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The Adventures of Louis de Rougemont By Louis de Rougemont Characters: 28883

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

My usual introduction-A serious entertainment-The power of the bow-Repulsive blacks-Mysterious spears-Waterless wastes-A battle with snakes-More prestige-Rubies thrown away-Quarrying extraordinary.

Occasionally one of the tribes would display hostility towards us at first sight, but I generally managed to ingratiate myself into their good graces by the exercise of a little diplomacy-and acrobatics. Curiously enough, many of these tribes did not display much surprise at seeing a white man, apparently reserving all their amazement for Bruno's bark and the white man's wonderful performances.

I may here remark that, in the event of our coming across a hostile tribe who fought shy of my friendly advances, I would, without ceremony, introduce myself by dashing into their midst and turning a few somersaults or Catherine-wheels such as the London gamins display for the benefit of easily-pleased excursionists. This queer entertainment usually created roars of laughter, and set every one at his ease.

I remember once being surprised by the sudden appearance over the crest of a hillock of about twenty blacks, all well armed and presenting rather a formidable appearance. The moment they caught sight of Yamba and myself they halted, whereupon I advanced and called out to them that I was a friend, at the same time holding out my passport stick. By the way, the efficacy of this talisman varied according to the tribes. Yamba could make neither head nor tail of these people; they jabbered in a language quite unintelligible to either of us. I then reverted to the inevitable sign language, giving them to understand that I wished to sleep with them a night or two; but they still continued to brandish their spears ominously. Yamba presently whispered in my ear that we had better not trouble them any further, as they were evidently inclined to be pugnacious. This was a very exceptional rencontre, because I usually induced the natives to sit down and parley with me, and then I would produce my mysterious stick. In the event of this proving of little account, both I and Bruno would without a moment's hesitation plunge into our performance. It always began with a few somersaults. Bruno needed no looking after. He knew his business, and went through his own repertoire with great energy and excitement. The accompanying barks were probably involuntary, but they were a great help in astonishing and impressing the natives.

Even in this instance I was unwilling to retire defeated; so suddenly pulling out one of my little reed whistles capable of producing two notes, I commenced a violent jig to my own "music." The effect on the scowling and ferocious-looking blacks was quite magical. They immediately threw down their spears and laughed uproariously at my vigorous antics. I danced till I was quite tired, but managed to wind up the entertainment with a few somersaults, which impressed them vastly.

I had conquered. When I had finished they advanced and greeted me most heartily, and from that moment we were friends. I had completely done away with their enmity by my simple efforts to amuse them. For the most part, this was my invariable experience. The natives were the easiest people in the world to interest and amuse, and when once I had succeeded in winning them in this way, they were our warmest friends. This band of warriors took us back to their camping-ground, some miles away, and actually gave a great feast in my honour that evening, chanting the wonderful things they had seen until far into the night. The place where I met these blacks was a broken, stony, and hilly country, which, however, abounded in roots and snakes-especially snakes. My hosts had evidently had a recent battue, or fire hunt, for they had a most extraordinary stock of food. So completely had I won them over, that I actually hung up my bow and arrows along with their spears before retiring to rest. The expression "hung up" may seem curious, so I hasten to explain that the natives tied up their spears in bunches and placed them on the scrub bushes.

Next morning I brought down a few hawks on the wing with my bow and arrows, and then the amazement of the natives was quite comical to witness. Shooting arrows in a straight line astonished them somewhat, but the more bombastic among them would say, "Why I can do that," and taking his woomerah he would hurl a spear a long distance. Not one of them, however, was able to throw a spear upwards, so I scored over even the most redoubtable chiefs. It may be well to explain, that birds are always to be found hovering about a native camp; they act as scavengers, and their presence in the sky is always an indication that an encampment is somewhere in the vicinity. These birds are especially on the spot when the blacks set fire to the bush and organise a big battue. At such times the rats and lizards rush out into the open, and the hawks reap a fine harvest.

My natives are referred to as "blacks," or "black-fellows," but they are not really black, their hue being rather a brown, ranging from a very dark brown, indeed, to almost the lightness of a Malay. I found the coast tribes lightest in hue, while the inland natives were very much darker. Here I may mention that after having been on my way south for some months, I began to notice a total difference between the natives I met and my own people in the Cambridge Gulf district. The tribes I was now encountering daily were inferior in physique, and had inferior war implements; I do not remember that they had any shields.

