Aboriginal Customs 1830's
Following are six letters written by a correspondent to the Maitland Mercury in 1877. He recalls growing up in the Paterson and Maitland districts and reminisces about Aboriginal people he knew and customs he witnessed as a lad in the mid 1830's.
To the Editor of the Maitland Mercury
Having lived in the district of the Hunter for upwards of half a century, I am induced to believe that a few reminiscences relating thereto may not prove uninteresting to the readers of the Mercury. I propose therefore to forward, as opportunity offers, a few remarks relating thereto, premising that there shall be no attempt at elaboration in the matter. It has often been to me a matter of regret that the most interesting period the earlier, was passed while I was a mere child, and consequently many years elapsed without observation at all, and many more with but that limited amount incident to boyhood. I can, however, well recollect the imposing and magnificent appearance of the dense brushes which covered the greater portion of the splendid estates now known as Berry Park, Bolwarra, Phoenix Park,
Wallalong, Dunmore, Hinton, etc ; and passed many joyous hours with merry companions in hunting the wallaby, bandicoot, kangaroo rat, native cat, etc., which abounded within and about them ; and enjoyed the sport which shooting wonga wonga and other pigeons, doves, and many other beautiful birds afforded.
Giant ForestsWhat would the boys of the present time think of the privilege of hunting and shooting in such brushes as these were then, where all was novel, interesting, and exciting. Magnificent indeed was their appearance. Gigantic gum trees towered far and away above all others, and spread their radiating and mighty limbs far and wide like umbrellas over the green ocean of lovely foliage, which crowned the tops of the closely wedged mass of their smaller brethren. And less lofty, but still imposing and beautiful, were the fig trees, which in many instances were of enormous size, and covered an immense space.
The whole of the large cedar trees had long before the period of which I write disappeared, but the huge stumps remained an evidence of their vast proportions, and their well-known beauty must have originally given additional attraction to the scene. All attempts to describe the character of the underwood would be futile. So thickly did the timber grow that it was often very difficult to proceed, and we were glad to avail ourselves of the wallaby tracks, which intersected the brushes in various directions. The strongest winds failed to disturb the palm which ever existed in them, and where the blacks spent the cold period of the winter, using the bark of the tea tree for covering their gunyahs, and for reclining on ; which being very soft and warm, was admirably adapted for the purpose.
Native CampsI used as a lad visit to the natives' camp. The aptitude they displayed for obtaining their food was, at this time (1836) remarkable. A number from ten to thirty would arrive at a selected position in the brush, where small open spaces would be sometimes found, - quickly construct their simple gunyah of semi circular form, with the fire in front, and then start off in small parties, as light-hearted and merry as a lot of school-boys, to get 'patta' (food ) Some would fish, others climb trees for possum, squirrels, or bear ; and others would go ' walbunging' or hunting for wallaby, which were very numerous, bandicoot, kangaroo rat. And woe to any colony of flying foxes which they came across. Of the flesh of the latter they were very fond.
Native FoodI recollect on one occasion arriving at a camp while the blacks were in the act of dining, and having a strong desire to taste the flavour of possum, fortified at the same time by the tempting appearance of the grilled meat which one of my black friends had on his table, the earth in front of him I said to him, ' You give it me that fellow.' He at once complied by handing me a portion, which I boldly chewed, and with an effort swallowed, wishing to please the donor, and not finding the morsel distasteful. I said, ' That fellow budgerie possum, budgoree patta.' ' Baal possum,' said he contemptuously, 'Baal possum, plying pok.'
Examine critically the first one you see, and then you may readily realise my sensations when discovering that I had unwittingly eaten and praised the flesh of the malodorous ' plying pok,' as the blacks term it. It may not be generally known that the odour arises from an oil, over exuding for the lubrication of the membrane which forms the wings, and in no way affects the flesh. The native mode of cooking was beautiful, if simplicity be so: An opossum, just killed, would be grasped by the tail by a black squatted before a good fire, of which he would place it, and move it briskly about until the fur was burned off, and the body swelled to a considerable size ; then, with a 'mogo,' or tomahawk, he would make an incision, quickly remove internal arrangements, and clutch at the liver, scarcely warmed through by the fire, and greedily devour it. The body would again be placed on the fire for a short time, but was always eaten in a condition almost raw. They used to carry opossums, with the fur singed off, slung to a belt which they invariably wore round the waist, and which was formed of fur spun by them And no commissariat officer could appear prouder of his supplies than a native thus furnished, shrivelled and hideous as his dangling supplies were, in all their varied contortions produced by the fire and swaying about with every movement of the proprietor, their white tooth all shewing, as they hung head downwards, seemingly grinning at their destroyer.
Maitland Mercury 4 August 1877
I continue my reminiscences of matters on the Hunter in old times, from the point arrived at in my first letter, published in the Mercury of Saturday, July 28.
