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The Life and Times of Sir George Grey, K.C.B.

Chapter V. — First Exploration

page 22

Chapter V.
First Exploration.

"O'er mountain routes
And over wild wolds clouded up with brush,
And cut with marshes perilously deep—
So went they forth at dawn; at eve the sun,
That rose behind them as they journeyed out,
Was firing with his nether rim a range
Of unknown mountains that like ramparts towered
Full in their front; and his last glances fell
Jnto the gloomy forest's eastern glades
In golden gleams."

Lieutenant Grey landed neat Hanover Bay on December 3rd, 1837. He and a small party went ashore to find water, but the nature of the country made it so difficult to proceed, and the heat was so terrible, that they lost three dogs, two of whom died on the spot where they fell exhausted. After staggering on over rocks, that seemed like ruined mountains, for a whole day and a great part of the night, the men came to a halt on the sea beach.

Grey and Corporal Coles followed the coast for some distance further, but were stopped by an arm of the sea, about 500 yards wide. It was necessary for the safety of the party that this should be crossed, as the ship was to meet them further along the coast. The tide was ebbing out to sea with tremendous swiftness. At this place the difference between high and low tide is 38 feet, and many portions of comparatively high land are completely submerged at flood tide. Coles was unfit to attempt the swimming of the stream. The presence of hostile natives on the opposite shore made it an extremely dangerous undertaking. But the lives of all the party page 23were in peril, and Grey plunged into the current, at first holding his pistol above the water with one hand, but was soon obliged to use both hands in making way against the rushing water, which would have carried him out to sea, He reached the other side, exhausted, naked, and wounded from clambering over the sharp rocks. He heard the shouts of the savages, as they answered each other, from every side. Taking refuge from the natives in a cave, he was overcome with exhaustion, and fell asleep. Finally, he was awakened and taken off, towards morning, by a boat's crew who were searching for him.

The rest of the month was occupied in forming a camping ground, as headquarters and base of operations. After landing a large supply of provisions, the schooner, which had brought them, sailed for Timor, to fetch horses and fresh stores. Meanwhile, Grey, with three or four men, explored the country to some distance from the Prince Regent river, but in an almost parallel course.

Finding indications of the proximity of large numbers of natives, they took all possible precautions to avoid being surprised. Grey thus writes of the situation:—"In the event of anything happening to one of the three, our return to the main party might be considerably impeded, if not altogether prevented; and although from the superiority of our weapons over theirs, I entertained but little doubt of the issue of any contest we might be forced into, the calls of humanity as well as of personal interest, warned me to do my utmost to avoid an affray."*

The first actual meeting with these savages occurred a few days later. No further signs of the natives had been seen, and the three Englishmen had somewhat relaxed in their watchfulness. Compelled by a sudden and violent storm to seek shelter they doubled back about a hundred yards to the left of their former track. What followed is best described by another quotation from the work just mentioned: "Scarcely had we reached these rocks, and sheltered ourselves under the over-hanging projections, when I saw a savage approaching with a spear in his right hand, and a bundle of similar weapons in his left; he was followed by a party of thirteen others, and with them was a small dog—not of the kind common to this page 24country. The men were curiously painted for war, red being the predominant colour, and each man carried several spears, a throwing stick and a club. Their chief was in front, and distinguished by his hair being of a dark red colour from some composition with which it was smeared; the others followed him close, noiselessly, and with stealthy pace, one by one, whilst he, crouching almost to the earth, pricked off our trail.

"We remained concealed and motionless until they had all passed, but the moment they came to where we had turned off, they discovered our retreat, and raised loud shouts of triumph, as, forming themselves into a semicircle, they advanced upon us, brandishing their spears, and bounding from rock to rock. It was in vain that I made friendly signs and gestures, they still closed upon us, and to my surprise I heard their war-cry answered by a party who were coming over the high rocks in our rear, which I had flattered nwself protected us in that direction.

"Our situation was now so critical that I was compelled to assume a hostile attitude. I therefore shouted in answer to their cries, and desiring the men to fire one at a time, if I gave the word, I advanced rapidly, at the same time firing one barrel over their heads. This had the desired effect. With the exception of one more resolute than the rest, they fled on all sides, and he, finding his efforts unavailing, soon followed their example.

