, handkerchiefs, &c., were laid before them, but were rejected with sulky disdain. Some ducks and geese were tendered, but were angrily thrown back again. The fire-stick was presented to a sailor first, and afterwards to the captain. But evidently the act, supposed to be friendly, was taken in another spirit. They might have regarded it as a proof that the strangers intended an establishment upon their own hunting-grounds. The historian adds: "This was no sooner done, than they retired precipitately to a small hill, and threw a shower of stones, by which Captain Marion and the commander of the Castries were both wounded." Shots, of course, replied to the stones, and the Frenchmen returned to their boats. Sending their women backward to the covert of the forest, the wild men ran along the shore after their foes. The sailors put back towards the land to arrest the pursuit. At this moment an old chief assumed the leadership, and raised a hideous war-cry, when a storm of spears answered to his call. Fifteen Frenchmen now chased the assailants, and by their destructive fire killed and wounded several of them.
The unfortunate Marion met with his death in New Zealand. Though a French author describes his countrymen as being fattened for thirty-two days, to be eaten on the thirty-third, yet it is known that the New Zealanders treated them well till they polluted their sacred places, cooked food with tapued wood, and put two chiefs in irons. May they not have conducted themselves as ill in Tasmania, so as to incur the displeasure of the natives, and neglected to note the circumstance in their journal?
Captain Furneaux, of the Resolution, having got separated from his commander. Captain Cook, found himself off the south of Van Diemen's Land, in March 1773. Want of curiosity or opportunity gave him no tale to tell of the people in person, though he gathered some information of the country. Examining, on Bruni Island, a deserted wigwam, as he called a break-wind, he found a stone; he thereupon jumped to the conclusion that the Tasmanians, like the Fuegians, used a stone with tinder of bark for obtaining fire. He supposed them ignorant of metals, and left in the hut nails, gun-flints, medals, and an old barrel. There could not be a large population, he thought, as he found but three or four huts in one place. Observing no evidence of the use of any appliances of civilization, he regarded the Natives, as he said, "altogether, from what we could judge, a very ignorant and wretched sort of people, though natives of a country capable of producing every necessary of life, and a climate the finest in the world."
Passing to the eastward, Captain Furneaux ran along the eastern coast, passing Schoutens. Then he entered this passage in his journal: "The country here appears to be very thickly inhabited, as there was a continual fire along-shore as we sailed." He was now desirous of making some acquaintance with the Aborigines; but he said, "The weather being bad, we could not send a boat on shore to have any intercourse with the inhabitants."
Captain Cook entered Adventure Bay, Bruni Island, on January 26th, 1777. Anxious to fall in with the Natives, he went with a party of marines some miles into the bush. A rustling as of a wild beast disturbing them, they looked, and saw a girl, naked and alone. They soothed their terrified prisoner by binding a handkerchief round her neck, and placing a cap upon her head. They then allowed her to depart. Soon after, eight men and a boy approached without fear; one only had a weapon, which is supposed to have been a waddy. In his "Voyages" there is this account of their physical condition: —"They were quite naked, and wore no ornaments, unless we consider as such some large punctures in different parts of their bodies, some in straight, and others in curved lines. The men were of the middle stature, but rather slender. Their skin and hair were black; and the latter as woolly as that of any native of Guinea; but they were not distinguished by remarkably thick lips, nor flat noses. On the contrary, their features were far from being disagreeable. They had pretty good eyes; and their teeth were tolerably even, but very dirty. Most of them had their hair and beards smeared with a red ointment, and some had also their faces painted with the same composition. When some bread was offered them, as soon as they understood it was to be eaten, they either returned, or threw it away, without tasting it."
A couple of pigs were brought ashore to turn adrift; but the Natives seized them by the ears and carried them off, doubtless to eat them. A musket was fired, when the party fled in great dismay. But the little girl returned, and brought several females with her. Of these it was remarked that they "wore a kangaroo skin fastened over their shoulders, the only use for which seemed to be to support their children on their backs, for it left those parts uncovered which modesty directs us to conceal. Their bodies were black, and marked with scars like those of the men; from whom, however, they differed, in having their heads shaved—some of them being completely shorn, others only on one side, while the rest of them had the upper part of their heads shaved, leaving a very narrow circle of hair all round. They were far from being handsome; however, some of our gentlemen paid their addresses to them, but without effect. That the gallantry of some of our people was not very agreeable to the men, is certain; for an elderly man, as soon as he observed it, ordered the women and children to retire, which they all did, but some with a little reluctance."
Cook was surprised at their indifference to presents, and disregard of iron, fish-hooks, &c. They lived "like beasts of the forest, in roving parties, without arts of any kind, sleeping in summer like dogs, under the hollow sides of trees, or in the wattled huts made with the low branches of evergreen shrubs, stuck in the ground at small distances from each other, and meeting together at the top." On another occasion, falling in with a party of twenty, Cook was better pleased; and it was said of them, "Nor do they seem to be such miserable wretches as the Natives whom Dampier mentions to have seen on the western coast of New Holland."
Captain Cook's surgeon, Mr. Anderson, had several interviews with these people. From the account of his visit we read: "They had little of that fierce or wild appearance common to people in their situation; but, on the contrary, seemed mild and cheerful, without reserve or jealousy of strangers." He had no great belief in their mental superiority to other savages; for he says, "They have to appearance even less genius than the half-animated inhabitants of Terra del Fuego." Again, "Their not expressing that surprise which one might have expected from their seeing men so much unlike themselves, and things to which, we are well assured, they had been hitherto utter strangers; their indifference for our presents, and their general inattention, were sufficient proofs of their not possessing any acuteness of understanding."
