The Aborigines of Victoria and Riverina/Chapter 1
THE ABORIGINES OF VICTORIA.
By P. Beveridge.
In this age of enlightened progression and scientific explorations, it is singular that ethnologists have permitted such a fruitful field for research as the colony of Victoria offers, to remain so long unutilised. In this, as in all the other settled sections of Australia, the aborigines are rapidly vanishing from off the face of the land, and although little more than fifty years have passed since the waters of the Yarra were first stirred from their normal placidity by the white man's oar, there is scarcely a single primitive inhabitant, or the descendant of one, to be met with, near any of the metropolitan centres; and ere another cycle has been added to the one now passing away, this primitive race will be extinct, as is that of the Moa—that is to say, unless some prompt remedial measures be adopted, other than those which have hitherto been obtained for their conservation.
From the earliest days of our Victorian colonisation, in fact, long before Australia Felix had attained to the rank of a State, when it was merely Port Phillip, a small appanage of the elder colony of New South Wales, there have been so-called Black Protectorates. The Moravians, too, have had missions to the heathen in various portions of the colony; and in Melbourne there is, and has been for years, a Board, designated the Central Board for the Protection of the Aborigines. Notwithstanding, however, the combined efforts of these bodies, the records of each year show a sad diminution in the numbers of the natives upon those of preceding years. There are many reasons to account for the abortiveness of the attempts to ameliorate the condition, and conserve generally the dwindled remnants of these people, the principal one being found in themselves—viz., entire lack of self-restraint, when any one of their animal instincts chances to be in the ascendant. If it is frequently found, even amongst civilised races, that vice is preferred to virtue, is it wonderful that in most cases these poor savages desire that which we tell them is vicious,, instead of that which is good?
Vice and virtue, as a matter of course, are only used here in a conventional sense, the aborigines not having any such arbitrary distinctions. Whatever pleases the preponderating propensity, for the time being, is deemed good, and that which fails to do so is evil according to their ethics. As, for example, most natives would sooner work hard a whole day for a bottle of bad rum, and be half starved as to food, than attend to the teachings of a missionary, though with little labour, and abundance of provisions, To this, it will doubtless be said, that rum-drinking is the white man's vice, and that he has no manner of right to imbue the unsophisticated native with it. We freely admit the truthfulness of this fact, but in doing so, contend that wherever the white man puts his foot there will intoxicating drink be found, and the poor ignorant savage has only to taste of the "fire water" a few times to become a confirmed drunkard, which he makes patent enough on every favourable opportunity. White men, Christians though they be, will not forego their wonted stimulant, though so destructive to the savage races. We have seen yearly reports from time to time eminating from various of the protectorate bodies, some of which we knew, from actual contact with both the teachers and the taught, to be—well, unreliable. Consequently, judging by analogy, our faith in the flowery progress reports, as given to the public, is of the smallest.
The profligacy of their women is another fell source from whence much destruction to life proceeds; they contract disease, which spreads from them to the males, and being ignorant of its fatal character when unchecked, it is allowed to run its course, resulting speedily in a general prostration of the whole system, and finally in death. Did it cease then, however, it would not be so bad, but unfortunately it does not, as it is reproduced in the progeny to a frightful extent; and those of them who struggle on to the age of puberty transmit it again through their children, until at last the whole population eventually become tainted with the foul malady, and are therefore constitutionally unable to throw off the attacks of comparatively trivial ailments. Hence the numberless cases of consumption, or decline, together with almost countless disarrangements of a pulmonary character; whilst yet another phase of this fell disease is the wasting away of the tissues, until the frame becomes attenuation personified.
Another potent cause of increased mortality since the advent of Europeans is due to the unwise habit they have of dressing and living as white men do, for months together; then, all at once, just as the freak takes them, they discard the clothes and the regular living to which they have become accustomed, don their opossum cloak or blanket, and betake themselves to their tribes, to their primitive loondthals, and hard fare, in a fit condition to contract any epidemic that may chance to be hovering about the camp, certain at least to have their joints racked by rheumatism, if they escape inflammation of the lungs. This last runs a very short course with the aborigines—a few days' violent cough, then , after which a brief day or two brings the end.
