Popular Science Monthly/Volume 19/September 1881/The Australian Aborigines
By GABRIEL MARCEL.
THE recent work by Mr. Brough Smyth relative to the aborigines of the colony of Victoria contains also many curious details respecting the manners and customs of the natives of other parts of Australia. It is evident that the native race is not everywhere equally pure. In the northern part of the continent traces may be observed of immigrations in earlier times of Papuans from New Guinea; of Chinese, whose visits are attested by the lacquered articles, cotton cloths, bamboos, etc., which have been found in the hands of the natives; and of the Malays, who have frequented the northwest coasts for fishing from time immemorial. Nevertheless, the figures of the natives, their arms, their workmanship, have everywhere a strikingly uniform character. Their numbers have fallen off very fast in the face of the extension of the white settlements, partly on account of the fierce wars that have prevailed between them and the colonists, but more in consequence of the inroads of the vices and maladies which they have contracted from the whites. The missionaries have been able to make but small headway in their efforts to convert them, and have exerted no appreciable effect in staying the progress of extermination. Recently the Government has established a bureau for their protection, has allotted lands to them, and opened schools for them, and the few of them that are left enjoy at least a promise of better times.
The disappearance of the Australian race has been promoted by certain peculiarities of its own, among which are the
belief that no person can die a natural death, and the general practice of infanticide. When a member of a family is about to die, the natives believe it is the result of witchcraft practiced by some neighboring tribe. The relatives of the deceased arm themselves at once, and follow the course that is taken by the first insect or fly that they see light upon the grave of the deceased. It is not from any lack of affection that the mother kills her child, but most frequently because it is impossible to give it food, or because it cries too much, or is stupid, or deformed, or weak; and, along with this incomprehensible hardness of heart, these savages give to their children numerous marks of affection. The same man who will half kill a girl to make her his wife will protect her and love her tenderly after she has submitted to his will. The part of the wife is far from being agreeable. The slave of her husband, she has to carry, besides her child, all the burdens when they travel, to do the hard work, and be ready at any moment to obey the orders of her lord. He is brutal, and punishes the lightest offense with the lance or hatchet.
Polygamy is universal, but the oldest men of the tribe have the most wives, acquiring them in exchange for their daughters. A number of young men are thus compelled to remain bachelors. When a young man has, after cruel ceremonies and horrible tortures to test his courage, been proclaimed a warrior, he may take a wife. If he is a son of a great warrior, he will have little difficulty in the matter; but, generally, he will have to capture his wife, or buy her from a neighboring tribe, in return for some girl over whom he can exercise a certain degree of control. Since the tribe is only an extension of the family, and all of its members are generally closely related, it is necessary to marry outside of it. Hence three methods of marriage are practiced—free consent, capture, and exchange.
Mutilations, especially of the first phalanges of the left hand, are practiced among the natives; circumcision, tattooing not regular and complete as in Samoa and New Zealand,—but simply in curved lines—are in frequent use. They paint themselves indifferently with white, yellow, and black streaks; blue was unknown among them till the arrival of the Europeans.
The most numerous and most robust tribes are those which live on the borders of the sea or the rivers, where they are sure of enough food. The tribes of the interior, where water is extremely scarce, are miserable, repulsive, and feeble, their encampments are more primitive, their arms are less well cared for, their dialect is ruder, than among the inhabitants of the coast.
It has been represented that these natives have not the virtue of providence; but they know how to make provision for a bad season. Grey affirms that they save the nuts of the zamia, and Coxen describes the methods which the natives of the northeast employ for preserving oily seeds, gums, and other kinds of food. Whenever a whale or a large fish is stranded on the shore, fires are kindled, and all the families around assemble to get a share of the windfall.
Families settling down choose a situation near a forest where they can get the wood they need for their cabins, which are sometimes made of limbs covered with earth, sometimes of the bark of a tree called the stringy-bark. This bark, according to Baron de Bougainville, is very thick and incombustible; it serves both for the Avails of the cabins and their roofs, and, as it can be taken off in large slabs, only a few hours are needed to make with it a habitation which gives a perfect shelter. When a savage has found a tree suitable for his purpose, he, with his stone hatchet (kul baling-carek, Fig. 1), cuts a notch in the bark for his great-toe, raises himself up, makes a second toe-hole, and climbs up with a facility, rapidity, and skill, of which we can hardly have an idea. In Western Australia, the helve of the hatchet is pointed, and the natives, after making the notch, stick the tool in the bark and lift themselves up with it. In other parts, they scale very large trees with the assistance of a simple cord of vegetable fiber having wooden handles at its ends (Fig. 2). Sometimes the cord is passed around the tree and the climber, so as to hold him up by his loins. The man hugs the tree with his legs, lifts the rope, draws himself up without slipping back, and reaches the desired height in a very-short time (Fig. 3).
For making their canoes the natives choose the bark of certain gum-trees. The species most in favor for this purpose is the red-gum
(Eucalyptus rostrata), from which the bark can be peeled in large pieces. It is considered desirable to get the bark from a tree that is a little bent, so that it shall be somewhat near the shape of the canoe, and a part of the labor of making the vessel may be saved. The bark is cut according to a specially designed shape, at the points x and x' (Fig. 4, A), and these points are connected by cuts from one to the other. The bark is then gradually peeled off by the aid of the helve of the hatchet and a stick (Fig. 3). Sometimes two sections are made at three and at ten feet above the ground, and connected with a vertical cut (Fig. 4, B). Poles are then introduced between the tree and the bark so as to work out a gradual detachment of the latter. The slab of bark is then given the desired form, and the ends are drawn together with cords or withes. This is one of the most primitive canoes that can be imagined.
These people appear to have a really genial taste for design. Freycinet relates that Captain King found on the walls and the floors of the caves in Clark Island numerous drawings executed which a white earth upon a reddish ground with which the rocks had been covered. Finders discovered similar sketches in a little island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, representing porpoises, turtles, kangaroos, and a human hand (Fig. 5). At another place in the cave was a figure of a kangaroo followed by thirty-two hunters.
The atlas of the "Voyage of Perron" contains copies of a number of designs by natives of Port Jackson, but none of them are more curious than the one which we reproduce from Mr. Brough Smyth (Fig. 6).
Above are a hunter chasing a swan on the water, two emus with their nest and eggs, a native about to strike a large lizard, and two European houses; below, are nine natives dressed in European clothes, holding native arms in their hands, and executing a war-dance; while in the right-hand corner are an emu, and an Englishman, who, with a whip sticking out from his pocket and wearing hunting-boots, gives his arm to a woman whose ample crinoline fairly indicates the time when the figures were drawn.
These first essays of a barbarous race possess a high interest, and cause us to regret that the circumstances controlling the condition of the people have not permitted them to give their tastes a higher development.—Translated from La Nature.