- Category: Edward John Eyre - Vol 1 - Ch 9
- Written by Edward John Eyre
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October 6. — In the course of the afternoon I learnt that a little boy about twelve years old, a son of Mr. Hawson’s, had been speared on the previous day by the natives, at a station about a mile and a half from my tent. The poor little fellow had, it seems, been left alone at the station, and the natives had come to the hut and speared him. The wounds were of that fatal character, being from barbed spears which had remained in the flesh, that no hopes could be entertained of his surviving their removal. The following account of the occurrence is extracted from a report, on the subject, to the Government by Dr. Harvey, the Colonial Surgeon at Port Lincoln, who attended the boy in his last sufferings.
“The poor boy has borne this heavy affliction with the greatest fortitude, assuring us “that he is not afraid to die.” He says that on Monday (5th), he was left in the station hut whilst his brother came into town, and that about ten or eleven natives surrounded his hut, and wished for something to eat. He gave them bread and rice — all he had, and as they endeavoured to force themselves into his hut, he went out and fastened the door, standing on the outside with his gun by his side and a sword in his hand, which he held for the purpose of fighting them. He did not make any signs of using them. One of the children gave him a spear to throw, and while in the act of throwing it, he received the two spears in his chest — he did not fall. He took up his gun and shot one of the natives, who fell, but got up again and ran away; they all fled, but returned and shewed signs of throwing another spear, when he lifted the gun a second time, upon which they all made off.
“He remained with the two spears, seven feet long, sticking in his breast; he tried to cut and saw them without effect; he also tried to walk home, but could not; he then sat upon the ground and put the ends of the spears in the fire to try to burn them off, and in this position he was found at ten o’clock at night, upon the return of his brother Edward (having been speared eleven hours.) He immediately sawed the ends of the spears off, and placed him on horseback, and brought him into town, when I saw him.
“Mr. Smith (with the police force) has gone in search of the natives, one of whom can be identified as having thrown a spear at the boy, he having a piece of red flannel tied round his beard.
“This circumstance has thrown the settlement into great distress. The German missionary, Rev. Mr. Schurman, has gone with Mr. Smith. I am told that the natives have been fired at from some of the stations. I hope this is not the case. The Rev. Mr. Schurman says that Mr. Edward Hawson told him he shot after some a short time ago to frighten them, after they had stolen something from the same hut where they speared his brother. This is denied by the family, but I will ascertain the truth upon the return of the party, Mr. E. Hawson having accompanied them.”
The natives immediately disappeared from the vicinity of the settlement, and were not heard of again for a long time. Such is the account of this melancholy affair as given to Dr. Harvey by the boy, who, I believe, also made depositions before a magistrate to the same effect. Supposing this account to be true, and that the natives had not received any previous provocation either from him or from any other settlers in the neighbourhood, this would appear to be one of the most wanton, cold blooded, and treacherous murders upon record, and a murder seemingly as unprovoked as it was without object. Had the case been one in which the European had been seen for the first time by the aboriginal inhabitants of the country, it would have been neither surprising nor at variance with what more civilised nations would probably have done under circumstances of a similar nature. Could we imagine an extraordinary looking being, whose presence and attributes were alike unknown to us, and of a nature to excite our apprehensions, suddenly appearing in any part of our own country, what would be the reception he would meet with among ourselves, and especially if by locating himself in any particular part of the country he prevented us from approaching those haunts to which we had been accustomed from our infancy to resort, and which we looked upon as sacred to ourselves? It is not asserting too much to say that in such a case the country would be raised in a hue and cry, and the intruder would meet with the fate that has sometimes befallen the traveller or the colonist when trespassing upon the dominions of the savage.
In the present lamentable instance, however, the natives could not have acted under the influence of an impulse like this. Here the Europeans had been long located in the neighbourhood, they were known to, and had been frequently visited by the Aborigines, and the intercourse between them had in some instances at least been of a friendly character. What then could have been the inducement to commit so cold and ruthless an act? or what was the object to be attained by it? Without pausing to seek for answers to these questions which, in the present case, it must be difficult, if not impossible, to solve, it may be worth while to take a view of the conduct of the Aborigines of Australia, generally, towards the invaders and usurpers of their rights, setting aside altogether any acts of violence or injury which they may have committed under the influence of terror, naturally excited by the first presence of strangers among them, and which arise from an impulse that is only shared by them in common with mankind generally. I shall be borne out, I think, by facts when I state that the Aborigines of this country have seldom been guilty of wanton or unprovoked outrages, or committed acts of rapine or bloodshed, without some strongly exciting cause, or under the influence of feelings that would have weighed in the same degree with Europeans in similar circumstances. The mere fact of such incentives not being clearly apparent to us, or of our being unable to account for the sanguinary feelings of natives in particular cases, by no means argues that incentives do not exist, or that their feelings may not have been justly excited.