Captain Cook thought it probable that the people belonged to the same family as those of Tanna and Manicola, whom he had recently visited, and that from New Holland eastward to Easter Island they might have a common root. He is constrained to admit that "the circumstances and progress of their separation are wrapped in the darkest veil of obscurity."
The navigator was struck with the superior virtue of the Tasmanian women over the more polished Polynesians. His remarks upon the conduct of Europeans toward savage women are worthy of citation here. He describes it as "highly blameable, as it creates a jealousy in their men, that may be attended with consequences fatal to the success of the common enterprise, and to the whole body of adventurers, without advancing the private purpose of the individual, or enabling him to gain the object of his wishes. I believe it has been generally found among uncivilized people, that where the women are easy of access, the men are the first to offer them to strangers; and that where this is not the case, neither the allurements of presents, nor the opportunity of privacy, will be likely to have the desired effect. This observation will, I am sure, hold good throughout all the parts of the South Seas where I have been. Why then should men act so absurd a part, as to risk their own safety, and that of all their companions, in pursuit of a gratification which they have no probability of obtaining?"
Captain Bligh, so celebrated in the early annals of Australia, paid two visits to Van Diemen's Land. He went sixteen years before its settlement, and four years after that event. The first time he appeared a voyager among a barbarous people. On the next occasion he came as ex-governor, exiled by a rebellious colony, and soliciting in vain assistance from his quomdam, subordinate, the ruler of Hobart Town. In 1788, he spent twelve days in Adventure Bay, Bruni Island, and observed the English record upon a tree, "A.D. 1773." He exhibited a disposition to benevolence, as Captain Fumeaux had done, in planting apples, vines, oranges, cherries, plums, and other trees, together with potatoes, cabbages, and onions. The early settlers make no mention of these when they colonized the little island. Sailors are not proverbial for their skill in planting, although the season, being the spring-month of September, was favourable to their exertions.
The French historian, Domény de Rienzi, refers to Bligh at Adventure Bay, in some mistake: "Not being able to land because of the breaking of the waves, he caused presents to be thrown to the natives, which they disdained." But coming in contact with them at Frederick Henry Bay, near the scene of Tasman's visit in 1642, Captain Bligh has this relation of the tribe there:—
"Soon after we heard their voices, like the cackling of geese, and twenty persons came out of the wood, twelve of whom went round to some rocks, where the boat could get nearer to the shore than we then were. Those who remained behind were women. We approached about twenty yards of them; but there was no possibility of landing, and I could only throw to the shore, tied up in paper, the presents which I intended for them. I showed the different articles as I tied them up; but they would not untie the paper till I made an appearance of leaving them. They then opened the parcels, and, as they took the articles out, placed them on their heads. On seeing this I ventured toward them, when they instantly put everything out of their hands, and would not appear to take notice of anything that we had given them. After throwing a few more beads and iron on shore, I made signs for them to go to the ship, and they likewise made signs for me to land; and as this could not be effected, I left them, in hopes of a nearer interview at the watering place. When they first came in sight, they made a prodigious chattering in their speech, and held their arms over their heads."
Elsewhere he adds: "They talked to us, sitting on their heels, with their knees close to their armpits, and were perfectly naked." His last observations are founded upon the information of another: "The account which I had from Brown, the botanist's assistant, was, that in his search for plants, he had met an old man, a young woman, and two or three children. The old man at first appeared alarmed, but became familiar on being presented with a knife. He nevertheless sent away the young woman, who went away very reluctantly. He saw some miserable wigwams, in which were nothing but a few kangaroo skins spread on the ground, and a basket made of rushes."
Among the first-fruits of the French Revolution were a generous impulse toward suffering humanity, a chivalrous desire for universal brotherhood, and a remarkable development of science. To these circumstances perhaps we owe the celebrated voyages of discovery conducted by Admiral D'Entrecasteaux, of the Recherche and Espérance, in April 1792, and by Admiral Baudin, of the Géographe and Naturaliste, in 1802. The historian of the first was the amiable naturalist, M. Labillardière, and that of the second was the susceptible naturalist, M. Peron. The latter, however, did not live to complete the narrative, which, some years after, was carried on by Lieutenant Freycinet, who subsequently commanded in a similar enterprise under the Restoration.
As in some other expeditions of our Gallic neighbours, there was a want of prudence and foresight, a defect of discipline, and a loss of material resources, connected with the ships of M. D'Entrecasteaux, which occasioned much misery on board, and frustrated the purposes of discovery. But our concern is simply with the observations upon the Tasmanians. The Storm Bay of Tasman was avoided, and so the channel between an island and the mainland led the seamen past the mouth of a noble river, up to near the future site of Hobart Town, Admiral Bruni D'Entrecasteaux named the island after his own first name, and the channel after the second; the river was called Huon, after Captain Huon Kermandée, second in command. A second visit was paid by the expedition in the following year.
