Poonindie Aboriginal Mission
A year later, on 17 February 1858, the Rev. EK Miller wrote the following letter to the Editor of the Times.
*The impression derived from a distant view of the settlement, prettily situated on a well wooded plain, midway between a range of high hills and the sea, was decidedly pleasing. A cluster of some thirty white cottages glistening in the rays of the setting sun, with what appeared to be a very pretty little church in their midst, brought vividly to mind the village homes of England.
On entering the settlement there was nothing to dispel the pleasurable feelings of the distant view. The church, cemetery, Superintendent's residence, cottages of the natives, mill, general kitchen, workshops, stockyards, slaughterhouse, and various other appendages to a combined farming and pastoral establishment, exhibited a general neatness and order which was most gratifying. At the time of my visit 48 natives were residing at Poonindie, viz. twelve married couples, one widower, six young unmarried men, eight lads, from ten to fifteen years of age, and nine children, from two to nine years of age.
Considering that there have always been a number of unmarried couples at the settlement, the paucity of young children is very remarkable. I was informed that during seven years but three births had occurred, and that two of these were premature, there now remaining but one child born at Poonindie. Of course, this unlooked-for state of things tells most seriously against the prospective usefulness of the Institution.
The dwellings assigned to the natives mostly consist of whitewashed log huts erected on the first establishment of the Institution by Archdeacon Hale. Some of these are very small and low, the ridge of the roof being but about six feet from the ground, and all are much dilapidated from the sheoak logs rotting in the ground.
The floors of these huts, bare earth, having worn lower than the surface of the exterior ground, their occupants must in winter often sit or sleep over a foot of water or mud. Under such circumstances colds and with the natives, their so often fatal consequences, it cannot be wondered at, nor can the people be blamed for often making their fires and sleeping outside the huts.
An effort is now being made to remedy this state of things by building brick cottages well thatched with long grass, the bricks being made on the ground. These cottages are put up in pairs, each having a sitting and a sleeping apartment, measuring together 18 feet by 9 feet with a raised brick floor and fireplace.
Only one pair is as yet occupied and looks very neat and comfortable. The natives living in the new cottages have not been known to sleep out since entering them. Formerly the people were allowed to take the rations to their huts and cook and eat them as and when they pleased, but a better arrangement now obtains. Near the centre of the village is a large stone kitchen, where, at the ringing of the bell, all assemble for meals, one or two are constantly employed in cooking for the establishment.
A material saving is thereby affected, while comfort and order are decidedly promoted. Other improvements are being steadily affected as time and means admit. About 600 rods of fencing (three wires and a top rail) have just been completed, whereby a large additional portion of land along the banks of the Tod will be brought under cultivation This season about twenty-four acres of wheat and six acres of hay have been sown and gathered by native labour.
Judging from the appearance of the wheat I should say that the land at Poonindie is well adapted for agriculture, notwithstanding a general impression to the contrary. A garden lately commenced seems also likely to flourish well. There are three or four out stations in charge of the natives, with 6,000 sheep and 260 cattle and horses. Since about 1,000 sheep, besides cattle, are yearly consumed by the establishment the increase of stock will, of course, be proportionately less than on other runs. There would seem to be less difficulty in getting the natives to work than I had imagined.
The major part I found engaged in the wheat field, one white man being engaged to manage the reaping, or rather mowing machine, and some twenty-five blacks making bands, tying up sheaves &c. The machine being drawn by bullocks, a poor fellow who lately lost a hand by the bursting of a gun, unwilling to be idle, assisted as driver. While most were thus occupied others were breaking-in colts, tending the milk cows, or the butcher's sheep in short, all seemed actively and cheerfully employed.
Illustrative of the proposition of work the natives can perform, I was told that at the last shearing, when four white and four native shearers were engaged, the four natives sheared 607 sheep while the whites sheared 872. With a view to encourage habits of industry, each man is paid, according to what he is able to do, besides being provided with clothes, rations, and tobacco. In the matter of clothing considerable expense is incurred, the natives being in general careless and destructive of clothes.
