'Observations made on a journey to the natives at Toorbal, August 1841' (Part One)

The Zion Hill Mission was founded as a Lutheran/Presbyterian/Pietist mission during 1838 in what would later become Nundah, Brisbane. This was the first free European settlement in the region, which was still the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement. The missionaries had limited success in converting the local Aboriginal people to Christianity.

In August 1841, the Rev. Christopher Eipper and Gottfried Wagner went north to an Aboriginal initiation ceremony at Toorbul. On this journey they were guided by Wunkermany and two other Aboriginal men from the Mission. The journal of this trip gives a valuable insight into the social landscape of the time, with some amusing incidents demonstrating a sense of humour on both sides. This is Part One:

Colonial Observer (Sydney), 14 October 1841

'Observations made on a journey to the natives at Toorbal, Aug. 2, 1841.

(By the Rev. Christopher Eipper, of the German Mission to the Aborigines at Moreton Bay.)

MR. EIPPER left with Mr. Wagner, Zion's-hill, about noon, under the guidance of three natives, Wunkermany and the two brothers, Wogan, who carried their provisions on their heads. The direction in which we went was nearly north. Our way led us this day over a soil similar to that which is found near our own place. Towards evening we reached a small creek, which we had to cross - as it was ebb-tide we could get over without being obliged to take off our garments. On the opposite side our natives made a little stay, because they had found a tree emerging out of the water, which was eaten through with worms called Coppra; and these worms appeared to afford them a delicious repast. Every worm had made his own channel; they are of a milk-white colour, with a brown stripe along the back; they taste not bad, although to a European palate they are not very inviting.

Carl F. Gerler's sketch of the German Mission Station at Zion's Hill, 1846. John Oxley Library.

It is remarkable in what a variety of ways these natives find their support ; and it would be interesting to know how they first discovered the various objects which are now the constituent parts of their sustenance. The value of a tomahawk can only be estimated when all these ways are known. Here, for instance, they might have got some Coppras, without such an implement, by breaking as many branches off the trees as their strength would permit; but with the assistance of my tomahawk they cut the tree into pieces, and by clearing the same obtained every worm it contained. 

We were to encamp for the night near this river, but as the place where fresh water is generally found was dry, we were obliged to go three miles farther, until we came to the border of a swamp, where we halted. It is the custom of the natives to encamp in the neighbourhood of fresh water, although they do not always seem to consider their convenience, for sometimes they have to go a great length to fetch water. We had expected that our guides would have made huts for us, as they did for our brethren, who had made this journey before, but we were disappointed; they thought, probably, that in addition to our clothes we might be content to enjoy the same comfort which they had, viz.: that of a large fire. Mr. W. however knowing, from experience, that we should find it very cold to sleep without a shelter at this time of the year, set himself to the construction of a hut with sticks and grass, which we made the natives pull out of the ground. 

We soon found the comfort thereof; and were taking some cold food, when our attention was arrested by a very loud calling of our black friends. It was soon evident that no mortal foe disturbed them, for then they would have armed themselves, or called for our assistance. On enquiring about the cause, we were first told to be silent, for Wunkermany was speaking to the Devil; but when we persisted in asking, they replied, that the Devil was taking hold of the moon with his two arms, to eat it up, and would not let it go. They then began to call the name of every one of their tribes three times, fearful lest they should forget any one; which they did for two reasons - first, in order to frighten the Devil by naming all their mighty men and boys, and then to secure themselves against his power over them in death. For it is the Devil who would swallow up every soul, which rises into the air after its separation from the body; and nothing but their great lamentations for the dead, accompanied with cutting their bodies and beating their heads with sharp instruments, will move him at last to let the departed soul fly off to England. Their manner of treating with the Devil was, however, in this in-stance by no means reverential. From single expressions, which we could catch, it appeared that they scolded him, calling him every bad name their language afforded, and frequently cursed him, so that it is a wonder he is moved at all, by their thus speaking to him to let them off, and not rather provoked to destroy them. Deplorable as the condition of these wretched men is rendered by such superstitions, we could not keep our gravity when beholding and hearing them thus engaged to contend with Satan, as they were doing for nearly the two hours which this total eclipse of the moon lasted. Every where we were told this ceremony was performed by the natives on this occurrence. So great had been their fear and anxiety, that they would neither move nor eat anything while it lasted; but when it was over, they laughed themselves at the Devil. It was, however, in vain to endeavour to convince them of their error by a rational explanation of the phenomenon; this was, they said, what the white man believed, but it was not for the black man. 

