The Aborigines of Australia/Chapter 2

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TAKING it for granted, which we may readily do, from the most superficial acquaintance with the aborigines, as well as from the testimony of those who have had the most ample opportunity of discovering and delineating their characteristics, that the evidences of a very high order of humanity very often and very strikingly become manifest in their composition and character, the question suggests itself how they have, generally speaking, fallen so low as they are now found. Holding by the theory of their Malayan origin, this degeneracy appears the more striking when we consider that in their voyage to the shores of their future home they encountered none of those hardships and excessive privations which their more adventurous brethren endured in their long and perilous voyages westwards—privations and hardships which, according to some speculations, first gave rise to the practice of cannibalism. That they could have encountered none of these dispiriting and inhumanizing hardships, almost inseparable from a protracted sea voyage when the only appliances are those which comparative barbarism supplies, the relative geographical positions of the country from which they emerged, and that which was the object of their search, will at once render demonstrable. Such a voyage in such seas must, to a people whose highest objects were a mere sustenance and the excitement of adventure, have been one more of pleasure than of difficulty. Island after island, rising in rapid succession before the eyes of the explorers, must have afforded, during the succession of days and weeks occupied in the voyage, all the charm and variety of a natural panorama, until in due time the coasts and ranges of New Holland finally presented themselves to the eyes of the voyagers—the destined land of their future homes and fortunes. The next position in which we find the future inhabitant of Australia is the land of promise gained, roaming delighted among the thick forests and the delightful valleys, of which he is thereafter to be lord and master. And now comes, perhaps, the most critical period in his history. If the newly-arrived adventurers were the offshoot of some of the civilized branches of the human family on the opposite shores, would they not first of all set about forming society in the newly-discovered territory, in conformity with the usages and customs of the land they had left? Would they not establish some system of government similar to that under which they had formerly lived? Would they not initiate some form of worship similar to that which they had been accustomed to practice, and in conformity with their ideas of religion? Indubitably all these things the new settlers would be likely to do, and, most probably, all these proceedings were in due order gone through; but days and weeks passed over and a great change was wrought in the spirit of the adventurer. The land was still fair, the climate genial, and the spirit of enterprise still strong and buoyant; but the stern realities of life began to press very severely. What provisions remained of their sea stock, if any, were soon consumed. The hunting grounds in the immediate vicinity of the rude settlement were quickly cleared of their numerous stock to supply immediate wants, and hunger appeared in perspective. What, then, was to be done? Were they to retrace their steps, and to return to the country whence they came? Two serious obstacles presented themselves to this movement. The necessary sea provisions for even a very short voyage were wanting, and their frail barks, shattered by the effects of the former voyage and the action of a burning sun on their timbers, were altogether unfit a second time to encounter the surges the ocean. Thus precluded from the possibility of return, these primitive colonists, resigning themselves to a lot which they could not avert became permanent denizens of the Australian forests. Nor was this the worst of their fate. The same misfortune which confined them within the shores of the new coasts pursued them still further, and made them a roaming people—perpetual wanderers over its interminable wilds. No nutritious and abundant root, such as the potato or the yam, springing spontaneously in the soil or requiring but little labour in its production, presented a never-failing means of sustenance, and an inducement to form settled communities; no cocoanut or bread-fruit tree, or maize plant, bending beneath the weight of their respective products, charmed the vision or solaced the loneliness of the wanderer. No mighty river or broad lake, with smooth, clear surface, teeming with finny life, and surrounded by all the necessaries and charms of existence, invited the wanderers to establish themselves permanently on its fertile banks. All was bleak barrenness and disheartening scarcity. One only means of human sustenance did the vast territory present—the animal tribes which bounded over its plains, or scampered up and down the trunks and branches of the towering trees; and to procure this mcans of supporting life in himself and household, the New Hollander was condemned to a life of perpetual roaming—a life of perpetual savageness—ever impelled by the silent but imperative watchword, onward! Hence that dispersion; hence those outward symptoms of the most complete barbarism; hence, in fine, that degeneracy and that debasement of the human character which a certain class of reasoners are ever ready to seize upon with the utmost avidity, for the purpose of endeavouring to belie the nost simple principles of philosophy, as well as the first teachings of revelation.

But while admitting the worst that can be advanced against him, it is but right to mention that the aboriginal of Australia is to be viewed in some instances in a state in which the evidences of extreme degeneracy are in a great degree, if not altogether, wanting. Speaking of some natives with whom he came into contact in the neighbourhood of Port Essington, Captain Stokes, in the narrative of his "Discoveries in Australia," says:—

"I could not help comparing the bold, fearless manner in which they came towards us—their fine manly bearing, head erect, no crouching or averting of eye—with the miserable objects I had seen at Sydney. I now beheld man in his wild state, and, reader, rest assured there is nothing can equal such a sight."

Here is a most striking exception to that general falling-off so manifest in the Australian tribes—an exception the more worthy of note, and more fully illustrating our idea, as it is presented in the immediate neighbourhood of what we have reason to believe was the first landing-place of the founders of the entire race.

