Thursday, 19 September 2013

A report onto the recent appearance of a party of natives in the Holdfast Bay camp. 29th January 1837

Great was the excitement this week when a group of natives - most as naked as the day they were born - appeared amongst the tents and huts at Holdfast Bay.

I have spoken with the settlers involved and have prepared this written report describing how this came about.

The incident began some days earlier when it was discovered that the horses had disappeared. There being only two horses in the colony at present - one belonging to the Company and one belonging to old Swankpot Morphett - it was of a fairly pressing urgency that they be recovered. All and sundry were kept busy running about the plains with lumps of sugar in the hopes of bringing back the nags, the which provided great and diverting entertainment, but little result..

A search party decided to head South, the horses having been seen heading in that direction. The party consisted of: Charlie Stuart (who revels in the company title of "Overseer of Stock" and is hence in charge of some sheep, some pigs and innumerable chickens) ; Henry Alford; and a sealer named "Nat" as a guide. He had, he claimed, been through the area. They were joined by Freddy Allen, who wished to collect plants for his gardening ventures. A strange idea it seems to me, but to each his own.

They took with them some rations and two bottles of water each. Of course, the day was hot and before too long they had emptied the bottles and had nothing left to drink. They struggled on manfully up and over the line of hills to the South. 

Late in the afternoon they reached a line of sandhills which Nat, who had been of no use at all so far, suddenly recognised. "Just over these sandhills there is a river mouth with native springs." he said.

He was, as it happens, quite correct. In fact the party may have wished that he wasn't, because not only were there native springs, but also a native camp and a considerable number of natives of all ages and sexes.

Before the party could scarper the natives spotted them and a group - men, women and children - ran towards them with much noise and shouting. Several men with spears gave a great yell and came to the front of the group.

Stuart says he was unsure whether the natives were threatening or welcoming. Alford says he was glad he was wearing brown trousers. Nat the sealer offered the advice that on the full moon the natives came to the river mouth to fish, advice which the others felt he could, perhaps, have offered about fifteen minutes earlier.

The natives approached and Allen, who can be, to tell the truth, a bit of a pompous arse, kept gibbering on about "being prepared to die like men". I think he was wishing that he could be at home, potting up some seedlings. One who the men took to be the leader began to address them in what seemed like a friendly and interested manner. 

Allen, like the arse he is, stepped up and began to address the natives on the aims and principles of the colony and begged their forgiveness for trespassing on native land.

The thing Allen had forgotten was that the natives had no idea what he was saying and when he realised this he just started again, only louder, in the common, but foolish delusion that volume and comprehension are interchangeable.

Allen was just sailing into a description of the life and times of Gibbon Wakefield when the native leader clearly came to a decision. He might not have understood what Allen was saying , but he certainly understood that he could be ignored, because he pushed past him and stepped up to Stuart. The native removed Stuart's hat and ran his fingers through his hair, opened his shirt to inspect his pale skin, felt the fabric of his jacket and trousers and lifted up his foot to examine his boot.

He then turned to the others and gave them a similar inspection. Alford was, apparently, too terrified to object or even move as the native leader gave him the once over, but Allen, like a fool, was most offended and let it be known that he “was not used to such undignified treatment and the native's interference with his person was not to be tolerated”. Imbecile!

The party had taken a hunting dog with them and the natives showed a great fear of him as he growled and barked at them. Alford had the good sense to chain the dog to a nearby tree and the natives were all smiles again.

Then they discovered the salt pork within the party's bags and were much taken with the pork belly fat which they ate with great delight.

Nat the sealer then said to the natives “Cow – ee” which was, he assured the others, the native word for “water” - but the natives seemingly ignored him in preference to demanding - by signs – to see the fowling-piece Stuart had brought with him.

Stuart fired the gun into the air, which impressed the natives greatly, but did not offer to reload before the natives tried to fire it. When the gun produced no second great flash and noise the natives dropped the gun onto the sand in disgust and, repeating the word “Cow-ee” motioned the party to follow them. Allen, of course, started blathering about how they were being led to their doom, and how the natives would slit their throats at the first opportunity, but in fact the natives simply took them to the nearby springs in the sandhills where the thirsty men drank their fill.

The men made camp at the springs, building themselves a crude shelter from boughs, and settled down for their dinner. Before much time had passed they had lit a fire and boiled water for tea when an old native woman arrived bearing a sheet of bark loaded with cooked fish which the men fell upon hungrily. Even then the fool Allen decided that the natives were cannibals and were fattening them up ready for a meal, like the wicked witch in a fairy tale

To add to his terrors, just as the men settled down to sleep there was a great cry from the direction of the native camp and a great flare of firelight glowed. Allen knew his time had come and that he was next on the menu when a group of native men appeared in the midst of their camp. Expecting each moment to be his last the damned fool cowered in the shadows until the others realised what the natives wanted. They were there to offer them an invitation to join in with the natives fire and celebration.

