Under the Southern Cross
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The common weapons possessed by the aborigines when first discovered by the whites – besides the boomerang, which can inflict a severe if not fatal wound – were heavy war-clubs curiously carved, wooden spears tipped with flint, and many others made of sharpened stones. In throwing their wooden spears they were wonderfully expert, – an art which they still cultivate and willingly exhibit to strangers. A bullet from a rifle speeds not more surely to the bull's-eye than do these spears when thrown by the hand of a native; but the singular skill which can impart such magic to a weapon like the boomerang, might well be supposed to prove effective in launching a straight spear to its mark. All these weapons constructed by the Australian natives are elaborately finished, and so polished, indeed, as to surpass the effect of varnish, in every way showing great care and patient labor in their manufacture. But though possessed of such skill in the construction of weapons, they appear to have none in the building of houses. In no part of the world have we seen people so poorly lodged, for even the Digger Indians of California afford themselves some sort of secure shelter while these people have none.
Ethnologists tell us that these blacks belong to the Ethiopian race, – the lowest, probably, of all the human family. That they form a special type is very clear to any one who has been among them. The conviction forces itself upon one that they must be the remnant of some ancient and peculiar people, of whom we have no historic record. It is believed among well-informed persons in Brisbane (as we have already intimated) that cannibalism is still secretly practised among some of the tribes. Those living in northern Queensland are so isolated as to have adopted but few modern tools or domestic utensils, but they still have their stone knives and axes. As a people they are very far behind the Maoris in intelligence, and are ever ready to adopt the vices of the whites but not their virtues. Great care is taken to keep fire-arms away from them, which effort is by no means successful, as there are plenty of adventurous white men – themselves outlaws – who will sell arms and ammunition to the natives whenever it is for their own advantage to do so. These tribes are quite pugnacious, and are known to have killed many of the Chinese who have landed at the north, near Torres Strait, whom they doubtless devoured. The old Brisbane tribe, known to have numbered not many years ago some twelve hundred, is now absolutely extinct, not a word of its language even being spoken by a human being. Within a wide sweep of Sydney and Melbourne the aboriginal tribes have virtually died out.
As regards morality, or virtue, among the black women, they would seem to have no idea of the significance of such terms. We learned one curious fact relating to the burial of the dead among the natives, which is that they always place the body in the ground in an upright position. Their religion seems to be a sort of demon worship."Good God take care himself; bad God [devil], – look sharp for him!" There is some cunning if not philosophy in this sort of reasoning. Like many other savage people, especially those inhabiting tropical regions, they have no idea of harvesting, or of storing food for future use. If they have enough to eat at the present hour, that is all-sufficient.
When Australia was first taken possession of by the whites it seems to have been, if the term is in any instance admissible, a God-forsaken land; certainly the most destitute of natural productions of any portion of the globe. We can well believe that before these blacks came hither, – perhaps a thousand years ago, – this land was untrodden by human beings, though scientists are by no means agreed upon this point. No species of grain was known to these natives; not a single fruit worthy of notice grew wild, and not an edible root of value was produced. The only game of any size was the kangaroo and a few species of birds. Now the trees, fruits, vegetables, and game of all regions have become domesticated here, and have all proved to be highly productive, whether transplanted from tropical or from semi-tropical regions. While we write these lines, one most palatable and peculiar product is recalled, namely, the passion-fruit. The gorgeous flowering species is familiar to us all, but the fruit-bearing vine grows in Australia to perfection. When ripe it is egg-shaped, and about the size of a hen's-egg, being eaten in much the same manner. The top is cut off, leaving the skin as a shell from which the luscious contents are eaten with a spoon. The flavor is a most agreeable sub-acid.
