Keith Vincent Smith
Charley or Charlie Tarra (or Tara), a young Aboriginal man from the inland Gundungurra near Goulburn, New South Wales, adopted his name from Charles Macarthur (called Charley or Charlie), a son of Hannibal Hawkins Macarthur and his wife Anna Maria, daughter of Philip Gidley King, Australia’s third Governor.
According to Macarthur’s sister Emmeline de Falbre, Charley Tarra had never seen the sea. She told the story of his first visit to the Macarthur home ‘Clovelly’ at Watson’s Bay near South Head and The Gap in her Recollections and letters 1860-1894, written at Cheltenham, England, in 1909 and now in Sydney’s Mitchell Library.
One incident is of interest; an aboriginal named Charlie Tara devoted himself to my brother Charlie, who he heard had arrived by water, but he had never seen the sea.
He was brought to Clovelly after dark & next morning, Blind-folded, & led to the edge of the cliff. He simply gazed upon the Pacific Ocean with a puzzled air, & said ‘baal me make light Charlie’s tracks’ (I don’t see Charlie’s track) & that was the only remark his instinct led him to make.
Charlie Tara was the Black Fellow who went with Count Strzelecki & James [Macarthur] to Gippsland.
‘Clovelly’, named by Hannibal Hawkins Macarthur, who acquired it in 1840, is the blue-roofed building in the centre of View of the Heads, painted by Joseph Lycett in 1824. It once stood in the northeast corner of the present Robertson Park at Watsons Bay (heartland of the Gadigal clan). It was demolished in 1803 and became a public park in 1912.
Charley Tarra was an Aboriginal guide and bush tracker, who from 1838 was employed by James Macarthur, another son of Hannibal Macarthur. Although he was said to be from the ‘Goulburn Plains Tribe’, Charley belonged to the Burra Burra clan of the Gundungurra, whose territory, wrote Charles MacAlister in Old Pioneering Days in the Sunny South (Goulburn, 1907 page 82), ranged over the area ‘from the Abercrombie to Taralga and Carrabungla’, straddling the Great Dividing Range. More specifically, A. L. Bennett, whose informant was Werriberrie or Billy Russell, called the Burra Burra ‘the “Richlands or Crookwell tribe’.
This information is from Jim Smith’s recent and comprehensive work The Aboriginal People of the Burrangong Valley (2016), available from the Blue Mountain Education and Research Trust at Lawson, NSW. Jim and I graduated as history PhDs, wearing our Medieval floppy hats at Macquarie University, Sydney, in 2008.
… I am off to Snowy Mountains …
Jargungal or Jargangii, the highest mountain on the Australian continent, has been there for a long time and was well known to the Indigenous people who lived for thousands of years in the nearby foothills and plains. They called the north-east top of the mountain Munyang, the name of tall grass.
On 12 March 1840, Paul Edmund Strzelecki, a Polish explorer and geologist, climbed to the summit alone and named it Mount Kosciusko, after Tadeuz Kosciusko, a Polish hero of the resistance against Russia. Strzelecki had adopted the spurious title of ‘Count’, but was knighted, as Sir Paul Strzelecki, when he became a British citizen in 1845.
Strzelecki could not have reached the top of this 2228 metre peak without the help of his two Aboriginal Australian guides. Charley Tara or Tarra accompanied Strzelecki’s party with their pack horses from Camden Farm, south of Sydney, through 346 kilometres of bush to the cold mountain ranges. A second guide, Jackey, was a local Djilimitang man who directed the party through the high country to the Rams Head Range. He had previously climbed the mountains in search of Bogong moths.
Hannibal Macarthur gave £500 towards the cost of the exploration of the Australian Alps.
This account is based on James Macarthur’s Field Notes, sent to Leslie Macarthur and published by Charles Daly in The Victorian Historical Magazine, vol.X1X, No. 2, in December 1941, pages 41-53.
Strzelecki’s party including James Macarthur, James Riley, aged 18, a stockman who worked for Macarthur and two convict servants, with pack horses carrying supplies left Ellerslie Station near Adelong, New South Wales, on 5 February 1840.
