Works in the Herald 1934

Although in my very early youth it had been customary to see tribes of wandering blacks camped in or near our town, and although a half-civilised native had been the constant companion of my boyhood and had taught me to hunt and fish and shoot and much concerning native bushcraft, yet I know little today of native psychology.

Although I and my young play-fellows spent much of our time about the strange-smelling blacks camp and picked up quite an extensive vocabulary of allegedly native words, (I remember one wily old greybeard one day solemnly gave me the native name for "bicycle pump") and although my own boon companion, Walter, taught me many tricks (since half forgotten) with bark and gum-leaves and pieces of stick and bone, still my knowledge of the real native of the interior amounts to nothing, and of those true children of nature I have seen but two, and those quite out of their environment.

For the following little story I am indebted to the late Frank Brown (once a popular member of The Herald staff) whose vast fund of native lore will now, alas, ever remain unwritten.

Quartpot was a young buck, flash and vain in the matter of adornment and anxious to rise and shine among the male and female members of his tribe, many of whom had never seen a white man.

The story of Quartpot and his vanity occurred to me when I read on Saturday the seemingly strange remarks of Mr Canning, of Western Australia, before the Royal Commission inquiring into native affairs, in which he stated that natives, for the most part, preferred being chained by the neck when taken into custody.

Quartpot was evidently a native who shared this strange preference, and entertained it in a marked degree.

He was a member of a rather wild tribe, among whom Frank Brown (then buffalo shooting) happened to be sitting down at a time when a young and rather inexperienced trooper came south to apprehend a murderer and a few minor offenders whose offences seemed to merit a well-fed period in the white man's gaol.

The murderer was taken without much difficulty; the minor offenders when they heard what was toward, simply walked in - a suspiciously large number of them - and surrendered voluntarily.

They were all made ready and chained together in readiness for an early start the next morning.

But that night Quartpot, usually the life and soul of the party in that camp, sat apart and glowered with gloomy and envious eyes upon the doomed chain-gang. He felt that he was missing something. A feeling of grave injustice seemed to inform his simple soul. Somebody had a "pull" to which he, an influential member of the tribe had not been "put wise."

After long brooding, he finally took his grievance to Frank Brown.

"Why this fella no gottum iron string along a neck same dem udder fella?" he inquired with some show of indignation.

Frank explained the situation as well as he could. The principal offender, for example, was about to be taken a long walkabout because he had speared a gin.

Promptly seizing his weapons, Quartpot offered to go out and spear or stab the first gin available, if such a simple procedure would secure him the coveted order of the "iron string." Frank had some difficulty in restraining him, and after long and profitless argument, the young trooper was sought, and Frank made certain suggestions that involved quite unofficial procedure not included in police instructions.

The constable demurred, but after Frank had pointed out the possible consequences to some unoffending gin, a compromise was arranged.

That night it is doubtful if Quartpot slept at all; for he was not only one - he was leader of that honored clique who each bore the order of the iron string!

Next morning Frank rode with the trooper alongside his prisoners, and after 20 miles had been covered it was arranged that Quartpot, having had his day of triumph, should be released and return with Frank.

But they had reckoned without the Vain One. He strenuously and violently resisted any attempt to remove his insignia of office, and they knew by then that, if they succeeded he would go back and murder some poor gin for the sheer sake of achieving his cherished ambition.

Finally, compromise was arranged, and with a rusty file and much labor the link between Quartpot and his neighbour was severed, and Quartpot was left with the insignia of his office gloriously dangling about his shoulders.

No duchess ever wore her family diamonds with greater pride and dignity no countess ever seemed less conscious of the envy and admiration that her wonderful jewels awoke.

Frank told me that a week later he left Quartpot's tribe and did not see the Vain One for fully three years after that. But when he did meet that strangely jewelled dandy he still wore the dangling chain about his shoulders with undiminished pride. And, although it had worn an ugly callous on either shoulder, these the wearer regarded as marks of extraordinary distinction.

I fear there are very few of us who understand much about native psychology.

Herald, 19 March 1934, p6

Copyright © Perry Middlemiss 2003