An account of the manners and customs of the Aborigines, by Edward John Eyre

Chapter II.


The Aborigines of Australia, with whom Europeans have come in contact, present a striking similarity to each other in physical appearance and structure; and also in their general character, habits, and pursuits. Any difference that is found to exist is only the consequence of local circumstances or influences, and such as might naturally be expected to be met with among a people spread over such an immense extent of country. Compared with other aboriginal races, scattered over the face of the globe, the New Hollander appears to stand alone.

The male is well built and muscular, averaging from five to six feet in height, with proportionate upper and lower extremities. The anterior lobes of the brain are fairly developed, so as to give a facial angle, far from being one of the most acute to be found amongst the black races. The eyes are sunk, the nose is flattened, and the mouth wide. The lips are rather thick, and the teeth generally very perfect and beautiful, though the dental arrangement is sometimes singular, as no difference exists in many between the incisor and canine teeth. The neck is short, and sometimes thick, and the heel resembles that of Europeans. The ankles and wrists are frequently small, as are also the hands and feet. The latter are well formed and expanded, but the calves of the legs are generally deficient. Some of the natives in the upper districts of the Murray, are, however, well formed in this respect. In a few instances, natives attain to a considerable corpulency. The men have fine broad and deep chests, indicating great bodily strength, and are remarkably erect and upright in their carriage, with much natural grace and dignity of demeanour. The eye is generally large, black, and expressive, with the eye-lashes long.

When met with for the first time in his native wilds there is frequently a fearless intrepidity of manner, an ingenuous openness of look, and a propriety of behaviour about the aboriginal inhabitant of Australia, which makes his appearance peculiarly prepossessing.

In the female the average height is about five feet, or perhaps a little under. The anterior part of the brain is more limited than in the male; the apex of the head is carried further back; the facial angle is more acute; and the extremities are more attenuated. The latter circumstance may probably be accounted for from the fact, that the females have to endure, from a very early age, a great degree of hardship, privation, and ill-treatment. Like most other savages the Australian looks upon his wife as a slave. To her belongs the duty of collecting and preparing the daily food, of making the camp or hut for the night, of gathering and bringing in firewood, and of procuring water. She must also attend to the children; and in travelling carry all the moveable property and frequently the weapons of her husband. In wet weather she attends to all the outside work, whilst her lord and master is snugly seated at the fire. If there is a scarcity of food she has to endure the pangs of hunger, often, perhaps, in addition to ill-treatment or abuse. No wonder, then, that the females, and especially the younger ones, (for it is then they are exposed to the greatest hardships,) are not so fully or so roundly developed in person as the men. Yet under all these disadvantages this deficiency does not always exist. Occasionally, though rarely, I have met with females in the bloom of youth, whose well-proportioned limbs and symmetry of figure might have formed a model for the sculptor’s chisel. In personal appearance the females are, except in early youth, very far inferior to the men. When young, however, they are not uninteresting. The jet-black eyes, shaded by their long, dark lashes, and the delicate and scarcely-formed features of incipient womanhood give a soft and pleasing expression to a countenance that might often be called good-looking — occasionally even pretty.

The colour of the skin, both in the male and female, is generally black, or very darkly tinged. The hair is either straight or curly, but never approaching to the woolliness of the negro. It is usually worn short by both sexes, and is variously ornamented at different periods of life. Sometimes it is smeared with red ochre and grease; at other times adorned with tufts of feathers, the tail of the native dog, kangaroo teeth, and bandages or nets of different kinds.

[Note 57: The same fondness for red paint, ornaments of skins, tufts of feathers, etc., is noticed by Catlin as prevalent among the American Indians, and by Dieffenbach as existing among the New Zealanders.]

When the head of the native is washed clean, and purified from the odour of the filthy pigment with which it is bedaubed, the crop of hair is very abundant, and the appearance of it beautiful, being a silken, glossy, and curly black. Great pains are, however, used to destroy or mar this striking ornament of nature.

Without the slightest pride of appearance, so far as neatness or cleanliness is concerned, the natives are yet very vain of their own rude decorations, which are all worn for EFFECT. A few feathers or teeth, a belt or band, a necklace made of the hollow stem of some plant, with a few coarse daubs of red or white paint, and a smearing of grease, complete the toilette of the boudoir or the ball-room. Like the scenery of a panorama, they are then seen to most advantage at a distance; for if approached too closely, they forcibly remind us of the truth of the expression of the poet, that “nature unadorned is adorned the most.”

