The Incredible Story of William Buckley Part 3. Buckley’s long stay with the Wathaurong people.

Today’s podcast covers most of the time Buckley spent living with the Wathaurong people, about 25 years, as they roamed around South-Western Victoria.  I’ve basically summarised a lot of the highlights of this time as related in the book The Life and Adventures of William Buckley. I would like to footnote this episode by mentioning a couple of things first.  There was an ample amount of internecine violence between the various groups of aboriginal people Buckley lived and interacted with during this time and he talks of having witnessed both cannibalism and infanticde.  I have seen some sketchy far right Twitter accounts using these facts as justification for their racist ideologies in which they make sweeping assumptions about the inferiority of aboriginal culture. I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not hold these views.  Furthermore, the book itself was ghost-written by John Morgan, whose own racial prejudice is clearly documented in its preface. One must remember that he has coloured much of its contents with this prejudice. Nevertheless, I think it would be remiss of me not to report the important details of the book and so I have included them here, but it may well be that the Wathaurong account William Buckley, or Murrangurk as they called him, differs in some respects.

As the years passed, Buckley started to develop an understanding of the Wathaurong language which he was patiently taught by his clan.  He learnt that they believed he had lost his language ability due to his experience of having died and returned from the spirit world They spent some time in the area between the Barwon River and the sea, hunting kangaroo.  By now, the affection he had with his people had grown, as they always treated him kindly, giving him the choicest pieces of kangaroo meat during meal times. He learnt how to throw a spear or tomahawk and skin the kangaroos and possums with mussell shells.  His friends taught him how to hunt salmon and bream at night in the Barwon River. They would tie some sticks in a bunch and light one end of it. The fish would be attracted to the light and then they would be speared in abundance.  

One day a large group about 300 men from a neighbouring aboriginal group, the Wurundjeri, arrived in their area.  The group were considered the enemy of the Wathaurong and as a result they a battle commenced between the two. Even the women from the Wathaurong joined in in the fighting, with two of them being killed.  After about two hours of fighting the two groups negotiated a tentative peace and the Wurundjeri retreated. But, the men from the Wathaurong secretly followed them and discovered their camp. The Wathaurong waited until the Wurundjeri had retired to sleep for the night before attacking them.  After the attack 3 Wurundjeri men lay dead and the rest ran away into the night, but it was what happened next that most horrified Buckley. The Wathaurong mutilated the corpses of the Wurundjeri, Buckley related it thus: 

“The bodies of the dead they mutilated in a shocking manner, cutting the arms and legs off, with flints, shells, and tomahawks.  When the women saw them returning, they also raised great shouts, dancing about in savage ecstasy. The bodies were thrown upon the ground, and beaten about with sticks – in fact, they all seemed to be perfectly mad with excitement; the men cut the flesh off the bones, and stones were heated for baking it; after which they greased their children with it, all over.  The bones were broken to pieces with tomahawks, and given to the dogs, or put on the boughs of trees for the birds of prey hovering over the horrid scene. Having apparently gratified their feelings of revenge, they fetched the bodies of their own two women who had been killed; these they buried with the customary ceremonies.”

Time passed and Buckley’s clan moved on to a lake by the the name of Yawangcontes, today called Lake Murdeduke.  Here they settled in huts for about 2 years before being contacted by a nearby aboriginal group who invited them to a much larger nearby lake called Kongiadgillock, or what is today called Lake Corangimite.  Within this large lake there was an island on which nested many Black Swans. The island could be reached from a bank of the lake at a kind of isthmus in only knee-deep water. Here Buckley’s clan gorged themselves on thousands of swan eggs, having been allowed to do so by the other aboriginal group.  They also butchered and roasted many swans. Afterwards they also invited Buckley’s clan to a corroboree, where, there occurred the usual fight over a woman from the other group who had gone with a man from Buckley’s group.  

As time passed Buckley’s clan moved from lake to lake and it was at the aboriginal people called Moodewarri, today known as Lake Colac, that Buckley saw the mythical Bunyip.  For non-Australian listeners, the Bunyip was a mythical beast that inhabited Rivers throughout Australia. It was said to have supernatural powers and to attack eat humans from time to time.  Buckley claimed to have witnessed one in the following account from his biography:

“In this a very extraordinary amphibious animal, which Bunyip, which apeared to be covered with feathers of a dusky grey colour.  It seemed to be about the size of a full grown calf; the creatures only appear when the weather is very calm, and the water smooth. I could never learn from any of the natives that they had seen either the heard or tail, so that I could not form a correct idea of their size; or what they were like.”  

After their time at the lake Buckley a messenger visited the group with a message from another mob to visit them.  It took Buckley’s mob 14 days to trek the distance to wear the others were located as was determined by the number of red stripes Buckley painted on his arm for each passing day.  Here a woman from Buckley’s mob was speared in retribution for having run off with a man from the other mob. 

