[Editor: This article about William Buckley was published in the Geelong Advertiser (Geelong, Vic.), 19 January 1907 (previously published in The Australian Field).]
William Buckley — The Wild White Man.
Many accounts have been written of the “Wild White Man,” who passed 32 years of his life among the Yarra blacks, but they are all more or less fanciful sketches, based on nothing better than hearsay and tradition. With one exception, those who knew him personally failed to extract from his lips any account of his escape from the camp in 1803, and his subsequent life among the natives. He was resolutely reserved on the subject, and for reasons that do not require explanation. The one person with whom he was not so reticent was George Langhorne, to whom he was transferred by the Government in the capacity of interpreter at £50 a year. While this connection lasted the missionary availed himself of his opportunities to obtain from him all the information he could, which he afterwards put into shape in the form of a narrative.
“I found my undertaking an extremely irksome one,” he said, “as I frequently had to frame my queries in the most simple form, his knowledge of his mother-tongue being very imperfect at the time.
“He was a man of large and powerful frame, tall, erect, with a very large foot, and his age, I should say, was about 55 years.
“I promised myself, with his aid, soon to acquire a knowledge of the aboriginal language; but unfortunately I was placed on the Yarra with a tribe who identified him as one of another tribe with whom they were constantly at war, there always having been a deadly feud between them. He was fearful that he should be murdered if he remained with me; and at his request I solicited the Governor that he should be placed at Geelong, which he subsequently was — I believe in the constabulary, under Captain Fyans, the police magistrate. I never saw him again.
“He appeared to me always discontented and dissatisfied, and I believe it would have been a great relief to him had the settlement been abandoned, and he left alone with his sable friends.
“A knowledge of his trade as a bricklayer soon returned to him, as his first act after his employment by Mr. Batman was to build for him a chimney to his house” — the weatherboard house and outbuildings on Batman’s Hill, then the best erections in the settlement.
The following is his statement to me:—
“‘I remember little of my early days. I was born at Tiverton, in England, where my uncle Buckley resided before I left England; but my parents had removed from thence. Some time previously to my departure I was apprenticed to a bricklayer, from whom I ran away, and enlisted in a regiment of foot, but changed into 4th., or King’s Own, when that regiment was ordered to Holland in 1799, with the troops under the command of the Duke of York.
“‘On my return from that campaign I met with the misfortune which occasioned my coming out to Australia. At the Barrack Yard I was one day accosted by a woman who requested me to carry a piece of cloth in a parcel to a soldier’s wife in the garrison to be made up. I knew nothing of the person; she was a stranger to me; but I took the parcel to do as she wished, and was almost immediately arrested for theft, with the cloth in my possession. It had been stolen. The woman could not be found. I was considered the thief. My statement was not believed, and I was sentenced to transportation for life, and sent out in the convict ship forming part of the expedition of Captain Collins, intended to form a settlement on the southern coast of Australia.
“‘I believe the ship was the Calcutta, and I think we sailed from England in 1804. We arrived at Port Phillip, cattle and stores were landed, and a Government House and store commenced; but from some cause I do not remember the project of settlement here was abandoned and another proposal to form a settlement in Van Diemen’s Land was talked about.
“‘It was then that I and two other convicts resolved to escape, proposing to conceal ourselves in the bush until the ship had sailed, and then to endeavor to make our way to Sydney, which we thought could not be far distant. We put off the execution of our design until the stores had been re-embarked and all was ready for sea; and then, with night eluding observation, we succeeded in escaping to the shore in one of the ship’s boats, and immediately struck into the bush, carrying with us a kettle and some little provisions we managed to bring away with us.
“‘The boat in which we landed we left to her fate. I and my two companions travelled on until we fell in with the Yarra, and tired and weary with our journey, sat down and ate the last of our provisions. This was near the place of the present settlement. We again started on our wandering. I thought that by keeping in a northerly direction we should soon reach Sydney, at Port Jackson, but my companions differed with me, and we parted company, I resolving to travel alone.
“‘After proceeding some little distance my heart failed me, and in a fit of despondency I resolved to retrace my steps to the sea, and reached the heads of the bay in a state of exhaustion from hunger and thirst. Food I had not tasted since I left my companions, as I was afraid to eat berries or roots, fearing lest I should be poisoned. Here I subsisted on crawfish, casting a longing look to seaward in the vain hope of seeing a ship.
“‘Up to this time I had not seen any of the aborigines, but at length fell in with an old black fishing near the sea. He had with him his wife, or ‘bagaruk,’ and a large family of children. By this black I was treated with the greatest kindness. I partook their food and helped them in their fishing; and I gradually learned sufficient of the language to express my wants.
“‘I left this man and his family and wandered away into the bush, and fell in with several more families of blacks. I was sitting under a tree, bemoaning my hard fate — the spot is near a lagoon, not far from the Barwon River — when some women made their appearance. I afterwards learnt that they had come thither to gather the wattle-gum, a favorite article of food with them, when diluted and prepared after their manner.