The blacks I had whistled and jigged before were, perhaps, the ugliest of all the aborigines I had met, which was saying a very great deal. The men were very short, averaging little more than five feet, with low foreheads and hideously repulsive features. I noticed, however, that the animals they had for food seemed very much fatter than similar creatures farther north. One thing I was grateful to these people for was honey, which I urgently required for medicinal purposes. They were very sorry when we left them, and a small band of warriors accompanied us on our first day's march. We were then handed on from tribe to tribe, smoke signals being sent up to inform the next "nation" that friendly strangers were coming.

Nevertheless, I gradually became uneasy. We were evidently getting into a country where the greatest of our wonders could not save us from the hostility of the natives. We presently encountered another tribe, who not only at first refused to accept our friendly overtures, but even threatened to attack us before I had time to consider another plan. I tried the effect of my whistle, but even this failed in its effect; and to my alarm, before I could give them an exhibition of my acrobatic powers they had hurled one or two war spears, which whizzed by unpleasantly close to my head. Without further ado, well knowing that vacillation meant death, I sent half-a-dozen arrows in succession amongst them, taking care, however, to aim very low, so as not unduly to injure my opponents.

The hostile blacks came to a sudden halt, as they found the mysterious spears flying round them, and then watching my opportunity, I dashed forward right among them, and turned over and over in a series of rapid and breathless somersaults.

I had conquered again. Do not blame the natives, for with them every stranger is an enemy until he has proved himself a friend. Hence it is that when white men suddenly appear among these natives they run imminent risk of being promptly speared, unless they can make it quite clear that no harm is intended.

Bruno ran the same risk. Incident after incident of this kind happened almost daily, and although they involved some peril, yet they came as a welcome break when life on the march grew too monotonous. Deliberate treachery was very rare among the natives I came across, but it was by no means altogether absent; and, notwithstanding all my knowledge, my wife and I were sometimes in serious danger of our lives.

One day we came upon a tribe as usual, and after the customary preliminaries were gone through they became apparently quite friendly. I was careful never unduly to exhibit my steel tomahawk, which I always kept in a kind of sheath or covering of opossum-skin, so that it might not arouse envy; a second motive for this was to prevent its chafing my body. I never used either stiletto or tomahawk unless absolutely necessary, reserving both for great emergencies. I knew they could never be replaced, so it behoved me jealously to guard such precious possessions. I never even used my stiletto at meal-times, nor even in cutting up animals for food, lest the blood should rust the blade and eat it away. Many times already had it come in useful at close quarters-notably in the case of the fight with the alligator and the killing of the cannibal chief who owned the white girls.

The chief of the tribe I am discussing saw me using my tomahawk one day, and eagerly asked me to make over the implement to him as a gift. I courteously told him that I could not do so. He seemed somewhat disappointed at my refusal, but did not appear to bear me any ill-feeling in consequence. The blacks, by the way, seldom cut down trees except for spears, and the reason for this is very curious. They imagine the tree to be a thing of life, and when they are forced to cut one down, quite a religious ceremony is held, and profuse apologies made to the tree for taking its life.

They never even take a strip of bark right round, knowing that this will kill the tree; they always leave a little bit of connecting bark.

As some reason for the refusal of my tomahawk was expected, I told the chief that it was part of my life-indeed, part of my very being, which was perfectly true. I also worked on the chief's superstitions, assuring him earnestly that if I parted with the weapon it would so anger the spirits as to bring about a terrible curse in the country. The tomahawk I declared was a direct gift to me from the Sun itself, so how could I part with it? I had thought of offering it, curses and all, but the risk of prompt acceptance was too great.

That night Yamba warned me that trouble was impending. For myself I never knew, and I suppose she read the signs among the men and got certain definite information from the women. We therefore slept some miles away from the encampment in a makeshift gunyah built of boughs, in front of which the usual fire was made. After we had retired to rest, Yamba woke me and said that she detected strange noises. I immediately sprang to my feet and looked all round our little shelter. It was much too dark for me to see anything distinctly, but I fancied I heard retreating footsteps. Utterly at a loss to account for this strange occurrence, and fearing that some danger threatened us, Yamba and I covered in the front of the shelter, and then quietly retired into the bush, where we lay hidden without a fire until morning. When we returned to our shelter it was broad daylight, and, as we half expected, we found three formidable spears buried in the sides of our little hut. Three others were stuck in the ground near the fire, clearly proving that an attempt had been made upon our lives during the night. On examining the spears we found they most certainly belonged to the tribe we had left the previous day. The spear-heads were of a different kind of flint from anything I had previously seen, being dark green in colour; and they were extremely sharp. The individuality of the different tribes is strongly and decidedly marked in the make of their spears. Our treacherous hosts had evidently determined to obtain the coveted tomahawk by force, and when they reached the spot where they supposed we lay (they could not see into the interior from the front), they hurled their spears in the hope of killing us, but did not investigate the result, they being such arrant cowards at night. Remember, they had actually ventured at night into the bush in spite of their inveterate fear of "the spirits."

