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San Cassimally

Scottish-Mauritian novelist and playwright.

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They fell in love with the place, as instantaneously as Annie had fallen for James. Here in this place they were going to live happily ever after, like in the rare fairy stories they had heard as children. There was the red gum tree Johnson Johnson had described, with a large hollow which he had said could serve them as a home until they were able to build their own gunya. If you light a small fire, they had been told, the Kouri cousins would appear seemingly from nowhere; they will naturally be suspicious, just show them your message stick.

They gathered some twigs and lit a fire with the flintstone and lock James had always had, and true enough the smoke brought the men out, reminding him of how bees were smoked out by honey pickers in Dorset. There was a large group of them, most armed with spears and sticks, and they looked none too friendly. James, following Johnson Johnson’s instructions put his hands up in the air, and when he did that, the men stopped, and the scowls on their faces gave way to a look of puzzlement. He then gave the elder who clearly stood out by his bearing, the message stick. He looked at it and nodded, and said a few words to his companions, and their puzzled looks changed into wide grins and laughing sounds of welcome. One young man who was a few years younger than the pair was urged to come forward, and he offered his hand to James to shake.

‘Me, Birrummbirra nephew,’ he said, ‘speak very good English.’ And then he explained to his fellow tribesmen what he had said, and they all laughed.

‘I am Billungree,’ he said laughing, as if that was a great joke, ‘I work in Port Jackson… but much time ago’

‘Now you tell him who we are,’ Annie urged her man, and James started talking about Johnson Johnson, calling him Whimbarra, explaining how they had had worked together and become friends, with Billungree translating.

To a question of James, the chief said that there were no white men close by, but he had been told that the white government had given big chunks of the Kouri people’s land to some white men in Yalla, pointing in its direction, across the mountains. The couple did not like hearing this, but for the moment they were not going to let this intelligence mar their enjoyment.

The men asked Billungree to put their questions to the visitors and when he translated, James answered in his usual laconic style, but invariably Annie elaborated, which made the Kouri folks laugh, as they found it highly amusing that a woman would talk when there were men around. The Chief frowned and said that he did not think it was proper for a woman to open her mouth when there were men who were not mute around to do the talking. Billungree dutifully translated that too, but nothing would stop the irrepressible Annie. Her good humour and her laugh must have been infectious, for before long even the Chief’s reticence melted away in the warmth of her exuberance.

Billungree then explained that if they were ill, they can have the service of their kadji; he was a miracle worker, he said, and can even revive a man with a droopy cock, adding that in a little while, he too would be a kadji!

‘Can he do the opposite?’ Annie asked, ‘my man needs the opposite.’ The Chief laughed so much his fellow tribesmen thought he would not stop. It was at this point that they must have realised that a woman opening her mouth sometimes made for a welcome change.

They were given the permission to stay for as long as they wanted, and promised assistance of any sort.

‘We are your friends, and you can count on us, come visit us in our gunyas,’ Billungree translated the chief’s final words as he prepared to leave for his own dwellings.

The young man explained that their gunyas were behind the rocks towards Dappeto, pointing to its direction. The chief instructed Billungree to stay with the visitors to give them advice and help.

Together they moved their possessions to their house in the mun-um-ba tree, and James offered his new friend some ale which Annie had brought, but he declined. He explained that as someone training to be a kadji he had to forego all intoxicating substances for the time being.

‘What’s a kadji when he is at home?’ Annie asked. Billungree looked at her disapprovingly, but he explained anyway. Very early in his life, he was found to have the magic qualities needed to become a clever man, steeped in the knowledge of dreaming, who would be able to learn how to develop the skills needed to heal the sick, judge miscreants and do a variety of onerous tasks. And he showed them his maban, a small round dark glass ball, from which he got his power.

‘I found it after it fell from the sky one night,’ he explained. James, who was a deeply religious man knew how easy it was to mock people with different belief systems, for he was a Dissenter and as such, subject to ridicule by other Christians who prayed in luxurious churches; he was therefore prepared to listen to Billungree.