Native FoodAnother article of food which the blacks much liked was a white grub, from one to three or four inches in length, and up to an inch in diameter, which appeared to be, and was, a mass of fat. They obtained them from various kinds of trees - the oak principally - in which they were often deeply embedded, and cooked them by covering up with hot ashes. Many Europeans have since told me they have often made a meal of them, and pronounced them to be really good; and I know that when cooked in the ashes (native fashion) they are very palatable the flavour being like that of a good pork sausage. This grub may now be obtained from the willow trees about Maitland, their presence being indicated by the evidence of their boring powers. ' Cobrah,' too, was a favourite food, and was obtained from any timber which had been in the rivers a sufficient time for the creatures to take possession: it first appears as a small round looking beetle, which rapidly changes its appearance when it has effected an entrance into the wood, and becomes a large whitish looking worm ; teredo navalis is, I believe, the scientific term, the colour and texture of its substance being not unlike an oyster, and the flavour not dissimilar. They always ate them in a raw condition, and it was marvellous to see the rapidity with which they would disappear, sometimes eighteen inches long and three fourths of an inch diameter, not being chewed, but allowed to slip down the throat, like a cartridge down a gun barrel.
FishingThey used the ' Cobrah' as their boat bait for fishing, their plan being to squat on the end of a log projecting into the river, cutting out the 'Cobrah,' throwing all the broken and braised pieces into the water, to attract the fish, and down their own throats for an obvious purpose. They seldom failed to catch a good supply of fish, mullet and perch principally, with white and black bream. The latter appear for a number of years to have quite left the upper portion of the river; I have not seen them caught above Hinton for a very long time, and at one time they were quite plentiful in the Paterson River.
While on the subject of the food of the blacks, I would like to record my opinion that the flesh of the bandicoot is superior to that of any other animal peculiar to Australia ; and that if the animals were domesticated (if possible), treated as pigs are, castrated and fattened, they would prove to be a highly nutritious and most attractive article of food ; the flavour of their flesh, even in the wild state, being like that of the sucking pig I have seen them weighing as much as 10 lbs., and have no doubt, if castrated and fattened, they would attain to fifteen pounds or more. Now who, among all those who may read these lines, will obtain a young bandicoot or two, treat them as I have described, and have them produced, cooked as sucking pigs, at the next Hunter River Agricultural dinner in Maitland. I feel satisfied the result would verify my opinions. With articles of food such as named, and sometimes with ' wikki' (bread), made by them, or maize ' popped' in the ashes, they fared sumptuously, and appeared thoroughly to enjoy themselves, talking, joking, and laughing.
HumourMuch has been written and said as to the great deficiency of mental power in the aborigines, which may or may not be true ; but I have met with many instances in which considerable mental power was shown, and among them the following:-Being at one of their camps one night, I was rather closely observing the actions of one squatted as usual in front of his gunyah, when he suddenly and angrily said, What you looking at?' 'At you,' said I. ' 'What for,' said he ' Because you werry ugly fellow,' I replied. ' No,' said he, furiously, 'No, you ugly fellow, your face is like a pumpkin, your nose is like a ' calafash* (calabash), your head is like a mountain, your hair is like a brush, plenty wallaby sit down there ' I shall never forget my surprise at such a rebuff from a black fellow. He would have made a capital member of Parliament after a few lessons on stump oratory.
Weapon MakingThey displayed considerable judgment in the selection of woods for their various weapons. The shield or' eleman' was made of the wood of the fig tree, and no other could be named so well adapted for the purpose, as it is almost impossible to split it. Spears would sometimes pierce the shield a few inches, and so would the boomerang when striking end on, and thrown from a short distance by a powerful man ; but neither they, nor would the waddie, split or break it, of which I had ocular proof, having been present when punishment was administered to a native who had rendered him self amenable to the native law. With the growth of the fig tree, previously alluded to, is a, singular fact : within each, in nearly every instance, was completely enclosed another tree, mostly a tea tree, dead, of course, killed by the embrace of the remorseless fig. The propagation of the latter was remarkable. A seed left by birds or foxes in the fork of a tree, or in a broken. or decayed branch, would in course of time germinate, a fine thread-like looking root would quickly grow downwards, appearing and disappearing in the bark, in its course to the earth ; on reaching which it would take root, and rapidly thicken Lateral threads would soon proceed from the perpendicular one along its whole course, twining round and round the future victim, crossing and crossing each other in every direction, uniting wherever they came in contact, and eventually forming an unbroken surface, and leaving no trace of the tree within. There being of course all the cases of gradual development of the process, here and there, throughout the whole extent of the brushes; and such forming the basis upon which the above deductions were drawn. From the foregoing, a good opinion can be formed, as to its power of resistance the grain never running but a few inches in any one direction It was many years before I discovered the native mode of obtaining from the tree, a piece of sufficient size to form the shield.
Bolwarra BrushHunting and shooting one day in Bolwarra brush, and a grand place it was for such purposes, I came across a huge fig tree; on one of the flattest of its surfaces was marked out, by incisions of the necessary depth, the form of a shield, on the extreme point of which top and bottom, and on both sides, small wooden wedges of hard wood, very well made, were inserted. It had evidently been thus left, and nature , will to do the rest. I could see some slight evidence of the bursting process, which the growth of the tree would offset, after the groove had been made, and the wedges inserted I told some blacks of my discovery, and they displayed unusual anxiety to know if I had been to 'touch him that fellow.' They appeared to attach considerable value to it, as if it were no easy matter to get one.