They found themselves fed, watered, entertained with dances and made a fuss over by the women and the children. Even their dog seemed content and curled up and went to sleep.

The next morning Stuart woke before the others and took time to survey the lay of the land near their camp. He saw a fine river winding back towards the hills through marshy meadows. The water was covered with a multitude of black swans and ducks and it was the work of moments for Stuart to unchain his dog and take his fowling piece down to hunt. He had already shot one bird and the dog was retrieving it when he was suddenly joined by two native men armed with throwing sticks and before long they had joined in a scene that would not be out of place on any fishing river in England – three men hunting together, and sharing their time in pleasantries. Stuart demonstrated how he hunted with gun and dog and the natives showed Stuart the art of the throwing stick. Stuart tried his hand and his complete lack of skill was the source of great hilarity for the two native. The natives also invented a sport of trying to beat the dog to any duck that Stuart shot and fell about themselves with laughter each time they failed.

As pleasant as the time was, Stuart and his new friends made their way back to the native camp where Stuart distributed the ducks, giving the native leader and the old woman who brought them the fish the best of them.

When he returned to his own camp Allen, that most nervous of Nellys, was beside himself. The men had awoken and found him gone and immediately Allen feared the worst. And so while Stuart was having a delightful early morning of duck hunting, Allen and Alford, the silly sods, were hiding in their tent waiting for the King of the Cannibals to pop in and see which of them was on the menu for lunch.

Their mood was hardly improved by Stuart's laughter at the foolishness of it all, nor by his description of the delightful time that he did have. Even after a good breakfast their were still some hot tempers in the camp.

Nat the sealer at this point suggested that they have a swim to cool themselves and their tempers and all thought this advisable. And so they stripped themselves of clothes and dived into the river. Almost immediately they were joined by a group of native children and young men and after a pleasant hour romping and splashing in the cool water all ill feeling was forgotten.

As they were dressing on the river bank (an activity that caused much astonishment amongst the natives, whose custom it was to wear a minimum of accoutrements and count their nakedness to be “just the style”) Alford noticed the track of a horse hoof in the mud. On seeing it one of the native boy went down on all fours and gave a perfect impersonation of a galloping horse.

There was much excited chatter amongst the natives and then they signed to the men to follow them. The group of natives led them over to a spot by the river where tracks showed that the horses had been there two or three days. The natives signalled that the horses had moved on and Stuart decided that it was pointless to try and follow them further a decision which, to me, seems to make a complete dog's breakfast of the entire affair.

What was the point of traipsing over the hills and far away to find these damned horses if at the first sign of them you decide that it's all a bit hard and you'd rather go home? Damned silliness it seems to me.

That being so the men headed back to camp and the next morning struck out for home Many of the natives accompanied them as they went. Observing Allen's interest in plants, several of the natives collected and gave him interesting specimens.

When they reached the top of the hills overlooking the plain, in the distance the natives spotted, for the first time it seems, the ships moored at Holdfast Bay. There was much excitement amongst the natives and a group of men went with Stuart's party, the rest lagging behind, clearly unsure of what might happen.

After a time they reached the tents on the Paddy Will Linger where I met them and greeted them. It being warm weather the native men were wearing nothing but a belt of string made from some twisted jute or fur that they used to hold a throwing stick. For the sake of modesty they had an arrangement not unlike a Scotch sporran, also made from string, hanging in front. This covered to some extent the more delicate areas, although, as my sister Anne remarked, you didn't have to try too hard to see past it.

I ordered some to fetch Gilbert and have him draw some trousers and shirts from store and give them to the natives and the Marines took them in hand to make them fit for society. I wonder if I was the only one who appreciated the irony of the Marines, who are mostly unfit for society, giving lessons in etiquette?

I offered our guests a meal, of which salt pork, along with some sugar, was again their favourite. The Marines offered them tobacco, which they declined, and rum, which the Marines also proffered, was rejected firmly.

It being clear that the trousers and the shirts were not to their liking, I ordered that these be exchanged for blankets and they soon returned to their naked state, with their modesty preserved by swathes of Navy Blue wool.

What thoughts were going through the natives' heads I could not say, but they took everything in their stride, in a calm and dignified manner, almost like the Stoics of old. The only time they seemed to become excited and even mystified was when they saw a young girl carrying a doll made of papier mache. The sight of a small child carrying an even smaller person left them completely flummoxed and who knows what stories they told of it as they headed home?

It seems to me that the natives come out of this pretty damned well. Unannounced, a party of strangers arrive in their midst and the natives, acting like perfect, if under dressed, gentlemen, feed them, entertain them and act as perfect hosts. Stuart is to be commended at his efforts to mix with the natives and his delightful hunting expedition with them is a model for the future.

Allen and Alford, with their talk of cannibals and fearful expectations of doom are a pair of ninnies with not a pinch of good sense between them and deserve sound, firm kicks in the arse. And if they present at Government House between the hours of nine and three I will be delighted to deliver said kicks in arse and will wear my dress boots so they can have them is the proper Vice-Regal manner.

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