Account of a Fight Among the Natives of Moreton Bay - Witnessed by John Finnegan (November, 1823)
The natives of Pumice-Stone River having a quarrel with another tribe, at a distance of five-and-twenty miles to the S.W., they were about to set off for the latter place in order to decide it; and as I was then living with the chief of the Pumice-stone River tribe, he insisted on taking me with him. We accordingly set out early one morning, travelling from ten to fifteen miles daily. Our party consisted of ten men, eight or nine women, and fourteen children, the King, his son, and myself. The men carried the nets, and the women were loaded with fern-root, &c.; all parties, men and women, being armed with spears.
On the third day we halted, and all the men went out fishing. After eating a hearty meal, they commenced painting and decorating themselves with feathers. The King himself covered me all over with charcoal and bees' wax; and, when we were all dressed, we again went forward, and in a short time arrived at a number of huts, which had been erected for the occasion. They were so numerous that I could hardly count them; and each tribe (for there were many tribes assembled to see the fight) appeared to have their huts distinct from the other. On our arriving within a small distance of the encampment, we all sat down; and as soon as we were perceived, the assembled multitude began to shout, and immediately my companions were visited by several of their friends, and all began to weep piteously.
Shortly afterwards the chief of the tribe on whose ground we were came to us, and having conversed for some time with our chief, he pointed out a place on which we might build huts for ourselves. The women of our party then immediately commenced building, and in less than two hours had finished five or six commodious huts, in which we all rested that night.
The next morning a large party, including our chief and several of his men, went out kangaroo hunting. They were not, however, very successful, having only caught one large kangaroo. They, however, gave me a great piece of the kind quarter, of which they made me eat very heartily; and here I will observe, that at all times, whether they had much or little, fish or kangaroo, or anything else, they always gave me as much as I could eat. The same evening at sunset, the whole party, carrying fire-sticks, went away about a mile and a half to where the battle took place the next day, the chief leaving me with his wife and two children in the hut. He however returned sometime in the night, for I found him at my back when I work in the morning.
The next day, after breakfast, the ceremony of painting was gone through afresh, and we marched in regular line, our tribe having been joined by several strangers, all of whom seemed much rejoiced at my accompanying them. We shortly arrived at a level piece of ground, in which had been dug a circular pit, about forty feet in diameter. I was now left in care of the chief's wife at a short distance from this pit; but being anxious to view the fight, in spite pf her endeavours, I went up towards it. She, however, followed me, calling out and weeping; upon which one of the men of our tribe came to me, and, taking my hand, led me up to the pit.
I there saw a woman of my tribe, and one of another, fighting desperately with sticks. The battle did not, however, last long, as they appeared to be quite earnest; and in five minutes their heads, arms, &c., being dreadfully cut and swelled, our woman was declared the conqueror, the other not being able any longer to oppose her. The victory was announced by a loud shout from all parties, and the Amazonian combatants were immediately carried away by their respective friends.
The man who had brought me to the pit still continued to hold my hand, and I observed his whole body tremble like an aspen leaf. The chief's wife now came again to me, and endeavoured by every means in her power to force me away; but finding I still refused, she went for her husband, who immediately came, and taking away my spear, forced me out of the crowd. He then called several other chiefs around me, and showed me them. This caused great talking and laughing among them, from surprise at my colour and appearance. The King then addressed them at some length, apparently asking them not to hurt me, which they gave me to understand by signs that they would not. I was then delivered up to our chief's wife once more, who led me back to the place where we were left before. I had, however, a good view of the pit, round which the whole crowd still remained.
I now found that, while I had been engaged with the chiefs, another fight had taken place in the pit, for I presently saw a man carried out by his friends, who were of our tribe, bleeding profusely at the side from a spear-wound. He was brought down to where I was, and placed on two men's knees, with some kangaroo-skins spread over him; the men, women, and children howling and lamenting, much in the manner of the lower Irish. They supplied him with water from time to time, but his wound was evidently mortal, and in less than an hour he expired.
The chief's wife then took me away a short distance from where he lay, and the whole party saw to work immediately to skin him; but from the distance at which I stood, I could not perceive the manner in which they did it. In the meantime two more men had entered the ring to fight; and here it may not be amiss to observe, that previous to each fight the same ceremony is used that is described by Thomas Pamphlet in the combat which he witnessed.
