Records of Ceremonial Life and Stories

There is little documentary material relating to the ceremonial life or stories of Aboriginal people within the Eurobodalla area in the nineteenth century. However, as noted earlier the boundaries of the Eurobodalla Shire do not relate to the realities of Aboriginal groupings and social patterns, or indeed to the social patterns of early European settlers. The people of the Eurobodalla area were, and are, part of the ceremonial life of the broader south coast region. A discussion of such ceremonial networks is beyond the scope of this report. Nonetheless, it is of interest to note that in the account by the amateur ethnographer A.W. Howitt of the initiation ceremony held on Mumbulla Mountain, just to the south of the Eurobodalla area, in 1883, mention is made of people attending from Moruya and Bateman’s Bay in addition to areas further north.

The only first hand documentary account of a ceremonial occasion in the Eurobodalla area that has been located during this study comes from Boat Harbour. In the bush near Boat Harbour in the 1850s Hermann Lau, a German migrant, witnessed a corroboree involving men and women. An Aboriginal woman at that event also provided him with mimosa bark to help with his toothache. Lau’s original description is in German and while it has been summarised in English it has not been translated in full:

Near the dockside at Boat Harbour stands a hut which is used by the government surveyor Mr Larmer91 and his staff when he is in the district. The floor is covered with thick woollen blankets and it is a very comfortable place. Lau was staying there one night with Larmer and, plagued by toothache, was awakened at midnight from a fitful sleep by wild shouts and heavy drum beats. Larmer told him it was a corroboree and they set off to watch it.

They crept into the bush, Lau wearing a heavy bandage round his aching jaw. Larmer was known to the Aborigines and they were given permission to observe the dance. A woman asked Lau “What matter Kobra?” (What’s wrong with your head?) and when Lau pointed at his teeth, she said “Me bring you caban Dada” (I’ll bring you some excellent bark). She returned with a mimosa twig, rolled the bark into a little ball, and Lau put it against the aching tooth. It gave him immediate relief.

Twelve powerful young men, naked, their arms and legs covered in white stripes, were chanting a monotonous wild song, in time with the beat of the possum drums. With exact regularity, they clashed their weapons together, the boomerang against the spear, the nulla nulla against the shield. One by one, each demonstrated his individual skill. The others threw themselves on the ground, but immediately bounded up again. They were followed by a young girl, in a white shift, who leaped around wildly, but with a curious grace. The dancing lasted until dawn.

In a newspaper article of 1892 there is an account of a story of the Wagonga people, the author does not state where he heard the story but he was a local of the area and presumably heard a version of it from the Aboriginal people of the area. The style of telling and possibly the details have clearly been modified to suit European sensibilities of the time. The story tells of an expedition by a large proportion of the Wagonga people to Montague Island to collect sea bird eggs in the spring and the disaster that occurred:

The tradition from which we quote tells us that the headlands of
Wagonga had in those days a large population, they were men of grand physical proportions and of great activity in the chase, as also in the use of the spear, in fishing both standing on terra-firma or kneeling in the frail bark canoes….

The season was “the egg feast” one, about September, and the Wagonga tribe had arranged for a monster picnic to Montague Island in search of sea-bird eggs. For days, and days before, new canoes of large size had been constructed, and the greater part of the tribe both men and women intended to go and have a high time of it.

Making all allowance for the increase that most traditions are allowed, the number that left for Montague could not have been less than 150 adults, the children and many old women staying behind. It was a lovely morning just at the break of day with the sea as smooth as a sheet of glass and every prospect of a quick return that the young and strong, and elders to advise and guide, stepped into the seventy or eighty canoes at the beach just below Mr. Flanagan’s Hotel that is now.. and so the whole party got out to sea in grand style amid the cheers and dancing of those left behind.

Great were the expectations of those left on the land, and the whole remaining camp sat on the southern head-land the live-long day watching the little fleet go and its returning shortly before sun-down. The canoes kept well together both ways and the merry laugh could be heard from shore when they approached within half a mile, and excitement ran very high and speculation too as to who would first land and the number of eggs they would bring. But suddenly a change came over the whole scene, a dark cloud which had for some few hours been seen to the south suddenly came up with great swiftness and burst, “the winds blew and the rain came” and swept down upon our voyagers with terrible force.

The poor terror panic stricken watchers knew what must be the issue, they could see one canoe after another disappearing until the night closed in and not a living soul landed to tell the fearful tale. Can the gentle reader imagine the feelings of the helpless band left upon the headlands, scores of young children and many aged mothers left to the mercies of the worked, but if the tradition is to be credited, there was one who rose up and took in the situation at a glance, and by sheer dint of pluck, energy, and determination made provision for those left behind which if it could be all proved would mark the man as one of the most wonderful imergency (sic) men ever known.

He divided women, old men and children to groupes (sic) to seek for food suitable for their ages, &c., himself taking the duty of stalking for large game, being attended by a party of the strongest of the lads to carry it to the camp. In the course of a few years the young had come to manhood, and once more the Wagonga tribe was on its old footing. To those who remember Wagonga a couple of decades ago it may be interesting to learn that this man was the father of “Wagonga Frank,” a true and trusty black who went to his rest some years ago and was buried by his tribe on the sea beach to the south of Mummuga Lake.

Excerpt from Eurobodalla Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Study, South Coast New South Wales, 2005. Story contributed by Martin Ind from Moruya High School.