Australia's First Children

by Eve Pownell MBE

Long ago when Australia was younger, its mountains were

There were forests and bushland where today sheep and cattle graze, and
sea flowed where men now harvest wheat.

And there were people.
They came from countries north of Australia in dug-out canoes made from trees,
and on simple rafts made of logs lashed together with vines. Some of the very earliest
people even walked across the bridges of land which joined Australia to Asia in long-
ago days. Then in some forgotten time, great rumblings and quakings shook the earth
and the ocean bed. The sea rushed away from places leaving dry land behind, and it
rushed over other places burying them under water and drowning the land-bridges.
This left Australia with the ocean all round it and the people inside.
For a long stretch of time these were the only people in the land'
They shared it with the animals,
with the trees and plants of the bushland.
and of course with the children.
It was a much quieter land then. Winds blew and storms raged, magpies greeted
the coming of day and wombats grunted in the gullies at night. But apart from bird
and animal sounds, there was a great silence over much of the land.
Only in places where the people camped was there anything else to hear: the
sound of voices round the campfires, the throbbing note of the didgeridoo, the
clicking sticks keeping time with the singers and the shuffling feet of the dancers at
corroboree time. And always in the daytime there was the sound of children playing.
They played wherever their families wandered in the wide land. They swam and
shouted *here wuves curled and broke on the beaches. One after the other they slid
down muddy banks into pools and streams, riding a great lily leaf into the water.
They used twisted vine for string to play cat's cradle. They climbed trees, and
spun tops and threw balls made of kangaroo skin. They pretended to be hunters
with small spears and shields. They played chasings and hidings round caves on
the seashore and round gum trees almost everywhere.
They learned the tracks of animals and how to stalk them through the bush.
They gathered nuts and wild berries and grass seeds. They learned to dig up bulbs
and plants to cook in the ashes of the campfires, and the wriggly witchetty grubs
which they liked almost best of all things to eat.
For hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years the children lived this way-
on the plains, in the deserts, in the mountain country, by the shore and on the banks
of tropical lagoons. They heard legends about the Dreamtime, when all their world had been made. They listened to stories about the way Fire was discovered and
how stars came in the sky, why the kangaroo hopped on two legs, and the brolga
danced on the sandhills, why the turtle carries a shield on its back, and the flowers
bloom and fade in the seasons. They learned the ways of their people and the laws
of their tribe. It was all part of being the first children in Australia long, long ago.
Year after year, dark children grew up and married. Then their children played,
went walkabout with their families, and learned the tribal ways. So it had been
from the Dreamtime when the dark people believed the world was formed' So they
thought it would always be.
But the seas that wrapped the shores couldn't hide the larrd for ever, and white
men found the west coast. They did not stay, but one afterwards wrote about the
dark people and their families. He said they did not like the white strangers and
ran away.
Mothers grabbed up their babies and ran.
Fathers waved their spears and ran'
The children ran too.
Almost one hundred years later Captain Cook tried to make friends with natives
of Botany Bay. But the dark people left their camp fires and vanished into the bush
with their wives and piccaninnies.
Cook came closer to native families farther north where the warm waters of the
Barrier Reef wash the land. Here the natives were not shy of the white men. There
may even have been children playing on the shore when Cook's crew at last raised
anchor and unfurled their ship's white sails. Who was the last dark child to see
the ship float away to the north like a great bird with its wings outstretched? No
one knows.
And no one knows the native children who saw the fleet of ships which brought
white men to settle the country eighteen years later.

A few children came in the ships. They were the first white children to live in
Others came in the years which followed. They sailed across the long miles of
ocean from the top of the map almost to the bottom. They saw wave after wave
flow by the ships. They watched the sun go down on the horizon, and the stars
shine out above the masts. The ropes creaked and the sails filled with wind or lay
limply as the days passed. Sometimes fog lay around the ships and shut out the
sea. Sometimes great storms blew and the children were flung about the cabins as
the ships rolled and tossed. Sometimes it was sunny, flying fish darted by, and
porpoises rolled and frolicked as the children watched from the decks.
Water was scarce on the ships. There was some for drinking, but very little for
washing children or their clothes. Sometimes sickness swept through the ships and
people lay ill in their bunks. Many children did not live to see the new land to
which the ships were sailing.
Voyages took many months, and there was plenty of time to play and watch the
sailors climb the rigging-unless someone arranged'lesson time. The children said
prayers every day, and always on Sunday there was a church service and hymn
singing as the ship sailed to the new land.
At journey's end, the children landed with their families in small settlements on
harbours or rivers. Long afterwards the settlements grew into towns and cities,
but they all began in the same way.
Men found a place close to fresh water. Then they cut down trees, put up tents,
and built huts. Children collected wood for the fires and helped carry packages
and bundles. They played around the gum trees, picked the native flowers, and
pointed to the strange birds and animals. At night they slept soundly on beds of fern.
From the first small towns, families went inland, into places where there were
no roads, no towns, and no white people.
Small children rode in drays with their mothers. Bigger children rode on horse-
back. Fathers drove mobs of sheep and cattle to stock the land they were seeking
-somewhere over the hills, across rivers, beyond the plains. Drays and carts
bumped and creaked, the sheep walked slowly, and it took many months to find a
place for a home.
When night came, the wheels stopped rolling, and everyone climbed down from
the drays. Children helped put up tents and light fires. Boys brought water from
a stream in canvas buckets, and poured some into canvas troughs for the horses.
Girls helped their mothers hang an iron kettle on a hook over the fire, and un-
packed the long-handled pan. (The long handles kept the cook from being
scorched while the bacon, meat and johnny cakes were frying. )
At night the children slept in the dray - or under it, wrapped in a blanket. Camp-
fires flickered and lit up the trees of the strange land, and somewhere in the dark-
ness a dingo howled. But the children slept until the Southern Cross left the sky
and kookaburras called them to wake.
When rain fell, the drays creaked on-unless the mud was so deep the wheels
wouldn't turn. When rivers flooded and broke their banks, there was nothing to
do but wait till the water went down. Sometimes the family waited by a river any-
way while mother and the girls got out the wooden tubs and did the family wash.
When rivers were low, fording them was easy. When streams ran deep, drays
were placed on empty casks and hauled to the other side. sheep and cattle swam.
So did the horses, often with fathers holding small children before them on the
saddle with an older brother holding on to the tail.
At last the drays came to a halt. Out came the axes and down came the trees to
make room for a house.
It was small, it had a dirt floor and no ceiling. When the children looked up they
saw only the rafters that supported the roof. But mothers saved flouf bags and
stitched them together to nail across the timber. The calico billowed and flapped
in windy weather, and moved and swayed when snakes slithered across it.

