‘Book of Past Scenes and My own experience Among Blacks In the Wild Bush of Australia’

Eating possum and kangaroo would have been as far removed from Warder James Aird’s 22 years of life in Scotland as could possibly be imagined. On arrival in Brisbane in 1864 – as one of the men in ‘3 scottish men and a world of adventure,’ – James Aird found himself in a wild, strange frontier into which he unhesitatingly threw himself into.  James had a keen eye for observation and the wherewithal to keep a diary of his early experiences, revealing a man with an open mind and adventurous heart. 

James Aird diary cover
This unassuming diary, by  James Aird, holds a wealth of stories. Diary courtesy of Sandra Eaton

Importantly, his diaries also reveal Aboriginal culture and connections to country at a crucial time in the indigenous contact history of Brisbane. White settlement in Brisbane and surrounds had already been established for 40 years, and its continuous expansion continued to push into the lands of many indigenous clans. James Aird’s diaries show is a glimpse of a time when traditional Aboriginal lifestyles were still being practised, but many aspects of their lifestyles and customs were being modified or altered permanently by the presence of new settlers. Interestingly, the story shows us how the Aboriginal people were adapting to the changes all around them, incorporating Native Mounted Police and their revolvers into dances and serving bullock’s head in the corroboree feast!

James’ words eloquently describe a scene experienced on the South Pine River not long after his arrival. In it he mentions Tom Petrie, from the original settler family of the area, who grew up as a young boy in the company of the Aboriginal people of the district, with whom he shared a mutual respect and friendship. The scene below is only 150 years ago, but it is so far away from the world we live in today in Australia, ‘the lucky country.’ 

Book of Past Scenes and

My own experience

Among Blacks

In the Wild Bush of Australia

After my new arrival in the Colony of Queensland in the year eighteen hundred and sixty four.

Started for my friend’s place, which was twenty miles from Brisbane on the South Pine River. Got there all right and was glad to find them all well. So at the time I begin this I am staying at the farm on the days of October 1864, being the last of Spring and very warm weather, and not having seen many of the native aboriginals I was alarmed one fine morning after breakfast as we were all engaged in family worship to hear the Blacks coming over the fence towards the house the dogs barking most bitterly. On going out to see so many naked creatures all round the house, men, women and children, the men armed with long spears, clubs, tomyhawks, clubs and of different sizes in mostly every man’s hand and a good many dogs of wild dog or wolf breed very hungry and frightened of a white man.

The King of the Tribe was there, a big strong man with a young kangaroo alive in one hand and a tommyhawk in the other, he is wanting to sell the kangaroo to any of us for tobacco as he pulled an old black pipe from among the hair of his head. Beside him stands another powerful man with club in hand asking for tobacco. His name is King Captain. He has a shell naming on his breast and is all tattooed over the body. The former one’s name Jo King Billy of Millawa Tribe and is the Chief. He has a brass plate on his breast the letters King Billy of Millawa Tribe, date of year and who give it to him.

Sample of a brass name plate given to ‘chiefs’ of aboriginal clans, courtesy Wikipedia

My friends buy the kangaroo from the King for money and tobacco. They have plenty of honey in native baskets which they give less of which they receive tea and sugar for the other thing. The gins or native woman was has the little naked child sitting with its legs over each shoulder of the mother and its little hands in their hair behind. They see their shadows, in the glass of the window and they begin to sing a corrobery song, and dance while others are looking and jabbering quite amused at the seeing their own likeness. The king looking very fierce and telling us there was going to be a corrobery from down at their camp, some two miles from the houses – at full moon which would only be in two nights more and he wanted white fellows to come and see them dance and sing, but now they were all going a fishing to the river and would come again with fish for supper to us, at the same time telling us the fish would not come to the black fellow till Birsey was over our head. He pointed to the sun. At 12 o’clock in the day then the tide would be low to catch fish at the river.

