The Aborigines of Victoria and Riverina/Chapter 7
THE MAKING OP THEIR WEAPONS, HOW USED, AND FOR WHAT PURPOSES. THEIR CANOES, AND HOW FASHIONED.
In the matter of arts and sciences, as we understand these industries, they have not any. The mere fabrication of their weapons, although displaying some small ingenuity, can scarcely be reckoned an art, nor do we think that the making of nets and opossum cloaks can be classed under either of the heads.
As we said above, there is certainly an amount of skill displayed in the construction of their weapons, and the same can be said of their nets; but really, neither the one nor the other has the smallest scintilla of science bestowed upon its manufacture. Even the far-famed angle of the boomerang is merely a matter of accident, therefore out of five hundred made, there will perhaps not be half-a-dozen possessing the true or scientific curve necessary to ensure the retrograde motion of the missile after it has been propelled to a certain distance. From an aboriginal point of view, however, the lack of the power of retrogression in the missile is not objected to, but quite the contrary, inasmuch as this* quality, so much admired by Europeans, renders it altogether useless, either in their daily hunting excursions or in their puny warfare. What they require in this weapon is a capacity for great velocity, with but a minimum expenditure of propulsive power; and any piece of wood of a handy size, flattened on one side, and very slightly convex on the other, having the shape of a parabola, possesses the required merit.
The reason why any two boomerangs are never seen with precisely the same curve is simple enough. These missiles, are always made from branches, or roots having natural curves, and there are never two curves in nature exactly alike. When the instrument is finished, the grain of the wood follows round the curve, or rather, the curve follows, round the grain of the wood, thereby giving the missile strength, which it would altogether lack were it made from a straight-grained piece of timber.
The whirligig toys, with which the natives who frequent the centres of population, amuse the "whitefellow," are perfectly useless in the pursuit of game, or for any other purpose, save that of amusement; in short, they resemble the historical razors in a most remarkable manner. The timbers principally used for making these missiles. are sheoak (casuarina), myall (acacia hornalophylla), and the stunted box (eucalyptus dumosa), of the great northern plains.
They have not any very great variety of spears; the few kinds they have, however, are ample for all their requirements, and each description is set apart for its own particular purpose.
These immense jagged spears, so elaborately fashioned r and over which long days of tedious labour have been bestowed, are never by any chance used in the pursuit of game; they are merely kept for the adornment of the fronts of their loondthals. It does, however, sometimes occur that in fits of ungovernable passion they will seize one of these ornamental weapons, and transfix whatever may have given rise to the rage, be it man or beast.
These spears are principally made from a tall-growing box (one of the eucalypti), which often attains to an altitude of over a hundred feet; it is indigenous to the north-western portion of the colony, and to Riverina; it has a fine wavy grain, consequently easily worked when in a green state. When well seasoned, however, it is nearly as hard as ebony. This weapon in general is nine feet long, barbed on two sides for fourteen inches up from the point* The barbs are shaped exactly after the fashion of those on the arrow heads, which have been discovered in Central France, being the handiwork of primitive man who flourished in the post pliocene period.
The aborigines imagine that these spears have so great an affinity to lightning that if exposed during the progress of a thunderstorm they would surely attract the electric fluid, which would demolish their camps, and perhaps destroy much life; therefore, upon the first premonitions of an Approaching thunderstorm, they hide these weapons carefully away amongst the grass or shrubs until the storm has abated or passed over. This proceeding on the part of the natives displays a considerable amount of observation, as we have found the box tree (from the wood of which these spears are made) more frequently destroyed by lightning than any other species of tree in the bush. In the debris remaining after a quantity of this box timber has been consumed by fire, there are large masses found resembling the clinkers from a forge, the principal component of which is decidedly iron; this perhaps may account for the attractive properties of the tree. These spears, about ten inches from the point, are an inch and a-half in diameter, from whence they taper gradually to the end, which is only half an inch thick.
The natives make a commoner sort of spear, of the same size as the last, for everyday use. This spear is made from mallee saplings; the barbs thereof are not nearly so well formed as those in the show spear previously described, although the shape is exactly similar.