Afterwards they requested us to speak very loud to some strange natives, whom they said they heard approach our encampment, for it was not now a proper time to come. When we told them that they were mistaken, they replied, that they had distinctly heard the noise of some men's steps at a distance. We had our evening worship during this eclipse, and told them to be silent while we spake to God, which was much better than to scold the Devil, who had no power over those who belong to the Lord Jesus Christ; nor were such afraid that he would eat up the moon. Our rest was not interrupted; but when towards daybreak, the fire got low, we awoke with cold limbs, and had to search for wood to renew the fire. By this we were taught to provide for the future in the evening the wood for keeping up the fire at night, as we observed the natives themselves do. 

TUESDAY, AUGUST 3. - Early in the morning we continued our journey towards the second river, which we had to cross; it is called the Pine River, although there are but few pines on its banks; (we ascertained afterwards that this river empties itself into the Bay under the name Eden River, given to it by Mr. Petrie, who traced it from the Bay in his boat; and this river and the one we crossed yesterday are two arms of the Eden, which unite before they reach the sea.) 

After a tedious walk through high and wet grass, and crossing the river about nine o'clock, we stopped to take breakfast at a camp of the natives, some of whom were present. As we had yet a good supply of potatoes, we parted with a few, chiefly to make the burdens of our guides lighter. In these intervals of rest we were chiefly engaged in collecting words of the different tribes. Our path led us now through a more mountainous part, whilst hitherto we had gone over a rich alluvial soil. In the afternoon we beheld the Bay, and to the right the path to Umpie Boang or Old Settlement, was pointed out; but as there was no smoke visible, our guides concluded that the natives of that place had gone to Toorbal, which is the native name for Ninga Ninga. 

Towards evening, our direction being still the same, we came to the banks of another river or creek of the same breadth as the Pine River; it was however pretty deep, as it was flood tide. Having crossed it, we went over a tract of rich soil, followed by a marshy plain, until we arrived at the last river on our journey. Its native name is Kaboltur; among the whites it is called Deception River; its breadth is considerable; and it had risen to such a height that one of our guides, by whom we had been forsaken on account of a piece of pork, and who had wished to hasten on before us, had not ventured to cross the river alone, and thus we found him here again. 

The night was coming on, and the sky threatened rain, but we had no choice left, as we could not spend the night on the marsh on this side of the river, so we were obliged to cross it, and reached safely the opposite shore, although we had to go up to our chins into the water. When we had reached dry land, we encamped for the night; the natives joked again about the Devil's eating the moon last night. In the middle of the day, when going down a hill, one of our guides missed a girl, which had been given to him as his future wife; all were thrown into the greatest consternation, for they said that the relations of the girl would beat them if they had permitted her to be stolen by strange natives. These poor creatures appear never to enjoy security; they would immediately have returned to the Pine River, or even to Zion's Hill, if the girl, who had only missed the path, had not been fortunately found. This girl is now already fulfilling the duties of a wife to her future husband; and we have had occasion to observe what a useful commodity their women are to the natives, as they are chiefly expected to procure the necessary food, which it always more certain than that which the men are engaged to find. Single men, who would of course think it beneath their dignity to go in search of roots, we observed, were regularly supplied every day with a bundle of roots by one or other of the women, when returning from the swamps. 

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 4. - The next morning we found that we had not been far from the coast; for after about one mile's walk we saw the bay again, and were told that now our way would lead along the sandy beach to Toorbal. The bay assumes, with the promontory of the old settlement to Toorbal, a semi-circular shape. Moreton Island is seen at a distance running from south to north. Our guides took a little time here to gather the flowers of the honeysuckle tree, which they sucked. The stamina of this flower, or rather cob, are moistened with a clear and sweet juice, but as in sucking it so much of the pollen becomes mixed with it, it loses much of its good taste. About noon, after reaching the north corner of the bay, we turned west-ward, and soon met the lady of his Majesty the King of Toorbal employed in digging dangum, which is the native name of the root hitherto called bangwall. Here we stopped to take dinner; for our guides had told us we should not let our provisions be seen, as the natives were so greedy; it became, however, evident, by what we afterwards experienced, that none were more greedy than these worthies themselves. 