The precaution adopted on this occasion was always followed by us when we had any real doubt about the natives; that is to say, we built a "dummy" gunyah of boughs, which we were supposed to sleep in; and we covered in the front so as our possible assailants could not easily detect our absence. We would then creep away into the bush or hide behind a tree, and, of course, would light no fire.

Many times was that same tomahawk coveted. You see, the natives would watch me cutting boughs with it, or procuring honey by cutting down branches with an ease that caused them to despise their own rude stone axes.

The case of treachery I have just described was not an isolated one, but I am bound to say such occurrences were rare in the interior-although more or less frequent about the western shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria. At any rate, this was my experience.

During our journey from my home to the shores of the Gulf, I remember coming across a flat country from which the natives had apparently disappeared altogether. When we did come upon them, however, in the high ground I was probably guilty of some little breach of etiquette, such as looking at the women-(for many reasons I always studied the various types in a tribe)-and Yamba and I were often in peril of our lives on this account. As a rule, however, safety lay in the fact that the natives are terribly afraid of darkness, and they believe the spirits of the dead roam abroad in the midnight hours.

Month after month we continued our progress in a southerly direction, although, as I have said before, we often turned north-east and even due west, following the valleys when stopped by the ranges-where, by the way, we usually found turkeys in great numbers. We had water-bags made out of the skins of kangaroos and wallabies, and would camp wherever possible close to a native well, where we knew food was to be found in plenty.

At this period I noticed that the more easterly I went, the more ranges I encountered; whilst the somewhat dreary and mostly waterless lowland lay to the west. We would sometimes fail to obtain water for a couple of days; but this remark does not apply to the mountainous regions. Often the wells were quite dry and food painfully scarce; this would be in a region of sand and spinifex.

When I beheld an oasis of pal

ms and ti-trees I would make for it, knowing that if no water existed there, it could easily be got by digging. The physical conditions of the country would change suddenly, and my indefatigable wife was frequently at fault in her root-hunting expeditions. Fortunately, animal life was very seldom scarce. On the whole, we were extremely fortunate in the matter of water,-although the natives often told me that the low wastes of sand and spinifex were frequently so dry, that it was impossible even for them to cross. What astonished me greatly was that the line of demarcation between an utter desert and, say, a fine forest was almost as sharply marked as if it had been drawn with a rule. A stretch of delightfully wooded country would follow the dreary wastes, and this in turn would give place to fairly high mountain ranges.

Once, during a temporary stay among one of the tribes, the chief showed me some very interesting caves among the low limestone ranges that were close by. It was altogether a very rugged country. Always on the look-out for something to interest and amuse me, and always filled with a strange, vague feeling that something might turn up unexpectedly which would enable me to return to civilisation, I at once determined to explore these caves; and here I had a very strange and thrilling adventure.

Whilst roaming among the caves I came across a pit measuring perhaps twenty feet in diameter and eight feet or nine feet in depth. It had a sandy bottom; and as I saw a curious-looking depression in one corner, I jumped down to investigate it, leaving Bruno barking at the edge of the pit, because I knew I should have some trouble in hoisting him up again if I allowed him to accompany me. I carried a long stick, much longer than a waddy; perhaps it was a yam-stick-I cannot remember. At any rate, just as I was about to probe a mysterious-looking hole, I beheld with alarm and amazement the ugly head of a large black snake suddenly thrust out at me from a dark mass, which I presently found was the decayed stump of a tree. I fell back as far as possible, and then saw that the reptile had quite uncoiled itself from the stem, and was coming straight at me. I promptly dealt it a violent blow on the body, just below that point where it raised its head from the ground. No sooner had I done this than another dark and hissing head came charging in my direction. Again I struck at the reptile's body and overpowered it. Next came a third, and a fourth, and fifth, and then I realised that the whole of the dead stump was simply one living mass of coiled snakes, which were probably hibernating. One after another they came at me; of course, had they all come at once, no power on earth could have saved me. I wondered how long this weird contest would be kept up; and again and again between the attacks I tried to escape, but had scarcely taken an upward step when another huge reptile was upon me.

