Page:History of West Australia.djvu/33

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21
WEST AUSTRALIA.


and power. Other tribes, again, average little more than five feet. The fertility of the regions they inhabit in natural products, and the climatic conditions, cause the difference. Professor Huxley in one of his works stated that the native forearm and hand, foot and leg were often proportionately larger than those of the European, and to prove this Dr. A. Milne Robertson, who was at one time surgeon to the convict establishment in Western Australia, measured fifty natives and some whites. He found the mean of aggregate measurements of forearm and hand of European to be 17·52 and of the native 18·3, of the leg of European 18·28 and native 19·02, and foot 10·08 and 9·78 respectively. The chest girth is larger in Europeans than natives.

Mr. Curr held that the native is quicker in action of mind and more observant than the English peasant, but that the latter has the advantage in calculation and perseverance. In Australian schools where natives have been taught the curriculum they prove themselves in no way inferior in brightness to the white children, but it has not been observed that they ever set any value on their new found knowledge, and educated natives do not evince a desire that their children should be sent to school. A story is told of a philanthropic lady in Western Australia who had a native taught not only the English language, but French as well. Years later a traveller spoke to a native shepherding sheep in the lonely bush, and was astonished at receiving an answer in French—and French expletives too. It was the learned native scholar.

But possibly the black recognises that he has little hope in competition with the white in the higher walks of life, and no white wife can be his, therefore, perforce, he returns to the wandering savage life again, and Captain Grey says he would do the same under the circumstances. The hearing, taste, smell, and especially sight, is keener in the natives than in the English. They are lithe and almost dignified in their carriage, and to compare their easy activity and suppleness and measured movement with that of the stiff and laboured walk of the white is greatly in their favour.

In the colder regions of the south of Western Australia they clothe themselves in kangaroo skins, which are drawn over the shoulders like the Spanish cloak. Round the loins strings made from the fur of the opossum are worn, and, in most cases, serve to cover their nakedness. But in the extra-tropical country they go naked, except in some tribes for the wearing of a wisp of leaves across the thighs. The body is tattooed from the shoulders to the thighs by wales and scars and paintings, which in their eyes are ornaments and increase their natural beauty. By sharp-edged stones the skin is raised in ridges extending over the body from the umbilicus to the clavicle. This operation is performed at puberty. The septum in the nose is often pierced, and teeth are extracted from the upper jaw by means of the douack, a piece of wood not unlike a ruler. The Ngurla tribe on the De Grey River adorn themselves more than most. Besides tattooing, the men wear plumes in the hair, and pearl shells are suspended in front from a girdle round the waist. Women hang pellets of gum upon locks of their hair. The Nickol Bay tribe ornament themselves with pearl shells and rats' tails, knot their beards, and smear their persons with grease and red ochre. Those natives who had their abode round the Swan River Settlement wore feathers in the hair, clothed themselves in a plentiful coating of grease, used kangaroo skins, and the women wore on their backs a bag made of kangaroo skin, in which their children and numerous small articles were carried. The Australian natives as a whole grease hair and body, primarily, probably to protect themselves from cold. Numerous tribes paint their bodies in red ochre, and even with white colour, and others place peeled sticks in the hair.

The characteristics of the natives as they were when the white man began his work, and what they became under his influence, are altogether different. In addition to the old freedom and unconscious dignity disappearing, they rapidly became less independent. Governor Hutt in his despatch, dated 3rd May, 1839, to Lord Glenelg, of the Colonial Office, wrote

"The aborigines, from all I have been able to learn respecting them, are an anomalous, though a most interesting, race of people. Interesting I mean as offering points of character totally at variance with anything which I have seen described of tribes or nations elsewhere. They are active, hardy, daring, intelligent, and faithful, impatient of restraint, utterly hateful of work, even where rewards the most tempting, and which they most covet, are offered; and careless of all European arts and comforts. . . . . . They have, finally, a language in which there is no word for either love, want, or gratitude, and they live literally without God in the world. . . . . . . From childhood to the grave they propitiate neither God nor devil."

Settlers in Western Australia may disagree with Governor Hutt as to the faithfulness of the blacks, at any rate in their dealings with white men, yet there are points of faithfulness to their own kind, and to little white children entrusted to their care, which win admiration. In addition to the characteristics mentioned, they are improvident, cunning, lazy, quick, social, gay, musical, free, open-hearted, dexterous in the use of weapons, and have on occasion strong powers of endurance. Under certain conditions they are kind, and this is most apparent in their treatment of dumb animals and little children. Native women have repeatedly been known to give suck to a puppy that has lost its mother. And that they are open-hearted has already been proved in Dampier's description of them.

It is difficult to imagine a people who have but a hazy belief in a Supreme Being, or of deities of one form or other. Instances have been given where a native asks help of an invisible something, which he cannot explain or describe, and which may be the outcome of an impression of Christianity carried from one to another since European settlement. But that this is not general has been demonstrated over and over again. There is a wide but circumscribed belief in spirits, for on the death of a warrior or of any member of the tribe, his spirit is considered to have no rest until some person of another tribe is killed, and then his manes are appeased. In certain customs, which will be mentioned in their proper order, every precaution is taken to prevent the departed from returning and taking up his old form, and the wandering one is misled in many ways. A sorrowing mother consumed in lamentations over a dead and buried son has mistaken a European for his spirit which has returned to give her peace. Captain Grey, during a tour in 1838, a few miles north of Perth was astonished one night to observe approaching his camp a procession of children of the bush, headed by two women. Tears coursed unrestrainedly down the cheeks of these, and the elder, after examining him for a moment, exclaimed—"Giva, giva, bundo bal" ("Yes, yes, in truth it is he"), and throwing her arms about him, leant her head on his breast and wept bitterly. Although she was old, and ugly, and filthily dirty, Captain Grey compassionately bore her caresses, and deported himself gravely and mournfully as the occasion deserved. The younger and prettier woman contented herself with kneeling in tears at his feet. Then the old lady kissed him on each cheek as a Frenchwoman would do, cried a little more, and assured him that he was the ghost of her son, recently killed by a spear wound. Grey's new mother expressed almost as much maternal delight at his return as his real mother would have done, after which the father and brothers embraced him by placing knee to knee, breast to breast, and arms around his waist. Finally he was released, and dutifully presented them with bread, and round the camp fire told them many strange stories of