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Chapter 21

Man will do many things to get himself loved, he will do all things to
get himself envied.
--Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar.

Before I saw Australia I had never heard of the "weet-weet" at all.
I met but few men who had seen it thrown--at least I met but few who
mentioned having seen it thrown. Roughly described, it is a fat wooden
cigar with its butt-end fastened to a flexible twig. The whole thing is
only a couple of feet long, and weighs less than two ounces. This
feather--so to call it--is not thrown through the air, but is flung with
an underhanded throw and made to strike the ground a little way in front
of the thrower; then it glances and makes a long skip; glances again,
skips again, and again and again, like the flat stone which a boy sends
skating over the water. The water is smooth, and the stone has a good
chance; so a strong man may make it travel fifty or seventy-five yards;
but the weet-weet has no such good chance, for it strikes sand, grass,
and earth in its course. Yet an expert aboriginal has sent it a measured
distance of two hundred and twenty yards. It would have gone even
further but it encountered rank ferns and underwood on its passage and
they damaged its speed. Two hundred and twenty yards; and so weightless
a toy--a mouse on the end of a bit of wire, in effect; and not sailing
through the accommodating air, but encountering grass and sand and stuff
at every jump. It looks wholly impossible; but Mr. Brough Smyth saw the
feat and did the measuring, and set down the facts in his book about
aboriginal life, which he wrote by command of the Victorian Government.

What is the secret of the feat? No one explains. It cannot be physical
strength, for that could not drive such a feather-weight any distance.
It must be art. But no one explains what the art of it is; nor how it
gets around that law of nature which says you shall not throw any
two-ounce thing 220 yards, either through the air or bumping along the
ground. Rev. J. G. Woods says:

"The distance to which the weet-weet or kangaroo-rat can be thrown is
truly astonishing. I have seen an Australian stand at one side of
Kennington Oval and throw the kangaroo rat completely across it." (Width
of Kensington Oval not stated.) "It darts through the air with the sharp
and menacing hiss of a rifle-ball, its greatest height from the ground
being some seven or eight feet . . . . . . When properly thrown it
looks just like a living animal leaping along . . . . . . Its
movements have a wonderful resemblance to the long leaps of a
kangaroo-rat fleeing in alarm, with its long tail trailing behind it."

The Old Settler said that he had seen distances made by the weet-weet, in
the early days, which almost convinced him that it was as extraordinary
an instrument as the boomerang.

There must have been a large distribution of acuteness among those naked
skinny aboriginals, or they couldn't have been such unapproachable
trackers and boomerangers and weet-weeters. It must have been
race-aversion that put upon them a good deal of the low-rate intellectual
reputation which they bear and have borne this long time in the world's
estimate of them.

They were lazy--always lazy. Perhaps that was their trouble. It is a
killing defect. Surely they could have invented and built a competent
house, but they didn't. And they could have invented and developed the
agricultural arts, but they didn't. They went naked and houseless, and
lived on fish and grubs and worms and wild fruits, and were just plain
savages, for all their smartness.

With a country as big as the United States to live and multiply in, and
with no epidemic diseases among them till the white man came with those
and his other appliances of civilization, it is quite probable that there
was never a day in his history when he could muster 100,000 of his race
in all Australia. He diligently and deliberately kept population down by
infanticide--largely; but mainly by certain other methods. He did not
need to practise these artificialities any more after the white man came.
The white man knew ways of keeping down population which were worth
several of his. The white man knew ways of reducing a native population
80 percent. in 20 years. The native had never seen anything as fine as
that before.

For example, there is the case of the country now called Victoria--a
country eighty times as large as Rhode Island, as I have already said.
By the best official guess there were 4,500 aboriginals in it when the
whites came along in the middle of the 'Thirties. Of these, 1,000 lived
in Gippsland, a patch of territory the size of fifteen or sixteen Rhode
Islands: they did not diminish as fast as some of the other communities;
indeed, at the end of forty years there were still 200 of them left. The
Geelong tribe diminished more satisfactorily: from 173 persons it faded
to 34 in twenty years; at the end of another twenty the tribe numbered
one person altogether. The two Melbourne tribes could muster almost 300
when the white man came; they could muster but twenty, thirty-seven years
later, in 1875. In that year there were still odds and ends of tribes
scattered about the colony of Victoria, but I was told that natives of
full blood are very scarce now. It is said that the aboriginals continue
in some force in the huge territory called Queensland.

