Project Canterbury

Round about the Torres Straits

By the Right Rev. Gilbert White, D.D.

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1917.

Chapter I. The Australian Aboriginals

THE Australian aborigines are a standing challenge to Christian missions because they are popularly supposed to be one of the very lowest types of humanity, and to be incapable of understanding the Christian message. Professor Haeckel goes so far in one of his books as to say that they are barely one degree higher than the anthropoid ape, whoever that person may be, while the only excuse for the shocking cruelty with which they have often been treated in the past by the white settlers of Australia is to be found in the fact that many of these honestly believed that the aborigines were scarcely human, and not, therefore, entitled to human justice and consideration.

To those who have lived in daily contact with the natives, and have treated them with fairness and sympathy, these estimates of the aborigines seem amazingly and grotesquely false, and I hope to show that the aborigines of Australia are by no means, even in their natural state, to be classed among the lowest races, while they have a receptivity and capacity for accepting Christian teaching which is often startling in its effect on their life and habits; nor is the element of romance by any means lacking to these Missions of our Church. It is possible that the ancestors of the now extinct Tasmanians were the original inhabitants of Australia. They were a short, dark, curly-haired race. Then a superior race, akin perhaps to the Dravidians of India and the Keddahs of Ceylon, migrated to Australia, coming probably in rude canoes before the north-east monsoon. They were taller, lighter in colour, and straight-haired. They overran the country, predominating over the original inhabitants, more in the North and less in the South, but never reaching Tasmania. There is also an infusion of Malay blood in the far North (see "Two Representative Tribes of Queensland," by John Mathews; Fisher Unwin, 1910), The two leading types are still distinguishable even in the same tribe, and it has been suggested that the curious marriage laws of the aboriginals are founded on this fact of the double racial basis.

It is hard to conceive of anything more unlovely or degraded than the dirty native who hangs about the Australian bush towns, clad in the filthy cast-off garments of bush civilization, but the same native in his natural state is a very different being. His dark, chocolate-coloured body, kept clean by constant swimming in waterholes and lagoons, shines with the glow of health and good condition, and blends so naturally with the blackened tree-stumps and dark red ant-hills of the bush that many a native has escaped death, when pursued by the settlers, by the simple expedient of standing quite still and allowing the chase to sweep by within a few yards of his unnoticed figure, while the colour of the body is such that he does not seem to be naked even though quite unclothed.

The dwellings of the natives are very primitive, consisting usually of a few branches to keep off the wind, but it must be remembered that the white stockman has often no better shelter, sleeping perhaps 350 nights out of the year in the open air and without a tent. Occasionally in the wet season the aboriginal man will build a little platform of saplings arched over by a sheet of bark, making his wife sit on the ground underneath him and keep a small fire going, that the smoke may drive away the mosquitoes. Occasionally a hut will be built of bark shaped like a Kaffir kraal; into this a dozen or more people will creep and close every aperture to keep out the mosquitoes, but as a general rule the aboriginal is content to sleep in the open with a small smouldering fire on cither side to warm him, and by their smoke to reduce the biting night cold. He ridicules the white man's fire, which he says is so large that he cannot go near it.

No American Indian can surpass, even if he can equal, the aboriginal in his keen powers of observation, his knowledge of nature, and his skill and ingenuity in hunting. I have seen two tiny children at the top of a big forest tree pulling young parrots out of a hole. I have seen an old woman past all work tracking a lizard over ground where there seemed to be no possible trace of it. I have seen a man drive a wooden spear through the six-inch trunk of a pandanus tree at sixty yards and pierce a bird on the wing, while the feats of the "black tracker" in the way of following the old trail of a man or animal pass all belief, though I have known the white bushman do things quite as wonderful. The women make thread out of the fibre of a certain palm, and manufacture most beautifully made baskets and bags. Dr. Roth has published drawings of no less than sixty aboriginal patterns of string work, many of them of great beauty. Both men and women are distinguished by their intense love for their children. Nothing inspires them with greater terror than the fear that their children may be taken from them.

