The Romance of the Cedar
Section - The Aborigines
In 1847, there were between 400 and 500 native blacks in the tribes belonging to East and West Ballina. At that time they had not yet become contaminated by the white approach. They lived in rigid accordance with their own primitive customs and were strangers alike to grog and many of the other vices and distresses of the white civilisation. The men were destitute of clothing and the women wore loin cloths mostly made from the fur of opossum. Their principal food was fish and oysters and the varied products of the chase. They were simple, good-hearted and friendly people who would generously give away anything they possessed to the 'white feller', It is regrettable to have to record that in return they were often badly treated by the settlers.
They were exceedingly expert hunters and fishermen and in these pursuits brought to their aid many ingenious weapons and contrivances. In catching fish they used what they called a 'tow-row', that is a finely meshed net attached to a stick of bamboo bent in the shape of a bow about eight feet across between the two ends. This gave a bag erect to the net and with a tow-row in each hand the blacks would surround the fish schools in narrow and shallow waters and catch them by the hundreds. The cordage of these nets, which were very strong and beautifully woven, was made from the inside fibre of the stinging tree and from the bark of the Kurrajong. They used a similar net in hunting. This was made of the same fibre in long sections four feet in width. These sections when joined together for the purpose of the chase would extend sometimes to a half-mile in length. Where game was plentiful in the forest or the scrub the blacks would run the net after the manner of a fence in the shape of a semi-circle. Then the whole tribe with the dogs would beat up the neighborhood for a mile or two and drive all game, everything towards the open end of the enveloping net. Here the scattered paddy-melons, wallabies, bandicoots, iguanas, etc would be suddenly arrested and becoming hopelessly entangled, fall speedy victims to the dogs and men. It was surprising the immense quantity of food they sometimes secured by these means.
Flying foxes were a prolific source of food supply, and as these huge bats clustered together in their camps in thousands they were easily brought down with the boomerang and paddy-melon stick.Yams were also a favorite delicacy and some that were obtainable in the scrub grew to two feet in length by an inch or two in diameter. A very appetizing bread was made from nut flour. These nuts grew on the coastal headlands, and in the season when ripe were ground up with heavy stones. The pulp was then placed in running water for six weeks or so and the resultant paste when cooked made a really splendid bread. It resembled arrowroot in smell and was eagerly sought after by whites when rations ran short.
In that early period too, the blacks in the month of September each year looked to the beaches for salmon fishing. This was a very fine eating fish resembling a small hewy in shape, and while the brief season of a month lasted Binghi's larder was full to overflowing. They came in huge shoals inside the surf, where the blacks would spear them in any number; then they would disappear form the coast as suddenly as they came. A singular circumstance in connection with these migratory salmon was that in the 1857 season countless hundreds of them were washed ashore dead so that the beaches north of Richmond were literally strewn with their decomposing bodies. Certain it is- this is the peculiar feature - they have never, to my knowledge, been seen on this coast since.
Tribal warfare is not infrequent. The Brunswick blacks hostile to those of Ballina would meet on the Seven Hills Beach as a battleground, and there they would savagely fight out their differences. Generally the trouble had its origin among the women folk. A young buck from a neighbouring tribe would carry off a young lubra, or the latter would elect to steal away to another camp, and this was sufficient for a declaration of war. The original white settlers witnessed many of these tribal collisions. A battle would sometimes last for two days and would take place generally on open beaches.
The weapons were mostly spears, boomerangs and nullahs, and each warrier carried a shield or bukkha to protect the body from fling missiles. The balance spear was a favorite weapon and expert fighting men could hurl up to a couple of hundred yards with deadly precision.
The tribes subscribed to the primitive principle of right and wrong and believed in the existence of evil spirit. As a consequence they were possessed of many disconcerting fears. Without any apparent recognition of a good spirit they stood in mortal terror of the evil one, but generally they were fair in their dealing with each other in obedience of the rigid tribal codes.
They had many gruesome customs. On the death of a member of the tribe the women relatives would with sharp tomahawks while standing up hack their scalps clean of hair, after which they would collapse in heaps, presenting a sickening sight. The hairless blood-smeared heads would be treated with a poultice of congevoi and in a few weeks the bruised and bare scalps would again be wonderfully healed. Another cruel custom was the initiation of a young buck to manhood. This among other weird rites involved the laceration and burning of the flesh on chest and shoulders and the application of clay to heal the wounds. Huge weals remained and these were the warriors pride and sign of his tied manhood.
The hunting ground of the Ballina Tribes extend north to the Broken Head and back from the beaches to the Big Scrub. The seasons were known to them by foliage and flowers and the great Book of Nature undoubtedly revealed to them many of its secrets. They could tell by natural signs of flowers and fruits when the salmon and the mullet were due on the beaches and in the rivers, and also when certain game was bound to be in evidence in particular localities.
The tribe usually camped in divisions at different places excepting during the oyster season, when they assembled unitedly at Chickiaba or North Creek, where the large oyster banks on the foreshores to this day mark the old feeding grounds.
Naturally conversant in the ways of the bush and the scrubs they were of incalculable assistance to the cedar cutters. They also became fine axemen and expert at squaring the logs, rafting, and bullock driving. It was never known that the whites had ever suffered injury at their hands, but on the contrary their help was in constant requisition in many ways.
At the end of the day
'The scenes to be witnessed when cedar cutters brought down their rafts were beyond description,' Bawden remembered. 'It was no uncommon sight to see a cask of rum rolled out, and spirit ladled by the pannikin full. Men became raving or hopelessly drunk. The person who refused to drink at an orgy such as this was abused in the most ruthless manner, even to the extent of personal violence.'
It was an extension of the convict's traditional self-immolation and despair, a death wish almost. These transported townsmen hated this alien land, hated the bush, its indifference and hostility. Many free men were likewise to become demoralised with cheap Bengali rum. They drank themselves insensible, totally unable to adapt to the harsh conditions as peasantry, had there been one, would have done. The alcoholic stupors were the other face of the pioneering coin. Alexander Harris summed it up perfectly by writing that 'after earning their money like horses, they spent it like asses'.
It was hardly the atmosphere to impress Aborigines with the virtues of a white civilisation.