Advance Australia! Chapter 10

The Blacks

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The aborigines in the Mackay area were being rapidly displaced by white settlers. Note: although by the standards of his time Finch-Hatton seems to have had a not-too-unfavorable opinion of aborigines, he would undoubtedly be considered racist by the standards of our time, and modern readers may find both his language and opinions offensive. (I make no claim for historical accuracy for the excerpts from this chapter. Historian Kett Kennedy, in his book Mackay Revisited, gives a number of examples of quotes from this chapter which he considered unreliable.) Description, Wakarra, religion, native police, Long Lagoon massacre, Rice and the myalls, work, nomads, settlement of the Pioneer Valley, letter to The Times.

A brief description of the aborigines:

If you ask what sort of a race the Blacks of Australia are, nine people out of ten will immediately answer your question with that prompt assurance which no one ever ventures to bring to bear on any subject, except one about which he knows nothing and has thought less, and will tell you that they are physically and intellectually the most degraded race in the world.

There being no fixed standard to apply to the different races of the world for the purpose of gauging their physical and intellectual merits, we can only do so by comparing them with each other. When compared with those nations of the Old World who are universally admitted to have reached the highest point of civilisation as yet known, the Australian Black is, of course, a very low specimen of the human race indeed. But compared with the Digger Indians, the Bushmen of South Africa, and the inhabitants of not a few of the islands of the Pacific Ocean, he at once assumes a different aspect. I had thought of comparing him to some of those savages by no means extinct in the Old Country at the present day; but the comparison seems more than usually odious, and I will pass on.

From a physical point of view, many of the Australian Blacks are exceedingly fine specimens of humanity, and possess great muscular strength. In swimming, diving, climbing, picking up and following a trail, they are a match for any race under the sun; and in running and jumping many of them would give a good deal of trouble to a professional athlete. The extraordinary art of throwing a boomerang is peculiar to them, and with a spear they are not to be surpassed. ...

The countenances of these niggers, often very pleasing, are seldom devoid of a good deal of intelligence, and after a short intercourse with civilisation are highly susceptible to that expression of finished rascality which is usually supposed to be a peculiarity of the white man. Their sense of humour and perception of the ridiculous is exquisitely keen. A cow tumbling head over heals across a log in the long grass, a man looking for a pipe which he has got in his mouth, or a dog in search of food upsetting something on to its own head, and running away like the deuce, with nothing after it, will make a black fellow laugh for a week afterwards whenever he thinks of it. Nothing with the ghost of a joke in it escapes him, and finer shades of humour that are entirely lost upon many well-educated whites will be instantly and thoroughly appreciated by him.

Mackay Aborigines
Mackay Aborigines, 1872
(click on image to enlarge)

Wakarra, one of the station workers, impressed Finch-Hatton:

We had a black fellow on the station, by name Wakarra, who was as pleasant a companion for a day's ride as could be wished. It is not too much to say his manners were those of a perfect gentleman. No amount of hurry every made him forget himself for an instant, no scolding made him sulky, and no kindness made him disrespectful. The graceful ease with which he used to remove his battered hat to any ladies that happened to be staying on the station, was a sight that might have moved an Old Country swell to tears of admiration. He learned to read with ease, and had a most surprising faculty for asking questions. One day he wanted to know how the sun set and rose. I expained to him that the earth went round, which he understood perfectly; but when I told him how fast it went, he thought for a bit, and asked why the trees and houses and things did not all fall off? I told him that they were stuck on with a kind of invisible glue, with only partially allayed his thirst for information. He is certainly rather an extraordinary Black, and perhaps hardly a fair specimen of his race. But I never saw one upon whose education so much pains had been bestowed; and most likely here, as elsewhere, there are just as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it.

Religion and the aborigines:

It has often been said that it is impossible to teach any sort of religion to the Australian Blacks. I never heard of any great exertions being made in this direction; but undoubtedly the great obstacle to success would be not so much a black fellow's want of intelligence, as his unrestrained sense of the ridiculous. One of our poets has declared that

"Life is a jest, and all things show it";
and seeing that it is impossible at the outset to impress a nigger with the solemnity of religion, there is great likelihood that he will fall in with the views of the poet, and laugh at it immoderately. ...

The Blacks that have received any religious instruction generally sneak up to you in the towns and offer to parade their knowledge for a consideration. "I say! you give it me one fellow sixpence, plenty mine yabber-yabber--belief! I say! Glass of whiskey--Our Father," and so on. ...

