The Aborigines of Australia/Chapter 5

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The Aborigines of Australia by Roderick Flanagan
Chapter 5


There is no aboriginal language with which we are at the present day acquainted equal in many respects to the tongue which made vocal the forests and plains of Australia ere the arrival of the white man. Admitting the correctness of the theory which supposes the original inhabitants of the Australian territory and the coloured tribes of the South Sea Islands and America to be of a common stock, originally inhabiting the southern shores of Asia, it is certain that their primitive language did not improve in proportion as it diverged from its source. The native language of New Zealand is very defective in point of euphony, its notes falling on the ear like the sound of a rapid current passing over rough rocks, or the pattering of a hail-storm on a shingled roof. The tongue of the Sandwich Islands and the other groups of the South Seas is said to bear a strong affinity to that of New Zealand. On the continent of America the language is found to have recovered in some degree from the shock which it would seem to have experienced in the course of its travels, and again partakes of an Oriental tint, the highly figurative and romantic stamp of the dialects of the North American Indians forming one of the most interesting traits of their history and character.

In fulness of tone, variety of sound, and easy flow of expression, the language of the Australian tribes is, however, not to be surpassed. In proof of this it is only necessary to refer to the aboriginal names of the various localities throughout the colonies, some of which have now become familiar in Europe and America. On the other hand we are not without evidence that, for capability of expression and descriptive scope, some of the New Holland dialects by no means fall short of even the picturesque speech of the red huntsman of the North American prairies.

The soothing powers of the musical art are not altogether unknown among the aborigines. In their corroborees they sing and beat time with sticks, and their dance is performed to a rude species of music—"vocal and instrumental." Their musical instruments are few, two sorts being all that have been discovered. One of these is a species of kettledrum, formed of kangaroo skin and a piece of hollow timber, the former drawn tightly over the latter and secured at the sides, something after the fashion of the instrument in use among Europeans. The other is a species of pipe, made of bamboo, about three feet in length. The manner of sounding this instrument is a novelty in the musical world, as it is the only instrument known which is operated on by the nasal organ. Such is the method of sounding it as practised by these sable musicians, who succeed in producing thereby a droning noise, not unlike the tones of the bagpipes.

The manner of conducting their warfare is like everything else connected with them—novel. The hostility of the tribes to each other seems to be almost unremitting, and their encounters in their primitive state frequent. As, however, very few incentives inveterate to warfare are to be found amongst them, so they seem to have come to a mutual understanding that their struggles, however frequent, shall be as harmless as possible. Their encounters are said, in general, to follow from circumstances attending a death or marriage in the tribes. In the former case the contest results from a superstition among them that if a man dies before he has attained an old age, his death is the result of witchcraft, practised on the victim by some one of another tribe. After death an old man, who acts in the multiplex capacity of doctor, priest, magician, and councillor, pretends to interrogate the corpse as to who caused death; an answer is feigned to be received. The guilty party is named, who never fails to be some individual against whom the "doctor," or one of his friends, has a grudge. Death is immediately denounced against the alleged dealer of witchcraft, and a war follows to carry the sentence into effect. War generally succeeds marriages, owing to the custom which very generally prevails of carrying off wives by force from among the females of another tribe. In this latter case hostilities are commenced to retaliate the aggression.

When from either of the above causes, or from any other reason, war has been declared, preparations are commenced and carried on with activity for some time previous to an encounter. Old weapons are collected and repaired, new ones formed, and all the appliances of warfare brought into requisition. Treachery appears never to be resorted to by these sable belligerents in their contests among themselves. In general the hostile tribes encamp opposite each other the night previous to an engagement, and it not infrequently happens that the women and children of a tribe assemble within sight of the enemy long previous to the arrival of the warriors. The march of the latter on such occasions is sometimes conducted with great military regularity, and with some strange motions, the object of which is, no doubt, to create a certain warlike ardour in the combatants. Their progress to the place of rendezvous is thus described:—After performing a dance and a song in a body, the smeared and armed heroes start off at a race in a regular line, one after the other, for a distance of about 150 yards, when they again draw up in a well-ordered and compact phalanx, and repeat, with increased fire and energy, the dance and song. These proceedings they continue to repeat till they arrive at the destined ground.

The battle which follows is more or less sanguinary according to the temper of the combatants, or the cause of the encounter. In general, however, the casualties are limited to a few broken heads, and, perhaps, a spear wound or two; but sometimes three or four—seldom a greater number—of the fighting men "sleep the sleep of death" on the field of battle. The fight is generally commenced by a single combat, an individual stepping forward from each of the hostile ranks, one hurling a spear, which the other dexterously wards off with a small shield, or, failing to do so, receives it in some part of his person. Several spears are thus discharged by either party, when, in the event of none taking effect, the combatants approach, and the one submitting his head to the other, voluntarily receives a blow from the waddy of his antagonist, an operation by which, no doubt, a bump is developed never dreamt of in the philosophy of either Gall or Spurzheim. The other then submits his cranium and receives back the compliment, after which both retire, mutually satisfied, if not very well pleased, with the result of their interview. This ludicrous species of warfare is continued until all parties deem that they have had enough, and terminate the battle, or, on the other hand, the passions of the spectators becoming excited by the scenes above described, as well as by the songs and harangues of the older portion of the women, some of whom keep up a continuous chorus, a general engagement ensues, in which spears, boomerangs, waddles, and tomahawks are sometimes used with deadly effect. After the battle the conquered force are always allowed to depart without molestation, if so disposed, but it not infrequently happens that both parties associate together and enjoy a feast and a corroboree previous to their final separation.

