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- The Bushman - 5/51 -


had pulled about a hundred yards from the vessel, Shiny Bill began to descend from his post. He slipped down unobserved by any one, and the first notice we had of his intentions was from perceiving him run across the deck to the starboard bow, whence he threw himself, without hesitation, into the sea, and began to swim lustily after his captive friends. Our shouts -- for, remembering the abundance of sharks, we were very much alarmed for the poor fellow -- attracted the attention of the officer in the boat, to whom we pointed out the figure of Bill, who seemed as eager now to make a voluntary surrender, and share the fate of his comrades, as he had previously been opposed to a violent seizure. The swimmer was soon picked up, and, to our regret, received in due season the same number of stripes as fell to the lot of his friends captured in battle.

The prisoners remained several days in their dungeon, where they were hospitably regaled with bread and water by the Portuguese Government; and at the end of this period (so unworthy did they prove of the handsome treatment they received) the British spirit was humbled within them, and they entreated with tears to be allowed to return to their duty. The mates, however, refused to sail in the same vessel with the carpenter, and it was accordingly settled that he should remain in custody until the arrival of a British man-of-war, and then be returned to his country, passage free.

CHAPTER 4.

THE PRISON-ISLAND.

It was nearly the end of August when we approached the conclusion of our voyage. The wind was fair, the sun shone brightly, and every heart was gay with the hope of once more being upon land. We drew nigh to the Island of Rottnest, about sixteen miles from the mouth of the river Swan, and anchored to the north of it, waiting for a pilot from Fremantle.

And there we had the first view of our future home. Beyond that low line of sand-hills, which stretched away north and south, far as the eye could reach, we were to begin life again, and earn for ourselves a fortune and an honourable name. No friendly voice would welcome us on landing, but numberless sharpers, eager to prey upon the inexperienced Griffin, and take advantage of his unavoidable ignorance and confiding innocence. There was nothing very cheering in the prospect; but supported by the confidence and ambition of youth, we experienced no feelings of dismay.

In order to wile away the time, we landed on the island, and, passing through a thick wood of cypresses, came to a goodly-sized and comfortable-looking dwelling-house, with numerous out-buildings about it, all built of marine lime-stone.

As the particulars which I then learned respecting this island were afterwards confirmed by experience and more extended information, I may as well enter upon its history at once.

The gentleman who was then Governor of Western Australia, was Mr. John Hutt, a man of enlightened mind, firm, sagacious, and benevolent. From the first, he adopted an admirable policy with regard to the native inhabitants.

Exhibiting on all occasions a friendly interest in their welfare, he yet maintained a strict authority over them, which they soon learned to respect and fear. The Aborigines were easily brought to feel that their surest protection lay in the Government; that every act of violence committed upon them by individual settlers was sure to be avenged by the whites themselves; and that, as certainly, any aggression on the part of the natives would call down the utmost severity of punishment upon the offenders. By this firm administration of equal justice the Aboriginal population, instead of being, as formerly, a hostile, treacherous, and troublesome race, had become harmless, docile, and in some degree useful to the settlers.

But it was not the policy of Mr. Hutt merely to punish the natives for offences committed against the whites; he was anxious to substitute the milder spirit of the British law in lieu of their own barbarous code; and to make them feel, in process of time, that it was for their own interest to appeal for protection on all occasions to the dominant power of Government, rather than trust to their own courage and spears. This was no easy task, and could only be accomplished by firmness, discrimination, and patience; but in the course of a few years, considerable progress had been made in subduing the prejudices and the barbarous customs of the Aborigines. Although it had been declared by Royal Proclamation that the native inhabitants were in every respect subjects of the British throne, and as such entitled to equal privileges with ourselves, and to be judged on all occasions by the common and statute laws, it proved to be no easy matter to carry into practice these views of the Home Government. People in England, who derive their knowledge of savages from the orations delivered at Exeter Hall, are apt to conceive that nothing more is requisite than to ensure them protection from imaginary oppression, and a regular supply of spiritual comforts. They do not consider that whilst they insist upon these unfortunate creatures being treated exactly as British subjects, they are placing a yoke on their own necks too heavy for them to bear in their present condition. Primitive and simple laws are necessary to a primitive state of society; and the cumbrous machinery of civilized life is entirely unsuited to those who in their daily habits and their intellectual endowments are little superior to the beasts that perish. By declaring the savages to be in every respect British subjects, it becomes illegal to treat them otherwise than such. If a settler surprise a native in the act of stealing a pound of flour, he of course delivers him over to a constable, by whom he is conveyed before the nearest magistrate. Now this magistrate, who is an old settler, and well acquainted with the habits of the natives, is also a man of humanity; and if he were allowed to exercise a judicious discretion, would order the culprit to be well flogged and dismissed to his expectant family. But thanks to Her Majesty's well-meaning Secretaries of State for the Colonies, who have all successively judged alike on this point, it is declared most unadvisable to allow a local magistrate the smallest modicum of discretion. He has only one course to pursue, and that is, to commit the offender for trial at the next Quarter Sessions, to be held in the capital of the colony. Accordingly the poor native, who would rather have been flayed alive than sent into confinement for two months previous to trial, whilst his wives are left to their own resources, is heavily ironed, lest he should escape, and marched down some sixty or seventy miles to Fremantle gaol, where the denizen of the forest has to endure those horrors of confinement which only the untamed and hitherto unfettered savage can possibly know.