“‘On seeing me, they hastily ran off and informed their male companions. These came up, and viewing me for some time with ardent astonishment, made signs to me to follow them. I think I had been about two months on the coast when I fell in with these blacks. They might have heard of me when I lived in the old man’s family at the Heads, but I don’t know.
“‘I immediately got up and followed them, though I despaired of my life, as I feared their intention was to kill me. They then proceeded to their encampment, one black holding one of my hands, and a second holding the other, the others leading the way.
“‘On reaching a ‘willum,’ or breakwind, near which was a water-hole, I made them understand that I was thirsty, and they gave me water and brought me to eat some of their prepared wattle-gum, after which they all sat down, and a general howling was set up, the women crying and sobbing, and tearing their faces and foreheads with their nails.
“‘The cause of all this, as I afterwards learnt, was that they believed me to be a black, who had died some time previously, and who they thought had come again to them, a white man.
“‘In the evening a great dance took place, I believe in the honor of my arrival, and from this time I was to them an object of the greatest solicitude and care. They never allowed me to walk any distance unattended; and if I happened to steal away out of sight for a short time, blacks would come in search of me and fetch me back, when they would fall to weeping at my re-appearance.
“‘I endeavored to conform to their habits, to live as they lived, and to avoid giving them cause of offence, even in the smallest matter. They gave me a wife, but suspecting the circumstance occasioned jealously in the tribe, I resigned her and ever after lived single. This seemed to please them much, and I was no longer apprehensive of danger from them.
This passage suggested a comment to Langhorne:— “Buckley says he did not live with any black woman; but I have doubted from circumstances which came under my notice the truth of this assertion, and also I think it probable that he had children.
“‘I had lived with this tribe about six months when I fell in with one of my companions, whom I found had been living with another family of the tribe on the sea-coast. He then came and lived with me, but from his reckless conduct with the women and dissolute behavior, I was fully convinced that, if he remained one or both of us would be murdered. I therefore told him that it was necessary for the safety of both parties, that one or the other must leave. He left, and I never saw him or heard of him again, except by a vague rumor that he had been killed by the blacks, which I fully believe to have been the case.
“‘The others who escaped with me from the ship I never heard anything of after we separated on the banks of the Yarra. It is probable they met with the same fate as the other, and perhaps on the same account.
“I now made up my mind to accommodate myself to their habits, and, giving up all thoughts of ever seeing my countrymen again, to live as one of them.
“‘My favorite place of resort was the locality now known as Buckley’s Falls.
“‘I soon lost all reckoning of time. I think, after I had been about two years in the country, I was able to express myself in the aboriginal tongue pretty freely, and in a very short time after I could converse freely with them. But when I had attained their language I found I was fast losing my own. My situation, however, was now less irksome, and I was able to converse with them about their tribes and manners and customs.
“‘The subject of the Christian religion I was careful not to introduce, as I feared that they would kill me if I attempted to oppose them in their ceremonies and superstitions.
“‘I had always the best breakwind, or hut, and the best fire, which circumstance attracted to my fireside at night a great number of visitors of all ages. They would listen with the greatest attention while I talked to them about the English people, their firearms, cannons, and great ships, as also about the fighting in Holland, in which I had a part.
“‘The affection of this tribe for me always remained the same. If I hinted at the probability of some day or other returning to my own people, they would manifest the utmost grief and shed tears. The children of the tribe were very fond of me, and would often come and sleep in my ‘mia-mia.’
“‘One day I had gone down to a lagoon to wash, when, on discovering my absence, they sent in all directions in search of me. An old man, on discovering me among the reeds, took me out by the hand, and immediately burst into tears. They were all overjoyed at having found me, and afterwards watched me narrowly lest I should again lose them.
“‘I was always obliged to accompany them wherever they went, but never asked to take a part in any of their affrays or conflicts with each other. On the occasion of a fight they would place me aside out of harm’s way, and my neutrality was respected by foes as well as friends. I have, however, often prevented bloodshed by acting as mediator.
“‘The contests between the Watouronga, of Geelong, and the Warrorongs, of the Yarra, were fierce and bloody. I have accompanied the former in their attack on the latter. When coming upon them suddenly in the night they have destroyed without mercy, men, women and children.
“‘I very soon became expert in spearing fish, and was often more successful in fishing and hunting than themselves. There was at that time a considerable variety of food for them besides the kangaroo, oppossum, bandicoot and sugar-squirrel. They seek with great eagerness for the hedge-hog, or porcupine. This is their favorite dainty. In order to ascertain if the animal is in his hole, they put in a young child with its legs foremost, who feels how and where the animal is situated, when they dig accordingly. Having obtained their prey, they enclose it entire in a piece of bark and then roast it. Taking off the skin, they again apply the body to the fire. Thus dressed, it is excellent food.