If we find the Aborigines of Australia ordinarily acting under the influence of no worse motives or passions than usually actuate man in a civilised state, we ought in fairness to suppose that sufficient provocative for retaliation has been given in those few instances of revenge, which, our imperfect knowledge of the circumstances attending them does not enable us satisfactorily to account for. In considering this question honestly, we must take into account many points that we too often lose sight of altogether when discussing the conduct of the natives, and more especially when we are doing so under the excitement and irritation arising from recent hostilities. We should remember: —
First, That our being in their country at all is, so far as their ideas of right and wrong are concerned, altogether an act of intrusion and aggression.
Secondly, That for a very long time they cannot comprehend our motives for coming amongst them, or our object in remaining, and may very naturally imagine that it can only be for the purpose of dispossessing them.
Thirdly, That our presence and settlement, in any particular locality, do, in point of fact, actually dispossess the aboriginal inhabitants. [Note 14: Vide, Notes on the Aborigines, chap. I.]
Fourthly, That the localities selected by Europeans, as best adapted for the purposes of cultivation, or of grazing, are those that would usually be equally valued above others, by the natives themselves, as places of resort, or districts in which they could most easily procure their food. This would especially be the case in those parts of the country where water was scarce, as the European always locates himself close to this grand necessary of life. The injustice, therefore, of the white man’s intrusion upon the territory of the aboriginal inhabitant, is aggravated greatly by his always occupying the best and most valuable portion of it.
Fifthly, That as we ourselves have laws, customs, or prejudices, to which we attach considerable importance, and the infringement of which we consider either criminal or offensive, so have the natives theirs, equally, perhaps, dear to them, but which, from our ignorance or heedlessness, we may be continually violating, and can we wonder that they should sometimes exact the penalty of infraction? do not we do the same? or is ignorance a more valid excuse for civilized man than the savage?
Sixthly, What are the relations usually subsisting between the Aborigines and settlers, locating in the more distant, and less populous parts of the country: those who have placed themselves upon the outskirts of civilization, and who, as they are in some measure beyond the protection of the laws, are also free from their restraints? A settler going to occupy a new station, removes, perhaps, beyond all other Europeans, taking with him his flocks, and his herds, and his men, and locates himself wherever he finds water, and a country adapted for his purposes. At the first, possibly, he may see none of the inhabitants of the country that he has thus unceremoniously taken possession of; naturally alarmed at the inexplicable appearance, and daring intrusion of strangers, they keep aloof, hoping, perhaps, but vainly, that the intruders may soon retire. Days, weeks, or months pass away, and they see them still remaining. Compelled at last, it may be by enemies without, by the want of water in the remoter districts, by the desire to procure certain kinds of food, which are peculiar to certain localities, and at particular seasons of the year, or perhaps by a wish to revisit their country and their homes, they return once more, cautiously and fearfully approaching what is their own — the spot perhaps where they were born, the patrimony that has descended to them through many generations; — and what is the reception that is given them upon their own lands? often they are met by repulsion, and sometimes by violence, and are compelled to retire again to strange aud unsuitable localities. Passing over the fearful scenes of horror and bloodshed, that have but too frequently been perpetrated in all the Australian colonies upon the natives in the remoter districts, by the most desperate and abandoned of our countrymen; and overlooking, also, the recklessness that too generally pervades the shepherds and stock-keepers of the interior, with regard to the coloured races, a recklessness that leads them to think as little of firing at a black, as at a bird, and which makes the number they have killed, or the atrocities that have attended the deeds, a matter for a tale, a jest or boast at their pothouse revelries; overlooking these, let us suppose that the settler is actuated by no bad intentions, and that he is sincerely anxious to avoid any collision with the natives, or not to do them any injury, yet under these even comparatively favourable circumstances, what frequently is the result? The settler finds himself almost alone in the wilds, with but few men around him, and these, principally occupied in attending to stock, are dispersed over a considerable extent of country; he finds himself cut off from assistance, or resources of any kind, whilst he has heard fearful accounts of the ferocity, or the treachery of the savage; he therefore comes to the conclusion, that it will be less trouble, and annoyance, and risk, to keep the natives away from his station altogether; and as soon as they make their appearance, they are roughly waved away from their own possessions: should they hesitate, or appear unwilling to depart, threats are made use of, weapons perhaps produced, and a show, at least, is made of an offensive character, even if no stronger measures be resorted to. What must be the natural impression produced upon the mind of the natives by treatment like this? Can it engender feelings otherwise than of a hostile and vindictive kind; or can we wonder that he should take the first opportunity of venting those feelings upon his aggressor?