I was aware that Bruno was running backwards and forwards at the edge of the pit all this time, barking frantically in a most excited state. He knew perfectly well what snakes were, having frequently been bitten. I owe my life on this occasion solely to the fact that the snakes were in a torpid state, and came at me one at a time instead of altogether. It was the cold season, about the month of June or July. It is impossible at such moments to take any account of time, so I cannot say how long the battle lasted. At length, however, I was able to count the slain. I did this partly out of curiosity and partly because I wanted to impress the natives-to boast, if you prefer that phrase. Modesty, where modesty is unknown, would have been absurd, if not fatal to my prestige. Well, in all there were sixty-eight black snakes, averaging about four feet six inches in length.

I do not remember that I was fatigued; I think my excitement was too great for any such feeling to have made itself felt. When at length I was able to get away, I and Bruno rushed off to the native camp a few miles away, and brought back the blacks to see what I had done. The spectacle threw them into a state of great amazement, and from that time on I was looked upon with the greatest admiration. The story of how I had killed the snakes soon spread abroad among the various tribes for miles round, and was chanted by many tribes, the means of inter-communication being the universal smoke-signals. One important consequence of this adventure was that I was everywhere received with the very greatest respect.

It may be mentioned here that no matter how unfriendly tribes may be, they always exchange news by means of smoke-signals. I may also say that at corroborees and such-like festivities a vast amount of poetic boasting and exaggeration is indulged in, each "hero" being required to give practical demonstrations of the things he has seen, the doughty deeds he has done, &c. He warms up as he goes along, and magnifies its importance in a ridiculous way. It amuses me to this day to recall my own preposterous songs about how I killed the two whales with my stiletto, and other droll pretensions. But, ah! I was serious enough then!

In the mountainous region where I encountered the snakes, I also met a native who actually spoke English. He called himself either Peter or Jacky Jacky-I cannot remember which; but in any case it was a name given him by pearlers. He had once lived with some pearlers near the north-west coast of Western Australia-probably on the De Grey River. His story was quite unprecedented among the blacks, and he gave me many terrible instances of the perfidy shown by white adventurers towards the unfortunate natives. The precise locality where I met this man was probably near Mount Farewell, close to the border-line of South Australia and Western Australia. Well, then, Jacky Jacky-to give him the name which lingers most tenaciously in my mind-was persuaded to join in a pearling expedition, together with a number of his companions. They all accepted engagements from the whites, on the distinct understanding that they were to be away about three moons. Instead, they were practically kidnapped by force, and treated-or rather ill-treated-as slaves for several years.

First of all, the poor creatures were taken to an island in the vicinity of North-West Cape, off which the pearling fleet lay. During the voyage to the pearling grounds the water supply on board ran short, and so great was the suffering among the blacks-they were kept on the shortest of short commons, as you may suppose-that they plotted to steal a cask of the precious fluid for their own use. The vessel was quite a small one, and the water was kept in the hold. But the two or three whites who formed the crew forcibly prevented the black-fellows from carrying out their plan. This gave rise to much discontent, and eventually the blacks, in desperation, openly rose and mutinied. Arming themselves with heavy pieces of firewood they proceeded to attack their masters, and some of them succeeded in getting at the water, in spite of the whites, by simply knocking the bungs out of the casks. The captain thereupon went down to parley with them, but was met by a shower of blows from the heavy sticks I have just mentioned. Half-stunned, he dashed out of the hold, got his musket, and fired down among the mutineers, hitting one black-fellow in the throat, and killing him instantly. Far from infuriating the rest, as would most certainly have been the case with any other race, this course of action terrified the blacks, and they barricaded themselves down below. Eventually the whites again sought them and made peace, the blacks promising to conduct themselves more obediently in the future. It may here be said that the ship had called specially at Jacky Jacky's home on the coast to kidnap the natives.

On arriving at the pearling settlement, the blacks found themselves among a number of other unfortunate creatures like themselves, and all were compelled to go out in pearling vessels just as the exigencies of the industry required. Jacky Jacky himself was kept at this work for upwards of three years; and he told me many terrible stories of the white man's indescribable cruelty and villainy. He and his companions were invariably chained up during the night and driven about like cattle in the daytime. Many of his mates at the pearling settlement had been kidnapped from their homes in a cruel and contemptible manner, and herded off like sheep by men on horseback armed with formidable weapons.