A laughable instance of this occurred while I was there. A native woman had obtained permission to visit Adelaide. As she was absent rather longer than her husband expected, he became uneasy; his companions jestingly told him they had no doubt his wife had run away and rejoined her tribe. This so excited him that, in a fit of jealousy, he tore to pieces all the dresses she had left behind. On the wild's return a few days after, the husband, with a rueful countenance assured her he was very sorry, indeed, that he did tear her frocks.
Knowing that many deaths had lately occurred at Poonindie, and having been often told that the natives there were especially subject to pulmonary syphilitic and cutaneous diseases, I inquired particularly respecting their general health. With respect to deaths, I found that there were 21 between September 1856 and December 1857. These include two infants prematurely born, and one accidental death. The average of one death monthly, from disease, in a community of say 60 persons, is, undoubtedly, very high; but since eleven out of 18 such deaths occurred in the two last quarters of 1856, we may, perhaps, be justified in assuming that some special unhealthiness of the season had much to do with the matter.
Among those who then died, were some who were out of health on entering the institution, and did not recover. I found but two ill from pulmonary affections, one of whom was not expected to continue long. On the subject of deaths among the natives generally, I was informed by Mr Hawson, superintendent of stock at Poonindie, and for many years resident in that neighbourhood, that there had been a very great mortality among the blacks in the bush during the last three or four years; where formerly he had been wont to see one or two hundred together he now rarely found thirty or forty, while their graves were to be met with in all directions and were very numerous near Poonindie.
I found this statement fully borne out on questioning some of the more intelligent natives in the institution; from this it seems clear that whatever may be the primary causes of such mortality, it is not restricted to Poonindie. As to the alleged prevalence of syphilitic affections, Mr Hammond, whose medical knowledge enables him to give decided opinions on these subjects—assured me he had never discovered the slightest indication of syphilis, or the kindred diseases, among the natives.
On taking charge of Poonindie, Mr Hammond found many cases of cutaneous disease; he also states that on natives from the bush being admitted, they are usually found suffering from such disease, generally the itch, and much care and attention is required to subdue it. The natives living in the bush frequently apply for medicines for these complaints, and are of course cheer fully supplied. I found but two cases of this kind at Poonindie and those nearly cured. Regular habits, and cleanliness, are fast improving the condition of the natives in these respects.
It does not appear that the natives who once settle at Poonindie ever desert it. Mr Hammond assured me he had not known a single instance of desertion. Some have been expelled for misconduct, and others, chiefly those from the Port Lincoln tribes, will occasionally absent themselves for a few weeks as they alleged to visit their relatives, but invariably return. Those from Adelaide and the Murray are sometimes allowed to visit their friends also, but so far from taking advantage of these opportunities to desert, they always come back, often bringing others with them to join the institution.
There is one circumstance connected with this which a little surprised me, viz., if any of them become ill while absent they immediately haste back to Poonindie, the desire to die and be buried there being apparently very strong in all. I should have thought they would have preferred being buried with their tribes; but it is not so. Several instances have occurred of a return under such circumstances being almost immediately followed by death.
My attention was specially directed to the means adopted for religious and general instruction. This is chiefly carried on in what I at first took for a church, but which was really a schoolroom used also for public worship having an upper storey in use as a store room. At 7 o'clock every morning, the schoolroom bell summonses the villagers to morning prayer. No sort of compulsion is used to secure attendance at this or other services though care is taken to impress all with the importance of regular devotional habits.
During my visit the general attendance at morning prayer was from 20 to 25. From 9 to 12 and from 2 to 4 o'clock each day, the females, and such of the men and boys as are not at work, meet in the school to receive instruction from Mrs or Miss Hammond. Mr Hammond assisting when his many other duties will allow; and in the evening, from 7 to 9 o'clock, those who have been engaged during the day form a class under Mr Hammond. At 9 o'clock the bell rings for evening prayer, when the attendance is rather greater than in the morning.
