This article was first published in The Border and Beyond – Camooweal 1884-1984 by Mrs Ada Miller (nee Freckleton). It is reproduced here with the consent of Mrs Miller.
When William Landsborough made reference to the Aboriginal people in his 1861 diary, he acknowledged the important contribution to the early pioneering history of Camooweal and district.
Landsborough’s policy was to skirt the area where there were signs of fire or Aboriginal activity taking his horses to the plains for hobbling out to avoid any problems.
Between Lake Mary and Lake Frances he saw an aged Aboriginal man and his wife who was more concerned for her dogs than for herself. However, further south, Landsborough encountered a camp of Aboriginal people near Lake Kennellan where his fellow explorer, Campbell, was threatened by a boomerang happy Aboriginal but the Aboriginal man was advised by his companions not to throw the weapon.
The Aboriginal people continued to swim in the water and the explorers shot game for food. Sutherland appears to have encountered Aboriginal people much more frequently but both agreed that the plains Aboriginals were friendlier, less aggressive type of people than their Gulf or Hill brothers.
Judging by the ashes, kangaroo/emu bones, fish and crocodile bones, and nets spread out on the banks, dilly bags and fishing lines, there was a large tribe of Aboriginal people at the junction of the Gregory with the O’Shannessey when Sutherland’s party crossed, coming to Rocklands in 1865.
By the time he and his men reached the vicinity of Lake Mary, the sheep had done a 35 mile dry stretch and the moment the animals sniffed the water of the Lake on the wind, the tired, worn-out shepherds were powerless to hold them back.
Consequently the sheep bolted for the water and as there was a group of Aboriginal people camped around the lake, the sheep came in straight over the top of those sleeping natives. The Aboriginal people had never seen sheep and with all that baaing and galloping they would have been very amazed at the sight of these strange creatures. The equally amazed shepherds were unable to prevent the disaster.
Later the Aboriginal people had their revenge. When Sutherland’s men were settled in one night, using the settlers’ wood heap for a screen, the Aboriginal people attacked their evening camp, catching the men unarmed at their evening meal.
One of the group was speared through his hat and their valuable camp ovens broken, food scattered and implements taken. There were other minor incidents and each group, it seemed, was forever on its guard. Sutherland said of the Rocklands Aboriginal people he encountered, he had never seen any group of Aboriginals in any part of Australia to physically surpass them.
Camooweal is in ‘Wakaja’ country surrounded by Indjalandji (Rankine River region, Wokabunga (Morestone/Undilla), Kalkadoon (Mount Isa), Jaroinga (Barclay/Lake Nash). After European arrival these groups became attached to various pastoral properties and visited Camooweal only for festivities.
They danced their corroborees when they were on walkabout down below the township but kept very much to themselves. There were a few local families – the native trackers and their wives and the ones who worked casually about the town.
In many cases the manager’s wife was the only European woman and her daily contact the bookkeeper, the cook and the Aboriginal people. The Aboriginal people loved to claim credit for rearing the children of the homestead and those white children took to the Aboriginal carefree bushways like ducks to water. They fled the confines of the station for the excitement of the bush and the hunt whenever possible enjoying the ‘duni’ (native method of cooking), eating goanna, witchetty grubs, conka berries and digging for yams and lily roots or fishing for their lunch.
The black men were great stockmen and bush men and most of the women adapted to the European ways of housekeeping although from time to time they shook their heads at our insane ideas of sweeping and polishing floors all our lives. They believed very strongly in the ‘division of labour’ and having assigned them a job it was extremely to get them to undertake somebody else’s tasks.
Inevitably there were clandestine affairs between Aboriginal women and white men – originally there were very few European women in the bush and it was an offence for a white man to cohabit with an Aboriginal woman. The Aboriginal women, as mere chattels of their husbands, were sometimes offered to white men and in that lonely isolated country there were, when readily available, a great temptation.
Some of the younger Aboriginal women were extremely attractive and many lasting relationships were formed. There were as well many tragic liaisons. ‘Kombo’-ism, as this black-white relationship was called, was rife and was frowned upon as it added to the problems of the frontier. The school-age children of these unions were taken from the white man and his Aboriginal wife and sent to missions to be educated. This probably accounted for the various mixed race children being boarded in Camooweal early this century to go to school.
It was certainly the case with George Ellis’ son Leslie whose older brothers and sisters had been removed from the stock camp while George was away mustering. The old Irishman was deeply hurt at losing his children in this manner.
At Camooweal an Aboriginal man named Tommy lost his life attempting to rescue an aged white pensioner from the flooded Georgina River. Tommy’s wife, Betty, receive an award on behalf of her husband at a ceremony in the Shire Hall, Camooweal. George Ah Wing who brought the pensioner Paddy McNamara to safety was also honoured with an award for bravery.
Researched by Kim-Maree Burton www.kimmareeburton.com