Attack of the Xanthorreas

In January 1835 Dr Joseph Harris was with Alfred Hillman from the Survey Office on a 23 day trip to look at land grants and further explore the country near the Hotham and William rivers.

They were accompanied by Samuel Burges, another member of the Burges
 clan, Constable Dobbins
, Joseph Strelley Harris (son of Dr Harris
), Captain Marshall MacDermott, Constable Riley
, and a corporal and two privates from the 21st Regiment.

On the first night out the party camped about 20 kilometres SSE of Kelmscott and settled down for the night. Harris recorded:

A quantity of wood was collected for supplying the fire during the night, and we were all asleep at 9 o’clock. At midnight we were aroused by the most alarming cries— “the natives, the natives are among us!” I started up, and saw a dark shadow passing swiftly near me. All were now awake, and running against each other, scarcely comprehending the cause of alarm, or extent of danger; but adding their shouts to the general uproar. A voice now cried, “I have him: I have got him fast.” “Where? where? blood an oons, where?” cried another close beside me, on his knees, with his gun pointed from his shoulder, —we had overturned each other. The intimation of a capture implying the certainty of an enemy in the camp, added to our confusion; figures were seen running to and fro— who could know in the dark where to retreat? or whether the spear would strike in front or rear? —’twas dreadful! Pinjärra, and blood-thirsty retaliation, was in our minds; the fire brightened a little, and showed the position of the party, —some were on the ground—dead, or dying, perhaps, —one was roaring dreadfully.

Harris’s remark about ‘blood-thirsty retaliation’ was a reference to what has become known as the Battle of Pinjarra that occurred not many kilometres south of their location less than three months previously1. Harris  further recorded:

Mr Hillman now called on us to assemble around him, and keep silent, that we might ascertain if strangers were among us. To our inexpressible delight, we got together unhurt, and no strangers were seen; “but where is the captured native,” we all cried. It proved to be only a blackboy, * closely hugged by one of our party; and further inquiry elicited that a dream had caused the whole alarm. This was at first denied, and as all declared they had been cool and silent spectators of the scene, a short pause of apprehension again ensued—the terrible cries and yells then must have been the war cries of natives! No sounds of retreating foes could be heard however, and the seizure of the blackboy seemed to put the matter beyond a doubt; the sharp shrubs around accounted for the fancied pricking of the spears; loud fits of laughter succeeded; and tales were told of surprise leaps made in the moment of alarm.

A sentry being placed, we once more got to rest. The next morning, renewed laughter, and good-humoured jokes, enlivened our breakfast, and occasionally cheered our march during the day2.

The full report of the trip made by Hillman, Dr Harris and party can be read in the first volume of the Western Australian Exploration series. Go to the website for more details or visit the website of the publisher, Hesperian Press at www.hesperianpress.com.

* Xanthorrea preissii now commonly known as the grass tree or, sometimes, balga.

Kim Epton
Series Editor
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  1. J S Roe, with Sir Jas. Stirling & party, to Murray River & back to Perth – on which journey the natives were punished at Pinjarra. In Shoobert J. (Principal Editor), Western Australian Exploration Volume One December 1826 –December 1835, Hesperian Press, Carlisle, 2005, p381.
  1. Journal of Doctor Joseph Harris, with an extract from the journal of Mr Marshall MacDermott, on an expedition to the Hotham River. In Shoobert J. (Principal Editor), Western Australian Exploration Volume One December 1826 –December 1835, Hesperian Press, Carlisle, 2005, p398.