The Aborigines of Australia/Chapter 7

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Like civilized nations, the tribes of Australia have their great councils, alliances, and international laws. One of their diets, held at the camp of a tribe in the neighbourhood of Port Macquarie, is described as lasting for several days. The tribe on whose territory the assemblage took place appear to have been looked upon, for some cause or other, as possessing merit and wisdom in more than an ordinary degree, and hence, it is said, that on all occasions of emergency or difficulty the surrounding tribes repaired to them for counsel and judgment. They seem to have been the Levites of the tribes. The objects for which those general councils were assembled were, for the most part, the settlement of disputed boundaries and the undertaking of warlike expeditions. Sometimes, however, delegates from various tribes have assembled on occasions of less import, as, for instance, to assist in a hunting expedition or join in some ceremony or game. Seasons of more than ordinary plenty, when the plains abounded more than usual in game or the rivers in fish, were in general favourite periods for holding these gatherings, from which it is to be

inferred that they were as often the result of a rude

hospitality and a social disposition as of any more serious and important cause.

Savage, or semi-barbarous nations, are remarkable for nothing more than their displays of grief on the death of relatives and friends. Whether in the self- immolation of the wife of the deceased Hindoo, the sacrifice of numerous human victims on the death of a chief or person of distinction among the aboriginal inhabitants of Peru, or the ostentatious obsequies of the Patagonians, who construct tents for the reception of the remains of their dead, which they surround with the skeletons of those animals which were their companions in life, this peculiar trait of barbarism everywhere becomes visible. The New Hollanders likewise put themselves into mourning for deceased relatives and friends during a certain period. The practice seems, however, to be, for the most part, confined to the females, and consists in painting the person with pipeclay and other whitish substances, and ornamenting the hair with bits of whitened reed. Thus the colour of the "trappings and the suits of woe" of the aboriginal is the reverse of that in use among more civilized mourners.

The ornamental articles, whether of dress or otherwise, in use among the blacks of New Holland are, as may well be imagined, judging by the comparatively miserable condition in which they are known to exist, few and simple. The chief ornament worn on the person consists of a piece of mat, worn

in the manner of a fillet across the forehead. This is

called a "ballombime," and is made of various materials, but chiefly of threads formed from the tendons of the tail of the kangaroo and the legs of the emu; they are worked by the women, and are in general, for the sake of greater effect, painted with red ochre, or some other colouring substance; the "ballombime" is only worn by the men. Necklaces are the chief ornaments of the females. These are made of small pieces of a very thin reed, the particles, which are strung with the fibres of the currajong tree, or strings formed of similar material, being about the size of those used in the formation of ordinary necklaces; they are for the most part painted yellow, and are worn in numerous folds. The women likewise use the teeth of the kangaroo for ornamental purposes, attaching them to the ends of their ringlets, of which some of them possess a luxuriant and silky crop, and of which, in common with the males, they are very careful and very vain, using ointments of opossum fat and other such substances to preserve its smoothness and gloss.

The opossum cloak formed the chief if not the only article of dress worn by the aboriginal in his primitive state. It was at once his coat, cloak, and blanket — his garment by day and his coverlet by night; and so well was it adapted for affording comfort and protection that to the present day the opossum cloak is sought after with considerable eagerness by the colonists for similar purposes to those to which they

were applied by the original proprietors. Happy does

the bush traveller deem himself who at night can envelope his body in the downy folds of such a covering, whose duplicate fold of fur and hide defies alike the keenest blast and the most pinching frost. This excellent and valuable article, as the name implies, is formed in general of the skin of the opossum. Although the skin of this little animal is that most generally used, it is not the only one used in the manufacture, the skin of the wallaby and other animals being sometimes applied to the purpose of forming those cloaks. The process of manufacture is thus described : — The skin is in the first instance scraped with a shell or sharp-edged stone until it is reduced to the requisite consistence, after which it is extended on pegs driven in the ground, and exposed to the sun till quite dry; it is then fit for use. The sewing is performed by the women, who make use of the tendons of the kangaroo and emu as thread, and a fish-bone supplies the place of a needle. This latter process exhibits a skill and neatness in the highest degree extraordinary, when the manner of the appliances available for the performance of the work is taken into consideration, so that one of these cloaks will wear for an incredible length of time. Sometimes they are ornamented on the inner or smooth side by a species of tattooing or figuring, more or less elaborate according to the taste or skill of the owner. The manner of wearing the opossum cloak is somewhat characteristic. A string or thong is run through the