"Feeling, however, that the neighbourhood we were in was a dangerous one, and being anxious to know whether the party I had left at the encampment—only six in number—had seen these natives, I hurried our march, although the rain fell in torrents all day, and we that night made the camp."

Christmas Day was spent at the camp, all dining together "in a little booth made of boughs, which we dressed up as gaily as we could. I could not but feel considerable pleasure in seeing the happy countenances of the men ranged round the rough plank that formed our table."

On New Year's Day a ceremony like that which marks a similar festival in China took place. With the first ray of light Grey commenced to plant, in favourable situations, seeds of all the most useful vegetables and fruits he had brought with him—a valuable New Year's gift to the country. When the schooner returned with page 25the horses, great difficulty was experienced in bringing them to the camp, owing to the steep and broken nature of the country; and the undertaking was not without its perils. On the 29th of January we can picture Lieutenant Grey sitting on the head of a pack horse which had been knocked down by a projecting rock, while passing along a narrow track on the face of a cliff, at the edge of a precipice 150 feet deep. Those who have had no acquaintance with such perils read with wonder that even at that moment of anxiety and personal danger Grey found leisure to appreciate the beauty of the scene around, and the romantic situation. Happily, the adventure led to no serious results. By cutting the girths of the saddle, and allowing the pack to fall over the precipice, a chance to recover itself was given to the pony, which then regained its footing

When the depot had been stocked, the party set out on the serious business of the expedition. The map accompanying Grey's account of the explorations shows very little progress at first, for the ponies were weak from exposure and unaccustomed food. On February 4th two miles was the distance accomplished. The rainy season had set in, and the gullies and passes of the hills were flooded. The consequence was that, after ten days of most fatiguing journeys, during which seven ponies died, and several of the remaining nineteen became weak and suffered injuries, the party had only just reached the high lands on the other side of the stony ranges, not more than a day's march if the proper route could have been taken.

On February 11th, when they were in high hopes of reaching a tolerably level country, Grey, Coles, and another man were attacked by a large body of natives.

The explorers were totally unprepared for the onslaught, although vague cries had resounded from different points, and been echoed from great distances earlier in the day. These sounds were so indistinct in character that the little party decided they were not human voices. One of the men being absent rather longer than usual on his task of notching the bark of certain trees to serve as a land-mark, Grey grew slightly anxious. To quote his own words: —

"I called loudly to him, but received no answer, and therefore passed round some rocks which hid the tree from my view to look after him. Suddenly I saw him close to me, breathless, and speech-page 26less with terror, and a native with his spear fixed in a throwing stick, in full pursuit of him. Immediately numbers of other natives burst upon my sight; each tree, each rock, seemed to give forth its black denizens, as if by enchantment.

"A moment before the most solemn silence pervaded these woods; we deemed that not a human being moved within miles of us; and now they rang with savage and ferocious yells, and fierce armed men crowded round us on every side, bent on our destruction.

"There was something very terrible in so complete and sudden a surprise. Certain death appeared to stare us in the face; and from the determined and resolute air of our opponents I immediately guessed that the man who had first seen them, instead of boldly standing his ground, and calling to Coles and myself for assistance, had at once, like a coward, run away, thus giving the natives confidence in themselves, and a contempt for us: and this conjecture I afterwards ascertained was perfectly true.

"We were now fairly engaged for our lives; escape was impossible, and surrender to such enemies out of the question.

"As soon as I saw the natives around me I tired one barrel of my gun over the head of him who was pursuing my dismayed attendant, hoping the report would have checked his further career. He proved to be the tall man seen at the camp, painted with white. My shot stopped him not; he still closed on us, and his spear whistled by my head; but whilst he was fixing another in his throwing-stick a ball from my second barrel struck him in the arm, and it fell powerless by his side. He now retired behind a rock, but the others still pressed on.

