The Last of the Tasmanians/Chapter 10
The rough sealers of the stormy Bass's Straits would form an interesting chapter in the early history of the colonies, apart from their association with the Aborigines of Van Diemen's Land, and the part they took in the Black War.
The primitive Straitsmen were runaway convicts, of a seafaring turn. On shore they would have been Bushrangers, and defied the law. On the waters, at the onset, these bold spirits, in their little whale-boats, waylaid vessels, and levied black-mail upon the cargo. Occasionally they hovered near some coast settlement, and dashed upon a solitary settler for supplies. They seemed the veritable descendants of the ancient sea-kings. But though the latter were honoured in their day as heroes, and are respected for their poetical exploits by our living men of song, the others earned a disreputable character, and were chased as piratical vagabonds.
Either the force of circumstances, or the development of latent honesty, led them to change their mode of life, and confine their operations to more legitimate pursuits. The growth of commerce converted them into producers. The love of roving, the restless energy, the dislike of restraint, the thirst for independence, and a sort of morbid passion for the wild solitudes of nature, were alike gratified in their selection of employment. The granite islands which form a kind of Giant's Causeway from Victoria to Tasmania, afforded them at once a home and a field of labour. In sheltered nooks they raised a cabin, enclosed a garden plot, obtained some goats, and sometimes had no other companion than man's own faithful friend—a dog. But they lacked the contemplative enjoyment of a Robinson Crusoe, and sought pleasure in the screaming of wild birds, the roar of billows, and great muscular exertion in the midst of danger. Armed with a rude lance or the mighty club, they rowed to a rock whereon the seals were basking in the sun, and furiously attacked the huge blubbery masses; or they pursued the monsters into their caverned retreats, and fought like knights-errant of olden chivalry. The tripod was raised on the blazing fire, the fatty carcases were melted in the pot, the oil was poured into the barrel, and home came the man toiling with the oar on a tempestuous sea, with his dearly-purchased pleasure.
Success did not always reward their efforts. Many a mile was rowed, and no prey seen. Often would their natural foe, the raging waters, defy their return, imprison them on a sandy strand, unsheltered and unprovisioned, until, starved into resolution, they put off into the surge, and were buried in the sea. At times, imprudent from courage, they were seized by the teeth of the seal, or crushed beneath the ponderous body of the animal. The boat, driven from its moorings by the tempest, might leave the mariner to perish alone on the ocean-girt rock. Even when associated with others, the violence so characteristic of the race would lead to hasty quarrel, and sudden, fatal retribution. Lawless themselves, bound by no ties but convenience and self-interest, conflicts were not uncommon, and the community sought no protection but their own strong arms, their own swift and certain revenge.
Captain Flinders applauded the enterprise and daring of the sealers, as qualities his own nature could well appreciate. But their wild energy led them into such crimes as to call forth the denunciations of Government, and the horror of tranquil citizens. Fifty years ago a colonial paper exclaims: "Are then these men, thus strangers to religion, strangers to principle, among whom rapine of every kind, and even murder, is not unfrequent—are they to be suffered thus to debase human nature?" Again and again were the authorities entreated to disallow any boats in the Straits, and to check, under the cover of sealing, the perpetration of infamous deeds.
M. Peron met with a party on King's Island in 1802. Six of them had been thirteen months on that inhospitable coast, and were waiting for a vessel to convey their skins to port Their rude generosity and attention were admired by the Frenchmen.
But so long as their crimes were confined to themselves, and they only were plagued by their own boisterous passions, they would not have been introduced to the reader of these pages. But their cruelty to the Aborigines, their intercourse with the Tasmanian gins, and their connexion with the Isle of Exile, force them into this history. The gratification of lustful impulses, the satisfaction of savage instincts, and the desire of gain in the abduction of slaves, brought them to the pursuit of the weaker sex, and the destruction of the stronger. The unfortunate Natives, when flying from the stern Bushmen of the interior, found themselves confronted by the still more cruel coasters; like the miserable flying-fish, which are chased by the monster of the deep into the voracious jaws of the bird of prey.
Their ravages were as extensive as they were remorseless. Some carried on their operations beyond the limits of civilization, for the security of their persons, and for the greater harvest of their gains. But wherever they roamed, their Sabine propensities exposed them alike to the reproach of Christians and the revenge of barbarians. Even as far as the western limit of the continent of New Holland was their name a terror. Major Lockyer, being sent from Sydney, in 1827, to attempt a convict settlement at King George's Sound, thus accounts for some outrages of the Blacks:—
"It is but too certain that they were driven to it by acts of cruelty committed on them by some gang or gangs of sealers, who have lately visited this place. The fact of these miscreants having left four Natives on Michaelmas Island, who must have inevitably perished if they had not been taken off by the boat sent by the Amity, that brought them to this harbour, when one of them exhibited three deep scars on his neck and back that had been inflicted by some sharp instrument, sufficiently proves that they have suffered injuries from white men; and it is not to be wondered at that they should, as people in a state of nature, seek revenge."
