The Aborigines of Australia/Chapter 1

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search




No branch of that large section of the human race which, whether by the colour of their skin or by some other natural or fortuitous circumstance, has received from nature, or the hand of Providence, the impress of inferiority, seems to have occupied less of the attention or research of civilization and philosophy than the portion of the sable sons of earth inhabiting the Australian continent. This, no doubt, is in a great measure owing to that physical inferiority which this people certainly exhibit in as great a degree as almost any other race of men known. Their isolated and scattered position, their roving mode of life, their unwarlike character, their rude and all but harmless weapons, the utter absence of anything like concert in their habits and operations, have ever rendered them unimportant neighbours and feeble and insignificant enemies. Incapable of creating any considerable mischief, they have never, by war or by their opposition to the progress of the white man, forced themselves on the attention either of the governments or philanthropists of Europe. Another cause, no doubt, of the unbroken obscurity in which the history of the aborigines of this territory has been permitted to remain involved, is the extreme difficulty which, from the very first, presents itself to the dispelling of the thick cloud which hangs around the primeval origin and subsequent progress of the Australian tribes. No monumental ruin, however obscure, or however feebly defined, has ever been discovered, throughout the length and breadth of the country, which might afford a clue to the civilization or barbarism of the people from whom they have descended. No form of worship, or well-defined religious belief, such as is found amongst almost all other barbarians, suggests the particular class of worshippers to which they originally belonged. No arts, however rude—none, however, in any way worthy the name—attest in the remotest degree, by their progress and condition, the period during which they might have been practised. Conjecture and analogy alone remain to guide the inquirer in any investigation touching the original inhabitants of the Australian wilds.

In entering on any investigation touching a people the first inquiry which naturally suggests itself is that concerning their origin. In assigning to the aborigines of Australia their position amongst the several families into which the human race is divided some difference of opinion prevails. Some have affirmed that they are a mixture of two races, which, although generally classed under the one head, nevertheless possess very strongly marked peculiarities and distinctions—namely, the Malayan and Papuan or Austral-negro races. This supposition is doubtless grounded on certain physical peculiarities, favourable to the belief that some admixture of the negro blood of New Guinea prevails amongst the New Hollanders. Foremost among these peculiarities are their hair and lips, the former presenting the half-woolly texture of the negro, while the latter, by their thickness, would also seem to indicate some slight connection with that caste. The best and most industrious writers on the subject, however, repudiate this alleged mixture of races in the New Hollander, deriving his origin directly from the Malays. This opinion seems based on the most substantial reasoning, and is the one most generally received. Although, as before observed, in some particulars the natives of New Holland may afford some slight indications of negro peculiarities, a closer examination must tend to place the former in a position much superior to any in which the Papuans can be viewed. These latter are described as a race of woolly-headed, thick-lipped negroes, slightly differing in feature from those of Africa, of a lighter colour than the latter, and scarcely ever exceeding five feet in height Here everyone at all acquainted with the aboriginal race of this continent must perceive that the analogy altogether fails; the New Hollander is so far from being low of stature, that his height seldom, if ever, falls below five feet, and travellers in the interior mention instances of aborigines having attained a stature of six feet one, two, or even three inches, while the beautiful symmetry and excellent proportions of some individuals among them have often excited the wonder and admiration of Europeans. These last-mentioned facts are sufficient of themselves to show that, however incredible it may appear to those who have heretofore regarded the New Hollander as a being only one remove above some of the inferior animals, the latter can still put forth some very strong and cogent arguments in support of the supposition that he is part and parcel of that better order of men who, originally inhabiting the peninsula of Malacca, have spread themselves in the course of ages over some of the finest groups in the South Seas, to New Zealand, and the Sandwich Islands. Another strong argument against the supposition that the tribes of New Holland consist of an admixture of a superior and inferior race of men is that these tribes are now, beyond doubt, universally identical. This fact, so far from being doubted, has never been called in question. Had the negroes of Papua introduced themselves into the island at any time prior or anterior to, or simultaneously with, the advent of the Malayan adventurers, some traces of them as a distinct and separate people must still exist. Granted even that the two races might, as the supporters of that theory allege, have amalgamated into one people, still in a territory so vast, and among tribes so fractional and so numerous, some indubitable traces of the double origin must have remained. If it be argued, as no doubt it may, that the natives of New Holland, in the best light in which they can be viewed, present an aspect altogether inferior to those other nations of undoubted Malayan origin who inhabit the numerous islands of the southern ocean, it must be borne in mind that races, like individuals, in the course of time lose their peculiarities; and where more likely to change for the worse than in a country like Australia, ever extending, ever presenting new inducements or pressing necessities to roam, neither in its natural productions nor in its territorial features presenting those attractions which alone could induce a barbarous or semi-barbarous people to congregate, to settle, and to improve? Hence, from the moment the first voyager arrived in his galley or canoe on the shores of Australia he became a new being; and hence the present aboriginal inhabitant of New Holland is to be regarded as an order of man peculiar to the country and the clime in which he has been found. It is not intended to show that the Australian aboriginal of the present day is equal in appearance, in physical development, or even in mental endowments, to the inhabitants of the Spice Islands, of New Zealand, or Tahiti; sufficient will have been effected if it can be shown that, if inferior to the inhabitants of those islands, circumstances alone, and the more unfavourable position and features of the country to which fate originally guided him, are to be blamed for that result.

