James Browne’s ‘boyhood’ observations of traditional Aboriginal culture in the remote colonial outpost of King George Sound in southwestern Australia are truly remarkable. His ethnographic sketches and interpretations of aspects of indigenous life give an insight not provided by other recorders of the time.
There is very little biographical information available on James Browne. Census records reveal a discrepancy as to the year of his birth.1 He was born in London (probably 1821) one of nine children to Joseph Steere Browne and Mary. Joseph Steere Browne was a career Deputy Assistant Commissary General who travelled extensively throughout the ever-expanding British Empire. He was resident Deputy Assistant Commissary General at Launceston, Tasmania before being posted to the remote coastal settlement of King George Sound (Albany), Western Australia.
In a paper read before the Canadian Institute by James Browne in 1856 he alludes to visiting Tasmania at a time when the indigenous Tasmanians still inhabited their traditional lands. This would have been prior to 1835 when the last of the mainland Tasmanian Aborigines were rounded up and transported to the islands of Bass Strait. Being of an impressionable young age at the time, Browne was possibly aware of these atrocious events for he states with some solemnity that: ‘Already every vestige of the native population of Tasmania has vanished from that beautiful island, although within so recent a period as my visit to it, the Tasmanian was still to be seen living on his native soil’ (Brown 1856b: 511).
In May 1836 the Browne family arrived at King George Sound, Albany. It was during this time that young James observed and collected ethnographic information on aspects of the local indigenous culture. He first wrote about the original inhabitants of King George Sound from London in a letter dated 26th June 1839 titled ‘Statement respecting the Natives of King George’s Sound’. This was a plea to the ‘Aborigines Protection Society’ of London requesting that the colonial authorities control the depredations of white sealers along the southern Western Australian coastline and that they do something to alleviate the starvation of the King George Sound Aborigines during the winter months. In petitioning the colonial authorities, Browne foreshadows the imminent destruction of Aboriginal society – a view that possibly originated from his boyhood exposure or knowledge of the destruction of mainland indigenous Tasmanian society.
In October 1838 the Browne family departed Western Australia on board the Harvest headed for South Africa. James Browne later moved to Canada where he became a successful banker and broker in Toronto. In 1856 he read before the distinguished audience of the Canadian Institute two papers on the Aborigines of the King George Sound region. These were titled ‘The Aborigines of Australia’ and ‘Superstitions and Traditions of the Aborigines of Australia’. Both were published in the Canadian Journal (1856) and the first was also reproduced in the Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle of London in the same year.
Browne’s (1839) handwritten letter has been transcribed and collated together with his two papers to form a collection of his known works. These papers provide stark sketches of indigenous life in the King George Sound region in southwestern Australia between 1836 and 1838. Browne’s descriptions are clear, perceptive and often dramatic. To paint such a vivid picture of traditional Aboriginal life, he must surely have kept a diary or journal of his earlier ethnographic experiences on which his later reflections appear to be based. In his insightful narratives he leaves the reader in no doubt that what he is describing is in the past for he notes that ‘the last of his race must soon be numbered with the things that were.’ (1856b: 511). At such a young age when writing an urgent plea to the Aborigines Protection Society of London, seeking their assistance to resolve the plight of the Aborigines at King George Sound, Browne shows a missionary-like awareness of the imminent fate of the local Aboriginal community.
To the modern reader Browne’s attitude towards his indigenous subjects may seem arrogant, superior, judgmental and racist. This reflects the prevailing ethnocentric and racially superior attitudes of the time that dominated even the most empathetic of observers. In fact the usurpation of traditional Aboriginal lands relied on a colonial rationalization and stereotyping of indigenous people as unproductive, lazy and inferior savages compared to the civilized and industrious white settlers. Thematic throughout his work is the idea of the ultimate demise of indigenous culture in the wake of British imperialism.
Browne’s writings must be viewed within the empire-building philosophy of the time and the ultimate belief that the less advanced people of the world will succumb to the more advanced civilization of Britain and Europe. He portrays a sense of the inevitable when he writes: ‘It is a strange fact, but one no less painful than true, that, wherever the white man plants his foot, the native of the soil gradually disappears’ (1856b: 511).
Browne’s collected works provide a valuable contribution to the historical ethnography of indigenous southwestern Australia. His perceptions are insightful, often analytical and in the case of Aboriginal title to the land, he leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that the original inhabitants were ‘owners’.
Ken Macintyre, Toodyay, Western Australia, August 2011
‘Statement respecting the Natives of King George’s Sound’
Letter to the Aborigines Protection Society,
By James Browne, London 26th June 1839
(Transcribed from the author’s original handwriting by Ken Macintyre 2011).
Before King George’s Sound was taken possession by the Government of Sydney, sealers were in the habit of visiting the place and committing the most horrid atrocities on the natives, murdering the men, carrying off the women; sometimes taking the men, putting them on some barren islands and then leaving them to die from starvation. On the shores of the unsettled parts of Australia to this day, are such scenes as these being acted by the lowly gangs of sealers inhabiting the different islands on the coast. It is a great pity steps were not taken to put an effectual stop to such disgraceful deeds, and to curb the passions of these “worse than savages.”
The friendly terms which exist between the natives of King George’s Sound and the whites, are owing principally to the prudent steps taken by Major Lockier, the first Commandant of that settlement, to put a stop to these atrocities, and protecting the poor defenseless natives from such barbarous treatment. On his first landing he took every means in his power to put things on a friendly footing. He restored to them some of their Tribe, which had been taken from the main by the sealers and placed on “Michaelmas Island”, and had one of the sealers whom he found on “Eclipse Island” (and who had been engaged in the outrage) taken and sent to Sydney for trial. This had great effect in making a favourable impression on the minds of the natives.
An account of Major Lockier’s proceedings on the proclamation of the settlement will be seen in the Hobart Town Gazette for the 6th April 1827.
Captain Barker who succeeded Major Lockier took a great interest in the natives. This gentleman by acts of kindness and justice and by protecting them from insult and injury, in fact doing everything in his power to conciliate them, laid the foundation of the present amicable understanding existing between the settlers and natives of King George’s Sound. The natives to this day lament the loss of Captain Barker, and when they heard that he had been killed on the coast on his way to Sydney, wished to be taken down to the place that they might revenge his death.
Great credit is likewise due to the late Dr. Collie for his humane and judicious conduct towards the natives whilst Government Resident of the settlement.
Too much credit cannot be given to the settlers particularly the ladies for their humanity to the poor despised savage in cases of sickness or distress. During our stay at that settlement there were many cases of sickness, and some of the abjects were taken into the houses of the families, attended by the Doctor, supplied with nourishing food and in fact treated like one of themselves. The present surgeon Dr. Harrison shews the greatest attention to any case of sickness, and his liberality and humanity to the natives deserves the greatest praise. 2
Perhaps an instance of the good feeling which exists between the natives and the whites may not be misplaced and which I do not think is generally known.
In the latter part of 1835 a small sealing cutter arrived at King George’s Sound, and after remaining for some time sailed for Van Diemen’s land, intending to touch at some of the islands on her way down. She took from the Sound some labouring people who wished to leave the Colony. On their way down the vessel was wrecked but the people on board managed to land on “Middle Island,” on which they found a party of sealers. After remaining some time on the island, two of the men (for some quarrel which took place) determined to walk up to King George’s Sound and got the sealers to land them on the main for that purpose. The distance from “Middle Island” to the Sound is between two and three hundred miles.
These men landed with little or no provisions, and after the first two or three days found themselves in a state of starvation. However, after suffering the greatest misery from want of food and water, being sometimes days without either, they managed to get within fifty or sixty miles of the Sound, when they came upon a dead whale. They were now in such a dreadful state from starvation that they had given up all thoughts of ever reaching the settlement, not having eaten anything for days. While they were cutting off pieces of whale meat some natives of the Cockatoo Tribe came out of the bush and came towards them. The men were very much frightened and thought of course the natives would take advantage of their defenseless state and spear them, but much to their surprise the natives came up and shook hands with them, and when they saw their distress took them to their bivouac and divided their scanty store with them. Next day they started to conduct them to the Sound – hunted for them during the journey – when they came to rivers or any difficult place, carried them across on their shoulders and brought them safely into Albany.
Such conduct as this on the part of savages is seldom met with, and deserves the greatest praise and notice.