Explorers have lost their lives through the awakened hostility of wild tribes. The death of the excellent Captain Barker, at the mouth of the Murray in 1836, excited much surprise at the time, from the apparent absence of motive in the act. But Mr. Windsor Earle declares that he was "murdered on the south coast of Australia, by a party of runaway convicts from Van Diemen's Land, who resided on an island near the coast, and who were in the habit of visiting the mainland for the purpose of carrying off the native women, and of shooting the men who endeavoured to defend them." This refers to the iniquitous band of Kangaroo Island. There was a settlement of forty persons, of both colours and sexes, indulging in vices to an extent only limited by their passions and means. Major Lockyer may well report: "At Kangaroo Island a dreadful scene of villany is going on, where, to use their own words, 'there are a great many deaths.'" He describes them as a regular set of pirates, traversing from island to island along the coast, from Rottnest Island, Swan River, to Bass's Strait, but having their chief den in Kangaroo Island. When the sealing season was over, the party retired to a sheltered valley of the interior to their gardens and fields, surrounded by a landscape of loveliness, and enjoying a climate of almost unequalled attractiveness.
There is an amusing tale given in an early number of the Adelaide Miscellany relating to one of these Kangaroo Island sealers, who removed with his worldly goods to Flinders Island.
"A native of the Emerald Isle, named Brien, made a descent on the mainland and carried off a native female to share with him the sway of Flinders Island; for of that island he had constituted himself sole monarch. The woman had with her a son, then about twelve months old. Brien was, according to custom, about to kill the boy; but the entreaties of the mother on this occasion prevailed, and he said, 'As he had stolen the dam he would keep the cub.' In a, few years, Bill (for that was the name conferred on him by his abducer) became very useful to Brien. He could handle an oar, help to capture a seal, discharge a rifle with precision, and execute any manual labour with the efficiency of a European youth. His habits became those of his teacher, and the few ideas he managed to acquire were derived from the same source, In the occasional absence of the old sealer, he was not a bad hand at bartering skins and melons for garments, tobacco, or spirits, with the crew of some whale ship cruising in the neighbourhood. His own language he never knew, after a few years he forgot it; but instead, he imbibed the rich brogue of old Brien. His first interview with his own countrymen amused me excessively. I introduced him as a brother native, but they denied the soft impeachment. I asked, 'Is he then a white man?' To which they replied, in a patois consisting of about equal portions of European and native, 'Why not, since be lives with you, speaks your tongue, wears your dress, and uses your implements?' Then with scornful expressions of countenance and angry intonation, they summed up all by declaring that he was neither a white man nor a black man, and added, in pure English, 'He is no good.' Bill, on the other hand, being asked, after the interview, what he thought of his countrymen, replied, 'Oh! they are dirty brutes;' and added, 'I don't like Black fellows, they are a dirty, lazy set.' "
The occupation of sealers and their aboriginal companions would lead one to the natural history of the seal, chased by the men, and the mutton-bird, caught by the women.
The seal of the Straits early excited the acquisitiveness of the new settlers of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land. Mr. Flinders, when in those waters in 1798, describes the creatures as "thousands of timid animals." Of his disturbance of one community, near the Furneaux group, he thus speaks: "Those who have seen a farmyard, well stocked with pigs, calves, sheep, oxen, and with two or three litters of puppies, with their mothers, in it, may form a good idea of the confused noise of the seals at Cove Point. The sailors killed as many of these harmless, and not unamiable creatures, as they were able to skin during the time necessary for me to take the requisite angles; and we then left the poor affrighted multitude to recover from the effects of our inauspicious visit." It is somewhat singular that the discoverer, so to speak, of the Straits' seals, and the discoverer of Flinders Island, should have been thus indirectly associated with the extinction of the furred animal and the dark-skinned man.
Mr. Flinders also led the sealers to Kangaroo Island. When he discovered the place in 1801, he found the kangaroos and seals had passed so undisturbed an existence in this paradise of theirs, that, upon the approach of the sailors, the seals gazed upon them with complacency, from the probable likeness to the kangaroo, and the hopping animal confronted them without fear, from the supposed resemblance they bore to the crawling seal. Both parties were, unfortunately, soon made aware of the difference, and of the termination of their golden age, by the advent of a cruel iron one.
Captain Collins, who had the story of the Straits discovery from Mr. Bass, tells us: "The males, who possessed a rock to themselves, where they sat, surrounded by their numerous wives and progeny, on his (Bass) drawing near them, hobbled up with a menacing roar, and fairly commenced the attack, while the wives seemed to rest their security upon the superior courage and address of their lords; for, instead of retreating into the water in the utmost consternation, they only raised themselves upon their fore fins, as if ready for a march, keeping their eyes upon the males, and watching the movements of the enemy."
