The Aborigines of Australia/Chapter 8

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It has already been shown that the aboriginals entertain a belief that the souls of their deceased relatives pass into the bodies of other human beings, the white population, according to their ideas, being no other than the regenerated tribes of their own race which have passed away during the course of bygone ages. Their belief in the transmigration of souls, however, goes much further than this. In the consideration of this point we will find a still further proof in support of the hypothesis of the Oriental origin of the race. Like the followers of the Brahmins, they believe that the soul passes into the inferior animals—birds, beasts, and fishes. The existence of this belief is fully borne out by several circumstances which have come under the observation of Europeans at different times. A traveller being once about to shoot at an animal of a small species was deterred from his purpose by a black, who called out that he must not shoot, because, as he said, the intended victim was "him brother." Another anecdote which illustrates the prevalence of this belief in transmigration partakes, in the highest degree, of a romantic character. A person being on one occasion cruising along the coast in a boat, the crew of which consisted of aboriginal natives, fired on a shoal of porpoises which made their appearance, and wounded one of them. The blacks had in vain used their utmost persuasion to dissuade him from his purpose of firing, and when they saw the result were in the highest degree concerned. On coming on shore they informed the tribe of what had happened, who immediately gave vent to their sorrow for what they seemed to regard as a great calamity, in loud outcries, the women weeping and uttering their grief in loud lamentations. Subsequently the individual who was the prime cause of all the commotion ascertained that the blacks regarded the porpoises as the former chiefs of their own and the neighbouring tribes, who, in their metamorphosed condition, still exercised a watchful care over the interests of their people by driving the fish on shore in times of scarcity—sometimes, during periods of more than ordinary want, sending carcases of whales to the relief of their hungering friends.

What has heretofore been said in reference to the aborigines relates principally to the male portion of the race—their habits, arts, and dispositions. It may therefore be desirable to devote a little space to the exclusive consideration of the principal characteristics by which the other sex is distinguished. Without such a review the picture which it is proposed to exhibit would, in fact, be incomplete. Here we will

find those feminine characteristics which excited the admiration and called forth the praise of Mungo Park, when journeying among the African tribes, reflected in the strongest light amongst a people if possible more barbarous and certainly more miserable than the ebon children of the Ethiopian desert The far- famed traveller says, referring to the treatment which he experienced during his sojournings among the African tribes : —

"To a woman I never addressed myself in the language of decency and friendship without receiving a decent and friendly answer. If I was hungry or thirsty, wet or sick, they did not hesitate, like men, to perform a generous action. In so free and kind a manner did they contribute to my relief that if I was dry I drank the sweetest draught, and if hungry I ate the coarsest morsel, with the sweetest relish."

The picture here drawn of the African women might very well be applied to the females of the New Holland tribes, according to the accounts of nearly every one who has travelled amongst them while still enjoying their primeval simplicity, ere yet the corrupting influences which ever accompany civilized society had been brought to bear in lessening their simple dignity. The aboriginal females are described by all travellers as exhibiting, when viewed in favourable circumstances, the virtues of modesty and bashfulness in the highest degree, combined with a kindliness of disposition and a natural politeness of manners not to be surpassed. These characteristics are displayed more strikingly in

the younger women; they appear to diminish as they

grow older — the natural result, no doubt, of the hardships they are made to endure, and the ill-usage to which they are frequently subjected. A circumstance once came under the observation of the writer which, however trifling in itself, will tend to illustrate the suavity of character alluded to. One of those groups of aborigines which were so frequently to be met through the city some few years ago had assembled at the corner of one of the streets. Among the number were several women and children; one of the latter, a youngster some seven or eight years of age, was engaged in eating a half-loaf of bread, the gift, no doubt, of some benevolent housewife in the neighbourhood, while another juvenile, of about the same age, regarded the loaf and the eater with the most wistful eagerness. Presently, the latter accidentally letting his treasure fall on the ground, the former, with the speed of thought, picked it up and ran away, eating as he went. The mother of the delinquent, whose attention was attracted by the occurrence, at once gave chase, and overtaking the runaway, returned the prize to the lawful owner. The mother of the latter, in turn, considerately taking into account the probable hunger of the other child divided the bread in halves between the two boys. A remarkable instance of the fidelity of the native women is related as having been displayed in the earlier days of colonial history. A young aboriginal woman had become attached to a prisoner

of the Crown assigned on a station in the interior.

The character of the latter appears to have been violent and bad in the extreme, and it is said that he often vented his ill-humour in the cruelty which he inflicted on his sable leman. In the course of time, the former, flying from the consequences of some felonious act, was necessitated to take to the bush, where he led that precarious and perilous existence inseparable from the mode of life which he had adopted. It was now that the fidelity of the aboriginal female was put to the test. Notwithstanding that he had uniformly ill-treated, and had on several occasions brutally assaulted her; notwithstanding that he was now placed in such a position that she had nothing further to expect from him, she did not for a moment evince the slightest inclination to desert him. On the contrary, she renewed her assiduity in ministering to his wants; she frequented the stations in the neighbourhood for the purpose of procuring food and clothing, which were carried to the fugitive in his retreats; and no comfort or necessary which it was in her power to procure was wanting to render the hardships of his life as light and endurable as possible. The police being put in motion for the purpose of recapturing the offender, the latter eluded their pursuit for a period of some months, chiefly through the vigilance and sagacity of his protectress, who, on several occasions when they were almost within reach of him, succeeded by some stratagem or other in diverting their course or turning their attention.