"I now made the two men retire behind some neighbouring rocks, which formed a kind of protecting parapet along our front and right flank, whilst I took post on the left. Both my barrels were now exhausted; and I desired the other two to fire separately whilst I was reloading; but to my horror, Coles, who was armed with my rifle, reported hurriedly that the cloth case with which he had covered it for protection against rain had become entangled. His services were thus lost at a most critical moment, whilst trying to tear off the lock cover; and the other man was so paralysed with fear that he could do nothing but cry out. 'Oh, God! sir, look at them; look at them!'

page 27

"In the meantime, our opponents pressed more closely round; their spears kept whistling by us, and our fate seemed inevitable. The light-coloured man, spoken of at the camp, now appeared to direct their movements. He sprang forward to a rock not more than thirty yards from us, and posting himself behind it, threw a spear, with such deadly force and aim, that had I not drawn myself forward by a sudden jerk, it must have gone through my body, and as it was, it touched my back in flying by. Another well directed spear, from a different hand, would have pierced me in the breast, but in the motion I made to avoid it, it struck upon the stock of my gun, of which it carried away a portion by its force.

"All this took place in a few seconds of time, and no shot had been fired but by me. I now recognized in the light coloured man an old enemy who had led on the former attack against me on the 22nd of December. By his cries and gestures he now appeared to be urging the others to surround and press on us, which they were rapidly doing.

"I saw now that but one thing could be done to save our lives, so I gave Coles my gun to complete the reloading, and took the rifle which he had not yet disengaged from the cover. I tore it off, and stepping out from behind our parapet, advanced to the rock which covered my light-coloured opponent. I had not made two steps in advance when three spears struck me nearly at the same moment, one of which was thrown by him. I felt severely wounded in the hip, but knew not exactly where the others had struck me. The force of all knocked me down, and made me very giddy and faint, but as I fell I heard the savage yells of the natives' delight and triumph. These recalled me to myself, and roused my momentary rage and indignation. I made a strong effort, rallied, and in a moment was on my legs; the spear was wrenched from my wound, and my haversack drawn closely over it, that neither my own party nor the natives might see it, and I advanced again steadily to the rock. The man became alarmed, and threatened me with his club, yelling most furiously; but as I neared the rock, behind which all but his head and arm was covered, he fled towards an adjoining one, dodging dexterously, according to the native manner of confusing an assailant and avoiding the cast of his spear; but he was scarcely uncovered in his flight, when my rifle ball page 28pierced him through the back, between the shoulders, and he fell heavily on his face, with a deep groan.

"The effect was electrical. The tumult of the combat had ceased. Not another spear was thrown, not another yell was uttered. Native after native dropped away, and noiselessly disappeared. I stood alone with the wretched savage dying before me, and my two men close to me behind the rocks, in the attitude of deep attention; and as I looked round upon the dark rocks and forests now suddenly silent and lifeless, but for the sight of the unhappy being who lay on the ground before me, I could have thought that the whole affair had been a horrid dream.

"For a second or two I gazed on the scene, and then returned to my former position. I took my gun from. Coles, which he had not yet finished loading, and gave him the rifle. I then went up to the other man, and gave him two balls to hold, but when I placed them in his hands they rolled upon the earth. He could not bold them, for he was completely paralysed with terror, and they fell through his fingers; the perspiration streamed from every pore; he was ghastly pale, and trembled from head to foot; his limbs refused their functions; his eyes were so fixed in the direction in which the natives tad disappeared, that I could draw his attention to nothing else, and he still continued repeating, 'Good God, sir! look at them —look at them!'

"The natives had all now concealed themselves, but they were not far off. Presently the wounded man made an effort to raise himself slowly from the ground. Some of them instantly came from behind the rocks and trees, without their spears, crowding round him with the greatest tenderness and solicitude. Two passed their arms round him, his head drooped senselessly upon his chest, and, with hurried steps, the whole party wound their way through the forest, their black forms being scarcely distinguishable from the charred trunks of the trees, as they receded in the distance.

"To have fired upon the other natives, when they returned for the wounded man, would, in my belief, have been an unnecessary piece of barbarity. I already felt deeply the death of him I had been compelled to shoot; and I believe that when a fellow-creature falls by one's hand, even in a single combat, rendered unavoidable page 29in self-defence, it is impossible not sincerely to regret the force of so cruel a necessity."

