Popular Science Monthly/Volume 76/February 1910/Australian Morality

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By Professor IRVING KING


ACCORDING to the earlier explorers and missionaries and the careless travelers of even recent years, the morality of the Australian aborigines was of a very low grade. Almost all such observers agreed in placing them in the very lowest stages of culture. They were described as bestial in habits, naked, lacking all sense of virtue; the men cruel to their children and wives. They were said to be addicted to infanticide and cannibalism, were cruel in their tastes, shiftless, lazy, stupid, deceitful, in fact were possessed of all conceivable evil qualities; they were deaf to the lessons of religion and civilization, ready at theft, and had almost no regard for the value of human life. They were naturally, moreover, given up almost constantly to destructive inter-tribal wars.

The investigations of more recent students of the natural races have thrown a somewhat different light upon the matter. It is now recognized that morality is not to be judged by relationship to some fixed and absolute standard, but rather that it is fundamentally related to the system of social control which holds within the group. It is consequently unjust to apply civilized standards of morality to such peoples. The goodness or badness of an act must be adjudged according to its place within some social context. It must, moreover, be borne in mind that the "higher race," in its first contact with the lower, seldom sees it at its best. Without doubt the ignorance and brutality of many of the first white settlers and explorers of Australia was constantly provocative of retaliation on the part of the natives. The so-called treachery of the latter, their cunning and their dishonesty were merely reflexes of their treatment by the whites. Hence it is impossible to judge of the morals of a race by the acts produced by its contact with another race. It may be admitted that a savage will do many things that a civilized man would not do, but mere difference does not render either one or the other immoral. The morality of an act can be determined only when it is known whether it conforms to the standard recognized by the group. This does not, of course, preclude the further inquiry as to whether some social standards are relatively higher than others, but such an inquiry lies beyond the scope of the present article.

In the first place, then, the unfavorable light in which the Australian first appeared is to be explained partly by the treatment he received from the whites and partly from the inability of the whites to understand him. Thus, the laziness of the native may be attributed merely to his inability to fall in with the enterprises of the settlers, or to appreciate the objects of their endeavor or their interests. In activities of their own the natives show the most surprising industry, for example, in the collection of food (Henderson, p. 125), the preparation for and performance of their elaborate ceremonials. The observations which follow should not, however, be taken as applying to the Australian race as a whole, but only to the section directly observed, for there is no question but that there is much diversity in the customs and characteristics of different tribes and groups.

As to personal virtues, the natives of Queensland were said to be generally honest in their dealings with one another. Aside from murder of a member of the same tribe, they knew only one crime, that of theft. If a native made a "find" of any kind, as a honey tree, and marked it, it was thereafter safe for him, as far as his own tribesmen were concerned, no matter for how long he left it.

The Australian native in general was and is possessed of fortitude in the endurance of suffering in a marked degree. There is abundant opportunity for the development of this quality of mind in the painful ordeals of initiation, which ceremony is always accompanied by fasting and the infliction of bodily mutilations of various kinds, differing with the tribe and the locality. These mutilations include the knocking out of teeth, circumcision, subincision and various scoriations of the trunk, face and limbs. Among some of the tribes there are permanent food restrictions imposed by custom upon different classes. There are also food restrictions imposed upon the youth and younger men, and all of these are faithfully complied with, although at considerable personal hardship.[1]

The food restrictions form such an important phase of aboriginal morality that they warrant further discussion. The following regulations of the Kurnai tribe are typical: A man of this tribe must give a certain part of his "catch" of game, and that the best part, to his wife's father. Each able-bodied man is under definite obligation to supply certain others with food. There are also rules according to which game is divided among those hunting together. In the Mining tribe all those in a hunt share equally, both men and women. In all tribes certain varieties of food are forbidden to women, children and uninitiated youths; there are also restrictions based upon the totem to which one belongs. The rules regarding the cutting up and cooking of food are as rigid as those regulating that of which the individual may lawfully partake. Howitt says of these food rules and other similar customs that they give us an entirely different impression of the aboriginal character from that usually held. Adherence to the rules of custom was a matter on which they were most conscientious. If forbidden food were eaten, even by chance, the offender has been known to pine away and shortly die. Contact with the whites has broken down much of this primitive tribal morality.