Peculiar HabitsAmong their peculiar habits was that or anointing themselves with grease from head to foot, and the warmer the weather the more freely did they apply it, till they were as greasy looking as a tinned sardine.
MourningI often wondered to see extensive sores on the legs of the gins only, about a foot above the knees These I afterwards discovered were self inflicted, by holding a large firestick over the naked part, and slowly passing it backwards and forwards until a blister was formed, resulting in a severe and extensive sore, which they after a time covered with tea tree bark, neatly placed. These wounds were effected after the death of certain relatives; and it was customary for the whole tribe to commence howling at sundown, and continue it for a long time each night, for many nights in succession,- and they knew well how to do it. They had a singular custom of marking all the trees in selected part of the open forest. The pattern was uniform, and they cleared the ground and formed narrow pathways from one tree to another, though not to all. I carne across one of these tabooed places very many years ago, at the back of Dunmore House ; and having heard there were such, and that the blacks used them for frightening the gins, and young men too, and that the punishment of death was inflicted upon all but the privileged who looked on the mysterious spot - I fixed well on my mind the form of the marks, and took the first opportunity of testing the effect my making similar marks on a tree in their presence would have. Taking up a ' mogo,' I made a few cuts carelessly in a tree near to three or four men, but no gins, and then as carelessly made the mysterious figure. A look of surprise from one, then from another, followed by rapid talking, in a low tone, took place. Ere long I had made another of the figures, when one of them sprang to his feet, and in an excited manner said, ' Where you see that fellow' I told him 'Baal you show him gin,' said he, taking the ' mogo' from me and hacking at the figures, ' Baal you piallar (tell) gin, I make him jutty (die)' I have been told since, they made the gins believe some dreadful and mysterious being lived in the spot, and that the paths were the tracks he made in going from one tree to another. By these means, and the free use of the 'waddie,' the gins were kept in a very fair state of subjection.
Good Natured and Healthy BlacksTo an old colonist, a near relative of mine, long since dead, I was indebted for the lively interest which I took in the blacks, and their proceedings. He treated them with unvarying kindness, and their dark faces beamed with pleasure when met and conversed with by him It was with him I visited their camping grounds, and observed their proceedings, and was thus early led to feel an interest in them, and their surroundings. They were not at this time the filthy-looking objects they subsequently became. They bathed frequently, their skins were smooth, they were decidedly healthy, step firm and elastic, were not wanting in good nature, and possessed a keen sense of the ridiculous.
DamperThe following was told me by one of them : A settler had lately arrived on the banks of the Paterson, above the Albion farm, and had not lived there long before the blacks arranged to rob the hut. They watched for some time, and at length saw him leave for some distance. They then broke into the place, and among other curiosities they saw some flour in a bag. They could not make out what it was intended for at all. At last one of them became suddenly illuminated with the idea that it was 'Pipeclay, budgeree pipeclay, white fellow pipeclay.' And they carried off the prize, crossed the river, and reached the camp with the flour. A general consultation now took place, and it was no doubt carried unanimously ' That the article now before this meeting is pipeclay, and that it be used as such, for, according to my informant, they tried to use it as such, by mixing a quantity, and trying to form the lines and figures on their bodies, which used to be done with the genuine pipeclay, and which custom and circumstance imposed. It would not do. ' Baal budgeree pipeclay, white fellow pipeclay no good,' such were the opinions formed. But soon there arrived from Port Stephens two or three natives who know what it was, and great was the owners' surprise to find the pipeclay mixed up, baked, and formed into the ever after acceptable damper, ' Wicki.'
Stone HatchetsI never yet met with anyone who ever saw a blackfellow use one of the stone hatchets, which no doubt had been used by them before they obtained the iron substitute. I have seen many of them; have one now the best I ever saw with an excellent edge for a stone ; but I cannot conceive that it would ever do more than cut through the bark. Can any of your readers say they ever saw them used, and if so, what was effected with them ? I have heard that the handle was' formed of a stout vine, twisted. Many of the rocks on the banks of the Paterson River, at the water's edge, have indentations, which are unmistakably the grinding places used for these instruments; and on the ' Green Wattle Estate,' close to a large waterhole, which has never been known to be exhausted, there is a largo flat rock completely covered with these small hollows; in which the stone ' mogo,' doubtless for ages, had been sharpened, some of them so small and narrow, that they were doubtless formed by black boys who had their tiny mogos to grind.