We then went still west-ward, and were saluted by a number of women, engaged in digging dangum, after having crossed a very disagreeable swamp well nigh a milelong. We were received very cordially, but were struck with the coldness and indifference which the natives evinced at meeting each other; we observed the same indifference on arriving at the camp, about four o'clock ; it was just the time when another division of women returned from gathering oysters, who freely gave us a good deal as they passed us. The first thing we had to do was to erect a good hut of sticks and grass, which by the approach of night was nearly finished, and then we left it alternately to pay our particular brothers our first visit. Our hosts gave us what their houses could afford, viz., oysters and pounded dangum; they would immediately have us sit down and chat with them. But we had soon occasion to witness some of the natives own ways: the king had stolen an axe belonging to one of our guides, which he had left in the keeping of his mother; he had all the way been talking that he would beat the king for it, but we gave no great heed to it; as soon, however, as the pounding of dangum had ceased, he arose, took his two waddies, and, standing at the side of our hut, commenced his charge with a loud voice, ending with a challenge to the king to fight him. All was immediately deep silence, and from a great distance an answer was returned; the words grew hotter on both sides, and one or two others added now and then a few remarks. Our guide now ran forward, but came soon back, saying that the king was a coward. Here the matter ended. Afterwards, the king paid us several visits when passing by without any sign of hostility on either side. Several evenings during our stay there such occurrence took place, but by our interfering between the contending parties, which they did not seem to dislike, the quarrels were settled without blows. Such was the eagerness of all to listen to what was spoken on such occasions, that whenever any one was heard to speak in that way after the evening meal had been taken, we scarcely could get any information from our neighbours or guides of the cause of the quarrel.

THURSDAY, AUGUST 5. - The next morning we went to the sea-coast, to the place where the natives gather oysters and catch fish; it was a part of the bay, apparently quite enclosed with land, but we afterwards ascertained that it has an outlet into the sea to the northward - Mr. Petrie calls it Deception Bay. Thus Moreton Bay has four openings, the south passage, which is only passable for boats; the passage at Amity Point, which is now used; the north passage, between Moreton Island and Yarun, and the passage through Deception Bay, ending at Head Petre. Opposite the main land, on a protruding point of which we stood, is a large island running from south to north, called Yarun by the natives; and another not so large lies westward, in which direction is the Glasshouse mountains; nine in number of very striking appearance and conical shape were visible. Some smaller islands, or rather groups of trees, are seen between Yarun and the mainland, where the oysters are found in the mud at low water. 

FRIDAY, AUGUST 6. - This morning we went with some of the natives to see the spot where the solemnity of making kippers is to take place; its distance from the camp is about one mile and a-half; no woman or child is permitted to come near. On the way, the natives killed a snake, but as it had no fat they did not eat it. This place is called Bool, and has the figure of a large basin twenty-one feet in diameter, surrounded by an earthen wall about two feet high ; the whole place is cleared of the grass, which is pulled up by the, roots; it has also an outlet to the southward, by a ditch about three feet wide and half a mile long. There the kippers are led to their huts, which during the time of their trial are separate from the rest. At one place along this trench are found the rude figure of a kangaroo and a seahog, by which it is intended the young fellows should be frightened when passing along. It appeared that the clearing of this ground was allotted to certain individuals in equal parts so the natives told us, adding, that some who were lazy had not yet done their work. 

The rest of the day we spent in visiting and conversing with the natives, as opportunities were offered. Daily some had gone to catch Kangaroos, but had not been successful; and from what we afterwards observed we may justly say that by the mode of life, which these natives lead, not only their whole time every day is taken up in procuring their food, but that even then they are not always rewarded for their toil. Besides the women's time, is also entirely taken up in digging roots and gathering oysters but; what they general contribute to the sustenance, is surer to be obtained, and constitutes their main support. The men may be said to provide the meat, but the women the bread. As regularly as the former go a hunting, or fishing, so regularly do the latter go for oysters or dangum. But although it is certain that the men derive greater pleasure from the chase and from fishing than the women when drudging in the swamps, yet it is doubtful from their natural indolence, whether they would either hunt or fish, if they were not compelled to it by hunger. 

SATURDAY, AUGUST 7th. - Mr W - went to see the mode of the women in gathering oysters; they were at the same place, where we had been the day before. There was a canoe, in which they rowed to one of the small Islands above mentioned, where they gathered the oysters out of the mud into the boat. When they had thus gathered a great quantity, they went back to the shore, and made a fire, into which all the oysters were put, to cleanse them from the mud, and being thus stewed at the same time, they are eaten, and taste very well. The natives had been boasting, when inviting us to their places

The next day was Sabbath, the 8th... which we spent as quietly as we could. We cannot, however, refrain from saying, that as long as these natives have no other mode of life, they will never be able to keep a Christian Sabbath, though they were Christians; they cannot be expected to fast, yet they get scarcely sufficient for each day; it is true that at times they may have abundance of fish, but taking it altogether, it may with truth be stated that they have barely sufficient food for every day, and having no regular meals they are always hungry. This observation gives us, in one point of view, some satisfaction, as it is a confirmation, that the plan upon which our Mission is conducted, is fully adapted to their peculiar situation; for while endeavouring to impart unto them a knowledge of divine things, we are also teaching and assisting them to procure their livelihood in a laborious and surer way; and should the Divine Spirit move their hearts to believe the Gospel, their former mode of life will be no obstacle in the way of its acceptation. (To be concluded in our next)'

'Observations made on a journey to the natives at Toorbal, August 1841' (Part Two)