The oft-repeated description of the black fellow eating the white man's beef or mutton and throwing a bone to his wife who sits behind him, in fear of a blow from his club, is partly the new order of things resulting from our civilization breaking down old rules (Howitt, p. 684).

Under the influence of the food rules, a certain generosity of character was fostered and unquestionably it was present in the blacks to a marked degree. He was accustomed to share his food and possessions, as far as he had any, with his fellows.

It may, of course, be objected to this that in so doing he is only following an old-established custom, the breaking of which would expose him to harsh treatment and to being looked upon as a churlish fellow. It will, however, hardly be denied that, as this custom expresses the idea that in this particular matter every one is supposed to act in a kindly way towards certain individuals, the very existence of such a custom. . . shows that the native is alive to the fact that an action which benefits some one else is worthy of being performed. [2]

The apparent absence of any excessive manifestations of appreciation or gratitude in the blackfellow has been interpreted by some adversely. But giving, as far as the natives were concerned, was such a fixed habit that gratitude did not seem to be expected. It does not necessarily follow that they could not feel gratitude because they did not show any sign of it to the white man when he bestowed upon them some paltry presents, for, as Spencer and Gillen point out, they might not feel that they had reason to be grateful to him who had encroached upon their water and game and yet did not permit of them a like hunting of his own cattle.

Although as a rule perfectly nude, they are said to have been modest before contact with the whites (Lumholtz, p. 345). Of the north Australians, we are told that the women were never indecent in gesture, their attitude being rather one of unconsciousness (Creed, p. 94f). The low regard for chastity, reported by some observers (e: g., Mackenzie, p. 131), may, in part, be explained by the failure of the outsider to understand their peculiar marriage customs, on account of which the relation of the sexes is to be judged by different criteria than with ourselves. Spencer and Gillen, the most recent and the most scientific of all who have studied this race, say of the central tribes that chastity is a term to be applied to the relation of one group to another rather than to the relation of individuals. Thus, men of one group have more or less free access to all the women of a certain other group. Within the rules prescribed by custom, breach of marital relations was severely punished. No one would think of having sexual relations with one in a class forbidden to himself or to those of his own class. It would thus appear that, within the bounds of their own customs, they were extremely upright. When under certain conditions, chiefly ceremonial, wives were loaned, it was always to those belonging to the group within which the woman might lawfully marry.[3] Among the natives of north central Queensland a competent observer (Roth, p. 184) holds that there is no evidence of the practise of masturbation or of prostitution. The camp as a body punished incest and promiscuity. Howitt, writing of the natives of southeastern Australia, says that the complicated marriage restrictions expressed in a very definite way their sense of proper tribal morality. Here also looseness of sexual relations was punished, although at certain times it was proper to exchange wives and at other times there was unrestricted license among those who were permitted to marry (cf. Fraser).