The next position in which it will be necessary to review the New Hollander, in order to see him thoroughly, is in his political and social relations—if such terms may be used without exciting a smile—as imposed by his new state. In issuing forth into the wilderness, in quest of sustenance and adventure, the impossibility of proceeding for any length of time in large bodies must very soon have forced itself upon the attention of the pilgrims. The few roots and herbs which they found fit for food were only to be procured in very small quantities; the straggling streams interspersed throughout their journey were, in many instances, altogether destitute of fish, and where the finny tribes existed small quantities only be procured from the niggard waters; numerous wild animals, it is true, scampered along the plains, or concealed themselves in the thick underwood, while some wild birds of a tempting aspect were present in the wilds; but these were only to be procured by the exercise of considerable skill, industry, and patience. Hence the scarcity of the necessaries of life at once pointed out the inconvenience of proceeding in large numbers, and hence the division of the wayfaring multitude into numerous tribes must have followed almost immediately after their first entrance into the wilderness, each division placing itself under the guidance of a leading spirit, some redoubtable warrior or hoary sage, on whose prowess or judgment they had learnt to rely, and in whose protection and guidance they felt secure. Here was the origin of these infinitesimal divisions into which the sable population of Australia is found divided. The numbers of individuals of which these tribes generally consist have variously estimated. Some authorities have mentioned tribes numbering as many as a thousand men. The general tendency of our information on these matters, however, is opposed to the belief that any of the aboriginal tribes are numerically so large and powerful as these numbers would imply. It is very doubtful, indeed, whether any tribes could be found numbering altogether—men, women, and children—many more individuals than l,000, or about 200 full-grown men. It is probable, however, that in their wars and on particular occasions alliances and conjunctions may be formed, when very large numbers, equal to or exceeding the figures mentioned, are brought together, and for a limited time associate and act in concert.

Another question which has formed the subject of dissent and debate is the system of governance which prevails in the respective tribes, it being generally understood that authority or unity of no description whatever extends further. Not only, indeed, is the plan of government which obtains among the New Hollanders a subject of doubt, but it has been questioned whether any definite or fixed system of chiefship or government at all exists amongst them. This latter idea cannot, however, on any known analogy or principle be sustained. That they have no chiefs, such as the caciques of the American Indians, or the magnates of the South Sea Islands, New Zealand, &c.,whose sway is derived from ancestors, and handed down from father to son, and who are at once the objects of the veneration and respect of their lieges, we have reason to believe. The instances are, indeed, numerous of individuals among them, in the neighbourhood of European settlements, receiving the appellations of chiefs of their tribes. But those distinctions are as often, or more so, the result of some whim of the Europeans as any agreement or authority among themselves; and when such titles do happen to be admitted by the aborigines themselves it is a title tacitly allowed to the individual more from his ruling qualities than from any other cause, by which tacit agreement a certain deference is paid to those qualities, while he is able to exhibit them personally, but no longer—a rule perfectly equitable and consistent among savages, where mere physical qualities are so likely to prevail over all others. Some years since nothing was more common than to observe among the groups of aborigines who usually assembled in the neighbourhood of Sydney some individual decked out in the gorgeous appendages of a half-moon of brass, suspended by a chain of the same metal around the neck, a cast-off cocked hat of some military officer, bending down under the weight of its feather, placed in any and every position on the crown of the head; the coat and trousers—if such were worn—in keeping or not, as circumstances happened, with the gorgeous headpiece. These individuals were uniformly looked upon by the Europeans as kings or chiefs among their sable brethren, and spoken of as such, but that they in reality enjoyed no such dignities might readily be inferred from the inveterate vice of mendicancy in which they indulged in common with their supposed subjects, the cocked hat of the "king" being frequently degraded to the "base uses" of receiving the halfpence and pence which a long series of the most profound and comical bows and salaams had drawn from the pockets of the passers-by. The supposition that no regular system of chiefship prevails among the aborigines receives authority from many facts. In all accounts of their wars and battles derived from various sources, the absence of any allusions to a recognized chief or leader, exercising a supreme and decided command, is striking. Great warriors they certainly have, who on such occasions take prominent positions and play conspicuous parts; but that such exercise any authority or influence over the acts or conduct of the others, except by a tacit understanding, there is reason to doubt. In some minute descriptions of their battles, related by eye-witnesses, the old women of the tribes are often made to occupy the position of chiefs in command on such occasions, stepping in front of the opposing lines, armed with spear and shield, haranguing the warriors in the most animating terms, working themselves into a frightful state of excitement, and ending their parts by hurling their weapons at the ranks of the enemy—thus giving the signal for the general onslaught. Many other particulars could be adduced to show that among the aborigines authority of a fixed and definite character, whether centred in individuals of the body or contained in some well known and well-established laws, is altogether wanting. The mere suggestions of instinct and the most palpable laws of nature alone seem to have any weight amongst them. This absence of authority is also manifested strongly in all their social relations; but in none more strikingly than in their system of courtship and matrimony, the future wife being in almost every instance carried off by her admirer by main force; consideration being seldom or never had either to the consent of the damsel herself, the approbation of her relatives, or the disposition of the tribe; and very rarely does it seem that such abductions are either resisted or resented.

From the general tendency of these and many other facts which could be adduced, it becomes apparent that the patriarchal form of government is that to which the system of rule prevalent amongst the aborigines most nearly approximates. Whether this be the result of ideas derived from their remote ancestors, or of their roving and unsettled mode of life, or whether it be the result of mere chance, obtaining in the first instance by accident, and perpetuated through succeeding time, are matters on which the mind may speculate, but on which it would be very difficult to arrive at a settled conclusion.