95. FIREARMS.

"the party was taking no risks and was armed to the teeth".
John Bailey, Chairman of C.A.G.E. as reported in the Melbourne Argus, 08/07/30.

 

The first C.A.G.E. (Lasseter) Expedition had not left Sydney before it was involved in controversy as a result of an ill considered remark to the press by John Bailey, the Company Chairman. On 07/07/30 Bailey told the Sydney Morning Herald that while the expedition was not expecting any problems with Aboriginals nevertheless "the party was taking no risks and was armed to the teeth", Bailey's statement was deliberately misconstrued in some quarters and the resulting furore from Aboriginal protection societies, opposition politicians and the press was immediate and strident, even the Manchester Guardian found cause to castigate the Australian Government over its treatment of the natives. Lasseter was on the train to Broken Hill when his letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, defending the expeditions needs for firearms, appeared in the press. He pointed out that the party carried one 12 gauge shotgun, two rifles and two service revolvers, the revolvers were carried on the advice of a police officer who had ten years experience in the centre, "where wild dogs are numerous, and are very reliably reported to have killed two men when injured and helpless".

In Parliament, Arthur Blakeley, the Minister responsible for the administration of Central Australia was forced to defend the Governments record and the benign intentions of the expedition, and the unwanted attention followed his brother Fred, the expedition leader, to Broken Hill. When Blakeley arrived there on 13/07/30 the local scribes, sensing nepotism and scandal, were waiting with awkward questions, which Blakeley fielded reasonably well, adding that, "The members of the expedition were hurt at the suggestion in the Sydney press that they were armed to the teeth in order to beat off any attacks which might be made on them by blacks". The men certainly carried some firearms, just in case, but their main purpose was to bag fresh meat for the larder. Indeed they would be only too pleased to see Aboriginals as it meant there would be game and water in the vicinity. In his narrative of the expedition, Blakeley added "The reason why every man carried a revolver was in case he met a mad brumby camel ~ I had one experience with a bull camel in season and had I not had my revolver handy, I might have got my wings."

Several days after Blakeley was grilled by the Broken Hill press, Coote, the expeditions publicity hound and pilot arrived in town, en route to Alice Springs, and he had much to say about the Company's plans, especially concerning the purpose of the aircraft he was flying, amongst other duties he was to fly ahead of the main party and, "warn the party against any warring blacks that may be in the vicinity, as at this time of year the tribes are very aggressive." Thus emphasising Baileys misconstrued statement. Central Australia was indeed a dangerous place with rampant camels, marauding dingoes, and warring aggressive natives not to mention the possibility of death from thirst and starvation and hordes of snakes, circumstances that suited Coote's imaginative pen quite nicely, hence the need to be armed to the teeth.

As a result of the undue publicity, Blakeley had to declare the Company's armoury to the police when he arrived in Alice Springs. Apart from the shotgun, rifles and revolvers there was 200 rounds of shotgun and 500 rounds of rifle and revolver ammunition, and later, Philip Taylor's rifle and shotgun, the Captains rifle and Coote's pistol, the expedition was prepared for a siege or a war. But firearms continued to bedevil Blakeley all the way to Illbilla, shortly after the expedition started on the journey west, members of the expedition pointed out that Lasseter had taken to sleeping in the locked cab of the Thornycroft, surrounded by firearms and the entire supply of ammunition, when confronted by Blakeley, Lasseter's surly reply was, "I'm not going to be caught napping", Blakeley assumed by a surprise attack from the Aboriginals, thus confirming his conclusion that Lasseter had never been in Central Australia prior to this expedition.

The potentially nastiest incident with firearms took place the day before the expedition arrived at Illbilla. Lasseter and either Blakeley or Coote became involved in a petty argument over Lasseter's missing mug, the situation quickly escalated into a blazing row to the point where, "there was some hot talk of guns" between the pilot and Lasseter according to Blakeley. Coote puts a different slant on the incident by writing that Blakeley and Lasseter were near fisticuffs over the issue and he intervened to calm matters.

Blakeley's final aggravation involving firearms involved Paul Johns who had been signalled into Illbilla to guide Lasseter south to the Petermanns. Early in the morning of 13/09/30, while the men were still asleep, Johns arrived very quietly in camp, "the first we knew of him was a sharp command to put up our hands while he played with a revolver". Blakeley roundly castigated the fool and reminded Johns if there were other options he would not be getting the job as Lasseter's guide. Two days later Lasseter and Johns left Illbilla and the only weapon Lasseter carried was Blakeley's company revolver, and here it should be emphasised that Lasseter did not take one of the expeditions two 32 calibre rifles, an omission that has implications for the later record of events in the Petermanns. Presumably Johns was armed with a rifle suitable for shooting dingoes, his professed occupation at the time, for a Central Australian dogger not to carry a rifle would have been cause for some suspicion.

