Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

A Vignette of Port Phillip

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

A Vignette of Port Phillip

Article excerpt

First published in Steele Rudd's Magazine September 1906

If the heaven of the hedonist be found (as some think) in idyllic conditions of life, the aborigines of the Upper Yarra made fair to enter into that illusionary paradise. For countless ages, stationary as to population, disturbed by no aspirations, and governed by tradition alone, they held undisputed possession of a tribal heritage unsurpassed in all resources that conduce to physical welfare.

In accordance with such external conditions, the moral temperament of the tribe was genial, generous and magnanimous. Physically, they were a race of athletes, incredibly expert in bushcraft, and the women were comely, as aboriginals go. Probably no people-taken in their primitive simplicity-have been so wantonly mali[gn]ed; but this injustice has never been perpetrated by humane and competent observers. The libel should be frankly and wholly withdrawn in the interests of science, if not on the plea of fairness.

From the first contact of black and white races on the Yarra, a mutual good feeling prevailed. One underlying cause may be noted. Only three years before the settlement of Port Phillip, Negro slavery had been abolished by legal enactment throughout the British dependencies. The movement had been of slow growth, definitely affecting popular thought in the direction of sympathy with dark-skinned races in general. Hence the moral atmosphere at that time was tinged by a theoretical recognition of common manhood, irrespective of colour. This was manifested in the attitude of the Port Phillip squatters and their employees toward the local blacks, as well as in strongly-worded official charges from the Colonial Office. Owing to this wave of popular sentiment, the blacks were not only better treated than defenceless natives usually are, but were better understood. Happily, no rash act of hostility on either side precipitated a collision; and the cordial relations of the two races remained unbroken to the last.

And the last days were already in sight. No benevolence could have preserved the indigenous race. Born into a narrow horizon of life, their fatal contentment had paralysed initiative so effectually that all individual potencies of innovation-never lacking where man is found-died with each brain so endowed. Therefore, apart from social disposition, their idea of personal excellence implied nothing beyond a superior dexterity in the construction and use of their anomalous weapons; whilst the supernatural element-also inseparable from human nature-found exercise in a far-reaching cult of sorcery.

But underneath the petrified usages that fix a tribal type lies the fact that Nature, the Mother, never repeats herself. Heredity, to say the least, is equivocal-is more full of surprises in its defaults than in its reproductions. Inborn variety is peremptory, and not always impressionable to despotic routine. There was a member of the upper Yarra tribe whose ardent receptivity and clear intellect might have made a mark if conditions had permitted. His native name was Baradyuk, though, in accordance with a custom of the time, he called himself Ryrie, after his most valued friend. He was about twenty years of age when the Upper Yarra was first settled. By an accident in early childhood he had lost his leftarm, but the remaining hand acquired a degree of precision with spear and boomerang which placed him easily first amongst the tribesmen of his own age.

By immemorial custom, each youth, before being admitted to the privileges of manhood, had to run down a selected kangaroo-a "flying doe"-and kill her with the barbed spear, which was always used as a lance, never as a javelin. Baradyuk had performed this exploit with ease, and had taken as his wife a young lubra, named Kunuwarra (the swan).

But it was not the aboriginal accomplishments of Baradyuk that attracted the regard of his white friends. He acquired with marvellous rapidity a sufficient knowledge of their language to understand ordinary conversation, and to make his own meaning clear. …

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