Monday, February 07, 2005

The Minang and the destruction of the Southern Right Whale

Here is a tale from the 1840's.

A taap knife (from King, 1827) Posted by Hello

The South Coast and the West Coast of Western Australia are worlds apart. Overland as the crow flies the colonial settlements of Albany and Perth are 400kms of rough sandy track that takes 2 weeks on horseback, if you don't get lost. By sea, it's a week minimum, and with a lee shore much of the way around Cape Leeuwin, treacherous in winter. By virtue too, these outposts are separated, Perth is all private vice and Albany is public virtue. Albany was by far the smaller of the two and although the local Minang Noongar had not been the subject of punitive massacres as in Pinjarra or wide scale settlement of their lands, it was still tense. It was clear that what had happened in Perth could happen here.
The Noongar response to invasion is, and was often unappreciated. The Noongar considered themselves highly civilised and the behaviour of the invaders to be barbarian. A response that they shared with their Chinese and Japanese counterparts at the time, was to call the British, 'white devils'. 'Djanga'. or 'djanak'.

The British misunderstood this to mean that the Noongar saw them as reincarnations of their relatives. That's what the Noongar said but what they meant (and kept saying) was that the British could not take their land without taking responsibility for the Noongar who, inseparable from their land, would become like a relative to be cared for and considered.

Of course, the concept of family was already breaking down in Victorian England where families were being ripped asunder by the industrial age. The Noongar, I suspect, sensed this need in this pale uncivilised creatures. A need to belong and a sense of having been ripped asunder and tried unsuccessfully(at least to date) to use this as a bargaining tool.

For the Noongar, kin was, and is, everything. Daisy Bates wrote that after the Pinjarra massacre a number of people died because it was the custom not to eat the totem animal of people after they had died for a number of months. So many people died in the massacre, that many of the survivors starved themselves to death.

Noongar culture in 1830, was built around songs and singing. Important news was delivered 'in recitative'. Performance was an everyday occurrence, songs and dances were practiced as people crossed the country. Young men decorated themselves with feathers and ochres. Dances were taught and traded at fairs, (Mandurah is named after a place where a traditional Mantjar [fair/festival] happened ).

The barbarian invasion at Perth and the massacre at Pinjarra sent shock waves trhough the south west. Many Noongar wanted nothing to do with the British, but at Albany the locals had established an uneasy accord. The settlement, small in number, survived on kangaroo and quokka meat. The fishing was excellent Only half a dozen farms existed in the hinterland and it's main purpose was to supply the passing shipping. Which it did, badly, when the ships could get in.

Elsewhere the sheep spread like lice.They and their shepherds consumed the kangaroo feed like an inexorable tide. In 1840 on the South Coast, the sheep were still lucky to survive without any Noongar intervention. Many of the local plants were poisonous.

But for the Noongar what was really troubling was what was happening at sea. For Centuries, the Minang had come to rely upon regular strandings of whales during winter. At least 3 strandings a year were expected. Along the South Coast, Southern Right Whales and Humpbacks bred in the bays and inlets. The Southern Rights in particular lived close to the shore. The Noongar believed that the whales could be sung ashore as they often were. The Minang had invented a knife, the taap, specially designed for cutting whale meat. A unique utensil in traditional Australian tool cultures, fashioned from pieces of flaked quartz , glued in place along a stick using an admixture of balak (X.preissii) resin, dung and ash.

In 1837, George Cheyne and Thomas Sherrat pioneered the onshore whaling industry on the south coast, using boats to capture the breeding southern right whales. They did well in that first year. Soon, the whole colony was afloat on whale fever and but for the want of boats, they would have prospered. The slack was taken up by the Americans and by 1840 it was estimated their were up to 150 whalers visiting the south west in a year. By 1843 it was over.

From then on, only one or two southern right whales were taken a year from the south or west coasts. How the remaining ones survived is a mystery. To this day, the population is still critically endangered. The onshore whaling industry continued in fits and starts until 1870 by which time the humpbacks were so few that they too were not worth the hunt.

It was the winter of 1844 that the consequences of this profligate slaughter began to hit home. Although some cattle had been speared and the occasional theft had occurred on stations in the bush. The isolation of the few farms established away from Albany itself meant that getting on with the traditional owners was necessary to survive. But the colonists were fearful and misunderstood the land and it's people. Tension was clearly rising on both sides. Petitions for more soldiers had been submitted in 1840 and two native constables had been sworn in.

The Noongar were appalled at the destruction of the southern right whale. Years later Daisy Bates was to record how the whale totem had died out along with the whales on the west coast. The loss was felt for a long time.

By the 5th April, 1844 seven Noongar men were being held in the single room jail on a variety of charges. The jailer, who had the use of only one arm, made the mistake of leaving the outer door open when he served the meal and was overpowered and all escaped. Then over a six week period from the 11th April to the end of May, the Noongar systematically raided every storehouse in Albany. One hundred weight of flour from Mr Belches by digging under the floor. Flour, sugar and knives from Mr Townsend while he was being distracted by Wylie, the native constable and heroic companion of Mr Eyre. Mr Belches for a second time (after he had taken ever step to secure it) rice and sugar were taken before the thieves were disturbed and finally 4 cwt of biscuits from Mr McDonalds. The spree continued - money from Mr Warburton's, Sherratt's and Taylor's houses were rifled.

The galling thing was that, from the first, the thieves were identifiable by there tracks. Three men, Norn, Teyning and Bobby, were identified –although it's clear that the only people who could identify the tracks were there own companions. A tracker was employed to follow them and after several miles 'could go no further'.
Eventually, Norn and then the others were 'recaptured' through the offer of judicious rewards, namely rice. Although by this time the price of rice in Albany had gone from 3d a lb to 2/6d a lb.

An eyewitness to their trial in Albany, Robert Neill, records that Teyning defiantly admitted his guilt and, moreover, that he was also responsible for the cow speared on Mr McDonald's farm as well. They were clearly willing to risk the rest of the winter on Rottnest for the sake of making their point loud and clear. The Noongar could and would work as one to resist the wasteful desecration of their food supplies.

Wylie was never trusted again, although he was back in favour a few years later when he was made a constable by Mr Camfield. Although the Noongar clearly wanted to make the point as to how vulnerable the colonists were, they also recognised the superior fire power of the Europeans and their lack of civilised morality. They could not seriously threaten the colony without risking the lives of their children and old people. At the same time, they could not stand idly by while such a wrong was being committed on their land.

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Blogger Fotini Katsanos said...

I just read That Deadman Dance. Your post connects with the novel but Kim Scott does not mention this storyline in his afterword. His novel is an adaotatiin of the storyline. How do the two link up?

12:44 pm  

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