The aspiring kadji told them about Dreaming, how the universe was created by Baiame, how He made the mountains, the stars, the seas and everything. He told them about songlines, the words which he was learning in order to be able to inform future generations of Dreaming and Dreamtime. He promised that he would come again soon, and show them what plants to eat, what animals could be killed and which ones it was sinful to kill. James was perplexed, and his new friend said he would give him an example: Never in any circumstances harm a dolphin.


‘They are spirits of our dead warriors who protect us, and no one is more powerful than the dolphin.’ And he explained that dolphins would regularly help the Kouri when they went fishing by directing the fish towards their nets, and gave examples of how they sometimes risked their lives by defending them against dangerous sharks?

When he left, Annie burst out laughing, and James said that it was best not to contradict the young man, even if we think that it’s all superstitious nonsense, adding that may be it was not.

‘But it is, sweetheart’ squealed Annie with delight.

They made mattresses with dried leaves and grass and slept soundly after the accumulated fatigue of the past few days. In the morning they were woken up by a fearsome sound.

‘Billungree’s spirits have come to snatch us,’ Annie cackled heartily. The raucous sound continued for a while and then they heard something like a rustling sound and it stopped. Later Billungree told them that it was the kookaburra, and explained that he was created for the specific task of waking up sleeping Kouri… and their guests in the morning.

Johnson Johnson had told them that they would be able to find all the food they needed. The lake was teeming with blue swimmer crab and crayfish, molluscs and a large variety of fish, and they had no difficulty catching them and cooking them in a pot. When some of their new neighbours called, they saw them at it, and were intrigued by what they were doing, for they, with the exception of Billungree who had worked in Port Jackson, had never even seen cooking pots; they ate many things raw, or cooked them in hot coals and ashes.

The young kadji-to-be showed them the wonderful cocoyam plants growing near the waterside in large colonies. He put a stick in the earth and pulled out the plant with the heart-shaped leaf and its corm. He explained that they cooked the yam in hot ashes and that it was delicious. The leaves they dried in the sun before eating it. Baiame, he explained, had thought of everything when he created man, and gave him the means of feeding himself.

‘God is omnipotent,’ said James, making the sign of the cross which intrigued his new friend.

One of the first things Annie did was to find a place which was neither too sunny nor too sheltered, where to plant her drumstick seeds.

Photo Credit: CC-BY-NC-ND Tatters

‘When that tree starts growing, we will never starve,’ she said.

‘I don’t think we risk starving now…’

Billungree taught them the names and uses of other plants, taking them to places where they grew. He vaunted the taste and value of cattails, those long cactus type plants that they found within a stone throw form their gum-tree house. There were also some acacia trees there, and the knowledgeable shaman-to-be said that the young leaves and pods were delicious and nutritious. He showed them where tasty grubs occurred in mun-um-ba trees, baobabs whose young leaves were also precious, arrowroots, quandong, warrigal, bush coconut, which was half animal and half fruit, he said, chestnuts, wild almonds and a long list of other edible things growing within an hour’s walk from their new abode. He had brought for them some blankets made from fibres of the kurrajong, and promised to show them where to find them, so they could make their own ropes and fishing nets, and clothing to cover their private parts, which offended Baiame if left bare.

That night, as the lovers lay in each other’s arms after a hearty fish soup, they felt at peace with the world.

‘What more do we want now?’ Annie said, ‘We will never starve, we are sheltered from winds and rain, we have friendly neighbours, what can go wrong?’

‘The good lord is looking after us, sweetheart,’ James said, but he did not share a gloomy thought which, uninvited, had sneaked into his subconscious: what about those white men that the Chief had mentioned, who had been granted land in Yalla, within a stone throw of here? Our father who protects us at all times, he prayed, I do not ask for riches and possessions, but may my Annie and I live in peace here with our simple and dear friends; please also protect my friends from Tolpuddle wherever they may be, and may we have justice some day.

