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The Gippsland Mystery.


Ernest McCaughan).

The recent despatch of a Government

expedition from Port Darwin in search of two women reported to be detained by aborigines in the vicinity of Booraloola, Northern Territory, recalls the tales circulating in Melbourne

during the 40's of a mysterious white woman amongst the Gippsland blacks. The eastern portion of Victoria

had not long been settled before there were whispers of a European woman being held prisoner by a tribe in the neighbourhood of the lakes. As in the case of most rumours, it is difficult to find definitely the source whence these originated but in the first instance they appear to have come from an aboriginal boy, Johnny Warrington, employed as a shepherd on Angus McMillan's station. He talked of having played with a white child, who he said belonged to a white woman kept prisoner by Bunjaleena, the chief of another tribe.

Then a party of white horsemen, while following the harbour round from the recently formed settlement at Port Albert, unexpectedly stumbled on a blacks' encampment. The blacks, thinking like the Aztecs, that the men on horses were super-natural creatures,

broke in panic for the nearest

scrub, leaving their canoes behind. On   examining these primitive craft the whites, to their astonishment, found the ends of the doubled-up sheets of bark caulked with a towel and por-

tions of a woman's underclothing. Later, a stockman discovered on the trunk of a tree rudely but legibly carved, the name, Ellen McPherson. and below the letters Brit.

Naturally, when the first rumours reached Melbourne, there had been considerable speculation as to who the woman might be. Opinion seems to have been equally divided between a Miss McPherson supposed to have left for Sydney in the Brittomart, on October 11, 1839, and Mrs. Capel, the wife of a brewer, who had sailed in the Britannia for the same port a few weeks later. Both vessels had dis-

appeared; but a boat belonging to the Britannia had been discovered by the crew of a revenue cutter ashore on the Ninety Mile Beach. The boat must have been found shortly after she had been beached, for the tracks of the survivors were still distinguish- able. From the direction of the footsteps

it was concluded the landing party has set out for Twofold Bay. What the prospect of that dreadful march must have meant for poor Mrs. Capel, if she landed, is too horrible to contemplate, as it is known that

on her departure from Melbourne she was about to become a mother. After the discovery of the name on the tree, opinion, of course, veered round to Miss McPherson being the prisoner, but though for some time there was considerable excitement, nothing ap-

pears to have been done, and the affair was forgotten.

Early in 1846, however, interest was revived. A stockman, in search of some missing cattle, came across a white boy with the natives, near the Ninety Mile beach. The child was described as being about six years of age, a fact pointing to the captive being Mrs. Capel. As almost simul-

taneously two black troopers reported having seen a white woman with a tribe in the ranges, Tyers, the Crown Commissioner for Gippsland, realised it was necessary to act. In March, 1846, he sent out a party consisting of three white troopers, under Ser-

geant Windridge, and eight black police, under Mr. Walsh, in earch of the captive. The aborigine, Johnny Warrington, accompanied them as guide. For weeks they fruitlessly searched the shores of the lakes, back-

waters, and rivers, till at last, owing

to the insubordination of the black   troopers, who had consumed all their  

rations and refused to go on, the   party was compelled to return to  

camp. Despite eulogiums passed by   some early writers on the black police,   they do not appear, judging by their conduct on these expeditions, to have been an unqualified success.

On information obtained from an elderly black fellow the next journey was made towards the ranges, and the party this trip penetrated as far as the Dargo High Plains. It proved

equally unavailing, but frequently as  

they had drawn blank, the leaders   seemed to -have been more impressed  

than ever with the truth of Warring-   ton's story. Nightly over the camp

fire he would entertain them with ad-   ditional details regarding the white   woman. He told them how on landing

she had been stripped by the gins; how she had several half-caste children

by her captor, Bunjaleena; and

how, though she played with the pic-   canninnies, she often used to weep.

These stories encouraged the men to   make another effort, and in pursuance   of their quest they made for the coast,  

Here a large party of blacks were en-  

countered. They "showed fight," and were only dispersed with difficulty after several had been wounded by the police. On their retreat ten gins and some piccanninnies fell into the hands of the party. One of these gins was Johnny Warrington's sister, and from her it was learnt that the object of their long, wearisome search was only two miles ahead, accompanying Bunjaleena with the main body of the tribe. The whites decided to pursue, but the native police, either from cowardice, or because, as they asserted,

their rations were finished, again refused to proceed. Dejected and disappointed, the whites again returned

to camp.

Strange as it may appear, news of the despatch of this expedition seems to have been carefuly kept from the Melbourne public, for, in September, 1846, we find a number of citizens re-

questing the Mayor (Dr. James Palmer —afterwards Sir James) to call a meeting. It was held at the Royal Hotel, which stood in Collins Street, on the site now occupied by the Union

Bank. Several well-known residents attended, including John Stephen, William

Kerr, Westgarth, and Dr. Greeves. Notwithstanding a committee was appointed, and it fitted out a party of five whites and 10 blacks, whom they placed under the leadership of De Villiers, an ex-police officer, who kept the extraordinarily named, ''No Good Damper Inn" on the Dandenong Road.

Warman, a retired sailor, was selected as second in command. The party disembarked from the Sydney steamer, "Shamrock," at Wilson's Promontory, whence they proceeded in two whaleboats

to Port Albert. But beyond finding the initials "H.B." and BRIT., cut on a native cherry tree, the trunk of which they forwarded to Melbourne, and reporting that they had found evidence of the existence of two white women, the expedition seems to have accomplished little.

On the 13th October, 1846, Lonsdale, who was acting superintendent during Latrobe's absence in Tasmania, wrote to the Colonial Secretary:—"I have not the slightest doubt of such a per-

son being there, and consider time ought not to be lost in prosecuting the attempt for her recovery." The letter went on to give details of the woman's appearance, that she was "about 24 or 25 years of age; that her hair is light brown, and now cut short; and when wrecked she seems to have been well dressed; that she had on a boa, and that part of a silk dress, which was found some time after, belonged

to her." The reply to this authorised Lonsdale to institute a further search, and Tyers was instructed

to again send out the police. This time they were accompanied by half a dozen white volunteers. With the hope of conciliating the blacks, they were well provided with tomahawks, knives, fishhooks, and a number of mirrors. They also carried a number of handkerchiefs, with the following notice printed in English and Gaelic:


"There are 14 armed men in search of you. Be cautious and rush to them when you see them near you. Be par-

ticularly on the look-out every dawn of morning. For it then the party are

in hopes of rescuing you. The white settlement is towards the setting sun."

Possibly this is the only instance of Gaelic having been used officially in Victoria, the reason being the supposed

loss of a ship in Bass Straits with a number ol' Highland immigrants,

many of whom at that period were unacquainted with English.

The expedition succeeded in taking prisoner the woman's supposed captor, Bunjaleena. But, although he was im-

prisoned and not released until he undertook to deliver her up, that wily individual only appears to have led the police a succession of wild goose chases. One interesting find they made, however, was the figurehead of a small vessel. It was the bust of a woman. The blacks carried it about

with them, and appeared to hold it in great reverence, for it was only obtained

from them with the greatest difficulty.

The late Mr. Allan McLean always expressed himself as having been very doubtful of a white woman ever having

been with the Gippsland blacks, asserting that the figurehead secured by the third expedition was the fons et orgio of the various reports. How he held this view it is hard to conceive,

for on October 29, 1847, only four miles away from Tyers' Camp, a native trooper found the dead body of a white woman and a half-caste child. The following day Angus McMillan held an inquiry, but nothing was found by which the unfortunate's identity

could be established.

—Melbourne "Argus."

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