The third fight was now going on, while our party were engaged in skinning their deceased companion; when it appeared from a tremendous shout, that some unlooked-for event had happened in the pit. I afterwards learned that the spectators judged that foul play had taken place between the combatants. The crowd upon this drew away from the pit; and out party, accompanied by those tribes that were friendly to them, formed themselves in a line, while their adversaries did the same opposite to them.
The battle then became general. Several from each side would advance, and having thrown their spears, again retire to the line, in the manner of light infantry. Others would get behind trees, and there watch an opportunity to hurl their spears with great effect. In this manner the fight continued upwards of two hours, during which time many retired from the line severely wounded, and another man of our party was killed. What number man have been killed on the other side I had no means of ascertaining.
Our party now began to give way, which being observed by the women and children with whom I was, they made signs to me to accompany them; and with the exception of those who were employed in skinning the body, we made off. Not being able, however, to run as fast as the rest, I was soon in the midst of the opposite party, who, however, notwithstanding my fears, did not attempt to hurt me, but merely laughed and pointed at me as they passed by, showing the same marks of wonder as the chiefs had done in the morning.
I then walked back to the huts which we had left that morning, but found nobody there. However, I sat down by the fire, and towards evening they began to return, a few at a time. Just before dark I saw a large crowd approach, who (it seems) were bringing the bodies of the two men who had been killed. They laid them down about twenty rods from the huts, and began a great lamentation over them. The first body was completely flayed, but they had not yet had the leisure to skin the other. I attempted to approach, but was immediately prevented by all hands, and forced to return to the fire. Shortly afterwards our chief and his wife came back, and instantly commenced packing their nets, &c., in order to depart. Two large fires were lighted where the bodies lay, in which, as I judged from the noise as well as the offensive smell, they were both consumed.
Immediately after this our whole party decamped; and having travelled more than half a mile, we stopped for the night. Very early next morning we again started, and travelled all day with great expedition, without ever halting or eating anything. Among our party were four women and three men wounded, the latter very severely. They however contrived, though with difficulty, to keep up with us. I had observed, during this day's march, two men, one of whom belonged to our tribe, and another to a tribe which was friendly to us, each of whom carried something on his shoulder, but did not keep the same path with us, walking through the bush at a little distance abreast of us. Being curious to know what it was they carried, I attempted several times to approach them; but as soon as this was observed, I was invariably brought back to the others, who made signs to me not to go near them.
We travelled that day about eight or ten miles, and toward evening arrived at the edge of a large swamp, where we halted, and huts were instantly erected by the women, who were afterwards obliged to go out and procure fern-root (65) for the whole party, the men never providing anything but fish or game. I lodged as usual with the chief, at a little distance from whose hut I observed the two men hang up their brothers, which I again attempted to approach, but was (as before) prevented.
Here we remained two days, during which time a large fire was kept constantly burning underneath the trees on which these mysterious brothers were hanging. On the evening of the second day, I once more attempted to find out of what they consisted of, though I strongly suspected they were the skins of the two men who had been killed. The old chief, on seeing me go near them, ran after me, calling loudly to me to return; but I persevered, and at last reached the place. I now saw that my conjecture was right: the two skins were stretched each on four spears, and drying over the fire. The skin of the head was divided into two parts, and hung down with the hair on it. The soles of the feet and palms of the hands were also hanging down, and the nails still attached firmly to the skin. Several of the men and women were sitting around the fire under the skins, and now invited me to sit down with them, which I did. They gave me kangaroo-skin to decorate my arms and head, and seemed to wish me to sing to them; but on my making signs that it was not proper to do to while the remains of our friends were not buried, they seemed surprised, and afterwards told me by signs that they were very much pleased at my refusal.
After sitting with them about half an hour, the chief's wife came and brought me back to the hut. Shortly afterwards, all the men dressed themselves in kangaroo-skins, and one of them in an old rug jacket which I had, and with one or two women, held a consultation round the fire, each person having a fire-stick in his hand. After conversing about half an hour, two of the party separated from the rest, and having taken down the skins, set off at full speed through the bush; the rest followed, shouting and making much noise. After this I saw nothing more of the skins, nor do I know what became of them. In about three-quarters of an hour the party returned; and the man who had taken my old jacket gave it me back.
The next morning we returned towards the Pumice-stone River by the same path which we had travelled to the fight, and the natives followed their usual occupations of fishing and hunting as if nothing had happened.