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The Adventures of Louis de Rougemont By Louis de Rougemont Characters: 31595

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Some queer dishes-Water wizards-A mysterious deputation-I protest against cannibalism-My marriage ceremony-A startling proposition-Daily routine-A diet of worms-I proceed cautiously-The cannibal poet sells his wares-Fishing extraordinary-How emus were caught-Eternal fires-A coming horror-The first cannibal feast.

I saw very little of Gunda from the moment of landing. I feel sure that the fact of his having seen so much of the world, and travelled such a long distance-to say nothing about bringing back so wonderful a creature as myself-had rendered him a very great man indeed in the estimation of his friends; and in consequence of this so much honour was paid him that he became puffed up with pride, and neglected his faithful wife.

Everywhere I went the natives were absolutely overwhelming in their hospitality, and presents of food of all kinds were fairly showered upon me, including such delicacies as kangaroo and opossum meat, rats, snakes, tree-worms, fish, &c., which were always left outside my hut. Baked snake, I ought to mention, was a very pleasant dish indeed, but as there was no salt forthcoming, and the flesh was very tasteless, I cannot say I enjoyed this particular native dainty. The snakes were invariably baked whole in their skins, and the meat was very tender and juicy, though a little insipid as to flavour. The native method of cooking is to scoop out a hole in the sand with the hands, and then place the article to be cooked at the bottom. Some loose stones would then be thrown over the "joint." Next would come a layer of sand, and the fire was built on the top of all. Rats were always plentiful-often so much so as to become a serious nuisance. They were of the large brown variety, and were not at all bad eating. I may say here that the women-folk were responsible for the catching of the rats, the method usually adopted being to poke in their holes with sticks, and then kill them as they rushed out. The women, by the way, were responsible for a good many things. They were their masters' dressers, so to speak, in that they were required to carry supplies of the greasy clay or earth with which the blacks anoint their bodies to ward off the sun's rays and insect bites; and beside this, woe betide the wives if corroboree time found them without an ample supply of coloured pigments for the decoration of their masters' bodies. One of the principal duties of the women-folk, however, was the provision of roots for the family's dinner. The most important among these necessaries-besides fine yams-were the root and bud of a kind of water-lily, which when roasted tasted not unlike a sweet potato.

There was usually a good water supply in the neighbourhood of these camps, and if it failed (as it very frequently did), the whole tribe simply moved its quarters elsewhere-perhaps a hundred miles off.

The instinct of these people for finding water, however, was nothing short of miraculous. No one would think of going down to the seashore to look for fresh water, yet they often showed me the purest and most refreshing of liquids oozing up out of the sand on the beach after the tide had receded.

All this time, and for many months afterwards, my boat and everything it contained were saved from molestation and theft by a curious device on the part of Yamba. She simply placed a couple of crossed sticks on the sand near the bows, this being evidently a kind of Masonic sign to all beholders that they were to respect the property of the stranger among them; and I verily believe that the boat and its contents might have remained there until they fell to pieces before any one of those cannibal blacks would have dreamed of touching anything that belonged to me.

After a time the natives began pointedly to suggest that I should stay with them. They had probably heard from Yamba about the strange things I possessed, and the occult powers I was supposed to be gifted with. A day or two after my landing, a curious thing happened-nothing more or less than the celebration of my marriage! I was standing near my boat, still full of thoughts of escape, when two magnificent naked chiefs, decked with gaudy pigments and feather head-dresses, advanced towards me, leading between them a young, dusky maiden of comparatively pleasing appearance.

The three were followed by an immense crowd of natives, and were within a few feet of me, when they halted suddenly. One of the chiefs then stepped out and offered me a murderous-looking club, with a big knob at one end, which ugly weapon was known as a "waddy." As he presented this club the chief made signs that I was to knock the maiden on the head with it. Now, on this I confess I was struck with horror and dismay at my position, for, instantly recalling what Yamba had told me, I concluded that a cannibal feast was about to be given in my honour, and that-worst horror of all-I might have to lead off with the first mouthful of that smiling girl. Of course, I reflected they had brought the helpless victim to me, the distinguished stranger, to kill with my own hands. At that critical moment, however, I resolved to be absolutely firm, even if it cost me my life.

