The Aborigines of Australia/Chapter 3

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The Aborigines of Australia by Roderick Flanagan
Chapter 3



It has been shown that whatever shade of authority exists among the aborigines partakes of the patriarchal kind. From whatever original cause this may have sprung, it indicates a state of things highly favourable to the New Hollander, as it shows that, however unpropitiously circumstances may have operated in his regard, however low he may have fallen, he has preserved himself free from the imputation of one great crime—the voluntary sacrifice of his freedom. It also indicates another fact, still more favourable, which is, that though, in the course of his long and desolate wanderings, he may have lost those fixed and definite ideas of the Creator which he derived from his fathers, he has not set up a human deity in His stead.

Now comes one of the most important considerations which can possibly be brought under review, whether in connection with the savage tribes of Australia or the most polished and enlightened of mankind. This consideration relates to their ideas and opinions as to a Supreme Being and a second state of existence. For several reasons this is one of the most difficult questions to determine in connection with them. The almost general unacquaintance with their language, their inability to enter into anything like a metaphysical conversation, and perhaps the general indisposition on the part of Europeans to make minute inquiries touching such matters—all these combined have tended to render mythological opinions of the aboriginal a matter of more than ordinary doubt and obscurity. The general scope of what information we do possess on the matter leads to the opinion that they hold belief in a Supernatural Being, exercising an unseen but extraordinary power over their whole race. This power, however, strange to say, is never mentioned by them as being exercised otherwise than for evil. Hence, in rendering his appellation into English, he is uniformly called after the Prince of Darkness—"Devil." Thunder, lightning, storms, and the other atmospheric or elemental disruptions are supposed to be among the chief manifestations of his power and wrath. Accordingly, whenever the elements are so disturbed, the blacks exhibit every symptom of extreme fear, concealing themselves in the most remote recesses of their haunts and habitations. The neighbourhood of extinct or smouldering volcanoes, of which several are dispersed throughout the territory, are avoided with a superstitious awe, as the favourite hiding-place of the much-dreaded evil genius. Very deep or lonely lagoons and water-holes are also shunned for the same reason. Whenever an individual disappears from a tribe in a mysterious manner, and is not again heard of, his absence is always attributed to the agency of the evil one, who is supposed to have carried him off to his unhallowed retreats.

It has heretofore been pretty generally entertained as a well-grounded belief that no other supernatural power besides this terror of the wilds is known to the New Hollander. Nor does the power with which he is invested, in the opinion of his believers, appear to be exercised with discrimination, extending only over the wicked, and punishing only the perpetrators of guilt. Caprice is the only rule of action attributed to him in all his dealings. An instance is recorded by a gentleman who took a considerable share of interest in the aboriginal race which will illustrate the extreme darkness investing their theological notions. In his endeavours to reflect on their understandings some of the simplest lights of truth, he sought on several occasions to impress them with the belief that their devil—or "debble debble," as they more generally called him—only destroyed or injured evil-doers, such as by turbulence, cruelty, and unkindness had been the cause of evil to their relatives or their tribe. This distinction, however, they are described as being utterly unable to comprehend, and sceptic mirth was the only manifestation drawn from the sable audience by the philanthropist's preaching.

That, however, they really have no knowledge of a supreme benevolent power, or that this power or spirit of which they know is in reality considered by them a purely evil one, it is very difficult to believe. But, without entering into any close reasoning on the subject, which our scanty information on the matter would no doubt render futile, it is impossible not to deduce from what we do know certain inferences favourable to the character of these primitive tribes. Whether or not they have any satisfactory idea of a Supreme Being, worshipped by the most refined and most barbarous as "Jehovah, Jove, or Lord," may be a matter of doubt; but that the object of their highest regard is a spirit, and not a material or visible being or object, is a matter of certainty. In this is not the Australian savage superior to the civilized inhabitants of Peru, whose deity was the sun, or the polished and luxurious Hindostanee, who to this day retains his hideous idols and monstrous pagan worship.

Next in order, as intimately bound up with the questions just considered, come the ideas of the New Hollander with reference to a future state of existence. Here we will have presented a conception of the human mind in its most uncultured state at once novel and singular. The American Indian, when he first beheld the European, with his mighty ships, his terrible implements of war, his glittering armour and silken apparel, deemed it impossible that such a being could be a mere inhabitant of the earth, possessed of the same attributes, the same passions and feelings as himself; and hence that simple race for many years regarded the Europeans as an order of beings descended from the skies, and endowed with celestial powers and celestial virtues. The New Hollander, in like manner, invested the White man, when his presence first broke on his vision, with attributes, if not divine, at least with a superiority which in his mind rendered him infinitely beyond the sphere of his notions of humanity. His imagination or his vanity, however, gave rise to an idea which never entered into the mind of the Indian or any other savage previously. He believed that in every one of the new beings before him he beheld some one of his ancestors or relatives returned from the land whence his whole race are translated after death, there to enter on a new and exalted state of existence. This would appear, from every source of information, to be the nearly general belief of the whole people—a deduction which, however much of simplicity it may display, seems as reasonable and as logical as could possibly be expected. Instances are known, in confirmation of this belief, of individual Europeans, from their supposed resemblance to some deceased aboriginal, being called by his name, and kindred claimed with him by the relatives of the supposed original. The fact is made manifest, by this strange opinion, that the aborigines do believe in a future state of existence, as, if they had not previously held the belief that the souls of their relatives survived their corporeal decease, they could not arrive at the conclusion that they had transmigrated into the bodies of the white men. In further confirmation of their belief in a second existence, instances are known where of the race have appealed to the names of their parents and other relatives when accused of a crime, to add force and effect to their protestations of innocence.