The Natives, of whom they had heard something from the voyages of Captain Cook and Captain Marion, were great objects of curiosity to the prying Frenchmen. They had considerable amusement with the looking-glass, and great fun with an ape, the tricks of which produced roars of laughter. The introduction of a goat excited much astonishment. A burning-glass, after setting a piece of bark on fire, was made to give practical evidence of its powers on the thigh of a stalwart savage. If the loud laugh "bespeak the vacant mind," our dark friends illustrated their ignorance. M. Labillardière thus records his interview with one company:—
"We got ready a few cartridges as fast as we could, and set out towards the place where we had seen the Natives. It was now only nine o'clock. We had gone only a few steps before we met them. The men and youths were ranged in front, nearly in a semicircle; the women, children, and girls were a few paces behind. As their manner did not appear to indicate any hostile design, I hesitated not to go up to the oldest, who accepted, with a very good grace, a piece of biscuit I offered him, of which he had seen me eat. I then held out my hand to him, as a sign of friendship, and had the pleasure to perceive that he comprehended my meaning very well. He gave me his, inclining himself a little, and raising at the same time the left foot, which he carried backward in proportion as he bent his body forward. These motions were accompanied by a pleasing smile. (Worthy of a polished Parisian!)
"My companions also advanced up to the others, and immediately the best understanding prevailed among us. They received with great joy the neckcloths which we offered them. The young people approached nearer to us; and one of them had the generosity to give me a few small shells of the whelk kind, pierced near the middle, and strung like a necklace. This ornament, which he called Canlaride, was the only one he possessed, and he wore it round his head. A handkerchief supplied the place of this present, gratifying the utmost wishes of my savage, who advanced towards me that I might tie it round his head for him, and who expressed the greatest joy as he lifted his hand up to feel it again and again. We wore abundance of clothes, as I have already observed, on account of the coldness of the nights; and we bestowed the greater part on these islanders.
"The women were very desirous of coming nearer to us; and though the men made signs to them to keep at a distance, their curiosity was ready every moment to break through all other considerations. The gradual increase of confidence, however, that took place, obtained them permission to approach. It appeared to us very astonishing that in so high a latitude, where, at a period of the year so little advanced as the present, we experienced the cold at night to be pretty severe, these people did not feel the necessity of clothing themselves. Even the women were, for the most part, entirely naked, as well as the men. Some of them only had the shoulders or part of the back covered with a kangaroo's skin, worn with the hair next the body; and amongst these we saw two, each of whom had an infant at the breast. The sole garment of one was a strip of kangaroo skin, about two inches broad, which was wrapped six or seven times round the waist. Another had a collar of skin round the neck, and some had a slender cord bound several times round the head. I afterwards learned that most of these cords were fabricated from the bark of a shrub of the Spurge family, very common in this country.
"I had given them several things without requiring anything in return; but I wished to get a kangaroo's skin, when, among the savages about us, there happened to be only a young girl who had one. When I proposed to her to give it me in exchange for a pair of pantaloons, she ran away to hide herself in the woods. The other Natives appeared truly hurt at her refusal, and called to her several times. At length she yielded to their entreaties, and came to bring me the skin. Perhaps it was from timidity only she could not prevail on herself to part with this kind of garment; in return for which she received a pair of pantaloons, less useful to her, according to the customs of ladies in this country, than the skin, which served to cover the shoulders. We showed her the manner of wearing them; but, notwithstanding, it was necessary for us to put them on for her ourselves. To this she yielded with the best grace in the world, resting both her hands on our shoulders, to support herself while she lifted first one leg, then the other, to put them in this new garment. Desirous of avoiding every cause of offence, we behaved with all the gravity we could on the occasion.
"This party of savages consisted of two-and-twenty, seven of whom were men, eight women; the rest appeared to be their children. Amongst these we observed several marriageable girls still less clothed, most of them with nothing."
Other interviews at other localities are thus described:—
"Two boats were sent out to transport some of our men to both shores of the Straits. They discovered a number of savages landing from a raft on the east shore. As timid as those we had seen before, they had hastened with all possible speed to the land, where they made their escape into the woods. One of the officers of the Recherche following a beaten path made by the savages through the woods, met six of them walking slowly towards the south, who were all stark naked, and armed with javelins sixteen or eighteen feet in length. Their surprise at so unexpected a rencounter was visible in their countenances; but their number inspiring them with courage, they approached at the invitation of the European, and bound round their heads a handkerchief and neckcloth which he offered them. They, however, appeared terrified at the sight of his hanger, which he showed them how to use; nor were their fears quieted till he made them a present of it. He endeavoured in vain to persuade them to come to the place where our ships lay at anchor; the savages walked away, following the same path in a direction opposite to that which led to the shore.
"Some of our men having landed on the other side of the Strait came to a large fire, round which eight savages, each of whom had a kangaroo skin wrapped round his shoulders, sat warming themselves under the shelter of four fences against the wind. They immediately ran away as soon as they saw our people. An old woman who had the care of their provisions, which she did not choose to leave behind her, was soon overtaken by some of the sailors. She accepted, with an air of satisfaction, a handkerchief that was given her, but was so terrified at the sight of a hanger, which they presented to her, that she leaped down a precipice more than forty feet in height, and ran away among the rocks, where they soon lost sight of her. I do not know whether those who related this adventure in a different maimer wished to make themselves merry at the expense of the rest, when they asserted that the age of this woman was no security for her against the attempts of some of the sailors; however, she was still young enough to make her escape."