We have intimated that appearances lead to the conviction that both Australia and New Zealand were uninhabited about ten centuries ago; and yet it would seem as though the South Pacific must have been peopled by races of a certain degree of civilization in the far past. On the Marshall and the Gilbert groups of islands, as well as on the Kingsmill and the Ladrones, there are prehistoric stone monuments which were never constructed by savages. On Lele, near Strong's Island, there are elaborate stone fortifications overgrown by tropical forests, the walls of which are twelve feet thick, underlaid by caverns, vaults, and secret passages. Here also is a quadrangular tower forty feet in height. The tradition of the present inhabitants is that a great city once existed on this site, of which they know nothing. Ruins are also found in the Navigator's Islands, the Marquesas, and even the Sandwich Islands, whose origin is as much a mystery to the present inhabitants as to the inquiring stranger. Was there once in the far-away past a great Malayan Empire existing in the Pacific Ocean? There is a Peruvian tradition that in the olden times strangers came from the great South Sea in ships to the west coast of America, for commercial intercourse with the civilized race which existed there.
In visiting these various by-paths of the globe, one realizes that there are problems as to the antiquity of our race the solution of which reaches far beyond any of the most ancient records of our present civilization. We have seen in the Boulak Museum at Cairo objects of Egyptian make which were doubtless six thousand years old; and the Sphinx, situated ten miles away, where the city of Gizeh once stood, must antedate that period. But among these South Sea Islands are prehistoric ruins and monuments which are believed to antedate the Sphinx. The same may be said of the buried columns that have been overgrown by the forests of central Ceylon to the depth of a hundred feet. To our humble perception, so far from bringing man's origin more into accordance with the Darwinian theory, these facts widen the gap, and render it still more doubtful.
A drive of a few miles inland from Brisbane carries one through pleasant villages and among farms, plantations of sugar-cane, orchards, and fields of pineapples, beyond which one enters the forest. The banks of the rivers and creeks are generally covered with a dense semi-tropical growth of vegetation, while the forest stretches for many a mile into lonely districts. A great variety of trees are found here, some of primeval growth and large size, belonging to the blue-gum species; others, like sassafras, pine, and cedar, are fragrant and delight the senses, being surrounded by a thick undergrowth of marvellous luxuriance. The jungles in India or the islands of the Malacca Straits are not more dense than some of the wooded districts to be found in Queensland. These retired spots are filled with bird and insect life, but with few animals. Cockatoos and parrots, in gay colors and gaudy combinations, are the prevailing representatives of the feathered tribe. There are also numberless wild pigeons, in great variety, uttering a ceaseless, low, brooding note which seems to be in exact harmony with the sylvan surroundings. The bell-bird, cat-bird, and laughing jackass announce their presence in unmistakable utterances, all serving to keep the senses on the qui vive.
The early morning was the hour chosen for our visit to one of these forest glades, while the dew was yet upon the grass. Our companion – a resident full of enthusiasm and intelligence, and withal a good horseman – hurried us into the saddle to reach the woods betimes. "At noon," said he, "you might hear a leaf drop anywhere hereabout, for at that hour, bird, insect, reptile, even the flies and mosquitoes of the Queensland 'scrub,' take their siesta; but in the morning and the gloaming they vie with one another in their vocal demonstrations." The morning was cloudless; the advancing day was already tempered by the warmth of the sun, but in the shade of the trees there was a cool fragrance and only a dim cathedral light.
Flying foxes greatly abound in this vicinity as well as in other parts of the country, often appearing in surprising numbers, especially on moonlight nights. They prove most destructive to choice fruits, and are said to be an increasing nuisance. The leaves of the gum-tree seem to form their principal food; but at times they visit a cultivated section in such marvellous numbers as to sweep away every green leaf and tender shoot in the gardens and fields, like an army of locusts. The natives and Chinese eat them, but the more civilized inhabitants would as soon eat rats and mice. These flying foxes are unable to take flight from the ground, and when they are found there can easily be captured. Neither can they run rapidly, but waddle toward the nearest tree-trunk, which they ascend rapidly by means of their long, sharp claws, and from the branches of which they throw themselves into the air, where they skim about like a bird on the wing. They are rarely seen until evening, always performing their depredations by night. It is a remarkable fact that these peculiarly awkward creatures, whose legs seem utterly unavailable for ordinary service, unless it be for climbing, will carry large fruit, weighing nearly a pound, long distances to their nests. During the day they retire to secluded places in the woods, where they sleep hanging head downward from the branches by the natural hooks attached to their shoulders. As with common bats, which they resemble in some respects, secluded caves are a favorite resort of the flying foxes.