It is well known that the marriage law of the aborigines is of extraordinary intricacy, the table of persons whom a man may not marry being far longer and more complicated than that in the Prayer-Book; and although the prenuptial rites were peculiarly vile and horrible, the marriage state was well observed on the whole in their natural condition, adultery being rare and severely punished, and any exceptions to our ideas of morality being chiefly of a legal and ritual character. A man had generally two wives, if possible, but rarely more, except sometimes in the case of the old men. These facts are the more remarkable in that in all other respects the aborigines are out and away the most advanced socialists in Australia, which is saying not a little. No aboriginal considers that anything that he has is his own. He considers that it belongs to his neighbour equally with himself, and he is ready to include even the white man as his neighbour.

Professor Spencer ("Native Tribes of Central Australia," p. 48) has some remarks on this point which are well worth quoting. "Here we may notice a criticism, frequently made with regard to the native, and that is that he is incapable of gratitude. It is undoubtedly true that the native is not in the habit of showing anything like excessive gratitude on receiving gifts from the white man, but neither does he think it necessary to express his gratitude when he receives a gift from one of his own tribe. It is necessary to put oneself into the mental attitude of the native, and then the matter is capable of being more or less explained and understood. It is with him a fixed habit to give away a part of what he has, and he neither expects the man to whom he gives a thing to express his gratitude, nor, when a native gives him anything, docs he think it necessary to do so himself, for the simple reason that giving and receiving are matters of course in his everyday life; so when he receives anything from a white man he does not think it necessary to do what he neither does nor is expected to do in the case of his fellow-tribesmen. It does not occur to him that an expression of gratitude is necessary. On the other hand, he parts as a matter of course, and often for the merest trifle (not a trifle to us only, but also to him), with objects which have cost him much labour to produce, but which a white man perhaps takes a fancy to."

The aboriginal languages, though of one general and not more than six special types, differ so much in vocabulary and inflection that each small tribe is practically unintelligible to its neighbours. It is possible that the various dialects have in time become differentiated owing partly to taboo and partly to lack of intercourse. The languages are by no means of an elementary type. The dual and several forms of the plural are found. "The verb has various forms, as simple, reciprocal, causative, intensive . . infinitive. Indicative, purposive, suppositional, and imperative moods are distinguished with well-marked terminations" (Mathews, op. cit., p. 214). The form also varies with the speaker and the persons addressed.

The love of music is generally considered to be a sign of intelligence, and the aboriginals are capable of developing it to a remarkable extent, though in their natural state they have nothing but a monotonous chant. Almost every Mission has a brass band which plays not from ear, but from music, with remarkable precision and genuine enthusiasm, while the singing of the chants and canticles by the native choir of the Mission Church at Trubanaman was far better than that of any other church in the diocese. It is a remarkable fact that the bands and choirs were composed of pure-blooded aboriginals, the half-castes being decidedly inferior in musical ability.

The aborigines are by nature a cheerful and happy, if careless, race, or rather they would be happy were their whole lives not darkened by the shadow of the belief in witchcraft and evil spirits. No man considers his life safe from the malpractices of his neighbour, and if he suspects anyone of plotting against him, he tries to save his own life by killing his neighbour with the utmost speed.

The way to bewitch your neighbour is simple, and always effective, if you can escape suspicion for the two or three days required for the charm to work. In Central Australia you take a small inscribed and pointed stone, and in Queensland, a piece of pointed bone about two and a half inches long, with a head made of spinifex wax, and lay it at night on the ground pointing towards your sleeping enemy. In Central Australia you wear Kadaitcha shoes made of emu feathers to confuse the trail. When the man wakes in the morning and finds the bone or stone pointing at him he believes that unless he can find the man who did it and kill him he will inevitably die, and die he invariably does by a process of what modern science would call autosuggestion.

