Boggy Hole 1886
We had been camping away from the men for some days with the mothers, brothers and sisters. It was to be a great occasion. My brother was to be initiated. He was off in another camp with all the men, preparing for the ceremony. I was too young to participate. It would be a few seasons before I would begin the process of becoming a man. What I saw that day would stay with me for the rest of my days. It would also be a lesson I wish I had never learnt. Our homeland was no longer ours, and ours alone. We would have to share it with the invaders whether we liked it or not.
It was early morning. Our camp was silent and there was a fine mist in the air from our smouldering fires. The sun cast long shadows through the trees. As usual at this time of the morning, the air had a bitter-cold, biting edge. The heat of the day was yet to encroach into the camp and take over from the warmth of the dying fires.
We were woken by their approach. Because we slept with our ears to the bare ground, we heard everything. Especially something that reverberated with such force. The pounding of the horses’ hooves was unmistakable. The earth shook. I had once thought a horse to be a large dog and feared it not only for its size, but especially because of its teeth. I now know better. I now know that the horses are not to be feared as much as the men that ride on them. They are capable of such evil deeds that the mind is unable to comprehend. For a long time we had been able to defend ourselves but times had changed. They now had a new weapon called a Martini-Henry. It spat magic fire and a kind of stone. I had overheard that it could be used to kill very large wild animals. An elephant, they said. I don’t know what an elephant is but I can only assume it must be much bigger than a kangaroo. In any case, I had no doubts regarding its purpose. It was an efficient killing machine and had the ability to fell more than one warrior with a single stone.
Long before they were in the camp they started firing these weapons. I was not yet fully awake and somewhat disorientated. We were all taken by surprise. Normally the older men would have been there to defend us, but on this day, because of the ceremonies, this was not the case. I suspect the invaders took this moment to attack because our camp had been split.
There was an incredible amount of noise and commotion in the camp. Everything was in disarray. All around me my mothers were crying and whimpering. Some of the smaller children were screaming. I was on my feet at once and began frantically searching for an escape route. My sister had been lying next to me. She went to stand up and at once lay back down. Behind her two of my cousins also fell to the ground. Such was the power of this new weapon. It could extinguish three lives with a single stone. Blood poured from the side of her head and, although her body still twitched, I could see that her spirit was no longer of this world. I howled at the top of my lungs. I had lost one of my brothers not long ago in a similar attack. Thankfully I was not present when this had occurred, but the stories I had been told had severely shaken me. I looked down in distress at my sister. For a brief moment, a memory flashed across my mind of us playing together in the sand and searching for bush potatoes. We had always been close to one another and had done almost everything together. I was distraught that I had not been able to protect her. My sister had only seen the seasons cycle nine times.
More hot stones whistled past my ears. In the distance I saw an ever-expanding wall of men and horses bearing down on us. A cloud of dust rose up high behind them and it seemed for all the world as if they were descending from the sky. They were still quite a way off but it would not be long before they were upon our campsite. I forced my anguish aside. Spinning around, I leapt high over our campfire and made for the shelter of some nearby trees. On the way I seized the arm of one of my younger cousins. If I had known what was going to happen I would have tried to take more of my family with me. In retrospect, I expect I did the right thing. Otherwise it would probably have cost me my life. My cousin had not been walking for very long but was mercifully already a strong runner on his baby legs. I zigzagged as I had seen the emu do, dragging my cousin behind me all the while. I yelled at him to stay low to the ground and tried to make myself as small as possible, although it was difficult to run in this position. In the end I had to lift him from the ground. His little legs just weren’t fast enough to compete with mine.
Behind me I could still hear the horses’ hooves. Their clatter echoed loudly off the surrounding hills. I wasn’t certain if they were already upon the camp and were now also chasing me down. In the chaos all my senses were being bombarded and I barely knew what was up and what was down. I did not dare turn around as it would slow our escape. I focussed only on a mound between the trees in the distance. A figure stood on the mound. At a distance it looked like a large bird, but strangely in the shape of a man. He seemed to be calling to me. I kept running until the sound from the camp had faded a little. By the time we reached the mound the figure was gone.