Afterwards the group travelled to Beangala, now known as Indented Heads.  While here he experienced the biggest hailstorm he had ever encountered. Around this time also, Buckley was beginning to master the Wathaurong language.  He learned during his time here what had happened to one of the other escapees he had left Sullivan Bay with, from the book, quote:

“It seemed, that one of them, having, after a few days, separated from the others, was found by the natives and kindly relieved by them; but after some time, they – as it was said – had reason to be jealous of him – he having made too free with their women – so they killed him.”

It should be noted here that, this account by Buckley, given much later in 1853, differs markedly from an account he gave to George Langhorne just a year after he returned to Western society, in 1836.  In it he is quoted giving the following account: “I had lived with this tribe about six months, when I fell in with one of my companions, whom I found had been living with another family of the tribe on the sea coast. He then came and lived with me, but from his reckless conduct with the women and dissolute behaviour, I was fully convinced that if he remained one or both of us would be murdered. I therefore told him that it was necessary for the safety of both parties that one or the other must leave. He left, and I never saw him or heard of him again, except by a vague rumor – that he had been killed by the blacks, which I fully believe to have been the case.”  End quote.

The question arises here, which account is true?  Did he indeed fall in with his companion as he put it and ask him to leave, or did he just hear about his companion as he related in the 1853 book?  We may never know. It seems though that Buckley is a bit sketchy on this point. One wonders if there was a third possibility, that Buckley himself had something to do with his companion’s demise, we may never know the truth.

At this stage of the book, Buckley talks about some of the customs of the Wathaurong to do with marriage and child rearing.  A marriage must be agreed to by the parents of both the male and female in question. A male suitor must be able to prove himself a good fighter and hunter so as to be able to protect his wife.  A male may have a number of wives sometimes as many as five or six so long as he can look after them. Some men have no wives as a result of this.  

Quarrels are usually caused by jealousy and the women are just as prone to this as the men.  In the fighting however, the women usually come out worse off. Another thing he points out is that the meetings of the different aboriginal groups were not just for exchanging food, but also for showing off their eligible daughters to be seen and courted.

At this time Buckley talks of how a man from his mob went to that of another and murdered a man because he had years before promised him his daughter in marriage and then retracted the promise and married her to another man.  Buckley and some women visited the group in question to mourn together. The man was tied up in a tree as a form of burial. This incident and murder in general being such a regular occurrence unsettled Buckley and made him contemplate escaping.

Buckley’s group then went to Biarhoo on the Barwon River and then Godocut near the seaside.  The contemplated punishing the murderer as they worried about an impending revenge attack, but in the end decided against it.  Next they went to a place called Palac Palac and stayed for many months because there was plenty of animal food and fish. Eventually they noticed another group approach them and they feared it was the kin of the murdered man come for revenge.  But, a messenger was sent and it was not that group but a friendly mob and they were invited to share in an abundance of eels that had been found in a lagoon.  

At this point Buckley explains the native origin for the fire story.  A woman was digging an ant hill one day when a crow was flying overheard and dropped some dry grass and it burst into fire and burnt a tree.  For this reason they respect the crow which they call Waakee and rarely eat him.

The mob travelled to a place called Bordek where there were plenty of possums to eat.  Buckley’s brother-in-law taught him how to hunt the possums. He used his tomahawk to carve notches into a tree to make places to position his toes while holding his tomahawk in his mouth.  He would do this and gradually climb up the tree and pull possums out and fling them to the ground by their tails. Buckley’s job was to stand at the bottom and kill them.

The mob moved to Moriock (near Geelong) and here most of the males left to go on a hunting expedition leaving only 12 males and the females with Buckley.  Soon after they left, another group arrived and put up some huts very close to them. The mob were aggressive and used their numbers to their advantage to intimidate Buckley’s mob.  Eventually they killed a boy and a girl and Buckley’s mob, outraged, attacked them. There was a fight which lasted an hour. Eventually when it became clear Buckley’s mob could defend themselves, this other mob left.  A message was sent to the hunting party to return urgently which they did. A war council was set up and it was decided to pursue the offending mob for revenge. Only men were chosen for the pursuit and they returned with a number of men severely wounded, but it was considered a success because they had killed two of the other mob.

After some time passed Buckley’s mob moved to Barrackillock far to the north.  Another mob had already settled here. Buckley describes how a 20 year old woman from his mob was speared in the thigh for going with a man with the other mob and her parents did not agree to it.  The couple then eloped and revenge was planned on them.  

Here Buckley describes another animal called karbor, otherwise known as the (koala).  He describes how it tastes like pork, is ugly and mainly lives in the trees. It also made a sickening sound like a child in pain when it was speared.

After this the group went to Monwok.  Soon, the man and woman who had eloped were found and invited to participate in some sort of ceremonial battle.  The man’s mob and Buckley’s mob were in attendance. The man danced and capered challenging someone from Buckley’s mob to a fight.  Eventually someone accepted and they fought. The man from Buckley’s mob was winning and struck the eloper in the head so that blood was flowing from it.  The eloper’s mob stopped the fight there though and threatened a greater fight if it continued, so it stopped.

