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The Aborigines of Australia/Chapter 6

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CHAPTER VI


CEREMONY OF INITIATION — HALF-CASTE CHILDREN
— BELIEF IN SPIRITS — A NEW SPECIES OF FOOD —
CORROBOREE — THE "KRADGA KIBBA."

One of the most important ceremonies among the aborigines is the installation of a young man among the warriors of the tribe. The ceremony takes place when the youth has attained a certain age, and is at once a form and a test. On the day appointed for the performance all the men of the tribe assemble at a fixed place, and the " doctor " of the tribe having marked out a circle of considerable extent, the artists proceed to form representations of animals, and other figures, on the soil or sand within the circle. With these the entire place is covered, with the exception of a small spot in the centre, and an air of mystery having been thus imparted to the scene, the ceremony commences in the ring, the spectators being ranged round the circle. The operation of knocking out one of the front teeth of the young man is then performed by the doctor, and on the fortitude which the former displays under the operation depends the estimation in which he is hereafter to be held. He is then presented with the opossum belt, after which he is allowed to marry and join in the conclaves, councils, and expeditions of the tribe, being previous to this ceremony only permitted to associate with the women and children. No woman is permitted to be present at or to witness this ceremony, which generally takes place in a sequestered spot, at a distance from the camp; and should any female be known to have furtively witnessed the scene she would be liable to pay the penalty of her forbidden curiosity by death.

Numerous half-caste children of the female sex are to be observed among the aborigines, while, on the contrary, a half-caste boy is scarcely ever seen. The reason of this is said to be that the latter is always destroyed when born, the former being spared. The cause alleged for this barbarous practice is that the male children, if permitted to grow to manhood, would become too wise, and would thereby exercise an undue influence among their compeers. Practices similar to this, and from like motives, are common among other barbarous nations. It is said that negroes returning to their native country after a residence in any of the civilized nations are sometimes killed at the instigation of the heathen priests, who dread lest the influence and example of the new comer might, by destroying the credulity of their followers, sap the foundations of their dignity and power.

A great variety of circumstances tend to show beyond question that the aborigines are believers in spirits. They imagine that the air is peopled during the night by the shades of those who have "shuffled off the mortal coil," and it is said that they never fight during the night time, believing that human strife at such hours would be offensive or injurious to the airy beings. This belief may also, in some measure, account for the unwillingness of the blacks to converse about deceased persons or even mention their names,

A somewhat extraordinary practice is mentioned in connection with the blacks of the northern coasts. This is nothing less than the application of glass to the novel purpose of food. When a piece of that substance came by any means into their possession, it was broken into a number of small particles and distributed around. The sharp corners being then carefully rubbed smooth the pieces were swallowed, the recipients of these singular pills at the same time looking up at the sky, clapping their hands on their breasts, and, by sundry exclamations and gestures, expressing the pleasure they felt. What may be the real origin or the object of this strange custom it is difficult to say. As, however, it will be seen hereafter that the quartz crystal, which has latterly been found so abundantly in connection with the gold matrix, was formerly used for medicinal, or rather magical, purposes among the aborigines, it is more than probable that some extraordinary curative or talismanic properties were attributed by them to all substances of a crystallized nature and appearance.

As the corroboree appears to be the great festival among the New Hollanders, an account of it may be deserving of particular attention. Under this term may be comprised all the festivity and fun of which the aboriginal is cognizant, or in which he indulges. It is at once his Bacchanal, Cyprian and Olympian games. Here his songs and orations are recited, his musical performances are accomplished, his dances performed, and his amours and courtship indulged. The corroboree usually takes place as the sequel to a battle, on the occasion of a friendly meeting or consultation between two or more tribes, at the initiation of a young man of more than ordinary note, or on any other occasion when the temper of the actors in such scenes induces them to give vent to their disposition to frolic and excitement in one of those games. Night is generally selected as the time for these performances, and the effect of such scenes by moonlight, or by the glare of bush fires, is said to be striking in the extreme. Eighty or a hundred men ranged in a line, with or without clubs, performing a measured dance, in which the chief motion consists of contortions and movements of the legs, accompanied by a species of song, and the sound of the different rude instruments known to the aborigines, the women being on such occasions the instrumental performers, as well as sustaining the chief burden of the vocal music: such are the chief features of the scene. This, however, is not the whole of the corroboree. Various minor acts succeed, in which both men and women take part, and the whole is continued till the performers become completely intoxicated with the excess of delight and excitement. At the present day, and within the precincts of the settled parts of the country, these fêtes are much disused among the aborigines, or, at least, much perverted. Formerly they were resorted to by the blacks in order to diversify the nature of their occupations of hunting and fishing, and, no doubt, added materials to their scanty stock of enjoyment. Now they are in general the scenes of drunken and brutal broils, for the most part got up by the whites in the interior for the purpose of gratifying a corrupt curiosity to witness the antics of the aborigines when intoxicated. In these scenes we see exemplified the degradation to which humanity, even in its lowest form, may be reduced by the devices of men, when, from some cause or other, the hellish tendencies of the human heart and head conspire for such a purpose. Thus, the brutalized shepherd or bullock driver of the interior affords to the aboriginal a plentiful supply of rum for the purpose of amusing himself, and being gratified by the fact that some other being is more depraved and debased than himself, by which he only copies in a manner some of the civilized and polished governments of Europe of former and present times, who, for the purpose of degrading men and nations, shut up the roads of knowledge and civilization to a large section of the human family, in order that they might thereby be rendered the helpless victims of tyranny and plunder.

To return The "Kradga Kibba," or "doctor-stone," as the words signify, is a talisman, used by those among the aborigines who usually perform the functions of physicians, for the purpose of effecting cures. It consists of a piece of crystallized quartz; it is in general carefully preserved in wrappings of skin, and has been known to be treasured with so much anxiety by its owner that it was a work of some considerable time to unravel the network and coverings in which it was preserved. These precious objects were in general valued according to their size, and were supposed by the blacks to possess, among other extraordinary properties, the power of causing the death of any one at whom they were thrown by the "Kradga." No woman was permitted to see them, and they were said by the aborigines to cause the immediate death of any female who broke through the prohibition. The manner of using the "Kradga Kibba" for the cure of a spear wound received in battle is thus described:—The wounded man being removed after nightfall to a distance from the camp, the doctor proceeded to suck the wound, a process by which all dirt and other matter tending to produce inflammation were removed; the stone was then placed in the mouth of the doctor and the spittle being ejected on the ground, was stamped into the soil, with sundry incantations and gestures. The stone was in general made use of at night, at which time it was said to be most efficacious. The doctors always alleged that it was manufactured by themselves, sedulously concealing from their patients the fact that it was a natural production; and, in addition to its healing virtues, it was said to be a sure protection from the mischiefs of the evil spirit.