The early whites were not used to savages. They could not understand the
primary law of savage life: that if a man do you a wrong, his whole tribe
is responsible--each individual of it--and you may take your change out
of any individual of it, without bothering to seek out the guilty one.
When a white killed an aboriginal, the tribe applied the ancient law, and
killed the first white they came across. To the whites this was a
monstrous thing. Extermination seemed to be the proper medicine for such
creatures as this. They did not kill all the blacks, but they promptly
killed enough of them to make their own persons safe. From the dawn of
civilization down to this day the white man has always used that very
precaution. Mrs. Campbell Praed lived in Queensland, as a child, in the
early days, and in her "Sketches of Australian life," we get informing
pictures of the early struggles of the white and the black to reform each
other.

Speaking of pioneer days in the mighty wilderness of Queensland, Mrs.
Praed says:

"At first the natives retreated before the whites; and, except that
they every now and then speared a beast in one of the herds, gave
little cause for uneasiness. But, as the number of squatters
increased, each one taking up miles of country and bringing two or
three men in his train, so that shepherds' huts and stockmen's camps
lay far apart, and defenseless in the midst of hostile tribes, the
Blacks' depredations became more frequent and murder was no unusual
event.

"The loneliness of the Australian bush can hardly be painted in
words. Here extends mile after mile of primeval forest where
perhaps foot of white man has never trod--interminable vistas where
the eucalyptus trees rear their lofty trunks and spread forth their
lanky limbs, from which the red gum oozes and hangs in fantastic
pendants like crimson stalactites; ravines along the sides of which
the long-bladed grass grows rankly; level untimbered plains
alternating with undulating tracts of pasture, here and there broken
by a stony ridge, steep gully, or dried-up creek. All wild, vast
and desolate; all the same monotonous gray coloring, except where
the wattle, when in blossom, shows patches of feathery gold, or a
belt of scrub lies green, glossy, and impenetrable as Indian jungle.

"The solitude seems intensified by the strange sounds of reptiles,
birds, and insects, and by the absence of larger creatures; of which
in the day-time, the only audible signs are the stampede of a herd
of kangaroo, or the rustle of a wallabi, or a dingo stirring the
grass as it creeps to its lair. But there are the whirring of
locusts, the demoniac chuckle of the laughing jack-ass, the
screeching of cockatoos and parrots, the hissing of the frilled
lizard, and the buzzing of innumerable insects hidden under the
dense undergrowth. And then at night, the melancholy wailing of the
curlews, the dismal howling of dingoes, the discordant croaking of
tree-frogs, might well shake the nerves of the solitary watcher."

That is the theater for the drama. When you comprehend one or two other
details, you will perceive how well suited for trouble it was, and how
loudly it invited it. The cattlemen's stations were scattered over that
profound wilderness miles and miles apart--at each station half a dozen
persons. There was a plenty of cattle, the black natives were always
ill-nourished and hungry. The land belonged to them. The whites had not
bought it, and couldn't buy it; for the tribes had no chiefs, nobody in
authority, nobody competent to sell and convey; and the tribes themselves
had no comprehension of the idea of transferable ownership of land. The
ousted owners were despised by the white interlopers, and this opinion
was not hidden under a bushel. More promising materials for a tragedy
could not have been collated. Let Mrs. Praed speak:

"At Nie station, one dark night, the unsuspecting hut-keeper,
having, as he believed, secured himself against assault, was lying
wrapped in his blankets sleeping profoundly. The Blacks crept
stealthily down the chimney and battered in his skull while he
slept."

One could guess the whole drama from that little text. The curtain was
up. It would not fall until the mastership of one party or the other was
determined--and permanently:

"There was treachery on both sides. The Blacks killed the Whites
when they found them defenseless, and the Whites slew the Blacks in
a wholesale and promiscuous fashion which offended against my
childish sense of justice.

"They were regarded as little above the level of brutes, and in some
cases were destroyed like vermin.