On one occasion, in particular, when his capture

appeared inevitable, the woman saved him by a scheme which displayed considerable capacity of conception as well as boldness of execution. This was nothing less than volunteering her services to conduct the police to the place of concealment, when she in reality led them far from his retreat. When the fugitive was finally captured and executed for a capital offence, the woman, repelling the addresses of other white men who conceived an admiration for the excellent qualities she had displayed, returned to her tribe, and did not again enter into the society of Europeans. Several instances are also on record of aboriginal females having displayed a high sense of humanity and justice by giving timely notice to settlers and others when the blacks were meditating some aggression either on life or property; and it is said that for this reason the aborigines never admit their "better halves" into their councils, when they are planning any expedition or enterprise of importance. The chief employments of the females appear to be the making of opossum cloaks, ballombimes, and baskets, the spinning of strings formed from the bark of the currajong tree and native flax, the stringing of the beads of which they form their necklaces, and the digging of a species of fern-root which abounds in some parts of the country, and forms a considerable portion of the food of the aborigines; all these labours and operations they perform with the assistance of the youths who have not yet been admitted

to the privileges of manhood. In the marches and

warlike and hunting expeditions of the aborigines, the females likewise carry whatever lumber the tribes possess — such as the weapons, skins, and provisions.

The powers of mimicry among the aborigines have before been several times remarked upon. It remains to mention particular instances in which the imitative faculties so largely developed among these people have either assisted them on occasions where the descriptive powers have been called into play, or have rendered individuals ridiculous by urging them to adopt the habits and manners of white people. An instance is mentioned in "Bennetts Travels in New South Wales" of a party landing from a vessel on the coast, and, ascertaining from some aborigines whom they met that a vessel, concerning which they were desirous of obtaining some information, had touched at the same place a few days previous, the blacks, by signs, indicated in the most satisfactory manner the arrival of the vessel, the rowing of the boat to shore, and the felling and carrying away of some timber required for use on board. The motions of the men in rowing the boat, and in felling the trees, were described with the greatest minuteness; and the description was wound up by one of the aborigines remarking that the people were "always in a hurry," this allusion being probably suggested by the activity of the sailors, in the performance of their duty, as compared with the habitual indolence of the aboriginal life. A ludicrous exercise of the disposition

to imitate led, in former times, to the general preva

lence of an error regarding their inability to withstand the effects of intoxicating drinks, or anything bearing an affinity thereto. Nothing was more common, some few years since, than to see a number of aborigines, male and female, indulging in all sorts of bacchanal evolutions, staggering, swearing, and hallooing, after having imbibed plentiful potations of a drink formed from the washing of a sugar-bag or a rum-cask. The appearance of drunkenness, which they usually put on on these occasions, led most people to believe that such liquors had the effect of producing intoxication. It has been proved, however, beyond doubt that the appearances in these instances were only simulated.

Backhouse, in the elaborate account of his "Visit to the Australian Colonies," relates an anecdote by which the fallacy of the supposition is clearly proved. An aboriginal, coming into a house in the interior where a young man was engaged in making brine by boiling salt, asked the latter if the liquor were rum, to which the only reply received was an invitation jocularly given to drink. The black having responded by swallowing at a draught about a pint of the brine, commenced tossing about his head, arms, and legs, with all the appearances of inebriation. Being taunted with this false display, he replied, with considerable earnestness, "Me murry drunk, like a gentleman." Smoking — that habit which appears to be adopted by barbarous and semi-barbarous nations

as naturally as the practice of eating or drinking — is

universally followed by the aborigines wherever the necessary appliances of pipes and tobacco are placed within their reach. Travellers in the interior describe the habit as having become so deeply-rooted that it is no uncommon circumstance to see a child, after having partaken of a pipe, kneel in its mother's lap for the purpose of sucking.

The practice of shaving, as performed by the New Hollanders, is somewhat unique. Among a people originally unacquainted with the use of iron, and whose edged tools were formed of hard wood, or a piece of stone or shell, the operation, as must naturally be supposed, would be attended with considerable, if not insurmountable, trouble and difficulty, if performed according to the "approved principle" followed by European barbers. It follows, then, that the operation, if no other method of shaving is known to the aborigines, must in most or in all cases remain in desuetude. A substitute, however, has been found for the razor, which in some degree meets the necessities of the case. This is nothing more nor less than a burning stick, by which the beard is singed off the chin, to the no small peril, no doubt, of that feature. That the aborigines are themselves sensible of the disadvantages of this mode of operation may be inferred from the fact that they are very eager to be shaved by Europeans, and even in their first interviews with the latter their friendship is sometimes secured by this species of service.

