Excerpts from Anthropophagitism in the Antipodes: Cannibalism in Australia, James Cooke, published by the author, 1997.


The wild blacks of those earlier days had been a very serious proposition. They were a husky, bold lot, who feared the Chinamen not at all, and the white man but very little. They were cannibals, every man jack of ’em, and it did not take them long to discover that a Chinaman’s flesh was much more succulent and pleasant to their palates than that of a white man. The Chinaman, they would admit quite cheerfully, was all the same guano (like a lizard which they considered a delicacy), but white man he no good, too much salt, too tough, no good. Which admission was all very pleasing to the white men concerned.

A white digger, Harry Strickland by name, was prospecting for gold at the head of the Palmer River when he unexpectedly came across a party of blacks. Being surprised, they just turned and ran, although their party far outnumbered that of Harry and his black boys. They all got clear away except one, who fell in running and remained lying on the ground. On riding up to investigate Harry found a young lubra about fifteen years old, squirming on the ground with a broken leg, jabbering away, nearly crazy with fright.

One of Harry’s black boys could speak a little of the wild fellow’s lingo, and managed to quiet the terrified girl a little. He explained to her as clearly as he was able that the white man would do her no harm if she kept quiet. Very soon Harry had the fractured leg in splints, and fixed up a better time for her than she had ever had.

It was useless to leave her where she was, for it was highly possible that her own people would not come back for her, and if they did they would undo all Harry’s good work, so he arranged that he would look after her for a bit.

For the first few days after he picked her up she acted like a monkey, and a bad-tempered one at that, jibbering away and trying to scratch and bite anyone who came within her lightning reach. But Harry was always patient with her, treating her kindly, feeding her on the same food that he had himself, until at last, when she found how gently he handled her, she lost all fear of him, and her eyes would follow him everywhere. She ended up by simply worshipping the very ground on which he trod, literally, and turned out about the best black gin a white man ever had.

Naturally, when Harry came back into camp with her after that long prospecting trip, he was chaffed unmercifully about his acquisition. He championed her all along the line.

‘You can laugh at me,’ he would say in answer to their rough jests, ‘but for a wild one she’s just a wonder. She’s picked up cooking as if she’d been born to it, she is very handy round the camp, she washes my clothes well, and she waits on me hand and foot. In fact, she’s a jolly good pal.’ And before long Harry’s lubra, Nelly, came to be accepted as part of the camp’s life.

A year or even more passed by and the heat of the Palmer River rush was over. Chinamen had cleaned up most of the best ground before the whites scared them off, and it became increasingly plain that thin times were coming that way. The goldfields stores, realizing that good things rarely last for ever, were charging ruinous prices while they had the chance.

Harry, who had a big outfit, was feeling the draught more and more, until at length things grew so serious that he determined to go down to the coast and buy a big lot of stores and pack them on his idle pack-horses, in order to defeat the avaricious claims of the goldfields stores.

His stock of gold was running woefully low, and when he came to weigh it up he found he had not enough to furnish himself with stores even if he went down to the coast.

Nelly never missed the slightest change of expression on his face. Seeing his downcast look, she asked him anxiously what was the matter.

‘I want to go down to the coast for fresh supplies,’ he explained to her, ‘and I have not enough gold with which to buy them.’

‘Harry,’ she said in her broken English that was particularly fascinating, ‘you want him more gold in bags like that?’ fingering delicately a chamois sack in which he kept his supply of gold.

‘I certainly do,’ he replied, more for the sake of humouring her curiosity than with any idea that she might be of help to him in the matter.

‘How many?’

‘How many? why, all I can get, of course. Have you a secret store somewhere?’

‘All right, Harry,’ she said quietly and without any hesitation, ‘you wait a bit. By and by I find um plenty bags, plenty gold.’

The white man, amused at her confident attitude, laughed as he said:

‘That’s fine, old girl! You find plenty bags of gold, then we go Cooktown. I buy you plenty dresses, plenty everything.’

But Nelly was far too serious about the matter to laugh.

Several days passed and Harry had clean forgotten all about his lubra’s promise to get ‘plenty gold.’ He was making his way to the coast, still wondering how he was to pay for his stores, and he decided he’d turn out and camp about a mile below the divide. Nelly, who in the general run of things was the most obedient of women, was very insistent that they should go over the divide, and she showed him very plainly that she was not satisfied with Harry’s explanation that where they were standing was the last camp at which they could get good grass for their horses.