They arrived at Welaregang on 7 March 1840, where Jacky was hired to guide them to the High Country and the two servants were left behind. On 9 March they made their first camp at a ford called Nowrang by the local Aborigines.
March 11. – Count Strzelecki, myself and two natives started at 7 am, in high spirits to accomplish our object, the weather was intensely hot. We marched on with our blankets and provisions “au militaire”. The Count carried in addition a heavy case of instruments for scientific observations.
Riding through gullies and steep descents they came to the Hume River. James Macarthur continued the narrative of their progress through the Alps:
We crossed to the right bank, and passing the junction of another branch of tributary recrossed to the left bank, reaching the spot at which our actual ascent of the mountain was to commence.
The thermometer ranging upwards of 90 degrees during the day, we determined after refreshing ourselves to accomplish as much of the ascent as we could during the cooler hours of night, and only camped when the bright moonlight failed us. A fine Lyre-Bird furnished an ample supper and consoled us for the want of water.
The early dawn of the 12th found us again on our way, and after 5 hrs of tedious ascent we reached a small open spot. A fine spring afforded us the means of making a hearty breakfast.
The only water we had had during these many hours of toil was a single quart afforded by our guide Jacky descending over some perpendicular rocks to a roaring torrent which we could hear far below us but could not see.
The spot we had now reached was the favourite camping ground of the natives during their annual visit to feast on the Boogan Moth [sic]. Traces of their camps were visible in all directions. Our sable friends arrive here thin and half starved – a few weeks surviving on this extraordinary food clothes their skinny frames in aldermanic contrast.
The annual spring migration of Bogong moths (Agrotis infusa) at night to the Snowy Mountains of south-eastern Australia provided a major seasonal feast for Aboriginal people. Clans gathered at the foot of the ranges in noisy groups, shouting and swinging bullroarers. They climbed the mountains to hunt and eat the moths and to hold ceremonies and initiations supported by this rich diet.
The name Bogong is said to come from the Dhudhura word Bugung. After lying dormant throughout summer, the moths migrate to warmer inland places where their larvae or black cutworms feed on seedlings of wide leaved plants.
Moth hunters used a stick to knock off masses of moths clinging to rocks and caves and collected them in fine meshed nets. Sometimes they smoked out moths from rock crevices. They roasted the delicious nutty tasting and nutritious moths in hot ashes on flat river stones and ground them into a paste using stones like a mortar and pestle.
Charcoal in the Bogong Cave has been dated to 1000 years before the present, so we can say that Indigenous people had been collecting, cooking and eating Bogong moths for at least that time.
Macarthur, who acknowledged his Aboriginal companions as ‘our guides’, continued:
Being on the margin of the timber we determined to leave our blankets calculating of the thick brush wood and secondly by belt of dead timber we reached the open summit clothed with a peculiar gigantic grass called by the natives “Monnong” [Munyang]; it is from 2 to 3 feet high – bright green and succulent. It was very difficult to travel through. Flying mist occasionally enveloped us accompanied by a keen freezing air. After 2 hours of toilsome ascent we found ourselves still far from the highest point. After consultation we determined to send our guides for the blankets and provisions and directed them to form a camp on the spot where we then stood.
Strzelecki and I then proceeded towards the extreme summit which we reached after a very laborious climb. The air was bitterly cold. We found the actual summit divided into six or more points. The Count by aid of his instruments quickly detected one of these as being in fact considerably higher than where we stood. A deep ravine separating us from this did not deter my adventurous friend; he determined to reach it. – As the day was far advanced I thought it more prudent to return towards the point where I had ordered the natives to await our return.
– Before leaving the Count he told me of his intention of recording his visit to the highest point in Australia by associating the name of Kosciusko with our successful ascent. I could not but respect and feel deep sympathy with my friend when with his hat off he named the Patriot of his Country.
