The Incredible Story of William Buckley Part 2

The tale of an escaped convict who lived in the bush for 32 years with the Wathuroung aboriginal people before the settlement of Melbourne.

Buckley stayed in the hut that had become his home for a few months in order to recover his health.  But, he soon grew lonely and longed for human contact. Just as he was considering leaving the area he was surprised one day by some human voices speaking a strange language.  Buckley looked up and was startled to see three aboriginal men armed with spears standing on an outcrop. He tried to hide, but the men discovered his tracks and called out to him.  Buckley emerged from his hiding place and the men stared at him in wonderment. They took his hands in theirs and struck both their breasts and his while making an unusual sound which was “bewteen singing and crying…a sort of whine which to me sounded very much like premeditated mischief”.  After examining Buckley’s hut the men then made a fire and threw some crayfish onto it alive. Buckley was worried they might want to cook him next but his fears were proved misguided when they gave him the first and best portion of the seafood.  

After eating, Buckley’s new friends gestured for him to follow them, which he did reluctantly.  Buckley, still feeling tentative about his new acquaintances hoped to escape at the first chance he got, but, while two of the men went on ahead, the one that was left with him watched him like a hawk.  After arriving at some huts made of turf they turned in for the night and Buckley thought this might have been a good opportunity to abscond, but his guard stayed in the tent with him and didn’t sleep at all muttering to himself the whole time.

In the morning the men seemed to beckon Buckley to follow them once again, but this time he refused to go further.  The men reluctantly accepted these conditions, but tried to get Buckley to part with his old, worn stockings. Buckley refused this too though and they accepted after quote “sundry striking of breasts and stamping of feet”.  As Buckley was considering what he might do next, one of the men returned with a crude basket made of rushes, which had the berries mentioned previously and attempted to exchange this for his stockings. Buckley again refused and the man, dejected, went on his way.  

When night came Buckley cursed having left the men because he had no fire to warm himself.  Therefore, he returned to where he thought the huts were, but they were no longer there. Suffering from exposure, he desperately tried finding the aboriginal men by making out in the direction he thought they had left in, but after a while, he became completely lost, and exhausted, lay down under a large, hollow tree.    Luckily he found a firestick nearby and made a fire which attracted dingoes and possums and he couldn’t sleep because of the howling of the former. 

   For a while Buckley travelled around by himself subsisting on anything he could find such as the fruit the men had brought him and shellfish.  Eventually, a desire for comfort brought him back to his old cabin on the beach and he remained here many months.  

As the weather had become very cold and stormy by this stage and as his clothes had become worn and tattered, Buckley eventually resigned himself to attempting to return to the ship.  He bade farewell then and began to retrace his steps back along what is now the location of the Great Ocean Road.  

By this time Buckley was becoming extremely weary and could only make short distances each day.  After a few days he arrived at a creek the natives call Doonagawn and made himself a simple shelter in the vegetation.  Although he didn’t realise it at the time, here Buckley was to make a fortuitous discovery that was to have a considerable impact on the rest of his life.  Right next to where he had made his shelter Buckley found a mound with a spear thrust into it. He immediately realised it was a native grave. But, in his weary state, Buckley simply saw the spear as an excellent potential walking stick and thought nothing more of it at the time.  The next day he reached the Karaaf River and tried to cross it, but weak as he was, he was unable to and he was carried downstream some distance, before eventually reaching the other side where he collapsed in a heap, exhausted. Drenched, he lay down in the scrub freezing and lamented his condition.  He prayed long and hard into the night as the dingoes howled around him and he fully expected to be eaten by them before morning.  

The next day he came across a lagoon the Wathaurong called Maamart.  While he was searching for gum a group of aboriginal people appeared out of the bush and approached him.  They seemed to be overcome with emotion at seeing him. The men took him by the hands and beat their breasts and his in a gesture that he assumed was a greeting.  The women assisted him to walk while making terrible wailing noises and pulling clumps of hair from their head.
They took Buckley to their huts and gave him some sustenance in the form of a pulp made from gum and water which Buckley greatly enjoyed.  They called Buckley Murrangerk, who he later found out was the man whose grave he had taken the spear from. Much later Buckley learnt that the aboriginal people believed that white people were the spirits of people who had died.  In cases in which they had killed white people it was because they had believed the white people to be the returned spirits of their enemies. Buckley felt great fortune at his situation because if he had not picked up the spear when he had, he may have died.

As it was, the people were extremely kind to him.  They went away and found some moth grubs to give him sustenance and he was surprised at how tasty they were.  Buckley stayed with them all night and was still a bit scared of what they might do to him, but was too weak to escape.  The women spent the night wailing and inflicting wounds on their faces and pulling the hair from their heads. Buckley was shocked by this, but later he found out that this was a custom they performed when someone died or when someone returned having been away a long time.  They were expressing their grief at the pain Buckley must have undergone when he died.  

