The Land of the Kangaroo Part 24

"We call it the Observatory," was the reply, "and that's what it is.

That mast there is for signaling ships when they come into the harbor.

In the old times there was a windmill there, where they used to grind grain into flour and meal for the convicts to eat, and I guess other folks ate it, too. When the wind blew the arm went round and round, the machinery worked, and the stones revolved and ground out the meal.

Sometimes they didn't have no wind, because it didn't blow, but they had a treadmill there, and then they used to bring up a string of convicts, and put them on the treadmill to run the machinery and keep up the grinding of the grain. I suppose you know what a treadmill is?"

"I have heard about a treadmill," said Harry, "but I never saw one." Ned nodded, and said that he was in the same predicament.

"Well," said the driver, "I have seen one in the old country; I never saw the one here, because it was gone before I came to Brisbane. What I saw was a wheel in the shape of a long cylinder with twenty-four steps around the circ.u.mference of it; in fact, it didn't look much unlike the paddle-wheel of a steamboat, where the men stood to turn it. Each one of 'em was boarded off from his neighbor so that they couldn't talk to each other. There was a hand rail for them to hang on to. The weight of the prisoners' bodies on the steps caused the wheel to turn, and they sent it around about twice a minute. A man on a treadmill has got to work, he can't get out of it. If he tries to avoid stepping, he's got to hang his weight on the hand rail with his arms, and after he has tried that for a minute or so he's glad to go back to stepping again."

"I should think," said Ned, "that it would be difficult to adapt it to the weight of different individuals, and also to their height. While it might not be too much for a strong man, it might be for a weak one; and if the position of steps and rail were adapted to a tall man, they wouldn't be for a short one."

"I believe that's just the trouble they found with it in the old country," was the reply; "and it's mostly been given up there. They've got a machine in the place of it which they call 'the Crank,' which can be adapted to anybody. It's a wheel with paddles to it, and turns inside a box. They put gravel in the box, graduated to the strength of the man who is to turn it, and the prisoner's hard labor consists in turning the crank."

"It doesn't serve any useful purpose, as the treadmill does, I presume?"

said Harry.

"No; there is no useful purpose about it. A man has to turn that crank because he's been sentenced to hard labor, and there's nothing else they can put him to, that's all. And they don't by any means use the treadmill all the time for turning machinery and grinding grain, or doing some other work. Most of the treadmills I ever knew anything about in the old country were just treadmills, and that was all."

Our friends were invited to visit a sugar plantation in Northern Queensland. They accepted the invitation, and one morning embarked on a steamer which took them in the direction which they wished to go. The steamer called at several places on the coast, including Rockhampton, Bowen, Mackay, Keppel Bay, and Somerset; the last-named place was their destination, and it was here that they landed.

"We utilized the time of stoppage at each port by going on sh.o.r.e," said Harry in his journal. "Except for the exercise of the trip, we might about as well have stayed on board, as there was very little to be seen at any of the places. The coast towns of Queensland are pretty much all alike. They have from one to two thousand inhabitants each, and though they're pretentiously laid out, they consist of little more than a single street. On the streets, other than the princ.i.p.al one, there are scattered houses, where the owners of land have endeavored to increase the value of their property by putting up buildings, but generally with poor success. For pavement the natural earth is obliged to answer, as most of these towns are too poor to afford anything better. The streets are very dusty in dry weather, and very muddy after a rain. At one of the places where we landed there had been a heavy shower the night before, and the main street was a great lane of mud. Ned said the street was a mile long, eighty feet wide, and two feet deep; at least, that was his judgment concerning it.

"One thing that impressed us in these towns was that hardly a man in any of them had a coat on. Everybody was in his shirt sleeves, and if he had a coat with him, he carried it on his arm. For the novelty of the thing, we took dinner at a hotel in Mackay, more with a view of seeing the people that went there, than with an expectation of a good meal. There were squatters from the back country, planters, clerks, merchants, lawyers, and doctors, all with their coats off, and we were told that this habit of going without coats is universal. One man who had lived there a good while said, 'You may go to a grand dinner party, and find the ladies dressed in the height of fashion, and the gentlemen in their shirt sleeves.' I don't wonder that they have adopted this plan, as the climate is very warm. The region is decidedly tropical, the air is damp and oppressive, and in the daytime especially the heat is almost insupportable. I wonder, though, that they don't adopt the white linen jacket for dinner purposes, just as the Europeans living in China and j.a.pan have done.