Altho’ the inhabitants do everything in their power to alleviate the wants and to better the condition of the natives, yet it is impossible for their bounty to extend to all. During the winter months the natives about the settlement suffered greatly from the want of food, owing to the scarcity of kangaroo, this animal being so much hunted by the whites that it is of rare occurrence for a native to kill one within an immense distance of the settlement.3 The kangaroo forms the principal food of the natives, and a cloak made of its skin is the only covering they have.
It is during the winter months the natives suffer most from sickness (the women and children particularly), many dying every season, owing to their exposure to the Sound’s weather and as I mentioned before, the want of nourishing food and sufficient cover. As their number is but few, a great deal of this misery might be prevented at comparatively small expense by the Doctor having at his disposal nourishing food to be given in cases of sickness – by a suitable building being set apart as a hospital — by provisions being issued to them in cases where it could be proved they could not obtain work or otherwise provide for themselves, and above all by the issue of blankets. This article the natives value more than any other article that could be given them and an annual issue in compensation for the loss of their hunting grounds would go a long way to keep them friendly with the whites, and be an inducement for their good behaviour.
Great benefit would also be derived from the service of a clergyman or missionary at King George’s Sound. The want of a Minister to attend to the religious duties of the place is very much felt.
What has been done to compensate the natives for the loss of their country? Nothing. It is true that at King George’s Sound there is a monthly issue of flour to the natives, who generally come in from the bush to receive it, but it is only a pound to each person. They do not value it for the quantity but because they are told it comes from the Queen as a token of her friendship, and the day on which they receive it is kept by them as a kind of holiday.
Altho’, it may appear from the foregoing statement that there is no occasion for immediate measures to be taken with respect to the natives of King George’s Sound as there is so good an understanding existing between them and the whites, yet it must be remembered that the population of King George’s Sound is at present very small, not exceeding two hundred persons, those living in Albany (town) or within a short distance of it, and therefore under the eyes of the authorities. As the population increases (of which there is no doubt) and the occupiers and others get dispersed over the country and from under the immediate eye of their masters, there is great danger, unless immediate measures are taken to prevent it, of these shocking deeds which have so disgraced the other colonies, being repeated on this.
It is well known that amongst most savages, petty thefts are considered nothing, and where they see a chance of robbing they generally make use of it. But at the start also, it must be remembered that in their savage state they have not the same idea of right and wrong that we have, and what we may consider a great crime, may be considered by them as no crime at all. But I am afraid that with most people this is not considered, and when they meet with any provocation from the natives they take the law in their own hands, and commit some horrid deed, which leads to hostilities on both sides. This has generally been the case with other colonies. Measures ought therefore be taken before too late for preventing aggression on both sides. Let that friendship which now exists be strengthened by acts of charity and kindness. Let the native be shewn that his condition is to be bettered, and that he is to receive justice from our hands, then will he see that it is his interest to put his confidence in the whites and live peaceably and friendly with them.
In conclusion I am quite certain that any efforts made by your Society will better the condition of the Natives of King George’s Sound and will receive every support and acceptance from the inhabitants of that place.
James Brown, London, 26th June 1839,
‘The Aborigines of Australia’ By James Brown, Toronto
Read before the Canadian Institute, 16th February 1856. Published in The Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle, 1856, pp 485-493, 534-543.
(Page 485) In the following paper I purpose attempting to give an account of the aborigines of Australia, a subject not without interest to us as relating to people situated in a remote portion of the British Empire, but on whom its civilisation has produced no beneficent influences. On them it is effecting, even more rapidly than on the aborigines of this continent, the fatal effects which appear inevitably to flow from the contact of savage with highly civilised life, and these notes accordingly refer to a people who are fast disappearing from the earth. Imperfect as they are, they may possess some value from the fact that they are in no degree derived from books, but embody the results of personal observations of the natives of Australia, concerning whom few among the numerous writers on the great southern region of British colonisation appear to feel the slightest interest, or to have thought their habits and characteristics worthy of remark.
It was my fortune to pass the greater part of my boyhood at King George Sound, a settlement on the western coast of Australia. There the aborigines were my companions and playfellows, and thus the following account embodies facts which came under my own observation, or were related to me by the natives themselves. It narrates principally the results of my observations on those with whom I sojourned; but it may be added that the manners and customs of the aborigines of the western, southern, and eastern coast of Australia vary so little that a description of one may answer for all. Of those inhabiting the (Page 486) northern coast I could speak only from report. They are a still more savage race, with whom little intercourse has hitherto been held, and they appear to present a striking contrast in some respect to the natives of other regions of the Australian continent.
Referring as I do to a people rapidly becoming extinct, it will not detract from any value these notes may possess, that they do not embody the description of Australia of the present time, with its wonderful gold fields, and its vast and multifarious population gathered seemingly from nearly every country of the known world; but they refer to Australia as it was twenty years since, when Melbourne and Port Phillip were inhabited only by the savage, when South Australia, as a colony, was unknown, and Western Australia was only beginning to be settled by the white man.
The entrance to the noble basin of Princess Royal Harbour, on which the town of Albany in Western Australia stands, is formed by two high and rocky hills about half a mile apart, and here, some twenty years since, on a bright morning in the month of May (which be it remembered is the depth of the Australian winter,) I obtained my first sight of the aborigines of the southern continent. The first impression produced by a sight of the grinning native in the bow of the harbour master’s boat — black as coal, but with a pair of keen sparkling eyes, and a row of teeth disproportionately prominent from the large size of his gaping mouth, – was that we were looking on a baboon or some strange creature of that new world, rather than on a human being. A short cloak of kangaroo skins, the invariable costume of the natives, as we afterwards found, was his only garment, reaching about halfway down his thighs, and exposing the lower limbs, which were disproportionately small and shapeless. His arms were sinewy though lean, but as is invariably the case with the Australian savage, larger and better developed in proportion to his general figure, than the meagre shapeless lower limbs. He was, as I ascertained, about thirty years of age, but looked much older, of low stature and slight figure. His hair, which was thick and curly, grew far down over a low and poorly developed forehead. His eyes were small, deep-set and lively; his nose delicate though somewhat flattened, and his mouth large and protruding. Such was Wan-e-war, the first of the aborigines of Australia it was my fortune to see, and no unmeet type of his degraded and doomed race.4 We soon had further opportunities for observing the aboriginal owners of the land in which we proposed to sojourn.
Towards dark on the day of our landing, we heard a great shouting and jabbering amongst the natives, from which we were led to believe that they were preparing for some special festivities. The men were collected round their fires very busy in “getting themselves up,” – plastering their locks plentifully with a pomatum made of grease and red ochre, and beautifying their persons in a variety of other ways. All this preparation was for a corroberry or native dance, which they intended to have in honour of the arrival of the strangers. Accordingly, soon after dark, they assembled round the large fire kindled for (Page 487) the purpose near our dwelling, and the proceedings of the evening commenced. The cloaks of the dancers, instead of being thrown over their shoulders, as usually worn by them, were fastened round their middle, leaving their bodies completely bare, which, with their faces, were painted in the most grotesque manner with red ochre, and shining with grease. Some had bunches of feathers or flowers stuck in their hair, while others completed their head-dress with the tail of the wild dog. One or two had a small bone of the kangaroo passed through a hole in the cartilage of the nose; all carried their spears and wameras; and as they thus stood gathered round the fire, which threw a vivid glare on their greasy and shining bodies, the effect was truly picturesque and savage. 5
Those who intended to take a part in the dance ranged themselves on one side of the fire; on the other side sat the old men and the women and children. The corroberry commenced by the dancers breaking out into a sort of mournful chant, in which the old men and the women occasionally joined. The whole burden of the song consisted in the words “yunger a bia, matim mati,” which they repeated over and over again, beginning in a loud and shrill tone, the voice gradually dying away as they proceeded, until at last so low and soft was it, as to be hardly distinguishable from the breeze which rustled amongst the bushes.
While thus chanting, the dancers remained in a bending posture, and kept time to their voices by lifting their feet with a sort of jerking step from the ground, and at the same time pulling the two long ends of their beards through their hands. Suddenly they would change their music into a loud “Haugh heigh, haugh heigh, haugh heigh,” whilst they clashed their spears and wameras together, and stamped their feet with full force against the ground; they drawing themselves up with a sudden jerk, a loud and startling ‘Garra-wai’ was shouted. Then again they would resume their first movement, but in double quick time, the whole rank now moving quickly up and down side-ways, shoulder to shoulder, now going round in a circle, and all to the same music, and with the same stamping steps.