While I hesitated, the chief remained absolutely motionless, holding out the murderous-looking club, and looking at me interrogatively, as though unable to understand why I did not avail myself of his offer. Still more extraordinary, the crowd behind observed a solemn and disconcerting silence. I looked at the girl; to my amazement she appeared delighted with things generally-a poor, merry little creature, not more than fifteen or sixteen years of age. I decided to harangue the chiefs, and as a preliminary I gave them the universal sign to sit down and parley. They did so, but did not seem pleased at what they doubtless considered an unlooked-for hitch in an interesting ceremony.

Then in hesitating signs, slaps, clicks, and guttural utterances, I gave them to understand that it was against my faith to have anything whatever to do with the horrid orgy they contemplated. The Great Spirit they dreaded so much yet so vaguely, I went on to say, had revealed to me that it was wrong to kill any one in cold blood, and still more loathsome and horrible to eat the flesh of a murdered fellow-creature. I was very much in earnest, and I waited with nervous trepidation to see the effect of my peroration. Under the circumstances, you may judge of my astonishment when not only the chiefs, but the whole "nation" assembled, suddenly burst into roars of eerie laughter.

Then came Yamba to the rescue. Ah! noble and devoted creature! The bare mention of her name stirs every fibre of my being with love and wonder. Greater love than hers no creature ever knew, and not once but a thousand times did she save my wretched life at the risk of her own.

Well, Yamba, I say, came up and whispered to me. She had been studying my face quietly and eagerly, and had gradually come to see what was passing in my mind. She whispered that the chiefs, far from desiring me to kill the girl for a cannibal feast, were offering her to me as a wife, and that I was merely expected to tap her on the head with the stick, in token of her subjection to her new spouse! In short, this blow on the head was the legal marriage ceremony tout simple. I maintained my dignity as far as possible, and proceeded to carry out my part of the curious ceremony.

I tapped the bright-eyed girl on the head, and she immediately fell prostrate at my feet, in token of her wifely submission. I then raised her up gently, and all the people came dancing round us, uttering weird cries of satisfaction and delight. Oddly enough, Yamba, far from manifesting any jealousy, seemed to take as much interest as any one in the proceedings, and after everything was over she led my new wife away to the little "humpy," or hut, that had been built for me by the women. That night an indescribably weird corroboree was held in my honour, and I thought it advisable, since so much was being made of me, to remain there all night and acknowledge the impromptu songs that were composed and sung in my honour by the native bards. I am afraid I felt utterly lost without Yamba, who was, in the most literal sense, my right hand.

By this time she could speak a little English, and was so marvellously intelligent that she seemed to discover things by sheer intuition or instinct. I think she never let a day go by without favourably impressing the chiefs concerning me, my prowess and my powers; and without her help I simply could not have lived through the long and weary years, nor should I ever have returned to civilisation.

The very next day after my "marriage," having been still further enlightened as to the manners and customs of the natives, I waited upon Gunda, and calmly made to him the proposition that we should exchange wives. This suggestion he received with a kind of subdued satisfaction, or holy joy, and very few further negotiations were needed to make the transaction complete; and, be it said, it was an every-day transaction, perfectly legal and recognised by all the clans. Yamba was full of vigour and resource, while the only phrase that fitly describes her bush lore is absolutely miraculous. This will be evinced in a hundred extraordinary instances in this narrative.

But you may be asking, What of my dog, Bruno? Well, I am thankful to say, he was still with me, but it took him a long time to accustom himself to his new surroundings; he particularly objected to associating with the miserable pariah curs that prowled about the encampment. They would take sly bites out of him when he was not looking, but on the whole, he was well able to hold his own, being much more powerful than they.

I settled down to my new life in the course of a few days, but I need hardly remark I did not propose staying in that forlorn spot longer than I could help. This was my plan. I would, first of all, make myself acquainted with the habits and customs of the blacks, and pick up as much bushmanship and knowledge of the country as it was possible to acquire, in case I should have to travel inland in search of civilisation instead of oversea. I knew that it would be folly on my part to attempt to leave those hospitable regions without knowing more of the geography of the country and its people. There was always, however, the hope that some day I might be able either to get away by sea in my boat, or else hail some passing vessel. The blacks told me they had seen many pass at a distance.