Whether it would be possible to teach Christianity to the Australian Blacks, or not, I do not pretend to say; but I am very certain that it would be far better to begin by teaching them to behave as respectable members of the community. By the time that they have learned to refrain from smashing the skulls of decrepit relations, from killing a man simply because he has some article about him which they wish for, and from eating him afterwards if they are hungry, it will be quite time enough to direct their attention to a future existence. The task of persuading an average nigger that punishment follows crime, and prosperity is the reward of virtue, will be found quite arduous enough to satisfy the most zealous of missionaries, even though it be the business of these admirable men to "turn black into white," after a fashion. Having, at anyrate, got him to comprehend that there are certain rules that he cannot transgress with impunity, and certain enjoyments that he can only obtain by exertion, he will be more fit to be initiated into the mysteries of Christianity than when he had no idea of right and wrong.

Finch-Hatton was also sceptical of the benefit of religious instruction to South Sea Islanders, many of whom worked in the district:

A more lamentable example of misdirected zeal than is afforded by the South Sea Islanders cannot be imagined. If we may take as examples the large number of Kanakas who come over to Australia every year, we are obliged to conclude that any teaching that they get from the missionaries does them infinitely more harm than good. No one will have anything to do with a "missionary boy," if he can by any means get another one. We cannot for a moment allow the blame of this to rest on the religion taught, and we should be sorry to think that it was entirely the fault of those who teach it. Experience proves that it has nothing whatever to do with the Kanakas themselves; for, until they are persuaded to become Christians, they are an orderly, contented, and industrious race. The fault, then, must lie in the manner of teaching.

Religion, someone says, makes an excellent roof, but a very bad floor; and it is the height of folly to try and teach Christianity to a savage before he has any idea of those fundamental laws which, quite independent of any revealed religion, govern the welfare of a community. It is not only teaching him to run before he can walk, but expecting him to jump over obstacles at every other step which, from the earliest ages, have brought the most eminent divines to grief. More than this, it is putting an exceedingly dangerous weapon into the hands of an inexperienced and mischievous child.

For example, suppose that you make a savage understand that the God whom you are teaching him to serve has bade all the rich in this world to sell all that they have, and give it to the poor. What will be the effect upon his mind? An earthly paradise of rum, blankets, and tobacco is at once opened up before him; and having most probably gone to sleep the night before without even one of these luxuries, he must inevitably arrive at one of two conclusions, either that you are telling him a lie, or that there are a number of rich people around him sadly ignorant of their duties.

Most probably the latter is the view to which he will incline, and, fully persuaded that he is only promoting the gospel of peace on earth and goodwill towards men, he will set off to the nearest plantation, and give the owner of it a lesson in practical Christianity be removing as many articles of value as he can, and retiring to distribute them amongst his friends. Be this as it may, one broad truth remains, that in attempting to convert a South Sea Islander into a Christian, the missionaries rarely fail to convert an innocent and industrious savage into an idle and worthless scoundrel.

The native police regularly "dispersed" troublesome aborigines, a euphemism for killing and terrorizing them. Finch-Hatton recognized that the aborigines had been treated harshly. (Kett Kennedy points out, however, that there is no other documentation of the two islanders supposedly killed, and that despite the claim that "they take every opportunity of killing us and our cattle", there is only one documented case of a European being killed by aborigines in the Mackay region.).

Sometimes, when they feel more than usually cheerful, even the half-tame Blacks in the settled districts cannot resist the temptation of spearing a traveller. It is not long since they killed two South Sea Islanders on the range about fifteen miles from our head station. For the purpose of repressing this kind of joviality, there are native police-stations, at tolerably wide intervals, all over the country. At each of these are stationed a few black troopers, under the charge of a white man. These troopers become perfect devils for hunting down and killing the wild tribes from which they have themselves been taken when young. The duty of the white man who commands them is a very unpleasant one. Whenever the wild Blacks in the neighbourhood become troublesome, and take to spearing cattle, or otherwise misbehave themselves it is his business to sally out with his mounted troopers, and "disperse" them, the meaning of which word is well known all through the colony. If it can be proved that in "dispersing" a mob of Blacks he has killed a single one except in self-defence, he is liable by the laws of the country to be hanged. On the other hand, he knows perfectly well that unless he manages to shoot down a decent number of them before they can escape, his services will soon be dispensed with. The Government will then replace him by a man who is better able to understand the peculiar form of justice which hangs a man for being detected in carrying out his recognised duty. It is very difficult to know what to do with the Blacks. It seems unjust to drive them out of a country to which they have at least as good a right as we have. On the other hand, we know that if they are allowed to remain, they take every opportunity of killing us and our cattle. It is impossible to tame them unless they are caught very young, and even then they are not always to be relied on. Whether the Blacks deserve any mercy at the hands of the pioneering squatters is an open question, but that they get none is certain. They are a doomed race, and before many years they will be completely wiped out of the land.

