Project Canterbury

Thirty Years in Tropical Australia

By the Right Reverend Gilbert White, D.D.
Bishop of Willochra

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1918.

Chapter XIII. Aboriginal Life

THE Australian aboriginal is often described as one of the very lowest types of humanity, so much so that Professor Haeckel declares that he is only "one degree above the anthropoid ape." Those who know the aborigines well are strongly inclined to doubt whether they are by any means one of the lowest races of men, and are quite certain that they do not fall far below the average standard of uncivilized humanity.

In their only industry, hunting, they show extraordinary intelligence and develop the most wonderful powers of observation, and if their weapons are primitive, they are at least well suited to their purpose. In one direction at least, music, they show great capacity, and every Mission has its brass band, which can compete on equal terms with any neighbouring band of white performers.

It is not safe to go entirely by head measurements, and an unwillingness to consider all the facts of a problem has vitiated much scientific work.

Some years ago a noted German anthropologist, Professor K., visited the Yarrabah Mission station and asked that the natives might be sent to him in order that he might measure their skulls. He sat accordingly on the veranda with a big pipe and measured the skulls of all who came, and the more he measured the more he shook his head. "Will you not come into the school and examine the children?" said the superintendent. "They have made remarkable progress, and up to the age of eleven do the same lessons as the children in the white schools." "No," said the Professor; "I do not want to see them. I know that they are incapable of learning anything. I have measured their skulls." "But will you not look at our steam-engine, which is run entirely by two aboriginal boys?" '' No," was the reply. "Thev cannot possibly understand machinery. I have measured their skulls." "But," persisted the superintendent, "will you not at least listen to our band, which is often in requisition when good music is required in Cairns?" "No," was the reply. "It is no good. I have measured their skulls."

The origin of the aborigines is wrapped in mystery, but it is clear that there are two well-marked types which are now thoroughly mixed, each type showing itself in the same tribe.

The older type is that which persisted to our own times in Tasmania, where it was protected from invasion by the Bass Strait, but became rapidly extinct on the coming of the whites. The primitive man was short, dark, and curly-headed, and probably of a lower type of intelligence than the invader, who was lighter in colour, tall, and straight-haired, and who, as some think, may be identified with the aboriginal native of Southern India. These probably spread from island to island, and crossed to Australia, scudding before the north-west monsoon in perhaps such outrigger canoes as those of New Guinea, which will stand a very heavy sea. They seem to have coalesced with the earlier inhabitants, and to this day each tribe in Australia is divided into the dark and the light men, the Crows and the Eagle-hawks, or by whatever other name they are called.

The extraordinarily complex marriage law of the Australian aborigines is apparently based on this distinction, and is probably designed to prevent inbreeding. The list of persons whom an aboriginal mav not marry is much longer than, and ten times as complicated as, the Table of Prohibited Degrees in the Prayer Book, and the law was in their natural state enforced under very heavy penalties. It seems difficult to believe that this complexity of law is not a relic of a higher stage of civilization. The same thought is suggested by their language.

The language of each tribe, though more or less on the lines of those of the adjoining tribes, is often very dissimilar in vocabulary, so that it is no uncommon thing for a tribe not to understand at all the language of a tribe forty or fifty miles away. The type may remain the same, but the practice of taboo leads to the constant disuse of common words, so that in a very short time after, say, a tribe has separated into two, their languages will become mutually unintelligible. Here again certain refinements and peculiarities, such as the use of the dual and of a plural including or excluding the person speaking or spoken to, seem to indicate that their speech was once of a higher type.

It is possible to draw the same conclusion from the strange corroborees and initiation ceremonies which have been fully described by Professor Spencer and other authorities. Not only the ritual but the language of these ceremonies has been handed down from the past, though their meaning has in most instances been entirely lost. I have often tried to discover the meaning of a corroboree song, and always in vain. I feel sure that the natives themselves do not now understand them.

The preparations for a corroboree are very elaborate, the men painting their bodies with gypsum and red and yellow ochre, and adorning themselves with feathers and white down stuck on by means of blood.