"Here is an instance. A squatter, whose station was surrounded by
Blacks, whom he suspected to be hostile and from whom he feared an
attack, parleyed with them from his house-door. He told them it was
Christmas-time--a time at which all men, black or white, feasted;
that there were flour, sugar-plums, good things in plenty in the
store, and that he would make for them such a pudding as they had
never dreamed of--a great pudding of which all might eat and be
filled. The Blacks listened and were lost. The pudding was made
and distributed. Next morning there was howling in the camp, for it
had been sweetened with sugar and arsenic!"

The white man's spirit was right, but his method was wrong. His spirit
was the spirit which the civilized white has always exhibited toward the
savage, but the use of poison was a departure from custom. True, it was
merely a technical departure, not a real one; still, it was a departure,
and therefore a mistake, in my opinion. It was better, kinder, swifter,
and much more humane than a number of the methods which have been
sanctified by custom, but that does not justify its employment. That is,
it does not wholly justify it. Its unusual nature makes it stand out and
attract an amount of attention which it is not entitled to. It takes
hold upon morbid imaginations and they work it up into a sort of
exhibition of cruelty, and this smirches the good name of our
civilization, whereas one of the old harsher methods would have had no
such effect because usage has made those methods familiar to us and
innocent. In many countries we have chained the savage and starved him
to death; and this we do not care for, because custom has inured us to
it; yet a quick death by poison is loving-kindness to it. In many
countries we have burned the savage at the stake; and this we do not care
for, because custom has inured us to it; yet a quick death is
loving-kindness to it. In more than one country we have hunted the
savage and his little children and their mother with dogs and guns
through the woods and swamps for an afternoon's sport, and filled the
region with happy laughter over their sprawling and stumbling flight, and
their wild supplications for mercy; but this method we do not mind,
because custom has inured us to it; yet a quick death by poison is
loving-kindness to it. In many countries we have taken the savage's land
from him, and made him our slave, and lashed him every day, and broken
his pride, and made death his only friend, and overworked him till he
dropped in his tracks; and this we do not care for, because custom has
inured us to it; yet a quick death by poison is loving-kindness to it.
In the Matabeleland today--why, there we are confining ourselves to
sanctified custom, we Rhodes-Beit millionaires in South Africa and Dukes
in London; and nobody cares, because we are used to the old holy customs,
and all we ask is that no notice-inviting new ones shall be intruded upon
the attention of our comfortable consciences. Mrs. Praed says of the
poisoner, "That squatter deserves to have his name handed down to the
contempt of posterity."

I am sorry to hear her say that. I myself blame him for one thing, and
severely, but I stop there. I blame him for, the indiscretion of
introducing a novelty which was calculated to attract attention to our
civilization. There was no occasion to do that. It was his duty, and it
is every loyal man's duty to protect that heritage in every way he can;
and the best way to do that is to attract attention elsewhere. The
squatter's judgment was bad--that is plain; but his heart was right. He
is almost the only pioneering representative of civilization in history
who has risen above the prejudices of his caste and his heredity and
tried to introduce the element of mercy into the superior race's dealings
with the savage. His name is lost, and it is a pity; for it deserves to
be handed down to posterity with homage and reverence.

This paragraph is from a London journal:

"To learn what France is doing to spread the blessings of
civilization in her distant dependencies we may turn with advantage
to New Caledonia. With a view to attracting free settlers to that
penal colony, M. Feillet, the Governor, forcibly expropriated the
Kanaka cultivators from the best of their plantations, with a
derisory compensation, in spite of the protests of the Council
General of the island. Such immigrants as could be induced to cross
the seas thus found themselves in possession of thousands of coffee,
cocoa, banana, and bread-fruit trees, the raising of which had cost
the wretched natives years of toil whilst the latter had a few
five-franc pieces to spend in the liquor stores of Noumea."

You observe the combination? It is robbery, humiliation, and slow, slow
murder, through poverty and the white man's whisky. The savage's gentle
friend, the savage's noble friend, the only magnanimous and unselfish
friend the savage has ever had, was not there with the merciful swift
release of his poisoned pudding.

There are many humorous things in the world; among them the white man's
notion that he is less savage than the other savages.--[See Chapter on
Tasmania, post.]


Mark Twain