M. Peron, the naturalist to the French expedition of 1802, was much interested in the seal of Bass's Straits. He speaks of sea elephants there thirty feet in length, and more than half that extent in girth. They were of a greyish blue colour. He sympathised with them, in his remark, "The English have invaded these long-protected retreats. They have their organized massacres throughout." The sealers, with their lances fifteen feet in length, seized the time when the animal raised its left fore fin, and plunged the weapon to the heart "As soon," says the Frenchman, "as they see themselves attacked, they seek to fly. If their retreat is cut off, they are violently agitated; their looks carry the expression of despair; they shed tears. I have myself seen one of these young females shed them abundantly, whilst one of our sailors, a cruel, wicked man, amused himself, every time she opened her mouth, with striking her teeth with the thick end of one of the boat-hooks: this poor animal inspired pity: all its mouth was bloody, and tears ran from its eyes."
From the observing M. Peron and others, the following particulars of this interesting marine creature are obtained. The dam is led by instinct, toward the end of her term of nine months, to the distant shore; that is, in November and December. After giving birth, she is said to have little or no food during the period of lactation, which lasts seven or eight weeks. Should one seek to desert her young one for a plunge into the sea, she is immediately driven backward by the males, with cries, with thrusts, and even with the teeth. The young grow rapidly, increasing in eight days from seventy to one hundred pounds. The first teeth appear in a fortnight. After weaning, the females spend a month in freedom, engaged in active sport to renew exhausted nature. At the end of that month they return to land for the purpose of reproduction. Then comes the great struggle—the rivalry of love. Fully appreciating the sentiment of "None but the brave deserve the fair," the contest for possession commences. It is a bloody and terrific tournament, the females gathering in a trembling group to watch the issue of the combat that is to decide their fate. The rocks are dyed with blood, and strewn with slain. The victors approach the weaker sex, triumphantly make their selection, and adopt their partners for the season.
A rich harvest rewarded the early sealers. Of the two species, the black is preferred for its finer and longer fur, the skin fetching double the price. Captain Flinders speaks of the crew of the Nautilus getting 9,000 skins in a very short time. Captain Fawthrop informed me that he knew a party of 35 men collect 36,000 skins in eighteen months. Then the skins sold at the rate of eight to a dozen for a gallon of rum, valued at five shillings. The oil in the early times fetched six shillings a gallon. The profit of the merchants was enormous by exportation. It was an uncertain fishery. A large number of seals having been observed on Macquarie Island, a strong party was fitted out at Sydney for their capture. Arriving at evening, the sealers declared there were 50,000 of them; but in the morning not one was to be seen. From a perusal of old Sydney Gazettes, the following is taken:—The schooner Endeavour, from March 9, 1803, to May 28, 1804, got 9,514 skins and 200 gallons of seal oil. The Surprise, from March 11 to September 15, 1803, 15,480 skins and 610 gallons; the Governor King, 3,288 skins. In September 1803 a vessel brought to Sydney 11,000 skins.
The numbers rapidly diminished in the Straits owing to the fishery being improperly conducted. Legislation should have restricted the period of the chase; as the slaughter of mothers during the time of suckling caused the death of the young ones. It is related that, at the South Shetland Islands, off the Horn, 300,000 seals were captured in two years, and that 100,000 young were supposed to have died from want of maternal support. They are now nearly extinct there. Even in 1826, the Hobart Town Gazette urged Government to protect the breeding season. In March of that year it is written, "Young Scott, who has been an inhabitant of the Straits, and has cohabited with a black woman, by whom he has three children, declares that he has known 300 pups to have perished on one bank, owing to the premature desertion of the mothers, driven away by unseasonable disturbance of the sealers."
The animals were persistently followed. When retreating to caverns, they were frightened out by explosions of powder, to meet the lance or the club. The adventurers would descend cliffs and caves by ropes to reach their victims. It is no wonder then that they became so soon extinct on the Australian and Tasmanian shores. We cannot say of the Straits, with Sir Walter Scott—
Will long pursue the minstrel's bark."
The Mutton-bird, the sorrow of the aboriginal captive slave of the sealer, is so called from its supposed taste. It is the sooty petrel of naturalists. Web-footed, it skims, with its long wings, over the ocean for its food, the floating spawn, or a green slimy substance. This gelatinous material it gathers from the waves to feed its young. Captain Flinders was so struck with one vast cloud of these birds, that he entered upon a calculation of their numbers, and estimated them approximately at one hundred millions!! I Smaller than a duck, but somewhat larger than a pigeon, it accumulates fat to an enormous extent, and furnishes by pressure alone a considerable amount of oil.