The dancing begins early in the evening, and is carried on for many hours, sometimes almost till morning. Scenes of hunting, etc., are imitated with an enormous amount of repetition. At times the performers rest, and are fanned with a turkey wing. The corroborees are, however, not all ancient, for a new one will sometimes be invented and will travel from tribe to tribe all over the country. The initiation rites are probably much older than the corroborees and their origin is completely wrapped in mystery. It is impossible to read the elaborate accounts of Professor Spencer and other writers without feeling that they had once a meaning which they no longer possess, and that they represent a higher level of thought and a wider conception of social order than the tribes at present have. Is it possible that their real home is in India, the great mother of mystery? However this may be, there is little doubt that in addition to the strains I have already mentioned, there is also in the northern tribes a large admixture of Malay blood. The Malay proas have been in the habit of visiting North-West Australia and the eastern side of the Gulf of Carpentaria for hundreds of years, and continued to do so until about fifteen years ago, coming over with the first of the north-west monsoon winds and returning about three months later, with the .beginning of the south-east monsoon. The northern natives are much taller and finer-made men than those in other parts of Australia. I have, indeed, seen one man named Urdell, on the Mitchell River, who was over seven feet high and well made in proportion. He had a brother who, according to native accounts, was shot by a neighbouring squatter. He was said to have been of equal size. I have also seen a man and his wife from farther east who were of enormous bulk and considerable height, but these are exceptions, the ordinary native being considerably below the average height, though well made and proportioned. The term "black "is a misnomer, for though in the case of semi-civilized tribes dirt often gives it a very dark hue, the ordinary wild aboriginal of the north is of a warm chocolate colour, though very dark skins are occasionally found, being probably relics of the earlier dark race. In the south of Australia a darker skin appears to predominate, with probably a lower general level of intelligence.

That the aboriginal is incapable of mental and spiritual growth seems to be disproved by the experiences of the Mission stations, where pure-blooded aboriginals have been successfully entrusted with all kinds of work, including the management of out-stations, writing of reports, conduct of services, etc., or by the life and example of such a man as Mr. James Noble, a pure-blooded aboriginal from one of the lowest tribes in the Gulf of Carpentaria, who is respected by all who have known him for the last twenty years, who holds his Bishop's licence as a lay-reader, and whose reading of the service compares favourably with that of many of the clergy. It is disproved also by the example of several men in public employment. One pure-blooded aboriginal has been for many years a draughtsman in the public service of New South Wales. Another has displayed remarkable talent as an inventor, and yet another is a popular sergeant in the Australian Expeditionary Force.

This is the more remarkable when we consider the primitive nature of the aboriginal's life. In the north, at any rate, little cover is needed and the aboriginal lives and sleeps in the open. In this he is not so very different from his white supplanter. Many stockmen live practically the whole year in the open without even a tent, camping at night under a tree and only visiting the station for a day or two at intervals of many weeks.

The wild aboriginals are usually unclothed, though in the colder districts they make blankets of bark or of the skins of animals.

During the wet season the natives of the Mitchell build themselves little platforms of saplings about four feet from the ground. On this the man curls himself up to sleep at night, sometimes making a roof of a curved piece of bark. I regret to say that he makes his unfortunate wife sit on the ground underneath him all night and keep a small fire going, in order that the smoke may drive away the mosquitoes. He also takes the precaution of taking to bed with him a heavy club, or nulla-nulla, and if she should go to sleep and let the fire out he hits her on the head with the nulla-nulla as a gentle hint to wake up and attend to her wifely duties.

Occasionally the natives will build mosquito-proof huts for use when these pests are particularly bad. These huts are built of bark and are dome-shaped, with a small entrance just sufficient to admit one person at a time. What they are like in the summer when they are filled with as many people as they can hold, and with the entrance so carefully closed that no mosquito can get in, may be better imagined than described.

It is in hunting that the aborigines show their peculiar gifts and their marvellous skill to the best advantage. The whole surface of the ground is an open book which they read without hesitation and without ever making a mistake. No animal or reptile can pass without leaving traces whereby the native knows what he is. how fast he was travelling, how long ago he passed, and whether he was fresh or tired. I have often seen an old woman patiently tracking a lizard, secure in the knowledge that sooner or later she would run it down. Everything, or almost everything, that runs or flies is good for food, if you have no prejudices, and snake and witchetty grub are both delicacies if properly cooked. It is a mistake to imagine that the natives have no idea of the value of good cookery. If they have time they will dig a hole in the ground, cover the bottom with hot stones, insert the food wrapped in green leaves, cover with more hot stones, fill in the earth, and after a few hours turn out a meal that a gourmet might envy. At the same time, if time presses, the Spanish phrase for boiled eggs, "eggs that have seen the fire," would be a good description for the amount of cooking thought necessary before the food is devoured.

