68[Grant Watson, E. L. (Elliot Lovegood), 1946, But To What Purpose: the autobiography of a contemporary, The Cresset Press, London, Chapter 14]


The Stone Age

The expedition, which finally started eastward from the small terminus town of Sandstone on the Upper Murchison, consisted of Brown, Mrs. Daisy Bates, Louis Olsen and myself. Mrs. Bates probably knew more about the Australian Aborigines than anyone else alive. She was not primarily an anthropologist, but an enthusiast, who has given all her love and sympathy to these outcasts from their own land. Her guiding spirit was not a missionary spirit, but one of charity and compassion, and she presented in her person, so neat and dapper, and so much cut after the pattern of an Irish county lady, a strange example of symbiosis with these stone-age men and women, who accepted her with trust and appreciation. I had first met her in Perth while waiting for Brown’s arrival, and she had hoped that Brown would include her in the forthcoming expedition. Brown was by no means averse to accepting a woman as fellow-member. His modern outlook would not repudiate the possibility of women being able to co-operate with men in the field of anthropology, and he was quick to see that Mrs. Bates was the possessor of a priceless store of knowledge. The trouble was that Mrs. Bates’s knowledge, collected through many years of close contact with the natives, was not in a condition that Brown considered easily available for the ends of science. Indeed, he found it to be in a most hopeless tangle. The contents of her mind, in his estimation, were somewhat similar to the contents of a well-stored sewing-basket, after half a dozen kittens had been playing there undisturbed for a few days. At first he optimistically thought he might disentangle some of that rich medley, but in this he proved mistaken. She was made for his exasperation, as he for hers. This unfortunate coincidence they neither. of them discovered in those early days, and so it was that Mrs. Bates started with us, in spite of there having already occurred more than one of those symptomatic intervals when Brown’s eyes had become fixed on distance, and Mrs. Bates had talked into the silence. ‘A most extraordinary man,’ she confided to me, and I could see her shaking the feathers of her soul in perturbation. It was not many days before she added: ‘and no gentleman, I am sure.’

My position became increasingly difficult. I appreciated the genuine and brave spirit which characterised Mrs. Bates, but unfortunately she considered herself capable of the leadership of the expedition. Brown was determined that such an issue should never be in question, and he well knew how to use his weapons of silence and aloofness: the only weapons, short of physical violence, with which a man may deal successfully in a struggle with a woman:

Beside my liking and sympathy for Mrs. Bates, I had my loyalty to Brown and my growing friendship with him. The situation, as the weeks passed, became increasingly difficult. But this is to anticipate. At the start, things’ looked hopeful enough as we trekked with our wagon, drawn by two horses, towards the wild unexplored bush where a large corroborree was reported to be about to be celebrated.

Louis Olsen was a Swedish ex-sailor whom Brown had engaged in Sandstone to be our cook, and as it proved a most capable handy-man. I was surprised to see how soon he fell under Brown’s dominion. Quite early in the expedition there was a difference of opinion about knots-sailor’s knots. Brown’s universality of knowledge seemed to admit no limits. He held to his point with gentle insistence, and Louis very simply accepted his defeat; there was no further friction. I think Louis came to look on Brown, much as the natives did, as indeed a kind of super-being, not to be questioned or judged by ordinary standards.

Our party was also augmented by two black boys, picked up at Sandstone, and persuaded to come with us to act as interpreters. These natives had a smattering of pidgin-English, since their tribe had been for some years in the neighbourhood of the mines. They and their tribe were, from the anthropologist’s point of view, not of supreme interest, since they had, in all probability, lost the social consciousness which the wild Aborigine would show in a purer, and unadulterated form: but, as interpreters and go-betweens, they might be useful for a time. They had shown some reluctance to coming with us, but once out in the bush; kept close to Brown, as though anxious to make sure of his protection. The corroborree at which we hoped to be spectators was to be the outcome of the meeting of some seven or eight tribes, some of which were men from the eastern interior, and who, we hoped; had so far escaped from the contamination of contact with white men.