"Somerset, where we landed, is princ.i.p.ally a pearl-fishing station, and the pearl fishers who live there are a very rough-looking lot. The business is very profitable, those engaged in it estimating that the pearls pay all the expenses of their enterprise and a little more, while the _nacre_, or mother-of-pearl, the smooth lining of the sh.e.l.ls, is a clear profit. The exportation of sh.e.l.ls from Queensland is worth, annually, about half a million dollars. The pearl sh.e.l.ls sell ordinarily for about one thousand dollars a ton. They are gathered by black divers under the superintendence of white men.

"These white men own the sloops and schooners devoted to the pearl fishery, and they go out with these craft, taking along a lot of black men as divers. The diving is done in the same way as in pearl fisheries all over the world, so that there is no necessity of describing it. The sh.e.l.ls are like large oyster sh.e.l.ls; in fact, they are oyster sh.e.l.ls and nothing else. They are about twenty inches long, and from twelve to fifteen inches from one side to the other; so, you see, it doesn't take many oysters to make a load for a diver. The divers are paid according to the number of sh.e.l.ls they gather, and not by fixed wages. A man familiar with the business said, that if you paid the men regular wages, you would be lucky if you got one dive out of them daily.

"I tried to ascertain the value of some of the pearls obtained here,"

continued Harry, "but my information was not very definite. They told me that several pearls worth five thousand dollars each had been taken, but they were not very common, the value ordinarily running from a few dollars up to one hundred or two hundred dollars each. My informant said that the best pearls were found on the coast of West Australia, but that the fishery in that locality was more dangerous than on the coast of Queensland. He said that the sea in that locality was subject to hurricanes, and sometimes an entire fleet of pearl-fishing boats would be overwhelmed and sunk, hardly a man escaping. 'These disasters,' he said, 'do not deter those who survive from taking the risk over again, and there are always plenty of black men who go out as divers there whenever a boat is ready to start.'"

To go to the sugar plantation to which our friends were invited, they had to make a journey inland, in a wagon over a rough road about forty miles long. The plantation was located on both sides of a small river, and employed, at the time of their visit, about one hundred and fifty men. One of the owners was there, and exerted himself to his fullest ability to make the strangers comfortable and have them see all that was to be seen. They visited the crushing mills and the boiling rooms, and learned a great deal about the process of manufacturing sugar from the sugar cane.

"We may say briefly," said Ned, "that the cane-stalks are crushed between rollers, and the juice is caught in vats, whence it flows in troughs or pipes to the evaporating house. Here it is boiled till it is reduced to syrup, and then it is boiled again, until it is ready for granulation. Then it is placed in perforated cylinders which revolve with tremendous rapidity. By means of centrifugal force all the moisture is expelled and the dry sugar remains behind."

Our friends visited the fields where the luxuriant cane-stalks were growing, but they were quite as much interested in the men they saw at work there as in the fields themselves. Harry remarked that the men seemed to be different from any of the Australian blacks they had yet seen in their travels.

"These are not Australian blacks at all," said their guide; "they are foreigners."

"Foreigners! Of what kind?"

"They are South Sea Islanders princ.i.p.ally from the Solomon Islands; some of them are from the New Hebrides and some from the Kingsmill group."

"You import them to work on the plantations, I suppose?"

"Yes; that's the way of it. You see this country is too hot for white men to work in the field, just as your sugar-growing States in America are too hot for him to work in. The blacks are the only people that can stand it, and as for the Australian blacks, they're no good. There are not enough of them anyway, and even if there were, we couldn't rely upon them. An Australian black will never stay in one place for any length of time, as you have doubtless learned already. He is liable to quit at any moment, and that sort of thing we can't stand on a sugar plantation.

