We look far back into other years, to the days when the shore of what is now Queensland was untrodden by the feet of white man, when wild in woods the naked savage ran, before sailors from England, or Dutch or French or dark Iberius, had loomed with their white-winged ships on the blue horizon of the vast Pacific. The whole great Australian continent yet lay as it had lain for measureless ages, far beyond the range of the knowledge of civilized man.
And through all these ages seemingly long in Time, but next to nothing in Eternity, the great Australian continent slumbered peacefully, the shores washed by the surrounding oceans, its bosom covered by primeval forests in which the birds sang, and the wild winds played Aeolian melodies as they do today, and shall continue to sing and play while trees and birds remain.
Then arises the question, to which we shall probably never have an answer – was the Aboriginal here in the days of Egyptian, Assyrian, and Grecian civilizations, or was he here thousands of years before these ancient civilizations ever came into existence?
Was the aboriginal throwing his woomera spear, and boomerang in the days of the Flying Mede – his shaftless broken bow, The fiery Greek – his red pursuing spear?
Or far beyond those Medsian and Grecian warriors, beyond all annals of recorded civilizations, Busiris may have been marshalling his Memphian cavalry, and the first Pharaoh driving his brazen war chariots, when the aboriginals were netting dugong in Moreton Bay, singing corroborees on the shores of Stradbroke, or hunting wallabies, on the Enoggera Ranges.
The later Gerard Krofft, for many years chief scientist and director of the Sydney Museum, said he got a fossil human tooth from the Wellington caves, evidently contemporaneous with the Diprotodon. If the aboriginal was here with the Diprotodon then he was here many a thousand years before the appearance of any civilisations recorded in human history.
When his time of final departure has come, and it is not far off, all the memorials of his existence will be the spears and shields, woomeras, nullas, boomerangs, and dilly bags in our museums, and when they have decayed in the natural course of time, the last lone surviving relics of the vanished race will be the stone tomahawks.
And that aboriginal race which we have displaced by the sole aid of the brutal law of the strongest, in reality, represents, with infinite pathos and awful significance, the fatal and inexorable and humiliating mutability of all human existence.
They have no storied urns or animated busts, no marble temples, no Pantheon or Coliseums, no wondrous halls of Karnak, no temples of Isis or Jupiter, no Pyramids of Cheops, or Cyphrones, or Mycerinus, but they have outlived all the ancient architectural races, although their camps were mostly constructed with “roof of air and walls of wind,” and their dead bodies went back into mother earth, and vanished in oblivion.
And now we shall, with the fairy aid of fancy, sketch a picture of the Brisbane River and Moreton Bay, before the white man appeared upon the sylvan scene. There is no need to draw upon the reports of Oxley or Lockyer, or any other early writers. The Brisbane River presented almost exactly the same appearance as every other river on the East Coast, from the Hunter River, to the Pascoe River, in the Cape York Peninsula.
Where Brisbane stands today, was covered mostly by scrub, very thick on the site of the Botanic Gardens, where the tulip trees, “Maginnchin,” gave the aboriginal name to the Brisbane River. All the footage of South Brisbane was thick scrub, through which flowed three or four small creeks, draining the swamps at the back, and all the northern slopes of Highgate Hill. In the recent sewerage excavations in South Brisbane, the workmen had too good reason to know the tracks of those dirty little creeks of black mangrove mud.
In North Brisbane the largest creek started about the old Grammar School, ran down and formed a waterhole, partly, on the site of the new Town Hall, and ran thence down Adelaide Street, and turned thence across Queen Street, and into the river at the present Creek Street ferry. It was a dirty, muddy, mangrove creek, crossing Queen Street, with an overhead footbridge when I first visited Brisbane, in 1870. In that creek, a brother of Tom Petrie, a splendid young fellow, was drowned, and also one of John Petrie’s children.
Where the fig tree stands today, at the corner of Creek and Elizabeth Streets, there was a waterhole where the boys used to “boogie,” which is a pure aboriginal word for bathing. A small creek ran down Albert Street into the river at the Alice Street ferry, through a most unlovely mangrove swamp known to all the early settlers as “Frogs’ Hollow.”
