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Peeps at Many Lands: Australia
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A dwindling race; their curious weapons — The Papuan tree-dwellers — The cunning witch-doctors.

The natives of Australia were always few in number. The conditions of the country secured that Australia, kept from civilization for so long, is yet the one land of the world which, whilst capable of great production with the aid of man’s skill, is in its natural state hopelessly sterile. Australia produced no grain of any sort naturally; neither wheat, oats, barley nor maize. It produced practically no edible fruit, excepting a few berries, and one or two nuts, the outer rind of which was eatable. There were no useful roots such as the potato, the turnip, or the yam, or the taro. The native animals were few and just barely eatable, the kangaroo, the koala (or native bear) being the principal ones. In birds alone was the country well supplied, and they were more beautiful of plumage than useful as food. Even the fisheries were infrequent, for the coast line, as you will see from the map, is unbroken by any great bays, and there is thus less sea frontage to Australia than to any other of the continents, and the rivers are few in number.

Where the land inhabited by savages is poor in food-supply their number is, as a rule, small and their condition poor. It is not good for a people to have too easy times; that deprives them of the incentive to work. But also it is not good for people who are backward in civilization to be kept to a land which treats them too harshly; for then they never get a fair chance to progress in the scale of civilization. The people of the tropics and the people near the poles lagged behind in the race for exactly opposite but equally powerful reasons. The one found things too easy, the other found things too hard. It was in the land between, the Temperate Zone, where, with proper industry, man could prosper, that great civilizations grew up.

The Australian native had not much to complain of in regard to his climate. It was neither tropical nor polar. But the unique natural conditions of his country made it as little fruitful to an uncivilized inhabitant as was Lapland. When Captain Cook landed at Botany Bay probably there were not 500,000 natives in all Australia. And if the white man had not come, there probably would never have been any progress among the blacks. As they were then they had been for countless centuries, and in all likelihood would have remained for countless centuries more. They had never, like the Chinese, the Hindus, the Peruvians, the Mexicans, evolved a civilization of their own. There was not the slightest sign that they would be able to do so in the future. If there was ever a country on earth which the white man had a right to take on the ground that the black man could never put it to good use, it was Australia.

Allowing that, it is a pity to have to record that the early treatment of the poor natives of Australia was bad. The first settlers to Australia had learned most of the lessons of civilization, but they had not learned the wisdom and justice of treating the people they were supplanting fairly. The officials were, as a rule, kind enough; but some classes of the new population were of a bad type, and these, coming into contact with the natives, were guilty of cruelties which led to reprisals and then to further cruelties, and finally to a complete destruction of the black people in some districts.

In Tasmania, for instance, where the blacks were of a fine robust type, convicts in the early days, escaping to the Bush, by their cruelties inflamed the natives to hatred of the white disturbers, and outrages were frequent. The state of affairs got to be so bad that the Government formed the idea of capturing all the natives of Tasmania and putting them on a special reserve on Tasman Peninsula. That was to be the black man’s part of the country, where no white people would be allowed. The help of the settlers was enlisted, and a great cordon was formed around the whole island, as if it were to be beaten for game. The cordon gradually closed in on Tasman Peninsula after some weeks of “beating” the forests. It was found, then, that one aboriginal woman had been captured, and that was all. Such a result might have been foreseen. Tasmania is about as large as Scotland. Its natural features are just as wild. The cordon did not embrace 2,000 settlers. The idea of their being able to drive before them a whole native race familiar with the Bush was absurd.

After that the old conditions ruled in Tasmania. Blacks and whites were in constant conflict, and the black race quickly perished. To-day there is not a single member of that race alive, Truganini, its last representative, having died about a quarter of a century ago.

On the mainland of Australia many blacks still survive; indeed, in a few districts of the north, they have as yet barely come into contact with the white race. A happier system in dealing with them prevails. The Government are resolute that the blacks shall be treated kindly, and aboriginal reserves have been formed in all the States. One hears still of acts of cruelty in the back-blocks (as the far interior of Australia is called), but, so far as the Government can, it punishes the offenders. In several of the States there is an official known as the Protector of the Aborigines, and he has very wide powers to shield these poor blacks from the wickedness of others, and from their own weakness. In the Northern States now, the chief enemies of the blacks are Asiatics from the pearl-shelling fleets, who land in secret and supply the blacks with opium and drink. When the Commonwealth Navy, now being constructed, is in commission, part of its duty will be to patrol the northern coast and prevent Asiatics landing there to victimize the blacks.

The official statistics of the Commonwealth reported, in regard to the aborigines, in the year 1907:

“In Queensland, South Australia, and Western Australia, on the other hand, there are considerable numbers of natives still in the ‘savage’ state, numerical information concerning whom is of a most unreliable nature, and can be regarded as little more than the result of mere guessing. Ethnologically interesting as is this remarkable and rapidly disappearing race, practically all that has been done to increase our knowledge of them, their laws, habits, customs, and language, has been the result of more or less spasmodic and intermittent effort on the part of enthusiasts either in private life or the public service. Strange to say, an enumeration of them has never been seriously undertaken in connection with any State census, though a record of the numbers who were in the employ of whites, or living in contiguity to the settlements of whites, has usually been made. As stated above, various guesses at the number of aboriginal natives at present in Australia have been made, and the general opinion appears to be that 150,000 may be taken as a rough approximation to the total. It is proposed to make an attempt to enumerate the aboriginal population of Australia in connection with the first Commonwealth Census to be taken in 1911.”