Drought and WaterholesWhy such numerous grinding marks should appear at one place, in one rock, can easily be accounted for. To this unfailing waterhole would the natives repair during those disastrous seasons of drought (which for ages have doubtless visited the country), just as their successors, the whites, have been compelled to ; for to this water-hole many years ago the inhabitants of Hinton and neighbourhood had to go for water, the long continued dry weather having dried up all other sources excepting a water-hole at Woodville, and one at Mr. Benjamin Lee's farm (Leeholme), a short distance away on the bank of the Paterson. While on this subject I may as well observe that I once remember seeing the water in Howe's lagoon [between East Maitland and Morpeth] reduced to the compass of a few feet, from which a man was taking water as from a well. This circumstance will denote the severity of the then existing drought. And I was then assured by Mr. Townshend, sen., of Trevallyn, that the whole of, the districts, Hunter, Paterson, and Williams, that the whole of, the districts, Hunter, Paterson, and Williams, had within his observation presented the appearance of a vast dust heap, completely bare of anything in the shape of grass, from the effects of a drought which lasted for two years. How does the existence of these droughts in the earlier periods of colonial history, when the whole surface was covered with the natural forests, accord with the theory of my earnest but mistaken, friend ' Cornstalk' ? Depend upon it, that when the violence of westerly winds cause large masses of clouds to become embanked on the eastern and south eastern horizon, until they attain enormous volume, and which on the weakening of the west wind, move forward inland surcharged with moisture, the presence or absence of grass, or timber, beneath them, does not affect them, to the extent of one single drop of rain, let Cornstalk and scientists say what they will. Doubtless there is a cause, but it is yet to be discovered.
BathingIt was interesting to see a large number of natives indulging in a river bath, swimming hither and thither, diving great distances, and unexpectedly seizing a companion by the legs, who would disappear under the water with cry, of strange admixture of shout and laugh, to again appear with the aggressor choking with laughter in the water.
Sharks in the Paterson RiverA large party of them were thus enjoying themselves in the Paterson river, one summer's day, when one of them was seized by a shark, from the leg, and for some time kept taking him under, and shaking him as a dog would a rat. He was rescued by the blacks in canoes, but was dreadfully wounded, large pieces of flesh being torn from his legs. I saw him the day after the occurrence, with the wounds carefully covered with the soft bark of the tea tree, but I do not recollect hearing whether he ever recovered. It is somewhat remarkable that no instance has occurred of a white man being attacked by these voracious creatures, in the district. That they are often in our rivers is certain. I have frequently caught them, and saw one at least 10 feet long in the Peterson river, when it was salt. They, however, are sometimes present when the water is quite fresh, proved by catching them when it was so. The blacks say that the old sharks come up the river, maiming the fish on their way, and are followed by their young ones, who easily catch them, I am strongly inclined to believe in the theory.
Types of FishWhilst on this subject I would allude to the great diversity of opinions I have heard expressed as to the quality of the various kinds of fish, as articles of food, found in the colony. The general tendency of opinion, however, being their disparagement, and alleged great inferiority to the fish found in European waters. That we have no fish equal to, or approaching the salmon, in richness and flavour, I am satisfied from its excellence in a preserved state, and can well understand how very much better it would be when cooked after being freshly caught. But no other English fish that I have tasted nearly approaches the salmon in excellence, and some kinds, ling, for instance, are very poor stuff.
A conversation on this subject took place many years ago, in the dining room of the Northumberland Hotel, during which I contended that the sea mullet of the colony was, in, during which I contended that the sea mullet of the colony was, in my opinion, our best fish, possessing both richness and fineness of flavour, against those who thought the cod of our western waters was superior, and others who thought the whiting and schnapper were better than either. I was glad to hear the late Mr. Keene, who took part in the discussion, say that he agreed with me in considering the sea mullet our best fish, and it was worthy to be ranked with the first class fish of Europe, ' that it -would be considered a fine fish anywhere.' I had not at that time seen or tasted the cod, but on visiting Wagga Wagga some few years ago, I took an early opportunity of tasting their flavour, and was very much disappointed in my expectations, The one I tested weighed about eight pounds, was rich, and full of flavour, but it put me too much in mind of eel; so much so that had I had my eyes closed, and been asked what it was I was eating, I should have said it was one. I was assured by those who professed to know, that the time of the year, June, had a good deal to do with the flavour to which I had objected ; and further that during floods the fish become too fat. It may not prove uninteresting to those who like fish to know that an eel, if found too fat, should be boiled before being fried, the preliminary process removing the objection, and otherwise much improving it.
TurtlesThe turtle was always used by the natives as food. They severed the connection between the lower and upper shell, and placed the latter on the fire, allowing them to stew, as Bismarck said he would allow the French, at the last siege of Paris, 'to stew in their own gravy.' The appearance of the product, the soup particularly, was so favourable, and the relish with which it was consumed, would justify the conclusion that it would figure on the bills of fare at our civic dinners, that is if the properties were known and the dinners were given. A native once directed my attention to a turtle on the surface of the water ' you see im that fellow,' said he, 'I marn im.' He quietly entered the water, went under, and in due time up came both hands, turtle and blackfellow laughing ' consumedly,' I thought it was cleverly done, and think my readers will incline to the same opinion.
Tattoos and OrnamentsThe practice of ornamenting (as they thought) their bodies by tattooing was common, but very rudely performed, a few ugly, irregular prominences here and there on the chest and shoulders being all I ever saw, Most of the old men had the cartilage which divides the nostrils perforated, to receive a bone a few inches long, said to be a kangaroo bone. It looked like the leg bone of a fowl. They appeared very proud of it, a singular taste, no doubt ; but we, living in glass houses, must not throw stones: look at the headdresses of our ladies.