We are reminded in this connection of another remarkable animal found here, called the flying 'possum, – a creature which does not actually fly, but which "shoots" across a considerable space through the air, between tall trees or elevated objects like cliffs, by means of expanding a loose skin or membrane formed on both of its sides, and which connects the front legs with the hind ones. This creature, like the kangaroo, is indigenous, and only found in Australia.
We heard much said about the venomous nature of Australian snakes, and were cautioned especially to avoid the places known to be frequented by them. Doubtless there are plenty of snakes in Australia as in most other regions, poisonous ones also in the bush, and that they do sometimes fatally bite persons there can be no question; but we did not chance to see any, either of the venomous or harmless sort. There is one quality very commendable in the serpent tribe: as a rule, they show a disposition to get out of the way of human beings. If trampled upon, of course they will turn and bite or sting; but this is not to be set down to their discredit, but to the natural instinct of self-defence. One of the most venomous of all snakes is indigenous to our own country, – namely, the rattle-snake; but even he never fails to give ample warning of his presence before attacking any one. The habits of these Australian snakes are similar to those of their species wherever found; their usual resort is a hole in the ground under fallen leaves, or in the decaying trunk of a tree, and they live by preying upon frogs, mice, lizards, and birds. We were told of some instances of their power to charm small birds, – an old story to be sure, and one for which we must have ocular evidence before crediting it. New Zealand is happily free from the pest of snakes, – there being no more there than in Ireland. Doubtless Providence had some legitimate purpose to subserve in creating tarantulas, poisonous spiders, and scorpions in Australia, but the "why and wherefore" is rather a conundrum.
We heard while in Sydney a singular snake-story, which we have every reason to believe to be true, the facts of which were said to have occurred not long before near the town of Parametta. In the family of a settler who resided some half a league from the town was an invalid daughter, of an extremely nervous temperament. She was sleeping one summer afternoon in a hammock swung between a couple of supporting standards in the shade of the piazza, when she was suddenly awakened by feeling something cold and moist clinging about her throat. She put up her hand to the spot and clasped the body of a snake just back of its head, and with a horrified cry wrenched with all her strength to tear it away. This was the first instinctive action of the moment, but so great was her terror that she speedily lost all consciousness of the situation. Her hand however still grasped the snake where she had first seized upon it, and with such a convulsive force that the creature was rendered powerless. The cry of the terrified girl brought the father from within the house, who instantly came to her relief; but in the fit which her fright had induced, her hand slowly contracted about the creature's throat with a force which awake she could not possibly have exerted, and before her fingers were unclasped by the aid of a bit of the hammock cord the reptile was completely strangled. Fortunately the creature had not bitten the girl before she seized it; and after that, it was unable to do so. It is said to have been four feet long and of a poisonous species.
Queensland is nearer to New Guinea on the north than Victoria is on the south to Tasmania. The depth of Torres Strait, which separates Queensland and New Guinea, is nowhere over nine fathoms. It is generally believed by those who make a study of such matters that these two countries were originally connected, and that the sea, aided perhaps by some volcanic action, finally separated them. After a current between them was once established, the land on each side would wear away rapidly. The distance across the Strait is to-day less than one hundred miles. Doubtless many of the island groups in this region were first formed in some such manner as we have indicated. By glancing at a map of the world the reader will observe that there are islands that extend almost uninterruptedly from the southeastern extremity of Asia nearly half-way across the Pacific. Oceania is the favorite word applied by geographers to this world of islands, especially as indicating Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, and their immediate dependencies. Of this system Australia forms the great central feature. Some idea of the immensity of the Pacific Ocean may be realized when we see that there is nevertheless an unbroken waste of waters between these islands and the coast of America of some two thousand miles in width. These lands of Oceania are surrounded by water not only of the widest expanse, but also – as has been proved by scientific soundings – of the greatest depth of any on the globe.