Tiring of this, the sport was changed to the “kangaroo dance.” 6 This dance is very similar to that already described, but with the difference – that, in the midst of the uproar, one of the men came bounding and jumping like a kangaroo between the dancers and the fire; this movement put a sudden stop to the dancing, and one of the party started off as if in pursuit of the game, the two then went through the whole proceeding of hunting down and spearing the kangaroo, which being at length accomplished they all once more joined in the dance, and in the midst of the uproar, the stamping of feet, the clashing together of spear and wamera, and their shouting and yelling, the fire died away, darkness covered the scene, and the entertainments of the evening were brought to a close. And thus also closed the first day of my sojourn in Western Australia.
The country in the immediate vicinity of King George sound – an arm of the sea on the western coast of Australia – is inhabited by four (Page 488) tribes of the aborigines. These are the Murray, the Weal, the Cockatoo and the Kincannup. In saying, however, that this part of Australia is inhabited but by four tribes, it may be necessary to explain that this distinction of people is altogether that of the natives themselves, and the four divisions here mentioned are applied to the relative position of that portion of the country occupied. Thus, for instance, all those natives inhabiting the country to the westward of Albany are called Murray men; those to the northward, Weal men; and those to the eastward, Cockatoo men. Each, therefore, although a distinct division, can hardly be looked upon as one single tribe, but rather as a combination of many small tribes, inhabiting a territory lying in a certain position.
The Murray tribe, the most numerous of all, occupies a territory exceeding in extent that of any of the rest: that is, the whole of the coast running some 300 miles from King George Sound westward to the Murray River in the Swan River Colony.
The natives belonging to the Weal tribe wander over the country to the northward of Albany. They are, perhaps, not so numerous as the Murray tribe, but they are, I think, physically stronger and of greater importance in the estimation of the aborigines generally.
The district of the Cockatoo tribe extends a considerable distance along the sea-coast to the eastward of Albany, and runs also from the coast far back into the interior.
The Kincannup tribe inhabits the country in the immediate vicinity of Albany. It is a small and weak tribe, and, in comparison with the others, can hardly be looked upon as a distinct one. Kincannup is the native name for that district upon which the town of Albany stands. 7 The natives who generally stayed in and about that settlement style themselves, therefore, Kincannup men; but they may be regarded, I think, as merely a branch or family of the Weal tribe, those inhabiting the country to the northward of the Sound. Be this as it may, many causes have combined to extirpate the Kincannup people. The white man has driven the kangaroo from the native’s grounds; he has therefore to depend principally upon the colonists for a scant means of existence. These and other causes, which I shall notice hereafter, have rendered this tribe nearly extinct. When we left the colony, they could not probably muster more than from twenty to thirty souls.
Although of the same stock and possessing the same characteristics as a people, it is not difficult to distinguish the individuals of the different tribes by their general appearance, which corresponds in some measure with the nature of the country they inhabit. The men of the Murray tribe, for instance, are short, strong, and hardy looking fellows. Their country, lying on the coast, is scarcely more than a barren waste, with little shelter from the violent storms that sweep over the exposed shores of this part of Australia. From this cause, the kangaroo which is almost the only animal food these people have, is not so plentiful in the district as farther in the interior, and thus from the insufficient supply of animal food, the people of this tribe do not present so (Page 489) robust an appearance as others more favourably located. This deficiency of animal food, however, is made up in a great measure, by the immense quantities of fish they are enabled to procure in the innumerable bays and inlets on their coast.
The Weal men again are a much finer and stronger race than those inhabiting the coast. They have the advantage of possessing a country lying deep in the interior, – for the most part thickly wooded, – well protected from the cold winds of winter, – and abounding in kangaroo and game of every description. Not being stinted, therefore, in their supply of animal food, they appear to be proportionally stronger and more robust.
Again, the Cockatoo men are markedly distinct from either of those mentioned. They are generally tall and large-boned men, with high foreheads and aquiline noses. Their appearance indicates, indeed, a higher degree of intellect than their neighbours, over whom they have contrived to gain a strange and mysterious influence, which will be explained hereafter when referring to their superstitions.
As each tribe is distinct in appearance, so too is it noted for some one article or weapon, in the manufacture or use of which it is famous. The Murray man possesses the best wood for spears; – the Weal man is envied for his long, full and beautiful kangaroo skin cloak, and also for his hammer of stone; – whilst the Cockatoo man excels in making and throwing the most eccentric and wonderful of all weapons, the boomerang or kilee.
I have already stated that each tribe occupies its own separate division of territory. The district thus occupied is again subdivided into vaguely defined portions, every family or individual of the tribe having its or his, recognised tract of country. This property descends in the family, from one to another, and is considered in every way private property, and the proprietors of such are boastful and proud of their hunting grounds in proportion to their extent and nature.
But although thus appropriated, it is difficult to say in what the rights of ownership consist, – for agriculture is altogether unknown amongst them, and the various members of the tribe hunt indiscriminately over each other’s grounds. The case, however, is somewhat different in regard to strangers, for should an enemy, or one of another tribe willfully trespass on these grounds, such a liberty would be immediately noticed, and would in all probability lead to acts of violence and retaliation on both sides. And in this right of taking umbrage when convenient, and in making the subject a matter of quarrel, consists, I think, the sole advantages of proprietorship.
Although thus divided into tribes and families, yet nothing resembling a set form of government exists among the Australian aborigines; nor have they either chief or ruler to guide or advise them. Occasionally, however, they might be heard talking of some one great and distinguished individual, who, to judge from their manner of describing him, held a high and influential position in the tribe; and this has induced many to believe that a sort of chieftainship was recognised amongst them. It was always found, however, when the (Page 490) subject became thoroughly sifted, that this great personage had acquired his influence over his fellows, as perhaps an expert and ready spearsman, solely from being more bloodthirsty and domineering than his neighbours, and from having killed all – men, women, and children -who were unfortunate enough to fall under his anger. And thus, knowing from bitter experience that to contradict so dangerous a character would be anything but prudent, the respect paid to him by the rest of the tribe was altogether a matter of policy on their part induced by fear, and not from his having any distinct right to dictate or command.
I have already stated that each tribe is celebrated for the manufacture of some weapon or other article. In order to exchange these different articles, as well as to have some sort of jollification and grand kangaroo hunt, the different tribes assemble by appointment at a given spot at certain seasons of the year.8 The scenes here enacted are exciting and varied; they generally begin in harmony and good fellowship, and end in quarrels and an angry dispersion.
The place of rendezvous is usually in a part of the country where kangaroo is plentiful, and in the vicinity of a small lake. When all are collected, operations commence by the tribes forming an immense circle, having the lake for its centre. The hunters at first are a considerable distance from each other, and extend over a large tract of country. At a pre-concerted time, they all gradually draw in towards the lake, shouting and striking their spears and wameras together. The kangaroos are thus driven from all quarters into the centre, where they find themselves blocked in and completely surrounded by the natives. The kangaroos now make a general rush to escape, and a scene of confusion and noise ensues which baffles description. Spears, kilees, and other weapons are thrown in from all sides, and immense numbers of the game are killed in their vain efforts to clear the boundary. Some in desperation take to the water, but these, being out of their element, are soon despatched. The natives return to their bivouac laden with spoil, and do nothing but eat, drink, dance, and sleep until hunger again drives them forth for a further supply.
All would appear to be going off smoothly and amicably enough at these general assemblies of the various tribes, nevertheless something most frequently occurs to put an unpleasant stop to these jovial proceedings. There is some old quarrel to be settled, some old sore to be healed, and thus the evil disposed contrive to get up disputes, or to recall wrongs still unsettled and unrevenged. Each party had his friends and relatives about him, who feel themselves called upon to take a part in the matter, and thus the whole camp gets involved in a general quarrel. From wrangling, matters proceed to blows, – the wamera is seen to flourish in the air, – spears begin to fly about; pierced legs and broken heads are the consequence, and the parties separate vowing vengeance against each other.
