This is a true tale about some black people who lived in this country before any white people set foot in it--long before.
Unlike the other stories which are legends that have actually been told as legends, this was not told regarding one specific happening nor one particularised person nor persons. It was done by many. It may be called a type story. Just what is said the people thought was really thought by many, and just what is said the imagined people did was really done by many.
In that way it is brought before readers what was thought and what was done, though Mulgani is created to bring it all.
Read first what a tribe was. It was a very large number of people who were broken up into many groups, big and little. These groups thought themselves a family, and the names they had were family names. We whites call just a father and mother and their children a family. The aborigines considered that all children belonged as much to all the uncles and aunts and cousins as to the actual father and mother, and uncles and aunts were those men and women whose brothers and sisters the actual father and mother might have married, seeing that they belonged to the proper totems. So their idea of family was much wider than ours.
Mulgani was a pretty little aboriginal baby. She was born hundreds and hundreds of years ago.
Let me now tell you how to speak of the black people. You should say "aborigine" when you mean a person, but "aboriginal" when you mean the kind of person. For the bigger people who read this book I will tell that the word "aborigine" is a noun and the word "aboriginal" is an adjective. Therefore we say that a story (for instance) is an aboriginal story and the first teller of it was an aborigine.
Mulgani was a Katungal. Her people lived away down on the South Coast of New South Wales, at Twofold Bay. An atlas here would be a useful book to have beside you as you read, for in it you can see the names of the places.
Now there was to be a great ceremony at a pretty spot near where is now the Excelsior Coal Mine at Thirroul.
Mulgani's father heard about it. A messenger had arrived at Twofold Bay and he brought with him a piece of stick about a foot long and about an inch in diameter. It was a piece of waratah stem and on it were cut some marks. Some of these marks were just circles cut right round it, and between the circles little cuts were made that looked like four-legged stools. Then again there were spots or dots. The marks were a strange written language, for they could be deciphered by a few men of the people wherever the stick was shown. To be a messenger was no easy task, for before he could have his intentions understood, and before he could reach the readers of whatever tribe or group he wished to visit, he ran the risk of being misunderstood and perhaps speared. Of course he carried weapons with him. But when he came in sight of a camp he waited quietly, generally sitting on a log or on the ground. Then when he was seen he threw his spears to the ground. After being received he was allowed to go back and recover the spears. No one of the visited people were ever known to steal such spears. It is known, though, that messengers have been killed by mistake or mischance or for some serious reason and their weapons remained where they were laid down, and were found there long years afterwards.
Mulgani was only a few weeks old. She was not yet even black. She was a dark brown colour, but the real black that commenced under her fingernails was spreading, and soon she would be as black as any aborigine could be.
Her father and mother were watching her very closely, for they were anxious, not wishing her to be too long becoming as black as they were. She had been, as was usual, kept covered with fat-the fat of the wombat if such animals were native to the district-and powdered charcoal. Her aunts saw to that, and it was done for two reasons: first that she might appear black, and secondly that she might be put out in the sun and burnt by it without it hurting her tender skin. The wind, too, would have chapped her, but the covering prevented it.
Now her father was very fond of flowers. He had made many trips to the mountains that lie away to the west of Twofold Bay-the Muniong Range we call them-and he had seen all the trees and shrubs and plants of the bush. He had picked some and had brought them back to Mulgani's mother before Mulgani was born, and the mother wished that she could go to the mountains and get some for herself.
And now this messenger had come with the message-stick to tell the Karungals about the big ceremony, and although Mulgani was only a few days old, the father and mother intended to go to it.
But the father had to attend a night school for a few nights.