Of the treatment of wives and children there are conflicting reports, the more recent investigators holding that there was less cruelty than was at first represented. There was, however, doubtless much difference in this respect in different tribes. One early observer (Earp, p. 127) affirms that wives were always secured by force, the girl being seized from ambush, beaten until senseless, and thus carried off by her "lover." Others, in like manner, emphasize the brutality of obtaining wives (Angas, p. 225). Lumholtz says that stealing was and is the most common method. The researches of Spencer and Gillen do not confirm these statements as far as the natives of central Australia are concerned, while Roth refers to the commonness of the practise of stealing wives and eloping among the north central Queensland natives. According to Spencer and Gillen, wives may have been so secured, but such was assuredly not the customary method in central Australia at least. They know of no instances of girls being beaten and dragged away by suitors. It is probable that cases of exceptional cruelty more easily came to the notice of the first travelers and they inferred that such cases were characteristic. The last named authors affirm that the method of securing wives among these tribes was definitely fixed by tribal usage and involved no cruel practises whatsoever. Howitt, the authority upon the southeastern tribes, says that cruelty was often practised upon elopers, but this is manifestly because they had themselves been guilty of breach of tribal morality. Looseness of sexual relations among these tribes originally always met with severe punishment. As to treatment of wives among the central tribes (Spencer and Gillen), there were undoubtedly cases of cruelty, but they were the exception rather than the rule. The savage husband has a hasty temper and in a passion might act harshly, while at other times he might be quite considerate of his wife. Among the aborigines of the Darling Eiver, New South Wales, quarrels between husband and wife were said to be quite rare (Bonney), and Smith says-that love is not rare in Australian families, while another observer (Palmer) says that the life of the women is hard and that they are much abused by their husbands. Dawson, who wrote expressly to show that the Australian blacks had been misrepresented, maintained that in Victoria, at least, there was no want of affection between members of a family (p. 37). Lumholtz (pp. 161ff.) holds that the Queensland husband felt little responsibility for his family, that he was really selfish and hunted only for sport, often consuming the game as caught, bringing nothing home. The same author refers to one case of a wife being terribly beaten because she refused, one cold night, to go out and get fuel for the husband. Over against this testimony, we have that of Spencer and Gillen, referred to above, that the husband was ordinarily by no means cruel. In hard seasons men and women suffered alike. A woman, however, suspected of breach of marital relations, was treated with revolting severity. They point out that many things which to us seem harsh were by no means so in their eyes, and that the savage woman recovers easily from wounds that to a civilized woman would entail the greatest suffering. Treatment which we should naturally think cruel was to them merely rough and in conformity with the rest of their life. Howitt (p. 738) says that among the Kurnai tribe family duties were shared by husband and wife, each performing an allotted part toward the support of the family. The man's duty was to fight and hunt, the woman's to build the home, catch the fish and cook them, gather vegetable foods, make baskets, bags and nets.

With reference to their children, much affection was usually shown, and this in spite of the fact that abortion and infanticide were practised in many localities (e. g., in northwestern central Queensland, (Both, p. 183); and among the southeastern tribes, Howitt, pp. 748ff.). In this connection Howitt says, ". . . they [the Mining tribe] are very fond of their offspring and very indulgent to those they keep, rarely striking them," a mother often giving all the food she had to her children, going hungry herself. Infanticide was by no means so unrestricted, or as indicative of cruelty of nature and lack of parental affection as is implied by Mackenzie, writing in the year 1852.[4] Among the north central tribes[5] infanticide was practised, but only upon rare occasions at any other time than immediately after birth, and when the mother thought she was unable to care for the babe. The killing of the new-born child was thus an effort at kindness on their part and to them was certainly devoid of cruelty, since they believed the spirit part went back to the spot whence it came and was subsequently born again to the same woman. Twins were killed as unnatural, a practise to be explained in part by the natives' dread of everything uncommon or rare. On infrequent occasions a young child of a few years was killed that an older but weaker child might eat it and thus get its strength. Howitt mentions the same practise among the southeastern natives (p. 7-19). He also says that in some places infants were eaten in especially hard summers. Sometimes, also, after the family consisted of three or four, all additional children were killed because they would make more work than the women could manage. Among the Kurnai, infanticide unquestionably arose through the difficulty of carrying a baby when there were other young children, some of whom might be unable to walk. Infants, under these circumstances were simply left behind when they were on the march, it not being regarded as killing to dispose of them in this way (Howitt, p. 750). Palmer, writing of the natives of Queensland, says that the killing of a new-born child was lightly regarded, but not common. On the lower Flinders River the fondness of the natives for their children was noted (Palmer). Spencer and Gillen say that, with rare exceptions, children were kindly and considerately treated, the men and women alike sharing the care of them on the march and seeing that they got their proper share of food. Howitt mentions the case of a mother watching a sick child, refusing all food, and, when it died being inconsolable (p. 766). One woman for nineteen years carried about a deformed child on her back (Fraser; vide Henderson, p. 121). Natural affection was certainly keen and much grief was manifested over the loss of children.