In one particularly horrific incident at Long Lagoon, a settler supposedly wiped out a whole tribe of aborigines (although Kennedy is highly skeptical that this incident occurred, and rightly so since there seems to be no other evidence for it):

A gentleman who shall be nameless, but who once resided at a place well known as the Long Lagoon, in the interior of Queensland, is still famous for the tremendous "haul" of Blacks which he made in one day. They had been giving him a great deal of trouble, and had lately killed four of his shepherds in succession. This was past a joke, and he decided that the niggers required something really startling to keep them quiet, and he hit upon the following device, which everyone must admit was sufficiently startling. One day, when he knew that a large mob of Blacks were watching his movements, he packed a large dray with rations, and set off with it from the head station, as if he was going the rounds of the shepherds' huts. When he got opposite to the Long Lagoon, one of the wheels came off the dray, and down it went with a crash. This appeared to annoy him considerably; but after looking pensively at it for some time, he seemed to conclude that there was nothing to be done, so he unhitched the horses and led them back to the station. No sooner had he disappeared than, of course, all the Blacks came up to the dray to see what was in it. To their great delight, it contained a vast supply of flour, beef, and sugar. With appetites sharpened by a prolonged abstinence from such delicacies, they lost no time in carrying the rations down to the waterside, and forthwith devoured them as only a Black-fellow can.

Alas for the greediness of the savage! alas for the cruelty of his white brother! The rations contained about as much strychnine as anything else, and not one of the mob escaped. When they awoke in the morning they were all dead corpses. More than a hundred Blacks were stretched out by this ruse of the owner of the Long Lagoon. In a dry season, when the water sinks low, their skulls are occasionally to be found half buried in the mud.

Although the above incident was fortunately the exception rather than the rule, many settlers had no qualms about occasionally shooting aborigines. However Finch-Hatton's partner Rice was once able to save himself without shooting:

As a rule, however, few people are ambitious of indulging in such wholesale slaughter, and, when the Blacks are troublesome, it is generally considered sufficient punishment to go out and shoot one or two. They are easily discouraged in their wild state, especially by anything that they cannot understand. Not very long after this station was first taken up, while the wild Blacks were still very bad round about, my partner Rice was digging one day in the garden. Suddenly he became aware that half-a-dozen of the "Myalls," as they are called, were creeping towards him through the long grass. Armed with spears and boomerangs, they were evidently on anything but hospitable thoughts intent. Rice waited until they got about fifty yards off, and then, as they stood up ready to sling their spears at him, he suddenly pointed his spade at them like a gun. Two warriors fell flat down on the spot from sheer fright, upsetting a third one who was just about starting to flee. Two of the remaining three tried to run away so fast that they hardly made any progress at all, and the last one, while scattering a Parthian glance at the object of terror in his rear, ran with awful violence against a gigantic gum-tree. The prevailing idea of all six of them seemed to be a wish for seclusion, and in an incredibly short space of time they had all picked themselves up and disappeared over the horizon in a cloud of dust.

Not surprisingly, given their itinerant lifestyle, the aborigines found it hard to adapt to the idea of steady employment:

There seems to be an inherent dislike in all Blacks to anything like regular work. They will hit out like Trojans for about a week, and then they cave in, and declare they are sick. A few days' spell and the diversion of a kangaroo-hunt will sometimes induce them to try another term of treadmill; but, as a rule, they never stick long to any heavy work. Sometimes, when they see any work going on in the Bush, the half-tame ones come up and offer to help, and are quite content with half a stick of tobacco and a good feed for a day's work. Sometimes they content themselves with criticising, without offering to assist.

The aborigines were generally nomadic:

They are incurable nomads, these Blacks, and never stay long in one place. They wander about the country in mobs, invariably accompanied by a vast army of the most wretched-looking, mange-stricken dogs. They camp for a while where there is a good supply of food, and when that is done they move on. A couple of hours after they have camped they have completed as good a house as a Black-fellow ever wants, by stripping a few sheets of bark off the nearest trees and propping them up with saplings.

They are passionately fond of tobacco, and the children begin to smoke, when tobacco is plentiful, literally before they can walk. I have often seen a little object, not many months old, slung over its mother's shoulder, puffing away at a short pipe stuck in its mouth.

The history of the Aboriginal people in the Mackay district following European contact does not make for pretty reading. A good summary of early Aboriginal-European relations in the Pioneer Valley is found in a 1990 article by historian Clive Moore.