Photo Credit: CC-BY-NC-ND robdownunder

But the white men in Yalla were not the immediate threat. Bruce took the escape of the woman he loved, as badly as Coldwell had taken that of the man he hated. He was not going to rest until the fugitive was caught and dealt with. In his eyes, a murderer kills someone, is dealt with and that’s the end, but a subversive is out to destroy society itself; the vermin needs to be eradicated pitilessly. In Norfolk island he would be completely neutered, and daily he will pray for death and rue his perfidy.

Bruce was there when he heard this rant shortly after the disappearance. If only I can find out where the son of a bitch has gone, he mused. If I tell the master, he might reward me and make me a foreman… with James out of the way, maybe Annie will have me if I become foreman.

He was going to plan his coup meticulously; there was no hurry, or he might miss out on his slim chance of happiness. He would befriend Johnson Johnson, and as the man liked his drink, he would worm the information out of his nose.

Johnson Johnson was a simple man with malice towards none, not even the white man who had stolen his country and his name. He always spoke the truth and had no artifice in him. Bruce could tell Coldwell that the black man had been a party to the escape; the truth could then be extracted from the native under interrogation. But the Abo man had never done him any harm, and he would prefer not to see him flogged. No, he would begin by befriending the unsuspecting native…

He carried out his plan with military precision, beginning by greeting the black man with a great show of friendliness one afternoon. Johnson Johnson was surprised, but he responded to the man who had never hidden his contempt for him, with circumspection. I have got a bottle of ale, Bruce said, would you like to share it with me? Sure, he said, you are kind. And they walked towards a half-built shed smelling of eucalyptus, sat down and shared the ale. The black man expected to be asked a favour, for he was beginning to get used to the ways of the white man, but Bruce wanted nothing. There were many examples in Dreaming of people who had erred, committed a forbidden act, and after seeing the light, had returned to a path that pleased Baiame. So that was a good thing.

Bruce acted in a friendly manner in the next few days, and then on Sunday asked the Kouri man to share another bottle with him. Then they went for a walk and he told him the story of his transportation, how he had been wrongly accused of stealing some jewellery from his employers, but although he knew who the real thief was, he had not revealed his name, and taken the blame to save that other man who had a wife and kids. It was as a result of this that he was sent to Botany Bay. Johnson Johnson was not used to lies, and saw no reason to doubt the story, and his sympathy for the man grew with the spontaneity of puff ball mushrooms after thunder. Still Bruce asked nothing.

Photo Credit: CC-BY Mike Russell

A few days later he asked the Kouri man about his life, his childhood and what took him to Hunter’s Hill, and the unsuspecting man was happy enough to tell him about his clan back in Lake Illiwarra, and described with tears in his eyes what a lovely place it was, how it had everything a man needed. All you need is to bend down and pick your food, there was fish galore, nuts, berries, everything a man needed to live. Why he came north, he did not know, except that their people had a wanderlust which could not be tamed.

That night, Bruce surmised that the runaways might well be in the Lake Illiwarra region. But it was too early to take any action. He only suspected that the black man was involved in the escape, and even if that was the whole truth, he could not be sure that there was only one possible destination. Should he act prematurely and be proven wrong, Coldwell might visit his disappointment on him, and he did not relish that prospect.

By accident he happened to overhear a conversation between the master and a man everybody knew as Merchant Brown. Brown had come to see the drainage system Coldwell was installing in Taj Mahal, as he himself had been granted three thousand acres in Yalla, and he wanted to learn from his fellow Englishman.

‘Yalla,’ Coldwell asked, ‘where the blazes is that?’

‘Opposite Lake Illiwarra,’ the Merchant replied, ‘it’s a god-forsaken place with nothing but savages and not a civilised face around, but by golly am I going to change it into a Galilee, a land of milk and honey, where cash will flow smoothly into the pockets of the deserving.’

Bruce’s eyes lit up on hearing this. Maybe the master might contemplate a visit to his friend in the near future. Until now, horse-racing had been his undoing, but this was one race he was clearly winning; he could see the finishing post, and there was nothing between him and it. But he was a cautious rider, and was not going to jump the gun. He would catch Johnson Johnson unawares.