In these days, when the world rings with the fame of explorers whose progress through savage lands has been marked by havoc and desolation, we hear little about their poignancy of regret at shedding a fellow-creature's blood. All Christendom bows down and worships adventurers, whose hands are red, not with the blood of one naked savage, but of hundreds—and these slain not under the "cruel necessity" of self-defence, but with mere brutal disregard for human life. Grey wished to win the confidence and the goodwill of the native tribes, to teach them to welcome Europeans as friends, and to bring benefits and prosperity to all the uncivilized races with whom he came in contact. He strove to inspire affection, gratitude, and trust towards the invading white man. Modern pioneers of civilization too frequently succeed in arousing in barbaric hearts the sentiments of fear and hatred. So anxious was Captain Grey to show the natives that he felt no ill-will towards them, that, weak and wounded as he was, he saw that the spears and other native weapons, which were lying about in abundance, were left untouched. The only one he took was that which had wounded him in the thigh.

With the assistance of his comrades, Grey managed to get back within two miles of the main party, whom he had left in order to find a path suitable for the horses to follow.

In crossing a stream, the leader strained his wounded hip severely, and, on reaching the opposite shore, fell heavily, and was unable to rise again. Coles went on alone to the encampment. Within an hour Mr. Walker had reached Grey's side, and very shortly after the rest of the party arrived, bringing tents and stores. The mind of the young explorer, during that hour of loneliness and pain, was filled with memories of home and the realization of the vivid contrast presented by his present circumstances. "I sat upon the rocky edge of a cool, clear brook," he says, "supported by a small tree. The sun shone out brightly; the dark forest was alive with birds and insects. On such scenery I had loved to meditate when a boy, but now how changed I was—wounded, fatigued, and wandering in an unknown land. In momentary expectation of being attacked, my finger was on the trigger, my gun ready to be raised, my eyes page 30and ears busily engaged in detecting the slightest sounds, that I might defend a life which I at that moment, believed was ebbing with my blood away. The loveliness of nature was around me, the sun rejoicing in his cloudless career; the birds were filling the woods with their songs, and my friends far away and unapprehensive of my condition, whilst I felt that I was dying there."

For more than a fortnight he was unable to proceed any further. During the first night, while he was lying awake, and suffering from his wounds, more than the pain and weariness he felt the mournful cries and wailing with which the unseen natives filled the air, lamenting their chief, the strong and the brave.

When he was a little better they proceeded on their course, Grey being carried by one of the ponies. This mode of travel was very exhausting, and his anxiety to be on his feet once more, and able to seek for the best track, no doubt retarded his recovery. Following a westerly direction, they soon sighted a noble river, which Grey called the Glenelg, after his friend the Secretary of State. This was on the 3rd of March. From that time till the end of the month their way led through, marshy and swampy ground, and they often had to retrace their steps in order to avoid the numerous streams which poured into the river.

On March 26th they discovered some remarkable paintings in a cave, and during the next few days found several similar works of savage art. On the 31st Grey decided to turn back, as the men's strength was rapidly diminishing, the stock of provisions getting very low, and his own state of health becoming critical. A small party, led by Lieutenant Lushington, was, however, sent forward on foot to see if it were practicable to proceed. They returned on April 3rd with the report that the country was perfectly impassable for horses. The original camp in Hanover Bay was reached again on April 15th. They found H.M.S. Beagle on the coast, and the narrative of their adventures was eagerly listened to Turning the different animals still alive loose, to wander into the bush, the explorers sailed away in their little schooner to Perth.

After the lapse of more than fifty years it is not easy to realize exactly what we owe to the first explorers of new territory. The earliest information of the existence of mountains such as the Stephen page 31Range and Mount Lvell, of rivers such as the Glenelg, of fertile districts and stony deserts in North-Western Australia, was given to the world by Captain Grey. The facts he observed and published in connection with the nature of the soil; the characteristics of the rivers; the peculiarities of the climate; the various forms of animal and vegetable life; the language, customs, and achievements of the natives—all these were of vivid interest at the time, and of enduring value as reliable contributions to the sum of human knowledge.

* "Journal of Two Expeditions in North-West and Western Australia." Vol. L, p. 105. By George Grey.