There were patches of scrub in all the ravines of Spring Hill, and thick forest and undergrowth covered the rest. Victoria Park was open forest, and the creek there was a favourite camping ground of the blacks. Thick forest and undergrowth, and small patches of scrub, covered all Fortitude Valley and down to Breakfast Creek, the “Yuoggera” of the blacks, where there was a splendid scrub covering all the area at the mouth of the creek on the south side down to the edge of the water at the point the blacks called “Garranbinbilla,” the name of the vine interlacing the framework of their camps.
Fraser, the botanist, in 1828, when he came from Sydney to fix the site of our Botanic Gardens, said of Breakfast Creek: this place is noted for its gigantic timber and the variety of its plants. There he got the first specimen of the bean tree, the Moreton Bay chestnut, Castanospernum Australis, and he also found a native cemetery, represented by hollow logs filled with the bones of blacks of all sizes.
Here and there the blacks crossing the river or fishing in bark canoes, gondol, made from broad sheets of stringy bark, jeelgann. Active athletes climb trees with the vine and the stone tomahawk, in search of “coopee” the possum, and “cooroy” and “Boorabee,” the native bear. In the forest a band of hunters are in pursuit of “gnoorooin” the emu, and “gooraman” the kangaroo. In an open pocket of the forest a band of boys are practicing with small spears and nullas, at whirling discs of bark.
Young men are throwing the return boomerang, and a group of old men are seated in the shade, discussing the deeds of their early days, and watching the boomerang throwing with critical, eyes. A band of fishermen with the heart shaped towrow nets, are closing in a circle , on a shoal of mullet, on the sand beach of Mooroo-Mooroolbin, where the seawall stands today.
Groups of women are weaving striped baskets from the pink and green swamp rushes, “Yekkabin,” or making reed necklaces,calgirrpin, while the young girls are bathing in merry bands in the river. Everywhere, joyous, wild, free life, man and beast, and bird and tree, in primeval innocence. Man himself in the midst of peace and plenty, free from any sort of toil, and radiant with the physical health and vigour which make the mere daily life a perennial source of joy.
We shall step into a canoe, “coondoo,” and “gondol,” and paddle down the river. On both sides is the magnificent primeval forest, untouched by the hand of man. Tall, dark, majestic kauri pines tower above the other vegetation. Splendid staghorn and elkhorn ferns cling to the stems and branches of many trees. Glorious orchids are flowering on the trees and rocks.
The air is heavy with the sensuous odour of many flowers. Flocks of gorgeously plumaged and noisy parrots, "beearr," revel among the bloom of the forest wattles, or the blossoms of the beantrees. Groups of solemn pelicans, “joong-wira,” stand on the sandbanks, or fish in crescent lines.
Ducks rise before us in hundreds, and noble swans, “neerung,” rise from the water, and leave a four line track with feet and pinions on the surface. The mangroves bend with the weight of countless blue plumaged, red billed, porphyrio. Very beautiful is that river border of dwarf and giant bright and dark green mangroves, the guardians of the banks.
Black cockatoos, “cararra,” with their strong beaks, tear open the dead wood for the white grubs, and great flocks of white cockatoos, “kyarra,” whiten the tree tops, or pass overhead to some feeding ground. Great black eagles, “boodarr,” circle overhead, and a swift sparrow hawk, with amazing speed, comes with a rush from a tree top, and strikes a black duck, “narr,” dead into the river, severing the jugular vein.
In the dark scrub, the turkey, “wahgoon,” watches for her young one’s birth from the womb of the mounded nest; and the speckled wonga, “goolooin,” repeats his monotonous “coo, coo, coo,” from some umbrageous bower, where his mate sits coyly beside him, and probably goes to sleep.
Grey old bears, “Cooroy,” crouch in the forks of trees, and thousands of flying foxes, “geerammon,” hang pendulous from a hundred trees. A wild man stealthily climbs a tree and stabs some of them with a 16ft three pronged spear. The wild women dive in the lagoons for lily roots, “jimboor,” dig yams, “lahn,” in the scrub, or pull the edible fern roots, “bangwal,” from the swamps.