The native police were probably responsible for hundreds of deaths. Settlers were probably also responsible for many (which would be consistent with Finch-Hatton's comment about the casual attitude of settlers towards shooting aborigines), though, as Moore says, "A conspiracy of silence covers their deeds". Other aborigines succumbed to introduced diseases. Finch-Hatton had cynically noted that the native police commanders were expected to break the law by killing aborigines without getting caught at it, and Moore likewise observes that:

The possibility of troopers following orders to call on their quarry to 'Stand in the Queen's name' and fire warning blank charges is so remote as to be laughable. (Moore 1990, p.72)
Moore estimates that during the 1860s the aboriginal population in the valley dropped from at least 1000 to about 500. Systematic killings seem to have ended around 1880, when the last local native police detachment was removed, but the aboriginal population continued to decline due to loss of territory and poor living conditions. The 1919 influenza epidemic killed most of the small population still remaining, and in 1920 two males, said to be the last aborigines in the Mackay city area, were moved to a reserve near Townsville. The original aboriginal population had been virtually exterminated, though some aborigines remained in rural areas outside Mackay, often married to Melanesians.

Moore, Clive (1990): Blackgin's Leap: a window into Aboriginal-European relations in the Pioneer Valley, Queensland in the 1860s. Aboriginal History, 14:61-79.

The following letter to the editor by Harold Finch-Hatton was printed in The Times on March 16, 1904, in response to an allegation that settlers had exterminated the aborigines:

Sir,--The correspondence between Sir F. Swettenham and the Agent-General for New South Wales is very amusing to those who are behind the scenes. Nearly 30 years ago I was a squatter in Queensland, and I wish on behalf of myself and my fellow squatters to protest against the assertion, contained in Mr. Hogan's letter which appeared in your columns yesterday, that the squatters were mainly responsible for the extermination of the blacks in Australia.

I wish to speak only of the colony of Queensland, which was for many years my home. In the first place, that is the only colony of which I have the practical knowledge that can only be gained by a prolonged residence. In the second place, before my arrival in Australia the black question had been pretty well settled in Victoria and New South Wales.

That there have been many instances where personal encounters have taken place between the squatters and the blacks I do not for a moment deny. Nor do I deny that the squatters were perfectly justified in defending their lives against a race of people who are in the main treacherous and unamenable to any permanent form of civilization. Into the ethics of the question I do not wish to enter. I merely wish to deal with facts, and I unhesitatingly declare that the blacks of Queensland have been almost entirely exterminated by a system carefully planned and deliberately carried out by the Government of the country.

For this purpose a body of "native police" were organized. Their members were recruited from the wild blacks themselves, officered by white men. The "black trackers" were simply human bloodhounds, gifted with extraordinary faculties for following a trail, and with all the ferocious animosity of the renegade, sharpened by the knowledge that, if they ever attempted to rejoin the tribe they had deserted, they would be instantly killed. When sent on a punitive expedition against the wild blacks, never more than one white man accompanied them. A black's evidence is not received in a Queensland Court of law, and therefore there could be no legal evidence of any atrocities committed. The euphemism for this kind of business is "dispersing" the blacks. The official account would be that "Mr. So-and-so with a company of black trackers has succeeded in dispersing the blacks in the neighbourhood of Aramac, who have lately caused much annoyance by spearing cattle."

The white man in charge knows quite well that, according to the law of the land, if he kills a black, except in self-defence, he is liable to be hanged. He knows equally well that, if in "dispersing" a mob of blacks he does not manage to kill a fair number, his services will be dispensed with, and he will be replaced by some one who better understands the wishes of his superiors at headquarters.

The only pause in this systematic work of extermination that I can remember was during the great influx of Chinamen into Queensland occasioned by the discovery of gold on the Palmer river. Chinamen were at no time popular in the colony, and when the blacks took to killing them wholesale the whites looked on, and the blacks secured for themselves a temporary immunity from the animosity of the authorities. This curious situation was very pithily summed up in a leading article written at the time in one of the principal newspapers of the colony. It was headed, if I remember right, "The Devil's Pool--Black on Yellow, player White in hand."

I repeat that I do not wish to offer any opinion upon the moral side of the question. To any one who knows Australia there is no shadow of a doubt that all efforts to civilize the blacks have resulted in total failure. The ineradicable instinct of the wild blacks is, and always was, to murder any white man if they could do so with impunity. A very large number of the outlying squatters, shepherds, and solitary travellers have been killed by them. The vanguard of civilization in Australia always consisted, and still consists, of a series of isolated outposts, situated at long distances from each other, and only inhabited by a few individuals. Under these circumstances it is quite clear either that the blacks had to be cleared out of the country or that the whites had to give up any attempt to live in it.

All I demur to is Mr. Copeland's assertion that extermination of the blacks has not taken place, and Mr. Hogan's assertion that it was mainly the work of the squatters.    I am, Sirs, yours &c.,


Carlton Club, March 11 [1904]

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