The time of incubation is toward the end of the year. The female comes to land, burrows in the sand of the shore, or the decomposed granite of the islands, often to the depth of four feet, and deposits its eggs. These were diligently procured by the black women, and carried by the sealers to Launceston and other markets. The egg is nearly the size of that laid by a goose, with the taste of a raw onion about it. The male bird would sit in the hole by day and the female by night. When the young appeared, the gins permitted them to get in good condition, and then captured them. This was done by stopping up the entrance, and then digging down to the birds with a stick. Thrusting the arm in the hole was not always safe, as snakes often took shelter there. The capture made, the burrow was left in order, that the next season might bring an occupant.King Walter gave me an account of their Straits' hunting for these birds. He said they ate well if kept for a day in brine, or if broiled after smoking them. They were, after preparation, put into casks containing each some three or four hundred birds.
The feathers were plucked and dried, being used for beds, and other purposes. In warm weather the organ of scent is rather disturbed, as I have experienced, when one rests upon a bed of ill-prepared mutton-bird feathers. It would take about five-and-twenty birds to produce a pound of feathers, which used to sell for sixpence.
The sealers' women had an ingenious mode of catching the birds to procure their feathers. They selected the very early morning, when the birds that had stayed on the island by night were not yet stirring. Having previously got a large pit made, with a brush fence on one side, they would rouse the birds from their slumbers, and drive them, like a flock of sheep, toward the hole; as, with their long wings, the creatures could not take flight without a fall first, so as to expand their pinions. On coming to the edge of the pit, the birds would readily find their wings, but would strike against the obstructing fence, fall downward, and be rapidly covered by the advancing throng. At their leisure, the gins would then descend, seize, and pluck their prize.
A narrative is given by a person voyaging to Sydney in 1816, which illustrates the perils of the craft. In the Straits a boat was overtaken containing a sealing party, evidently in distress. The captain lowered a boat, and heard what they had to say. They had stayed so long on one of the islands as to be out of provisions. In making their way to port, the weather was tempestuous and their progress slow. Exhausted by hunger, having nothing but seal-skins to devour, they were quite unable even to trim the sail to the changing wind. Supplying their immediate necessities, the English skipper would willingly have taken them in tow; but being only a day's run from the harbour, they declined the offer. The ship stayed six months at Sydney, but nothing was ever heard of the struggling crew, who were supposed to have perished in the gale.
A sealer left on a reef between Gape Grim and King's Island to collect skins was not called for in time; impelled by want he constructed a boat of seal-skins, and managed to get to the island. Another, anxious to get to a cave in a rock, and unprovided with a boat, fastened some skins together, and floated over with the tide. He succeeded in killing a number of fat cubs, when a huge mother seal returned. Raging at a cry of her young one, she attacked the rude craft, bit a hole in it, and obliged the terrified man to swim for his life. An old sealer told me of a mate of his who had been landed on a rock with a cave in it. The little vessel could not return in time, and the man perished with thirst. His body was discovered in the cave, encrusted with salt from the droppings of water from the roof.
The life of the sealer at home has been variously estimated. That the animal nature was gratified thereby cannot be denied. Most of the sealers continued such a life to the end of their days. Unable to secure their own civilized countrywomen, they were compelled to adopt the society of savages. Occasionally their women were procured by special treaty and judicious purchase. The presentation of European luxuries would obtain the transfer of a partner, whose consent was neither solicited nor expected. In most cases, however, it cost less, and saved troublesome negotiation, to steal the matron or the maid. This might be done after the approved classical mode of inviting the tribe to a festival, And then proceeding to the abduction of the moveable property of their guests; or a stealthy march inland would lead to the discovery and capture of a black charmer.
The poor creatures were literally the slaves of the sealers. They were no "Lights of the Harem," reposing on soft cushions of happy indolence, beguiling the leisure hours of their guardian lords. They were removed to the rocky islets of the Straits, and made to till the land, collect sea-birds and feathers, hunt after and preserve the skins of the wallaby, pick up the nautilus shell driven on the sands by the storm, and take their turn at the oar.
That the connexion was not absolute misery may be believed, and that the course of existence was relieved by some sunny scenes, if shaded by darker memories. The men had doubtless a rough humour of their own, which would be expressed in the peculiar gibberish of the pair; and few men, however abandoned, are continually cruel. It is hard to credit that they would habitually ill-treat their paramours, or subject the mothers of their children to continued neglect. The treatment of the women was doubtless subject to the moral status of their masters, and alleviated by their possession of offspring. These pledges of union, if not of affection, would tend to bridge over, so to speak, the social chasm between the parents. As the question of Half-castes is treated of elsewhere, it is sufficient to state here that family attractions might well secure the gins' continued residence with the sealer, even when brutalities and want of congeniality of ideas would have driven them to attempt an escape from slavery.