Queensland is as liable to serious droughts as the rest of Australia on the slopes of the mountain range of the interior. As we have already shown, nearer the coast the land is well watered. There are few lakes in the colony, – indeed, none worthy of the name; and the one river which is the Mississippi of the country, known as the Murray, – navigable for over a thousand miles of its course, – is not at all times to be relied upon. This is an evil which could easily be remedied by skilful engineering. This river has no proper outlet to the sea, but debouches into a shallow marsh called Lake Alexandrina. "Sir," said an individual to us at Sydney, with piscatorial dogmatic emphasis, "No country can be great without trout or salmon." As Australia has no available rivers for these fish to swim in, the inference as to her possible greatness was obvious.
We have said that the Murray is the Mississippi of Australia, but it is no more like that great Father of Waters than Tom Thumb is like Hercules. Like the Mississippi, however, it has a greater, or at least longer, tributary than itself. As the American river is the receptacle of the Missouri, so the Murray obtains its greatest volume by means of its principal branch and feeder, the Darling. This river extends over twelve degrees of latitude, and by its winding course would measure three thousand miles. It is mostly supplied by the snow-clad Australian Alps. The fitful nature of this watercourse may be judged by the fact that although it is often in places a torrent, and in others expands into lake-like proportions over low-lying country, at certain seasons it may be crossed on foot where it joins the Murray. Below this junction the latter river frequently expands to three hundred yards and more in width, with a depth of from ten to twenty feet. For fifteen hundred miles of its course it is called a navigable river, though it is not to be relied upon as such, – small river steamers being not infrequently caught upon shoals, where they are left high and dry for months together. So with regard to the Darling; notwithstanding its erratic character, it has often been ascended by light-draught steamers nearly a thousand miles above its junction with the Murray.
It is singular that in a country where irrigation is so much needed, and where enterprise is so general in all other directions, this matter does not receive more attention. To the stranger, irrigation seems to be the one thing lacking in this favored land. Canals tapping these rivers at points where they should first be dammed, would pay a twofold reward, – not only supplying water wherewith to quench the thirst of the half-exhausted land, but, being made navigable, they would convey to market the very crops they had already enabled the husbandman to raise. Where the country is thus irrigated, – as in India and Utah, – the crops are simply certain, rain or shine; and the transportation is also assured at a reasonable figure. Australia, with its rich virgin soil and dry climate, is just the place to repay tenfold all irrigating enterprise. We were told of certain points on the Murray River, where, by one properly constructed dam, water in abundance could be held and thrown back for a distance of thirty miles. It appears that in one year not long ago, when there was a great drought, over fifteen million sheep and horned cattle died of thirst in New South Wales and Queensland! This sounds almost incredible, but it was so recorded in the official reports of the colonies. And yet the means of conserving water by simple methods are, as we have seen, quite within the reach of government or private enterprise. In one year, by suitable arrangements, animal property alone might have been saved to the value of fifty million dollars. We were told of one extraordinary period of drought which extended over five years previous to 1870, which was followed by copious and excessive rains lasting for months, – "thus," as our agricultural informant pithily expressed it, "turning a blessing into a judgment."
Queensland, as we have shown, occupies the northeastern portion of the continent, and measures thirteen hundred miles in length from north to south, by eight hundred miles in width, containing a population at the present time of about three hundred and forty thousand. The climate of Brisbane is often compared to that of Madeira; it is entirely free from the hot winds which sometimes render Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide so extremely uncomfortable. The river which divides the city into north and south Brisbane is crossed by a grand iron bridge over a quarter of a mile in length, a portion of which swings upon a centre to admit of the passage of steamers and sailing-vessels, the river being navigable above the capital.
Political excitement runs high in Brisbane. We were told of scenes that occurred in the local parliament leading to bitter criminations between members, which would certainly have resulted in duels in most countries. Sometimes, however, a different spirit prevails, and a spicing of fun is introduced. On one occasion the bill of a firm of solicitors against the Government came up for discussion. The firm name was Little & Brown, and their account seemed to some of the members to be exorbitant. While the question of voting the money to pay this bill was before the house, there was also one pending for the protection of wild birds. At last a humorous member proposed that the account of the "lawyer-bird" should be included in the bill. His meaning was not at first apparent to the assembly, and the presiding officer asked him to explain what this bird was. His answer created an uproar of laughter among the members. "The bird I refer to," he said, "is little and brown; and it has a very long bill!"
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