In the aborigines' treatment of the old and infirm most observers depict them in quite a favorable light. Dawson, it is true, reports that the natives of Victoria killed them, but this is certainly not a widely prevalent custom. Lumholtz (p. 183) says that the Queenslanders were very considerate of all who were sick, old or infirm, not killing them as with some savage peoples (cf. Bonney, p. 135). In northern parts of Australia there were many blind and they were always well cared for by the tribe, being often the best fed and nourished (Creed, p. 94). In the central tribes the old and infirm were never allowed to starve. Each able-bodied adult was assigned certain of the older people to provide with food, and the duty was fulfilled cheerfully and ungrudgingly.[6] In some tribes the old and sick were carried about on stretchers. In the Dalebura tribe a woman, a cripple from birth, was carried about by the tribes-people in turn until her death at the age of sixty-six. On one occasion they rushed into a stream to save from drowning an old woman whose death would have been a relief even to herself. Eraser emphasizes the respect in which old age was held by the aborigines of New South Wales, and the fact that they never desert the sick (see also Smith).

Cannibalism among the Australian blacks was by no means a promiscuous and regular practise as was at first supposed. It is true, Lumholtz says of those observed by him, that human flesh was regarded as a great delicacy.[7] Palmer, writing of Queensland also, says that cannibalism was practised to a certain extent; in some sections those killed in fights being eaten, and often children who had died. An early writer reports that in South Australia bodies of friends were eaten on their death as a token of regard.[8] Spencer and Gillen found difficulty in gathering evidence of its being practised among the central tribes. They were often told by one tribe that it was customary among others who lived farther on, they in turn saying the same thing of those beyond themselves. They think, in general, that human flesh was eaten as a matter of ceremony or at least for other than mere food reasons. They found much more evidence of it among the northern tribes. Howitt says the Dieri tribe practised cannibalism as a part of their burial ceremonies, that it was a sign of sorrow for the dead. Among others only enemies slain on their raids were eaten; the Kurnai, for instance, would not eat one of their own tribe. Among still other tribes, if a man were killed at initiation ceremonies he was eaten, as also any one killed in one of the ceremonial fights, and others again did not eat their » enemies. Howitt is positive that there is no such thing among any thus far observed as propitiatory human sacrifice, and he denies emphatically the statement made current by some that sometimes a fat gin (woman) was killed to appease their craving for flesh when they chanced to have been long upon a vegetable diet. He also says that at the tribal meetings of the Bunya, men, women and children, killed in fights or by accident, were eaten, but that there is no evidence that women and children were killed for cannibalistic purposes.

The morality of the Australian native was, in a word, the morality of tribal custom, and, if fidelity to duties so imposed may be taken as a criterion, it was of no low order. Recent investigators unite in testifying that the black-fellow, especially before contact with Europeans, was most scrupulous in his obedience to the sacred duties imposed upon him by tribal usage. Of the Queensland natives Roth says (pp. 139ff.):
The life of the tribe as a whole seemed to be well regulated. Custom, with the old men as its exponents, was the only law. Where there were few old men, each individual, within limits, could do as he pleased.

