MEMORIES OF THE PALMER
J H BINNIE’S REMINISCENCES
“MY LIFE ON A TROPIC GOLDFIELD”
Mr. J. H. Binnie, who spent his boyhood on the great Palmer Goldfield, in the late 1870s, continues his interesting reminiscences of those stirring days.
Owing to there being no delivery of telegrams to our outback settlement, Echo Town on the Palmer River, an urgent business telegram from Cooktown for father reached him a week after it was despatched. The business was very important and had to be transacted in Cooktown on an early date, and as the coach had left for Cooktown only a day or two before, it caused father considerable trouble. So he decided to make the 150 miles journey on horseback, and two men were immediately sent out on foot with firearms to get our horses, which usually grazed on the river flats, a mile or two from the township.
The men returned towards evening without the horses. They reported having found the bones and the hoofs of two horses but no trace of the other two. Father was very quick at coming to decisions, and he decided to walk to Cooktown. He calculated that by cutting across some of the steep ranges instead of following the road all the way, he could do the trip in about 120 miles, so he made an early start next morning, with mother and the four children accompanying him half a mile along the road where he kissed us all goodbye. All he carried was a small bag of food and a billy can. He was totally unarmed as he could not get a revolver, and a rifle was too heavy to carry.
We fearfully watched as he passed over the first hilltop on his long and dangerous journey through some of the wildest and roughest country in the Far North. Without a compass to guide him, he travelled as much as possible by night and slept during the day so that the hostile blacks would be less likely to see him as he travelled.
Mother returned to her primitive home in the wild bush with her children, feeling very lonely after father’s departure. Neighbours were few and far between, and there were only three women in the locality- all living in bark huts or tents with their young children.
At night dingoes gave a howling chorus nearby; possums and native cats made uncanny noises, and occasionally, a big snake slid into our bark house. All these things added to mother’s anxiety about father’s safety.
However, on the seventh day after his departure a telegram arrived by a galloping horseman via Maytown, giving us the welcome news that father had arrived safely at Cooktown, having made the journey in five days. His had been a very risky undertaking with hundreds of hostile blacks roaming the bush eager to spear lonely travellers such as he.
Father said that he had one scare when he reached the top of a ridge at night and almost walked into a blacks’ camp before he saw their fires on the other side, and he had to make several wide detours for this reason. Bushmen who knew the country father had travelled over, said that it required a great courage for a man to traverse it without a mate, and unarmed, in those days of the war-like Palmer tribes, not to mention the very real risk of becoming lost among the tumbled maze of rugged stony ranges.
Although father never looked on the risky side of his adventures, he had several narrow escapes in small undertakings. While living at the Lord Nelson on the Palmer River, he and a man named Jensen had occasion to go to the battery on the opposite side of the river from home, in the boat, and while they were engaged in doing odd jobs the river rose rapidly. Before they could get away it was in full flood. To allow for drift they took the boat some distance up river and when within fifty yards of the bank on the home side of the river, the boat capsized on a submerged snag and both men were thrown into deep water.
Jensen was unable to swim and was swiftly carried downstream under water. It was a difficult job for father to locate him and it took a great effort to secure the half drowned man and struggle with him as they both drifted perilously close to the rocky falls. It was, in fact, almost beyond human effort for an exhausted man.
The few Chinese fossickers on the river bank were unable to help, but eventually both men reached land; Jensen had to be resuscitated, father officiating. The boat was smashed to pieces when it was washed over the rocky falls, and, of course, everything in it was lost. I had been sent the seven miles to Maytown on an errand, and, but for the sudden rising of the river, I would have been a passenger on that boat, and, as father would have had two to rescue, the three of us would probably have drowned.
The Chinese population was rapidly increasing and now numbered about 2000. Almost all of them were fossicking for alluvial gold or carrying on sluicing operations on a large and profitable scale. Quartz mining was left almost wholly to Europeans. One of the Chinese sluicing parties paid father £50 for the right to bail all the water out of a big waterhole in the river covering about two acres, used by him for the battery and for which he held a water right licence.
As it was impossible to drain the hole by gravitation, the Chinamen cut a drain along the river bank, and started on what everybody thought was the impossible task of emptying the hole by bucketing the water into the drain. They worked almost continuously 24 hours a day for several weeks. This operation was carried out in shifts by two Chinese sitting in a convenient position on staging opposite each other at the water’s edge; each man held two ropes attached to a bucket in such a way that by a swinging motion, one rope dipped the bucket into the river, and the bucket, when full, was quickly pulled up and tipped into the drain. It was a big undertaking for manual labour only, but it proved very profitable to the party, as they obtained several small nuggets of gold and good results from the sluicing.