A very primitive savage was the Australian aboriginal. He had no architecture, but in cold or wet weather built little break-winds, called mia-mias. He had no weapons of steel or any other metal. His spears were tipped with the teeth of fish, the bones of animals, and with roughly sharpened flints. He had no idea of the use of the bow and arrow, but had a curious throwing-stick, which, working on the principle of a sling, would cast a missile a great distance. These were his weapons — rough spears, throwing-sticks, and clubs called nullahs, or waddys. (I am not sure that these latter are original native words. The blacks had a way of picking up white men’s slang and adding it to their very limited vocabulary; thus the evil spirit is known among them as the “debbil-debbil.”) Another weapon the aboriginal had, the boomerang, a curiously curved missile stick which, if it missed the object at which it was aimed, would curve back in the air and return to the feet of the thrower; thus the black did not lose his weapon. The boomerang shows an extraordinary knowledge of the effects of curves on the flight of an object; it is peculiar to the Australian natives, and proves that they had skill and cunning in some respects, though generally low in the scale of human races.

The Australian aboriginals were divided into tribes, and these tribes, when food supplies were good, amused themselves with tribal warfare. From what can be gathered, their battles were not very serious affairs. There was more yelling and dancing and posing than bloodshed. The braves of a tribe would get ready for battle by painting themselves with red, yellow, and white clay in fantastic patterns. They would then hold war-dances in the presence of the enemy; that, and the exchange of dreadful threats, would often conclude a campaign. But sometimes the forces would actually come to blows, spears would be thrown, clubs used. The wounds made by the spears would be dreadfully jagged, for about half a yard of the end of the spear was toothed with bones or fishes’ teeth. But the black fellows’ flesh healed wonderfully. A wound that would kill any European the black would plaster over with mud, and in a week or so be all right.

Duels between individuals were not uncommon among the natives, and even women sometimes settled their differences in this way. A common method of duelling was the exchange of blows from a nullah. One party would stand quietly whilst his antagonist hit him on the head with a club; then the other, in turn, would have a hit, and this would be continued until one party dropped. It was a test of endurance rather than of fighting power.

The women of the aboriginals were known as gins, or lubras, the children as picaninnies — this last, of course, not an aboriginal name. The women were not treated very well by their lords: they had to do all the carrying when on the march. At mealtimes they would sit in a row behind the men. The game — a kangaroo, for instance — would be roughly roasted at the camp fire with its fur still on. The men would devour the best portions and throw the rest over their shoulders to the waiting women.

Fish was a staple article of diet for the Australian natives. Wherever there were good fishing-places on the coast or good oyster-beds powerful tribes were camped, and on the inland rivers are still found weirs constructed by the natives to trap fish. So far as can be ascertained, the Australian native was rarely if ever a cannibal. His neighbours in the Pacific Ocean were generally cannibals. Perhaps the scanty population of the Australian continent was responsible for the absence of cannibalism; perhaps some ethical sense in the breasts of the natives, who seem to have always been, on the whole, good-natured and little prone to cruelty.

  The Australian natives in Captain Cook's time.

The religious ideas of these natives were very primitive. They believed strongly in evil spirits, and had various ceremonial dances and practices of witchcraft to ward off the influence of these. But they had little or no conception of a Good Spirit. Their idea of future happiness was, after they had come into contact with the whites: “Fall down black fellow, jump up white fellow.” Such an idea of heaven was, of course, an acquired one. What was their original notion on the subject is not at all clear. The Red Indians of America had a very definite idea of a future happy state. The aboriginals of Australia do not seem to have been able to brighten their poor lives with such a hope.

Various books have been written about the folklore of the Australian aboriginals, but most of the stories told as coming from the blacks seem to me to have a curious resemblance to the stories of white folk. A legend about the future state, for instance, is just Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” put crudely to fit in with Australian conditions. I may be quite wrong in this, but I think that most of the folk-stories coming from the natives are just their attempts to imitate white-man stories, and not original ideas of their own. The conditions or life in Australia for the aboriginal were so harsh, the struggle for existence was so keen, that he had not much time to cultivate ideas. Life to him was centred around the camp-fire, the baked ’possum, and a few crude tribal ceremonies.

Usually the Australian black is altogether spoilt by civilization. He learns to wear clothes, but he does not learn that clothes need to be changed and washed occasionally, and are not intended for use by day and night. He has an insane veneration for the tall silk hat which is the badge of modern gentility, and, given an old silk hat, he will never allow it off his head. He quickly learns to smoke and to drink, and, when he comes into contact with the Chinese, to eat opium. He cannot be broken into any steady habits of industry, but where by wise kindness the black fellow has been kept from the vices of civilization he is a most engaging savage. Tall, thin, muscular, with fine black beard and hair and a curiously wide and impressive forehead, he is not at all unhandsome. He is capable of great devotion to a white master, and is very plucky by daylight, though his courage usually goes with the fall of night. He takes to a horse naturally, and some of the finest riders in Australia are black fellows.