The system of tattooing or scarifying the person

prevails to some extent among the New Hollanders; The practice differs, however, very materially from that followed by the New Zealanders and the inhabitants of the South Sea Islands. Among the latter the face appears to be the part of the body more usually chosen for the operation, and ornamental effect seems to be the chief object aimed at, the scars being in all cases painted, and the lines being arranged and shaped with a view to render the whole as regular and picturesque as possible. The New Hollanders, on the contrary, for the most part confine the operation to the breast and back; although sometimes the arms are scarified. Unlike the New Zealanders, also, the operation is confined to the males, and does not appear to be regarded so much as an ornament as an honourable and manly distinction, rendering the individual who undergoes the process more respected among his companions, and more acceptable in the eyes of the fair sex. The style of the operation appears to differ in different tribes and localities. In some districts the tattooing consists of a series of small horizontal scars across the breast on either side; in other parts the ribs are marked by scars, in some instances as wide and as long as a man's thumb; among some tribes one arm and one side of the upper parts of the body, behind and before, are scarified. When engaged in combat they refrain, by a tacit understanding, from wounding each other on the parts of the body which are thus

marked, showing thereby the high regard in which

they hold the distinguishing marks — preserving them with the same care as would a Roman soldier the cicatrices of the wounds received in battle, as incontestable evidences of his prowess or endurance.

The various plans adopted by the New Hollanders in their hunting operations have before been narrated. Next after the wild animals with which the country abounds, the aboriginals in their primitive state are chiefly indebted to the finny tribes for sustenance. Some description, therefore, of the manner in which they procure supplies of the latter may be somewhat interesting. When a lagoon contains fish they select some narrow outlet or opening on the margin, across which they form a hurdle by driving saplings into the bottom, and interweaving them with twigs, bark, or sedge; this being completed, a second is formed, at a short distance from the first, at the point of the outlet nearest the lagoon; in this latter a small opening is left under the water. The weir being thus finished, several men, armed with clubs or other weapons, proceed into the water, and, forming a line at the end of the lagoon opposite to the weir, proceed slowly along, beating the water as they go. The fish being by this means driven through the opening in one of the hurdles, the aperture is closed by means of a small wicker gate prepared for the purpose, and the fish, being thus enclosed in a small space, are easily taken by the hand or in baskets. Another mode of catching fish is pursued on the sea coast and on the

low beaches of rivers and lakes. This latter method

is nothing less than driving the fish on shore. When the aborigines have reason to know that a shoal of fish is moving about contiguous to the beach — a fact which is readily discovered either by the disporting of the scaly gambollers over the surface of their native element, or by the brilliant transparency which the rays of an Australian sun yield to the latter rendering the smallest object perfectly visible for some fathoms deep — they commence their piscatory operations as follows : — Dividing themselves into two bodies, at a proper interval along the beach, they glide in two files into the water, where, moving with the least perceptible noise or agitation, they soon form a semicircle, the extremities of which touch the shore. Having thus enclosed the fish, the aborigines commence contracting the space in which their prey is confined, by moving towards the shore and towards each other, until, having driven the fish into very shallow water, they are enabled either to kill them with their fish-spears, or cast them on shore with their hands.In their fishing operations the aborigines also use the bark of a species of tree, which, being cast into the water, in a short time operates on the fish in such a way as to render them liable to be caught or speared without difficulty. Mussels, oysters, and some other shellfish form a principal resource whence the aborigines draw their supplies of food. As the mussel and large mud oyster are seldom to be procured except by diving, they evince great expertness

and power in this exercise, as well as in that of

swimming, remaining under water for some minutes at a time, or swimming across bays and rivers with a speed and endurance altogether unknown among white men.

The law of retaliation universally obtains among the aborigines. The principle, however, appears to be carried to an extent which very often oversteps the bounds of strict justice. This is only what might be expected — for, while a strict observance of the rules of fair play will ever be found to characterize savage nations in their dealings with each other, it is natural to expect that their unguided discrimination will often err in deciding what is just or otherwise in seeking revenge or inflicting punishment. Thus an aboriginal will retaliate a personal injury received from some individual of his tribe or from one of his enemies by inflicting a spear wound on the gin or wife of the aggressor, when he finds that he cannot conveniently or safely punish the latter. Barbarities of this nature are very frequent among the blacks, the female expiating by a spear wound on the leg or arm the offences of her mate. When one black injures another accidentally it is no uncommon thing for the man inflicting the injury to hold out a leg or arm to give the injured party an opportunity of requiting himself by the infliction of a spear wound. Should the latter avail himself of the privilege thus afforded, the parties thereafter consider themselves bound to each other by the

strongest ties of friendship. This mode of punishment,

which consists in the infliction of a spear wound, is very general among the blacks, and is often resorted to when no adequate reason has been given. Thus, for the most trifling offence, an aboriginal will deliberately inflict a spear wound on the person of his gin, by which she may be tormented and disabled for a considerable period of time.