Under the Southern Cross
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We pass up the Tamar River through its winding channel for a distance of forty miles before coming in sight of the harbor and town of Launceston. The many tall, smoking chimney-shafts which meet the eye indicate that the town is busy smelting ores dug from the contiguous mineral hills and valleys. Approaching it in the same manner in which we first came to Parametta, at the head of river navigation, it was natural to compare the aspect of that drowsy though picturesque place with this vigorous, wide-awake community. Launceston is no Sleepy Hollow, but is a pleasant and thrifty little city, slightly addicted to earthquakes and their attendant inconveniencies. The place is named for a town in Cornwall, England, and the Tamar from a river of the same name also in that country. At our hotel numerous cracks in the walls and ceilings were silent but significant tokens of what might be expected to occur at almost any moment; but it was observed that the residents do not give this subject a second thought.
We have left Australia proper far behind, but the Bass Strait which separates that country from Tasmania is evidently of comparatively modern formation. The similarity of the vegetation, minerals, fauna, and flora of the two countries shows that this island must at some time in the long-past ages have been connected with the mainland. And yet the aborigines of Tasmania were a race quite distinct from those of Australia, – so different, indeed, as only to resemble them in color. They were a well-formed, athletic people, with brilliant eyes, curly hair, flat noses, and elaborately tattooed bodies. This ingenious and barbaric ornamentation of the body, practised by isolated savage races, seems to have been universal among the inhabitants of the Pacific Islands, though the great distances which separate them, as well as the lack of all ordinary means of intercommunication, would lead to the belief that they could not have borrowed the idea from one another. We are also reminded that singularly enough the rite of circumcision has been found to exist among some of the most completely isolated tribes of the Pacific, which causes the ethnologist to exclaim in wonder whence these savages could have got the idea. The isolation of the Samoans is so complete that one is half inclined to believe their own tradition that they originally sprang from the sea; and yet this people are even more elaborately tattooed than the natives of the Feejee Islands.
The Tasmanian aborigines "wore no clothing whatever when first discovered, leaving even those parts of the person exposed which an innate sense of decency causes most savages to conceal. They hunted the kangaroo with spears, and brought down birds with a heavy whirling stick," says an old chronicler; but whether he means by "a heavy whirling stick" to indicate the boomerang, we cannot say. If these savages possessed that ingenious instrument, it would show that they must have been more or less intimate with the Australian aborigines, who doubtless invented it.They are said to have been low in the scale of barbarism; but they were not stupid, lighting fires by the friction of two pieces of dry wood, and roasting their fowls, fish, and prisoners of war before eating them. They were openly addicted to cannibalism to the very last, until association with the whites gradually ended this barbarism. They however secretly practised infanticide until formally interfered with by the laws of the white invaders.
So late as sixty years ago there were three or four thousand of these people still in existence in Tasmania, but to-day not one soul is living to represent the race; civilization to them has indeed proved to be an active agent of destruction. They were bold and independent, prompt to resent an injury, but very poorly provided with the means of avenging themselves. Their weapons were mere toys when compared with the fire-arms of the whites. The war constantly waged between the two races was most unequal, and ended only in the extermination of the natives. These savages had to deal largely with escaped prisoners and ex-convicts, who were hardly less savage, thinking no more of shooting a black man than they would of shooting a kangaroo; and it is affirmed that this class of whites banded together and hunted the aborigines as they would wild beasts. No wonder that the natives retaliated in kind, and that when they found an unprotected family of whites they savagely destroyed women and children, and burned down their homes. Thus mutual destruction went on, the whites being annually reinforced by numbers from across the sea, and the barbaric natives dwindling rapidly away.
When the country cast off the disgrace of being a penal colony, the name it bore was very judiciously changed from Van Diemen's Land to that of Tasmania, in honor of its first discoverer, Abel Janssen Tasman, the famous Dutch navigator of the seventeenth century. We should perhaps qualify the words "first discoverer." Tasman was the first accredited discoverer, but he was less entitled to impart his name to this beautiful island than were others. Captain Cook, with characteristic zeal and sagacity, explored, surveyed, and described it, whereas Tasman scarcely more than sighted it. However, any name was preferable to that of Van Diemen's Land, which had become the synonym for a penal station, and with which is associated the memory of some of the most outrageous and murderous acts of cruelty for which a civilized government was ever responsible.
