These are the final few pages of W. Lloyd Warner’s 1937 ethnography, A Black Civilisation, where he reflects upon his relationship with his Yolŋu friend and primary informant, Makarrwala. Note that Warner uses the term ‘Murngin’ instead of Yolŋu, and Makarrwala he writes of here, as ‘Mahkarolla.’
This vignette very nearly breaks my heart. In fact, it very nearly made me cry, even upon reading for the many-nth time. Laytju ŋayi ŋunhi dhäwu yurru bulu ŋayi ŋonuŋ, ga mak . . . nhäwi . . . warwuyun-mirri. (‘It’s a lovely story, however, it is also heavy, weighted, and perhaps . . . whaddayoucallit . . . it has the quality of worry, grief, sorrow.’)
Here it is anyhow, such a beautiful story:
‘One day Mahkarolla and I started on an expedition with two canoe-loads of Murngin men, I to map clan territories, he to visit the sacred pools where his totems lived. As we sailed in the dugout around the rocky cliffs of Point Napier, across the channel from the English Company Islands, we entered almost open sea where the wind sweeps down from the northeast and Cape Wessel with terrific force. The western side of Napier’s Peninsula was quiet and calm, but the moment we rounded the point we entered a heavy, stormy sea.
Mahkarolla was in my canoe. Each canoe was equipped with a small sail and a paddle used as a rudder. Along the sides the men used paddles to steady the canoe and keep it from tipping over. The dugout canoes with no outriggers that are constructed by the natives of North Australia are unwieldy and easily upset even in calm water.
As the storm increased Mahkarolla became anxious and asked his older brother, Charli Charli Sit-Down, to act as steersman. In spite of his broken back he was probably the best canoe-man in North Australia. He was entirely dependent upon the water for long distance traveling and had become an excellent sailor. Mahkarolla distributed the other men about the boat and took charge of the sail. He placed me in the center in front of Charli Charli.
I thought the waves would submerge us or dash up against the rocks, but the little canoe rose slowly over them and plunged into the troughs beyond. Sometimes the waves were so high that we could not see the sail of the other canoe. Finally, I suggested to Charli Charli that we go back. He shook his dead and pointed to the rocks, indicating with a gesture that we would be swamped and killed.
The wind and waves were increasing. One man bailed furiously with a bivalve shell, for although the waves did not strike us the heavy spray filled our canoe. The natives mumbled to themselves. They were calling on their totem ancestors and their totems to help them. I said nothing and looked straight ahead. Then I started to swear in native at the storm. Charli Charli tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to stop because I would offence the Great Serpent that might swallow us.
In gripping the gunwales I had one hand underwater. Charli Charli again tapped me on the shoulder and shook his head. He pointed to my hand and said, “Bult-main-dji” (gray shark). I pulled my hand out of the water and turned it so that the fingers were inside the boat. The day before our canoe had been struck several times by large sharks which had come to prey on a crocodile we had harpooned.
We sailed on. We had lost sight of the other canoe and wondered whether it had sunk or gone back. The wind increased and the waves rose higher and higher. We took down the sail because it was no longer possible to control it. It seemed only a matter of minutes before one of the waves would strike us and sink us all.
I called to Mahkarolla, “What shall we do?” He said nothing. He did not so much as glance back. I called his name. He paid no attention. I wondered if he were sulking. This seemed unlike him, but most Murngin occasionally sulk and I wondered if he might feel that I had brought him into this very dangerous situation and blame me for it. With the foolish hope that it might be possible for us to get back to safety, I yelled again and asked if it were necessary for us to go on. He ignored me. After several more futile attempts to get his attention and some profane comment I subsided. There was complete silence in the boat.
Hours went by. Everyone remained quiet. I felt isolated and alone. The sun had gone down behind a bank of red clouds. In many of the Murngin ceremonies red clouds are a symbol of the end of things. The sea had turned blood red, ugly and morbid.
Darkness came, and with the night the waves quieted and the wind lessened. About midnight we came to a desert island lying a few hundred yards off the shore. The island was formed like a semicircular hill with one small beach at the bend. We saw a campfire on the beach and were afraid to land because the coastal and bush peoples had been fighting. Marauding bands from the interior had been coming down to the coastal country. We drew closer and discovered the party to be Murngin – the other canoe had landed safely.
Everything I had with me was soaked through except my camera and photographic material which, fortunately, were in waterproof bags. Mahkarolla and I with the others sat by the fire to dry and warm ourselves. We dried out enough tobacco to have a smoke. Mahkarolla turned to me and then said, “I am very sorry I did not answer you when you called to me, Bungawa. I could not because I was crying too much. I was afraid you were going to lose your life. I thought those waves were going to tip our canoe over and you would die. I am very sorry.”
I tried to answer him. All my words seemed inadequate. However, even in my shame I knew he understood my feelings because he had once said that when white men swore they did not mean what they said. After we had had some food and what little water was left in my canteen we hovered around the camp-fire and went to sleep.
When I left the Murngin country I took the mission lugger from the Crocodile Islands to Port Darwin to get the boat to Sydney. Mahkarolla came with me. I had to wait ten days for the boat and during this time he and I were together a good part of each day. When the boat came in Mahkarolla helped me aboard with my luggage and scientific equipment. Then my white friends in Darwin came aboard for a farewell whiskey and soda. Natives were not allowed to stay on board. When I realized we were about to sail I rushed out to find Mahkarolla. The pier was filled with Darwin whites who were there to feel in touch with the homeland. Out at the far corner of the crowd I saw Mahkarolla. He was standing still, his head bent down. I waved but he did not reply. I called to him but received no answer. There came to my mind the memory of the storm at sea when he thought I was going to lose my life. Our parting now had death in it too, because it was certain that we would never see each other again. I hurried down to the other end of the boat to be nearer him to try to attract his attention. The whistle blew and we started to leave the pier. I called again. Mahkarolla looked up, waved, then lowered his head again. He was crying. That was the last time I saw him.’
– Warner, 1937, pp. 487-490.