The body dress is simple; consisting of the skins of the opossum, the kangaroo, or the wallabie, when they can be procured. A single garment only is used, made in the form of an oblong cloak, or coverlet; by the skins being stretched out and dried in the sun, and then sewn together with the sinews of the emu, etc. The size of the cloak varies according to the industry of the maker, or the season of the year. The largest sized ones are about six feet square, but the natives frequently content themselves with one not half this size, and in many cases are without it altogether. The cloak is worn with the fur side outwards, and is thrown over the back and left shoulder, and pinned on in front with a little wooden peg; the open part is opposite the right side, so as to leave the right arm and shoulder quite unconfined, in the male; the female throws it over the back and left shoulder, and brings it round under the right arm-pit, and when tied in front by a string passing round the cloak and the back, a pouch is formed behind, in which the child is always carried. [Note 58.] In either if the skin be a handsome one, the dress is very pretty and becoming.

[Note 58: A similar custom prevails among the women of the American Indians. — CATLIN. vol. ii. p. 132.]

On the sea coast, where the country is barren, and the skins of animals cannot readily be procured, sea-weed or rushes are manufactured into garments, with considerable ingenuity. In all cases the garments worn by day constitute the only covering at night, as the luxury of variety in dress is not known to, or appreciated by, the Aborigines.

No covering is worn upon the head, although they are continually exposed to the rays of an almost tropical sun. In extreme seasons of heat, and ‘when they are travelling, they sometimes gather a few green bunches or wet weeds and place upon their heads; but this does not frequently occur.

The character of the Australian natives is frank, open, and confiding. In a short intercourse they are easily made friends, and when such terms are once established, they associate with strangers with a freedom and fearlessness, that would give little countenance to the impression so generally entertained of their treachery. On many occasions where I have met these wanderers in the wild, far removed from the abodes of civilization, and when I have been accompanied only by a single native boy, I have been received by them in the kindest and most friendly manner, had presents made to me of fish, kangaroo, or fruit, had them accompany me for miles to point out where water was to be procured, and been assisted by them in getting at it, if from the nature of the soil and my own inexperience. I had any difficulty in doing so myself.

I have ever found them of a lively, cheerful disposition [Note 59.], patiently putting up with inconveniences and privations, and never losing that natural good temper which so strongly characterizes them. On the occasion of my second visit from Moorunde, to the Rufus natives in 1841, when I had so far overcome the ill-feelings and dread, engendered by the transactions in that quarter, in 1840, as to induce a large body of them to accompany me back to the station, they had to walk a distance of 150 miles, making daily the same stages that the horses did, and unprovided with any food but what they could procure along the road as they passed, and this from the rapidity with which they had to travel, and the distance they had to go in a day, was necessarily limited in quantity, and very far from sufficient to appease even the cravings of hunger, yet tired, foot-sore, and hungry as they were, and in company with strangers, whose countrymen had slain them in scores, but a few months before, they were always merry at their camps at nights, and kept singing, laughing, and joking, to a late hour.

[Note 59: Such appears usually to be the characteristic of Nature’s children, than whom no race appears more thoroughly to enjoy life. — Vide character of the American Indians, by Catlin, vol. 1. p. 84.]

On falling in with them in larger numbers, when I have been travelling in the interior with my party, I have still found the same disposition to meet me on terms of amity and kindness. Nor can a more interesting sight well be imagined, than that of a hundred or two hundred natives advancing in line to meet you, unarmed, shouting and waving green boughs in both hands, men, women, and children, the old and the young, all joining in expressing their good feelings and pacific intentions. On such occasions I have been often astonished at the facility with which large bodies, have by a little kindness and forbearance been managed, and kept from being troublesome or annoying, by a party of only six or seven Europeans. I have occasionally had upwards of 150 natives sitting in a long line, where I placed them, and as orderly and obedient almost as a file of soldiers.