The whole island has now a population of about one hundred and thirty thousand, and a total area of over twenty-four thousand square miles, being really as much a part of Australia as Ceylon is of India, and sustaining the same relative geographical position. As Ceylon is called the pearl of the continent it so nearly adjoins, so Tasmania may justly be called the jewel of Australia. The climate is so equable and healthy that it bears the name among the Australians of the Eden of the Colonies. Its size is not quite that of Ireland, one hundred and seventy miles long by a hundred and sixty in width. There are no extremes of heat and cold, the winter mean being 47° Fahrenheit, and that of summer 65°. Lying so much nearer the Antarctic Circle it is of course cooler than the continent, but the influence of its sea surroundings renders its climate more equable. For many years it has formed a popular summer resort for the citizens of Sydney and Melbourne, as well as of other portions of the mainland. It may be the result of a local prejudice, but it is universally admitted that its native-born women are remarkable for personal beauty: we mean those born here of European parents.
The general aspect of the country is that of being occupied by thrifty farmers of advanced ideas, such as carry on their calling understandingly, much more like well-populated America than like Australia. Our native fruits – apples, peaches, pears, and the like – thrive here in such abundance as to form a prominent item in the exports, besides promoting a large and profitable industry in the packing of preserved fruits, which are in universal use in Australia and New Zealand. These canned fruits have an excellent and well-deserved reputation, there being an extensive demand for them on shipboard. Here also we saw enormous trees, with a circumference of eighty feet near the ground and a height of three hundred and fifty feet. Fern-trees, with their graceful palm-like formation, are frequently seen thirty feet in height. The country is well wooded, and traversed by pleasant watercourses; is singularly fertile, and rich in good harbors, especially upon the eastern coast. In short its hills, forests, and plains afford a pleasing variety of scenery, while its rich pastures invite the stock-breeder to reap a goodly harvest in the easiest and most profitable manner. The familiar description which occurs in Deuteronomy seems to apply exactly to this favored island: "For the Lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land; a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig-trees, and pomegranates; a land of oil-olive and honey; a land wherein thou shalt eat bread without scarceness, – thou shalt not lack anything in it; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills thou mayest dig brass."
Tasmania is already largely occupied for the purpose of sheep-runs and wool-raising, and is studded with lovely homesteads carefully fenced in, the grounds being covered with fruit and ornamental trees. There seemed to us scarcely an acre of waste land to be seen in passing through the country upon travelled routes. The roads in many districts are lined with thrifty hedges symmetrically trimmed, consisting sometimes of the brilliant yellow gorse, and often of the double, stocky species of geranium in scarlet bloom. This species, which is not particularly fragrant, grows almost like a wild scrub here, requiring little or no cultivation; the more it is trimmed down the more stocky it becomes, until a hedge of it is quite impenetrable.
The interior of Tasmania develops into a mountain range of from two to five thousand feet in height, while its valleys and plains give support and ample pasturage to two million five hundred thousand sheep, not to enumerate the large herds of horned cattle which also abound. The wool produced upon the island has long been a favorite in the market on account of its uniformity and general excellence, always commanding the best prices. In and about the mountain ranges, gold, tin, silver, copper, and coal abound, so that the land teems with undeveloped mineral wealth, besides being full of beautiful lakes and fertile valleys.
Tasmania indeed might well be the Elysium depicted by Hesiod and Pindar, the Island of the Blest in the far Western Ocean. As a whole it pleased us greatly. The women were handsome, the children bright-eyed and rosy-cheeked, the men dignified and intelligent. The dwellings were neat and substantial, the grounds and gardens trim and picturesque. The walls were ivy-grown, and the fields divided by hedges. Prosperity and good taste were observable everywhere, presenting a succession of landscapes like those of populous New England. The roads are equal to the best European highways, having been built at great expense by convict labor, winding through fields that recall, as we have said, the finest of American rural scenery, presenting at the same time scarcely a shade of newness. The people who have built such complete cottage homes here have surely done so with the intention of staying. The very sunshine seemed more golden, the trees more green and graceful, and the skies clearer and bluer than on the continent left behind. Indeed, Tasmania might be a big slice detached from England and drifted into the South Sea. The rural scenery of Kent or Surrey is not more charming, while the thrifty hop-fields here heighten the general resemblance. Gold-mining, though followed to a certain extent in Tasmania, has not seemed to demoralize the people, and is really a secondary occupation to others that pay better both in a moral and a pecuniary sense.