Of native weapons the best known is of course the boomerang, with its wonderful property of returning to the thrower, an invention which alone should entitle the aborigines to considerable credit for inventive genius. The returning boomerang is, however, only a toy, for the obvious reason that if it hit its mark it would not return, and the aboriginal does not reckon on not hitting what he aims at. His accuracy is marvellous. The boomerang is in constant use as a weapon, but it is thrown to hit and does hit with terrible force.

The weapon par excellence, however, is the spear, made often only of pointed wood, or with a head of flaked stone or bone, or, since contact with the white man, with a piece of telegraph wire or a flake from a glass bottle. I have myself found natives hunting with stone-headed spears, but they are now very rare.

The spear is thrown by means of a woomera or throwing-stick, a piece of tough wood about twenty-seven inches long and three inches wide, with two large shells at one end and a stout peg bending back at an angle of over forty-five degrees at the other. The woomera is held just above the shell and bent back behind the shoulder, the long lithe spear being held parallel to it with the peg engaged in the end of the spear. When the spear is thrown the woomera nearly doubles the length of the arm and gives it an enormous impetus. I remember once having a spear-throwing competition at the Mitchell River Mission. The trunk of a pandarius-tree, six inches in diameter, at sixty yards was selected as the mark, and one wooden spear went clean through the centre of the tree and projected three inches on the other side. In the days of the Romans, when spear-throwing decided battles, a detachment of Australian javelin-throwers with woomeras would have created a panic among the enemy. Their accuracy of aim is as remarkable as their range. I have seen a native aim at a bird on the wing and bring it down pierced clean through the body.

Stone weapons were at one time in general use, and I have seen factories in Central Australia which, to judge by the chips and spoiled weapons, must have been in use for centuries. Quartzite is perhaps the most common material for knives and spear-heads; arrows are unknown in Australia, though the usual weapon in New Guinea; adzes and spoke-shaves are, however, not unknown, the latter being made of sharp shells. Axes and hammers were made of heavy stones, with one sharp or flat edge tightly bound between two pieces of wood bent over the stone, all being secured with wax from the roots of the spinifcx grass. For fishing it is usual to use spears with four or five prongs made of fish-bones, a dangerous weapon in a fight, as they are almost certain to make a poisoned wound. It is not usual with the aborigines intentionally to poison their spears, but dirt and neglect make the points usually poisonous, to a white man at any rate.

It is usual to credit the natives with a wonderful gift of finding their way in a strange country, a gift even greater than that which many white men possess of riding straight through the bush to their destination without any knowledge of the country, but guided by some strange sense of direction such as a homing pigeon possesses. Personally I do not believe that the ordinary aboriginal possesses this power in any marked degree, and I think that he is much inferior to the white bush-man in finding his way in unknown country. In his own country he knows, of course, every stick and stone, and can find his way by day or by night, but even here I notice that he never goes straight, never by the shortest road. He goes first to a water-hole, then to a point of scrub, then to a big tree, travelling roughly in the right direction, but by a very roundabout road, and you will waste hours if you allow yourself to be guided by him. In unknown country I would any day rather trust the instinct of the white man, for I believe that the aboriginals' special bump of geography is entirely a myth. Personally, at any rate, I have always preferred the compass as a guide, and have generally found that it agreed but ill with the native's confident assertion of the direction in which a certain point lay.

As the aborigines seldom wear clothing, and if they do usually throw it off when travelling in the bush, it is a problem for them how to keep warm in the cold winter nights when the temperature often goes down even in the Far North to something very near freezing, if there is not an actual frost. The difficulty is partially solved by each person making two very small fires and sitting or lying between them. The native accuses the white man of folly in making such a big fire that he cannot go near it, and there is much to be said for the native point of view. A frosty night is usually still, and the smoke of a multitude of little fires soon gathers and hangs over the spot, making a kind of blanket which considerably mitigates the cold. The natives are not early risers, preferring to sleep in the warm sun of the earlier hours of the morning until about 9 A.M. or later, when they go out to hunt for a breakfast. They are always accompanied by a host of dogs, of whom they seem very fond. A dog is often to be seen wrapped in a blanket while the owner has none, and the women are often seen nursing a dog in their arms like a baby. Yet they can be horribly cruel, breaking, for instance, the legs of an animal that they do not want to kill immediately, to prevent its escape. Probably this arises largely from their own insensibility to pain. It is quite a common thing for a native while asleep to put an arm or leg into the fire and to awaken in the morning to find the limb seriously injured, or entirely destroyed, without his having been aware of the fact. I saw a woman having her arm set by an amateur doctor, and she laughed all the time and considered it a great joke.

