The Aborigines of Australia/Chapter 4

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The Aborigines of Australia by Roderick Flanagan
Chapter 4
The faculties of observation and perception are, perhaps, the greatest endowments of the mind. Among civilized men whole nations are distinguished by the possession of these gifts, and on their exercise depends, more than on anything else whatever, the destiny of individuals. It is not alone, however, in investigating and comprehending cause and effect that the exercise of observation or perception consists; the simple fact of noting the existence of certain objects or phenomena is in itself an effort often deserving consideration and merit. No man, for instance, not born blind, has failed to see that beautiful flood of light in the firmament known as the Milky Way, but how many have lived and died so absorbed in their own immediate thoughts, and so prone to earth, that its existence could be scarcely said to come within the limits of their knowledge. Hence, among a primitive people, the close and exact observation of great facts and remarkable phenomena may be considered as great an accomplishment as would be the detailed investigation and description of them among enlightened men. Innumerable proofs exist to show that the Australian aboriginal is by no means deficient in this respect. That he is not indifferent to the

multitudinous and beautiful objects of the starry spheres may be inferred from the well-authenticated fact of his having distinguished from surrounding groups the constellation Gemini, and having conferred thereon an appellation of his own choosing — the Castor and Pollux of classic lore being by the New Hollander transformed into the Blackfellow and his Gin. Those masses of light in the heavens, long known as Magellan's Clouds, have likewise been noted by the aborigines, and their existence explained by them in their own peculiar style. The tradition is current among the tribes of the northern part of Australia that a solitary black, having strayed from his companions on a hunting excursion, lighted a fire in the night where he stopped; that, having warmed himself with its heat, and the fuel being reduced to embers, he cast his eyes upwards, where he beheld distinctly above him the wonderful spectacle of the smoke of his fire changed into two cloudy oval masses, and standing immovable in the sky. Such is the aboriginal origin of Magellan's Clouds. Whether the tradition affords any explanation as to why and wherefore the smoke performed such an extraordinary feat, or why the smoke of the fire lighted by the aforesaid benighted individual should accomplish such an eccentricity, any more than the smoke of any other fire, has not been ascertained. That such a tradition, however, should obtain among the aborigines, and be received by them with some credulity, is by no means improbable or unnatural, when it is considered that


traditions and fables not a whit more reasonable, and not half so logical, are common in the most civilized nations. Eclipses are among the phenomena which the aboriginals regard with peculiar interest and attention, such occurrences being always looked upon as the forerunners of calamity. And, strange to say, an eclipse of the moon is looked upon as a much more important and serious matter than an eclipse of the sun. Whenever the former luminary becomes obscured by an interposition of our globe the aborigines manifest the utmost alarm and concern; they say that she is assailed by her enemies, and with loud clamours and violent gesticulations, discharge arrows, spears, and other missiles towards her supposed tormentors, which they continue to do till the eclipse has terminated. This and many other reasons tend to the conclusion that the orb of night is regarded with greater veneration by the blacks than the luminary of the day. For this, however, some very probable reasons can be adduced. By the light of the moon their fishing expeditions are carried out; by the same light they hunt the animals on which they chiefly depend for sustenance, and many of these latter are only to be procured during the hours of night. Thus the moon is their more immediate benefactress, although her benefactions fall far short of those conferred by the more ardent source of light; and acting in accordance with the maxim that the best gift is best remembered, the aborigines regard the

former with the greater amount of veneration.

Intuition, or the power of anticipating thought, and accomplishing feats to the mind of civilized man impossible without the aid of science, appears to be a gift of the blacks of Australia in common with other savage tribes. The Indians of North America are said to be capable, by the assistance of some unexplained agency, of navigating the vast lakes of that continent with a precision not to be surpassed where the compass and all the other scientific apparatus of modern navigation are rendered available — reaching in their canoes a destined point on the opposite shores, although for days out of sight of any land. Instances of the display of this extraordinary sagacity fully as striking are recorded by those who have had experience of the powers of the aborigines of New Holland. A native of the Swan River district, who accompanied Captain Stokes on one of his voyages of discovery, was at all times capable of indicating the direction of certain ports when no land was visible, and when neither the sun nor the stars were to be seen to afford him any assistance. The same aboriginal could, at the termination of a voyage, delineate the course the ship had pursued during a cruise of weeks, with a precision which astonished the ablest seaman It is, however, highly probable that the solution of the problem would be found within the sphere of natural causes; but that the process of observation by which the savage is enabled to display this power is so intricate and so minute as to render the term "intuition"

not altogether inapplicable, would doubtless be the

result of a close investigation of the subject. The Australian aboriginal will detect at once the spot under which a human body lies buried, or will indicate the point in a river or a creek where it has sunk. This, on first view, would be considered a species of second sight, whereas it is merely the result of an observation of minute appearances and indications. In the former case, certain peculiarities in the insects on the surface show to the eye of the black that mortality moulders beneath; in the latter case, appearances equally trifling afford the necessary token. So, likewise in their navigation, aids and indications unknown to civilized man, because unnecessary, supply the place of science, and in some instances put to the blush the discoveries and improvements of ages.