King George of CawarraI have alluded, in a previous communication, to the fact of my having been present during the administration of punishment to an offending native. The subject had often been broached, and it had been gathered with difficulty from them, that when an offence had been committed, not involving the death penalty, it was sometimes atoned for by the act of ' standing punishment.' An opportunity presenting itself, my relative, having their confidence, was invited to attend a fight, as it was called, between 'George, King of Cawarra,' attended by his tribe, and the celebrated Melville (who many years afterwards was hung in East Maitland), attended by his party.
Arrangements had evidently been made by the commanders-in-chief as to where the rival parties were to meet-about mid-way between Dunmore and Bolwarra house. I have no distinct recollection of the numbers on each side-somewhere about fifty, with many gins and children. It was the presence of the latter among the warriors which justified my relative in taking me with him to witness what was to take place, there being the additional fact that these fights were seldom attended with fatal consequences.
They met, each occupying a hill side, having a gentle slope to a narrow flat, and after much noise the men formed in a line on either side, each man a few paces distant from his comrade. The gins and children formed a rear guard, and took shelter behind the trees when necessity arose. They looked imposing as thus seen, armed with spear, boomerang, eeleman, and waddie ; strangely marked with pipeclay, and swansdown mixed with their beards, to make them look ' cobbon miall' (very fierce), as one politely informed me. Many of them had a large tuft of grass standing on their heads, the hair being drawn upwards and bound tightly round it, the tuft being about eighteen inches high, It certainly made them look formidable. Much that took place I have but an indistinct recollection of.
A number from one party (King George's), ran down the slope with a boomerang each in the right hand, and rattling a ' wammera' (the stick with which they throw their spears), and an eeleman together, held in the left hand. The precision with which the boomerangs were thrown was remarkable: they struck the ground rapidly, revolved for some distance towards the hostile party, then rose together end passed high over their heads, falling far in the rear, to be picked up by the gins and children of the party. The throwers then retired to their original potation in line, and received a similar discharge of weapons from their fees. They eventually came to close quarters, shouting and gesticulating 'in the wildest manner, and were apparently urged to acts of violence by the furious conduct of several old hags. The centre of excitement appeared to be formed at length about an old man of fifty or sixty years of age, over whose head waddies were raised, and brandished in the most threatening manner. He was no coward, but presented a bold front to all his adversaries.
After much excitement, pushing and uproar, but no blows, they became more quiet, and decided that the old man should not be killed, but stand punishment. 'Mungo,' the finest black I ever saw, was to administer it. He was over 6 feet in height, very muscular, and of fine proportions. His features were very regular, he had a pleasant cast of countenance, and an agreeable manner. Though I was very young at the time of the fight, he lived many years after I had arrived at an age to form the opinion of him to which I have given expression. An 'eeleman' (a shield) was given to the offender, and he was placed about fifty paces distant from ' Mungo,' who at once commenced business by throwing the spears (a certain number adjudged) with great force and precision. Some of them pierced the shield, but were snapped off immediately by the old fellow, who was as active as a cat, and sprang right or left, or held up the shield aloft, to catch spears which otherwise would have passed him, None wounded him. He had now to defend himself against the boomerangs, about a dozen of which were thrown by the same man. To my mind they were more dangerous than the spears. They struck the shield with sufficient force to move the defender ; one only pierced the shield, but little more than an inch, yet it nearly severed the old man's thumb, of which he took not the slightest notice until the ordeal was over, which was no trifling one. It was quite evident that there was but one object in view to kill the man and Mungo wanted neither skill, power, or inclination to effect that object, had it been possible. Their animosity appeared to cease against the culprit as soon as the trial was over. They had remained quiet during the operation, and directly after began talking in a friendly manner, with the exception of Melville, who, after making an angry remark to King George, walked excitedly away to a tree some distance off, from behind which he took a musket, and held it towards his opponent in a menacing manner. As soon as George, who had been watching him, saw this, he too strode off, and from behind a log took a similar weapon, and from his actions appeared to intimate that he too was prepared for proceeding to extremities. The whole affair then ended.
King George was a universal favourite among the whites, and held more influence over his country-men than any other chief in the district, from the period to which I have referred. He had been very severely wounded on one occasion by a young man, whom he had approached under the idea that he was unarmed; but the artful fellow had trailed a spear along the ground, the grass keeping it from view, held between his toes, until he was within throwing distance. It struck George in the foot, just below the ancle, and went right through. He broke it off, and managed to reach the residence of Dr. Walter Scott, the original proprietor of 'Wallalong,' who succeeded in, the original proprietor of 'Wallalong,' who succeeded in extracting it. Poor George was, however, lamed for life. It was not very long after this that he was attacked in camp, at night, by some Maitland blacks, and had his jaw smashed with a waddie, He had early been presented ' with one of the brass ornaments of crescent form, worn on the breast, suspended by a chain from the neck, which afterwards became somewhat common, and therefore less valued; in the same way that the order of knighthood is being affected here, by its very free distribution. 'George, King of Cawarra,' was very proud of the emblem of his kingly authority. He, however, said he would have liked the following addition to his title: ' Dribe it all bang.' His meaning being, that all his enemies fled before him. His Majesty was employed by me at one time in pulling corn, his dress at the time consisted solely of a swallow-tailed blue cloth coat, with brass buttons, and an old tall black hat. He appeared more pleased than angry at the laugh which his singular appearance, thus apparelled, created. I never ascertained when or where he died.