Lasseter and Johns were an ill matched pair and in due course argued over Lasseter's veracity and motives, always a touchy and dangerous subject, and Johns ability as a guide and a bushman. According to Johns, the only source, and a remarkably unreliable one at that, the incident took place somewhere near Lake Amadeus on their return to Illbilla for a resupply after the first foray into the Petermanns. The argument resulted in drawn revolvers and Johns disarming Lasseter, returning the weapon prior to leaving Illbilla for Hermannsburg and then Alice Springs. Pastor Albrecht, the missionary at Hermannsburg records something of Johns arrival at the Mission and the 'Fight in the Desert' incident. Johns first established that Albrecht was a Justice of the Peace and would he take charge of a new 44 calibre rifle that he had taken from Lasseter, "I request you to keep this rifle until the police have been informed and given direction as to what is to be done with it. I have taken it from Lasseter".

Albrecht obliged, but his record, written for the 1964 Lutheran Almanac, has become yet another piece of mishistory embedded in the Lasseter saga, he seemed quite unaware that Lasseter did not carry a rifle and accepted Johns statement without question, and given Johns intention to travel on to Alice Springs to report events out west to Carrington, the Government Resident, why not take Lasseter's rifle with him? It could be that Albrecht took charge of Johns own rifle, a weapon eminently suitable for dispatching dingoes....or Lasseter, thus inadvertently removing an item of key evidence from the crime, or equally, adding a red herring to the record. In any event Johns has been roundly, yet unjustly criticised for leaving Lasseter in the desert without a rifle.

Albrecht arrived at Illbilla on 06/10/30 during his first tour of his vast mission and spent a couple of days in the company of the few Aboriginals camped there. The locals expressed their fear of Lasseter's frequent target practise on empty fuel drums. Albrecht concluded this was done to warn the Aboriginals of the consequences of interfering with Lasseter, naturally many left the area and the rest refused all assistance to Lasseter.

Lasseter and his 'loose cannon' in the Petermanns is a doubtful record, gleaned from his diary, the letters found on his body by Buck and conflicting oral history. It seems he continued target practise and according to Idriess managed to despatch a camel with his revolver, thus saving himself and the tribe he was travelling with, from certain starvation. Not surprising Lasseter's supply of ammunition ran precariously low but he miraculously  found five bullets lying on the floor of the cave he taken refuge in. He used two shots to drive off Aboriginals who attempted to spear him another three to discourage would be thieves then three more to bag a rabbit. "but oh what does it matter I want relief & have saved one cartridge".  Lasseter's much used and broken revolver was found near his body by Bob Buck in March 1931 and some have rightly wondered if that revolver was Lasseter's, as Walter Gill noted, Buck's storeroom was full of assorted broken revolvers.

And what of Coote, stranded five miles south west of Ayers Rock for several days as a result of damaging the propeller on the Golden Quest after making an unnecessary forced landing. He chose to camp by the plane and each evening he fired three shots from his automatic pistol to attract the attention of Philip Taylor who was overdue by a week. Coote was forced to relocate to the 'Rock when his water supplies ran out and while resting in a cave an unfortunate lizard annoyed him with its scampering and ratchet like bark, "I drew my automatic and blew its head off". Its been written elsewhere that Coote should not have put pen to paper regarding his misadventures in Central Australia, a tendency to shoot himself in the foot so to speak.

Somehow it not surprising to learn that the expeditions two Englishmen, "new come ups", as Bob Buck would disparagingly refer to them, namely Philip Taylor and Blakiston-Houston, had the most success with firearms, bagging kangaroo and pigeon for the pot and saw no reason to use revolvers for any purpose.

LASSETERIA

R.Ross. 1999-2006

Barrier Miner,21/07/30. Barrier Daily Truth,17/07/30. Melbourne Argus,08/07/30. Blakeley Fred, Dream Millions,10,55,147,149. Marshall-Stoneking. Albrecht. F. W. Lutheran Almanac 1964. Lasseter's Diary,10,13,16,25,32,83. Coote, E.H. Hell's Airport,208.