It was upon other occasions that the intercourse became more intimate. M. Peron was daubed with charcoal by some of the sable fair, to add to his enchantment. Some of the young damsels, though unwilling to wear the garments of civilization, were induced by the gay Frenchmen to run races for them. A child, crying at the sight of a white ogre, was quieted by its smiling mother placing her hands over his eyes. The barbarous people exhibited great politeness, even carefully removing obstructive branches in the way of the foreign Bush explorers. Of course a French sailor tried to initiate a Native into the first principles of civilization by presenting some grog. The Tasmanian spat out the nauseous stuff with unmistakeable signs of disgust. Some of the stories told by M. Labillardière do credit to the kind nature of that man of science, especially in relation to his gallantry for the softer sex, whose cause he so nobly espouses:—
"At noon we saw them prepare their repast. Hitherto we had but a faint idea of the pains the women take to procure the food requisite for the subsistence of their families. They each took a basket, and were followed by their daughters, who did the same. Getting on the rocks that projected into the sea, they plunged from them to the bottom in search of shell-fish. When they had been down some time, we became very uneasy on their account; for where they had dived were sea-weeds of great length, among which we observed the Fucus pyriferus, and we feared they might have been entangled in these, so as to be unable to regain the surface. At length, however, they appeared, and convinced us that they were capable of remaining under water twice as long as our ablest divers. An instant was sufficient for them to take breath, and then they dived again. This they did repeatedly, till their baskets were nearly full. Most of them were provided with a little bit of wood, cut in the shape of a spatula, of which I spake before; and with these they separated from beneath the rocks, at great depths, very large sea-ears. Perhaps they chose the biggest, for all they brought were of great size. On seeing the large lobsters, we were afraid that they must have wounded these poor women terribly with their large claws; but we soon found that they had taken the precaution to kill them as soon as they caught them. They quitted the water only to bring their husbands the fruits of their labour, and frequently returned almost immediately to their diving, till they had procured a sufficient meal for their families. At other times they stayed a little time to warm themselves, with their faces towards the fire on which their fish were roasting, and other little fires burning behind them that they might be warmed on all sides at once(!) It seemed as if they were unwilling to lose a moment's time; for while they were warming themselves they were employed in roasting fish, some of which they laid on the coals with the utmost caution, though they took little care of the lobsters, which they threw anywhere into the fire, and when they were ready they divided the claws among the men and children, reserving the body for themselves, which they sometimes ate before they returned into the water."
He gives us a little insight into their domestic arrangements, in the following sketch:—"Two of the stoutest of the party were sitting in the midst of their children, and each had two women by his side. They informed us by signs that these were their wives, and gave us a fresh proof that polygamy is established among them. The other women who had only one husband were equally careful to let us know it. It would be difficult to say which are the happiest, as the most laborious of their domestic occupations devolve upon them, which perhaps might sufficiently compensate their having only a share in their husband s affections."
The last extracts from M. Labillardière's journal relate to the softer sex, ever a favourite subject with our polished neighbours:—
"Four of the young girls were of the party who received with indifference the garments we gave them; and, that they might not be encumbered with a useless burden, immediately hung them on the bushes near the path, intending, no doubt, to take them with them on their return. As a proof that they set little value on such presents, we did not see on any of them one of the garments that we had given them the day before. Three of these young women were marriageable, and all of them were of very cheerful dispositions. In one of them it was observed that the right breast had acquired its full size, while the left was still perfectly flat. This temporary defect had no effect on the liveliness of her manner… No doubt we lost much by not understanding the language of these natives, for one of the girls said a good deal to us: she talked a long while with extraordinary volubility, though she must have perceived that we could not comprehend her meaning—no matter, she must talk. The others attempted more than once to charm us by songs, with the modulation of which I was singularly struck, from the great analogy of the tunes to those of the Arabs in Asia Minor. Several times two sang the same tune at once, but always a third above the other, forming a concord with the greatest exactness.
"Soon after we arrived at the entrance of Port D'Entrecasteaux. Two of the young girls followed the different windings of the shore, without mistrust, at a distance from the other Natives, with three of our sailors, when these took the opportunity to treat them with a degree of freedom which was received in a very different manner from what they had hoped. The young women immediately fled to the rocks most advanced into the sea, and appeared ready to leap into it, and swim away, if our men had followed them. They presently repaired to the place where we were assembled with the other savages; but it seems they did not disclose this adventure, for the most perfect harmony continued to prevail between us."
It is a singular circumstance, illustrative of the paradoxes of human nature, that at the moment while these Frenchmen were fraternizing so affectionately with barbarians at the Antipodes, their countrymen at home were revelling in the blood of their fellow-citizens—as the Reign of Terror then prevailed.
Mr. Flinders, accompanied by his friend Mr. Surgeon Bass, followed the Frenchmen in making Tasmanian acquaintances. These two young men, after the discovery of Western Port in an adventurous voyage in a little open boat, obtained the use of the colonial schooner Norfolk, sailed from Sydney in 1798, passed through Bass's Strait, and proved Van Diemen's Land to be an island.
Mr. Flinders' account did not appear for several years, as he subsequently commanded an expedition which resulted in the discovery of South Australia on his way home, and suffered a lengthened captivity in the Mauritius. From his "Terra Australis" we learn that the Norfolk sailed up the North river of D'Entrecasteaux, the name of which was changed by Captain Hayes to the Derwent, and on the banks of which the young men observed the Natives. Doubtless the stirring events of the next few years so occupied the thoughts of the navigator, and employed his pen, that Captain Flinders could give but a brief account of the Derwenters in his work.
