1837 Kimberley Worrorra Resistance

Grey, George. 1841. Journals of Two Expeditions of Discovery In North-West And Western Australia. London: T & W Boone


Dec 22, 1837 Hanover Bay

Scarcely had we reached these rocks, and sheltered ourselves under the overhanging projections, when I saw a savage advancing with a spear in his right hand, and a bundle of similar weapons in his left; he was followed by a party of thirteen others, and with them was a small dog not of the kind common to this country. The men were curiously painted for war, red being the predominant colour, and each man carried several spears, a rowing stick, and a club. Their chief was in front, and distinguished by his hair being of a dark red colour from some composition with which it was smeared; the others followed him close, noiselessly, and with stealthy pace, one by one, whilst he, crouching almost to the earth, pricked off our trail.

We remained concealed and motionless until they had all passed, but the moment they came to where we had turned off they discovered our retreat, and raised loud shouts of triumph, as, forming themselves into a semicircle, they advanced upon us, brandishing their spears and bounding from rock to rock. It was in vain that I made friendly signs and gestures, they still closed upon us, and to my surprise I heard their war-cry answered by a party who were coming over the high rocks in our rear, which I had flattered myself protected us in that direction.

Our situation was now so critical that I was compelled to assume a hostile attitude. I therefore shouted in answer to their cries and, desiring the men to fire one at a time if I gave the word, I advanced rapidly, at the same time firing one barrel over their heads. This had the desired effect. With the exception of one more resolute than the rest they fled on all sides, and he, finding his efforts unavailing, soon followed their example.

Feb 11, 1838 Glenelg River

It was the duty of the Cape man who accompanied me to mark a tree every here and there by chipping the bark, so that the party might the next day easily recognise the route which they had to pursue; upon looking back I now perceived that he had neglected a very remarkable tree about twenty or thirty yards behind us, and which stood close to the spot where I had fired at the kangaroo. I desired him to go back and chip it, and then to rejoin us; in the meantime I stood musing as to the best means of avoiding the little rocky ravine in our front.

Finding that the man remained absent longer than I had expected I called loudly to him, but received no answer, and therefore passed round some rocks which hid the tree from my view to look after him. Suddenly I saw him close to me breathless and speechless with terror, and a native with his spear fixed in a throwing-stick in full pursuit of him; immediately numbers of other natives burst upon my sight; each tree, each rock, seemed to give forth its black denizen, as if by enchantment.

A moment before, the most solemn silence pervaded these woods. We deemed that not a human being moved within miles of us, and now they rang with savage and ferocious yells, and fierce armed men crowded round us on every side, bent on our destruction.

There was something very terrible in so complete and sudden a surprise. Certain death appeared to stare us in the face: and, from the determined and resolute air of our opponents, I immediately guessed that the man who had first seen them, instead of boldly standing his ground, and calling to Coles and myself for assistance, had at once, like a coward, run away; thus giving the natives confidence in themselves, and a contempt for us: and this conjecture I afterwards ascertained was perfectly true.

We were now fairly engaged for our lives; escape was impossible, and surrender to such enemies out of the question.

As soon as I saw the natives around me I fired one barrel of my gun over the head of him who was pursuing my dismayed attendant, hoping the report would have checked his further career. He proved to be the tall man seen at the camp, painted with white. My shot stopped him not: he still closed on us and his spear whistled by my head; but, whilst he was fixing another in his throwing stick, a ball from my second barrel struck him in the arm and it fell powerless by his side. He now retired behind a rock, but the others still pressed on.

I now made the two men retire behind some neighbouring rocks, which formed a kind of protecting parapet along our front and right flank, whilst I took post on the left. Both my barrels were now exhausted; and I desired the other two to fire separately, whilst I was reloading; but to my horror, Coles, who was armed with my rifle, reported hurriedly that the cloth case with which he had covered it for protection against rain had become entangled. His services were thus lost at a most critical moment whilst trying to tear off the lock cover; and the other man was so paralysed with fear that he could do nothing but cry out, “Oh, God! Sir, look at them; look at them!”