By comparison with the small remnant now perpetrated at midnight or early dawn, when neither sex nor age expected, nor received quarter, when all were destroyed, save those only who had cunning and quickness enough to elude the vigilance of their bloodthirsty foemen in the darkness. These sanguinary raids were continually in progress, as every tribe, if not planning an onslaught, was, recovering from one, and gathering strength in some fastness, from which they would sally forth to retaliate; when they would watch with superhuman patience, prowling about for months and months, with no thoughts in their minds but vengeance dire, until their opportunity was found; then, of course, mercy being unknown, such retribution was dealt out as only the brains of such bloodthirsty and ruthless savages could hatch, dismembering their quivering victims atrociously, and carrying away such portions of the reeking carcases as their individual appetites deemed most .the population was numerous, prior to European colonisation; but even at that time it was but a modicum of what the colony could easily have sustained without having recourse to other than the primitive methods then in force for gaining a livelihood; but their endless tribal feuds kept the increase of population continually in check. Thus it was, to use a colonialism, that the country was never at any time peopled up to its carrying capacity. These feuds never by any chance took the shape of battles; cowardice, and self-preservation, being too largely developed in the aboriginal character for that; but massacres, with their attendant horrors, were
The exultant bearing of these murderous savages as they return to the camp, where their women and the weak ones of the tribe had been left, is a sight once seen never to be forgotten. Their brawny and muscular frames swollen out with exultation as they flourish aloft the gory results of their successful expedition, triumphant peans rise from the women and children in shrillest treble, whilst the hoary-headed savage s, upon whom time has laid a heavy finger, grunt -forth their joy in deepest bass to see the feats of their long-passed youth repeated by their descendants.
Their innate improvidence also militates vastly against their well-being. When food is plentiful they feast and riot to the top of their savage heart, gorging themselves (as certainly none of the brute creation do) until their abdominal regions become so distended as to be decidedly uncomfortable. Not being so learned in medicine as Heliogabolus was, they do not avail themselves of the relief offered by emetics. To remove their discomfort, however, they lay themselves prone on the ground, face downwards, and then get lyoores suffering less from repletion than themselves to run up and down on their bodies until the desired end is gained, either by expulsion or extension. When this happy result is successfully achieved, they commence to gorge again, and continue doing so, until the rolling process is once more found necessary to animal comfort, and this continues just so long as the feast lasts.
When the food has come to an end, those who have come out of the feasting ordeal without paying the penalty which outraged nature usually imposes have to turn out to hunt for game to replenish the savage larder, whilst those who have been less fortunate lie in their loondthals, and groan until old doctor sees fit to step in to their aid.
When they have a superabundance of food they never try to preserve any for future use, but allow everything which they cannot stuff into themselves to go to waste.
Amongt the Murray tribes tons upon tons of fat, delicious fish are permitted every summer to go to decay. To such an extent does this improvidence prevail at times, that the air, becomes so tainted with the effluvium as to be unbearable even to an aborigine, and his olfactories are none of the most sensitive. When the air becomes thus permeated they merely pick up their belongings, and take themselves off to some purer atmosphere, where they camp, until again compelled by reason of vitiated air to remove further afield.
During the winter months they suffer extreme privations. They are too indolent to make themselves good weatherproof huts, so when it rains heavily they are thoroughly drenched, together with all their belongings, even to their bedding, and at such times they will not stir out to look for food, consequently they have to suffer the gnawing pangs of hunger, along with the miseries arising from their bad huts and severe weather. During these purgatorial times all ages, sexes, and relations huddle up together over a little fire for warmth; they are too lazy even to keep a good fire on at these times. One thinks somebody else should go for firewood, and tells him to do so; he tells another, and so on; consequently the wood is not brought at all. So they lie cold enough, snarling at each other like a pack of discontented dogs. But this is merely an illustration of the axiom which says, "What is everybody's business is nobody's business," applied to aboriginal domestic life. However, it is not a state of things conducive either to health or morality; accordingly they suffer in both cases most perniciously.
At these periods of feasting and privation the seeds of nearly all the diseases to which they ultimately become victims are engendered. The severe wet and cold give rise to affections of the throat and lungs, the latter of which has nearly always a fatal termination. In fact, it is merely a question of time.
Their over-feeding, too, has many ill effects, though perhaps not so many, or so fatal, as those arising from exposure to wet and cold; but chronic dysentry, indigestion, and their innumerable congeners are left behind to tell the tale of indiscriminate gluttony.
It is during the seasons of plenty that the venereal disease is sown broadcast through the native tribes. At those times the friendly tribes muster together in great force. It is no unusual thing to see two or three hundred banded together in one camp, and asis quite unrestricted between the sexes, it can very easily be imagined how this foul malady runs riot, and spreads, during such gatherings. Another patent effect of this intercourse between the sexes is the prevalence of sterility amongst the women. Few children are born in comparison to the numbers of women in each tribe of a child-bearing age. It is only such natives as are in the habit of living with their wives much apart from their respective tribes who have anything like families. In each tribe there are usually a few of this kind, and it is principally due to them that the race has not come to an end long since.
The foregoing are amongst the principal causes of the paucity of our aborigines, and it is a moot point, and one which will now remain so, whether these causes would not have had the effect of bringing our native tribes to an end, even although European settlement had never reached these shores. It is true that a longer period might have elapsed before the end came, as without doubt the vices which have been engrafted upon their own corrupt nature by the advent of civilisation are materially hastening the final end, and it is extremely problematical whether the means adopted by the Government and the clergy will tend towards the staying of their downward progress, or in any way conserve the remnant of this fast-disappearing people,, whose utter annihilation at present seems so imminent.
- Loondthal, native hut.
- Lyoores, women.
- Loondthals, huts.