At other times, when riding with only a native boy over the plains of the interior, I have seen the blue smoke of the native fires, curling up through the distant line of trees, which marked some yet unvisited watercourse, and upon making towards it, have come suddenly upon a party encamped in the hollow, beneath the banks upon which I stood. Here I have remained, observing them for a few moments, unseen and unthought of. A single call would arouse their attention, and as they looked up, would draw from them a wild exclamation of dismay, accompanied by a look of indescribable horror and affright, at beholding the strange, and to them incomprehensible beings who stood before them. Weapons would hastily be seized, baggage gathered up, and the party so lately buried in repose and security, would at once be ready either to fight or to evacuate their camps, as circumstances might seem to render most expedient. A few friendly gestures and a peaceable demeanour would however soon dissipate their terror, and in a few moments their weapons would be thrown aside, and both invaders and invaded be upon intimate and confiding terms.

I have always found the natives ready to barter their nets, weapons, or other implements, for European articles, and sometimes they will give them unsolicited, and without any equivalent; amongst themselves they constantly do this.

In their intercourse with each other, natives of different tribes are exceedingly punctilious and polite, the most endearing epithets are passed between those who never met before; almost every thing that is said is prefaced by the appellation of father, son, brother, mother, sister, or some other similar term, corresponding to that degree of relationship which would have been most in accordance with their relative ages and circumstances. In many instances, too, these titles are even accompanied by the still more insinuating addition of “dear,” to say nothing of the hugs and embraces which they mutually give and receive.

The natives are very fond of the children they rear, and often play with, and fondle them; but husbands rarely shew much affection for their wives. After a long absence, I have seen natives, upon their return, go to their camp, exhibiting the most stoical indifference, never take the least notice of their wives, but sit down, and act, and look, as if they had never been out of the encampment; in fact, if any thing, they are more taciturn and reserved than usual, and some little time elapses before they enter into conversation with freedom, or in their ordinary manner.

[Note 60: For the existence of similar customs amongst the American Indians, vide Catlin, vol. i. p. 56.]

Upon meeting children after a long absence, I have seen parents “fall upon their necks, and weep” bitterly. It is a mistaken idea, as well as an unjust one, that supposes the natives to be without sensibility of feeling. It may often be repressed from pride or policy, but it will sometimes break forth uncontrolled, and reveal, that the best and genuine feelings of the heart are participated in by savage in common with civilized man. The following is an instance in point:— A fine intelligent young boy, was, by his father’s consent, living with me at the Murray for many weeks; but upon the old man’s going into Adelaide, he took his son away to accompany him. Whilst there, the boy died, and for nearly a year I never saw any thing more of the father, although he occasionally had been within a few miles of my neighbourhood. One day, however, I was out shooting about three miles from home, and accidentally fell in with him. Upon seeing me he immediately burst into tears, and was unable to speak. It was the first time he had met me since his son’s death, and my presence forcibly reminded him of his loss. The same circumstance occurred when he accompanied me to the house, where every thing he saw recalled the memory of his child.

Innate propriety of behaviour is also frequently exhibited by the Aborigines in their natural state, in the modest unassuming manner in which they take their positions to observe what is going on, and in a total absence of any thing that is rude or offensive. It is true that the reverse of this is also often to be met with; but I think it will usually be found that it is among natives who have before been in contact with Europeans, or where familiarities have been used with them first, or an injudicious system of treatment has been adopted towards them.

DELICACY of feeling is not often laid to the charge of the Aborigines, and yet I was witness to a singular instance of it at King George’s Sound. I was looking one evening at the natives dancing, and who were, as they always are on these occasions, in a state of complete nudity. In the midst of the performance, one of the natives standing by a spectator, mentioned that a white woman was passing up the road; and although this was some little distance away, and the night was tolerably dark, they all with one accord crossed over to the bushes where their cloaks were, put them on, and resumed their amusement.

It has been said, and is generally believed, that the natives are not courageous. There could not be a greater mistake, at least as far as they are themselves concerned, nor do I hold it to be any proof that they are cowards, because they dread or give way before Europeans and their fire-arms. So unequal a match is no criterion of bravery, and yet even thus, among natives, who were labouring under the feelings, naturally produced by seeing a race they were unacquainted with, and weapons that dealt death as if by magic, I have seen many instances of an open manly intrepidity of manner and bearing, and a proud unquailing glance of eye, which instinctively stamped upon my mind the conviction that the individuals before me were very brave men.