These fights, however, rarely prove fatal to any one, for the belligerent parties generally contrive to make a great noise without doing (Page 491) much damage beyond perhaps one or two wounded legs and a broken head or so, which are looked upon as mere trifles. It is absurd indeed to witness an affair of this kind. It commences by one of the men jumping up and throwing down his spear somewhere near his opponent, who immediately springs to his feet to revenge the insult. The encampment is immediately in an uproar, and the friends of both rush to hold the combatants. Thus secured, the foaming warriors tug and struggle away at a fearful rate, and show great indignation at being prevented by their unkind friends from totally exterminating each other; they are careful, however, not to exert themselves to such an extent as to prevent their being held without much difficulty. But other relatives or friends soon appear for the purpose of taking part with the combatants; these in like manner are held by other friends, until at least the whole party are either holding or being held. And thus, giving vent to their feelings in abuse and threats, they gradually calm down from pure exhaustion, and having arrived at this stage, they promise to lay aside their weapons for the time being; they are then released, and return sulkily to their huts, to repeat, probably, the same farce the next day.
The reader must not come to the conclusion, however, from the description of such a scene, that the natives of this part of the world never kill each other. Far from it. When one of the tribe dies, either from natural causes or otherwise, the nearest relation to the deceased is expected to take the life of one of another tribe; they, in their turn, retaliate in the same manner; they are, therefore, in a continual state of dread and warfare. But it is not open warfare; by treachery alone is it carried on, and often does the Australian meet his death from the hands of him he receives as a friend at his fire. Cunningly disguising his base intention, and watching until slumber seals the eyes of all around, the enemy will drive his spear deep into the breast of his victim and then, plunging into the woods, return to his tribe, proudly boasting of his crafty deed. Or, silently prowling about in search of an opportunity of revenge, he will, probably come upon the wigwam at a time when the husband is away hunting, and the wives and children are dozing around the fire, unconscious of all danger. 9 Silently and serpent-like, the blood-seeker nears his prey, then springing into their midst, drives his spear into all that are unable to escape.
The principal, if not indeed the only, food of the Australian is that procured in the chase. His life, therefore, is necessarily a wandering one, ever moving as the scarcity of food, or other circumstances may dictate. Policy has also no inconsiderable share in producing these frequent changes. For in thus roving over the country the nomads render it a more difficult matter for their prowling enemies to mark their encampment, and to take advantage of an unguarded moment to wreak their vengeance. These changes also tend to free them from smaller but hardly less disagreeable neighbours, which always increase at a prodigious rate around a spot inhabited for any length of time by people totally void of everything like cleanliness. 10 Thus influenced (Page 492) by the exigencies of the moment, on breaking up the establishment they may, perhaps, move off for miles from the old position, or they may erect their new wigwams within sight of the old ones. As these huts, however, are of the most simple description and can be finished in a workmanlike manner in a very short time, – their household furniture, too, being of the smallest quantity known in the economy of housekeeping – no very great inconvenience is experienced in these constant movements. Their huts are chiefly formed of long grass, rushes, the bark and branches of trees. Each one is sufficiently large to admit one or two or three persons curling themselves up inside like so many hedgehogs. The shape is that of an arch, the highest part of them being about three feet from the ground, with the front completely open, and sloping down gradually in the rear. To give a better idea of one of these establishments, imagine a bowl or tea cup turned with the bottom upwards and then cut down through the centre, each half will be a miniature model of an Australian mansion. At all seasons, summer and winter, this is their only shelter; with but a small fire in front, men, women, and children, each one coiled up in the cloak of kangaroo skins, sleep through storm and tempest, and set all weather at defiance. In their ordinary mode of living, and when in their own district, the tribe is usually broken up into small parties of families, each party forming an encampment of some six or eight of these wigwams. It is seldom that the tribe musters except when about to leave its own territory for a distant part of the country, or when some mighty question, having reference perhaps to a general expedition against another tribe, has to be discussed and planned.
During the summer months the tribes of the interior generally make towards the sea coast for the purpose of enjoying a feast on the various kinds of fish which are there to be obtained. They have several methods of proceeding in this sport, but that usually adopted is for the whole of the natives in the neighbourhood to assemble together near some shoal or sandbank which at low-water is left covered with but a few inches of water. Early in the fine mornings of summer, just as the sun breaks forth, these sandbanks may be seen sparkling with innumerable fish, which seem to frolic about in sportive glee, now darting along and chasing each other with the speed of an arrow, now flinging themselves far out of the water as if to exhibit their bright armour in the shining rays of the sun. But man, the universal enemy of creation, has to satisfy the craving of nature; he also is up and stirring, and cannot permit so tempting an opportunity to pass, and so, calling to his companions, they all pull armfuls of branches from the trees and then hurry to the beach intent upon the sport. The attack is commenced by erecting a sort of weir with the branches and twigs; this is made in a semicircular form with one end touching the beach and the other towards the edge of the shoal. The whole party now wade into the water and spread themselves over the shoal at some distance apart from each other, then gradually drawing in toward the open side of the weir, their splashing and noise cause the fish to rush into the snare laid for them. Thus entrapped, spears (Page 493) pour in from every point, each man trying to outdo his neighbour in shrieking, kicking, and splashing; here some may be seen probing right and left with their spears within the weir, there others are skipping through or over the bounds, and thus in a short space of time an immense supply of food is secured. It is astonishing, indeed, to see the quantities of fish taken in this manner. These fishing parties may number perhaps some forty or fifty men, and it is no unusual thing to see each one come off with as many fish as he can well stagger under.11 When I add, however, that it is not uncommon to see upwards of five hundredweight of a fish called the skipjack taken in a single haul of the seine, what I have related will excite less surprise.
(Page 534) On the approach of winter the tribes draw off from the coast into the interior of the country, where, encamped in the depth of the forest, they lie sheltered from the severe storms with which the Australian shores are then visited. The fact of the kangaroo, their principal source of sustenance also seeking the shelter of the interior at this season, has, of course, great influence in attracting them from the coast. I have already endeavoured to describe their mode of capturing this animal when the tribes are mustered in force. When hunting individually, which is the ordinary method, the hunter sallies forth alone, without even a dog, and armed with only one or two spears and his wamera. He is not long in coming upon the track of the game he is seeking. This he follows up, sometimes for miles, with a sharpness of vision and noiselessness of movement which to the white observer is extraordinary; but he is not gaining on the prize, and symptoms of its close vicinity are evident: with breathless caution and with spears poised, he gradually advances upon his victim, taking advantage of every stump or bush to cover his approach; at length, a glimpse of the game is gained, which may be quietly grazing, or perchance enjoying a siesta under cover of some thicket unconscious of danger; a (Page 535) sharp and whizzing sound in the air is all the notice it gets, and the next moment it lies transfixed with the spear.
The clothing of these people consists of but one garment, a cloak made of the skins of the kangaroo. This cloak, which is worn by both sexes, they contrive to make serve for all weathers and seasons. The usual manner of wearing it is with the fur next to the body; but when exposed to heavy rains it is reversed, and the fur turned outside in order to allow the wet to run off without penetrating the skin. During the warmer summer months and when roving in the woods away from the settlements, even this is generally dispensed with; they then wander about unencumbered and free of all restraint as far as artificial covering is concerned, and but seldom use their cloak except merely to wrap about them when sleeping around their fires, to protect them from the dew and cold night air.
The men also wear round their waists, under the cloak, a fine string made of the fur of the opossum, about as thick as common grey worsted, which it much resembles in appearance. This is wound about them in innumerable folds, and it forms a belt about as thick as a man’s wrist. When suffering from want of food, which is often the case, this belt is drawn tightly round the body, and by thus compressing the stomach, it tends to alleviate, for a time, the cravings of hunger. It also serves as a depot for their kilies, stone tomahawks, knives, or anything else that they may wish to carry about them.
