Page:Aboriginesofvictoria01.djvu/31

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xxiii
INTRODUCTION.

utterly unnerve the candidates, and discompose the principal actors in the performance.

In Africa, where similar customs are observed, the fetich-man blows a kind of whistle made of hollowed mangrove wood, and the sound is probably a signal to those not privileged to keep away; just as the Witarna is used for this purpose in Australia.

The practice of mutilating the body prevails in all parts of Australia. In New South Wales, the women, at an early age, are subjected to an uncommon mutilation of the two first joints of the little finger of the left hand. The operation is performed when they are very young, and is done under an idea that these joints of the little finger are in the way when they wind their fishing lines over the hand. This amputation is termed Mal-gun.[1]

Knocking out the teeth, boring the septum of the nose, cutting and scarring the skin, and circumcision, division, perforation, and depilation are practised—some in one part and some in another—throughout the continent. In all these strange customs, as used by them, the natives do but follow the habits of savages and barbarians in other parts of the world; and one is made to believe and to repeat that man, spring from what race he may, will, under the same set of circumstances, and under like conditions of food and climate, originate and adopt similar practices. The mutilation known as Mal-gun is not confined, it is believed, to New South Wales. Knocking out the teeth is an ancient custom, and has spread widely. Dampier observed it amongst the natives of the north-west coast, and it is perhaps the most common of all their superstitious observances.

Circumcision and other similar mutilations are, it has been suggested, of modern date, and may have been derived from intercourse with the Malay trepang-fishers. The custom, as observed by the most ancient amongst the peoples of the earth, is, and was some thousands of years ago, a religious rite, and differs altogether from the practice of the blacks, who in this merely endeavour to test the powers of endurance of a candidate for admission to a certain rank in the tribe. In considering the effect, however, of this and other practices that are mentioned, one may believe that they are really indigenous, and that they have originated either in consequence of a peculiarity of climate or from the necessity of limiting the population.

It is undoubtedly true that some customs that could have originated in no other manner than in the pressing necessities of their mode of existence are exactly similar to many that have been regarded heretofore as peculiar to ancient forms of civilization, and it is unwise and unphilosophical to decide hastily that even such a rite as that of circumcision is not born of the circumstances of the people.

The savage, in many things, is—as it were by nature—cruel. What, for instance, could be more dreadful than to seize an unsuspecting youth, drag him from the camp, and subject him to hunger and cold for days and nights, knock out a tooth with a piece of wood, scar his skin, and compel him to submit to

  1. The English Colony in New South Wales, by Lieut.-Col. Collins, 1804.