Abode of Demons

from Reference 9 - Chapter 10

The Ogilvies had been well advised to make a quick return to the Clarence. In the brief interval between those two expeditions all the remaining land had been occupied.

Captain Crozier had formed a new run on their southern boundary, naming it Gordon Brook. This one-eyed naval veteran-his sound eye, Bawden noted, was a 'piercer' and had already gone home to Sydney, leaving a cousin in charge, Gordon Sandeman; hence the station's name. West of the river Robert and Charles Walker had taken up Newbold; a grand sweep of hilly country on the eastern flank of the Clarence. Those who had followed Craig down from New England had established runs at the foot of the now celebrated Line; Gregory Blaxland on Nymboida, Forster on Geergarrow, and Thomas Coutts on the subsequently notorious Kangaroo Creek.

The Mylnes, who had now named their station First Falls, after the rapids where King William went aground, had rewarded Richard Craig by employing him as head stockman.

At Tabulam, Pagan and Evans shortly found themselves in trouble. Having just spread their flocks along both sides of the river, they were confronted by two newcomers with travelling cattle. The land, they insisted, was theirs. They had a licence from Commissioner McDonald to prove it. Messrs Clay and Stevenson, it appeared, had first reached Tabulam soon after the Ogilvies left for Merton. They registered their claim, returned south for stock and sent up supplies by schooner to the Clarence. It was their bad luck to have arrived just two weeks after their six-month term of grace expired. Fortunately they proved to be reasonable men.

'As, at that time,' Bawden wrote, 'the whole of the country to the eastward was unknown, Pagan and Evans guaranteed to find them an equally good run, providing that they gave up all claim to Tabulam.'

'To save litigation this was accepted. On the following morning the party mounted their horses and proceeded eastward. From the top of a high range they traced the course of the Richmond River [then unnamed], and saw some of the plains along its banks. They then drove their cattle on to the Richmond River, and took up the first station there at Tonki.' 

They named their cattle run Cassino. The next problem was to find their supplies. They had come to rest a mighty long way from the Clarence. To reach what was now called the Settlement, behind Susan Island, they had to cut a new track through cedar scrubs and mountains, and eventually located the schooner up at Copmanhurst. The charges they had to pay for sea freight, storage and carting by bullock dray back to Cassino-were astronomic. Their flour alone, said Bawden, cost them 102 pound a ton. Pioneering these distant regions could be a costly enterprise.

Costly in terms of human lives as well.

From the moment of arrival these new settlers had been treated as invaders. The Aborigines, when not openly hostile, watched them with suspicion, appearing frequently on the runs as men set about building huts, yards and tracks through the bush.

William Forster was the first to feel their enmity. He had not even unloaded his bullock dray on Nymboida when his party was attacked. One man was fatally speared; another had a spear pass between his shirt and flesh, losing his hat brim to a boomerang. A third, having no time to pull the ramrod out of his musket, fired it right through the attacker's body. The dray was plundered, while sugar and flour, not then known to be edible, were scattered over the countryside. Some days later, when Major Oakes brought a police party up from the Macleay, he was attacked by his own native guides, whom he pursued into the ranges, shooting several of them.

Blaxland, with rueful humour, renamed his run Pandemonium, which in the original Greek meant 'the abode of all demons'. Forster, after those harrowing experiences, called his Purgatory.

See Orara River Massacre

The sins of the whitefellow had been visited once more on black brother. Yet no one thought either regret or compensation necessary. They might have been so many animals they had disposed of. Crime was to be compounded with crime; the tension increased; hatred added to hatred. Edward said later that the Aborigines had been so terrified by those manifestations of white violence that it was nearly two years before the least contact could be made with them. The first parley was one that he brought about; under great difficulty. Even Pagan's death could have been avoided, had men kept their heads. As Bawden described it later, drawing on statements made by Lardner, 'a well-known blackfellow for many years about Yulgilbar, known as King Billy, who was present at Pagan's murder, said that Pagan was very stupid to come too near the blacks, and that the blacks kept making signs to him to go away.'

They buried Peter Cunningham Pagan near the river where he died. He had been only thirty-two.

At this stage the Ogilvies must surely have begun to wonder was this whole brave venture worth their while. They had lost more than a close friend. They had lost a comrade in their joint endeavour to make something of this land; a man who believed, as they did, that humane principles and racial understanding were possible. And in one uprush of uncontrolled impulse, they had discarded reason and set every man's life in jeopardy. Perhaps they remembered also, with black irony, that it had been Pagan's uncle and namesake who had first taught them tolerance towards the Aboriginal race. Now men of that very race had killed the nephew.