Every morning I was astir by sunrise, and-hope springing eternal-at once searched for the faintest indication of a passing sail. Next I would bathe in a lagoon protected from sharks, drying myself by a run on the beach. Meanwhile Yamba would have gone out searching for roots for breakfast, and she seldom returned without a supply of my favourite water-lily buds already mentioned. Often, in the years that followed, did that heroic creature tramp on foot a hundred miles to get me a few sprigs of saline herbs. She had heard me say I wanted salt, which commodity, strange to say, was never used by the natives; and even when I gave them some as an experiment they did not seem to care about it. She would also bring in, by way of seasoning, a kind of small onion, known as the nelga, which, when roasted, made a very acceptable addition to our limited fare. The natives themselves had but two meals a day-breakfast, between eight and nine o'clock, and then an enormous feast in the late afternoon. Their ordinary food consisted of kangaroo, emu, snakes, rats, and fish; an especial dainty being a worm found in the black ava tree, or in any decaying trunk.

These worms were generally grilled on hot stones, and eaten several at a time like small whitebait. I often ate them myself, and found them most palatable. After breakfast the women of the tribe would go out hunting roots and snaring small game for the afternoon meal, while the men went off on their war and hunting expeditions, or amused themselves with feats of arms. The children were generally left to their own devices in the camp, and the principal amusement of the boys appeared to be the hurling of reed spears at one another. The women brought home the roots (which they dug up with yam sticks, generally about four feet long) in nets made out of the stringy parts of the grass tree; stringy bark, or strong pliable reeds, slung on their all-enduring backs. They generally returned heavily laden between two and three in the afternoon. I always knew the time pretty accurately by the sun, but I lost count of the days. The months, however, I always reckoned by the moon, and for each year I made a notch on the inside of my bow.

My own food was usually wrapped in palm leaves before being placed in the sand oven. Of course the leaves always burned, but they kept the meat free from sand; and my indefatigable wife was always exercising her ingenuity to provide me with fresh dainties. In addition to the ordinary fare of the natives, I frequently had wild ducks and turkeys, and-what was perhaps the greatest luxury of all-eggs, which the natives sent for specially on my account to distant parts of the surrounding country, and also to the islands of the coast where white cockatoos reared their young in rocky cliffs.

At the time of my shipwreck I had little or no knowledge of Australian geography, so that I was utterly at a loss as to my position. I afterwards learnt, however, that Yamba's home was on Cambridge Gulf, on the NNW. coast of the Australian continent, and that the central point of our camping ground at this time was near the mouth of the Victoria River, which flows into Queen's Channel.

Almost every evening the blacks would hold a stately corroboree, singing and chanting; the burden of their song being almost invariably myself, my belongings, and my prowess-which latter, I fear, was magnified in the most extravagant manner. Besides the corroboree they also would assemble for what might not inaptly be termed evening prayers, which consisted of a poetical recital of the events of the day. I ought to mention that at first I did not accompany the men on their excursions abroad, because I was far from perfect in their language; and furthermore, I was not skilled in hunting or in bush lore. Therefore, fearful of exciting ridicule, I decided to remain behind in the camp until I was thoroughly grounded in everything there was to be learned. Supposing, for example, I had gone out with the blacks, and had to confess myself tired after tramping several miles. Well, this kind of thing would certainly have engendered contempt; and once the mysterious white stranger was found to be full of the frailties of the ordinary man, his prestige would be gone, and then life would probably become intolerable.

Thus everything I did I had to excel in, and it was absolutely necessary that I should be perpetually "astonishing the natives," in the most literal sense of the phrase. Accordingly, for the next few weeks, I used to accompany the women on their root-hunting and rat-catching expeditions, and from them I picked up much valuable information.