The general instruction seems confined to reading, writing, and a little arithmetic; great care being taken to make them understand what is read. Being anxious to ascertain myself the capacity of the natives to receive instruction and their aptness in learning, I requested Mr Hammond to allow me to conduct the classes in his absence. Several of the newly-admitted natives were scarce able to read a word of English, while others could read and write readily.
Being a stranger, I had to exercise no little ingenuity to overcome the reserve and timidity common to native character. On failing, which I often did, to obtain an answer to a direct question, and subsequently approaching the point in a different manner, I found them not only able to answer, but some of the senior residents well informed. With blacks, as with whites, knowledge seems more readily acquired in youth than in more advanced life; and some of the lads, considering their opportunities, are very intelligent, displaying an aptitude in learning quite equal to the average of English boys of the same age.
The proficiency of some of the elder natives in music much surprised me. It is usual to commence morning and evening prayer with a hymn, and this is generally led by two or three flutes, very well played, the time being accurately kept. To test their knowledge, I asked them to play sundry pieces they had not before seen some of them not very easy; in every instance the music was correctly played, the only errors being the overlooking of a dot after a note, or some such small matter, which on being pointed out was at once corrected.
As I proposed administering the Lord's Supper on the Sunday after my arrival, I was told that some of the natives would probably present themselves as communicants. I was careful to enquire very closely, and on several occasions as to their knowledge and appreciation of the leading doctrins of Christianity. While catechizing these subjects, I was much pleased with the seriousness of demeanour the seniors exhibited.
When the conversation turned on the solemn truths declared concerning man's redemption, there was an earnestness in listening, and an expressiveness in the hesitating whispered answers, which went far to assure me that some at least of these sable converts had not received the grace of God in vain. Among the eighteen men and women composing the Bible classes, I may safely affirm there are several possessing considerable knowledge of the principles of Christianity, and exhibiting many marks of true piety.
On the evening of Sunday, the 3rd of January, after returning from Port Lincoln, I took part in the public service at Poonindie. The schoolroom, lighted with four moderate lamps, and fitted with a neat reading desk, serves as a very commodious little chapel; and when nearly filled with comfortably attired native worshippers a few white faces interspersed, heightening the effects presented a novel and deeply interesting picture.
Mr Hammond having read prayers, I addressed them in the simplest language I could command. Greater decorum, or a more devout attention to, and participation in, the service of our Church than was displayed by the poor aborigines, it was never my lot to witness. Twelve native men and three women, with four whites, remained to partake of the sacrament, and few I think quitted the chapel on that occasion, without being deeply impressed.
During the ride from Port Lincoln, I fell in with a policeman and two settlers, bringing in a couple of natives for sheep stealing. These unfortunates were chained together by the neck, like a brace of hounds, and had been driven on foot one hundred miles in three days, a thing I should have deemed impossible. I need scarcely say they looked the personification of misery and exhaustion.
I have cited the observations I male at Poonindie thus at length, from a desire that others who entertain erroneous ideas and I know that many do as to the condition and working of that institution may learn, as I did from personal investigation, that it is not in so low and hopeless a state as has been represented. Many and great difficulties have had to be encountered, and others will doubtless arise; but still, there is so much, of success attained as may well cause these to be forgotten, and call forth much thankfulness. The natives of this land can, to a great extent be civilized; they may be brought under the influence of the Gospel; in saying which I merely speak that I do know, and testify to that I have seen*.
Although many people believed that *death will soon remove the necessity for help and assistance, he is busily and fast sweeping them away and in the course of a few years at least they will have disappeared altogether*, there was also some talk of establishing a Native school in Adelaide. This idea was pushed by the Aborigines' Friends' Association, who requested the government for a grant of 500 pounds. This too gave rise to lengthy discussions in the House of Assembly.