CorroboreeI much regret my inability to give any reliable opinion as to the number of the blacks in this district in these early times. They appeared to lead a very restless kind of life, constantly on the move, shifting their camps from one place to another, seldom remaining more than three or four days in one camp, and usually numbering from twenty to thirty in a party. On occasions of grand corroboree they would come from long distances, even from Liverpool Plains, the Manning, Port Stephens, etc.
I was present at one of these corroborees, about 1834, when there was the largest assemblage I ever saw. I had an opportunity a few days ago of comparing notes with a friend, who was then with me, and who being my senior by several years had a more vivid recollection of what took place. He estimates the number at about two hundred. They performed the kangaroo and emu corroborees, consisting of a methodical arrangement, I have since learned, of the lively and grotesque movements of these creatures. All that I can remember is my having seen two opposing double lines of natives, advancing and retiring in varying, but most singular positions, swaying this way and that, and the actions of the whole being as the act of one, accompanied by a kind of chant in which the gins joined, at the same movement each beating on a shield to mark the time.
Injustice and MassacreDuring the height of their enjoyment at one of these festivities some whites had, unobserved, placed a considerable quantity of gunpowder in their midst, (An article perhaps then, not well known by the natives) with trails attached, which they exploded. Their consternation may be conceived.
They suffered a good deal of injustice at the hands of some of the first settlers, and there is now living a man who was present, as he admits, when a party had formed for the purpose of punishing the blacks for pulling the cobs of maize in the field, and carrying it off in their nets to their camps. Observing same smoke rising from the midst of the Wallalong bush, they armed themselves with muskets, and reached unobserved the camp, where a considerable number of men, women, and children were. They fired at upon them, killing some and wounding others. The rest fled through the bush, pursued by the whites, and the whole of the natives took to the water intervening between the brush and the highland, towards which it gradually deepened, and some of the poor creatures were drowned. My informant now a very old man, while expressing regret at the occurrence, said the worst part of the whole was, they afterwards discovered, that not one of those who were 'wanted' were among them.
The haymakers in the Wallalong fields have little suspected the these tragical occurrences on the exact spots where they have stood when engaged in their peaceful occupation.
Illness and DiseaseThey were kind and attentive to their companions when sick, and continued until they saw the sick one was not likely to recover, when they would cease attending to him, and leave him without food or water, or fire ; though they would stay near until he died, simply taking no notice of him ; but would always bury the body,
They were attacked about the year 1835 by small-pox, which killed more than half of them. How, or under what circumstances, it was introduced among them, or whether it was the veritable small pox which Europeans dread, I did not hear, or do not remember; but I perfectly recollect seeing them lying in their camps with their faces covered with the pustules. Few, if any, of those attacked recovered.
Catching OpossumsTheir mode of ascending trees in search of opossums never failed to excite apprehension in my mind as to their safety. It was done by cutting, but very little more than through the bark, forming a receptacle for the great toe, on which they would sustain the weight of the body, slightly assisted by the motion of the other foot in a corresponding cut about three feet above this position, with the left arm partly encircling, the tree, they would cut notches above their head by back-handed strokes with the moyas, I noticed that they were very careful to remove the smallest, piece of anything which was movable on that part of the tree which the left hand would come in contact with. No matter how high the tree was they would fearlessly ascend, and I never witnessed any accident, and never saw but one native who had been injured by a fall, occurring while ascending; the fall had produced dislocation of the hip.'
Their tenacity of life was very remarkable. I saw a man, a few days after the occurrence, who had received a spear wound just below the breast bone, and which had gone through, coming out at the back, near the spine, and yet the man lived. The point of entrance never quite healed, but it appeared to cause him little or no inconvenience. He was strange to say, the stoutest blackfellow I ever saw.
SongstersThey were very fond of singing of an evening the voices of the females harmonising well with those of the men. I much regret my want of perseverance when attempting to get at the meaning of their songs, which appeared to be formed of verses, rhyme, being evidently an ingredient in the composition. I give the two first lines of two songs which were frequently sung by them ......
Conder Rois ar bar, Bl ar le barjebar Main ribber nung asso Tower ar mundrio. The two first words in the second song were evidently meant for main river, which the Hunter was called to distinguish it from the first and second branches the Williams and the Paterson.
All I ever elicited from them was that the second song had some whimsical reference to the actions of the top man engaged sawing at it.
TocalI was asked one day why I was stupid, why did I say 'Tocal'? that that was not right, blackfellow call him 'Tookle.' This statement was confirmed not very long since by the oldest living resident now in this district; his name is Cooper, he lives at Woodville, is nearly blind, but I have no doubt retains a good recollection of very old times. What an interesting article might be furnished to the readers of the Maitland Mercury, if he were interviewed by one of those clever men who are now even to be found on the (staff oft papers of importance such as the Mercury. This man speaking to me a few years since of old times said ' I was living then at Tocal, ' Tookle' we called it then,' just as my black informant said....