The corroboree was, perhaps, the greatest institution known to the blacks, who, obliged to do no real work, as we understand it, simply had to pass the time somehow; and there can be no doubt that, were it not for the constant feuds and consequent incessant wars, the race would greatly deteriorate. The corroboree after a successful battle commenced with a cannibal feast off the bodies of fallen foes, and it would be kept up for several days on end, the braves lying down to sleep near the fire towards morning, and renewing the festivities about noon

next day. The chiefs on these occasions decked themselves with gorgeous cockatoo feathers, and painted their bodies with red and yellow ochre and other glaring pigments, each tribe having its own distinguishing marks. A couple of hours were generally spent in dressing and preparing for the ceremony, and then the gaily-decorated fighting-men would dance or squat round the fires and chant monotonous songs, telling of all their own achievements and valour, and the extraordinary sights they had seen in their travels.

The words of the songs were usually composed by the clan's own poet, who made a living solely by his profession, and even sold his effusions to other tribes. As there was no written language the purchaser would simply be coached orally by the vendor poet; and as the blacks were gifted with most marvellous memories, they would transmit and resell the songs throughout vast stretches of country. These men of the north-west were of magnificent stature, and possessed great personal strength. They were able to walk extraordinary distances, and their carriage was the most graceful I have ever seen. Many of them were over six feet high, well made in proportion and with high broad foreheads-altogether a very different race from the inhabitants of Central Australia. One of their favourite tests of strength was to take a short stick of very hard wood and bend it in their hands, using the thumbs as levers, till it snapped. Strange to say, I failed to bend the stick more than a quarter of an inch. The women are not very prepossessing, and not nearly so graceful in their bearing and gait as the men. Poor creatures! they did all the hard work of the camp-building, food-hunting, waiting, and serving. Occasionally, however, the men did condescend to go out fishing, and they would also organise battues when a big supply of food was wanted. These great hunting-parties, by the way, were arranged on an immense scale, and fire figured largely in them. The usual routine was to set fire to the bush, and then as the terrified animals and reptiles rushed out in thousands into the open, each party of blacks speared every living thing that came its way within a certain sphere. The roar of the fast-spreading fire, the thousands of kangaroos, opossums, rats, snakes, iguanas, and birds that dashed hither and thither, to the accompaniment of bewildering shouts from the men and shrill screeches from the women, who occasionally assisted, flitting hither and thither like eerie witches amidst the dense pall of black smoke-all these made up a picture which is indelibly imprinted on my mind.

As a rule, hosts of hawks and eagles are to be seen flying over the black man's camp, but on the occasion of a bush fire they follow its train, well knowing that they will obtain prey in abundance. With regard to the fishing parties, these went out either early in the morning, soon after sunrise, or in the evening, when it was quite dark. On the latter occasions, the men carried big torches, which they held high in the air with one hand, while they waded out into the water with their spears poised, in readiness to impale the first big fish they came across.

When the spearmen did strike, their aim was unerring, and the struggling fish would be hurled on to the beach to the patient women-folk, who were there waiting for them, with their big nets of grass slung over their backs. Sometimes a hundred men would be in the shallow water at once, all carrying blazing torches, and the effect as the fishermen plunged and splashed this way and that, with shouts of triumph or disappointment, may be better imagined than described. In the daytime a rather different method was adopted. Some acres of the shallow lagoon would be staked out at low water in the shape of an inverted V, an opening being left for the fish to pass through.

The high tide brought the fish in vast shoals, and then the opening would be closed. When the tide receded, the staked enclosure became, in effect, a gigantic net, filled with floundering fish, big and little. The natives then waded into the inclosure, and leisurely despatched the fish with their spears.

Nothing was more interesting than to watch one of these children of the bush stalking a kangaroo. The man made not the slightest noise in walking, and he would stealthily follow the kangaroo's track for miles (the tracks were absolutely invisible to the uninitiated). Should at length the kangaroo sniff a tainted wind, or be startled by an incautious movement, his pursuer would suddenly become as rigid as a bronze figure, and he could remain in this position for hours. Finally, when within thirty or forty yards of the animal, he launched his spear, and in all the years I was among these people I never knew a man to miss his aim. Two distinct kinds of spears were used by the natives, one for hunting and the other for war purposes. The former averaged from eight to ten feet, whilst the latter varied from ten to fourteen feet in length; the blade in each case, however, consisting either of bone or stone, with a shaft of some light hard wood. Metals were, of course, perfectly unknown as workable materials. The war-spear was not hurled javelin-fashion like the hunting-spear, but propelled by means of a wommerah, which, in reality, was a kind of sling, perhaps twenty-four inches long, with a hook at one end to fix on the shaft of the spear. In camp the men mainly occupied their time in making spears and mending their weapons. They hacked a tree down and split it into long sections by means of wedges, in order to get suitable wood for their spear-shafts.

