William Buckley was born in Cheshire, England in 1780. He was trained to be a bricklayer, but the monotonous work bored him. He joined the militia and was a soldier for four years. Then, he met some scruffy lads, and got busted for receiving stolen property. In 1803, he was rewarded for his mischief with a one-way nine-month pleasure cruise to a luxurious resort for white trash in Middle of Nowhere, Australia. He never saw his family again.
It was not a high security penal colony, because fleeing into the vast wilderness was essentially suicide. In just three months the prison routine got unbearably boring, and Buckley joined three other lads in a great escape. One was shot by a guard, and the two others soon lost their courage and gave up. Buckley was a stubborn cuss, not an obedient bootlicker. He refused to surrender, bid farewell to his cowardly mates, and abandoned the British Empire. Good luck Willy!
A mile or two later, in an incredible act, he passed through a time warp, and entered a vast Stone Age wilderness inhabited by cannibals, venomous snakes, and vicious packs of dingo dogs. He was free as can be, suddenly a clueless unarmed hunter-gatherer in a reality quite similar to 40,000 B.C. For the next 32 years, he never saw a civilized person, forgot his mother tongue, ceased knowing what year it was, and continuously worked to improve his survival skills. Fresh air, sunshine, and absolute freedom. Imagine that! His escape inspires pleasant fantasies for daydreaming corporate inmates trapped in cubicle farm workstations.
In the next several months, Buckley ate shellfish and occasionally observed a few passing natives. One day he stumbled upon a grave with a spear sticking out of it — Lucky Willy’s salvation. He took the spear, and used it for a walking stick. Later, while having a pleasant nap, he was spotted by two native women, who returned to their camp with wondrous news of a white man. Everyone came to see him, and he was given the name Murrangurk, the name of the corpse in the grave, previous owner of the spear. They believe that after death, souls return as white men. They were very happy to find him, and Willy now had relatives who held him in great awe.
Over time, he mastered their language. He learned a great deal about hunting, fishing, and foraging. He now dined on organic swans, emus, shellfish, shrimp, opossums, squirrels, large ants, roots, wombats, kangaroos, black snakes, grubs, lizards, toads, rats, and mice. Yum! Technology included long spears, short spears, spear throwers, boomerangs, tomahawks, shrimp nets, and fire-making sticks. Their portable mansions were bark tents. They weren’t too interested in clothing, fashionable folks wore a few strips of hide.
His saga often mentions seeing gatherings of 100, 200, and 300 natives, which surprised me. My minimal knowledge of Aborigines, based on twentieth century commentaries, led me to believe that they lived in small groups in a harsh land where food was scarce. Buckley indicated that they were intimately attuned to the cycles of the seasons, knowing when and where abundant food was likely to be found, for a temporary span of time. They lived a wandering life, trying to move from one food banquet to the next, improvising along the way.
Buckley arrived in Australia in 1803, just one year after the first non-Australian arrived in the wilderness. Willy spent 32 years with the Wathaurong Aborigines in the Port Phillip and Geelong districts (near Melbourne), and then made contact with sailors in 1835. In about 1849, as he neared the end of his life, he told his story to impoverished journalist John Morgan. Buckley could not read or write. The saga he told was based entirely on memory, long after the events occurred. He especially remembered the events that had made the deepest impressions on him — conflict and bloodshed.
Throughout the short book, he describes numerous violent events. Many folks were speared to death, and many of their corpses were eaten. Very often, women were the cause of bloody disputes. These conflicts were commonly resolved by spearing the woman, or the man who was with her, who was not her husband. Whenever someone was speared, the family of the victim was obliged to seek revenge, immediately, or at a convenient opportunity in the future. If the chief offender was not available, a member of his family would do. Sometimes two tribes clashed in large rumbles, and several died in the process.
Buckley reported that all deaths were believed to be the result of human agency, never natural causes. For example, when a man from an enemy tribe died from a snakebite, Buckley’s tribal brother-in-law was suspected of sorcery or something. The enemies attacked and speared the family that had kindly adopted him. Buckley became an orphan in a dangerous world, and he cried and cried for hours.
He felt safe and relaxed when living alone by a river or shore, but dangerous people could suddenly appear at any hour. Any day he could become the main course at dinner. One white man who met him later in life said he was of “a nervous and irritable disposition, and a little thing will annoy him much.” Another noted that he “was always discontented and dissatisfied.”
His wild days ended when he met some sailors on the shore. They were utterly surprised to see a dirty, nearly naked, six foot five inch (2 m) white man with long flowing hair, and a spear. It took him some time to remember English. He was greatly relieved to return to civilized society. He worked as an interpreter for colonists. Their mission was to meet native chiefs, and buy their land for a pile of trinkets. The natives had no chiefs, and no concept of owning land or selling it, but they did have a fondness for blankets, knives, and stuff. They did not understand what these transactions actually meant.
Buckley the bricklayer built the chimney for the first brick house in a primitive frontier settlement now known as Melbourne. Before long, a steady stream of ships was unloading settlers. Pissed off natives found exciting new opportunities in sheep rustling, looting, and spearing terrorists. There were many conflicts, and the well-armed terrorists eventually conquered the Aborigines, and profitably began mining the soil, grassland, forests, and wildlife. Buckley married the widow of a friend who had been speared. Soon after, he got typhus. In 1856, he died of injuries received from being run over by an ox cart in Hobart. The end.
This is a short book, and Morgan was not a master wordsmith. The book is a unique snapshot of a time, a place, and a life — a reminder of the era of low impact living. It’s an effective antidote for those who suffer from the illusion that wild tribes of hunter-gatherers universally enjoyed idyllic lives of love, peace, and happiness. It’s also sad.
Today, two centuries later, the wild ecosystem of 1803 has been severely and permanently damaged. This is not a path with a long future. The Aboriginal path very closely resembled genuine sustainability. All paths include some conflict and bloodshed, some coherence and happiness. We live in interesting times.
Morgan, John, The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, 1852, Reprint, William Heinemann Ltd, Melbourne, 1967.