The Aborigines of Australia

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Roderick Flanagan frontispiece.png


Engraved from a Photograph in possession of the Author's Brother
(Mr, E. F. Flanagan), taken in 1862





Author of "The History of New South Wales," "Australian
and other Poems
", &c.







The series of papers contained in this volume will not, it is hoped, prove the least appropriate of the publications which have marked the Centenary of Australian colonization. They originally appeared in the Sydney Empire, in 1853-4, of which journal the present Premier of New South Wales, Sir Henry Parkes, was then proprietor and editor. No doubt it was the author's intention to issue them in a collected shape. Whatever plans he may have formed in that respect were, however, cut short by his early death, which event took place somewhat suddenly, in London, while the sheets of his well-known "History of New South Wales" were passing through the press. That work has since taken its place as a standard authority on the subject with which it deals. Mr. Flanagan was only thirty-three when he died, and quite a young man—he was under twenty-five—when his "Studies on the Aborigines" were written.

It may be mentioned that the idea of the history was suggested to him in the course of his researches concerning the first possessors of the soil. The result of his labours in the latter direction may, therefore, fittingly supply a companion book to that in which he has told the story of European settlement on the shores of Australia.

The science of ethnology has made considerable strides during the period which has elapsed since these studies first saw the light. With the aid of philology, it has cleared up much, in regard of racial problems, that had previously seemed impenetrably obscure; but it cannot be said to have shed any great amount of new light on the origin of the race in question. Conjecture, more or less vague, is mainly what the inquirer has to depend on for guidance. Opinions as to what particular branch of the human family the Australian aboriginal belongs differ almost as widely now as when Mr. Flanagan discussed the matter, thirty-five years ago. The view which he took was, as will be seen, that at some period "in the dark backward and abysm of time," and prior to their arrival in Australia, these people had possibly possessed at least a few germs of civilization, which it was also possible to conceive as having been soon lost under the conditions which the struggle for existence imposed on them in their new home. Be this as it may, it is generally admitted at the present day that the natural intelligence of the aboriginal natives of Australia is by no means of a despicable order, and that they can boast of not a few qualities deserving of more careful development than they have commonly received at the hands of the white man. Such facts lend additional melancholy to the spectacle of the rapid disappearance of the unfortunate race. In New South Wales, as in the neighbouring colony of Victoria, the process of decay has been terribly swift:

Amidst the forests where they revel,
There rings no hunter's shout.

The aborigines, in both colonies, have been reduced to a comparative handful, a too sure presage, it is to be feared, of the doom which awaits them all.

Notwithstanding the existence of other valuable, and, in some instances, more elaborate, accounts of the primitive inhabitants of this country, it is to be presumed that the information furnished in the following pages will have a special interest of its own, and that it will not be altogether in vain that it has been disentombed from the old files of the Empire, It has not been thought advisable to interfere in any way with the text, but, excepting obvious typographical errors, to leave it as it was left.


26th January, 1888.


CHAPTER I.—Their Origin—Probable Period of their Arrival 1
CHAPTER II.—Causes which led to their Dispersion—Causes of Degeneracy—Superiority of Northern Aboriginals—Numerical Force of Tribes—System of Chiefship—Customs 9
CHAPTER III.—Ideas of a Supreme Being—Belief in a Future State—Idolatry Unknown—Germs of Artistic Skill 19
CHAPTER IV.—Faculty of Observation—Intuition-Stoicism—Rites of Sepulture and Reverence for the Dead 29
CHAPTER V.—Language—Music—Mode of Warfare—Hunting—Hunting Grounds—Mode of Punishment 38
CHAPTER VI.—Ceremony of Initiation—Half-caste Children—Belief in Spirits—A New Species of Food—Corroboree—The "Kradga Kibba" 48
CHAPTER VII.—General Councils—Mourning—Ornamented Opossum Cloaks—Ferry-boats—Juvenile Exercises—Culinary Process 54
CHAPTER VIII.—Belief in the Metempsychosis—Aboriginal Women—Powers of Mimicry—A "Barbarous" Practice—Tattooing—Modes of Fishing—Lex Talionis 62
CHAPTER IX.—Armoury—Utensils 76
CHAPTER X.—Funeral Notes—Sponsorial Custom—Juvenile Spirits—Personal Bravery—"Striking a Light"—The Bough of Peace 87
CHAPTER XI.—Misgivings—Tribes of Botany Bay and Port Jackson—Manly Cove and Rushcutters' Bay 95
CHAPTER XII.—Confidence and Caution—Capture and Escape of Binnelong and Cole-be—Subsequent History of Binnelong 105
CHAPTER XII.—Hospitality and Resentment—Primitive Art—Amputation of the Little Finger—Sorcery 118
CHAPTER XIV.—The "Rising" of 1842-4 130
CHAPTER XV.—The Myall Creek Massacre 141
CHAPTER XVI.—The Coo-ee—Numbers of the Aboriginals 155