There was always a small percentage of unemployed Chinamen on the field, and father employed most of them occasionally carrying firewood to the battery per bamboo across the shoulders. They carried loads up to 200 lbs a distance of a mile or more, and they did several trips on the hottest days. They lived on boiled rice and a little meat.
When a Chinaman died, his countrymen placed all his belongings on his grave, together with a good supply of cooked food for feeding his spirit. In another case a Chinaman died when sitting on a bag of rice and superstition compelled the storekeeper to give the rice to a number of his poor country men; but some of them would not use it.
Generally speaking the Chinese on the Palmer were a peaceful law abiding people. An occasional case of theft was about the only crime committed and such offenders were tried, and sentenced by a local “court” composed of leading Chinese in the district. In a case of theft at Revolver Point, the thief was tried by the Chinese storekeeper (from whom he stole the goods), and others of his countrymen. He was found guilty and was sentenced to be hung in the store during business hours; in other words he was to be suspended in the store by a rope tied to one wrist and another rope tied to one of his ankles. The sentence was duly carried out.
While living at the German Bar where Chinese carried on the whole business of the small township, our family was treated to an excellent Chinese feast on the occasion of their New Year festivities. The tables were specially laid out in the best of oriental style. There was a plentiful supply of poultry and pork and other European dishes, while much Oriental food was included in the menu, including some very dainty dishes. We were given thorough attention and utmost courtesy.
After we returned from the feast everything was taken off the table, and it was laid out again in full Chinese style with plenty of poultry and pork (two Chinese favourites), and, of course, a great variety of their own national foods, also liquor. The leading Chinese of the district then attacked the “spread” and there was much merriment amongst them. Everyone then adjourned to the sports ground where some novel turns were given by young Chinese acrobats.
But the most exciting event was the exploding of hundreds of packets of crackers of all sizes. Several poles were erected with wire stays, and both the poles and stays had packets of crackers hung or tied on them from top to bottom with a continuous connection of wick. Lighted at one end, it started a continuous explosion of 4,000 packets and at the same time a dozen men were throwing up lighted packets amounting to over twenty cases of crackers. The crowd appeared to get much amusement out of this event. There was a tremendous pandemonium while it lasted.
The great majority of the Chinese population wore neither boots nor shoes, but some wore leather sandals which they made themselves. Although I always had boots to wear, I seldom wore them. I preferred to copy the Chinamen, and either went about bare footed or wore sandals which I also made myself. As snakes were numerous near the river, there was always an element of risk going about bare-footed, and my toes encountered many hard and painful knocks. Nevertheless the number of snake bite cases on bare feet was surprisingly small.
While on the Palmer we lived in three different bungalow houses, and as each was built on a hillside, the roof almost touched the ground on the excavated side. So it was that snakes managed to get under the roof and crawl along the rafter; this happened on several occasions, and once, one of the reptiles, measuring seven feet, fell into the house tank and was drowned. Most of the snakes seen measured six to ten feet in length, and death adders killed some of our chooks.
As there was no school within five miles of our home we children lost five and a half years of schooling. Father taught us reading, writing, and arithmetic, but being a very busy man, he was unable to spare time to give us further attention. Frequently his advice and services were sought after by big companies in consultations, drawing plans, supervising the erection of additions to big plants etc.
Although we had no playmates, time passed pleasantly with our regular work about the house. Sometimes we carried all the water for the house from the river, Chainman fashion with a bamboo.
Then there was “bogeying” (native name for bathing or skinny dipping), boating and fishing, prospecting for gold in the gullies with a panning-off dish, and bird nesting. We had great fun disturbing the bower-birds by displacing the wonderful collection of small articles in their bowers, built in the scrub on the river flats. On the bird’s return, they would replace every article we displaced to exactly where it was before.
I did a lot of walking, my record being 24 miles in a day at 11 years of age. It was often an easier task to walk a journey than to find a horse to ride. I well remember being sent on the long journey from the Lone Star to the town on an urgent message, a distance of 28 miles return. I made a very early start next morning, hoping to break my previous record of 24 miles in a day, but somehow I was late leaving on my return journey and when darkness closed in on me, I got on the wrong track within 8 miles of home, and wandered about in the darkness for some time. Then I saw a camp fire in the distance. Then I remembered that a prospector and his wife were camped somewhere in the locality, and so I made a direct course through the bush towards the fire, meanwhile fearing that it might be an Aborigines fire.
The prospector and his wife got a scare in the darkness thinking the blacks were coming in on them, when their dogs barked savagely at me. I in turn was scared of their dogs. However, after the excitement calmed down, I received a cordial invitation to have tea and stay the night. As I was now right on the edge of very dangerous “wild black fella” country and had another four miles to travel to reach home, besides feeling very tired, I stayed with them for the night and forgot about breaking the record.