White Tribe in Central Australia


TO THE EDITOR OF THE LEEDS MERCURY - 1834

GENTLEMEN,

Palm Valley

A friend of mine, lately arrived from Singapore, via India overland, having been one of a party who landed at Raffles Bay, on the north coast of New Holland, on 10 April 1832, and made a two-month excursion into the interior, has permitted me to copy the following extract out of his private journal, which I think contains some particulars of a highly interesting nature, and not generally known. The exploring party was promoted by a scientific Society at Singapore, aided and patronised by the Local government and its object was both commercial and geographical; but it was got up with the greatest secrecy, and remained secret to all except the parties concerned. (for what good purpose it is impossible to conceive):- Extract from an unpublished manuscript journal of an exploring party in Northern Australia by Lt. Nixon. May 1 5th, 1832. On reaching the summit of the hill, no words can express the astonishment, delight and wonder I felt at the magical change of scenery, after having travelled for so many days over nothing but barren hills and rocks, and sands and parching plains, without seeing a single tribe of aborigines excepting those on the sea coast and having to dig for water every day. Looking to the southwards I saw below me at the distance of about three or four miles, a low and level country, laid out as it were in plantations, with straight rows of trees, through which a broad sheet of smooth water extended in nearly a direct line from east to west, as far as the eye could reach to the westward, but apparently sweeping to the southward at its eastern extremity like a river; and near its banks, at one particular spot on the south side there appeared to be a group of habitations embossomed in a grove of tall trees like palms. The water I guessed to be about half a mile wide, and although the stream was clearly open for two thirds of the distance from the southern bank, the remainder of it was studded by thousands of little islands stretching along its northern shores: and what fixed me to the spot with indescribable sensations of rapture and admiration was the number of small boats or canoes with one or two persons in each gliding along the narrow channels [sic] between the islands in every direction, some of which appeared to be fishing or drawing nets. None of them had a sail, but one was floating down the body of the stream without wind, which seemed to denote a current ran from east to west. It seemed as if enchantment had brought me to a civilised country, and I could scarcely resolve to leave the spot I stood upon, had it not been for the overpowering rays of a mid day sun affecting my bowels, as it frequently had done, during all the journey. On reaching the bottom of the hill in my return to our party at the tents, I was just turning round a low rock, when I came suddenly upon a human being whose face was so fair and dress so white, that I was for a moment staggered with terror, and thought I was looking at an apparition. I had naturally expected to meet an Indian as black or as brown as the rest of the natives, and not a white man in these unexplored regions. Still quaking with doubts about the integrity of my eyes I proceeded on, and saw the apparition advancing upon me with the most perfect indifference: in another minute he was quite near, and I now perceived that he had not yet seen me, for he was walking slowly and pensively with his eyes fixed on the ground and he appeared to be a young man of handsome and interesting countenance. We were got within four paces of each other when he heaved a deep and tremulous sigh, raised his eyes, and in an instant uttered a loud exclamation and fell insensible to the ground. My fears had now given place to sympathy, and I hastened to assist the unknown, who I felt convinced, had been struck with the idea of seeing a supernatural being. It was a considerable time before he recovered and was assured of my mortality; and from a few expressions in old Dutch, which he uttered I was luckily enabled to hold some conversation with him; for I had been at school in Holland in my youth and had not quite forgotten the language. Badly as he spoke Dutch, yet I gathered from him a few particulars of a most extraordinary nature; namely, that he belonged to a small community, all as white as himself, he said about three hundred; that they lived in houses enclosed all together within a great wall to defend them from black men; that their fathers came there about one hundred and seventy years ago, as they said, from a distant land across the great sea; and that their ship broke, and eighty men and ten of their sisters (female passengers?) with many things were saved on shore. I prevailed on him to accompany me to my party, who I knew would be glad to be introduced to his friends before we set out on our return to our ship at Port Raffles, from which place we were now distant nearly five hundred miles, and our time was linked to a fixed period so as to enable the ship to carry us back to Singapore before the change of the monsoon. The young man’s dress consisted of a round jacket and large breeches, both made of skins, divested of the hair and bleached as white as linen; and on his head he wore a tall white skin cap with a brim covered over with white down or the small feathers of the white cocatoo.(sic) The latitude of this mountain was eighteen degrees thirty minutes fourteen secs south.: and the longitude one hundred and thirty two degrees twenty five minutes thirty seconds east. It was christened Mount Singapore, after the name and in honour of the settlement to which the expedition belonged. A subsequent part of the journal states further: That on our party visiting the white village, the joy of the simple inhabitants was quite extravagant. The descendant of an officer is looked up to as chief, and with him (whose name is Van Baerle,) the party remained eight days. Their traditional history is, that their fathers were compelled by famine, after the loss of their great vessel, to travel towards the rising sun, carrying with them as much of the stores as they could during which many died; and by the wise advice of their ten sisters they crossed a ridge of land, and meeting with a rivulet on the other side, followed its course and were led to the spot they now inhabit, where they have continued ever since. They have no animals of the domestic kind, either cows, sheep, pigs or anything else: Their plantations consist only of maize and yams, and these with fresh and dried fish constitute their principal food which is changed occasionally for Kangaroo and other game; but it appears that they frequently experience a scarcity and shortage of provisions, most probably owing to ignorance and mismanagement; and had little or nothing to offer us now except skins. They are nominal Christians: their marriages are performed without any cere-mony: and all the elders sit in council to manage their affairs; all the young, from ten up to a certain age are considered a standing militia, and are armed with long pikes; they have no books or paper, nor any schools; they retain a certain ob-servance of the Sabbath by refraining from their daily labours, and perform a short superstitious ceremony on that day all together; and they may be considered almost a new race of beings. 

Possible corroboration of the ‘white tribe’ reports can be found in J A Panton, ‘Australian Deserta’ in Transactions of the Royal Geographic Society of Australasia (Victorian Branch) August 1895 p 115, in which he states:

‘Within the last two months Mr Maitland Brown, a prospector, reported the discovery of a fair skinned race of aboriginals in the district, east of the Virginia Ranges.’

At face value this report has major inconsistencies. The location ‘east of the Virginia Ranges’ is in the Great Victoria Desert, about four hundred kilometres west of the Western Australia/South Australia border and about two hundred kilo-metres from the nearest known goldfield.

Maitland Brown was the Resident Magistrate in Geraldton at the time and in his declining years. He was a solid and respectable pillar of the community who would have had neither the desire nor the capacity to prospect in the area described and there is no evidence to indicate he did.

However his son Maitland Howard Brown seems to have been involved in prospecting and mining in the Murchison goldfield at the time in question. See P Cowan, Maitland Brown: A View of Nineteenth Century Western Australia (Fremantle Art Centre Press, 1988) esp p 358, D Pike, (Ed) Australian Dictionary of Biography (Melbourne University Press, 1969) pp 262/3.

The report makes sense, therefore, if it is assumed that it originated from Maitland Howard Brown and that it was the Victoria Range and not the Virginia Range that was being referred to.

The ranges immediately east of Geraldton were originally known as the Victoria Range and the ‘white tribe’ was originally reported in a location east of this range. After N B Tindale, Aboriginal Tribes of Australia (Australian National University Press, Canberra 1974) Tribal Boundaries Maps: Australian South West Sheet. 9. Based on ibid; Perth Cazette 21 February 1851. 

                    Bush Tucker Man, Les Hiddens Chap 7 The Dutch Colonisation of Australia 

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