It is quite amusing to observe the blunders into which so shrewd an observer as he could fall. He was quite confounded with evidences of the Aborigines having been upon an island in the Straits, not far from the mainland, when, as he so prematurely conjectured, they had no boats, and were quite ignorant of the art of swimming. Had he read the tale of Labillardière or Peron, before the publication of his own work, he would have been better informed. He even ventures to repeat his conviction of the Blacks' antipathy to cold water. But up to that time he had not seen a single inhabitant. His only intercourse with the race was near the site of the future capital—Hobart Town. It is thus described by Mr. Flinders:—
"Our attention was suddenly called from contemplating the country by the sound of a human voice coming from the hills. There were three people, and as they would not comply with our signs to come down, we landed, and went up to them, taking up with us a swan. Two women ran off, but a man, who had two or three spears in his hand, stayed to receive us, and accepted the swan with rapture. He seemed entirely ignorant of muskets, nor did anything excite his attention or desire except the swan, and the red kerchiefs about our necks. He knew, however, that we came from the sloop, and where it was lying. A little knowledge of the Port Jackson and of the South Sea Island languages was of no use in making ourselves understood by this man; but the quickness with which he comprehended our signs spoke in favour of his intelligence."
The consequences of this interview were most disastrous to the unfortunate Tasmanians: Mr. Flinders' report of the advantages presented by the Derwent induced Captain Collins to found his colony upon the banks of that stream.
As the interview between the dark son of the Derwent and our voyagers, Messrs. Bass and Flinders, was of so pleasing a character, another history of the day from another source may be acceptable to the reader. This is related by Captain Collins, afterwards the first governor of Van Diemen's Land, and founder of Hobart Town. While the account by Flinders was published more than a dozen years after the occurrence, that by the historian of New South Wales was written a year or two after the visit, and the details, collected from the mouth of Mr. Bass, are more circumstantially given.
After speaking of the run of the Norfolk up the beautiful river, he proceeds in these words:—"In their way up, a human voice saluted them from the hills; on which they landed, carrying with them one of several swans which they had just shot. Having nearly reached the summit, two females, with a short covering hanging loose from their shoulders, suddenly appeared at some little distance before them; but, snatching up each a small basket, these scampered off. A man then presented himself, and suffered them to approach him without any signs of fear or distrust. He received the swan joyously, appearing to esteem it a treasure.
"His language was unintelligible to them, as was theirs to him, although they addressed him in several of the dialects of New South Wales, and some few of the most common words of the South Sea Islands. With some difficulty they made him comprehend their wish to see his place of residence. He pointed over the hill, and proceeded onwards; but his pace was slow and wandering, and he often stopped under pretence that he had lost the track, which led them to suspect that his only aim was to amuse and tire them out. Judging, then, that in persisting to follow him they must lose the remaining part of the flood-tide, which was much more valuable to them than the sight of his hut could be, they parted from him in great friendship. The most probable reason of his unwillingness to be their guide, seemed to be his fearing that if he took them to his women their charms might induce them to run off with them—a jealousy very common with the natives of the continent.
"He was a short, slight man, of middle age, with a countenance more expressive of benignity and intelligence, than of the ferocity or stupidity which generally characterised the other Natives; and his features were less flattened, or negro-like, than theirs. His face was blackened, and the top of his head was plastered with red earth. His hair was either naturally short and close, or had been rendered so by burning, and, although short and stiffly curled, they did not think it woolly. He was armed with two spears, very ill-made, of solid wood. No part of their dress attracted his attention, except the red silk handkerchiefs round their necks. Their fire-arms were to them neither objects of curiosity nor fear.
"This was the first man they had spoken with in Van Diemen's Land; and his frank and open deportment led them not only to form a favourable opinion of the dispositions of its inhabitants, but to conjecture that if a country was peopled in the usual numbers, he would not have been the only one they should have met. A circumstance which corroborated this supposition was that in the excursions made by Mr. Bass into the country, having seldom any society but his two dogs, he would have been no great object of dread to a people ignorant of the effects of firearms, and would certainly have been hailed by any one who might have seen him."
Captain Collins, in his general account of Van Diemen's Land, in the appendix to his work on New South Wales, published in London, 1803, adds some observations respecting the people. "This country," he asserts, "is inhabited by men. Their extreme shyness, however, prevented any communication. They (Bass and Flinders) never even got sight of them but once, and then at a great distance. The huts, of which seven or eight were generally found together, were wretchedly contrived; and it appears somewhat strange that in the latitude of 41° want should not have sharpened their ideas to the invention of some more convenient habitation, especially since they have been left by nature without the confined dwelling of a hollow tree, or the more agreeable accommodation of a hole under a rock. A canoe was never met with, and concurring circumstances showed that this convenience was unknown here. Hence, from the little that has been seen of the condition of our own species in this place, it appears to be much inferior in some essential points of convenience to that of the despised inhabitants of the continent."
The most minute and interesting account of the Tasmanians is obtained from the journal of M. Peron, the historian of the French exploring expedition under Commodore Baudin, in the ships, Géographe and Naturaliste, with the corvette Casuarina, in the year 1802.