As we have shown, Launceston is situated at the head of navigation on the Tamar River, where the town nestles in the lap of a valley surrounded by hills. The population numbers about twelve thousand. It is regularly laid out in broad streets lighted by gas, and has a good water-supply brought from St. Patrick's River fifteen miles east of the city. There are numerous substantial public buildings of brick and stone, and everything bears a thorough business aspect indicating great prosperity. There is a Public Library containing over ten thousand volumes, and there are also five or six well-appointed schools of the several grades. The Town Hall is a very fine and substantial building of dressed stone, and several large brick buildings for business purposes were observed to be in course of erection. The city is not without its Botanical Garden, embracing twelve or fifteen acres of land near the centre of the town. The walks and drives in and about the neighborhood are quite attractive. The North and South Elk rivers rise on different sides of Ben Lomond, and after flowing through some romantic plains and gorges, they join each other at Launceston. This sky-reaching mountain is worthy of its Scotch counterpart; between it and Launceston is some of the finest river and mountain scenery in all Tasmania. Ben Lomond is the chief object in the landscape wherever one drives or walks in this part of the island.
One of the first places of interest in this vicinity to which the attention of the visitor is invited, is a locality reached by a drive of four or five miles from Launceston called Cora Linn, which is notable for its romantic scenery. It consists of a deep gorge, through which the North Elk River rushes noisily, forming seething cascades and dashing waterfalls of a grand character. To reach this spot one passes through the pretty village of St. Leonard, where there is a neat little Wesleyan chapel and plenty of handsome villas most home-like in aspect.
The winter is here like that of Nice and Mentone, while the summer is much like that of New England, though not subject to such extremes. One sees many bronze-winged pigeons here, a very fine domestic bird, blazing with color under the sun's rays.
Of all the vast mineral wealth of Tasmania, the most thoroughly developed enterprise is that of the Mount Bischoff tin mine, which is situated about one hundred and fifty miles from Launceston. It is accessible from the city either by land or water. The land-route passes through a highly interesting district, diversified by river and mountain scenery, pleasant homesteads, cultivated fields, and some of the largest sheep-runs on the island. The quartz or tin-bearing rock of this mine may be said to form the entire hill to the height of three hundred feet, – Mount Bischoff itself being three thousand feet above sea-level. Several shafts have been sunk to a depth of a hundred feet each, showing that the metallic deposit reaches to that depth with a "breast" (as miners term it) as broad as the hill itself. The deposit is therefore practically inexhaustible, and of such value that it has already greatly enriched its stockholders. The tin is shipped direct to England in the form of "pigs," and the demand from that country seems to absorb the entire product of this mine. The price for tin ore is said to be as uniform as that for gold. The company's pay-roll at the mine averages twenty thousand dollars a month, the men receiving from two dollars a day upwards, none, however, exceeding two dollars and a half as day-laborers.
This mountain of tin, for that is really what it is, has been tunnelled through its greatest dimension, showing it to be equally rich in all parts. It is a busy place, but so well organized in every department that there is no confusion, each man working intelligently and to the best advantage. We were told by the superintendent that the shares of this mine originally cost five dollars each; to-day they are selling for three hundred dollars per share, and not always to be had at that price. They are almost wholly owned in this neighborhood, and on them the owners receive monthly dividends. We were told of other tin mines in this island, but Mount Bischoff is the tin mine of Tasmania.
A view from the summit of Mount Bischoff across the wild forest and densely-covered hills is a picture to be long remembered. The query suggested itself, Is it possible that this immense wild tract of country, these miles upon miles of seemingly impenetrable forest, will ever be cleared and dotted with the homes of settlers? Being in the heart of a rich mineral district, where not tin alone but gold also is found, doubtless it is destined, in the near future, to have a similar experience to that which transformed Ballarat and Sandhurst from deserts into cities.