On my first landing amongst the savages of Australia on the beach at Albany, I observed that some of the men had small bones, or pieces of wood, passed through a hole in the cartilage of the nose. These I afterwards learned were persons of some consideration in the tribe, men of distinction, who sported this conspicuous badge with no small degree of ostentation. The hole is pierced through the nose when the individual is young, and for the following purpose. The tribe wish to communicate with the neighbouring tribes on some particular subject, or to send a complimentary message of peace and goodwill to those around them. The chosen messenger is a boy between twelve and fifteen years of age; but before starting on his embassage, it is necessary that the individual thus honoured, undergo the operation of having his nose bored. This is performed with a small bone of the kangaroo, sharpened and made almost red hot which being forced through the cartilage just below the nostrils, is there allowed to remain until the wound heals.12 But in the meantime the boy proceeds on his mission, and as long as the wound remains unhealed, his person is held sacred, and he is treated with the greatest friendship and respect wherever he makes his appearance. On starting he is accompanied by one or two of his relatives or friends as far as the next tribe, in whose charge he is left; – remaining some short time with these, he is passed on to the next tribe in the same way; and so on until all the tribes have been visited, when he is returned to his people in a like manner from tribe to tribe. By this time the hole in the nose is pretty well healed, but the bone, or something else of the kind, continues to be worn by way of ornament and as a mark of distinguished services. The same description (Page 536) of ornament is mentioned by Cook as existing among the South Sea Islanders, and to it our sailors gave the not inappropriate designation of “spritsail-yard.” It would appear, indeed, that this barbarous fashion of disfiguring the body, in order to decorate it in some such way, is common to many nations. The aborigines of Australia, and the South Sea Islanders have their “spritsail-yard,” others have their nose-ring, while the negress of Africa, and the refined and intellectual female of Europe, have their ears pierced to receive the not less becoming and useful ear-ring. But whether it be the bone in the nose of the Australian, or the ring in the ear of the Englishwoman, the custom is the same, and equally civilised or equally barbarous.
In speaking of ornamentation I have to mention another and no less barbarous method of the Australians for beautifying their persons. I allude to the custom amongst the men of lacerating their bodies in order to produce long welts or protrusions of the skin. This is done with a sharp stone or flint, and the incisions are made on the breasts, shoulders, and upper parts of the arms; they vary in length and thickness, some being about an inch long and raised the thickness of a straw, others perhaps three inches in length and as thick as one’s finger. The operation to produce these marks consists simply in cutting the part quickly but slightly with the sharp point of the stone; the blood is allowed to dry on the wound, but the welts soon appear, and never diminish in size through life.
From the scantiness of an Australian’s wardrobe, he is prevented from exhibiting his taste or expending his vanity in a variety of costume, he consequently falls back to the one course left open to him, that of painting his body and decorating his head. The greater part of the time he devotes to his toilet is altogether taken up in plastering his uncut hair with a thick cement made of red ochre and grease. A diversity of style is adopted in its dressing; some have the head covered with quantities of small and shining red ringlets, some have it bound around with cord, and then covered with a solid mass of stiff and clay-like pomatum, giving the head quite an Asiatic appearance; this is generally surmounted by a bunch of feathers from the emu or cockatoo, or by the tail of the wild dog, and sometimes encircled with a wreath of flowers. Others, again, have innumerable small lumps of clay appended to the ends of the hair, which keep up a rattling accompaniment to the movements of the wearer.
But of all outward adornments the beard is the one most coveted and prized. Indeed, this appendage to the visage appears to be a youthful Australian’s highest ambition, and its primary symptoms are regarded by each stripling much in the same light as, amongst us, the schoolboy looks on his assumed induction to the honours and privileges of manhood. To the Australian, throughout life, the beard is an object of great pride and care, and the affectionate manner in which it is ever caressed and stroked, evinces the satisfaction felt in its bushy charms. Nor is it merely as an adornment to the outward man that a beard is so much an object of solicitude; there are also certain rights attached to it, not the least important of which is, that no man can get (Page 537) married until in the possession of one, nor is he allowed to kill an emu. In their combats, too, no inconsiderable part is assigned to the beard in producing an effect, and it is next to impossible to make an impression in an affair of this kind without such an accompaniment; then, with its long ends gathered up into the mouth, and there held firmly between lips – with feet stamping, eyes starting from the sockets, and every muscle of the body quivering with savage rage, it may easily be imagined that the whole appearance of the Australian warrior is ferocious in the extreme.
Thus far I have attempted to give some slight idea of the men of this race. It is now time that something was said of the other sex; and I wish much it were in my power to draw a more pleasing picture of this portion of the Australian population. Nowhere else is it possible to meet with more miserable and degraded specimens of humanity than the women of Australia. Naturally small in stature, from starvation their bodies and limbs appear shrunken to a degree sometimes frightful to contemplate; and were it not for the glare of the eye, the generality of them would look more like mummified skeletons, from which the soul had parted company for months, than beings possessed of life.
Every bone in the frame is visible – the shapeless arms and legs seemingly destitute of muscle – the sunken eye and hollow cheek – all tend to form a picture of wretchedness which beggars description. And, as if their natural unsightliness were not sufficiently startling, their faces, and heads, from which the hair is cut quite close, are generally covered with scars and scratches, either the tokens of the chastisement of an enraged spouse, or the effects of violence committed on themselves in manifestation of their sorrow for the untimely departure of a child, or some one of their numerous relations or friends; and when, upon these still bleeding wounds, chalk and charcoal are smeared, it can readily be imagined how revolting is the spectacle presented to view.
The dress of the female, like that of the men, consists solely of a kangaroo skin cloak; but to this is added a large bag, made of the same material, and which hangs at the back by a strap crossing the shoulders. In this bag is generally deposited the smallest child, along with any other portable articles it can hold. For the purpose of digging up roots, upon which they in great measure subsist, the women are armed with a long stout stick, formed into a blunt point at one end.13 Whatever labour has to be performed in their domestic arrangements devolves entirely upon them. They are the architects and artificers in erecting the family mansion. In their journeyings they carry the extra spears and other weapons of the men, in addition generally to one or two children, and perhaps also a young dog. In this plight they are to be seen toiling along under a load seemingly sufficient to bring the frail bodies of the unfortunate creatures to the ground.
Polygamy to the fullest extent is an Australian institution; the man is allowed to have as many wives as he can manage to take care of, or can possibly beg, steal, or otherwise obtain. There is nothing like a (Page 538) marriage ceremony in any case, a simple bestowal on the part of the girl’s father, or other guardian, concludes the transaction. As soon as a female child is born, nay, sometimes for years before that event, she is promised to some one of the tribe, without reference to his age, although his years may exceed those of her own father. She remains with her parents until old enough to be able, in some manner, to shift for herself, when she is transferred to the care of her future husband, under whose protection she is then brought up. But as this, in most cases, is too long a process to go through, the method usually adopted by the Australian native to obtain wives is that of seizing the first favourable opportunity of running off with those of another. It is absolutely necessary to the Australian that the stock of wives on hand should always be considerable, as the whole domestic labour devolves on them, and consequently on their number depend the comforts of his wigwam and fire. The practice of eloping with each other’s wives, is so much a matter of course that it furnishes an additional reason for maintaining a large female establishment in order to provide against these frequent contingencies, so that one or two of the number can abscond without any great degree of anxiety or discomfort being experienced by the deserted one, until the number can again be completed by his helping himself in like manner from the establishment of some of his neighbours.
But although the women are treated by the men with savage brutality, although from the birth to the grave theirs is a life of misery and privation, they, nevertheless, are not deficient in those keen feelings which are the characteristics of the sex in all lands. Their affections for their offspring is strikingly evident on all occasions, and it is sometimes painful to hear the wailings of the bereaved mother as through the long night she sorrows over the loss of her infant. Nor are these feelings less intense in other respects. One might imagine, to judge at least from the manner in which the poor wretches are neglected by their lords, that if anything like feelings existed on their parts for their partners, it would be that of supreme indifference. The reverse, however, is the case, and in those general melees, which so often disturb the peace of the encampment, they are not slow in entering into the spirit of the affair and raising their voices to vindicate the honour of their belligerent spouses. Absurd to a degree is a scene of this kind. Sitting around their fires, within sight of the combatants, they gradually join in the excitement around them; tauntingly and sneeringly they speak of the insignificant deeds, and contemptible efforts of the opponents of their respective husbands. Suddenly one will spring to her feet, and begin to strut up and down, flourishing her long stick over her head, her cloak thrown back and fluttering out like the tail of an angry cat; in this belligerent state she continues to move about, singing at the same time some sarcastic and insulting words. Irritated and excited by such proceedings, another now starts up with abound, and in like manner commences to strut, sing, and flourish her stick, – and thus working themselves up to the required pitch of anger, they gradually approach each other until (Page 539) within striking range, when the war of words being changed for a more forcible one of sticks, the engagement becomes warm, and broken heads and bloody faces are the result.