It was on the 13th of January, 1802, that the voyagers fell in with the Aborigines. The scene is laid at Port Cygnet, near the entrance of D'Entrecasteaux Channel. Two persons were observed running along, expressing astonishment at the strangers; one of these carried a lighted torch in his hand. We turn to the journal:—
"To the signs of friendship which we made, one of them precipitated himself from the top of a rock, rather than descended it, and in the twinkling of an eye was in the midst of us. He was a young man, of from twenty-two to twenty-four years of age, of an apparently strong constitution, having no other defect than a slenderness of legs and arms, which characterises his nation. His physiognomy exhibited neither austerity nor ferocity; his eyes were quick and sparkling, and his looks expressed at once benevolence and surprise. M. Freycinet having embraced him, I did the same. But the air of indifference with which he welcomed this evidence of our interest made it easy to observe that it had no signification for him. (The Frenchmen discovered that kissing was a social mystery to these rude barbarians.) That which appeared to affect him more was the whiteness of our skin. Wishing to assure himself, without doubt, if that colour were the same all over the body, he opened our waistcoats and shirts, and his astonishment was manifested by loud cries of surprise, and above all by extremely quick stamping of the feet.
"Yet our cutter appeared to occupy him more than our persons, and, after having gazed a few moments, he rushed down to the landing-place. There, without disturbing himself about the sailors whom he found there, he seemed quite absorbed in his new observation. The thickness of the ribs and panels, the solidity of its construction, its rudder, its oars, its masts, its sails, he observed with all that silence and that profound attention which are the least equivocal signs of a reflective interest and admiration. In a moment one of the sailors, wishing without doubt to add to his surprise, presented him with a wine bottle filled with the grog which formed a part of the rations of the ship. The brightness of the glass called forth a cry of astonishment from the savage, who took the bottle and examined it for some moments; but soon his curiosity being led again to the vessel, he threw the bottle into the sea, without appearing to have any other intention than to relieve himself of an indifferent object, and afterwards went to his first research. Neither the cry of the sailor, who was troubled at the loss of his bottle of grog, nor the entreaty of one of his comrades to throw himself into the water to catch it, appeared to move him. He made several attempts to push the cutter free, but the cable which held it attached rendering all his efforts powerless, he was constrained to abandon it and return to join us, after having given us the most striking example that we had had of the attention and reflection in savage people."
We have then a passage worthy of Rousseau himself. A family group present themselves:—
"The old man, after having examined both of us with as much surprise and satisfaction as the first, made signs to two women, who had hitherto been unwilling to approach. They hesitated some moments, after which the elder came to us. The younger followed her, more timid and fearful than the first. The one appeared to be forty years old, and large furrows upon the skin of the abdomen announced, not to be mistaken, that she had been the mother of several children. She was absolutely naked, and appeared, like the old man, kind and benevolent. The young woman, of from twenty-six to twenty-eight years, was of a pretty robust constitution; like the preceding, she was entirely naked, with the exception of a kangaroo skin, in which she carried a little girl, whom she still suckled. Her breasts, a little withered already, appeared otherwise pretty well formed, and sufficiently furnished with milk. This young woman, like the elderly man and woman, whom we presumed to be her father and mother, had an interesting physiognomy. Her eyes had expression, and something of the spirituel which surprised us, and which since then we have never found in any other female of that nation. She appeared, also, to cherish her child much; and her care for her had that affectionate and gentle character which is exhibited among all races as the particular attribute of maternal tenderness."
Another family group excited the most romantic ravings of our French explorers. These consisted of a father and mother, a young man, a little boy about five years old, a girl of younger years, and a belle sauvage of sixteen or seventeen. Upon making acquaintance with this distinguished party, Peron, like a true man of gallantry, drew off his glove, while bowing to the beauty, preparatory to his offering the salutation of refined society. The fair one of the forest was struck with horror and alarm at the facility with which her admirer apparently peeled off his skin, and was not easily relieved of her fears for his safety. The old man, in primitive simplicity, invited the visitors to his evening meal of cockles and mussels. Peron sang, for his supper, the Marseillaise Hymn. The effect he describes: "The young man tore his hair, scratched his head with both hands, agitated himself in a hundred different ways, and repeatedly iterated his approving clamour." Other and more tender airs followed, which doubtless touched the tender chords of the young lady. Let us hear his tale of this gentle one:—
"The young girl whom I have noticed made herself more and more conspicuous every instant, by the softness of her looks, and their affectionate and sparkling expression. Ourâ Ourâ, like her parents, was perfectly naked, and appeared little to suspect that one should find in that absolute nudity anything immodest or indecent. Of a weaker constitution than her little brother and sister, she was more lively and impassioned than they. M. Freycinet, who seated himself beside her, appeared to be more particularly the object of her agreeable attentions, and the least experienced eye might have been able, in the look of this innocent child of nature, to distinguish that delicate shadow which gives to simple playfulness a more serious and reflective character. Coquetry appeared to be called forth to the support of natural attractions. Ourâ Ourâ, made us know for the first time the nature of the rouge of these regions, and the details of its application. After having put some charcoal in my hands, she crushed it, and reduced it to very fine powder; then keeping this dust in the left hand, she took some with the right, and rubbing at first the forehead, then the two cheeks, in an instant was frightfully black: that which above all appeared singular to us was the complacency with which the young girl looked at us after the operation, and the air of confidence which this new ornament had spread upon her features. Thus, then, the sentiment of coquetry, the taste for ornament, are wants, so to speak, innate in the heart of woman."