A trip to the Beaconsfield gold mine, which is situated some thirty miles from Launceston, will well repay the traveller from other lands. The town of Beaconsfield ranks next to those of Hobart and Launceston in importance, and has a rapidly increasing population. It is of quite recent establishment, and owes its rise solely to the discovery of the attractive metal within that district.
The Tasmanian mine, so called, is considered one of the most valuable and prolific on the island, possessing also a very perfect "plant" in machinery and the usual appliances for quartz mining. Before descending the main shaft of the mine one must assume suitable clothing, as mud and water are to be encountered in extraordinary quantities. The great difficulty to be overcome in working nearly all of these subterranean mines is the profuse influx of water, often involving the necessity for a steam-pumping apparatus of immense power, which must be worked night and day in order to keep the various sections of the mine sufficiently dry for working. Armed with candles, we descended two hundred feet by the "lift" to the first level, or drift, forming a passage just high enough and wide enough for a man to swing a pick in, but as wet as a river, one being often over shoes in water and mud. From the far end of this passage we got now and then a breath of fresh air, which seemed to come down a ventilating shaft. A few dismal-looking laborers were seen chipping off the rock amid the misty shadows caused by the fitful light. What a place to work in day after day, – and all for gold, "saint-seducing gold"! After a short exploration on this level, we descended still another two hundred feet, penetrating a second drift almost identical with the first in size and general character. Here some Chinamen were engaged with picks, drills, and shovels, – dark, mysterious figures, who seemed to glare at us from out the uncertain rays of light as though they were brooding over some fancied wrong, for which they would gladly avenge themselves then and there. The quartz rock which they break away from the walls of the drift is all the time being hoisted to the surface of the mine to be crushed and passed through various processes to extract the precious metal. The next gallery was still two hundred feet lower down the shaft, – that is, six hundred feet from the surface. Here, after passing through the same experiences as above, we mildly but firmly declined to go any farther into the bowels of the earth simply for the sake of saying that we had done so, since there was really nothing to be seen essentially different from what had already been examined. It was no slight relief to get once more to the surface, and to see the light of day. On looking about us and reflecting on the network of galleries we had threaded far below this upper earth, there was seen a quarter of a mile away, on the other side of the lagoon, the ventilating shaft which gave air to the mine.
The name of another successful mine in this immediate vicinity is the Florence Nightingale mine, very similar to the Tasmanian, and therefore requiring no description. The gold-workings are mostly of the quartz, though there are some paying alluvial diggings along the banks of running streams, where it would seem as though some Midas had bathed, and filled the sand with scales of gold, – places the sight of which at once recalled that far-away river Pactolus of the Lydian country.
Many fortunes are staked and lost in the sinking of these deep shafts, where the indications have been so promising at the surface, but which not being thoroughly understood have led to operations ending in great disappointment. As a rule, however, the miners have become sufficiently experienced to work unerringly; and when a quartz-bearing vein has once been discovered, they can follow its course, or strike it at various levels, almost with certainty.
The trip from Launceston to Hobart, a distance of one hundred and twenty miles more or less, takes us into the centre of the island, – the direction being from north to south through lovely glades, over broad plains, across rushing streams, and around the base of abrupt mountains. The narrow-gauge railroad which connects the two cities is owned and operated by a private company, whose charge for carrying a passenger over the short distance named is six dollars. The cars are so poorly constructed, so narrow, and so meanly upholstered, as to appear like worn-out omnibuses built forty years ago. To add to the traveller's discomfort, the road-bed is as bad as it can be and not derail the cars constantly. One fellow-traveller suggested that there should be printed upon each passenger's ticket the condition that the holder would be expected to walk round all the sharp curves, and to help push the train up the steep grades. The engine seemed to be of that minimum capacity which always left a doubt upon the mind whether it would not give out altogether at the next up grade. In short, this railroad is a disgrace to Tasmania. Travellers, however, must learn not only to carry ample change of clothing with them, but also an ever ready stock of patience and forbearance, – better currency with which to insure comfort than even silver and gold.
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