Maitland Mercury 1 September 1877
Sir - the regret which a small tract of say fifty of brush has not been preserved in all its pristine loveliness, with all its charms inviolate. Had such been the case, what an object of attraction it would have formed at the present day. How rapturous the enjoyment of those who would for the first time look on the vegetable wonders and floral beauties presenting themselves on all sides. The aromatic cedar, redolent when cut with exquisite perfume, alike remarkable for its beautiful foliage and enormous size; the gigantic fig trees and the monarch gum.
Axe of the DestroyerThese would have been prominent features in the scene, which might for ages have continued to exist, under careful management a living proof of thoughtful consideration for the claims of those who were to come. But, so it would appear, he did not live who had the power and inclination to do this, and the axe of the destroyer has left in this particular, but the smallest vestige of the glories of the past. The men employed to fell and clear had no light task before them; they were principally prisoners, and were urged to the due performance of their work by the fear of punishment as well as the hope of reward, or either was promptly paid when merited.
To watch the actual falling down of a large tree was always attended by pleasurable excitement, from a quiver of insecurity to the loud crack, which followed in rapid succession as the huge tree with gradually accumulating power descended, bowing its hitherto proud head, and striking the earth with a force that resulted in its being beaten in a moment into fragments. The contrast between the brush as felled but recently and the adjacent wall of living timber may be more readily imagined than described. The one a picture of extreme loveliness, and the other of desolation. But when the whole was felled, and it had remained sufficiently long to dry, and the fire stick was applied, what an impressive lesson might then be learned of the awful power of caloric when fuel was in abundant store, and of such an inflammable character as was there. All but the larger limbs and trunks would be speedily consumed, but a great amount of labour had yet to be expended in getting rid of the remaining incumbrances before a crop of any kind could be put in. Even when all the timber was cleared of it took a sharp hoe to make a hole in the root matted soil for the reception of the maize seeds. But the way in which it throve under such circumstances and the enormous crops obtained often over eighty bushels per acres, acted as powerful stimulants; and the work went hopefully and cheerfully on, though many other discouragements were not wanting.
Life of the FarmerHow easy the life of the farmer of the present day is compared with that of those who have preceded him, at the time and under the circumstances of which I write. They might have been sent begrimed with the smut of the burat timber when cross cutting or felling it into masses for burning and often working late at night attending to the fires; and compelled finally to chip in seed, of maize of barley or of wheat. To plough for a year or two was impossible; the network of fine roots had to rot first; and for many years after the task of ploughing was a most irksome one, from the combined obstacles of roots and stumps. They had, too, in many instances to travel long distances for their supplies, which were frequently of an inferior character.
The means of carriage to market were limited, and the roads were execrable. I have seen holes in High Street, Maitland that were dangerous for horsemen to traverse, and have paused to receive friendly advice as to how they were to be avoided. Three notable places were opposite the Red Cow Inn near Mr. Weller's; opposite the embankment; and in the hollow before reaching the elevation upon which the Bank of New South Wales stands. I have, time after time, travelled as well as I could on the top rails of the fence forming one of the boundary lines of the road loading from the Hinton punt to Morpeth while my horse held by the bridle waded through fifty yards of mud and water, reaching in places to the saddle flaps.
The farmer's life now is an easy one; no clearing the ground of heavy timber, no stumps, or roots to annoy him and break his ploughs and harrows. He has good horses and good implements a machine upon which he can comfortably sit while it cuts his luxuriant crop of lucerne, hay rakes too upon which he can ride. He lives well, and sleeps well, can spare time to attend volunteer drills, cricket, and football matches, as his inclination may prompt him. Schools of Art surround him, debating clubs are equally acceptable; his farm produce is taken in most instances from his barn, a wave of the hand to a passing steamer and she will stop and clear him out of hay and corn, if he so wishes it. It is true that frequently for many years past serious losses have been experienced and much inconvenience felt by the occurrence of floods; but in these cases they have been aided, and properly so, by the sympathy of their landlords, who have in nearly every instance assisted to bear their losses, to the extent of six months rent, on each occasion of flood.
Mr. Middleton, among several incidents in connection, with his incumbency, told me that on one occasion, during Divine service, the prisoners being in attendance in chains, the guards in charge seeing, or fancying they saw, a concerted movement among them, presented arms. What a scene under such circumstances ? Mr. Middleton, had to officiate at a place called the Lime Burners, a number of prisoners being stationed there under strong guard, for the purpose of procuring and burning shells. Some of the miserable creatures, on the occasion of one of his visits, had no other clothing than a sugee bag, tied round the waist.