Later the mob came to a freshwater lake.  They saw another mob on the opposite shore during the day.  During the night they were awoken by a terrible commotion coming in the direction of the other mob.  In the morning they travelled to other side to investigate. Most of mob had been slaughtered by a third mob, many bodies of women and children were lying there mutilated.  Many of the attacked mob drowned in the lake fleeing. Buckley’s mob invited those who had survived to their huts and they accepted. There was no time to bury the victims. Buckley’s mob  and their new members left as it was dangerous and travelled to their usual country of Moodewari where they remained for several months.

Buckley relates how infanticide is carried out by the natives on illegitimate children or children of a woman who was first one man’s but then promised to another.  They also killedl children who are deformed. He saw the brains of one being dashed out by a blow to the head and the brother of the child made to eat them. There was a superstitious reasoning behind this act.  It was observed that the women behaved oddly during certain periods of the moon’s cycle. This was considered the reason for the deformity and therefore this cannibalistic rite had to be performed in some sort of sacrifice.  The boy’s father denied his being the father and it was said the other boy had to eat the brains so the same fate would not befall him.

Buckley tells the story of how after a long time at Moodewari another tribe joined them and woman of Buckley’s tribe was taken away by the other tribe until he was forced to give her up.  She was placed in Buckley’s hut, he wasn’t happy about this. In the night man came to hut and speared man from Buckley’s tribe who he was jealous of and kidnapped the woman. Buckley and victim’s brother tried to pull out the spear but could not because it was jagged.  Eventually a woman pulled the spear, but victim died later and was buried. Some men pursued murderer, but returned at night when they could not find him. Victim’s mother burnt her face with firesticks in lamentation. Shortly afterwards, Buckley’s tribe changed hunting grounds and fellin with tribe murderer belonged to.  Fight ensued. Buckley’s tribe could not find murderer so instead they murdered his 4 year old son by bashing his brains in. Also killed his brother and speared his mother through the thigh. Murderer himself came back at night and killed the man who had killed his brother, cut most of flesh from his body and carried it away on spears.   The tribe (which tribe not clear) signalled their joy at this revenge by by singing and dancing. Buckley requested to partake in cannibalism and refused to do so. Buckley was told it was their intention to serve all of the murderer’s tribe in the same way.

Buckley’s tribe settled near a lake called Koodgingmurrah.  Another fight occurred, as usual about women. Buckley nearly killed by boomerang that split his shield.  It was not meant for Buckley but for his brother in law. Man was punished despite Buckley’s protests. Buckley’s hand was wounded and the women bound it with possum felt and sinew.

Buckley says the aborigines love music and play on possum rugs and sticks.  The natives never wash and wear ornaments as rings and in their hair such as bones and teeth from animals and feathers from emu and swans.  

At opposite side of lake, ate mainly Kalkeeth (large ants) found in the hollows of trees.  Pulled out by hand and burnt or roasted on strips of bark. Only available one month of the year.  Mentions how the natives get the stone for making their axes from a place called Karkeen (Mount William about 230km inland), 300 miles inland.  The tribes who live in the area are savage so it was necessary to send a contingent of tough fighting men to fetch this necessary article.

Invited by other tribe to fish for eels at River called Booneawillock.  Another tribe arrived and another fight occurred over women. Buckley’s tribe continued to roam about after this.  One man was bitten by a snake while stepping over a tree and died immediately. Was esteemed high member of tribe and death caused great sorrow, was buried in tree.  

Eventually Buckley was left only with his immediate relations and 2 or 3 families of others.  A large tribe of 60 came upon them and painted themselves up as if for war. They came upon Buckley’s tribe and attacked killing his brother-in-law’s wife and sending a spear through brother-in-law’s body.  They came back to Buckley where he was caring for his injured brother-in-law. Brother-in-law sprung up and speared one in arm. Was immediately dispatched with spears and boomerangs as was his son. For some reason, they did not attack Buckley.  The cause of attack was that man who died of snake bite belonged to attacking tribe. Tribe believed Buckley’s brother-in-law had caused his death somehow. Buckley deeply affected by the killing of his relatives. He cried for a long time about it.  Buckley ordered by one murderer to join his tribe but he angrily refused. He wrapped up his spears and set out alone. After about 4 miles he fell in with a tribe he knew. Buckley told them about the murders and they vowed vengeance. Before they set off they told Buckley where to remain once they had returned.  He set off for the place near Barwon River. 5 women returned few days later, said was great fight, friends had avenged killer of brother-in-law, but women left because danger of being captured. Women left Buckley after few days. Buckley then went to scene of massacre of his family. Found the ashes of family and buried them.  Then went back to Barown River and men returned next day. Asked Buckley to join their tribe, but he refused as was depressed following murder of family and did not trust them to avoid violence. They left, next day Buckley left in opposite direction toward sea. Reached place called Mangahawnz. Set up hut and lived alone for months.  Had now been living in the wild for more than 25 years.  

Had learnt from natives, Calcutta left Bay many years before.  Often looked towards sea and hoped for ships, but never saw any.  Prayed often to God as lived a very lonely and miserable existence.