The next day Buckley’s new companions took him to the main body of the tribe on the other side of the Barwon River.  Here there were upwards of one hundred people who made a great commotion on Buckley’s arrival with the usual beating of breasts by the males and the pulling of hair from their heads of the females.  In order to welcome Buckley the people held a great Corroboree. At the time, Buckley was still anxious as he was not sure whether they wanted to cook him, but this didn’t prove to be the case as he relates thus:

“then there was a great noise amongst them, and a trampling backwards and forward from hut to hut, as if something of importance was going on.  I was naturally anxious at this, not knowing how it would all end; at last it came on night, and the boys and girls set to work making a very large fire, probably to roast me – who could tell? At any rate I supposed it not at all improbable, surrounded as I was by such a host of wild uncultivated savages: however that might be, it was impossible to escape, as I was too weak and terrified at the appearance all around.  At last all the women came out naked – having taken off their skin rugs, which they carried in their hands. I was then brought out from the hut by the two men, the women surrounding me. I expected to be thrown immediately into the flames; but the women having seated themselves by the fire, the men joined the assemblage armed with clubs more than two feet long; having painted themselves with pipe-clay, which abounds on the banks of the lake.  They had run streaks of it round the eyes, one down each cheek, others along the forehead down to the tip of the nose, other streaks meeting at the chin, others from the middle of the body down each leg; so that altogether, they made a most horrifying appearance, standing round and about the blazing night fire. The women kept their rugs rolled tight up, after which, they stretched them between the knees, each forming a sort of drum. These they beat with their hands, as if keeping time with one of the men who was seated in front of them, singing.  Presently the men came up in a kind of close column, they, also, beating time with their sticks, by knocking them one against the other, making altogether a frightful noise. The man seated in front appeared to be the leader of the orchestra, or master of the band – indeed I may say, master of the ceremonies generally. He marched the whole mob, men and women, boys and girls, backwards and forwards at his pleasure, directing the singing and dancing, with the greatest decision and air of authority. This scene must have lasted at least three hours, when, as a wind-up, they gave three tremendous shouts, at the same time pointing to the sky with their sticks; they each shook me heartily by the hand, again beating their breasts, as a token of friendship.  By this time I was greatly relieved in my mind, finding no injury to me was contemplated, and particularly when they all dispersed to their huts, and I was left again with my guardians.”

The next day Buckley was to quarter with the brother of the man they believed him to be and his wife and son.  

That night there was another great Corroboree, but Buckley retired to the hut of his new acquaintances.  They entertained him with roots and possum meat which was a great feast for him because he had not had meat since he had left the Calcutta.  He was presented with a possum skin-rug after which he presented his “brother’s” wife with his old worn jacket and this greatly increased the affection which the family showed him.

In the morning there was an argument and some men began brandishing their spears.  After a great deal of swaggering the two groups of men actually began fighting and when Buckley’s relations saw this they took him away and observed from a distance.  One man was speared in the thigh and a woman from the group Buckley was associated with was speared under the arm and killed. Eventually peace was restored and everyone retired except about 20 of the members of this woman’s tribe, who made a fire and threw her body on it.  When there was nothing but ashes they piled them together and stuck her digging stick into it.

After this, everyone went away except Buckley’s relations and one other family.  They went to another part of the bush and remained there some considerable time. They ate roots mainly, which the women sought daily and occasionally the men would kill a possum.  Sometimes they killed kangaroo and Buckley found this meat delicious. After a few weeks they joined another tribe of about 50 and had a Corroboree on the evening of their meeting, but during the festivities there was a fight and two boys from the other group were killed.  Buckley couldn’t understand what these quarrels were about, but understood later that it was because one tribe had taken women away from the other tribe. At other times, women willingly left their husbands to join other men, which gave rise to jealousy. When the fights occurred, Buckley was always kept in the rear for his protection.  When the fracas was over the tribe to which the boys belonged retired into the bush and Buckley’s people set up huts from branches and bark. Suddenly in the night the other tribe attacked them again and took the bodies of the two boys who had been killed from a hut. They cut off their legs and thighs and took them away. Buckley’s tribe retreated and the remains of the boys were burnt in the usual way.

Afterwards, Buckley’s people went to the coast.  From here a message was sent to the other group with whom they had had the earlier fracas about the women.  They challenged them to a fight at a designated place to settle the matter. After 4 days the messenger returned to say that the other tribe had accepted the challenge and they went there, but Buckley was not aware at the time of the reason why they were going there.  They arrived at the meeting spot about 20 miles away, where about 5 tribes were gathered and the fighting commenced. The fighting lasted about 3 hours after which 3 women lay dead. Buckley says in these fights the women usually faired worse off. The quarrels alarmed Buckley because the participants often pointed towards him during the fighting as if he was the source of the dispute so he again started to worry that he might be sacrificed.  

Eventually Buckley’s tribe returned to him and encircled him before escorting him to the clearing where the fight had been and where the other tribe were waiting in a square-shaped guard.  Buckley was worried he’d be killed. There was silence and they all stared at him. They then began muttering and shaking their spears and gave 3 shouts and eventually returned to their respective huts.
In the morning Buckley found the other tribe had gone and his tribe returned to the place they usually occupied and remained there for a very long time unharmed.  After a while a messenger came from another tribe saying they were to meet them some miles off. Their method of marking time was by marking days on the arm in chalk and rubbing one off as each day passes.  After travelling two or three days they met the other tribe and Buckley had never seen them before and they had a great corroboree that night.  

The next morning the two tribes had a big kangaroo hunt.  Buckley was very interested in participating as it was his first and they conducted it with great skill.  They killed several big kangaroos and had them roasted that night. The next day there was a big argument between the two tribes over two of the women.  This time though it didn’t end in bloodshed. Afterwards, the tribes separated and each went to its own area.

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