Perhaps this insensibility to pain partly accounts for the treatment of the women by the men. They certainly have a bad time of it even when they are young. Their adolescence is celebrated by ceremonies too horrible to be described, and their husbands treat them with much harshness. On the Mitchell River the men wear what is known as a wife-beater by a string round the head, and hanging down at the back of the neck. This wife-beater is a wooden knife about ten inches long and an inch and a half wide, set with shark's teeth. If the wife annoys her lord in any way, the weapon is drawn across the body, inflicting a terrible wound. In justice it should, however, be said that they often inflict similar wounds on themselves, rubbing in earth to prevent the wound closing properly, so that a scar is left, which is regarded as a kind of honour and mark of ability to bear pain. When the women are no longer young their value decreases rapidly. When sailing up the Roper River, I noticed that a tribe of natives would be sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other side of the river. I said to an old man who spoke some English, "Are you not afraid to cross the river on account of the alligators?" "No," he said, "when we cross river we swim one after another and alligator only catch him last fellow. We always put him old woman last fellow, and suppose alligator catch him old woman no matter!"

One of the most marked features of native life, and one which especially darkens it, is the belief in witchcraft and evil spirits. The belief in the power to kill a man by pointing a bone or pointed stone at him is universal. The man who has an enemy goes by night (sometimes wearing shoes of emu feathers, called, in Central Australia, Kadaitsha shoes), and lays on the ground a small bone about two inches long, with a head of spinifex wax pointing to where his enemy is sleeping. When the man on awaking finds the bone pointing at him he believes that unless he can discover the man who put it there and kill him immediately he will himself die, and if he fails to kill his foe he does invariably die himself within a very few days. I have myself known personally several men who had bones pointed at them. It was useless to argue with them. They had to die, and they did. Others believe that an enemy has by incantations secretly removed their liver or kidneys, and they too rapidly die. They believe the night to be haunted by evil spirits, and will rarely move far from camp if they can avoid it. There seems to be an idea that the spirits of the dead cling to the body and exist so long as it exists. The dead are not usually buried, but roughly embalmed and wrapped in bark and put on a platform of sticks in a tree. The body of a child is often carried about by the mother for months. I should not like to assert as positively as some authors do that they have no idea of a Great Spirit or God. It is of course very difficult to disentangle what they have learnt from white men from their own original beliefs, but some of their apparently original legends do seem to recognize a higher power than man.

Missionary effort among the aborigines has been very largely successful, and where missionary influence extends it has to some extent at any rate arrested that "fading away "which attacks races like the aborigines when they come in contact with civilization.

It has not been found difficult to attract them to one spot, nor to teach them agriculture, building, fencing, brick-making, and other industries. The children learn well up to a certain age, but only a few seem able to advance much beyond it. They are quite susceptible to moral and spiritual teaching, and the native Christians are as fairly consistent in their lives as their white neighbours.

The best proof of their capacity is found in the fact that devoted white missionaries, both men and women, have come so much to love and to believe in them that they have given, and are giving, their lives to their service, under conditions of severe discomfort and practically without any pay or reward. The missionaries are, after all, the best judges, and they show by their action what they believe.

I believe that at a very small cost the aborigines might as scouts be made of great service to the Commonwealth. If the Government were to furnish buildings and material support for a dozen or so of Mission stations, with accompanying out-stations scattered through the Far North, and connected by telephone, and the natives trained to report the presence of any strangers, a work for which they are pre-eminently fitted by nature, the great empty spaces of the north would no longer be a source of danger, for any hostile landing would be at once detected and reported. By working in with the Mission stations an enormous area could thus be covered, at a cost not exceeding £5000 a year. I suggested this plan in detail in a lecture before the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia in 1907. Its adoption would have saved the Commonwealth military authorities considerable anxiety during the earlier stages of the war.

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