Their interest in the children was creditable to the good feelings of the Frenchmen. The little ones pleased them, and led to the philosophical remark, that "uniting our particular observations to those of the most celebrated travellers, we deduced therefrom the important consequence, that the character of the woman and the child is very much independent of that of the man, of the influence of climate, the perfectioning of social order, and the empire of physical wants."
M. Peron then proceeds to describe a little bit of vanity on the other side. "Ourâ Ourâ, carried a reed bag, of an elegant and singular construction, which I much desired to obtain. As this young girl evidenced for me some more amicable distinctions, I ventured to ask for her little bag. Immediately, and without hesitation, she put it into my hand, accompanying the present with an obliging smile and some affectionate phrases, which I regretted not being able to understand." The gallant gave her a handkerchief and a tomahawk in return; but, upon M. Breton bestowing a long red feather, "she leaped for joy. She called her father and her brothers. She cried, she laughed; in a word, she seemed intoxicated with pleasure and happiness."
But the dearest friends must part. The gentlemen prepared for the loneliness of shipboard, grieving to resign the delights of Arcadian simplicity, and the pure pleasures of aboriginal innocence. Yet our natives were too polite to permit their guests to depart unattended. The civilities of ordinary civilization were not wanting.
"M. Freycinet gave his arm to Ourâ Ourâ; the old man was my mate. Our way lay amidst briars and underwood, and our poor savages, being wholly naked, suffered greatly. Ourâ Ourâ, in particular, was sadly scratched. But heedless of this, she boldly made her way through the thicket, chattering with Freycinet, and vexed at her inability to make herself understood; at the same time accompanying her discourse with sportive wiles and smiles, so gracious and expressive, that the most finished coquetry could not have rendered them more so."
How affecting must have been the parting! The Frenchmen entered their boats in profound despondency. The feeling was reciprocated; for "the Natives manifested their sorrow in the most affecting manner." The kind naturalist adds, "Our good Diemenese did not leave us for an instant; and when we pushed off, their grief showed itself in the most touching manner. They made signs to return to see them." They even lighted a large fire upon a neighbouring hill, that, when the winds had driven the vessel miles away, the column of smoke might indicate a spot so sacred to peace and friendship. No wonder that poor Peron, thoroughly smitten, closes that day's journal with these words: "The whole of what I have related is minutely exact; and assuredly it were difficult to resist the soft emotion which similar incidents inspire."
Now, alas! truth demands that we reverse the shield. A boat's crew landed on Bruni Island. On this occasion they encountered no Ourâ Ourâ. A fine athletic fellow had been showing off his powers, when a French midshipman engaged him in a wrestling match, and with superior science threw him. The sulky rascal got up, and threw a spear at the victor. Another time Messrs. Petit, Leschenault, and Hamelin went ashore at Bruni. Petit, an artist, began taking likenesses of the Natives present. This liberty was resented by one man, who rushed forward to seize the portraits, which were saved from the Goth with difficulty. Blows were struck on both sides, and a shower of stones closed the entente cordiale. The practical Leschenault has left us this expression of his opinion: "I am surprised to hear persons of sense still affirm that man in a natural state is not of a bad disposition, but worthy of confidence." Had Peron received a stone at his head, instead of a basket from pretty Ourâ, his views might have approximated to those of his brother naturalist.
Let us hear another tale from M. Peron. While wandering among the Bush flowers of Tasmania, and admiring the sylvan charms of that Isle of Beauty, he encountered a company of Diana's forest maidens, to whom, in the distance, the French officers waved their handkerchiefs."At these demonstrations of friendship the troop hesitated an instant, then stopped, and resolved to wait for us. It was then that we recognised that we had the company of women; there was not a male individual with them. We were disposed to join them nearer, when one of the oldest among them,
MOTHER AND CHILD.
"All the women, with the exception of kangaroo skins which some of them carried upon their shoulders, were perfectly naked; but, without appearing to think anything of their nudity, they so varied their attitudes and their postures, that it would be difficult to describe the bizarre and the picturesque effects presented to us by that meeting. Their skin, black and disgusting with the fat of seals; their hair, short, crisp, black and dirty, reddened in some with the dust of ochre; their figures, all bedaubed with charcoal; their forms, generally thin and faded; their breasts, long and pendant—in a word, all the details of their physical constitution were repulsive. We must always exempt from this general tableau two or three young girls of from fifteen to sixteen years, in whom we distinguished forms agreeable enough, contours sufficiently graceful, and in whom the breast was firm and well placed, although the nipple was a little too large and too long. These young girls had also something in the expression of their features the most ingenuous, the most affectionate, and the most gentle, as if the better qualities of the soul could exist even in the midst of the savage hordes of the human species, the more particular gift of youth, of grace, and of beauty.
"Among the more aged females, some had a gross and ignoble figure; others, much fewer in number, had a fierce and sombre look; but, in general, one remarked in all I know not what of inquietude and depression, which misfortune and slavery imprint on the features of all beings who bear the yoke. Almost all were covered with scars, sad fruits of ill-treatment from their ferocious husbands. One only, in the midst of all her companions, had preserved a dignified aspect, with much enjoyment and joviality; it was she who had imposed the conditions of which I have spoken before. After M. Bellefin had ended his song, she began to mimic with her gestures and her tone of voice in a very original and pleasant manner, which much diverted her companions. Then she began to sing herself in so rapid a way, that it would be difficult to apply such music to the ordinary principles of our own. Their song, nevertheless, is here in accordance with their language, for such is the volubility of speech in these people, that it is impossible, as we shall elsewhere show, to distinguish any precise sound in their pronunciation: it is a sort of trilling sentiment, for which we cannot find any terms of comparison or analogy in our European languages.