I found some shelter behind a large rock and pushed my cousin down into a small crevice between the underside of the rock and the sand. I motioned for him to stay completely still and tried to hide the parts of his body that were sticking out by heaping sand against him. In no time the only part showing was the bridge of his nose and his eyes. They filled me with fear, such was their intense, piercing stare. He began to cry and I could see the sand slowly changing colour around his eyes. In a moment he would run out of air and I quickly cleared the sand away from his mouth and nose. He exhaled softly. I watched the granules of sand shift with his breath. He stayed perfectly still. Even at his young age he was aware of the danger upon us. I tried to give him a reassuring smile but couldn’t muster the strength. Only then did I attempt to see what was going on in the camp.
Without revealing myself, I found a small hole in one corner of the rock and by looking through it I could see most of what was happening. I was relatively certain that they could not see me. However, we were a good deal closer to the camp than I had expected. Even behind the rock I knew we would be discovered if they headed our way. I pulled some loose spinifex over myself but was sure that if they searched thoroughly, they would still find me.
The men were now in the camp and still on their horses. There was practically no one from my tribe left standing, apart from two of my mothers who cowered to one side in each other’s arms. The men had stopped using their powerful weapons and were now busy with their swords. Two of them dismounted and proceeded to slash at the bodies on the ground. The other men trampled over them with their horses. I did not want to look but an anger rose in me and I could not avert my eyes. I wanted to see it all so that I could tell my fathers and grandfathers what had happened. The images of that day still reverberate in my head and sometimes I wish I had just taken my cousin and slipped away.
Eventually all the men dismounted. There must have been about ten of them. To my surprise I recognised some them to be from another tribe. They looked very different wearing the invaders coverings. They were all dressed in the uniform of their lawmen. They participated heartily in what was going on and didn’t seem to show any remorse for their actions. I can only assume they were from a distant tribe. We had heard that from the place where the sun rose there were many like them. Warriors who would kill just for the fun of it; but also those who did it to protect their own people from suffering the same fate we were experiencing.
The camp had now become relatively silent. Then I heard the crying of a baby. I saw one of the men searching through the bodies and from among them he pulled out the child. He held it aloft by its legs and the other men broke out in laughter. I saw the man swing the baby over his shoulder and forward towards the ground. I closed my eyes, clenching my eyebrows inwards until the taut skin on the sides of my head hurt. I wanted to fold myself inwards and disappear. I heard a loud thump, and then another. The baby stopped crying. My heart pounded so hard I thought they would be able to hear it. I tried to calm myself by breathing slowly. I felt sick in my stomach and this feeling stayed with me for some time. I opened my eyes and looked down at my cousin. He saw the fear in my eyes and wriggled further down under the rock. I laid my hand softly on the sand over his body. It felt warm and helped me to relax somewhat.
I heard screaming and peered through the hole again. The men had gathered around my two mothers who had been holding each other. They seemed glued to spot. I was wishing they would run but they seemed incapable of doing anything, such was their fear. I couldn’t see what was happening anymore as all the men surrounded them. In some way this was good, as I felt unable to absorb even the things I had already seen. For a long time the men were huddled over my mothers. I heard screaming and this continued for some time, before it suddenly stopped. The men then spread out but I could no longer see the women. After this the men seemed to be congratulating one another and took small containers out of their saddlebags and drank from them. Later they took large sacks from the horses and splashed some kind of liquid over the entire campsite. They then mounted their horses again. It seemed that one of them was in charge. Before they left this man lit a stick with fire and cast it onto the bodies. Flame erupted immediately from the ground and spread quickly across the campsite. I had never seen fire do this before. I now know this magic liquid is called kerosene. The man watched the flames for a short period and then motioned to his companions. They turned their horses and rode away from the campsite. I was thankful they had chosen to ride away from our hiding place as I was sure we would have been discovered otherwise.
I did not know the area where we camped very well as we were not normally allowed there. It was a sacred area for my mother and her sisters. Initiated men were not allowed there. Even so, I knew that eventually we would be missed and they would come looking for us. I decided to wait for my brother and father to return with the other men. There was not much else I could do. Somewhere among the bodies lay my own mother. I wanted to go to her and my sister but the fire burned with such ferocity that I didn’t dare go near it. I could feel the heat of it from where I sat. I also feared that the men would return. We stayed where we were and I remained vigilant for the sound of horses’ hoofs. I watched the fire burn. Sometimes the wind blew the smoke in our direction. We then had to cover our noses and mouths. It carried such a pungent odour. The day was ending when it finally went out by itself. My cousin and I stayed huddled together by the rock. That night it was very cold but we didn’t dare make a fire or go look for water. We just held each other for warmth. I cannot recall that we even spoke to one another. Such was our shock. That day we learnt a new word—war.
The following morning we were found.