It would be a sad waste of time fashioning these useful weapons elaborately, as they nearly always get broken when successfully cast; they are only used for killing the larger kinds of game, such as kangaroo and emu, and when once fixed securely in the hunted creature, the barbs prevent their falling out; therefore, in the final struggle breakages are a certain consequence. These spears are not propelled by means of a throwing stick, but are hurled from the hand javelin wise. The natives can make pretty sure of striking with these spears at a distance of twenty or twenty-five yards—that is to say, if the game be in motion. At stationary objects they are exceedingly inexpert; therefore, like true sportsmen, they invariably start the game before making a cast; however, the motive is not the same in both cases, as the natives are the most confirmed pothunters in existence, and merely set the game running to make more certain of their aim, whereas sportsmen do it so as to give the animals they are in pursuit of a certain amount of law, or, in other words, a chance for their lives.
The reed spear is the missile most generally used in their daily foragings; this spear can be thrown with great precision fifty or sixty yards; it is propelled by means of the throwing stick. They kill all the smaller game, such as wallaby, duck, geese, swans, pigeons, &c, with this weapon, and as the spear is remarkably fragile, and easily broken, they commonly carry a bundle of them on their diurnal excursions. This spear is seven feet long, five feet of it3 length being reed, and the other two feet wood, hardened by fire. These wooden points are fixed into the reed shafts by means of gum, which they procure from various trees, and prepare by baking for that purpose. The baking process which the gum undergoes renders it tough, doing away with much of its brittleness, which is its natural characteristic when in a dried state.
The womara, or throwing stick, is made of some light, tough wood, two feet in length. The handhold is round, and rather more than an inch in thickness. Immediately above the handle the instrument bulges out to the width of three inches, tapering from thence to the point, where it terminates in a hook. The broad portion of the instrument on the side the hook is, is slightly concave, the opposite side being correspondingly convex. The instrument is held in the hollow of the hand, and the hook is inserted in the end of the spear, which, of course, makes the spear rest in the concavity, where it is held by the forefinger and thumb. As it stretches along the womara the arm is raised, and drawn back in readiness for the propulsion. When that force is being applied the finger and thumb release the spear, and the missile shoots forth like an arrow on its mission.
They have another light spear, which is also used for killing game at long distances; it is made altogether of wood, and is made of the same length as the reed spear. It is not quite half an inch in thickness, the thickest part being a few inches from the point The end of this spear is terminated by a section of light, pithy wood, six inches long. This wood possesses the least specific gravity of any known timber; it is produced by the grass tree, or, more properly speaking, it is the flower stem of that plant from which it is procured. The pith of this grass-tree section is picked out to the depth of an inch, and the end of the spear is fixed into the hollow so made. When it is firmly secured by gum, this addition on the end of the spear serves the same purpose as feathers do on arrows. This spear is also made of mallee saplings; it is also propelled by the aid of the throwing stick.
The spear set aside entirely for killing fish, down in the depths of rivers and lakes, when the water is pellucid as crystal (as it becomes during the absence of rains in the summer months), is only five feet long, and an inch thick; it is perfectly smooth throughout the entire length. This spear is never thrown, but always used lance fashion; further on the method of using it will be found in every detail.
The canoe stick (it can scarcely be termed a paddle, as it has not any blade) is about twelve feet long and two and a half inches thick; it is round. At one end it has three grains affixed; the outer one being half an inch shorter than the outer ones. The latter have barbs just above the points, whilst the centre one is smooth. The outside grains are made of wood, hardened by fire, the centre one being of bone; the pole is made of pine wood. This implement has a twofold use, that of propelling the canoe being one, and transfixing fish with the grains being the other.
When bent upon harpooning fish with this grained canoe stick, they select a stretch of shallow water, full of reeds and other aquatic plants, over which the wary fisherman propels his canoe, using the plain end of the stick for the purpose. Every now and then he thrusts the stick sharply to the bottom, thereby disturbing the feeding fish. As a matter of course they rush away from the disturbance, shaking the plants in their hurry, which at once tells the keen-eyed fisherman the position of his prey. After the plants have ceased shaking, the wily savage pushes his canoe gently up to within striking distance of the plants which were last in motion, he knowing right well that at the foot thereof his game is resting. Poising his grained weapon for but a short space, he launches it with precision, and seldom fails to bring his scaley victim, quivering and glittering to the surface.