"Excited, so to speak, by her own singing, which we had not failed to applaud with warmth, and wishing, without doubt, to deserve our suffrages on other accounts, our jovial Diemenese commenced to execute various dance movements, some of which would have been regarded as excessively indecent, if that state of human society were not foreign to all that delicacy of sentiment and action which is for us but a fortunate product of the perfection of social order.
"Whilst all this passed, I employed myself accurately to collect and note the details that were presented, and which I now describe. It was remarked, doubtless, by the same woman who was dancing; for hardly had she finished her dance, than she approached me with an obliging air, took from a reed bag, similar to that I have described elsewhere, some charcoal which she found there, crushed it in her hand, and began to lay on me a plaster of the rouge of those regions. I willingly lent myself to this obliging caprice. M. Heirisson had the same complacency, and received a similar mask. We appeared to be then a great object of admiration to these women; they seemed to regard us with a sweet satisfaction, and to felicitate us upon the new adornments which we had just acquired."
(Péron's Grou Agara.)
(Péron's Arra Maida.)
"The deference which we paid to these women, and perhaps also the new charms which we owed to their attentions, seemed to add to their kindness, to their confidence in us, but nothing could induce them, however, to allow themselves to be approached nearer. The least movement which we made, or appeared to make, to pass the prescribed line, caused them to spring up from their heels, and take to flight. Any longer to enjoy their presence, we were constrained to conform ourselves entirely to their wishes. After having lavished upon them presents and caresses, we considered it proper to retake our route toward the anchorage, and our Diemenese appearing to have the intention of walking the same way as ourselves, the two companies left. But we were again obliged to come to terms with these inexorable women, who condemned us to follow the shore, while they walked upon the sand-hills parallel to it."
The gentlemen were doubtless not used to such prudery in the salons of Paris. But our next extract exhibits a more prosaic sequel to this romantic adventure:
"As they were returning from fishing when we perceived them, they were laden with large crabs, lobsters, and different shell-fish grilled upon ashes, which they carried in baskets of reed. These baskets were tied round in front by a circle of cord, and hung behind the back; some of these were very heavy, and we very sincerely pitied these poor women, carrying such burdens.
"Our journey all the while was not less gay than our interview, and from the top of the sand-hills they sent us many pleasantries, many playful compliments, to which we endeavoured to reply as expressively as it was possible. Without doubt we should have continued for a much longer time these innocent amusements, when all at once one of the women uttered a great cry, and all the others repeated it with fright. They had discovered our landing-place and our comrades. We sought to calm their excitement, assuring them that so far from experiencing any injury from our friends, they were going to receive new gifts. All was in vain, and already the troop were burying themselves in the forest, when the same woman who, almost alone, had made our interview so agreeable, seemed to change her mind. At her voice there was a moment of hesitation; but not being able, as it appeared to us, to induce them to follow her, she threw herself alone from the top of the sand-hill, and walking upon the shore some distance before us with much confidence, and even with a sort of pride, she seemed to deride the timidity of her companions. The others, in their turn, appeared ashamed of their weakness; little by little their courage increased, until at length they decided to return to the beach. Accompanied by this numerous and singular escort, we arrived at the place of embarkation, near which, by an accident no one could foresee, all the husbands of these poor women had been gathered together for some time." What followed?
"In spite of the least equivocal evidence of the benevolence and generosity of our countrymen, they exhibited a restless and sombre physiognomy, and their look was ferocious and threatening, and in their attitude we distinguished a constraint, malevolence, and perfidy, which they sought to dissemble in vain. At this inauspicious meeting, all the women who followed us appeared much concerned. Their furious husbands cast upon them glances of anger and rage, which were not likely to comfort them. After having laid the products of their fishing at the feet of these men, who partook of them immediately, without offering them any, they retired behind their husbands, and seated themselves upon the other side of a large sand-hill, and there, during the rest of our interview, these unfortunate creatures dared neither raise their eyes, nor speak, nor smile."
After this unfortunate termination of a happy meeting, our voyagers took their departure. But the effect of the visit upon the susceptible nature of the naturalist is recognised in the closing words of his journal:—
"Thus ended our interview with the inhabitants of Diemen's Land. All the descriptions which I have given are of the most rigorous exactitude, and without doubt it would hare been difficult to deny oneself the sweet emotions which similar circumstances ought to inspire. This gentle confidence of the people in us, these affectionate evidences of benevolence which they never ceased to manifest toward us, the sincerity of their demonstrations, the frankness of their manners, the touching ingenuousness of their caresses, all concurred to excite within us sentiments of the tenderest interest. The intimate union of the different individuals of a family, the sort of patriarchal life of which we had been spectators, had strongly moved us. I saw with an inexpressible pleasure the realization of those brilliant descriptions of the happiness and simplicity of the state of nature of which I had so many times in reading felt the seductive charm."
Such were the sentiments entertained of a people almost universally regarded by English colonists, a few years later, as tigers and demons, whose destruction would be a deed of merit, as well as an act of necessity. Smile as we may at the simplicity of Peron, had our faith in the poor creatures been more like that of the kind-hearted Frenchman, the reader might have been spared the story of the crimes and horrors of the "Black War," and the mournful record of "The Last of the Tasmanians."