The reader may form a more definite notion of their condition by the presentation of the two features of the case. There are not wanting those who had a good word for the sealer.
All were not runaway convicts; though, perhaps, all were of a type belonging to no high order of civilization. Even those who had in early age been notorious for infamies, might with advancing years have sown wild oats, and become perhaps moral in degree. I have heard of some instances of men holding family prayer with their half-caste children, and of others who obtained a Bible, and instructed the young in their duties. The mother, under such circumstances, would, at least, be comfortable. The Bishop of Tasmania found more than one instance of healthy moral progress in the Straits.
Captain Fawthrop, an ancient colonial mariner, informed me that the aboriginal halves had no great objection to the life, and in many cases much preferred it and its comforts to the forest rule. He knew of men permitting their gins to go with a boat on a visit to their native tribe, and carry presents to friends at home, yet always calculating upon their prompt return. Mr. Godwin, in 1823, ventures upon an explanation why they should even prefer the island home. He speaks as a witness: "They say they find their situation greatly improved by so connecting themselves with the sealing gangs, for their native husbands make them carry all the lumber, and perform all kinds of hard work. They have always proved faithful and affectionate to their new husbands, and seem extremely jealous of a rival."
The last authority takes a strong view of the case. Poor things! though "jealous of a rival," they had to submit to the indignity, for some men had four such helpmeets, and two and three were by no means uncommon.The chivalrous admirer of half-castes, Lieutenant Jeffreys, is anxious to believe the best of the union. He pathetically relates something about an ode sung, to a wild and sorrowful cadence, by one of the stolen brides of the sea, as if appealing to God for His protective power on behalf of an absent cruiser.
Captain Stokes, while condemning cruelty in some men, is ready to acknowledge a better feature when it came before him. He met with two women on King's Island, clothed in greatcoats of kangaroo skins, who "seemed quite contented with their condition;" though he affords a sure clue to the motive, in adding, "their offspring appeared sharp and intelligent." Both wives worked the boat for their common lord. He has quite a sailor conception of one scene, when referring to the purchase of three gins by the gift of three fat seals to the tribe near St George's Rocks.
"Man," he affirms, "was never born to be satisfied with his own society; and the Straitsmen, of course, found beauties suitable to their taste in the natives of the shores of Bass's Strait. The sealers took their new-bought sweethearts to an island in Banks' Strait, and there left them to go on another sealing excursion. Returning one day, they were surprised to find their huts well supplied with wallaby by the native women. Interest cemented a love that might otherwise have been temporary. Visions of fortunes accumulated by the sale of wallaby skins flashed across the minds of the sealers; who, however, to their credit be it spoken, generally treated their savage spouses with anything but unkindness."
The history of old Munro, the "King of the Sealers," is a favourable one for the times. For a quarter of a century he lived on Preservation Island, near the main, and in Banks' Strait; it was so called from the preservation of a crew there in a shipwreck. There he held sway over his wild neighbours, who were accustomed to go to the "Governor of the Straits," and refer to his judgment and decision their small subjects of litigation; although an Old Hand declared to me that the secret of his superiority lay less in the strength of his intellect and the astuteness of his counsels, than upon the use of "a lot of crack-jaw dictionary words and wise looks." There he had at one time three female Tasmanians and a half-caste family. This patriarchal group were much esteemed by the sealers, and acknowledged with respect by some of higher pretensions. Yet of this very man, the Quakers, Messrs. Backhouse and Walker, have not a favourable report to make. After talking with Munro about his wives, Jumbo and three others, they sought to convince him and a mate of the impropriety of their conduct. But the conclusion of the conference is thus told:—
"From the admission of these men, we learned that their reasons for not choosing to marry the women with whom they cohabit is, that, in the event of leaving the Straits, they would feel them an encumbrance; hence unequivocally intimating that they hold themselves bound to these poor women by no other ties than those of convenience or caprice."
The darker side of the picture came before the public at the close of the Black War, when arrangements were being made to exile the Aborigines to an island in the Straits, and when Mr. Robinson, armed with the Governor's authority, sailed among the islands for investigation of sealers' doings, and the rescue of the native women from their captivity. Still other evidence than that of the officers of Flinders Island tends to affix a stigma upon the name of "sealer."
The earlier the period the more disgraceful the stories. Thus, we hear of wretches who boasted of shooting their women. A poor creature was being beaten when, by struggling, she released herself from her tormentor, and fled. The fellow coolly took up his gun and shot her. Being afterwards asked why he beat her in the first instance, he simply replied, "Because she wouldn't clean the mutton-birds."