The next question which presents itself to the inquirer after the antiquity of the New Hollander is the period of his arrival. Here, again, conjecture is the only guide which presents itself by which to attain to any approximation to truth. For certain it is that those early colonists of Australia set up no adequate monument to commemorate the event to future ages, or if they did it is equally certain that no such memorial has survived to record the circumstances of its construction. That the present aboriginal tribes of Australia are, however, the descendants of some particular batch of adventurers it is easy to suppose. The same cause which leads to the inference that the whole are the posterity of the same original stock—namely, the identity of the tribes—will readily confirm the belief that the progenitors of the present race arrived simultaneously, or at all events within a very limited period. Navigation, even of that rude description practised among savages, and which consists merely in propelling a canoe from one island to another, or from one bay or headland to another, had long been a dead letter on the shores of the Australian continent. Hence we may readily suppose that for a long period of time, or probably ever since their first arrival, they had severed that connecting link which united them with their original country.

But when did that dispersion take place which gave its first inhabitants to New Holland? Were its first colonists a section of those adventurers who, according to some writers, among the first of whom is Dr. Lang, in his "History of the Polynesian Nation," during the era immediately succeeding the Deluge issued forth from their homes in the southern extremity of Asia on the western ocean, colonized in their course that chain of islands which forms a connecting link between two worlds in the southern seas, and after encountering incredible hardships and dangers, finally succeeded in reaching the western coast of the American continent, where their descendants founded mighty civilized nations, the decayed remnants only of which existed in Mexico and Peru when these regions were explored by the discoverers and conquerors who followed in the track of Columbus? Or is the original colonization of New Holland the result of some later exodus? If its first inhabitants did not arrive in the days of Shem and Ham, did they not arrive before Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt? If not prior to that event, did they not arrive before the founding of the Roman Empire? And if not before that period, did they not arrive before the Christian era? And if not then, at what period since? On these points all is uncertainty. No monuments, no traditions, no worship, no method even of computing time exist to aid speculation. By means of this latter light alone we arrive at the conclusion that if the original founders of the race who now inhabit the Australian wilderness did not go forth at the early period assigned to the dispersion of the founders of the Indo-American people, they at all events must have emigrated at some very early period in the world's history. Monuments, in the ordinary sense of the term, certainly do not exist to fix the precise period; but testimonies indubitable and in- controvertible attest the antiquity of their coming; and these are—first, the presence of their descendants in every part of the vast continent; and, secondly, the peculiarities of these descendants in mind and form distinguishing them from all other nations. It required no inconsiderable space of time to enable a barbarous people, first landing at some point in the extreme north of the Australian territory, to pass through the immense intervening forests, and over the rugged mountains or burning plains of the interior wilderness, and to establish themselves as they have done on the shores and rivers of the extreme south, west, and east; and to render the New Hollander the changed and degenerate being which he now appears, so different from those descendants from the same stock—the New Zealander, the Tahitian, and the American Indian—must have been the work of ages.