To catch emus the hunters would construct little shelters of grass at a spot overlooking the water-hole frequented by these birds, and they were then speared as they came down for water. The largest emu I ever saw, by the way, was more than six feet high, whilst the biggest kangaroo I came across was even taller than this. Snakes were always killed with sticks, whilst birds were brought down with the wonderful boomerang.

As a rule, only sufficient food was obtained to last from day to day; but on the occasion of one of the big battues I have described there would be food in abundance for a week or more, when there would be a horrid orgy of gorging and one long continuous corroboree, until supplies gave out.

The sport which I myself took up was dugong hunting; for I ought to have mentioned that I brought a harpoon with me in the boat, and this most useful article attracted as much attention as anything I had. The natives would occasionally put their hands on my tomahawk or harpoon, and never ceased to wonder why the metal was so cold.

Whenever I went out after dugong, accompanied by Yamba (she was ever with me), the blacks invariably came down in crowds to watch the operation from the beach.

But, you will ask, what did I want with dugong, when I had so much other food at hand? Well my idea was to lay in a great store of dried provisions against the time when I should be ready to start for civilisation in my boat. I built a special shed of boughs, in which I conducted my curing operations; my own living-place being only a few yards away. It was built quite in European fashion, with a sloping roof. The interior was perhaps twenty feet square and ten feet high, with a small porch in which my fire was kept constantly burning. When we had captured a dugong the blacks would come rushing into the sea to meet us and drag our craft ashore, delighted at the prospect of a great feast. The only part of the dugong I preserved was the belly, which I cut up into strips and dried.

The blacks never allowed their fires to go out, and whenever they moved their camping-ground, the women-folk always took with them their smouldering fire-sticks, with which they can kindle a blaze in a few minutes. Very rarely, indeed, did the women allow their fire-sticks to go out altogether, for this would entail a cruel and severe punishment. A fire-stick would keep alight in a smouldering state for days. All that the women did when they wanted to make it glow was to whirl it round in the air. The wives bore ill-usage with the most extraordinary equanimity, and never attempted to parry even the most savage blow. They would remain meek and motionless under a shower of brutal blows from a thick stick, and would then walk quietly away and treat their bleeding wounds with a kind of earth. No matter how cruelly the women might be treated by their husbands, they hated sympathy, so their women friends always left them alone. It often surprised me how quickly the blacks' most terrible wounds healed; and yet they were only treated with a kind of clay and leaves of the wild rose.

I am here reminded of the native doctor. This functionary was called a rui, and he effected most of his cures with a little shell, with which he rubbed assiduously upon the affected part. Thus it will be seen that the medical treatment was a form of massage, the rubbing being done first in a downward direction and then crosswise. I must say, however, that the blacks were very rarely troubled with illness, their most frequent disorder being usually the result of excessive gorging when a particularly ample supply of food was forthcoming-say, after a big battue over a tribal preserve.

In an ordinary case of overfeeding, the medicine man would rub his patient's stomach with such vigour as often to draw blood. He would also give the sufferer a kind of grass to eat, and this herb, besides clearing the system, also acted as a most marvellous appetiser. The capacity of some of my blacks was almost beyond belief. One giant I have in my mind ate a whole kangaroo by himself. I saw him do it. Certainly it was not an excessively big animal, but, still, it was a meal large enough for three or four stalwart men.