South Pine River 1890’s, from Wikimedia commons

In a day or two following, we had plenty of fish and honey from the trees. I met the King and party the day before the corrobery on a hunting expedition in the bush. He had a very large snake over his shoulder. It was not quite dead. I asked him what him to do with that fellow. He said “bougery” fellow for corrobery. He wished me to come and he would send King Captain for us.

The corrobery night came. King Captain and four more comes to take us to this ball. But in the first place he must have supper from white fellow. Then he asked all our names and commenced to dress themselves before the window with a lot of ashes from a firestick to white his face, then his arms and body, and a white stripe down each side their legs. Some of them had stuff like red paint on their bodies and presented a most frightful appearance. Supper over and pipes lit, the sun gone down, King Captain and his men lift their clubs or wadis and wishes us to come on. He lights a large fire stick out of the fire and leads the way, and six of us follow, our four black friends through the bush towards their camp, on a nice plain near to a large creek which we were taken on a canoe across and landed in sight of the camp fires, King Captain using great skill in paddling the deep loaded canoe to the other side of the creek, he standing all the time and paddling in real native fashion.

At this time, the King gives a very loud cooee, a cry at the pitch of his voice to warn King Billy that he was coming. At this time his song and noise is making the woods ring. The night is so quiet and beautiful. On reaching the camp, was large fires all around and a little hut made of bark near to each fire. Then a little way off was some large fires blazing around the king and all his people, in full dress painted with white and red dirt all over their bodies and weapons of war all stuck up in the ground near them. They were glad to see us and struck up a song and told us corrobery was going to begin, the woman sitting on the ground beating the drum while others was beating on two sticks, and children all sitting around.

CampfireWe had not long arrived when Mr Thomas Petrie came from his station which was scarce a mile off and took his seat at a campfire among a lot of old women or gins as the blacks call their wives sometimes or them call them their black Marys. I will say something about Mr Petrie again. The corrobery begins. The act or scene is the black mounted police after the blackfellows in the bush and hunting them down. Some of the strongest acts as the horse, then another mounts on his back, his skin dresses in the uniform of the black police, armed with boomerang for revolver. The scene looks fine and so like them. They dismount in front of their large fires and takes up their places in a dance and song while the whole joins in this war song at the pitch of their voice which can be heard for miles off on a quiet night.

Then supper commences which sees snakes, newly roasted fish, kangaroo, honey possum, shellfish all brought forth out of hot ashes of the camp fires. So we were wanted to take and have a large kangaroos tail from them of which he refused telling them I had supper. During this time they are all talking in their native language to Mr Petrie who is sitting and smoking asking them of their hunting adventures. They tell him they killed a very large old man kangaroo in his Pocket – a part of his run for cattle they call the Pocket.

ThomasPetrie copy
Unidentified, Thomas Petrie (1831-1910), John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Mr Petrie – Petrie has a station is about thirty years of age, is married at the Pine River. The blacks look up to him and will do anything for him. They say Tommy Petery black fellows brother. Him is jumped up white fellow now is their belief I was told. Mr Petery was brought up from a child among them, so he can talk to them in all their languages and feels quite at home at their camp fire. If they find any of his cattle astray or bogged they will take them home to the station. His place is a home for many of the old people who cannot follow the tribes. I am told Mr Petrie can eat a snake with them, but I left the corrobery very well pleased also. Mr Petrie was very obliging in getting me to understand many questions they asked me. Some of them wanted my coat, others my shirt, some my hat but these demands I did not grant so I left the corrobery after supper. But the noise of songs continued till near morning.

That morning the sun had barely risen when we were all wakened by King Captain and his men at our window looking at themselves in the glass and wishing us to rise, get supper for him as he was going to Brisbane that day. What a sight I never seen, their bodies covered over with white ashes and quite overjoyed at last night’s corrobery saying it was a bougery one, that is a good one. I forgot to mention one dish at the ball among the other varieties. That was a roasted bullock’s head with large horns still on.

The generosity of Sandra Eaton, descendant of James Aird, in making his diary available to us all has been a very important gift. Through James’ eyes, we are offered detailed accounts of everyday experiences – and it is these stories that connect us more deeply to our land and its people.

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