Almost as a postscript to his official report, Oakes mentioned a very different response by these men. Regrettably he did not elaborate. He ended his account of the affray at Ramornie with the simple statement that 'six children were brought back to be civilised'. Exactly what was intended no one made clear; with one exception. A young boy named Pundoon (the Wallaby) was discovered by Edward, hiding in a hollow log. He put him on his saddle and rode home.

The lad's mother had presumably died in the shooting. There was no further reference to her. Edward took him back to the two bark huts he and Fred had built for themselves by the reach, treated him with kindness and took him everywhere he went. Towards the end of the year, Pundoon even travelled down to Merton with him. He was still there more than a year later, when Charles Tindal arrived. In a letter home, he wrote, 'there is a wild black down from the Clarence River. He was taken prisoner by the Ogilvies some time back. He cannot yet speak a word of English; but he is very fond of Edward, who speaks their language well.' 

On Edward's own admission, this was his chief reason for adopting the boy. He recognised that the key to mastering these wild tribes was to learn their language. Ellen said he spoke it fluently in a remarkably short time, and even produced a grammar. No trace of this has since been found.

Edward was a very determined man.

Meantime the situation remained so tense that neither man nor stock could be dispersed over the run. 'Huts were robbed,' said McFarlane, 'sheep stolen and men killed, and it was unsafe to go out in the open fun alone.' The Ogilvies kept their flocks near the reach, grazing them on one side of the river only. They were also short of shepherds. A number of them had cleared out altogether, escaping down to the Settlement, where they stowed away on schooners returning south with cedar. The first census, taken towards the end of 1841, revealed only twenty nine men at Swanlea, another twenty-two on Tahulam.

Nor was it only tribal enmity the Ogilvies now had to endure. Dingoes bred in great numbers throughout the hills, coming down at nights, sometimes even by day. One has only to read the faded entries in their first sheep journal, with its damp-stained cloth cover and pages eaten by insects. Day after day this was written up, laboriously, in a spidery, rather unformed hand, probably Fred's. Though its notes were restricted to sheep numbers, dispositions, and the names of shepherds, it reveals something also of the hazards and frustrations of that period. It was a catalogue of woes. The first date was I May 1841. Page one carried the ominous heading 'Deaths'. (ref 31).

The first entry lists the loss by one Jas. Murphy of five unmarked and eight marked lambs. All told, fifty-five sheep died in that one month, many of them from attacks by dingoes.

Because of the emergency, flock sizes were then unduly large. On two successive days, for instance, the journal records, 'Counted to Robby 2,356 sheep, to Moyle 2,470.' In June the complete tally was 10,555 divided into eight separate flocks, each with its own shepherd. This figure was nearly two thousand less than they had arrived with .six months earlier. By the end of July another 180 sheep were dead, including thirty-two lambs in Murphy's flock on the one day. Frequently wild dogs were mentioned. At other times no cause of death was given. So high a mortality rate must have worried them greatly. It could have been due to cold snaps, the negligence of shepherds or perhaps poor pastures. Unless another entry for July was any pointer: 'served 12 balls and powder for every man to last them six months'. Whether these items were for self-defence or use against dingoes was not explained. Edward had a firm policy, making it clear to the Aborigines that any shepherd molesting them would be punished; and vice versa.

It was at this time that Major Oakes decided to add to their troubles. When McDonald found his large area too difficult to administer, Oakes was appointed Crown Lands Commissioner for the Clarence and Richmond only. His headquarters remained at Red Rock, so named for the red cliffs on the river's southern bank, opposite his police huts. Some time in mid-1841 he began his first tour of inspection, officiously aware of his absolute powers. In cases of boundary disputes, grazing rights, the treatment of workers or Aborigines, his instant decisions allowed for no right of appeal.

One can picture the former police major, from E. M. Curr's description of a similar official, as he rode at the head of his 'cortege' across Swanlea's pastures. Curr wrote of sighting the Commissioner on a magnificent chestnut, followed by a mounted orderly, sergeant and three border police troopers, variously armed with pistols, carbines and a cavalry sabre. 'The Commissioner's horse was likewise accoutred in the manner of a cavalry charger, and his dark green costume, fixed spurs, Hessian boots, blue cap and braided band were decidedly military.' Any conflict between settlers, he added, 'which in later times would have taken a judge, with his jurors, barristers, witnesses and attaches of the court a week to dispose of, the Commissioner settled them in half-an-hour, probably hearing only one of the claimants, and sometimes neither. I should say that our particular Commissioner kept few records of his official acts, if any; and never caused any marks to be made on the trees or the land in connection with boundaries. Indeed I fancy he considered things of this sort mere red tape nuisances; His custom in the case of disputes being to hear but short statements, giving his decision in a few words, change the conversation, light his pipe and ride away.'