Idolatry—that manifestation of intellectual blindness which seems to belong to man in a secondary-stage of civilization rather than in his primitive simplicity—has never been attributed to the New Hollander. Carved images, of a very rude description, and of an uncouth aspect, have been found among them, but that they were ever used otherwise than as baubles, or originated otherwise than as experiments in barbarous art, there is no reason whatever to believe.

We now arrive at the consideration of another important phase in the history and description of this people—namely, the gleamings of artistic skill amongst them, and their taste and capacity for works and performances of a purely intellectual description. From the aptitude or inaptitude which they will here be found to display, we will, as certainly as from any other criterion whatever, arrive at a just estimation of their mental powers, and the possibility of extending to them some, or all, of the blessings of civilization. If the aboriginal race be in reality of a better stamp, they must have some other proof to bring forward besides mere personal qualifications—good countenance and figure. If they have no priests, they surely must have poets; if they acknowledge no chiefs, they certainly must have among them men "wise in their generation," in whose counsel they place reliance, and to whose direction they yield obedience. If they have not among them men "cunning to work all works," they must have men who devote themselves to artistic and mechanical studies and labours. Barbarous and unsettled as is their mode of life, they must have some hours unoccupied by their usual necessary occupations, when all or some amongst them must seek employment in some work of mere pleasure. Such are a few questions which naturally suggest themselves in reference to the matter under consideration. Now, for many reasons already adduced, it could be deemed nothing extraordinary should the slightest trace of any such accomplishment as those referred to be found wanting. It must, therefore, be considered no small additional recommendation to the aboriginal if it can be shown that, not only has he given evidence of genius and talent, but of genius and talent existing in no inconsiderable degree. Here, again, it must be premised that those ever-recurring obstacles to investigation arising from the utter disregard heretofore manifested towards the aborigines and all that relates to them become formidable in the extreme. As, however, the object in view is not to analyze, but to paint, and bearing in mind the axiom that he is the best workman who quarrels least with his utensils, no alternative remains but to make the most of what light exists on the subject.

First, then, as to the poetry of the aborigines. Testimony in confirmation of the existence of this faculty is yielded by almost every authority who has written or said a word on the subject of the tribes of New Holland. One fact alone is wanting to render the testimony conclusive, namely, a published translation of some of their effusions! The existence of a complete poem, possessed of a considerable amount of true poetical merits—descriptive, impassioned, and unconstrained—is mentioned by an undoubted authority, and is said to have been translated by a gentleman in the interior, from the rehearsal of some blacks in his neighbourhood, with whose language he was familiar. Lhotsky, in his comprehensive, though somewhat scanty, work on Australia, refers to a particular native song in terms of the highest eulogy, and bears testimony to the general powers of the aborigines for poetical exertion. Instances are also known of the talents of individual natives to improvise on any subject; and one is mentioned as being so far gifted in this respect that he would, undoubtedly, surpass any of the Italian improvisatori in his peculiar sphere. Many well-known traits of the aborigines likewise tend to the belief that metrical compositions are common amongst them, as, in their first encounter with civilized men, indulging, when terrified, in a low-toned, mysterious chant, intended, as generally supposed, to counteract impending evil.

The first buddings of the painter's skill amongst the aborigines next attract attention. That metrical composition should not be unknown is perhaps not so wonderful, when it is considered that this method of giving vent to the workings of the mind and of the passions is that which barbarous nations are likely first to acquire, and with which few are unfamiliar. That, however, painting—the real art of portraiture, however rude—should exist, shows a systematic longing after the development of the sublime capabilities of humanity truly astonishing, and seems to contradict in the most ample manner the doctrine advanced by some, and certainly consistent with our highest teachings, that man in a primitive state of barbarism does not possess within himself the power of attaining the most elevated status of the human race.

On the northern coast of New Holland an island exists, joined to the mainland by a narrow strip of sandbank, traversable at low water, but covered at the flow of the tide. The island is principally composed of a peculiar description of rock, with a smooth, hard surface, but overlaid with a coat of soft substance, probably the result of atmospheric action. This rock is described by voyagers who have visited the island as being covered with delineations of every description of figure which could suggest itself to an aboriginal. The black man, fully equipped for battle or in the attitude of an orator; the corroboree, in its most striking features; the interior of the gunyah, or native hut, with its inmates; kangaroos, emus, and the lesser animals; birds and fishes; implements of war, ornaments, and domestic utensils—these, and a variety of similar figures, are here to be seen delineated in a hundred different forms. Nor does this primitive gallery appear to be the result of some chance experiments; several evidences exist in support of the supposition that the sable artists repaired thence periodically for the purpose of exercising their skill in imparting to the surface of the stone this mimicry of animation.

Instances are likewise numerous of individuals among the aborigines seeking to acquire the rudiments of the painter's art, by attempting, whenever paper and pencil were available, to copy pictures which they had seen, or sketch the objects with which they were most familiar—an exercise in which they are always described as exhibiting considerable aptitude. Indeed, their general powers of imitation, and their enlarged scope of comprehension, have been matters of the greatest surprise to all who have studied the habits of the native tribes of Australia; while the facility with which individuals among them adapt themselves to civilized usages, and form a correct estimate of anything connected with European life, are facts unparalleled in the history of barbarians.