Indigenous FruitIt is somewhat remarkable that in the colony no indigenous fruit of any great value has ever been found, as far as my knowledge extends, no fruit sufficiently attractive to ensure its persistent cultivation. But is it not possible, nay very probable, that some of the kinds which do still exist were taken in hand, and dealt with scientifically, they might prove of real value. It would be scarcely possible for a greater metamorphosis to take place than that arising from the culture of the crab apple, from which it is said all other kinds have been derived. There was a species of plum growing in the brushes which externally and internally had a most inviting appearance. It was a dark purple colour, about as large as an ordinary peach, the pulp when quite ripe very soft, with a luscious look, the colour purple and cream. The flavour fell far short of the natural expectation. It had a Strange mixture of saline, saccharine, and fatty taste; The natives ate them, and so did school boys, but I will not venture to offer either fact as a proof that the fruit was good, I think there is abundant evidence to show that a good fruit might be produced by cultivating this plum. There was also a tree which produced, in great abundance a fruit of purple colour, about' an inch long and half as inch in diameter, with a small round stone in the centre, not on the outside, as one description of cherry is this country has. These were gathered by the early settlers and made capital puddings and excellent jam. I have a tree of the sort growing in my garden.. It is now about sixteen years old. The crop of fruit last year was a very plentiful one, but nearly every berry was attacked by minute grubs, which destroyed them. I saved just sufficient to prove what a fragrant and attractive preserve that could be produced from them.
The fruit commonly called the Cape gooseberry, is no importation. It was among the first things which appeared after the brush-wood had been burnt And the cause was obvious, the seeds, though very small, are extremely hard ; just such as would lie without any injury for an immense length of time, wherever the birds had dropped them. They grow on the margins of the brushes, and on the banks of the rivers, and the birds would in course of time cover the whole area of the brushes with the seeds, which would not germinate in the shade, and did not do so till the timber was cleared off, I have seen acres covered with the plants on Bolwarra. The fruit, when grown where it is exposed to light and sun, is not at all unpleasant. There was also a fruit exactly like a strawberry in form and colour, but it was produced on a bush something like the English raspberry, in size and form. The stem and under portions of the leaves were thorny, and of a very light green colour, and when crushed exhaled a very fragrant perfume, quite as strong as the scented verbena. The flower too was like that of the strawberry, the flavour of the fruit was pleasant, but wanted strength. This I would like to have cultivated, but have not seen any for a very long time.
There was, and is now, for it grows still in many places on the banks and on rich land where cattle cannot reach it, a fruit much resembling the English raspberry in appearance, and flavour, too, under certain favourable conditions. This fruit, I am fully convinced, would well be worth cultivating, in so far as the production of an indigenous agreeable fruit was concerned. There was a fruit too which the natives ate, but no one else, not unlike the lemon. It grew on a thorny tree, very like the lemon tree and was called culeequark. I tasted it and was not at all surprised to hear that it always made them budgel (ill)
There were many beautiful plants too, overlooked and which it would be impossible perhaps now to obtain. I now bring these reminiscences to a close, and hope they may not have proved altogether uninteresting. They may hereafter serve, in some degree, to throw light on the early past of our highly favoured district. And they have at all events proved to me if not the advantages at least the pleasures of Memory.
Medicinal plant used by native tribe at Paterson...........
Powerful Deleterious PlantAn accidental circumstance has this week made generally known in Maitland the deleterious proper-ties of an indigenous plant which is now, as cultivation extends, much less common than it used to be.
On Sunday evening last some person brought into town what appears to be the stem or taproot of a plant which he had noticed near the Sugarloaf; the piece being about as large as a man's wrist, and eight or ten inches long; and the colour partly light green and Partly brown, in nearly alternate rings or layers, 'his piece appears to have been cut into smaller pieces, and to have then been variously styled native carrot, native turnip, and even native apple, under which alluring designations several lads were induced to taste it ; it is said to be at first of sweet taste, but to almost instantly give a hot, acrid flavour, causing the taster to spit it out, only one person being said to have swallowed even the juice, and none any solid portion. Yet the effects were instantaneous and alarming; first a hot, acrid taste, rapidly increasing till the whole mouth seemed on fire* and followed in a few minutes by the swelling of the tongue, so severe in one case as to deprive the patient of the power of speech for several hours, and causing him even next morning to exhibit every symptom of having taken something little short of poison. Strong purging medicine, however, has in each case soon removed all the worst Symptoms.
The plant may therefore be scarcely poisonous, but its effects are instantaneous, and so frightful that no boy in Maitland will now taste the ' native turnip.' The piece I have seen (at Mr. Lipscomb's) looks like the stem of a large fern, but we are told that it is the stem of a species of native lily, with long leaves, which no horse or bullock will touch, or even approach too closely. One of the Maitland blacks to whom it was shown appears to have a similar dread of even handling it, evidently regarding it as a most noxious plant. The Paterson blacks, it is said, make a medical use of the plant as follows : they scoop out some of the pith of the stem, and mix it with the pith of the stem of the nettle-tree, and then pound the two together till they form a pulpy mass ; this is then laid as a plaister over any part of a black who is labouring under rheumatism, and remains on a few hours (causing intense pain), when a large blister is established, and it is said a cure effected.
Again, if one of the tribe is unwell, the gins search under the plant for its tuberous roots, which are found to be at the end of long fibrous roots, and which resemble in shape and appearance small yams ; these yams are cooked in such a way as to get every particle of moisture out of them, and then eaten, and the gins say the patient derives great benefit therefrom. The plant is usually found growing in brush lands of some richness. Maitland Mercury 23 March1850
* Possibly Isaac Pike who arrived on the Hebe in 1820 and died in 1879