However, he of course was boss, and there they camped.

Nevertheless, when the horses were unpacked, seeing that the lubra was still restless, he had sufficient curiosity to ask her why she had been so eager to push on a bit farther.

‘Because that is where there is plenty gold, plenty bags, and... plenty dead Chinamen,’ she added with a shiver. She was afraid to go there by herself, she explained. ‘Too much devil devil stop along that fellow hole.’ She would not mind going, however, if Harry would accompany her.

He was sufficiently impressed by the eagerness of her attitude to stroll along with her, now that the camp was fixed, to the place she indicated.

Quite near the divide there was a great cave situated only a few hundred yards from the trail at a point where the blacks had been known to camp and lie in wait for Chinamen coming from and going down to the coast.

By the time they reached it the light was failing fast, and it was too late to explore the cave that night, but Harry determined that he would rest his horses the following day and spend his time exploring. On the way back to their camp he cross-questioned Nelly.

‘Why do you keep on about the dead Chinamen?’ he asked.

‘All that Chinaman, he go alonga big water, he got plenty gold,’ she returned by way of explanation.

But Harry failed to see the connection.

‘The Chinamen’s gold would be of no earthly use to the blacks. What would they do with it?’

‘They left it there alonga that fellow cave.’

‘But if they weren’t after their gold, what did they take the trouble to catch the Chinamen for?’

‘That fellow black-fellow all the time eat him,’ she replied quite cheerfully, as if it were a matter of everyday life. ‘Chinaman good, all the same guana! White fellow no good – too tough, too bitter! Ugh!’

Despite his knowledge of the black fellows’ taste in food, Harry could not repress a sickening shudder, more especially as Nelly appeared to be speaking from personal experience.

‘How many Chinamen did they kill?’ he inquired after they had walked several yards in silence.

‘No savvy,’ she replied, still in the same matter-of-fact tone, ‘plenty fellow. Long time now black fellow kill him all the time.’

Harry, although not unduly squeamish as a rule, felt a sudden urgent desire to change the subject.

He turned it over in his mind throughout the night, and the upshot of his consideration was that he started off early next morning for the cave, with Nelly as his guide.

The entrance to the place was so overhung with creepers that an unsuspecting traveller would have passed it by unnoticed. Even when the creepers were held aside, the entrance was extremely small, for the roof over it had caved in at some time, making an entry rather difficult and not a little dangerous. Once inside, however, it opened out into a big, gloomy chamber. As he entered it, the lubra clutching his hand in a nervous grasp, drawing behind him in fear. Harry nearly turned tail and fled.

Not that he could see much at first until his eyes, filled with sunshine, had accustomed themselves to the half-light of the cave, but from the stench that was like a solid curtain he knew they must be standing in a veritable charnel-house. Gradually, things, evil things, took shape in the gloom. Objects he had kicked against, trodden on as he went in, showed themselves to be suspiciously well-picked bones – the poor was littered with them – human bones, and round the sides of the cave they had been thrown up in great stacks.

There must have been scores of Chinamen, possibly hundreds, slain at one time and another to satisfy the wild blacks’ craving for human flesh.

Once she had overcome her fear and horror of entering the place the lubra seemed to have lost all sense even of any nervousness. The reek was to her nostrils probably quite appetizing, and she let go of Harry’s hand and ran from him into the recesses of the cave, clambering heedlessly over dimly seen piles of bones that rattled to the ground as she trod upon them. In a few minutes she came back to Harry with her arms piled up with chamois and canvas bags, large and small, filled with alluvial gold.

The fearful revelations of the cannibals’ cave had so horrified Harry that he had completely forgotten the gold of which he had come in search, and it came to him almost as a shock when he saw Nelly standing before him with the bags of gold in her arms. While she had been seeking this out he had done nothing but wander round aimlessly, trying to get some idea of the number of men who must have been murdered and eaten in this underground charnel-house.

He had found near the centre of the cave two pits – ‘long pig’ ovens – that had been dug evidently by the blacks. Now they were filled only with cinders and ashes. An awful revulsion swept over him as he pictured the grisly scenes of murder, torture and savagery that this place must have witnessed in the last eight or ten years.

And as he stood there, nauseated almost beyond endurance, Nelly stood before him, silent, motionless as a statue – an Australian native holding out to him Australia’s gold. Bags of it, bags of all shapes and sizes, from the waistband of canvas to squat heavy little sacks of chamois. Wealth at his hand, but in what a form!