KOALAS IN GIPPSLAND
After the ascent of Mt. Kosciusko, Strezelecki and Macarthur and their two Aboriginal guides returned via Omeo and Ensay along the Tambo River. They were soon bushed in swamps and thick scrub and abandoned their exhausted horses in a valley 20 kilometres past Moe. On 6 April 1840 rations were reduced to a slice of bacon and a biscuit each per day.
Many reports link the survival of the explorers to Charley Tarra’s bushcraft and ability to provide food, including kangaroos and ‘monkeys’ or koalas .
In Recollections of an Australian Squatter, 1809-1886 (Sydney 1978), William Brodribb wrote:
Fortunately, they had with them an Aboriginal of new South Wales – a rare character, called Charley, who procured them their animal food, by climbing the large gum trees and catching, whilst asleep, the Australian monkey, or sloth … For several days the party lived on these animals.
In A History of Victoria (Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, 2006), Geoffrey Blainey comments:
On the banks of the small Tarra River, their Aboriginal helper Charley Tarra killed a kangaroo which was too heavy to carry away.
James Riley, who described Charley as ‘the native’, wrote:
In the country through which we passed there was but one animal, it is the size of a small dog and lives in trees, it is called the monkey or native bear. These we procured sometimes by shooting, sometimes by the native climbing the trees after them. We ate them raw when we could not make a fire …
They eventually reached Western Port and walked on to Melbourne which they reached on 25 May 1840. From Melbourne Riley went back to Gippsland with Charley Tarra, John Rutledge and Pigeon, a Shoalhaven Aboriginal man John Batman had taken to Melbourne. They recovered one horse and Strezelecki’s specimens. Once again Charley Tarra supplemented the tucker, catching koalas almost every day, as well as possums and bandicoots. They left in June and returned by August 1840.
In Votes & Proceedings of the Legislative Assembly, Sydney 1849, James Macarthur paid his personal tribute to Charley Tarra, who had died from a lung disease (tuberculosis) in 1847.
Charley Tann [Tara] a native of Burra Burra, near Goulburn, attached himself to my service for several years before his death, he accompanied me in the expedition I undertook with Count Strzelecki in the exploration of Gipps Land — he accompanied the first party of settlers who entered Port Albert from Melbourne by sea; on his return he accompanied me to Sydney, and assisted me with the overland journey with sheep. He then accompanied Mr Surveyor Townshend through his survey of Gippsland and overland through Manaroo [Monaro] to Sydney, while in my absence he remained at Parramatta; his former companions frequently came down urging his return to his tribe at Burra Burra, and to which place he shortly afterwards accompanied them. A cough that the unusual exposure quickly increased, settled on his lungs, and then rapidly led to his decease.
He died at Richlands on the farm belonging to my cousins Messrs James and William Macarthur, where he received every attention that kindness could bestow. On his death bed he was surrounded by many of his old friends on the Establishment; his last moments were devoted to kind messages to myself and family, and his last words were — ‘God bless you all.’
It gives me pleasure to place that man on record to whose devoted fidelity I in more than one instance owe my life. I feel confident that the present enquiries will multiply similar instances and thereby place the native aborigines character in a very different light from that in which it is usually held.
Charley Tara or Tarra’s memorial is the Tarra Valley National Park of 303 hectares in South Gippsland near Balook, 200 kilometres east of Melbourne, Victoria which was declared in 1909. Since then it has merged with Bulga National Park and is known as Tarra Bulga National Park.
My great-grandfather Thomas Bugden was born in the the small village of Donhead St. Mary in Wiltshire in England in 1811. He was aged 26 when he was recruited and bonded to James and William Macarthur, sons of John Macarthur of Camden, as a farm labourer.
He sailed to Sydney on the ship John McLennan in 1837, one year before Charley Tarra joined James Macarthur, and worked on their Richlands Farm for 10 years. After that he was the Pound Keeper, in charge of stolen or strayed horses, at Taralga. He afterwards settled at May Farm near Mt. Hunter, now the site of the University of Sydney Experimental Farm.
Thomas Bugden must have known Charley Tarra, who died from tuberculosis in 1847 and was buried at Richlands.
Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2017