In a case of fever the natives resorted to charms to drive away the evil spirit that was supposed to be troubling the patient. The universal superstition about all maladies is that they are caused by the "evil eye," directed against the sufferer by some enemy. Should one member of a tribe be stricken down with a disease, his friends at once come to the conclusion that he has been "pointed at" by a member of another tribe who owed him a grudge; he has, in short, been bewitched, and an expedition is promptly organised to seek out and punish the individual in question and all his tribe. From this it is obvious that war is of pretty frequent occurrence. And not only so, but every death is likewise the signal for a tribal war. There is no verdict of "Death from natural causes." Punitive expeditions are not organised in the event of slight fevers or even serious illness-only when the patient dies. A tribe I once came across some miles inland were visited by a plague of what I now feel sure must have been smallpox. The disease, they said, had been brought down from the coast, and although numbers of the blacks died, war was not declared against any particular tribe. As a rule, the body of the dead brave is placed upon a platform erected in the forks of trees, and his weapons neatly arranged below. Then, as decay set in, and the body began to crumble away, the friends and chiefs would come and observe certain mystic signs, which were supposed to give information as to what tribe or individual had caused the death of the deceased.

It must have been within a month of my landing on Yamba's country, in Cambridge Gulf, that I witnessed my first cannibal feast. One of the fighting-men had died in our camp, and after the usual observations had been taken, it was decided that he had been pointed at, and his death brought about, by a member of another tribe living some distance away. An expedition of some hundreds of warriors was at once fitted out. The enemy was apparently only too ready for the fray, because the armies promptly met in an open plain, and I had an opportunity of witnessing the extraordinary method by which the Australian blacks wage war. One of the most redoubtable of our chiefs stepped forward, and explained the reason of his people's visit in comparatively calm tones. An opposing chief replied to him, and gradually a heated altercation arose, the abuse rising on a crescendo scale for ten or fifteen minutes. These two then retired, and another couple of champion abusers stepped forward to "discuss" the matter. This kind of thing went on for a considerable time, the abuse being of the most appalling description, and directed mainly against the organs of the enemy's body (heart, liver, &c.), his ancestors, "his ox, his ass, and everything that was his." At length, when every conceivable thing had been said that it was possible to say, the warriors drew near, and at last some one threw a spear. This, of course, was the signal for real action, and in a few minutes the engagement became general. There was no strategy or tactics of any kind, every man fighting single-handed.

But to return to the battle I was describing. After a very few minutes' fighting the enemy were utterly routed, and promptly turned tail and fled from the scene of the encounter, leaving behind them-after all the uproar and the flood of vilification-only three of their warriors, and these not dead, but only more or less badly wounded. Quarter being neither given nor expected in these battles, the three prostrate blacks were promptly despatched by the leader of my tribe, the coup de grace being given with a waddy, or knobbed stick. The three bodies were then placed on litters made out of spears and grass, and in due time carried into our own camp.

There were so many unmistakable signs to presage what was coming that I knew a cannibal feast was about to take place. But for obvious reasons I did not protest against it, nor did I take any notice whatever. The women (who do all the real work) fell on their knees, and with their fingers scraped three long trenches in the sand, each about seven feet long and three deep. Into each of these ovens was placed one of the bodies of the fallen warriors, and then the trench was filled up-firstly with stones, and then with sand. On top of all a huge fire was built, and maintained with great fierceness for about two hours. There was great rejoicing during this period of cooking, and apparently much pleasurable anticipation among the triumphant blacks. In due time the signal was given, and the ovens laid open once more. I looked in and saw that the bodies were very much burnt. The skin was cracked in places and liquid fat was issuing forth. . . . But, perhaps, the less said about this horrible spectacle the better. With a yell, several warriors leaped into each trench and stuck spears through the big "joints." And the moment the roasted carcasses were taken out of the trenches the whole tribe literally fell upon them and tore them limb from limb. I saw mothers with a leg or an arm surrounded by plaintive children, who were crying for their portion of the fearsome dainty.

Others, who were considered to have taken more than their share, were likewise fallen upon and their "joint" subdivided and hacked to pieces with knives made from shells. The bodies were not cooked all through, so that the condition of some of the revellers, both during and after the orgy, may best be left to the imagination. A more appalling, more ghastly, or more truly sickening spectacle it is impossible for the mind of man to conceive. A great corroboree was held after the feast, but, with my gorge rising and my brain reeling, I crept to my own humpy and tried to shut out from my mind the shocking inferno I had just been compelled to witness.

But let us leave so fearful a subject and consider something more interesting and amusing.

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