Among savages, the 'Lex talionis' -- the law of retaliation -- is the law of nature and of right; to abstain from avenging the death of a relative would be considered, by the tribe of the deceased, an act of unpardonable neglect. Their own customs, which are to them as laws, point out the mode of vengeance. The nearest relative of the deceased must spear his slayer. Nothing is more common among these people than to steal one another's wives; and this propensity affords a prolific source of bloodshed.

They have also a general law, which is never deviated from, and which requires that whenever a member of a tribe dies, whether from violence or otherwise, a life must be taken from some other tribe. This practice may have originated in a desire to preserve the balance of power; or from a belief, which is very general among them, that a man never dies a natural death. If he die of some disorder, and not of a spear-wound, they say he is "quibble gidgied," or speared by some person a long distance off. The native doctor, or wise man of the tribe, frequently pretends to know who has caused the death of the deceased; and the supposed murderer is of course pursued and murdered in turn. This custom necessarily induces a constant state of warfare. Now it is very right that all these barbarous and unchristian practices should be put an end to; but, whilst endeavouring to suppress them, we ought to remember that they are part and parcel of the long-established laws of this rude people, and that it is not possible all at once to make them forego their ancient institutions and customs. The settlers would gladly see punished all acts of violence committed among the natives in their neighbourhood. Were they permitted to inflict such punishments as are best suited to the limited ideas and moral thraldom of the Aborigines, these, without cruelty or injustice, might gradually be brought within the pale of civilization; but when the law declares it to be inevitable that every British subject who is tried and found guilty of having speared his enemy shall be hanged without benefit of clergy, the colonists out of sheer humanity and pity for the ignorance of the culprit, refrain from bringing him to trial and punishment -- a proceeding which, by the way, would cost the colony some fifteen or twenty pounds -- and thus he goes on in his errors, unreproved by the wisdom or the piety of the whites. Sometimes, however, it happens that the officers who exercise the calling of Protectors of the Aborigines, anxious to prove that their post is no sinecure, make a point of hunting up an occasional law-breaker, who, being brought to trial, is usually found guilty upon his own evidence -- the unfortunate culprit, conscious of no guilt in having followed the customs of his ancestors, generally making a candid statement of his offence. The sentence decreed by the English law is then passed upon him, and he would, of course, be duly subjected to the penalty which justice is supposed to demand, did not the compassionate Governor, in the exercise of the highest privilege of the Crown, think proper to step in and commute the sentence to perpetual imprisonment. As it would have entailed a serious expense upon the colony to have had to maintain these prisoners in a gaol in the capital, his Excellency determined to establish a penal settlement at Rottnest; and this he accordingly accomplished, with very good effect.

At the time we visited the island, there were about twenty native prisoners in charge of a superintendent and a few soldiers.

The prisoners were employed in cultivating a sufficient quantity of ground to produce their own food. It was they also who had built the superintendent's residence; and whenever there was nothing else to do, they were exercised in carrying stone to the top of a high hill, on which a lighthouse was proposed to be built.

The Governor has certainly shown very good judgment in the formation of this penal establishment. It is the dread of the natives throughout the colony; and those prisoners who are released inspire among their fellows the greatest horror and dismay by their tales of the hardships they have suffered. No punishment can be more dreadful to these savages -- the most indolent race in the world -- than being compelled to work; and as their idleness brings them occasionally in contact with the superintendent's lash, their recollections and accounts of Rottnest are of the most fearful description. Certain, however, it is, that nothing has tended so much to keep the Aborigines in good order as the establishment of this place of punishment. It is maintained at very little expense to the colony, as the prisoners grow their own vegetables, and might easily be made to produce flour enough for their own consumption.

It was a clear, beautiful, sparkling day, and there was a sense of


The Bushman - 5/51

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