A big fireplace usually stood at one end of the house. Boys carried in wood for
the fire. Girls helped cook meals in the iron cooker called a Dutch oven. It stood
in the coals with more coals on top. It cooked practically everything, from stew
and dumplings to Christmas pudding.

Before crops could grow, the land must be cleared. Mothers cut down scrub
and bushes, but first they made a kind of hammock so the baby swung safely in a
tree while work went on.
As soon as children were old enough, they became shepherds and minded the
sheep. All day they walked or waited while the flock fed. At night time they
brought the sheep home and yarded them behind small hurdles.
Sometimes girls knitted stockings for the family as they tended the sheep. Wool
for knitting came from the backs of those very sheep.
Sometimes the young shepherds gathered wild flowers or played games with
pebbles as they waited patiently for the long day to end-
Around the homestead children fed chickens, gathered eggs, milked cows. Boys
sowed wheat in the field. They scattered seed widely from a bag hung at their side,
and hoed the soil over afterwards.
At harvest time all the family helped with reaping hooks and knives to cut the
stalks. Wheat ears were spread on canvas for threshing and children took turns
beating them with sticks to make the grain spill out.
They winnowed on windy days. Standing on stools, they poured basins of wheat
to the ground. Wind blew the husks away from the falling wheat and the grain
piled up below.
Children chopped wood, poured melted tallow into moulds to make candles, and
helped bake bread-sometimes in a big outdoor oven made of ant-bed.
But in the farthest out stations food was often scarce. When townships were
hundreds of miles away there was no corner store to buy from. Fathers, uncles and
big brothers travelled far for family goods. The bullock teams were a long time
going and a long time coming back, bumping over rough tracks with flour, sugar,
tea, horseshoes, nails, rolls of calico, pots for cooking, churns for butter, and a
hundred other things to last the family for another few months.

In the far inland, camel teams brought the station stores' Children came to
know the Afghan drivers and the tall beasts picking their way over ttre long miles,
carrying anything from a baby's bonnet to parts of a windmill.
Along the outback tracks children sometimes rode on camels, or in buggies with
camels harnessed between the shafts.
Donkey teams also trotted through the inland. As they came in sight, children
rushed out to see the long line of little brown backs bringing goods to the families
who lived far away from towns and shops.
Big cattle stations covered enormous slabs of country. Fathers and sons mustered
and drafted beasts in cattle camps many miles from the homestead. Then
mothers were alone with daughters and younger children. They rounded up cattle
when meat was needed, killed snakes and kept the place in order'
The children played around sheep pens and cattle yards. They had few toys and
most of those were home made. A face painted on a piece of wood wrapped in a
cloth was all many girls had for dolls.
But the children had each other as playmates, and sometimes there were native
children near the lagoon. The children did not mind being far from towns. Only
their mothers felt lonely with no white women to speak to, no churches, no schools'
When someone was sick there were no doctors-and that was sometimes the hardest
thing to bear.
Children on the stations had lessons to do. They wrote in their copy books and
learned to read and count. Their mothers made jam, or sewed clothes by hand
while they heard the children spelling or corrected their sums.
When whey were old enough, many children went to schools in towns and cities.
They travelled sometimes hundreds of miles by buggy or coach. If they lived near
rivers in t}te south-east, they boarded paddle wheel steamers which churned along
winding channels, passing sheep and a few homesteads, and stopping at wharves
to take on more passengers and wood for the engines.

But the years passed and the country changed from the days when dark children
played around the tribal fires, or the first families came ashore from the sailing ships.
Australia still has things the early children knew: sheep and cattle and growing
wheat, open spaces, and long distances between homesteads. But other things are
part of Australia, too, and some of them appear in these stories of children in
Australia today.

from 'They Live in Australia' Shakespeare Head Press - Sydney 1966

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