In 1826 the Hobart Town Gazette claims, in relation to the Straits, "How truly appalling to the contemplative mind was the renewed and alarming accounts of those miserable hordes, compared with whose conduct we consider the ignorant and wild natives of the mountains of Van Diemen's Land innocent and happy!"
We have Mr. Robinson's authority for the statement that a wretched man, named Harrington, had stolen a dozen women and placed them on different islands to work for him. Upon finding insufficient labour done, he would, upon his return, tie them to trees for twenty-four hours in succession, flogging them from time to time. He has been known to kill them in cool blood when stubborn to his will. Captain Stokes tells us of a brutal sealer who volunteered a passage of his autobiography:—"He confessed," says the Captain, "that he kept the poor creature chained up like a wild beast, and whenever he wanted her to do anything, applied a burning stick, a firebrand from the hearth, to her skin."
Lieut. Darling gives them no good character, saying, "As to the sealers themselves, they are, with very few exceptions, a drunken, lying, lazy, and lawless lot." As to the effect of their intercourse with the women, he assured the Governor that these poor Natives, "instead of being in any degree civilized or enlightened by the sealers, rather became corrupted and depraved. They were made to dance naked, and encouraged in many of their savage propensities; and, by being united to them by marriage, they would be left entirely in the power of these men, and be for ever shut out from the chance of civilization." In his official letter, May 20th, 1882, dated "Flinders Island," he says: "I regret to say that I have every reason to believe that the reports respecting the sealers are, in most cases, but too true. There are several women here who have lived with them for years, and yet there is not one, though I have frequently questioned them upon the subject, who wishes to go back again. On the contrary, they express abhorrence at the thought, and have frequently told me that the sealers are in the habit of beating them severely, and otherwise ill-treating them." He gave an account of a man named Wolley, who was married to a half-caste, but who cohabited with a Black called Boatswain. Upon Mr. Darling's visit to the island, the Aborigine left and went off to Flinders. She had once been the wife of a chief, and had great force of character. She told him the reason of the hesitancy of some women to leave the sealers, and he wrote to Colonel Arthur: "I learned from her that many other women were anxious to join their friends and relations (at Flinders), but that the sealers were constantly telling them that if they came here they would starve, they would get no tobacco, no biscuit; in fact, they would be miserable." Curiously enough, however, old Sergeant Whyte wrote from Flinders: "I had no reason to believe that these women had received any ill-treatment from the sealers, on account of their being so anxious to return."
When the Government craft, belonging to Flinders Island, was lying off Circular Head, on the northern side of the island, a sealer's boat came off to it. In the stern was seated a young Aborigine of an interesting appearance, of mild features, but with a brow clouded by sadness. Neatly dressed, she was evidently better treated than most of her class; but the low tones in which she spoke, and the furtive glances she threw at the sealers, sufficiently indicated the terror under which she lived. A Black fellow from the ship began conversing with her, and urged her to fly from the Whites, and go to Flinders. Jackey, as she was called, was excited, but declined leaving the whale-boat. Lieutenant Darling was on board, and, guessing the reason of her refusal, gave her to understand that he had power from the Governor to take her from the sealers. As soon as she understood this, she bounded upon deck with a burst of joy. Another woman strongly censured her conduct, and went ashore with the sealers. But in the night she ran off, and came to the cutter with her little child.
Mr. Darling was acting in obedience to Government directions. Upon the advice tendered his Excellency, that the women be taken from the bad sealers, a note was forwarded that "this measure be carried into effect, with all the discretion Mr. Darling can apply to it, and he will, as far as possible, ascertain the treatment which the native women receive from the sealers."
Mr. Robinson's campaign in the Straits was carried on with all the resolution of his nature, and with little refinement of manner, or hesitancy of action. He was the bête noir of the sealers. Armed with required powers, and sufficiently attended, he cruised among the islands, compelling men to give up the women, and not very careful about the consequences of the abrupt order, either of the husband or the family.
He gave a sad recital of his first capture, the women of which he carried to Gun Carriage Island, and who told their tales of the past to him. One spoke of having been stolen by the veteran Munro, another of being bought for some skins, while a third detailed her sufferings from the lash. Jock, or Ploic-ner-noop-per-ner, spoke of the way the sealers tied her up and beat her. Smoker was given up to the sealers by her husband, and that after she had given birth to several of his children. She had run away, was chased, taken, and severely flogged. It was with much difficulty Mr. Robinson succeeded in procuring some of them, as the sealers, aware of his errand, concealed them. Among those thus taken were Kit, Sail, Judy, Mother Brown, Little Mary, Little Buck, &c.