But let us go even a little further, and suppose the case of a settler, who, actuated by no selfish motives, and blinded by no fears, does not discourage or repel the natives upon their first approach; suppose that he treats them with kindness and consideration (and there are happily many such settlers in Australia), what recompense can he make them for the injury he has done, by dispossessing them of their lands, by occupying their waters, and by depriving them of their supply of food? He neither does nor can replace the loss. They are sometimes allowed, it is true, to frequent again the localities they once called their own, but these are now shorn of the attractions which they formerly possessed — they are no longer of any value to them — and where are they to procure the food that the wild animals once supplied them with so abundantly? In the place of the kangaroo, the emu, and the wallabie, they now see only the flocks and herds of the strangers, and nothing is left to them but the prospect of dreary banishment, or a life of misery and privation. Can it then be a matter of wonder, that under such circumstances as these, and whilst those who dispossessed them, are revelling in plenty near them, they should sometimes be tempted to appropriate a portion of the superabundance they see around them, and rob those who had first robbed them? The only wonder is, that such acts of reprisal are so seldom committed. Where is the European nation, that thus situated, and finding themselves, as is often the case with the natives, numerically and physically stronger than their oppressors, would be guilty of so little retaliation, of so few excesses? The eye of compassion, or of philanthropy, will easily discover the anomalous and unfavourable position of the Aborigines of our colonies, when brought into contact with the European settlers. They are strangers in their own land, and possess no longer the usual means of procuring their daily subsistence; hungry, and famished, they wander about begging among the scattered stations, where they are treated with a familiarity by the men living at them, which makes them become familiar in turn, until, at last, getting impatient and troublesome, they are roughly repulsed, and feelings of resentment and revenge are kindled. This, I am persuaded, is the cause and origin of many of the affrays with the natives, which are apparently inexplicable to us. Nor ought we to wonder, that a slight insult, or a trifling injury, should sometimes hurry them to an act apparently not warranted by the provocation. Who can tell how long their feelings had been rankling in their bosoms; how long, or how much they had borne; a single drop will make the cup run over, when filled up to the brim; a single spark will ignite the mine, that, by its explosion, will scatter destruction around it; and may not one foolish indiscretion, one thoughtless act of contumely or wrong, arouse to vengeance the passions that have long been burning, though concealed? With the same dispositions and tempers as ourselves, they are subject to the same impulses and infirmities. Little accustomed to restrain their feelings, it is natural, that when goaded beyond endurance, the effect should be violent, and fatal to those who roused them; — the smothered fire but bursts out the stronger from having been pent up; and the rankling passions are but fanned into wilder fury, from having been repressed.
Seventhly, There are also other considerations to be taken into the account, when we form our opinion of the character and conduct of the natives, to which we do not frequently allow their due weight and importance, but which will fully account for aggressions having been committed by natives upon unoffending individuals, and even sometimes upon those who have treated them kindly. First, that the native considers it a virtue to revenge an injury. Secondly, if he cannot revenge it upon the actual individual who injured him, he thinks that the offence is equally expiated if he can do so upon any other of the same race; he does not look upon it as the offence of an individual, but as an act of war on the part of the nation, and he takes the first opportunity of making a reprisal upon any one of the enemy who may happen to fall in his way; no matter whether that person injured him or not, or whether he knew of the offence having been committed, or the war declared. And is not the custom of civilized powers very similar to this? Admitting that civilization, and refinement, have modified the horrors of such a system, the principle is still the same. This is the principle that invariably guides the native in his relations with other native tribes around him, and it is generally the same that he acts upon in his intercourse with us. Shall we then arrogate to ourselves the sole power of acting unjustly, or of judging of what is expedient? And are we to make no allowance for the standard of right by which the native is guided in the system of policy he may adopt? Weighing candidly, then, the points to which reference has been made, can we wonder, that in the outskirts of the colony, where the intercourse between the native and the European has been but limited, and where that intercourse has, perhaps, only generated a mutual distrust; where the objects, the intentions, or the motives of the white man, can neither be known nor understood, and where the natural inference from his acts cannot be favourable, can we wonder, that under such circumstances, and acting from the impression of some wrong, real or imagined, or goaded on by hunger, which the white man’s presence prevents him from appeasing, the native should sometimes be tempted to acts of violence or robbery? He is only doing what his habits and ideas have taught him to think commendable. He is doing what men in a more civilized state would have done under the same circumstances, what they daily do under the sanction of the law of nations — a law that provides not for the safety, privileges, and protection of the Aborigines, and owners of the soil, but which merely lays down rules for the direction of the privileged robber in the distribution of the booty of any newly discovered country. With reference to the particular case in question, the murder of Master Hawson, it appears from Dr. Harvey’s report (already quoted), that in addition to any incentives, such as I have described, as likely to arise in the minds of the natives, there had been the still greater provocation of their having been fired at, but a short time previously, from the same station, and by the murdered boy’s brother. We may well pause, therefore, ere we hastily condemn, or unjustly punish, in cases where the circumstances connected with their occurrence, can only be brought before us in a partial and imperfect manner.