Something of the kind must have happened beside Yulgilbar Reach. In this case Oakes' opinions were challenged. He was obliged to defend his attitudes in a letter sent to the Colonial Secretary, E. Deas Thompson, in Sydney during August. A complaint had been made by William Ogilvie, as the legal licencee of Swanlea. Oakes was accused of having favoured James Mylne in a disagreement over their common boundary. .

Oakes replied that Edward claimed more land than he was entitled to, even had he possessed five times as many sheep. 'His claimed run extends 56 miles on both sides of the river, at 196,000 acres. The land In dispute is on the opposite side of the Clarence from Ogilvie's head station, 22 to 25 miles away. Ogilvie once had sheep there, but removed them when they began eating poisonous herbs.' . Furthermore, the commissioner wrote that shepherds had complained of being given very poor quarters. They were only bark gunyahs, not proper huts, giving inadequate protection against the weather and marauding blacks. He had even considered withdrawing Ogilvie's licence altogether.

Oakes had chosen to ignore two facts. The licence to that huge area, rightly or wrongly, had been legally granted by Commissioner McDonald. As for the shepherds' housing, this was only a temporary arrangement. Once the Aboriginal emergency passed, flocks would again be sent into the back country, where Edward planned. to build more durable timber huts. At all events, the licence was not withdrawn. But official records give no indication as to who kept that disputed tract of land.

Though Oakes had also reported that the whole region was in a state of near disaster, the Ogilvies not only kept their main flocks alive, but even sent wethers in good condition down to Merton. In June the journal noted that they 'started Murphy with 508 wethers from Malmut's flock and 639 from Barry's to the Hunter'. Whether they were sent on that rugged five-hundred-mile journey for fattening or for Sydney's mutton trade was not recorded. A year later, other flocks were travelling in the reverse direction: 'added all the yearlings which came from Merton to Barry's flock, making his number 1,862. Total from Merton 576.'

Despite the isolation, those two runs were being shrewdly worked in a joint operation.

Isolation. This was the critical factor. Apart from a few distant neighbours like the Walkers, Mylnes, Gregory Blaxland-Dobie was temporarily overseas again-the two brothers rarely saw any but their own reluctant labourers. Nor was there much pleasure in rare visits to the Settlement. The embryo town now had three stores, an inn and a shipping wharf; very little else. On the south bank, three-quarters of a mile across the strongly flowing Clarence, a second settlement was growing around Phillips and Cole's depot. One or two teamsters were now in business, but they did not travel far upriver. If Swanlea needed supplies of any kind, someone had to ride down to Smith's Flat, then take Tom the Boatman's two-masted ketch into town, which came to life only when the cedar-gangs were in for a spree. On the north bank Bentley's store was already becoming notorious.

See Cedar Cutters

Yet officialdom remained supremely optimistic. Late in 1840 Gipps had forwarded Captain Perry's report to London, adding enthusiastic touches of his own. It was, he wrote, 'a promising field for the employment of capital in agricultural and commercial pursuits. In the lower part of the district alone there is room for a large body of industrious immigrants, and, such is the nature of the soil, that little apprehension is entertained for the labour that may be bestowed on the cultivation of wheat, the maize, the vine, tobacco, sugar, indigo and many other articles of consumption, and even of export.'

This emphasis on immigrants was new to the colony. Transportation had now ended. The age of the convict was over; or nearly so. Its remnants would still provide labour for years to come, But, when the last convict ship reached Sydney in 1840, both administrators and pastoralists had to begin thinking in terms of free settlers; which meant paying labour for the first time.

This remained scarce for some years in the more remote districts. Even. Hunter squatters were hard put to it finding the class of men they needed. The Commander had made this clear when giving evidence before the Legislative Council's immigration committee in 1838. 'I have to pay a carpenter two pounds a week,' he said. 'Mechanics are impossible to find. If ten thousand labourers were imported for the next two years, they could find work. This farm has subscribed to 22 Chinese labourers. Another to 22 Indian coolies.'

Subscribed they might have done. Those Asians did not arrive. William Ogilvie was one of 772 pastoralists who had signed a petition to the Colonial Office, calling for the import of cheap, reliable workers to replace the outmoded convicts. The new Pastoralists' Association, formed to campaign for this scheme, met strong opposition from free immigrants, who had the governor's support as well. Coolie labour, said Gipps, 'would tend to deteriorate the community'. He had no regrets when the Association's remittance-treasury bills worth 1,500 pound, somehow went missing in Singapore.

Nor were those recruits needed. The large increase in free migrants from Britain in 1838-40 unexpectedly met the demand. But it did so for one reason only. There was just no demand for labour. The colony had entered another depression. This was the second economic collapse in little more than a decade.

Once again there were dismal prospects to be discussed at Merton. Edward and his brother made another long journey from the north.