Although his instructions were to employ force where the women wished to leave and the sealers did not consent, he was particularly warned not to interfere should the females object to go. The sealers declared, and with some show of reason, that these orders were not strictly obeyed. Some of the more intelligent and determined, as Munro, memorialised the Government upon the question, and made out a strong case. Mr. Robinson replied to the charges on May 9th, 1831, saying, "I then required of them, in the name of his Majesty's Colonial Government, to deliver up all such native women then in their possession, and assured them that, unless they complied with my demand, compulsory measures would be resorted to to accomplish this purpose."
This was taking a lofty position. But the Colonial Secretary notified "the women were not to have been taken from the sealers against their will, which Mr. Robinson in his notices seems to have overlooked." Mr. Robinson charged some of his crew with complicity in these affairs, and with giving notice to the sealers of his intended visit. He was very bitter against the sealing race, declaring that they had rendered themselves more obnoxious to the Blacks than any other white persons.
The sealers return to the charge, and certain demands are made for women taken violently from their roofs. They complain of the loss to themselves in being deprived of their helpers in the fishery, and of the cruel wrong to their children in tearing the mothers from their embrace, and depriving their tender infancy of maternal care. The list is sent back to Mr. Robinson. But he is not the man to yield. He wishes to know if he is to free women against their own free-will and consent. He tells the Governor that the applicants seek their object "with a view to reinstate them in the same state of slavish and licentious concubinage." He then particularises and selects one name, showing that the man's treatment was cruel, and the female averse to return. He goes further, and looks at the demand from another point of view. "The feelings of the male Aborigines," says he, "would be materially excited on beholding their female partners thus taken away, and associated with men whom they regard as common enemies of their race."
The end of the discussion was an order from Colonel Arthur, on June 18th, that "until we have more certain information of the conduct of the sealers, the women had better be detained at the asylum provided for them by the Government."
That very month, however, there is a new and extraordinary phase. Mr. Robinson appears triumphant in an official sense, but is compelled to adopt a compromise with these pertinacious rovers of the sea. The two irreconcilable foes are seen on terms of agreeable amity. The shrewd, crafty, and energetic Munro directs the tactics of his subjects. Policy succeeds where force is of no avail. Mr. Robinson wants to catch the Blacks, and the sealers want their women. Who could be of such service to the hunter as the enterprising and not too scrupulous fishermen? They knew the coast and the haunts of the tribes. They had boats, and could carry off small parties to the depôt This is laid by the logic of Munro before the leader of the mission. It is very true, and very clear. He is informed that the men are prepared to help him, and that they can, and would, bring him lots of glory and substantial recompense as the prince of capturers.
The bait is skilfully laid. It received approval But why this sudden change,—this conversion of implacable resentment into proposed coalition? What is the price? The noble sealers disclaim selfish principles; they want to serve Mr. Robinson and the Government. But they gently submit that. though thus willing and ready, they need one necessary auxiliary,—the presence of their faithful and affectionate spouses for guides! Negotiations are completed. The guides are allowed.
Few things more amused me in tracing the course of Mr. Robinson through his scarcely-to-be-distinguished manuscript correspondence, than the official announcement of the terms of this positive treaty, and his chuckling over the clever bargain he had made; though, in fact, he had shown his hand and lost the game. This passage occurs in his letter of June:—
"As a further inducement for the sealers to act energetically in the enterprise that they are about to be engaged in, I allowed them the privilege of their native women in its widest sense; in doing which I found it expedient to use much finesse, in order to cope with the different characters of these peculiar people." He adds naively enough, "The sealers are perfectly satisfied with the arrangements." Certainly.The "slavish and licentious concubinage" is permitted for reasons of State!
As may be supposed, the partners soon quarrelled. Mr. Robinson got little aid from the sealers, except where a handsome cash return could be obtained for labour done. One cause of disagreement was the female question again. The rough sealers went beyond the bond. Not content with the liberal terms they had secured as to women, they dared lay claim to some agreeable young captured gin. Mr. Robinson demanded her of them, and they, as partners, refused to yield her. An open rupture followed, the sealers gained the day, and the leader saw his mistake.
Again we plunge into his ready-letter writing. The "peculiar people" are now "decided enemies to the cause of humanity." He has rediscovered "the impolicy of employing them in the present important work." He will have no more of them. They are traitors to the Government, and to himself. He uses rough language in his anger, and is vehement in his desire to deprive them of their mates. Thus he says:—
"I trust that the circumstances of these ruffians perambulating the main with their deadly weapons, and associating an important public duty with the consummation of their unwarrantable designs, will at once convince the Government not only of the utter worthlessness of such characters, but of the staunch necessity which exists of immediately depriving them of those unhappy females whom they have succeeded in obtaining from the Government."