We must have men to work steadily, and the only way we can get them is by hiring them under contract from some of the Pacific Islands."

"I think I have read about that somewhere," remarked Harry. "You send small ships out among the islands to pick up the men, and the business is called 'black-birding,' is it not?"

"Yes, that is the name of it, or rather used to be," was the reply.

"Black-birding," along in the seventies, was an outrageous piece of business no better than slave-stealing on the coast of Africa. In fact, it was slave-stealing and nothing else. A schooner would appear off an island, drop anchor and wait for the natives to come out in their canoes, which they were sure to do. Then forty or fifty of them would be enticed on board, and perhaps invited one by one into the cabin, whence a door had been cut through into the hold. They were shoved along one by one until a sufficient number had been obtained and imprisoned below, and then the schooner set sail and left the island.

"Sometimes one of the officers was dressed up like a clergyman, with a white necktie, broad-brimmed hat, and blue spectacles, and wrapped in a long black cloak. He carried a large book under his arm, and was a very good counterfeit of a missionary. He was rowed to the sh.o.r.e, where he would inform the natives that their old friend, Rev. Dr. Williams, was on board the vessel and would like to see them, and he would very much like some fresh fruit. He explained the doctor's failure to come on sh.o.r.e by saying that he had fallen on deck and broken his leg the day before, and was then confined to his cabin.

"The natives would hasten to gather a large supply of fruit and take it on board the schooner. Their fruit was piled on deck, and one by one they were taken below, ostensibly to see their disabled friend, but really to shove them forward into the hold in the manner I have described. When a sufficient number had been entrapped the schooner sailed away, and there was little probability that the deceived natives would ever see their island again.

"That was the method formerly in vogue for supplying labor to the sugar plantations in Queensland. The matter became so notorious that the government investigated it and put a stop to 'black-birding.' At present the business of obtaining men from the Pacific Islands is fairly well conducted. On every ship that goes out for that purpose there is a government officer whose duty it is to see that no deception or trickery is practised, and that the contracts with the natives are fully understood on both sides before they are signed.

"We hire these people for three years, and when that period has expired we are obliged to return them to their homes. Formerly, they had the option of renewing their contracts here without going away, and a good many planters were careful to see that the men were heavily in debt at the expiration of their term of service, so that they would be obliged to engage again in order to get themselves out of debt, which they never did. Now the government regulation forbids the renewal of a contract here, and in order to have the agreement a valid one, it must be made in the island whence the man was brought. Of course this is a hardship where a man really does not want to go home, but, on the whole, it is for the best."

Harry asked how they managed to get along with the natives of the different islands, and if they proved to be good laborers.

"As to that," was the reply, "there is a great deal of difference among them. The most of them are industrious and do fairly well, but nearly all need a little urging. We don't flog them, as flogging is forbidden by law, but the overseers generally carry long, supple sticks which they know how to handle. They have to be careful, though, in using these sticks, as some of the Kanakas, as we call the South Sea Islanders, are revengeful, and they're very handy with knives.

"The men from the Solomon Islands are the worst to deal with, as they have ugly dispositions; they are inclined to resent what they believe to be an insult, and they are a strong, wiry race. They are quarrelsome among themselves, and probably their tendency to quarrel is increased by the fact that many of them are cannibals. Sometimes we miss one of these fellows, and though we hunt everywhere, it is impossible to find him.

There are vague rumors that he has been eaten by his friends. The whole business is carefully concealed from us, and it is very rarely the case that we are able to get at the facts. It generally turns out, when we ascertain anything about it, that the man was killed in a fight, and was then cooked and eaten, to prevent his being wasted."

Harry remarked that the Solomon Islanders, as he saw them on the plantation, were not a prepossessing lot of people, and he would not care to be among them even for a single day.

The natives of the Kingsmill group were much more attractive in their appearance, but even they were nothing to be fond of. On the whole, neither of the youths took a liking to the laborers on the sugar plantation, and as the place was said to be infested with snakes, they were quite willing to cut their visit short and return to the coast.

THE END.

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