Such is the Australian in life, let us now reverse the picture and view him in death.
In the midst of a tall forest, some four or five wigwams are clustered together, the thread-like wreaths of smoke ascending from the small fire alone indicating the spot. In one of these huts lies the emaciated form of a savage, the limbs drawn up to the smallest possible compass under the scanty cloak. Sitting around are the wives and children of the dying man, watching in silence for death to take possession of his prize. Other women belonging to the camp are also sitting about. One or two men alone remain; these are perhaps sleeping, or quietly sharpening their spears. All is silent, the hard breathing and the convulsive sounds in the throat of the dying man are alone audible, even these gradually cease and the soul has fled.
As soon as the fact is known the wives and children and all those gathered round the body set up a dreadful startling cry. The women in particular send up a more piteous lamentation, and tear their heads and faces until they are frightfully smeared and disfigured with blood. The male relatives of the deceased also scratch their noses, but do not mutilate themselves to the same extent as the women. But no time is lost in making preparations for the internment of the corpse. On the spot where he drew his last breath is the grave sunk, a shallow and circular hole scooped out, barely deep enough to keep the body below the level of the earth; into this the still warm corpse, wrapped in its cloak, and with the knees bent up to the mouth, is placed, lying on its side; the earth is then thrown lightly and scantily over it; that thrown over the corpse, however, is not the earth which has been scooped out of the grave, for that is allowed to remain in a heap on one side, but is cut away from the opposite side. The spear, wamera and other weapons lately used by the deceased, are now placed upon the grave, and after making a small fire near the feet, the grave and the camp are deserted by all, and, far removed from the spot, a new encampment is formed, from which the mournful wailings of the women may be heard floating down on the wind night after night.
On the evening of the death, the wives and relatives of the deceased smear the scars on their heads and faces with white chalk, and on the following day with charcoal, after that again with white chalk, which is allowed to remain on until the wounds are healed. After death the name of the departed is never uttered, and should there be another native of the same name, he immediately assumes a new one.
It would appear, however, that the mode of internment differs in some cases; for being on one occasion with an exploring party some ninety miles from the settlement, we came upon three or four native graves, in which it was evident that the bodies had been laid at full length as the graves were long and narrow, presenting indeed much the appearance of our own.14
(Page 540) In a letter received from a brother at Perth on the Swan River, in describing the aborigines of that part of the country, he gives the following account of a death scene:
“Understanding that the native Wattup had died from the effects of a spear wound in the thigh, which he had received about five weeks before, I went up to see the body. I was directed to the spot by the cries of the women, and the scene that presented itself there was very striking, and differing from any that you ever witnessed at King George Sound. The corpse was stretched out under a large gum tree, and closely around it, an old man and a number of women were crouched on their heels. At times they bent over the body, uttering a mournful chant, and addressing it, apparently, in affectionate terms; then again they would burst forth in loud lamentations, tearing their faces and hair, and exhibiting every token of the most violent sorrow; maintaining, however, throughout a regular cadence. Three or four yards from these, sat an old man, probably the father of the deceased, resting his head on his knees in silence. His wife sat beside him with her arms thrown over his shoulders, crying piteously, and calling (as I understood it) on the dead man to return to her. One or two elderly men stood at a short distance leaning on their spears, attentively watching the proceedings. No other men were present but those I have mentioned; the rest appeared to be collected at the foot of Mt Eliza, where they were holding a noisy deliberation, concerning, I suppose some scheme of revenge. I had not time to remain until the termination of the ceremony, but just as I was leaving, two men came up from Mt Eliza, armed with their spears, and evidently prepared for some conflict, – after exchanging a few words, the mourning party broke up – the men going off to the council of war, leaving the corpse in charge of the females. In the evening a number of the natives bivouacked on our premises, where they had a Corroberry.” 15
Of the many strange facts that come before us in studying this people, perhaps none is more extraordinary than the paucity of weapons and implements in use amongst them; and still more so is the fact that they are probably the only savages on the face of the earth, inhabiting the sea coasts, who have no means of aquatic transport, and are unacquainted with the arts of swimming. When we examine their coast and find it dotted with innumerable islands or indented with inlets swarming with fish, we are more struck with this peculiar feature in the habits of the aborigines of the western, southern and eastern coasts of Australia. Turn in what direction we will, we find all other savage people excelling in these arts. The New Zealander and the South Sea Islander are noted for the beauty and size of their war canoes; and men, women, and children, appear as much at home when diving and swimming about in the sea as any seal or walrus. Again, the Indians of this vast continent, from the Arctic Regions to Florida, are skilful and daring navigators in their bark and other canoes. Let us even visit the northern coast of Australia itself, and we find the aborigines, (Page 541) much more savage it is true than those I am describing, but at the same time furnished with canoes and catamarans, or sallying forth even upon rough logs of wood, and quite indifferent whether their bark carries them through the surf, or parts company with them in the attempt, so fearless and expert are they in the water. How is it, then, that those inhabiting the opposite coasts should be so deficient in arts that instinct itself should force them to acquire? This peculiar feature in their economy, strange as it may appear, will help us, I think, to trace their origin, and that too to a people eminently maritime in their habits. I allude to the Malays.
The proximity of the Malay islands, and the fact of immense fleets of Malay prows having visited the Northern coast of Australia annually from time immemorial, in search of the Trepang for the Chinese market, will go far to bear out this opinion. It may not be improbable, therefore, that some of these people were thrown by shipwreck, or other accident, on this coast, or upon one of the islands on the other side of Torres Straits, and that thus the North was the first portion of Australia peopled. The race, gradually increasing, spread through the interior of this vast continent. In their approach to the western and southern shores they necessarily passed over an extensive inland region, without doubt perfectly destitute of rivers or lakes of any magnitude. When, therefore, ages after, they had extended to the opposite coasts, they had lost the knowledge of every art connected with water, and were unable to make use of or appreciate the advantages which lay before them on the sea shore. Whilst upon this subject I may mention that I have seen, in the settlement of Albany, natives who had never before gazed on the sea. In thus treating the subject, however, I am merely venturing an opinion; it may be correct, or the reverse.
The extent of the knowledge of the arts and sciences existing among the Australians may be gauged by their weapons and implements. These are the spear, wamera or throwing stick, and the kilee or boomerang; a stone hammer or tomahawk, a short and heavy club or stick, and a rude description of stone-edged knife.
The spear is merely a straight rod some nine feet in length, as thick as an ordinary walking-stick, rather smaller at one end than the other. The sharp and needle-like point, at the heaviest end, is hardened in the fire. Rather more than an inch from the point of some is fixed a neat wooden barb of about two inches in length. Others again have small and sharp pieces of quartz, fastened in gum, extending some six or eight inches from the point. This latter description of spear is dreaded by the natives much more than the barbed one, as its sharp and uneven edge lacerates the flesh desperately, besides leaving pieces of the stone in the wound.16 The wound inflicted by the barbed spear is hardly less severe, and, unless the spear-head be driven directly through the part struck, is dangerous in the extreme, for the barb once getting buried in the flesh, it is impossible to withdraw it, and the only chance of extrication is to force the whole through the limb: a process, however painful, by no means uncommon.
(Page 542) The trees from which the spears are made, seldom exceed the thickness required, and are found growing in great abundance in the swamps and marshy grounds; the wood is of a hard and dark description, and after being in use for some time assumes the appearance of mahogany.
The spear is thrown by means of the wamera or throwing-stick, which is a flat piece of wood hardly thicker than the cover of a book, some two feet in length, about four inches in breadth in the centre, and gradually decreasing in width, and running to a point at either extremity. At the end held in the hand is a lump of hard resinous substance, obtained from the grass-tree, which prevents the wamera slipping from the grasp when throwing from it the spear; at the other point is fixed a little piece of stick, about an inch in length, forming a sort of hook, and which fits into a shallow hole at the small end of the spear. When fixed for throwing, the spear runs along the length of the wamera, and passes through the fore-finger and thumb, which, from the manner in which the wamera is held, are left free for that purpose. The spear is therefore hurled from the wamera somewhat on the principle as a stone from a sling, and is sent with much greater force than if merely thrown from the hand. In the use of these weapons the natives exhibit surprising dexterity; it is seldom indeed they fail to transfix their object within a distance of fifty or sixty yards. The wamera is made of a very hard wood, a coarse-grained and heavy mahogany, which generally obtains a good polish after being a short time in use.
