Extending the Pumpkin Line

By Heather Burke

Since writing our post on the possible defensive uses of pumpkins on the Queensland frontier, we’ve come across several more references to carving pumpkins and melons as a means to frighten Aboriginal people away from European camps. One of these accounts referred to it as an ‘old trick’, implying that it was well known and widely used in the 19th century:

The brothers [Henry and James Kayes] were working a claim on the Queensland border, and found the blacks troublesome. They scared them away by the old trick of a lighted candle in a watermelon, with eyes and mouth cut in it. (Western Star and Roma Advertiser 30 August 1933, p 3, referring to the late 1870s).

Others claim it as an original tactic, albeit one used in multiple places. The sons of John Elliot, one of the original settlers of Buttai in NSW in 1842, for example, apparently

evolved a novel and successful scheme. A large pumpkin was procured and hollowed out—holes were cut for eyes, nostrils and mouth and a lighted candle placed inside. At night the gruesome object was placed near the blacks camp. From a safe distance one of the sons called, ‘Debll, debil.’ Becoming frightened at the ghostly sight, the blacks made a hurried departure.’ (Newcastle Sun 7 November 1938, p6)

An ‘old pioneer’ from Glencoe in Victoria, crafted a longer, much more elaborate version of the same ruse:

The speaker told us that at the place where he was then living the blacks had become a nuisance, and were likely to become a menace. … Just then a man on the station had a happy thought which he [at] once put into action. He went into the garden and chose a fair sized pumpkin. This he hollowed out and then on one side of it carved the rough outline of a human face. Then he took some strong cord, and, massing one end over the limb of a tree nearby the camp, fastening the other to the stem of the pumpkin, took the loose end to a clump of shelter as far away as the cord would reach. As soon as it became dark he carefully placed a lighted candle in the pumpkin and crawled away to the cover to which the cord led. Slowly he drew the lighted pumpkin up to the branch from which it hung. Of course it was not long before the swaying light drew the attention of the camp, and at once there began a great confabulation … as to what the vanishing fiery face could mean (of course the face vanished, and reappeared as the pumpkin swung round). Curiosity at last overcame their fear, and they came slowly towards this mysterious apparition in the air. When they came fairly close to the tree the man, fearing the trick might be discovered, pulled the light quickly up and down, and finally let the thing come tumbling to the ground. Already badly frightened the blacks were still more scared by the swift descent of the fiery face which seems to leap upon them form the tree, and at the expiring flash of the candle when the pumpkin shell burst upon the ground, the whole crowd—men, women and children—gave one wild yell and fled from the camp as though the evil one himself was at their heels. (Gippsland Times 8 January 1931, p5).

Even Leichhardt (apparently) used the trick, at least according to Thomas Archer of Gracemere (near Rockhampton), who claimed to have seen him do it in the 1840s:

He sometimes made excursions into the mountains and scrubs beyond us … when he adopted an invention for the protection of his camp against night attacks … which amused us by its originality. He got a large pumpkin from the garden, and made a hole in one end of it, through which he removed the inside pulp, thus converting it into a hollow sphere. He then carved on two sides of it the representation of a hideous human face, grinning horribly a ghastly grin, and at night a lighted candle was placed inside, and the luminous sphere was suspended from a bough above the camp. Whether this ingenious contrivance helped to scare the wild natives from his camp, I don’t know, but at any rate they never attacked it. (Queenslander 16 December 1899, p1193)

So, old trick or independent invention? At the very least it seems much more widely used than we first supposed and perhaps more central to defensive strategies than previously appreciated.

Turnip lantern from the early 20th century at the Museum of Country Life, Ireland (Wikimedia Commons_Rannpháirtí anaithnid)
Carved turnip lantern, early 20th century, Museum of Country Life, Ireland (Wikimedia Commons/Rannpháirtí anaithnid)

4 thoughts on “Extending the Pumpkin Line

  1. Recently my girlfriend was telling me about a presentation she attended at the local Heritage group on the southern Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia, during which the speaker happened to mention the use by colonial era settlers of water-melons carved in exactly the same fashion as the pumpkins under discussion here, and for precisely the same purpose: to deter Aboriginal people. Her family has had a presence in this locality since the early days of settlement, and the speaker’s comment revived a memory she had of being told by relatives that her ancestors had engaged in this practice.

    1. Hi Nigel – thanks for sharing that information with us. So great that people are having these discussions and memories are being revived and Australia’s history being discussed. One day we’ll have to meet you in person! Cheers Lynley

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