folds when doubled up, and being thus thrown on the

left shoulder, it is fastened by the thong under the right arm, leaving the right arm and shoulder free and exposed. The object of this manner of dressing is apparent. The aboriginal, in his primitive state, is never unarmed, either by spear, waddy, or tomahawk, ready for use at all times either for attack or defence, so that it is indispensable that his right arm should always be untrammelled.

Necessity, which, as the old school-book maxim has it, is the mother of all invention, has in no instance excited the inventive faculties of the aboriginal to a greater extent than in suggesting a method by which to cross the rivers and watercourses which intersect the country, and which at certain intervals it is a matter of no small difficulty to transmigrate. Whenever such a feat is to be accomplished two or three blacks set about "barking" the first tree of whose magnitude and quality they approve, an operation which, from their practice in this species of exercise, is soon accomplished. With the sheet of bark thus stripped the boat or punt is formed by which the other side of the river is to be attained. The curve which the bark will naturally retain will prevent the water from entering at the sides, and a quantity of malleable pipe-clay, or other such substance, everywhere available, will prevent the water from obtaining ingress at the ends. A couple of saplings will supply the place of paddles, and on this simple ferry the individuals or the entire tribes, as the case may

be, are transported across the impeding waters.

It appears that at a very early age the aborigines inure their children to those exercises which in after years form their chief employment, and are so necessary to their very existence. No sooner have the boys attained sufficient strength to run about than they are taught to hurl mimic spears and boomerangs, and make use of all the other weapons in use among their tribe, for which purpose they are provided with implements adapted to their years and powers. For the purpose of acquiring the art of throwing the spear with precision and effect, they are provided with imitations of that weapon formed of small reeds, and pointed with pieces of hard wood. A target is formed of a piece of bark formed into a circular shape, and about a foot in diameter. This is rolled backwards and forwards on the ground by two boys at a time, at certain points for the purpose, while a third hurls his light spears at the target while in motion. The object of this style of practice is self- evident. The spear is the chief weapon used not only in hunting but even in fishing, and is consequently always directed against objects moving with more or less velocity. It is therefore of consequence that the learner should accustom himself to take aim, not at a stationary mark, which in real practice he will seldom be required to do, but at some object which moves before his sight.

The culinary process, as practised among the aborigines, possesses some striking peculiarities.

Kangaroo and some other of the larger birds and

animals are said to be sometimes prepared by the same method employed in New Zealand and the South Sea Islands, and so familiar to every reader of history of these islands and their inhabitants. This consists in steaming the meat in an oven formed in the ground of small flat stones. A fire is first lighted in the oven, which is burned until the flags become heated to the highest degree. The fire being then removed, the meat is placed in the oven, and covered over with layers of leaves, grass, and clay, and in a short time may be removed perfectly baked. This method of cooking is said by some who have partaken of repasts so prepared to excel any other in many respects. In general, however, the pressing hunger of the Australian aboriginal does not permit him to resort to such a slow and methodical mode of preparing his food. The more usual plan is, after returning from the hunt, to skin the animal or bird at once, which operation they perform with great adroitness, and then cast the animal whole on the fire, from which it is removed when about half broiled for the purpose of being devoured. The animal is then torn in pieces by the hands of him who acts as carver for the occasion, or, if artificial means be required for the purpose of dismembering the joints, a tomahawk is used as a chopper. On these occasions the want of anything like politeness on the part of the blacks in their intercourse with each other is sometimes strongly exemplified, the food

being sometimes cast on the ground, or thrown about

in the most indiscriminate manner, by him who divides. If a white man be present, however, it is said they will evince the greatest hospitality and politeness, offering him the choicest morsels before they serve themselves. All accounts agree in stating that animal food is always eaten by the aborigines in a half-cooked state; the only reason which can be adduced for this strange habit is to be gathered from the answer of an aboriginal when asked the cause of his not leaving an opossum longer in the fire, viz., that when roasted too much it became "only like a waddy."