The eucalyptus was growing darker in colour. Leaves and limbs stood nearly black, giving the tree sharp definition even against the darkening storm-cloud behind. The swirling nimbo-cumulus filled the sky almost down to the horizon where a small sliver of grey light brightened the line of charcoal sea. Smaller trees bent to the will of the winds and the foliage of the big tree was ruffled, as if the tree tried to stay aloof from the coming storm.
The sandy path seemed to lead directly into the surf. Tousle-headed low scrub filled both sides of the path. A few brittle twigs cracked and fell to the ground. The gathering darkness brought with it the heaviness of moisture in the air.
The watching warrior felt within for any signs of life nearby. There were no magpies singing or seagulls squawking. The animal kingdom was silent as if there were not enough breath for voice. They were invisible, too: Bunyitch sensed snakes huddled in holes, possums and birds sheltered under the umbrellas of the eucalypt foliage, wading birds and wallabies pressed into thickets of mallee. The path was evidence of people, but they, along with their fellow creatures, were for now invisible, and silent. Bunyitch could not feel any of his mob with his mind.
The trees, though, knew that such compressed energy would some time be released, and they too waited.
Far off, where the great roiling cloud met the black line of the sea, and where the small sliver of light brightened the world, there was movement; movement contrary to the movement of wind and cloud. It appeared first as a little white dot bobbing westwards along the horizon. It appeared to be skating the line, neither part of the sky nor part of the sea.
As Bunyitch focussed and waited for the seeing to come, as he had been taught, he could make out a shape – a thick black horizontal line surmounted by squares of white. At this distance the shape was smaller than his fingernail.
‘A wadullah canoe,’ he thought, and worried. This was the first one that Bunyitch had seen, and despite his stillness he could feel the worry of the elders almost as clearly as if sitting around the fire and listening to them discuss the coming of the ghosts. The ghosts on board just one of their ships like the one now labouring in the bay numbered more than the total of the handful of family groups that comprised his mob. And they had seen half a dozen of these big canoes in the bay and off the wild sea coast since the last moon.
If these ghosts were allowed to come ashore to stay, none of the elders could tell the impact their arrival would make on the Wardan people; but there would be an impact, and a heavy one. The elders had pointed out to Bunyitch that their canoes were made so large not by magic, but by human skill. His people could use that skill and share their own. The ghosts seemed to have little sight or hearing and could not sense each other across the country. The elders believed these were skills they could fruitfully trade. On the other hand, the Wardan had heard from beyond the far boundaries of Noongar country that where the ghosts had come ashore in other places they had taken women and caused wars.
Bunyitch was indistinguishable from the trunk of the tree next to him, lightly leaning on two spears, his khaki heel pressed against the black skin of the side of his knee. He could stand guard here for ever.
A feeling of alien distress crowded out any sense of friends. Looking out into the bay, Bunyitch watched as the lines of the brigantine resolved themselves. Huge waves were throwing themselves at the ship, some tearing at the great sails. The warrior could see the tiny ghosts running back and forth on the deck, and he felt their cries. Any sound from this distance was drowned out by a large crack, followed by a sheet of white lightning and the deep boom which made the warrior’s thighs tremble.
All seemed to explode as the trees wildly bent and swayed, rain dropped like hard stones, and the cloud turned itself inside and out again. The warrior knew the power of these storms across the bay, but he himself was unmoved. He looked to where the horizon had been a moment before and waited – calmly amongst the agitation of the storm – for his seeing to return.
The boat was now closer and heaving horribly in the huge waves. Bunyitch closed his eyes and felt for the power of the storm. The wind, which had started in the west, now turned savagely south and waves like huge rolls of darkness carried the boat haplessly towards the warrior.
The wadullah canoe seemed to be racing towards him. The ghosts now were screaming, running, kneeling, and grabbing one another and the rigging and stays, their terror hitting against Bunyitch’s calm mind like a white wall. The canoe seemed one moment to be travelling faster than the monster wave following behind it. Next moment, the whole ship had turned at right angles and was barrelling under the curl of the wave like a surfer bent on earning a ten for technique.
The warrior closed his eyes again and felt inward. He made a great effort. When he opened his eyes again, no wadullah canoe was to be seen. It had not broken up in the surf or on the hard beach. It was not among the waves subsiding after the peak of the storm. He had sent it back to where it came from.
First published in the Busselton-Dunsborough Mail, June 21, 2017
We ‘wedulah’ (whitefellas) can do better than complain about the choice of Gaywal for the representative statue of a Noongar in Busselton. We might instead take a solemn moment to remember that after Gaywal speared George Layman, a posse of settlers, including humanitarian John Bussell, hunted down Noongars indiscriminately and according to the Perth Gazette of the time killed ‘at least seven Wardandi’.
The settlers were unwilling to share land. Under John Bussell’s leadership, they were generous to the local Aboriginal people in every other respect, except the land needed for their mission of settlement. John Bussell seems to have been genuinely baffled that the first people did not immediately see the benefits of colonialization and jump at them. The Wardandi, on the other hand, were equally baffled at newcomers who would take all the land and refuse to share the necessities it provided.
The tensions were inevitable. Vernon and Alfred Bussell grew vexed because the Noongars continued to trespass to hunt kangaroos. The hungry Noongars took cattle and speared horses. The Bussells started taking hostages, including women and ‘a little girl’. The dispute escalated until a Bussell servant was killed by the Noongars. According to E.O.G. Shann’s 1926 Cattle Chosen, nine Wardandi men and women were shot dead in retaliation.
Isn’t it time we ‘wedulah’ accepted both that the Bussells and the Laymans deserve honour for their noble achievements in settling the Vasse and also that lethal misunderstandings arose between our forebears and the Noongar people? It’s a sobering history, but to ignore it is an ongoing disrespecting of the first people. Acknowledging this past seems to me essential if we are to arrive at reconciliation and healing.