He had not ever been taught how to prepare Styphelia berries or Geebungs (called Persoonia by the botanists) and Astrolomas or Ground berries. These berries were often eaten raw, but because Mulgani's father had been told that he must not eat them unless they were cooked he had never eaten them at all. He got quite enough of other foods that were not forbidden him. Of course they were mostly cooked too. Now that he was with many others going on a very long journey, taking his wife and little child, it was considered that there might be some difficulty in obtaining enough food, therefore no article must be neglected, and there were certain ways for all the people to live, and those ways were taught them at the proper corroborees. If they were not treated correctly there was the danger of magic being in them. Of course we can see that the magic was only the poison that so many fruits have, and which is nullified by some sort of preparation. This idea of magic was not of a lot of primitive people with no sense nor reason at all. The people were primitive, but they had sense and knowledge, and there is a basis for every thought and every custom. No doubt some time away back in the ages a blackfellow was made sick by eating the green geebung, and that happening was ascribed simply to magic. We must not belittle a blackfellow because he speaks of magic. Why, see this:-Only a little while ago I heard a woman-a white woman-say that waratahs should riot be kept in a house because they brought bad luck. What is that but blackfellow's magic. And for no reason at all. No one ever became unlucky, no one ever died, or was made sick, by the waratah. There is no basis for the idea. Then that white woman was far more ignorant than the blacks in that respect. That some flowers do make us sick is well known. If we do not call the reason magic, then it is because we have found out that it is the superabundance of pollen that is the cause of the sickness. The wattle flower is one of those in which there is danger because of its great quantity of pollen.
Anyhow tiny Mulgani's father was very anxious to go to the school, and he was very pleased when he found that the king had ordered such a school to be held. Everybody of the group that lived around Twofold Bay could attend.
Many schools were secret, and only the teachers and the special scholars and those who had already been to such schools were allowed to be present. Such schools were those at which things were taught and ceremonies were enacted that might be described as sacred. And all schools were termed by white people "corroborees," and for a long time they were thought to be nothing more than dances. There were dances, too, and they also are called corroborees.
After the school those who were to travel to the great ceremony set out.
The way was long and in places difficult. Mulgani was often carried by one or other of her aunts.
Sometimes the party was right on the beach, sometimes on the sandhills and sometimes in the scrub. But never did they go too far from the sight and the sound of the waves. On the sand-hills there were very pretty flowers-the Mesembryanthemum, a very brilliant and dainty vine and just at the bases the big yellow Hibbertia, and gleaming purple masses of Hardenbergia.
The Malelucas were in blossom and the sweet scent that they give out was a great pleasure to the travellers, though of course Mulgani was far too young to notice such a thing as that.
They came to the Shoalhaven River. The party travelled up it on the high rocky sides for many miles. Then they came across a camp of people of their own tribe, but of course a different group. Here they were welcomed and given the best of food. It was better than any they had got since starting out.
While they rested in this camp Mulgani's father went out and gathered the Styphelia berries and the Astrolomas, and what he did not cook he put in the dilly bag that was carried by his wife. It was delightful to see how the wallabies were cooked and how the best parts were given to those who should by right of birth or age have them.
The travellers stayed there for about a week, and during that time every day Mulgani was put on the ground out in the sun. She was quite happy, and her father and mother showed with pride that she was now all black.
Many of the people of this group joined the travellers. They had heard of the intended ceremony and the summons and were awaiting the coming of this party.
Soon they came to the country of the tall, swaying cabbage-palms and the staghorns and the treeferns. Many of the big detached rocks had the dendrobiums with their long creamy fronds of flowers, and the sweet scent was better by far than that of the tea-trees they had passed through, for the flower of the Dendrobium speciosum is more sweetly scented than almost any other in our Australian bush. There is, however, one other that must be mentioned here, though the travellers did not see it. It is the Symphyonema paludosum. It grows only in swampy places, and such swamps do not occur anywhere along the route taken, though they are not very far away for they are on the top of the range under which the ceremony took place.
In another week the party reached the spot and they found a big gathering of people. Some had come from over the range.
There were fires and smoke and feasting and singing and the beating of drums. There were corroborees, some of them, such as dances, for the whole of the gathering; and there were also those secret ones for only the special people.
Mulgani was a toddler before she was brought back to her own country.