The wamera never leaves the hands of the native; when his spears are exhausted he makes use of it in close combat, as a sword or battleaxe, and its sharp and hard edges lay open gashes in the heads of the combatants hardly less severe than those produced by the sabre of a heavy dragoon.
But of all weapons the Australian kilee or boomerang is the most wonderful. Its form is nearly that of a crescent. It is made from the crooked limb of a tree curved naturally in the form required; this is nicely scraped down, and made flat on one side and slightly convex on the other; its size is about fifteen inches from point to point, and nearly two inches in width. Its course through the air is eccentric and very varied, greatly depending upon the skill with which it is thrown. Some have more command over the weapon than others, and an experienced thrower can almost make it take any direction he may please. He will throw it with all his force against the ground, some ten or twelve feet in front of him, when it will rebound, and taking a circular course, will fall at an immense distance to his right or left. Again, he will dash it to the earth in the same manner, and it will ascend from it with the speed of an arrow, until almost out of sight, when, remaining poised some instants in the air, it will return with fearful velocity and fall probably some distance behind the thrower. It is used thus in killing birds. For instance; a flight of cockatoos is seen approaching, the native waits patiently until the birds are nearly over his head, he throws the kilee in the way I have described in (Page 543) front of the flight; the kilee returning, after having risen to a certain height, meets the birds in their course and thus knocks several of them down.
The boomerang is the most dangerous weapon used by the Australian. Its course through the air is so swift that it is with difficulty one can follow it with the eye, and its ever varying movements render it nearly impossible to get out of its way – it is the only weapon that the natives themselves find a difficulty in avoiding; those who fancy themselves quite safe, and clear of its manoeuvres, are not unfrequently the ones hit, and it is no unusual thing to see the native, from whose hands the weapon has sped, obliged to throw himself on the ground to avoid being struck by it on its return.
The tomahawk or hammer is a rude and shapeless piece of stone, fastened on in the centre with the gum of the grass-tree to a slight wooden handle; its principal use is to notch the smooth trunks of trees, just sufficient to insert the great toe in, to enable the native to ascend after the opossum and other small animals. 17
The only other article is a short heavy stick, rather thicker at one end than the other, and about eighteen inches in length; it is used for throwing at short distances, and it also forms a weapon by no means contemptible when wielded in the hand as a club.
The quickness of vision and dexterity exhibited by the Australian savage in avoiding the different weapons, are truly astonishing. This is particularly the case as regards the spear; so much so, indeed, that it seldom occurs that one is struck by it, if he be at all prepared for the assault. Five or six spears will be thrown at a man in rapid succession, and, without moving from the spot, he will escape them all by a slight bend of the body. From his childhood, practicing with the spear and boomerang is the principal pastime of the Australian, and for hours together mere infants may be seen amusing themselves by throwing their tiny weapons at each other.
‘Superstitions and Traditions of the Aborigines of Australia’
By James Browne, Toronto
The Canadian Journal of Industry, Science and Art, New Series, Vol 1, No. VI, Nov. 1856 pp. 505-511. Printed for the Canadian Institute.
(Page 505) In a former paper communicated to the Canadian Institute, the manners and customs of the Aborigines of the western coast of Australia have been sketched from personal observation.* (Vide: “The Aborigines of Australia,” ante, p.251). I shall now endeavor to complete the picture of that singular phase of savage life which came under my own notice, while resident on the Australian continent, by depicting the psychological characteristics of the same degraded race, and narrating some of the most remarkable superstitions and traditional ideas, which a long residence among them brought to my knowledge. It has been often affirmed that there is no people so savage and ignorant as not to have some idea of a Supreme Being, or belief in a superior power, whom they worship in some form or character, and of whom they live in awe and dread. But if such is not the case with the natives of the western coast of Australia, and indeed of Australia generally, they so nearly approximate to it, that I believe it can be asserted without a doubt, that so far as religion, or any rudiment of divine worship is concerned, these savages are as ignorant as the beasts of the forest. From them no prayers ascend to propitiate good spirit or evil. They have neither temple nor idol, — neither object of worship, nor any semblance of religious rites.
(Page 506) Nevertheless, even the Australian savage manifests such vague traces of the rudiments of religious belief as are implied by a faith in some supernatural power. The Aborigines occasionally refer to an imaginary evil-being, whom those I am describing call Jahnac, to whom they give credit for all sickness and misfortunes that may befall them, and whose principal occupation, they say, is to roam about the earth at night, watching to harm such stragglers as may unfortunately happen to fall in his way. Some of the valiant ones, indeed, will even boast of personal encounters and interviews with him; but what Jahnac is like, or what his powers are, none can distinctly tell. Even to those who boast of having encountered him Jahnac remains a mystery. Still they appear to have an indistinct idea of something that has the power of injuring them. Anything and everything accordingly, which frightens them, is Jahnac; but, however much they may dislike leaving their fires at night for fear of coming in contact with him, Jahnac is not worshipped by them, nor do they seek in any way to propitiate him, or manifest respect for him otherwise than what is implied by abject fear.18
But although entertaining such vague and grovelling ideas of any spiritual power, and, properly speaking, destitute of all conception of a Supreme Being – these savages, nevertheless, labor under many strange delusions, tantamount, in some cases, to what might be called a religious belief. It generally follows that where the mind is not pre-occupied by any higher form of religious belief, it becomes the dupe of designing cunning and craftiness. This is strikingly exemplified in the Australian savage.
In the description of the different Tribes given in a former paper, it was mentioned that the Cockatoo-men, or a portion of that tribe, had acquired a strange and mysterious influence over their neighbors. I shall now endeavor to relate in what manner this influence is exercised, and the light in which its possessors are regarded, by those who do not belong to the exclusive circle.
The Cockatoo-men are believed to control the elements, and to direct the heavenly bodies; through Jahnac, their ally, they are supposed to have the power of inflicting disease and death upon whomsoever they will. The voice of the Cockatoo-man is heard in the thunder, and lightning is the bursting forth of his wrath, or the manifestation of his displeasure and approaching vengeance.19 No sooner does the vivid flash dart along the horizon, and the distant murmur of thunder fall upon the ear, than the native crouches within his wigwam, and cries: – “The Cockatoo-man speaks — he is sulky!” Should the husband, the wife, or the child, feel the pains of sickness, (Page 507) again is the cry raised: – “The Cockatoo- man is sulky!” – and should death not follow, to him alone is the recovery due, for his wrath has passed away. In like manner, the Sun, Moon, and Stars, are all the handiwork, of the Cockatoo-man. Night by night does he ascend from this, his terrestrial dwelling place, to hold a glorious banquet on the moon, whose phases are accounted for by these nocturnal expeditions and feasts. They are continued, according to native belief, until the whole is demolished, but one small piece, which is allowed to remain and again expand to its original dimensions, when the feasting is once more resumed.20
All the individuals of the tribe are supposed to possess these attributes in a greater or lesser degree; but some few are endowed with powers of a still more extensive and controlling range than others, and they are therefore flattered and sought-after by the surrounding tribes, upon all occasions of danger and great sickness. The gravity with which these medicine men go through their incantations, and the implicit faith in which those operated on appear to submit themselves to the tender mercies of the operator, is ludicrous in the extreme. The patient, in all probability, is suffering from internal pain, or is possibly in the last stage of exhaustion. Jahnac has been put into him by the Cockatoo-man — and the Cockatoo-man alone can get him out. He is therefore sought after, without reference to distance or trouble, and brought (sometimes many days journey) to administer relief to the afflicted.