Howitt writes of the tribes studied by hirn that custom regulated the placing of huts in the camp, and even the proper position of individuals within the huts. In the Kaiabara tribe single men and women lived on opposite sides of the camp. The old women kept an ever watchful eye upon the young people to prevent improprieties. In another tribe the women could not come to the camp by the same path as the men, a violation of the rule being punishable by death. The law of custom thus controlled almost every phase of the life of the individual, including many individual matters as well as conduct toward others; the intercourse of the sexes is or was most definitely limited and regulated; the women who were eligible to each man in marriage were also rigidly determined by custom, as well as the proprieties of conduct toward the wife's family. Reference has already been made to the severe restrictions entailed by the initiation and other ceremonies, and also to the minute regulations regarding the choice of food. In all cases these customs were enforced by severe penalties. In some tribes the local group or camp united to punish any member who was guilty of overstepping these bounds as well as complicity in more serious crimes such as incest, murder or the promiscuous use of fighting implements within the camp. Most customs were, however, probably obeyed from habit, the native being educated from infancy in the belief that infraction of custom would produce many evils such as premature grayness, pestilence and even cosmic catastrophes. In fact, among the tribes observed by Howitt authority was generally impersonal, though not always, for the headmen were often men of great personal ability and were greatly feared and respected by the rest of the tribe or group (Howitt, pp. 296-300).

Questions of right and wrong for the Australians seem to have centered chiefly about food restrictions, secrets relating to the tribal ceremonies, the sacred objects and wives. Moral precepts probably originated in association with the purely selfish idea of the older men to keep all the best things for themselves.[9] In this way, at least, may be explained many of the regulations regarding what the younger men might eat. So also as to marriage, for aside from restrictions as to totem and class into which a man might marry, all the younger women were reserved by the old men, the less desirable ones, alone, being available to the young men. But, granting the selfish character of many of the rules, there was still a certain amount of morality which transcended anything of this sort. The old men in their leisure "instructed the younger ones in the laws of the tribe, impressing on them modesty of behavior and propriety of conduct. . . and pointing out to them the heinousness of incest" (Howitt, p. 300). The rigid duties of manhood centered especially in the ceremonies of the tribe. The obligations which these involved were regarded as extremely sacred and inviolate. "As he (the youth) grows older he takes an increasing share in these (ceremonies), until finally this side of his life occupies by far the greater part of his thoughts" (Spencer and Gillen). He must continually show strength of character, ability to endure hardship, to keep secrets, and, in general, to break away from the frivolity of youth and all that savored of femininity. There were, among the central tribes, certain sacred things which were only gradually revealed by the older men, and if a young man showed little self-restraint and was given to foolish chattering it might be many years before he learned all that was in store for him.

It is interesting to learn that under the traditional régime the Australian natives lived a harmonious and certainly far from unhappy life. Fraser says they were a merry race (p. 43). Howitt, who was instrumental in gathering together the Kurnai tribe for the revival of their initiation ceremonies some years ago, reports that the people lived for a week in the manner of their old lives, and that the time passed without a single quarrel or dispute (p. 777). In their wild state the Dalebra tribe were noted to have lived most peaceably, e. g., a camp of three hundred is known to have continued for three months without a quarrel. Their method of settling disputes was usually by means of a fight between the parties who were at odds. When blood was drawn, the fighting ceased and all were henceforth good friends (Dawson, p. 76). They were generous in fighting, taking no unfair advantage. They loved ease and were not quarrelsome, but were nevertheless ready to fight (Smith, p. 30, Vol. I.). Mortal wounds in such conflicts were rare (Lumholtz, p. 126). Spencer and Gillen likewise say of the central tribes that whenever compensation in any form had been made by an offending party the matter was ended and no ill-will was cherished (p. 31).

In some tribes theft was regarded as the greatest crime aside from the murder of a fellow tribesman. As there was so little private property, however, crimes arising from this source were rare. The stealing of women is said to have been the most common cause of inter-tribal trouble.[10] There were no fights for superiority, no suppression of one tribe by another. Within the tribe there was, in large measure, absolute equality. There were no rich or poor, age being the only quality that gave preeminence (Semon, p. 225). The inter-tribal fights were certainly not so serious as some have represented. That they were constantly attacking and trying to exterminate one another is not con firmed by those who have known them best. Their fights were probably half ceremonial or of a sportive character and they were usually stopped when blood flowed freely.

