Blacks Tribal Fight 1880s

Coffs Harbour and Dorrigo Advocate

Thursday 14 April 1927

Blacks Tribal Fight

A Unique Experience

       Mr. Walter Harvie of Coffs Harbour, who is now 83 years of age, was the only white witness of the biggest aboriginal tribal fight along this coast in the last 60 years. It was about 40 years ago. Mr. Harvie describes the unique incident as follows:
        I was drawing cedar from Bongal scubs to the Bellinger at the time, and employed two black boys. Their father was boss of the coast blacks from the Bellinger to a good distance north. We named him “Long Billy”. The boys were about 16 and 18 years of age and very intelligent. They were very useful to me in minding the bullocks. Naturally they wanted to go and see the fight, and they asked me to go with them. I went — partly because I was anxious as they were to see the fight and partly because I wanted to keep in touch with the boys, in case they might be enticed away. They had been with me about two years and could speak English. Later they joined the Queensland black police.

Aboriginal Customs

       The two boys I had were “Caperas”, which meant that they were a stage between boys and men. They had undergone their examinations by the heads of the tribes some time previously for promotion to manhood, although it was not in such a severe form as in former years. But they were barred from eating certain kinds of food. Bush turkeys, goannas and flying foxes were taboo, also several kinds of game, but fish, oysters, damper and any other food were allowed. They were debarred from living in the camp with other blacks, particularly if there were any women or girls about. They had an appointed chaperone, who was always with them. He was generally an old aborigine who, in addition to his fighting implements carried a nitched piece of thin wood with strings attached, which made a buzzing sound when whirled in the air. It was a “row row”, and when used in the right way would make a row all right. This was used by the man in charge to keep all stragglers away from where the caperas were. There were other caperas in the group besides my two boys.

The Battle Ground

      The battle ground was on the bald ridges between Bongal and Boambi Creeks and when we arrived there we met a great number of blacks. The fighting men were naked, except for strong belts in which they carried their fighting implements. Their bodies were painted with fantastic stripes of different colours. They carried spears and heelaman in their hands. The heelaman was a piece of light wood about 16 or 18 inches long and about 14 inches wide, rounded on one side, and it had a grip hold for the hand on the flat side. This was their shield for warding off spears and blows from other weapons. I was directed by the head men to stay with the boys, as I would be safe with them from any weapons flying about. The boys soon found a suitable spot from which we would have a good view, and all the time the old chap kept up a noise with his whirling machine to keep intruders away.

The Battle

       The fighting men were rushing about making an unearthly row on both sides, but after a time they got into two lines about 50 yards apart. Then a large number on either side fell back as reserves, some distance away. Two men who appeared to be distinguished warriors jumped out in front of each line and made short speeches. When they finished they threw the boomerangs, which was a signal for a general clash. There was a yell that could be heard a long distance away and boomerangs and throwing sticks filled the air like flocks of birds. After they had expended all these missiles they started with spears about 10 feet long, of which they had great numbers. It was wonderful to see how they could elude them, knocking them aside, catching them on the heelaman, jumping straight up to let them pass underneath their feet, and even catching them in their hands and returning them like a flash. But each man kept his eyes glued on his opponent. Spears were picked up by the toes and returned, and it was wonderful how they could protect themselves behind the heelaman.
        After about half-an-hour’s strenuous fighting the front line men had used up all their weapons. Then the front line fell back on both sides, removing all who had been put out of action. The reserves took their place in the line and the fighting went on as fierce as before.
        When all the spears and boomerangs were used up the others joined in and they started with copens, a very dangerous weapon about 3 feet long with a heavy knob at the end. The contestants then got scattered in pairs over about half-a-mile of clear ridge and there was very fierce hand to hand fighting. We had a good view from where we were and could hear their weapons clashing on the shields. There were desperate yells and we could see the men falling, but whether they were seriously wounded or not we could not tell.
       About an hour from the time the battle started we could see that both sides had had enough. The southerners began to get away to their camp in twos and threes, and shortly afterwards there was a general stampede and the battle was over, bar the shouting and rattle of weapons. When the noise had quietened down there was much talk between the leaders and the different tribes (there were a number of tribes engaged) and soon they came to an agreement and began to attend to the wounded, of whom there were many. Some were so seriously wounded that they never recovered. I was told that three were killed outright in the fight.
        I made a rough count and calculated that about 500 men were engaged in the battle. They were the finest crowd of men I’ve ever seen together — tall and muscular, and every one an athlete of no mean calibre. The lubras were very plucky. They ran about among the fighting men picking up weapons that had been used.
      I believe I am the only white man in New South Wales, and perhaps in Australia, who has ever witnessed such an exhibition. It would have made a fine picture, especially the hand to hand fighting near the finish, which was very fierce, and there were dozens lying about the ground in various attitudes. A great many had to be carried off to the different camps. The carriers made rough stretchers of saplings to carry those who could not walk and the wounded were attended to by old aborigines and lubras, who seemed to be experts at fixing up spear wounds and broken heads.