The Quakers must now appear in evidence. They relate what they saw and heard, though, perhaps, they saw and heard with some slight though unconscious bias. Intimately acquainted with the late excellent George Washington Walker, I recently received a copy of his journal, left in the hands of his pious widow. This work of friendship and literary aid was performed by one of his sons. It will please the numerous friends of those two estimable missionaries to know, that the children of the late Mr. Walker, so well trained by the father and mother, are all following in the footsteps of their honoured parents, being diligent in all benevolent offices in Hobart Town. From this journal, I make an extract:—
"From conversation with several sealers in the Straits, twelve of whom we have seen, and from the testimony of other persons, confirmed by that of native women who once lived with the sealers, but are now at the settlement (Flinders), we cannot regard the situation of the aboriginal females amongst that class of men as differing materially from slavery, unless the circumstance of one man having only one woman and living with her in a state of concubinage, and holding himself at liberty to abandon her when it may suit his own convenience, constitute the difference. The object of these men in retaining the women, most of whom, it is asserted, were originally kidnapped, is obviously for the gratification of their lust, and for the sake of the labour they can exact from them. In resorting to coercion in order to extort the services of these poor defenceless women, great cruelty appears to have been used by their unfeeling masters, with a few exceptions.
"At our request, a woman, named Boatswain by the sealers, with whom she lived some years, gave us some particulars relative to the treatment of the women amongst them. This she did partly by words, and partly by expressive signs, that could not be misunderstood; and her statements were fully confirmed by other women who were present, and who had been similarly dealt with. She was requested to show in what manner they beat them. She then made signs of being stripped, stretched her hands up against the wall, in the attitude of a prisoner tied up to be flogged, making at the same time a doleful cry, and personating a flagellator in the exercise of his duty. After this she described a different scene. She represented a person striking another over the back and legs, and then herself as sinking down on the ground, while she repeatedly exclaimed, in a piteous tone, 'Oh, I will clean the mutton-birds better,' until at last her voice seemed to fail through exhaustion. She said the men beat them with great sticks. When asked if certain men beat their women, she excepted four, the woman of one of whom was weakly, and would have died if he had beaten her. On her observing of one of the men that 'he beat his woman,' it was remarked, with surprise, that she had an infant. To this she replied, 'Yes, he beat her when the child was in her.' On inquiry being made, if she would go back to the sealers, she replied, in strong terms, that she would not, and the other women joined with her in making the same declaration.
"They appear to have made little or no progress in civilization, or in anything but what contributed to the pecuniary advantage or gratification of their masters. They have even been encouraged to perpetuate their barbarous customs. What, indeed, can be expected at the hands of men who, though nominally Christians, live in open violation of the principles of the Gospel, and have little claim to the appellation of Christians?"
It is not to be expected that the sealers in their course could avoid collisions with the Natives, and come off victorious on all occasions. Revenge for their wrongs the tribes would have. A party of sealers came to steal some women. Unguardedly they moored their boat for the night, and slept on the shore. The Natives, aware of the intention of their enemies, came stealthily upon them as they slept, and murdered them all. Tucker and five others were killed in an attempt to get off some gins, their former women, from Flinders; but, betrayed by a girl, they were similarly caught napping by indignant fathers and brothers.
Often were these rough boatmen the cause of outrages on the main. For injuries received from them, others and innocent ones of their countrymen suffered. One, who was among the most vindictive of the Blacks—the chief Montilangana—acknowledged, when on Flinders, having speared to death four females and seven men of the Europeans. But he had a strong motive for vengeance: he had seen, when a lad, his mother and his two sisters carried off with cruel violence by the sealers.From a Sydney newspaper of 1824, the particulars of the following tragedy were learned. One Duncan Bell, the leader of a sealing crew, had two or three years before stolen a Tasmanian Native girl, with whom he continued to cohabit. In the month of October 1824, he endeavoured, through the medium of this young woman, to obtain temporary wives for his mates. She seemed perfectly agreeable to the scheme, and engaged to decoy some females of her tribe. Leaving their island home, therefore, the sealers rowed to that part of the main from which the girl had been stolen, and which, from prudent motives, they had since avoided. The captured beauty was with them in the boat, carrying her little child with her. She was landed upon the hunting-grounds of her tribe, and she proceeded in search of her people. After an absence of three days, she returned with the intelligence that she had succeeded in drawing some women near the spot, and that the next day they could be caught. That night she managed to secrete the only musket the Europeans possessed. In the morning, following her suggestion, Bell remained in charge of the boat while she proceeded with the rest of the men. Leaving them concealed in the Bush while she went to entice the forest maidens towards the ambush, she kept an appointment with her armed and angry tribe, and led their warriors to the appointed spot, where the defenceless Whites were slaughtered. In the meantime it is thought she gave the father of her child some warning, for, by the time the Blacks got down to the shore, he had an intimation of danger, and so escaped. It is singular that the father of one of the murdered sealers had been despatched some years before by the enraged Natives.