The mode in which the blacks catch the kangaroo, the principal animal on which they depend for subsistence, is simple but ingenious. They dig holes in the plains, so deep that a man would be concealed in one of them up to the shoulders; across the openings of these they place thin saplings, so arranged, however, that they would afford but little support to a weighty body placed on them. These they cover with brambles, grass, and other material, so as to render the spot as nearly as possible similar to the surrounding ground. Into these traps the unsuspecting kangaroos tumble through the frail hurdle and become an easy prey to the cunning huntsman. It is more than probable that a bait of some description is placed near the concealed opening to entice the animal to its doom, or that some other stratagem besides the mere forming of the trap is resorted to, as the game must be very plentiful indeed to render it probable that any of them would fall into such a simple snare except by the merest chance.

This, however, is not the only means used to destroy this chief of the animal tribes of the Australian forest. The spear is his most inveterate and most destructive enemy, ever ready in the hand of the aboriginal to pounce upon him at each available opportunity.

Hunting expeditions are also undertaken for the purpose of securing supplies of this animal. When a scrub or other locality is known to contain numbers of this species a circle is formed by the aborigines around the spot, the huntsmen being suitably armed and equipped for the occasion; the bush which is thought to conceal the game is then traversed by other blacks, who, with loud shouts and by beating the scrub, drive out the kangaroos, which soon fall beneath the spears, waddies, and tomahawks of those without. Sometimes, also, a shrubbery, supposed to shelter the species, is set fire to for the purpose of driving them into the clutches of their pursuers. It is but justice to the aborigines, however, to state that, while they thus unrelentingly destroy these animals when pressed by hunger, they are not altogether unmindful of their wants and necessities. The burning of the grass, a result so frequently observed on the plains of the interior, is said to be the work of the aborigines, in order that a new and more luxuriant growth may spring up for the use of the kangaroos.

The wild turkey, a bird of very large size, the flesh of which is said to be extremely rich; is among the principal creatures on which the aboriginal depends for his stock of food. This turkey, or bustard, is said to be pretty abundant in some parts of the far interior, but is described as being remarkably shy of man. It is only to be shot at a long range, and then with great difficulty, as at the slightest indication of the presence of a human being it takes to the dense underwood and is lost to view. Europeans generally succeed in getting within shooting distance by concealing themselves at the side of a horse. One of the methods adopted by the blacks for ensnaring this bird is the following:—The sportsman, when he comes in view of a covey of the game, procures a large spreading bramble, sufficient, when in a crouching position, to conceal his form. To this he attaches, by a string, a small bird, which he has at hand for the purpose. Concealing himself behind the foliage he then crawls deliberately and slowly in the direction of his object. The bird, which has been attached to the bramble, being kept towards the turkeys, its fluttering soon attracts the attention of the latter; they proceed to examine the strange object, at which they soon begin to peck. In the meantime the black, behind his leafy screen, prepares his snare, a sort of lasso, which he throws over the neck of his game, one by one, until all are entrapped.

It is a fact not generally known that among the aborigines of this territory, previous to the encroachments of the white man—and at the present day in the remote parts of the country—very exact divisions of territory among the various tribes prevailed. Yet such is the fact. In establishing these territorial divisions, moreover, the aborigines display a sense of equality and fair play which might sometimes be very well copied by more scientific surveyors and more enlightened law-makers. Thus, it is an established fact that wherever a lake of importance existed, the lands were so divided that a certain portion of water frontage was allotted to all the tribes in the district. In like manner the rivers were as far as possible common property.

The extent of the districts into which the country was divided was in general from twenty to thirty square miles, and their occupiers at all times evinced a great deal of jealousy at any violation by the neighbouring tribes of these their hunting-grounds. The passing of a boundary line by the blacks of another territory was considered as an act of hostility against the denizens of the invaded grounds, and wars were frequently the sequence of such transgressions. When the circumstances are considered, and when, from the nature of the country, it is reflected how important it was to the original inhabitants to preserve inviolate their domains, with the animated creatures which formed their greatest wealth, and almost their only resource for a supply of the necessaries of life, it is not to be wondered at that, when driven altogether from their possessions by the advance of the Europeans, they have sometimes resorted to acts of retaliation and reprisal.

The mode of punishment common among the aboriginals for the more grave offences is one which is not without a parallel in some shape among civilized nations. A certain number of spears are ordered to be cast at the criminal, who stands at a stated distance, armed with a small shield, called an elaman. With this he is allowed to ward off the spears if he can; if he be not sufficiently dexterous or skilful he receives them in his body, and perhaps falls a victim to the wounds which they inflict. Very often the offender escapes altogether unhurt, owing to his expert management of the shield. A practice bearing some analogy to this is said to prevail in some countries of the East, where criminals are sentenced to swim across a neck of the sea known to abound in sharks, to whose ravenous propensities they are thus almost to a certainty sacrificed.