His first inclination was to scatter the treasure in all directions, to fling it back among the bones to which it belonged, to leave this noisome place and get out in the clean sweet air, to shake the gruesome atmosphere from his mind for ever.

What sort of luck he thought, could a man possibly have to whom wealth came like this?

‘Plenty gold,’ Nelly said in a quiet, matter-of-fact voice, and the spell was broken.

Sentiment and superstition cannot play much part in the life of a digger – not of a successful digger, anyhow – and now that the first shock was passing, Harry began to get a more common-sense angle. After all, he argued to himself, and with reason, left by themselves in the cave those packs of gold were of use to no one – they certainly had no power to help those miserable Chinese whose bones were strewn amid all this wealth for which they had striven so hard. Put into a marketable form, what benefit could it not provide, not only for Harry himself, but for scores of unfortunates whom he would now be able to aid?

Having determined on his course, he set his gin to work collecting the great store of wealth while he gathered the scattered bones and filled the two ovens with them. Although it was morning when they arrived at the cave, evening had fallen before Harry was satisfied with the grim task of the day. The floor was now practically clear of its human debris; the piles in the ovens looked horribly high, but at least they seemed more decent.

Each carrying as many bags of gold as they conveniently could, they returned to the camp where Harry, if not Nelly, passed a night of sleep broken by the cries of Chinese calling in vain for mercy and help at the hands of their black captors; in horrid nightmare upon horrid nightmare he viewed the cannibal orgies that had followed the death of the tortured wretches.

The following morning he had to brace up his nerves again before he could bring himself to return to the cave. But he went, and by noon he had given the bones a decent burial in one great hecatomb.

His last task before leaving the place was to hack away a lot of creepers that had covered the entrance and let sweet air and bright sunlight into that gloomy abyss of iniquity.

Within a very few days there was a sequel to this discovery. Only a short while before Harry’s cleansing of the cannibal cave three white prospectors disappeared on their way to the coast. Nothing further was heard of them until one of their number staggered, delirious, into a camp. As their friends had feared, they had been attacked by aboriginals. In the fight they put up one of them – the elder of two brothers – snapped his leg at the thigh. The other two, hampered by his injury, and being too few to overcome the blacks, were forced to allow themselves to be captured, hoping that by some miracle they would be rescued before any serious harm befell them. The two uninjured men were tied to a couple of trees while the blacks devoted their attentions to the man with the broken leg. They first lit a fire, then, when it was large and the embers well glowing, the bucks hacked the hanging limb from the injured man, and to prevent him bleeding to death plunged the jogged stump into the bed of red-hot embers and cooked it until all flow of blood ceased.

The agony the two helpless whites, particularly the brother of the victim, went through during this time can hardly be imagined. The blacks, however, seemed quite pleased at their primitive effort at surgery, so pleased, indeed, that they decided they would treat the other two men in the same way.

They took the younger brother first, who, after having been forced to watch the exquisite torture of the other man, was already half demented. By the time his leg had been hacked off and he had been dragged to the fire he had died from shock. By some superhuman effort the third man managed to break his bonds while the blacks were yet busy cooking the stump of the second man’s leg, and got clean away.

As a matter of fact, in justice to the aboriginals, it must be said that it is not at all usual for them to torture their victims alive, although frequently, after death, the bodies are terribly mutilated.

As soon as the man who had escaped was in a condition to describe his terrifying adventure, and to give some indication as to the district in which the torture of the other two men had taken place, a punitive expedition was arranged. It so happened that precisely at this moment Harry turned up and told the Palmer River diggers his story of the cannibal cave. The fact was established that these two fiendish acts were both the work of the same tribe, and, almost needless to state, the white diggers rose as one man.

With black trackers to help them, and with Harry as their leader, they never cried a halt until they had annihilated that band who for years had been carrying on their bloody murders with impunity.

Justice having been administered, Harry and his own party continued their interrupted journey to the coast. He invested his store of gold prudently and sagaciously, and eventually became one of the leading Queensland business men and traders of the South Seas.

He never married, and although the fact that such an important business man as he became should keep a lubra naturally aroused a considerable amount of talk, Nelly behaved so well, so quietly and so modestly that gradually their friendship came to be accepted.

Burdett, F.D., The Odyssey of a Digger, London, Herbert Jenkins Ltd., 1936.

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