Thursday, 23 May 2013

2 Charles Darwin--1836

When the Beagle dropped anchor at Sydney Cove on its notorious voyage of discovery, Charles Darwin was 27 years of age and the colony of New South Wales had a population of 3,600 convicts and 16,000 free citizens. He immediately hired a guide and two saddle-horses for his forthcoming ride.

Young Darwin (1794-1869) around the time of his crossing of the Blue Mountains

Darwin’s narrative of his ‘Journey to Bathurst’ is invaluable because his observations are so acute and prescient—his interest in the Aboriginal people of both New South Wales and Van Dieman’s Land belie a scientific awareness of humanity and a concern for the anthropology of the world. From his writings, we can discern a great deal about attitudes and living conditions at the time… 

He stayed at an Inn near Emu Ford and soon noticed some local natives: 

At sunset, a party of a score of the black aborigines passed by, each carrying, in their accustomed manner, a bundle of spears and other weapons. By giving a leading man a shilling, they were easily obtained, and threw their spears for my amusement. They were all partly clothed, and several could speak a little English; their countenances were good humoured and pleasant; and they appeared far from being such utterly degraded beings as they are usually represented. In their own arts they are admirable: a cap being fixed at thirty yards (about 30 metres—Ed) distance, they transfixed it with a spear, delivered by a throwing stick, with the rapidity of a bow of a practised archer. In tracking animals or men they show most wonderful sagacity; and I heard of several of their remarks which manifested considerable acuteness. They will not, however, cultivate the ground, or build houses and remain stationary, or even take the trouble of tending a flock of sheep when given to them…[1] 

The excerpt tells us that derogatory stereotypes of Aboriginal people had developed wide currency by 1836 and had already been bestowed upon Darwin by his obliging white hosts—they clearly had been portrayed to him as hopeless and “utterly degraded”. To his credit, Darwin has the wisdom to dismiss such bias and to take heed of his own eyes and ears, to draw his own conclusions. 

Mountains hunters using spear with 'throwing stick' ('womra'), boomerangs and fire, as sketched by an early colonial artist

Secondly, the Darug of Penrith/Emu Ford are here armed with a “bundle” of spears. We might recall that Governor Macquarie had not only banned such weapons back in 1817, but had also forbade the gathering of large parties (a “score” is twenty—surely enough to cause menace if they chose to do so) of natives. Either the proclamation had been rescinded, subsequent Governors had forgotten it or “let it pass” now feeling secure in their conquest, or Darug warriors had reasserted their rights to hunt and live as they always had done, daring the invaders to stop them.
More importantly, the possession, use and expertise in applying their weapons indicates these warriors were still perfectly capable of living a ‘traditional life’. Game and ancient vegetation may well be scarce, but extensive groups of local Darug were still able to live by their wits, even if it meant playing up to white tourists, and spurn the dull life of domestic farming offered by the colonial administration. 

Similar hunting demonstration carried out today...

Darwin crossed the river… 

Early in the morning we passed the Nepean in a ferry-boat. The river, although at this spot both broad and deep, had a very small body of running water. Having crossed the a low piece of land on the opposite side, we reached the slope of the Blue Mountains. The ascent is not steep, the road having been cut with much care on the side of a sandstone cliff…From this first slope, the view of the extensive woodland to the eastward, was striking, and the surrounding trees grew bold and lofty. But when once on the sandstone platform, the scenery becomes exceedingly monotonous; each side of the road is bordered by scrubby trees of the never-failing Eucalyptus family; and with the exception of two or three small inns, there are no houses, or cultivated land: the road, moreover, is solitary; the most frequent object being a bullock-waggon, piled up with bales of wool.[2] 

Apparently Mr. Darwin was not impressed by our dear ‘Mountains’ flora, but we might take some heart in the knowledge that the drought written about in previous diaries still dragged on, and the consequences of Backhouse’s fires must still have been in evidence alongside the road. 

Travelling in mid-January, the height of the Australian summer, could not have assisted Darwin’s temper, nor have increased the volume of fellow tourists on the Western Road. It would also explain the preponderance of wool drays making their way to Sydney after the summer shearing. 

In his whole sojourn from Emu Ford to the Weatherboard Inn (present-day Wentworth Falls) Darwin did not see any more than one further grouping of Indigenous people, and we must remember he was deliberately seeking them out… 

The number of aborigines is rapidly decreasing. In my whole ride, with the exception of some boys brought up in houses, I saw only one other party; these were rather more numerous than the first, and not so well clothed. This decrease, no doubt, must be partly owing to the introduction of spirits, to European diseases (even the milder ones of which, as the measles, prove very destructive), and to the gradual extinction of the wild animals. It is said that numbers of their children invariably perish in very early infancy from the effects of their wandering life. As the difficulty of procuring food increases, so must their wandering habits; and hence the population, without any apparent deaths from famine, is repressed in a manner extremely sudden…Wherever the European has trod, death seems to pursue the aboriginal…

It is unclear exactly where Darwin encountered this “other party” of Aboriginal people. Strictly speaking, it could have been anywhere between the escarpment and Weatherboard, though one might reasonably expect them to have been near the small settlement at Springwood, since this “party” appeared to have no concern with the sight of Europeans and may have been in consistent interaction with whites at the “depot” there. This is also where Pellion and the French expedition of 1819 found some Darug warriors. 

The disappearance of native fauna through European encroachment affected every aspect of Darug/Gundungarra life

Of most concern is the total omission of any sighting of the “several huts” seen by Blaxland on the famous Crossing of 1813. These were observed, according to most calculations, in or near the valley below the ‘Woolpack Inn’ (ie Sun Valley/Long Angle Gully/Warrimoo), which Darwin must surely have passed and noticed. The most logical conclusion must be that they had been destroyed, either by Europeans or fire, so the people who used them had moved on, into obscurity. 

Charles Darwin rode on to Bathurst, where he found the Macquarie River “a mere chain of ponds.” He returned to Sydney and continued on his voyage with the Beagle.

[1] MACKANESS, G., Fourteen Journeys Over The Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Review Publications, Dubbo, 1978, p.38
[2] Ibid., p.41
[3] Ibid., p.40

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