An attempt is now being made to Christianize the Australian blacks. It seems to prosper if the blacks can be kept away from the debasing influence of bad whites. They have no serious vices of their own, very little to unlearn, and are docile enough. In some cases black children educated at the mission schools are turning out very well. But, on the other hand, there are many instances of these children conforming to the habits of civilization for some years and then suddenly feeling “the call of the wild,” and running away into the Bush to join some nomad tribe.

It is not possible to be optimistic about the future of the Australian blacks. The race seems doomed to perish. Something can be done to prolong their life, to make it more pleasant; but they will never be a people, never take any share in the development of the continent which was once their own.

A quite different type of native comes under the rule of the Australian Commonwealth — the Papuan. Though Papua, or New Guinea, as it was once called, is only a few miles from the north coast of Australia, its race is distinct, belonging to the Polynesian or Kanaka type, and resembling the natives of Fiji and Tahiti.

Papua is quite a tropical country, producing bananas, yams, taro, sago, and cocoa-nuts. The natives, therefore, have always had plenty of food, and they reached a higher stage of civilization than the Australian aborigines. But their food came too easily to allow them to go very far forward. “Civilization is impossible where the banana grows,” some observer has remarked. He meant that since the banana gave food without any culture or call on human energy, the people in banana-growing countries would be lazy, and would not have the stimulus to improve themselves that is necessary for progress. To get a good type of man he must have the need to work.

The Papuan, having no need of industry, amused himself with head-hunting as a national sport. Tribes would invade one another’s districts and fight savage battles. The victors would eat the bodies of the vanquished, and carry home their heads as trophies. A chief measured his greatness by the number of skulls he had to adorn his house.

Since the British came to Papua head-hunting and cannibalism have been forbidden. But all efforts to instil into the minds of the Papuan a liking for work have so far failed. So the condition of the natives is not very happy. They have lost the only form of exercise they cared for, and sloth, together with contact with the white man, has brought to them new and deadly diseases. Several missionary bodies are working to convert the Papuan to Christianity, and with some success.

The Papuan builds houses and temples. His tree-dwellings are very curious. They are built on platforms at the top of lofty palm-trees. Probably the Papuan first designed the tree-dwelling as a refuge from possible enemies. Having climbed up to his house with the aid of a rope ladder and drawn the ladder up after him, he was fairly safe from molestation, for the long, smooth, branchless trunks of the palm-trees do not make them easy to scale. In time the Papuan learned the advantages of the tree-dwelling in marshy ground, and you will find whole villages on the coast built of trees. Herodotus states of the ancient Egyptians that in some parts they slept on top of high towers to avoid mosquitoes and the malaria that they brought. The Papuan seems to have arrived at the same idea.

Sorcery is a great evil among the Papuans. In every village almost, some crafty man pretends to be a witch and to have the power to destroy those who are his enemies. This is a constant thorn in the side of the Government official and the missionary. The poor Papuan goes all his days beset by the Powers of Darkness. The sorcerer, the “pourri-pourri” man, can blast him and his pigs, crops, family (that is the Papuan order of valuation) at will. The sorcerer is generally an old man. He does not, as a rule, deck himself in any special garb, or go through public incantations, as do most savage medicine-men. But he hints and threatens, and lets inference take its course, till eventually he becomes a recognized power, feared and obeyed by all. Extortion, false swearing, quarrels and murders, and all manner of iniquity, follow in his train. No native but fears him, however complete the training and education of civilization. For the Papuan never thinks of death, plague, pestilence or famine as arising from natural causes. Every little misfortune (much more every great one) is credited to a “pourri-pourri” or magic. The Papuan, when he comes “under the Evil Eye” of the witch-doctor, will wilt away and die, though, apparently, he has nothing at all the matter with him; and since Europeans are apt to suffer from malarial fever in Papua, the witch-doctors are prompt to put this down to their efforts, and so persuade the natives that they have power even over Europeans.

A gentleman who was a resident magistrate in Papua tells an amusing tale of how one witch-doctor was very properly served. “A village constable of my acquaintance, wearied with the attentions of a magician of great local repute, who had worked much harm with his friends and relations, tied him up with rattan ropes, and sank him in 20 feet of water against the morning. He argued, as he explained at his trial for murder, ‘If this man is the genuine article, well and good, no harm done. If he is not — well, it’s a good riddance!’ On repairing to the spot next morning, and pulling up his night-line, he found that the magician had failed to ‘make his magic good,’ and was quite dead. The constable’s punishment was twelve months’ hard labour. It was a fair thing to let him off easily, as in killing a witch-doctor he had really done the community a service.”

The future of the Papuan is more hopeful than that of the Australian aboriginal, and he may be preserved in something near to his natural state if means can be found to make him work.

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