Dollypot, Greenhide and Spindrift:

a journal of bush history

Vol 3. No. 5

The lost white woman of Western Australia found in Gippsland.

Late last year a book collector asked what I knew of a white girl captured by the W.A. natives, and referred me to The Adventures of a Seventeen-year-old Lad by John Grandison Williams, published in Boston in 1894.

Williams had apparently spent several years in the early Swan River Colony and his description of the natives is generally accurate, down to them being ‘more objects of disgust than admiration.’

As the book is little known the section relevant to the story is reprinted here:-

“The narrative of life in Western Australia would be incomplete without mentioning a sad circumstance which happened a short time previous to my arrival in the country which is not without interest, showing, as it does, how much like civilized people savages can be, and also that humanity is actuated by the same impulses, whether cultured or uncultured. A native chief abducted a beautiful young lady named Drummond from her father’s home near Perth, the capital of Western Australia.

When the abduction became known, the whites got quite a number of the settlers together and went in pursuit. They were prepared for a long chase. They got the trail and made a long tramp through a wild country, some parts of which were very much tangled with a wild vine called scrub, which is woven together so firmly that one can sometimes walk for half a mile on the top of the mass without seeing the ground in that distance. There were also open forests with luxuriant fields of grass, with trees thinly scattered around, such as form the sheep and cattle ranches in that country. They came in sight of the captors in their temporary camp, in one of those open places in the forest.

The captors had camped so that they could see the approach of any one who might be in pursuit, in time either to defend themselves of make their escape. The chief saw that he could not escape, since the girl would not run, and they could not carry her and get over the ground fast enough to escape capture.

When the whites, the girl’s father being among them, got within three hundred yards, the natives halted and the chief at once shipped his spear to the shield and stepped back a few paces from the girl, placed himself in the proper attitude to throw the spear, and shouted to the guide, a native whom the rescuing party had taken along, that if they advanced one step nearer he would put his spear through the girl’s body. At that the pursuers halted. The father could not see his child murdered before his eyes, and was obliged to allow the natives to run away. The party had nothing but old English flintlock muskets. They found it was useless to try to run them down, so returned to devise other methods. After many failures in trying to trap the natives, or secure the girl who was closely guarded among the deep forests and jungles, and after many months of fruitless search a tree was discovered that had rudely outlined ships on the bark. No white man had been in that section of the country to make those marks, and they knew they were made by a white person and who else could it have been but the white girl captive? On this supposition they formulated a plan which nearly proved successful for the girl’s rescue. A reward was offered of one thousand pounds, quite a fortune in the colonies at that time. The authorities had a lot of cheap handkerchiefs made, with printed instructions on them directing the girl how to proceed and where to go in case she saw the handkerchiefs. These were given to the natives of different tribes. Natives call writing on paper, paper talk. They were frequently sent with letters to different parties by the settlers, and so knew that there was some talk on the paper, but they knew nothing of printed letters therefore they suspected nothing wrong with the handkerchiefs. The girl was told to go to a certain place in the forest, and if she succeeded in getting there without being suspected by her captors, she was to make a smoke by building a fire. The whites placed themselves at differ­ent places of observation, where they could scan a large scope of the country, and waited and watched. Finally one day they were rewarded, for their long and patient watching, by seeing curling smoke rising slowly up among the trees. The volume of smoke increased in size until quite a cloud was floating over the forest, while below, no doubt, the maiden stood silent and alone, straining her eyes to their utmost to catch a glimpse of her rescuers. Presently moving objects appear on a hill beyond a valley. They draw nearer. She knows that it is her rescuers, that her signal has been seen. Home and dear ones rise before her eyes; she stretches her hands to grasp them, but alas! she seizes but a phantom in her despair. A quick cat-like step from behind, and she turns to be clasped in the brawny arms of her captors. She was again borne away into the trackless forest by the savages who had missed her. They saw the smoke, and their experienced eyes told them it was signal of some kind. They hurried to the spot, and when her would-be rescuers arrived all that remained to reward them for their long and vigilant watch was few smouldering brands.

The party returned with the sad news to the broken-hearted parents of the unfortunate girl, who was believed to have spent her life with her captors, and may yet be alive at the present time. It was some sixty years ago, but she was then young, and the manner in which the natives live prolongs life. The last heard of the Drummond girl was that she had borne two children to her captor chief.”

The State Library of W.A. has not yet woken up to the fact that much of this book is set in Western Australia, from whaling in the North to the southern colony. How long before they read this? Efficient and interested staff have left (polite description) and few of the new and temporary librarians, from the top down, know their subjects. However it is available as a free download from Internet Archive. Do not get caught with rubbish un-proofed OCR copies now infesting online booksellers. The corollary of Gresham’s Law about money – Bad books drive out good.

Having just written Savagery on the Swan River Settlement and published that and Western Australian Exploration 1836 – 1845, I was familiar with the life, and death, of members of the Drummond family in Western Australia, but had heard nary a whisper of the missing girl.

Children have gone missing, some never to be found, dead or alive, and I believe were taken by the savages and eaten. There is substantial and incontrovertible evidence of the propensity of the natives to cannibalism of both their own people and others. Like the Chinese they are the ultimate omnivores. James Cooke’s Anthropophagitism in the Antipodes is required reading for ‘bush tucker’ fans.

Later, there are reports of unstable and irrational white women taking up with blacks and living in native camps. In recent degenerate times lower elements, influenced by Hollywood propaganda, and with the misconceived idea that substantial financial benefits might accrue, have taken up with natives. Judging by the successful criminal activities of some of their spouses they may have been right. Others have blighted their gene pool for the sake of political correctness, a sad and fleeting chimera.

However in the early days of contact there was little hope of survival in mind or body for someone so captured.

A few hours on the Internet and Trove appeared to solve the problem. Williams had read or heard of the girl captured by the natives of the Gippsland area and over the intervening 60 years had thoroughly confused his locations. However, there could have been a combining of such an incident in W.A. enlarged upon by the greater publicity of the Victorian incident. All the elements of the story are there in the Morning Chronicle 18 March 1846, South Australian Register 8 April 1846, The Melbourne Argus 21 August 1846, The Maitland Mercury 25 March 1846, The Sydney Morning Herald 1 September 1846.

Sorting my overextended library today a heavily remaindered book, The Captive White Woman of Gippsland, an exercise in turning a silk purse into a pig’s arse, with all the expected and unreadable references, Fanon, Arens, Attwood, Derrida, etc., ad infinitum, fell off the shelf. Having a few hours to waste I found that it covers, with a demented thoroughness, all the then known points of the story, and unfortunately much that one does not want to even dream of. It has been returned to the back shelf.

So the circle turns, as does the Ooh Ah bird, with the same results.

Peter Bridge, 11 March 2012.