In reviewing memories of an expedition of this kind, there are many incidents which suggest themselves for recording. How we established contact with the shy and wild tribes from the interior, our methods of communication, or methods of work, and the aims that the expedition set itself; these, together with our personal contacts with the natives, and indeed, there might be added some personal adventures-all these things suggest themselves, but they fall outside the scope of a book which is seeking to separate, from the totality of the past, those events which seem to present an especial relevancy to the pattern of a life taken as a whole, and carried so far as the brink of the present moment. There are numerous books recording the adventures of ethnological expeditions, in which men may read of the manners and customs of the Australian Aborigines. I seek for the essentials which bear on my own development, and so make no attempt at an historical picture, but rather to give the general impression received by this close contact with stone-age men, when, together with a few others of my race, I found myself falling within the subtle yet penetrating psychic aura of the Australian tribesmen.

Nietzsche has written: he who would hope to get an impartial view of contemporary affairs must separate himself by an act of will from the objects of his study, and place between himself and the present an interval of at least three hundred years. I did not need to make any such gigantic effort. This adventure of separating myself from the consciousness of my race, this feat was accomplished for me, whether I would or no, by the simple fact of being surrounded by aboriginal savages, and absent from civilisation in which I had been moulded. The process was slow and imperceptible, yet it was sure. I entered the bush with a rationalistic, scientific bias. I thought magic to be a kind of infantile make-believe. It might appear real enough to savages, but to civilised people like myself it was not to be taken seriously. That was the initial attitude. The passing weeks and months changed this preconception.

I witnessed daily the power of magic. The social consciousness of these simple and friendly people was a concrete reality, and if I did not actively fear their magic I respected it, and I came to believe in it; and, as I came to fall under the spell of these people, so many thousands of years distant from our European conventions, so did those same European conventions suffer from an objective devaluation, if I may use such a phrase. I was coming to stand not only three hundred years, but perhaps three hundred thousand years away.

The process went so far during those fifteen months amongst the Aborigines (in one place or another) that I only just snatched myself back in time to be able to half-believe ever again in the conventions of Europe. I knew that magic could kill, and that magic, the man-made bending of the universal powers, could make ill or well. I had entered the animism of the savage mind, and had found within those mystical, sympathetic identifications the open doorways to the unconscious. I do not pretend that this was an altogether desirable experience, though I think it has been a useful one, seeing that I was able to balance, at a later date, its strong influence by five years of analytical psychology. It was in a way a unique experience, not so much understood or valued at the time, but valued and partly understood afterwards. It had lifted me, or perhaps sunk me, above or below the orthodox horizon of vision. Through no virtue or merit of my own this accident has happened to me. I have lived for a considerable number of months in the world of magic-sticks and stones, of totem animals, and if I have not actually met and conversed with the Alcheringa, animal ancestors, I have become convinced of their existence in the same way in which Dr. Jung is convinced of the existence of the archetypes. That I have seen wild tribesmen trailing their silent, naked way through the unexplored bush-country still seems to me a possession of the soul. That I have seen stark young women streaming with the blood of a yet living turtle which they were laboriously dismembering with a stone knife, is a picture every bit as significant as the intellectual tea-parties I have attended at Lady Ottaline Morall’s. Such experiences amidst primitive people contribute, perhaps, to odd visions which sometimes float before my eyes. If a conscious balance between such stark experiences and civilisation has not yet been attained, I am aware that it yet might be, and I view the portal of death as possibly leading to such a blending, of conscious and unconscious values.

Thus, only in general terms, do I seek to recount my experiences on the Upper Murchison, on Bernier Island, and on the Gascoyne. Only occasional incidents, whose telling cannot be avoided if continuity is to be given to my story, and those which appear of especial significance, shall be set down. Suffice it to say that I found in Brown a leader of exceptional ability, who seemed always able to establish with the natives a just and firm relationship, one which was distinguished by its humanity, yet which seldom lacked the objectivity of the scientist.