Their sufferings were very great because, of course, they were totally unused to work of any kind. The enforced exile from home and the dreary compulsory labour made the life far worse than death for these primitive children of Nature. Then, again, they were exiled from their wives, who would, of course, be appropriated in their absence-another tormenting thought. They were frequently beaten with sticks, and when they attempted to run away they were speared as enemies by other tribes; whilst, in the event of their escaping altogether, they would not have been recognised even when they returned to their own homes. One day Jacky Jacky's ship came into a little bay on the mainland for water, and then my enterprising friend, watching his opportunity, struck inland for home and liberty, accompanied by several other companions in misery. These latter the coast natives promptly speared, but Jacky Jacky escaped, thanks probably to his knowledge of the white man's wiles. He soon reached the more friendly mountain tribes in the interior, where he was received as a man and a brother. You see, he had stolen a revolver from his late masters, and this mysterious weapon created great terror among his new friends. Altogether he posed as quite a great man, particularly when his story became known. He worked his way from tribe to tribe, until at length he got to the ranges where I met him-quite a vast distance from the coast.

Many parts of the extensive country I traversed on my southward journey, after the death of the girls, were exceedingly rich in minerals, and particularly in gold, both alluvial and in quartz. As I was making my way one day through a granite country along the banks of a creek, I beheld some reddish stones, which I at once pounced upon and found to be beautiful rubies. Having no means of carrying them, however, and as they were of no value whatever to me, I simply threw them away again, and now merely record the fact. I also came across large quantities of alluvial tin, but this, again, was not of the slightest use, any more than it had been when I found it in very large quantities in the King Leopold Ranges. The test I applied to see whether it really was tin was to scratch it with my knife. Even when large quantities of native gold lay at my feet, I hardly stooped to pick it up, save as a matter of curiosity. Why should I? What use was it to me? As I have stated over and over again in public, I would have given all the gold for a few ounces of salt, which I needed so sorely. Afterwards, however, I made use of the precious metal in a very practical manner, but of this more hereafter. At one place-probably near the Warburton Ranges in Western Australia-I picked up an immense piece of quartz, which was so rich that it appeared to be one mass of virgin gold; and when on showing it to Yamba I told her that in my country men were prepared to go to any part of the world, and undergo many terrible hardships to obtain it, she thought at first I was joking. Indeed, the thing amused her ever after, as it did the rest of my people. I might also mention that up in the then little-known Kimberley district, many of the natives weighted their spears with pure gold. I must not omit to mention that natives never poison their spear-heads. I only found the nuggets, big and little, near the creeks during and after heavy rains; and I might mention that having with some difficulty interested Yamba in the subject, she was always on the look-out for the tell-tale specks and gleams. In some of the ranges, too, I found the opal in large and small quantities, but soon discovered that the material was too light and brittle for spear-heads, to which curious use I essayed to put this beautiful stone. Talking about spear-heads, in the ranges where I met Jacky Jacky there was a quarry of that kind of stone which was used for the making of war and other implements. It was very much worked, and as you may suppose was a valuable possession to the tribe in whose territory it was situated. The stone was a kind of flint, extremely hard and capable of being made very sharp, and retaining its edge. Natives from far and near came to barter for the stone with shells, and ornaments which these inland tribes did not possess. The method of getting out the stone was by building fires over it, and then when it had become red-hot throwing large and small quantities of water upon it in an amazingly dexterous way. The stone would immediately be split and riven exactly in the manner required.

My very first discovery of gold was made in some crevices near a big creek, which had cut its way through deep layers of conglomerate hundreds of feet thick. This country was an elevated plateau, intersected by deeply cut creeks, which had left the various strata quite bare, with curious concave recesses in which the natives took shelter during the wet season. One of the nuggets I picked up in the creek I have just mentioned weighed several pounds, and was three or four inches long; it was rather more than an inch in thickness. This nugget I placed on a block of wood and beat out with a stone, until I could twist it easily with my fingers, when I fashioned it into a fillet as an ornament for Yamba's hair. This she continued to wear for many years afterwards, but the rude golden bracelets and anklets I also made for her she gave away to the first children we met.

In many of the rocky districts the reefs were evidently extremely rich; but I must confess I rarely troubled to explore them. In other regions the gold-bearing quartz was actually a curse, our path being covered with sharp pebbles of quartz and slate, which made ever step forward a positive agony. Wild ranges adjoined that conglomerate country, which, as you have probably gathered, is extremely difficult to traverse. Certainly it would be impossible for camels.

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