I knew one man, Urdell, every inch of seven feet in height, and with arms and legs to correspond. He was a mighty hunter and fighter, but good-natured and helpful, carrying logs for building our Mission twice as large as anyone else could manage. One day someone whom he had offended pointed a bone at him, and poor Urdell, in the full tide of youthful strength and health, just lay down and died in a few days, of simple fright. The same result Is attained by performing incantations, which make a man believe that his liver has been extracted and the wound miraculously healed. He just lies down and dies. I spent a weary hour once in trying to persuade a man that his liver was all right, and that he need not die, but he would not believe me, and he died.

A good deal has been written on the question as to whether the aborigines have any idea of a Supreme Spirit. It is very difficult to be sure that such an idea has not somehow been derived from missionary teaching, but I am by no means convinced by the arguments of those who say that the idea of a Great Spirit is totally absent from the mind of the uninfluenced native. Mr. Mathews testifies to such a belief among the two Queensland tribes with which he was acquainted (op. cit., p. 169). Certainly the idea of spirits in some form is constantly present to their minds, the fear of the evil as usual predominating over their affection for the good. The spirits of the dead are apparently believed to linger round the body until it is entirely destroyed, hence it is usual to embalm the body and, after carrying it about for a time, to place it in a tree protected by a shelter of bark. A mother will constantly carry about a dead baby for a year, or even longer. The embalming is done with considerable skill, the softer parts being taken out and replaced by grass, as the natives are well aware of the danger of handling decayed flesh. The evil spirits are chiefly abroad at night, and the natives will rarely move from their place before the first light of dawn, for fear that the evil spirit should catch them.

I have tried to show that the aborigines are neither the half animals suggested by Haeckel nor the degraded semi-humans that they have appeared to settlers whose first and only concern was to get them out of the way. An unhappy error vitiated all our relations with the aborigines from the very first. When we took possession of Australia the land was wanted for cattle, and it was let out to settlers in large runs. Undoubtedly, the support of the original owners, who in no case received any compensation, ought to have been made a first charge on the rent, and an occasional beast paid for out of this fund would have satisfied all their needs. Unfortunately, the whole of the rent went into the national pocket, and the squatter, having paid rent for the land, considered that he had an exclusive right to it. The native was told to move on, which meant to trespass on the land of another tribe. He was strictly forbidden to approach the waterholes, where alone he could get food. Whatever he did, the end was death, and so he died. Sometimes the individual settler treated him with kindness and consideration, sometimes with callous brutality, but the end was the same, and over the greater part of Australia he died out, to the shame of the people who forgot a simple act of justice in the beginning. The wild aborigines are now only to be found in the central and northern parts of Australia, and in numbers which cannot be exactly estimated, but which may be provisionally stated at about 60,000 or 70,000.

They are a quiet and timid people, among whom the first explorers travelled without difficulty and without fear. The occasional "bloodthirsty massacres" and "ferocious crimes" which have been credited to the aborigines in later times have been usually in retaliation for outrages committed by the meaner men who followed in the tracks of the great explorers, though of course the revenge was often taken on the wrong man. It was not even pretended that the wholesale retaliatory measures taken by the white man ever attempted to punish the real perpetrators. The more religious and thoughtful people in Australia have long felt that we owed the aborigines a very considerable debt for our past treatment of them, and for the last fifteen or twenty years this sentiment has shown itself in the honest efforts made, not only by religious societies but by the Governments of the States concerned, to secure for the natives just treatment and adequate reserves, and in the liberal aid given to the work of Missions. The change of feeling is really a remarkable one, and may be illustrated by the fact that after a sermon on the aborigines in the Domain in Sydney, an offering of £2,153. was collected for the needs of the Mitchell River Mission. I have always felt that the aboriginal was the Lazarus of Australia. Poor, ragged, and sick with sores which are the result of contact with the diseases of the white man, hungry because he has been driven from the waterholes, where alone he can obtain food, in order that the cattle may not be disturbed, unable to defend himself against the wrongs which may be inflicted on him, he lies at the gate of Australia, so rich, so comfortable, and so well fed. It is largely due to the real if tardy efforts of the Church that the nation is slowly awaking to its duties and responsibilities in the matter.

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