A Big Corroboree

       I saw some that had to be helped off the battlefield taking part in the big corroboree that was held at night. There must have been over 1000 blacks congregated there, all in nature’s garb except for short fringes worn around their hips by the lubras and pieces of skin of some animal hanging from the belts of the men. They had no blankets – the government dole had not reached this far. But they had plenty of rugs well tanned and sewn with a thread of their own make.
       All the tribes took part in the corroboree. I remember that one part was a kangaroo hunt. A number of the blacks camped at Boambi for a long time, feeding and tending the men who were were wounded in the fight. I was running my bullock team there and was often about my run. Although they must have been often on short allowances of food they never interfered with my bullocks.
        I noticed in a Sydney paper some months ago where a writer stated that aboriginals never used the boomerang in their fights. That is wrong. I have seen several, and the boomerang was always the principal weapon used. §

       The two sentences highlighted in italics immediately above have been inserted for the sake of historical completeness. They appeared in the original handwritten account submitted by Walter Harvie to the newspaper editor but were omitted from the published version. The heading and sub-headings were all inserted by that editor.
       In the language spoken by central and north coast of New South Wales aboriginal tribes the term caperas, said by Walter Harvie to have applied to youths of the mid-north coast tribes whilst they were undergoing the initiation into manhood process, is more usually spelt caparras or keeparras – for that spelling see a 1899 description of the keeparra initiation ceremonies practiced by the tribes of the Port Stephens area. The implement referred to by Walter Harvie as a “row row” is today generally termed a bullroarer, “copens” a nulla nulla, and “heelaman” a shield.
       Walter Harvie was born in Nova Scotia in 1843 and arrived in Australia in 1860. He was acknowledged by his peers as having been the first white settler in 1865 at Coffs Harbour on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales. His assumption he may have been the only person in NSW, or even in Australia, to have witnessed such a large tribal battle was astray. Other written accounts of persons witnessing similar have been noted. For instance an anglican minister Rev. James Hassell (1823-1904), in his 1902 published autobiography titled In Old Australia : records and reminiscences from 1794, mentioned when he was a scholar from 1832 to 1835 at The King’s School in the Sydney suburb of Parramatta in NSW he and other boys witnessed similar large tribal battles in that area.

Transcript by John Raymond, Brisbane, Australia – first posted 1999

The Rev James Hassell wrote about a fight he witnessed in 1832:

On one occasion, it being a holiday, the boys were allowed  to pay a visit to the blacks’ camp, some distance out of Parramatta, towards Prospect. The blacks had assembled  from various parts of the colony, for the annual feast given  them by the Governor, and to receive a blanket apiece. The  latter gift is still customary wherever any blacks remain.

Before the feast came off, quarrels had sometimes to be adjusted, and on this occasion a fight took place, which we had the opportunity of witnessing.

There were probably six or seven hundred blacks assembled at their camps. The women of each party had first to be placed at a safe distance. The men painted themselves with white pipe-clay and red ochre and thus, without any clothing, the two parties advanced towards each other in a half circle, in ranks three and four deep, armed with spears, boomerangs, nullah-nullahs, waddies, and shields. When within a hundred yards or so of each other, the battle began.

The spears flew cross the half circle in great profusion, but were well parried by the shields. Then came the boomerangs, striking the ground first and then redounding in all directions among the enemy.  These are dangerous weapons and cannot be warded off so well as the spears.  After a little time, the contending parties closed in, and a hand to-hand fight with their nulla-nullas or waddies ended the affray. Three blacks were killed and a number wounded. Not day, notwithstanding both parties assembled at tie feast together and made friends.

Published by gavinhamiltoncrawford

Retired from paid work but not from living. Actively engaged in writing cultural, social and family histories, reflecting on a meaningful life and volunteering.

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