In the meantime our opponents pressed more closely round; their spears kept whistling by us, and our fate seemed inevitable. The light coloured man, spoken of at the camp, now appeared to direct their movements. He sprang forward to a rock not more than thirty yards from us and, posting himself behind it, threw a spear with such deadly force and aim that, had I not drawn myself forward by a sudden jerk, it must have gone through my body, and as it was it touched my back in flying by. Another well-directed spear, from a different hand, would have pierced me in the breast, but, in the motion I made to avoid it, it struck upon the stock of my gun, of which it carried away a portion by its force.

All this took place in a few seconds of time, and no shot had been fired but by me. I now recognized in the light-coloured man an old enemy who had led on the former attack against me on the 22nd of December. By his cries and gestures he now appeared to be urging the others to surround and press on us, which they were rapidly doing.

I saw now that but one thing could be done to save our lives, so I gave Coles my gun to complete the reloading, and took the rifle which he had not yet disengaged from the cover. I tore it off and, stepping out from behind our parapet, advanced to the rock which covered my light-coloured opponent. I had not made two steps in advance when three spears struck me nearly at the same moment, one of which was thrown by him. I felt severely wounded in the hip, but knew not exactly where the others had struck me. The force of all knocked me down, and made me very giddy and faint, but as I fell I heard the savage yells of the natives’ delight and triumph; these recalled me to myself, and, roused by momentary rage and indignation, I made a strong effort, rallied, and in a moment was on my legs; the spear was wrenched from my wound, and my haversack drawn closely over it, that neither my own party nor the natives might see it, and I advanced again steadily to the rock. The man became alarmed and threatened me with his club, yelling most furiously; but as I neared the rock behind which all but his head and arm was covered he fled towards an adjoining one, dodging dexterously, according to the native manner of confusing an assailant and avoiding the cast of his spear; but he was scarcely uncovered in his flight when my rifle ball pierced him through the back between the shoulders, and he fell heavily on his face with a deep groan.

The effect was electrical. The tumult of the combat had ceased: not another spear was thrown, not another yell was uttered. Native after native dropped away and noiselessly disappeared. I stood alone with the wretched savage dying before me, and my two men close to me behind the rocks, in the attitude of deep attention; and as I looked round upon the dark rocks and forests, now suddenly silent and lifeless but for the sight of the unhappy being who lay on the ground before me, I could have thought that the whole affair had been a horrid dream.

For a second or two I gazed on the scene and then returned to my former position. I took my gun from Coles, which he had not yet finished loading, and gave him the rifle. I then went up to the other man, and gave him two balls to hold, but when I placed them in his hands they rolled upon the earth–he could not hold them, for he was completely paralysed with terror, and they fell through his fingers; the perspiration streamed from every pore; he was ghastly pale and trembled from head to foot; his limbs refused their functions; his eyes were so fixed in the direction in which the natives had disappeared that I could draw his attention to nothing else; and he still continued repeating, “Good God, sir! look at them, look at them.”

The natives had all now concealed themselves, but they were not far off. Presently the wounded man made an effort to raise himself slowly from the ground: some of them instantly came from behind the rocks and trees, without their spears, crowding round him with the greatest tenderness and solicitude; two passed their arms round him, his head drooped senselessly upon his chest, and with hurried steps the whole party wound their way through the forest, their black forms being scarcely distinguishable from the charred trunks of the trees as they receded in the distance.

To have fired upon the other natives when they returned for the wounded man would, in my belief, have been an unnecessary piece of barbarity. I already felt deeply the death of him I had been compelled to shoot: and I believe that when a fellow-creature falls by one’s hand, even in a single combat rendered unavoidable in self-defence, it is impossible not sincerely to regret the force of so cruel a necessity.

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