It was a truly amazing day for all of us. Rusty Butler took us right through all the places where ‘James’ or, ‘The Old man’, as he called him had been. [This man, James Morrill, was John’s great great grandfather, who was shipwrecked there and one of the first white people the aboriginals had ever seen.] All the special spots that you had to be with an elder to even know where they are, let alone find your way to them. He showed us all sorts of medicinal plants and bush food. Amazing things like how they knew where fresh water was, even on the edge of a tidal salt pan. Us white folks just drive past so much stuff because we don’t know what’s there and we don’t see them … wild apples, figs, small yams, hearts of palm type of things. Mary has eczema on her arms and Rusty found the weed that grows everywhere beside the roads up here, showed her how to break the stalk, get the white sap out, and rub it on her arms …. said it would start to clear in a week.
Rusty had spears and boomerangs and we got a lesson on how to throw a spear with a woomera and how to throw a boomerang so it comes back or throw it straight to kill something. We all got a boomerang that Rusty had made, special for left handed and right handed.
There were a lot of areas he pointed out up on the range where there are very large galleries of art, but he couldn’t take us there, because they were ceremonial, and sacred areas for men or women, and whitey is not permitted to go there. We did see some amazing art though, the oldest was 5000 years old. We saw the James red ochre personal rock paintings. The St George Cross from the English Merchant Marine flag that would have been on the Peruvian , a pair of scissors (totally unknown to the aboriginals), a painting of his sailors’ splicing spike, that he was said to have with him all the time, and the strangest thing was a windmill with the lattice blades, like you see in Dutch paintings. Apart from the fact that Rusty knows they were done by James, they all obviously were done by a European, not an aboriginal.
The essential history from the aboriginal perspective is that if you go back in their history, to the time before the last big global ice melt in the northern hemisphere, they lived on the then shoreline which is where the Barrier Reef is today. The water rose and drove the people ‘inland’ to where the coastline is today. He says he knows where all sorts of art galleries are under water out on the reef!!
So, jump forward in time to when Jimmy got shipwrecked. When he was found, the tribe who found him and the others immediately though they were ancestor spirits (ancestor spirits are white, or depicted as white in dance) who had come in from the Reef. All aboriginal tribes have what they call ‘skin groups’. Because they live in small groups of about 20, they intermarry a lot, and they knew they could inbreed to some extent, but knew they had to swap women out regularly with another tribe to avoid the genetic defects. These women were known as the transfer group. Transferring women was the single most cause of fighting and killing between them. You would approach another tribe and offer to exchange a group of women. If they were recalcitrant, you would invite them to special fighting areas where you would fight it out. The winner got new women, and the loser got the winners transfer group. Go figger!!
The tribe that found them knew they were not their ancestors, because they had wrong facial features. James was white with red hair and a long red beard … not one of them at all. So, they sent out message sticks (about 6″ long and 1/2″ thick with dots, swirls and lines on them) to tribes all over Northern Australia and as far south as Ne South Wales, letting tribes know that some spirits had come ashore from the submerged lands, and that they should send some emissaries to check them out and see if they belong to their tribe. Amazing stuff. No one claimed them so the local tribe, the Bindal adopted them. The captain and his wife didn’t survive long, and the other survivor a cabin boy took a fancy to a girl in a tribe from down near Bowen and headed out with them. He also didn’t survive long.
James was a smart person and learn’t the ways quickly, in exchange, he was able to use his seaman skills and show them how to make rope, string and fishing nets. Valuable skills to hunter, gatherers, To stay and be accepted into the tribe, he had to learn all the foods, medicines, hunting and cooking knowledge. Once he had done this, he was permitted to marry, which he did, and had several wives and some number of kids … number not specified.
So we went to places he camped, favorite fishing spots, lagoons where they would go and catch wild ducks and gather eggs. A place and story noe of us had heard, was one of the places they would snare ducks, also a favorite place for crocodiles.james was showing one of his sons how to et a duck out of a snare and the son was attacked by a crocodile. James in turn attacked the croc with his splicing spike. He killed the croc, but not before he got badly bitten on his left leg. The son died of the injuries and James injuries were healed with bush medicine, herbal wraps and stuff. He walked with a limp for the rest of his life.
When the white people came, there was the famous exchange of ‘Don’t shoot me I am a British object’ This got his life spared, but the cattle people were afraid of the aboriginals and thought of them as animals and started to hunt and kill them if they were anywhere near Europeans or cattle. The guy Townsville is named after – Robert Towns (Towns Ville}, was a ruthless bastard apparently. James had many meetings with him and his people arguing that the aboriginals were a proud people with thousands of years of history, meant no harm, and simply wanted to live in peaceful harmony on the land they knew. Nothing would be accepted by Towns, and even at the end when the Bindal asked to be left alone on the tidal flats and mangroves, no one would agree. They were seen as savages and best hunted down. The massacres started in earnest apparently, and the tribes took to pretty rough and difficult to get to land to avoid being killed.
Rusty, other tribal elders and descendants are constantly protesting any memorial, street naming, development etc, planned to be named after Robert Towns, As far as they are concerned he is a murderer and a criminal not to be honored.
When we got back to Mary’s place, we all sat under Mary’s mango tree and Rusty told us dreamtime stories. The kids were fascinated. Things like Why curlews call out at night, Why owls only fly about at night etc.