When sailing over deep water, both ends of the stick are used; it is held by the middle then, and each end is dipped into the water alternately. They have a wonderful knack in their management of canoes, driving them along with amazing velocity, and a directness of bearing that would delight the very heart of a pilot, whose pride it is to con a ship successfully.
Their canoes are made from the bark of the red gum tree; bark of other trees is also used, but merely for temporary use, as none but the former will stand the weather without curling up or splitting. They are made in all cases from a single sheet, without tie or join. In making these vessels, trees with natural bends are chosen, as curves so obtained precludes the necessity of having to use fire to give the required rise, stem and stern.
When the bark for a canoe is cut, stretchers are placed across it at intervals of three feet to prevent it from curling up. Short props are also placed under the bows and stern to keep them from becoming depressed by reason of their own weight. If at this stage the canoe should not have the exact shape desired by the maker, he places heavy billets of wood inside at those parts which require pressing outwards, and the bark being green, the pressure effects the end aimed at. After this, and whilst the weights are still in the canoe, and the props outside, a coat of well-puddled clay is spread all over the interior, which effectually hinders sun cracks. In this condition they are left in the sun to season. After ten or fifteen days' exposure, the bark has become so hard as to be able to retain the shape ever after, no matter how roughly it may be handled. It is, therefore, launched without ceremony upon the waters, where it is destined to float for the few brief years of its existence. After the lapse of two years the bark becomes heavy and sodden, therefore -correspondingly unwieldy; so the owner in his rambles keeps his eyes about him, with the view of discovering a suitable tree from which he can take a canoe, wherewith to replace his now frail craft.
According to the size of the canoe required, so is the tree selected from which to take the bark. Heads of families generally have vessels large enough to convey all their families and requirements at once. Bachelors, however, Laving a fewer impedimenta, usually content themselves with vessels of much less capacity, finding such more suited for pursuing abirds during the moulting season, thou.sands of which they capture in their then helpless condition. In harpooning fish too, the small canoe is found most managable.
The natives inhabiting districts where large rivers or lakes abound, hold their canoes in higher estimation than they do any other of their possessions.
Of shields they have two kinds, one for serious conflicts and the other for display merely. The former is triangular, and two feet six inches in length; in the centre of the angle a hole four inches long is pierced for the hand; the flat side opposite the handle is five inches wide, from whence it narrows down to a point at each end. The instrument is perfectly solid, therefore very heavy, as well as being strong. The handle is padded with opossum skin to save the knuckles during action. They are exceedingly dexterous in the use of this instrument; so much so indeed that nearly any aborigine will make a target of himself for any other aborigine to spear at, if only he be provided with one of these shields. This instrument is made of the stunted box tree (Eucalyptus Dumosa), the inlocked grain of which is almost unsplitable, therefore the very thing to receive hard knocks with the least possible injury.
The ornamental shield is the same length as the one described above; this, however, being the only similarity, as this one is ten inches wide at the centre, tapering from thence to a point at each end. It is made of a thin shell of wood never exceeding a quarter of an inch in thickness^ Two holes are pierced in the centre, four inches apart, through which a tough piece of wand is bent for a handle; it is slightly convex on the outer side, and most elaborately carved. These carvings though are not after any design, but are simply rude irregular lines, running sometimes across, and at other times up and down the instrument. Usually these irregular lines are painted alternately red and white, which has rather a novel effect, when rapidly and artistically flourished; in which performance, the aboriginal warrior whilst playing at fighting, takes abundant pride.
- Mallee—A kind of Eucalyptus which covers the barren wastes of the north-western portion of the colony; other kinds of saplings are used in the manufacture of these spears should mallee be unobtainable.
- Nearly all the Eucalyptus species exude gum, which the natives utilise in the fabrication of their various weapons, as Europeans do glue. The myall and mimosa also exude gum; these the natives prefer before all other kinds when obtainable, they being less brittle and more adhesive than any of the others.
- When pine is not available any other light and tough wood is substituted.