The Cockatoo-man approaches, and, gravely gazing on the sick man, begins to probe with his knuckles, to find the exact spot where lies the pain. Having determined this, he commences to rub down or shampoo the body, from the part affected, towards one of the extremities, either the feet, the hands, the head, or the ears – his object being to force Jahnac out at one of these points. During the operation, he frequently blows upon his fingers with great solemnity, as if to disperse the infection of the evil one. Suddenly ceasing his rubbing and seizing the patient by the hair of his head, or back of the neck, he treats him to a most energetic shaking; and thus he proceeds, with alternate rubbing, and blowing and shaking, until Jahnac is forced out of the afflicted one, and appears in the hand of the operator, in the shape of a small piece of wood or quartz. The cure being thus satisfactorily performed, this bit of wood or stone is handed over to the individual from whom it was extracted, and by whom it is cherished ever afterwards as an object of peculiar value.21
Such are the wonderful powers supposed to be possessed by these men, and, to those who believe all that they have credit for, (Page 508) innumerable are the miracles they perform. It is needless, however, to enlarge on the subject. I have related sufficient to prove the influence they have over the minds of the savages, their dupes. How they contrived to gain this influence appears extraordinary, as I am not aware that they possess one qualification superior to their neighbors; – but that they have gained it, and that they do their best to retain it, are equally true.
This is the extent of the influence of superstition on this people, and there I think it ceases; but here, also, must be noted a vague and partial idea which they appear to entertain of a state of being hereafter. I say partial, in as much as it applies but to one portion of the community, and that is to the young men, who, they say, upon taking their departure from this world, go to the moon, or to a place beyond it, where they remain in the midst of an abundance of Kangaroos, upon which they have unlimited feasting, an idea conveying to the mind of an Australian a picture of the very essence of true felicity. But those dying old and infirm enjoy no such happiness; – on the earth, where they lived and died, there they remain, and conclude their career by furnishing a repast for the wild dog.
The traditions current amongst these people, like those of most other barbarous tribes, usually relate to some familiar object or event. Nevertheless, they generally contrive to confer on them an originality and marvellousness, not only amusing, but tending also in a great measure to enlighten us relative to the ideas and modes of thought of those from whom they are obtained. As specimens, let me relate one or two narrated to me by a native youth, as we lay around our bush fire; and in doing so, I shall endeavor to follow, as much as possible, the peculiar and simple language of my swarthy companion.
“The Kangaroo,” says he “now jumps far – very far; he jumps too like the frog, but it was not always so. A very long time ago it was not all jump, jump, jump. No, he then walked all the day, and when the black man was hungry, he did not run after the Kangaroo, as he now does, for the whole day, but arose from his fire, and knocked him down with his Waddie, and so he ate plenty, and without trouble. One day a Frog came up out of the River to take a walk and look at the country, and away he went, jump, jump, jump, and then sat down and looked about him, again he started, jump, jump, jump, and once more sat down in the glare of the Sun. And so he went on jumping and resting until he found himself in the midst of the Kangaroos, who were crawling about eating the grass with their fore paws to the ground, and noses very low, and backs very high. The Frog laughed when he saw the (Page 509) hind legs of the Kangaroo, so much like his own, so long and so strong, used in crawling along like a miserable Opossum or Bandicoot, and he thought the Kangaroos very lazy and very foolish, and so he commenced to talk with them, and demanded why they did not jump with their long legs as he did. The Kangaroos replied that they knew but of one way of using their legs, and that way was as he then saw them doing. The Frog said: No, long legs are made for jumping, try and do as I do; and off he started jump, jump, jump, and jump also went the Kangaroos, then jump, jump, jump, the first jump awkward, but improving as they leapt, until at last away they bounded altogether, Frog and Kangaroos, and the Kangaroo was glad when he jumped away from the Black man; but the Black man said it was no good, and he was sulky with the Frog.”
It is the Frog accordingly that the Kangaroo has to thank for the first idea of that system of locomotion which he now employs, and it is the Frog too, according to the same native belief, that the Australian has to blame for having to exert those same powers in order to supply himself with food.
The following was the purport of the native youth’s account of the manner in which fire was diffused over the land, although the language may differ somewhat from his narrative. 22
A long long time ago, a little Bandicoot, (a small and sharp nosed animal, not unlike our Guinea Pig) was the sole owner of a fire-brand, which he cherished with the greatest jealousy, carrying it about with him wherever he went, and never once laying it aside or allowing it out of his own special care; so selfish was he in the use of his prize, that he obstinately refused to share it with the other animals, his neighbors; and so they held a general council, where it was decided that the fire must be obtained from the Bandicoot either by force or strategy. A Hawk and a Pigeon were deputed to carry out this resolution, who, having formed their plan, awaited their opportunity to accomplish it.
This Bandicoot lived on the banks of a small stream where he amused himself during the sunny hours of the day in walking and frisking about. It was on one of these occasions that the Hawk and Pigeon ventured to try their chance, and thus went about their work. The Pigeon strolled down the bank of the river where the Bandicoot was walking; the Hawk, at the same time, kept flying about in their vicinity. Coming up with the Bandicoot, the Pigeon entered into conversation with him, and asked him for a portion of the fire he carried with him. The Bandicoot as usual refused his request. The Pigeon then asked him why he continued so selfish as not to divide (Page 510) his fire with his neighbors. The Bandicoot replied that the fire was his alone, by right, and therefore it was his intention to maintain his claim, and to keep it to himself. The two continued to wrangle, when suddenly the Pigeon, seizing, as he thought, an unguarded moment, made a dash to obtain the prize. The Bandicoot quickly saw that affairs had come to a crisis, and, in desperation, determined to set matters at rest effectually; he therefore threw the fire towards the water, there to quench it for ever. But fortunately for the Black man, the sharp eyed Hawk was hovering near the river, carefully watching the whole transaction, and seeing the fire falling into the water, he made a dart towards it, and with a stroke of his wing, knocked the brand far over the stream into the long dry grass of the opposite bank, which immediately ignited and the flames spread over the face of the country. The Black man then felt the fire and said it was good.23
I shall conclude this sketch by mentioning a species of trial by ordeal, – a singular and by no means impartial method of testing suspected guilt. Occasions for its exercise are not rare.
One of the tribe, for instance, is found dead; having fallen by the hands of violence, suspicion falls upon some member of the tribe and he is called upon to prove his innocence; he proceeds therefore to kill a kangaroo. Having cooked a portion of this, he gives it to the nearest relative, or adopted brother of the murdered man to eat. If this meat goes down the individual’s throat smoothly and without obstruction, and no ill effects follow, it is proof that the suspicion is unfounded, and the accused is accordingly looked upon as guiltless. But if on the contrary the meat sticks in the throat of the judge, or afterward causes pain or any disagreeable sensations in the stomach, it is proof positive of the guilt of the party suspected, and he has to answer for the deed. It may be seen at a glance that this is a one-sided proceeding, as the result will, in many cases, to a considerable extent, depend upon the feelings and good will of the party most interested, the accuser: who, in giving his decision, can of course please himself whether or not he allows the meat to stick in his throat on its way down, or can as easily exhibit subsequent symptoms of pain or convulsions, should such be necessary.
I have thus endeavoured to give some idea of the Australian savage in his wild state. Had I been of a more mature age when thrown amongst the natives of Western Australia there is little doubt but that much interesting information could have been added in illustration of the subject I have attempted to elucidate. Before concluding, however, I may be permitted to answer the question frequently put (Page 511) to me: “Whether the condition of the Australian has been improved by his intercourse with the White man?” The question admits of no doubt or hesitation in framing a reply; and I regret to say it must be answered in the negative. It is a strange fact, but one no less painful than true, that, wherever the white man plants his foot, the native of the soil gradually disappears. Unable to withstand temptation, he acquires the vices without partaking of the benefits of civilisation. To this may be further added the fruits of his own natural spirit of treachery and revenge; which unhappily neither the civilization nor the Christianity of the white man has affected in any perceptible degree. Incapable of adapting himself to the changes which agriculture, and a numerous settled population, effect on a wild country, his former means of subsistence disappears and that which has displaced it lies entirely beyond his reach. Disease and want accordingly work there will on the miserable savage, and his extinction is speedy and inevitable.
The Australian above all others is especially exposed to these evils, and the last of his race must soon be numbered with the things that were. Already every vestige of the native population of Tasmania has vanished from that beautiful island, although within so recent a period as my visit to it, the Tasmanian was still to be seen living on his native soil. The various tribes on the coasts of Australia are fast following in his wake, and most of those who form the subject of this paper, have, I believe, by this time passed away from that strange world of the Southern Ocean, which is now so rapidly filling with a new and hardy population of industrious settlers, derived – it may almost be said without figure of speech – from every nation under heaven; but controlled and guided in the progress of civilization by the hardy, practical Anglo-Saxon race.