There are lonesome places upon the earth
by John Boyle O'Reilly
That have never re-echoed a sound of mirth,
Where the spirits abide that feast and quaff
On the shuddering soul of a murdered laugh,
And take grim delight in the fearful start,
As their unseen fingers clutch the heart,
And the blood flies out from the griping pain,
To carry the chill through every vein;
And the staring eyes and the whitened faces
Are a joy to these ghosts of the lonesome places.
But of all the spots on this earthly sphere
Where these dismal spirits are strong and near,
There is one more dreary than all the rest,—
'Tis the barren island of Rottenest.
On Australia's western coast, you may—
On a seaman's chart of Fremantle Bay—
Find a tiny speck, some ten miles from shore:
If the chart be good, there is something more,—
For a shoal runs in on the landward side,
With five fathoms marked for the highest tide.
You have nought but my word for all the rest,
But that speck is the island of Rottenest.
'Tis a white sand-heap, about two miles long,
And say half as wide; but the deeds of wrong
Between man and his brother that there took place
Are sufficient to sully a continent's face.
Ah, cruel tales! were they told as a whole,
They would scare your polished humanity's soul;
They would blanch the cheeks in your carpeted room,
With a terrible thought of the merited doom
For the crimes committed, still unredrest,
On that white sand-heap called Rottenest.
Of late years the island is not so bare
As it was when I saw it first; for there
On the outer headland some buildings stand,
And a flag, red-crossed, says the patch of sand
Is a recognized part of the wide domain
That is blessed with the peace of Victoria's reign.
But behind the lighthouse the land's the same,
And it bears grim proof of the white man's shame;
For the miniature vales that the island owns
Have a horrible harvest of human bones!
And how did they come there? that's the word;
And I'll answer it now with a tale I heard
From the lips of a man who was there, and saw
The bad end of man's greed and of colony law.
Many years ago, when the white man first
Set his foot on the coast, and was hated and cursed
By the native, who had not yet learned to fear
The dark wrath of the stranger, but drove his spear
With a freeman's force and a bushman's yell
At the white invader, it then befell
That so many were killed and cooked and eaten,
There was risk of the whites in the end being beaten;
So a plan was proposed,—'twas deemed safest and best
To imprison the natives in Rottenest.
And so every time there was white blood spilled,
There were black men captured; and those not killed
In the rage of vengeance were sent away
To this bleak sand isle in Fremantle Bay;
And it soon came round that a thousand men
Were together there, like wild beasts in a pen.
There was not a shrub or grass-blade in the sand,
Nor a piece of timber as large as your hand;
But a government boat went out each day
To fling meat ashore—and then sailed away.
For a year or so was this course pursued,
Till 'twas noticed that fewer came down for food
When the boat appeared; then a guard lay round
The island one night, and the white men found
That the savages swam at the lowest tide
To the shoal that lay on the landward side,—
'Twas a mile from the beach,—and then waded ashore;
So the settlers met in grave council once more.
That a guard was needed was plain to all;
But nobody answered the Governor's call
For a volunteer watch. They were only a few,
And their wild young farms gave plenty to do;
And the council of settlers was breaking up,
With a dread of the sorrow they'd have to sup
When the savage, unawed, and for vengeance wild
Lay await in the wood for the mother and child.
And with doleful countenance each to his neighbor
Told a dreary tale of the world of labor
He had, and said, ' Let him watch who can,
I can't;' when there stepped to the front a man
With a hard brown face and a burglar's brow,
Who had learned the secret he uttered now
When he served in the chain-gang in New South Wales.
And he said to them: ' Friends, as all else fails,
These 'ere natives are safe as if locked and barred,
If you'll line that shoal with a mastiff guard!'
And the settlers looked at each other awhile,
Till the wonder toned to a well-pleased smile
When the brown ex-burglar said he knew,
And would show the whole of 'em what to do.
Some three weeks after, the guard was set;
And a native who swam to the shoal was met
By two half-starved dogs, when a mile from shore,—
And, somehow, that native was never seen more.
All the settlers were pleased with the capital plan,
And they voted their thanks to the hard-faced man.
For a year, each day did the government boat
Take the meat to the isle and its guard afloat.
In a line, on the face of the shoal, the dogs
Had a dry house each, on some anchored logs;
And the neck-chain from each stretched just half way
To the next dog's house; right across the Bay
Ran a line that was hideous with horrid sounds
From the hungry throats of two hundred hounds.
So one more year passed, and the brutes on the logs
Had grown more like devils than common dogs.
There was such a hell-chorus by day and night
That the settlers ashore were chilled with fright
When they thought—if that legion should break away,
And come in with the tide some fatal day!
But they ' scapod that chance; for a man came in
From the Bush, one day, with a 'possum's skin
To the throat filled up with large pearls he'd found
To the north, on the shore of the Shark's Bay Sound.
And the settlement blazed with a wild commotion
At sight of the gems from the wealthy ocean.
Then the settlers all began to pack
Their tools and tents, and to ask the track
That the bushman followed to strike the spot,—
While the dogs and natives were all forgot.
In two days, from that camp on the River Swan,
To the Shark's Bay Sound had the settlers gone;
And no merciful feeling did one retard
For the helpless men and their terrible guard.
It were vain to try, in my quiet room,
To write down the truth of the awful doom
That befell those savages prisoned there,
When the pangs of hunger and wild despair
Had nigh made them mad as the fiends outside:
'Tis enough that one night, through the low ebb tide,
Swam nine hundred savages, armed with stones
And with weapons made from their dead friends' bones.
Without ripple or sound, when the moon was gone,
Through the inky water they glided on;
Swimming deep, and scarce daring to draw a breath,
While the guards, if they saw, were as dumb as death.
'Twas a terrible picture! O God! that the night
Were so black as to cover the horrid sight
From the eyes of the Angel that notes man's ways
In the book that will ope on the Day of Days!
There were screams when they met,—shrill screams of pain!
For each animal swam at the length of his chain,
And with parching throat and in furious mood
Lay awaiting, not men, but his coming food.
There were short, sharp cries, and a line of fleck
As the long fangs sank in the swimmer's neck;
There were gurgling growls mixed with human groans,
For the savages drave the sharpened bones
Through their enemies' ribs, and the bodies sank,
Each dog holding fast with a bone through his flank.
Then those of the natives who 'scaped swam back;
But too late! for scores of the savage pack,
Driven mad by the yells and the sounds of fight,
Had broke loose and followed. On that dread night
Let the curtain fall: when the red sun rose
From the placid ocean, the joys and woes
Of a thousand men he had last eve seen
Were as things or thoughts that had never been.
When the settlers returned,—in a month or two,—
They bethought of the dogs and the prisoned crew.
And a boat went out on a tardy quest
Of whatever was living on Rottenest.
They searched all the isle, and sailed back again
With some specimen bones of the dogs and men.