They undoubtedly did fear strangers, and a man from a strange tribe, unless accredited as a sacred messenger, would be speared at once.[11] On the other hand, delegations from distant tribes were received and treated with the utmost kindness if they came in the recognized way. They were even permitted to take a prominent part in the ceremonies of their hosts.

The relations subsisting between members of the same tribe or group were, according to Spencer and Gillen, marked by consideration and kindness. There were occasional acts of cruelty, but most of them can be attributed to something else than a harshness of character. Thus, much cruelty resulted from their belief in magic (The Central Tribes, p. 48). The revolting ceremonies practised at initiation were all matters of ancient tribal custom and hence cast little reflection upon the real disposition of the native.

All things considered, we are obliged to say that their life was moral in a high degree, when judged by their own social standards, and not even according to our standards are they to be regarded as altogether wanting in the higher attributes of character. Dawson holds that, aside from their low regard for human life, they compared favorably with Europeans on all points of morality. Howitt says (p. 639):

All those who have had. to do with the native race in its primitive state will agree with me that there are men in the tribes who have tried to live up to the standard of tribal morality, and who were faithful friends and true to their word; in fact, men for whom, although savages, one must feel a kindly respect. Such men are not to be found in the later generation.[12]


Angas, G. F. "Savage Life and Scenes in Australia and New Zealand." London, 1847.
Bicknell, A. C. "Travels and Adventures in Northern Queensland." London, 1895.
Bonney, F. "The Aborigines of the River Darling." Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 13, 1884, p. 122.
Cameron. "The Tribes of New South Wales." Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 14, 1885, p. 344.
Carnegie, D. W. "Spinifex and Sand" (West Australia). London, 1898.
Creed, J. M. "The Position of the Australian Aborigines in the Scale of Human Intelligence." The Nineteenth Century and After, Vol. 57, 1905, p. 89.
Curr. "The Australian Race."
Dawson, James. "Australian Aborigines (West Victoria)." Melbourne, 1881.
Earp, G. B. "Gold Colonies in Australia." London, 1852.
Fraser, John. "The Aborigines of New South Wales." Sidney, 1892.
Grey, Sir George. "Expedition in Northwest and Western Australia." 1841.
Henderson, John. "Excursions and Adventures in New South Wales." Lon don, 1851.
Howitt. "Native Tribes of Southeast Australia." London, 1905.
Lumholtz, Carl. "Among Cannibals (Queensland)." New York, 1889.
Mackenzie, Rev. D. "Ten Years in Australia." London, 1852.
Roth, Walter. "Ethnological Studies among the Northwest Central Queensland Aborigines." London and Brisbane, 1897.
Semon, R. "In the Australian Bush." London, 1898.
Smith, R. Brough. "Aborigines of Victoria." London and Melbourne, 1878.
Spencer and Gillen. "Native Tribes of Central Australia." London and New York, 1899.
Spencer and Gillen. "Northern Tribes of Central Australia." London and New York, 1904.
  1. Vide Howitt, p. 561; Fraser, p. 90.
  2. Spencer and Gillen, "The Native Tribes of Central Australia," p. 48.
  3. See also Cameron, Journal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 14, p. 353.
  4. Vide, "Ten Years in Australia," p. 130.
  5. Spencer and Gillen, "Northern Tribes," p. 608.
  6. Spencer and Gillen, "Northern Tribes," p, 32.
  7. See also Bicknell, p. 104, who holds it was quite common.
  8. Angas, p. 225; Fraser, p. 56, as a sign of regard or in ceremonial.
  9. Spencer and Gillen, "Native Tribes," etc., p. 48.
  10. Lumholtz, p. 126; Spencer and Gillen, "Northern Tribes," p. 31.
  11. Spencer and Gillen, "Northern Tribes," p. 32.
  12. As many of the accounts refer to tribes, or at least to customs which are practically extinct, it seems best to use the past tense consistently throughout.