A certain stoicism of demeanour is likewise a characteristic of the aborigines of New Holland, in common with some other primitive tribes. This is principally evinced in the indifference with which they regard, on first view, the wonders of civilization — its ships, warlike implements, vehicles, horses, and various other appurtenances. An extraordinary instance of this stoic indifference is on record. A ship having touched at a part of the coast where it was highly improbable that a European vessel had ever called before, a boat party landed for the purpose of procuring wood and making observations on the nature of the country. When the party landed a solitary aboriginal approached them in the most confident


manner, and entered into communication with them through the medium of signs, without evincing the least appearance of embarrassment or dread. On the boat afterwards leaving the shore to return to the ship he turned his face homewards, and disappeared in the bush without once looking back at what must have been to him a new and extraordinary spectacle. An illustration of their indifference is also afforded by the carelessness they evince on first coming in contact with those huge animals which are ever adjuncts to European society — horses, cattle, &c. The American Indians for a long time entertained the belief that the horses of the Europeans were beasts of prey, used in warfare to destroy and devour the enemy, while some looked upon the horse and rider as identical; hence in the early contests between the first colonists and the aborigines, one horseman has been known to put to flight hundreds of the latter. No such feelings of surprise or fear are betrayed by the New Hollander in his first intercourse with Europeans and their accompanying agencies. Instances are numerous where the aborigines in the most remote parts of the interior, where white man never before trod, or was never mentioned, have become at once the auxiliaries of explorers, approaching and handling their beasts of burden as though they had been all their days accustomed to such brutes. Nor can this be ascribed to any other cause than a quickness of perception by which they at once perceive the use and application

of everything they behold, combined with a certain

savage dignity which prevents them from expressing wonder or surprise at what are the mere subserving agencies of men.

The rite of sepulture is perhaps among the most important distinguishing indices of a people; the mode of its performance, and its accompanying ceremonies, are therefore deserving of attention in considering the peculiarities and customs of a race of men. Among the New Holland tribes the rite appears to vary considerably in different districts, and is held in various degrees of importance by various tribes. In some places the body is not buried in the earth, but placed on a raised hurdle, wrapped in coverings of bark and twigs. In other districts it is buried in the usual manner, the grave being marked by a raised mound, stakes being sometimes driven into the earth at the four corners. They do not appear to have any regular cemeteries, and four or five graves is the greatest number which has been observed in any locality. But although in general the rites of burial are not accompanied by ostentation, and the place of interment unmarked by any lasting memorial, instances there are where, in imitation of civilized people, the aborigines have raised laboured and substantial monuments to perpetuate the memory of some great or favourite individual. The most important of these sepulchral monuments which has heretofore been discovered is described as a large mound of earth, formed in the shape of a dome, and

constructed with evident design and considerable

skill and neatness, considering the rude implements available for the work. The hollow whence the earth was taken is described as forming a well-defined circle round the tomb. On digging into this latter it was found to cover a vault, its weight being sustained by a scaffolding of timbers placed transversely over the mouth of the grave. Within the vault lay the remains of the deceased with his face towards the east, encased in swathings composed of grass, bark, and other similar material. The most striking feature, however, in connection with the object was the elaborate carvings discovered on some of the trees immediately surrounding the spot, the skill and labour exercised on which greatly astonished the beholders. To this custom of burying the dead with the face towards the east, which prevails in some degree among the blacks, as well as to that of circumcision, practised by some tribes on the northern coasts, may be attributed the hypothesis of the Hebrew origin of the New Hollander. Some writers have gone so far as to state that they have observed among the aborigines individuals with features strongly marked by those peculiarities characteristic of the chosen people! A strange and ludicrous custom is mentioned as being practised at interments by the blacks of the eastern coast, which consists in carrying the body of the deceased by circuitous routes for several miles round the grave — a wise precaution, said to be intended to thwart the dead should he ever design to fright the

living by " revisiting the glimpses of the moon " in

ghostly guise! From this it is apparent that ghosts and goblins, and the other numerous airy denizens with which the imagination has peopled earth and air in European countries, have found a habitation and a name in the Australian wilderness. In some parts the relations of the deceased pretend to receive mysterious communications from him previous to interment.

Extreme reverence for the memory of the dead is a remarkable principle among the doctrines of the aborigines. De mortuis nil nisi bonum is the maxim inculcated by an enlightened benevolence among civilized men, and very generally acted upon. The Australian aborigine goes further, and not only proclaims that no evil shall be spoken of the dead, but that the silence of the tomb shall in no wise be broken by the living. This rule is carried out to the letter, and with the utmost stringency. Thus, if an individual bear the same name as the deceased, he is obliged to adopt some other for a certain period, so that even the name of the dead may not be spoken; and if a deceased person be inquired after by some one ignorant of his demise, he will not be answered otherwise than by the downcast looks and marked silence of those whom he questions.