Some time later he was sharing another bottle with the black man — he considered the expenditure as an investment which would bring large dividends shortly — and as planned, he blurted out with calculated negligence.

‘So, Johnson Johnson, do you reckon James and Annie are doing well in Lake Illiwarra?’ And the black man replied without batting an eyelid.

‘Why, I hope so, Master Bruce, there is no better place on earth for them.’ Suddenly he remembered that they had never talked about James and Annie, but he did not immediately deduce that the man had set a trap for him and that he had walked into it.

‘But Master Bruce, I never told you, how did you know they were there?’

‘But you did, Johnny boy, you did, how else would I know that?’

Johnson Johnson knew there and then that Bruce was a villain, and that he had endangered the life of the only white man he considered his friend. He wished that there was a way of warning his friends of the danger, but he knew that there was none. The thought of killing the traitor in order to save his friend crossed his mind, but he knew that he could never do it. He stood up and walked away, and Bruce, realising that the simple man had discovered his deceit, shrugged. What the hell, the man can go shit on his own head. I have discovered the truth. I have won the race at 200 to 1! Coldwell, here I come to collect my winnings.

He was not quite sure how Coldwell would react when he told him about Illiwarra; he was a rum character, he might not like informants. He decided that he would play a subtle game.

He waited for a moment when Johnson Johnson was out of earshot, and asked Paul, who was working next to him if it was true what he had heard. What had he heard, Paul asked. Oh, nothing, only whatshisname was saying that James and Annie Browne had run away to Illiwarra. No, Paul had not heard. Next, Paul asked Peter the same question, and Peter asked Bill, and finally, Bruce knew he had won when Fred approached him and asked if he had heard the news. He was over the moon.

It was Amelia who heard from the cook, and she hesitated before telling George, but she wanted Annie back, so in the end she asked her husband if a runaway who was caught could expect justice, and he said that all his life he had fought for the respect of the law, and she took this to mean that when caught, James would be dealt with leniently. So she told him about Illiwarra.

‘Isn’t that where that fellow, Merchant Brown —’

‘Yes, I think so.’

‘In that case I think I owe the Merchant a visit, I promised…’ Coldwell never suspected that Bruce was the source of the rumour.

Shortly after, Coldwell, with a party of six constables, armed to the teeth set out one fine morning towards Wollongong and Illiwarra.

The young couple had enjoyed four excellent months of freedom, and were now satisfied that this pleasant state was going to last forever. The drumstick tree was about as tall as a teenager by now. There were some rare moments, when his tribal friends informed him that some white people were prospecting the land, but they kept out of the way. It was quite easy to do that if you had friends watching over you, and nobody was actually looking for you. But when your cover has been blown, it is an altogether different situation.

Coldwell and his party descended upon Merchant, and his men confirmed that on one single occasion, one man said that he had seen what looked like a white woman by the lakeside gathering some roots, but since nobody else had seen her, he had supposed that his craving for a woman was making him hallucinate. They had a hearty meal, and early next day, Coldwell and his party, accompanied by Merchant Brown and two of his employers, with the constables in tow, set out towards the gunyas of James’ tribal friends, and had little difficulty spotting the tree house where the pair were sleeping soundly. The constables burst in like an explosion, and before the lovers could even understand the enormity of the situation they had their hands behind their backs, James secured by a pair of handcuffs, and Annie by strong ropes as her wrists were too thin.

The pair was in a complete state of shock, as it was completely unexpected. They were bundled into the horse-drawn carriage and were driven away whilst the whole tribe watched in sorrow and dismay.

In Taj Mahal, Annie was treated very differently to James. Amelia would not hear of her being locked up, convinced that she had been tricked by that wicked convict. James stayed locked in a stable for two days, hands and feet tied, but Coldwell, a man who operated by the book, made sure that he was fed and was given water. After two days, he was taken to Port Jackson, and appeared before the judge, who took less than fifteen minutes to sentence him to Norfolk Island for life.

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