“‘I have noticed at least four different tribes who speak different dialects. The family, or portion of the tribe, with whom I spent the greater part of the many years I was with the aboriginals, was called the Wallarranos.
“‘In the contests of the blacks with each other, should the warriors happen to lose their spears they appear to give up all for lost and make but faint resistance.
“‘They are cannibals. I have seen them eat small portions of the flesh of their enemies slain in battle. They appear to do this, not from any particular liking for human flesh, but from the impression that by eating their adversaries’ flesh they themselves would become better warriors.
“‘Many of them, however, disgusted with the idea, and instead of eating the flesh merely rub their bodies with a small portion of the fat, as a charm equally efficient.
“‘They eat also of the flesh of a dead child to whom, when living, they had been much attached, should the child have died a natural death. When a child dies they place the body in an upright position in a hollow tree, and allow it to remain there until perfectly dry, when the parents remove it and carry it about with them.
“‘I do not believe they possess any distinct notice of a Supreme Being as the Maker and Ruler of the world, nor have they a word in their language for the Great Spirit. But they have a vague idea of some supernatural beings whom they endeavor to propitiate in many ways.
“‘One of these is supposed to reside in a certain marsh, and to be the author of all the songs used by them, which he teaches them through his sons. The other they believe to have charge of the pole or pillar by which the sky is propped up.
“‘Just before the settlers came to Port Phillip this personage was the subject of general conversation. It was reported among them that he had sent a message to the Watourongs ordering them to send him a certain number of tomahawks to enable him to make a new prop for the sky, as the present one had become rotten, and their destruction was inevitable should the sky fall upon them. To prevent so dreadful a catastrophe, and to supply the offering of tomahawks as speedily as possible, some of the blacks repaired to Western Port, and stole the ironwork from some settlers’ carts left there.
“‘I always avoided going to Western Port for fear I should fall in with the sealers who often came over from the coast of Van Diemen’s Land or the islands in the Strait — and with the natives had frequent intercourse. These men ill-treated the blacks, and were ill-treated in their turn.
“‘About 25 years ago — about the fifth year of my living among them — I first saw an iron tomahawk among them. On asking how they obtained it they said that while I was absent some distance, some white men had rowed up the Barwon in a boat and left the tomahawk in question on the bank. On going to the place I observed their tracks where they had been to obtain water. These men were probably whalers or sealers. The native tomahawk, ‘morang,’ is made of talc, shaped in an oval form, and placed in a bent stick, the two ends of which are bent over and firmly bound together.
“‘The blacks suffer much from skin disorders. Promiscuous intercourse of the sexes is common, and on certain festivals is enjoined. At certain times the women are formally left to the young men who have not wives. Sometimes a black will go to a ‘willum’ to entice away a woman; the husband will allow her to go with him, but she will have a severe beating on her return.
“‘During thirty years’ residence among the natives I had become so reconciled to my condition that, although opportunities offered, and I sometimes thought of availing myself of them, I never could make up my mind to it. And at length, when the blacks told me of the arrival of Mr. Batman and his party, it was some time before I would go down, as I never supposed I could live among my own people after so many years’ residence among savages.’”
— “The Australian Field.”
Geelong Advertiser (Geelong, Vic.), 19 January 1907, p. 4
Also published in:
The Age (Melbourne, Vic.), 29 July 1911, p. 4
Nambucca News (Bowraville, NSW), 11 August 1911, p. 6 (entitled “Thirty years with Aborigines: Story of William Buckley”)
The Northern Star, and Richmond and Tweed Rivers Advocate (Lismore, NSW), 21 August 1911, p. 7 (entitled “William Buckley: Australia’s wild man: Life with the blacks”)
Barwon = the Barwon River (Victoria); the Barwon River (New South Wales)
mia-mia = an Aboriginal temporary hut-like shelter
regiment of foot = a regiment of infantry
repair = go; retire; retreat; return (usually followed by “to”, e.g. “he repaired to his country abode”); can also mean: to fix, mend, or restore something (which is broken, damaged, faulty, not working properly, or worn) to a better condition or good condition
sable = a colour that is black, dark, or gloomy (“sables” was an archaic term for garments worn for mourning; “sable” in heraldry refers to black); arising from the colour of dark sable fur, as taken from a sable (a furry mammal, Martes zibellina, which is primarily found in Russia and northern East Asia, and noted for its fur which has traditionally been used for clothing); in the context of the Australian Aborigines or African Negroes, a reference to their skin colour as being black
Van Diemen’s Land = the island, now known as Tasmania, originally named Anthoonij van Diemenslandt, by Abel Tasman, in honour of Anthony van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies
Yarra = the Yarra River, Victoria
[Editor: Changed “will go to ‘willum’ to entice” to “will go to a ‘willum’ to entice”. Inserted a line break before “— “The Australian Field.””.]