At the, corroborree east of Sandstone, after a few initial difficulties, we settled down to the main business of our task, which was to tabulate facts pertaining to the four-class marriage system. All would have gone well, had it not been for an unfortunate raid made by the Australian police, in a futile attempt to secure some tribal-murderers, who were supposed to be present at this gathering. On a certain morning just before dawn after we had returned to our tents from a night expedition to witness some initiation dances; I was awoken by the sound of revolver-shots and of galloping horse hoofs.

The police had collected a number of likely young men to help them in the task of rounding-up the supposed criminals. Some ten or twelve white Australians were riding through the camp, firing off their revolvers at the native dogs, and shouting and swearing in quite a cinematograph manner. Natives were making off in all directions. Brown was standing at the entrance of his tent, which I noticed was closed behind him. Mrs. Bates was emerging from her tent in the distance: In a few seconds both natives and horsemen disappeared, and we were left to the realisation that after such an outrage the natives would be thoroughly upset, and would probably disperse, vanishing into the bush, as only natives can.

Brown was in one of his silent, angry moods, and when the chief police officer returned a few minutes later, he was at no pains to be polite. He listened to the man’s story about dangerous murderers. Had they caught them? No. If it was any consolation Brown told him, the raid had pretty effectively ruined our work.

In a little while an ancient native was brought in, his arms twisted behind his back by his captors. He did not look a murderer, and he protested that he was not, but after some confabulation he was carried off to be put in jail in Sandstone. The police departed, and the silence of an empty bush surrounded us. Brown lifted the flap of his tent, and out from the interior there emerged two of the murderers, who had taken refuge with their white-man-friend, whom they declared was ‘close up along-side-of-God’.

Despite their trust in Brown, the natives did not return, or rather only one of them did, and he was the white-haired and respectable old gentleman who had been carried off stark naked by the police. The next morning he was sitting beside the embers of our camp-fire holding a glowing fire-stick at a suitable distance to various portions of his anatomy, hoping in this way to warm his shivering person. He explained that the police, having no evidence against him, had let him go. He had run all the way from Sandstone during the night.

This unfortunate incident was the cause of our first breach with Mrs. Bates. Although she was pleased with Brown for having sheltered her beloved natives from the injustice of the law, she differed with him as to the wisdom of staying longer at that place. She said the natives would return. To Brown this seemed unlikely, and so, making completely new plans, he decided to go to Bernier Island, where there was a lock-hospital for venereally-infected natives. Here a large number of men would be collected who could be interrogated. This seemed to him the best thing to be done in the circumstances. Mrs. Bates was opposed to, this, maintaining that the natives would come back, and that she had work she wished to complete. Very well, she could stay, said Brown, but we would go. Mrs. Bates was not pleased at the prospect of remaining alone, without any means of transport, but did not like to yield. I do not think she supposed that he would be so ungallant as to leave her, but Brown contended that if women claimed the privileges of men, they should be treated as men in like circumstance would be treated. So it was that we went our way, leaving Mrs. Bates to follow how and when she would. I urged her to come with us, but her pride was touched, and already she was beginning to hate Brown: a hatred which was not tempered by the misfortunes which came upon her, and for which neither she nor Brown were responsible.

I should here mention that the financial standing of the expedition had become very much stronger since our first landing at Perth. Brown had given, at the Museum at Perth, a free lecture on the Aborigines, and on the purport of the expedition. After the lecture a certain Mr. Sam Mackay had approched him, and explained how much he had always felt indebted to the natives for their work for him on his sheep-farms, and that now he thought that here was an opportunity of paying back past obligations. Would Brown mind receiving a little cheque? Brown said he was not above receiving a cheque for so good a cause. Mr. Mackay, therewith, brought out his cheque-book and wrote a cheque for a thousand pounds! Brown half-suspected that this was a leg-pull, but smilingly accepted Sam Mackay’s generosity. That evening Mackay sailed for Melbourne, and we never heard from him again. The next morning the cheque passed as quite in order. In this way through the generosity of an Australian ‘sheep king’ the funds of the expedition were more than doubled. Henceforth my expenses would all be paid, and we were in that comfortable position in which we could feel we could afford to spend, not rashly, though with ample confidence.