In travelling about from one place to another, I have always made it a point, if possible, to be accompanied by one or more natives, and I have often found great advantage from it. Attached to an exploring party they are frequently invaluable, as their perceptive powers are very great, and enable them both to see and hear anything at a much greater distance than a European. In tracking stray animals, and keeping on indistinct paths, they display a degree of perseverance and skill that is really wonderful. They are useful also in cutting bark canoes to cross a river, should such impede the progress of the party, and in diving for anything that may be lost in the water, etc. etc. The Aborigines generally, and almost always those living near large bodies of water, are admirable swimmers and divers, and are almost as much at home in the water as on dry land. I have known them even saw a small log or root at the bottom of a deep river. In a locality, however, which is badly watered, it sometimes happens that they cannot swim. At Meerkap, in Western Australia, while crossing with some friends, from the Sound to Swan River, we met with some who were in this predicament, and who seemed a good deal astonished at our venturing into the small ponds at that place. I have been told that the natives at the Sound could not swim before that settlement was occupied by Europeans — this seems hardly probable, however, upon the sea-coast; at all events, be this as it may, they all swim now.

In habit they are truly nomadic, seldom remaining many weeks in one locality, and frequently not many days. The number travelling together depends, in a great measure, upon the period of the year, and the description of food that may be in season. If there is any particular variety more abundant than another, or procurable only in certain localities, the whole tribe generally congregate to partake of it. Should this not be the case, then they are probably scattered over their district in detached groups, or separate families.

At certain seasons of the year, usually in the spring or summer, when food is most abundant, several tribes meet together in each other’s territory for the purpose of festivity or war, or to barter and exchange such food, clothing, implements, weapons, or other commodities as they respectively possess; or to assist in the initiatory ceremonies by which young persons enter into the different grades of distinction amongst them. The manner and formalities of meeting depend upon the cause for which they assemble. If the tribes have been long apart, many deaths may have occurred in the interim; and as the natives do not often admit that the young or the strong can die from natural causes, they ascribe the event to the agency of sorcery, employed by individuals of neighbouring tribes. This must of course be expiated in some way when they meet, but the satisfaction required is regulated by the desire of the injured tribe to preserve amicable relations with the other, or the reverse.

The following is an account of a meeting which I witnessed, between the natives of Moorunde (comprising portions of several of the neighbouring tribes) and the Nar-wij-jerook, or Lake Bonney tribe, accompanied also by many of their friends. This meeting had been pre-arranged, as meetings of large bodies of natives never take place accidentally, for even when a distant tribe approaches the territory of another unexpectedly, messengers are always sent on in advance, to give the necessary warning. The object of the meeting in question was to perform the initiatory ceremonies upon a number of young men belonging to both of the tribes. In the Murray district, when one tribe desires another to come from a distance to perform these ceremonies, young men are sent off with messages of invitation, carrying with them as their credentials, long narrow news, made of string manufactured from the rush. These nets are left with the tribe they are sent to, and brought back again when the invitation is responded to.

Notice having been given on the previous evening to the Moorunde natives of the approach of the Nar-wij-jerook tribe, they assembled at an early hour after sunrise, in as clear and open a place as they could find. Here they sat down in a long row to await the coming of their friends. The men were painted, and carried their weapons, as if for war. The women and children were in detached groups, a little behind them, or on one side, whilst the young men, on whom the ceremonies were to be performed, sat shivering with cold and apprehension in a row to the rear of the men, perfectly naked, smeared over from head to foot with grease and red-ochre, and without weapons. The Nar-wij-jerook tribe was now seen approaching. The men were in a body, armed and painted, and the women and children accompanying them a little on one side. They occasionally halted, and entered into consultation, and then, slackening their pace, gradually advanced until within a hundred yards of the Moorunde tribe. Here the men came to a full stop, whilst several of the women singled out from the rest, and marched into the space between the two parties, having their heads coated over with lime, and raising a loud and melancholy wail, until they came to a spot about equi-distant from both, when they threw down their cloaks with violence, and the bags which they carried on their backs, and which contained all their worldly effects. The bags were then opened, and pieces of glass and shells taken out, with which they lacerated their thighs, backs, and breasts, in a most frightful manner, whilst the blood kept pouring out of the wounds in streams; and in this plight, continuing their wild and piercing lamentations, they moved up towards the Moorunde tribe, who sat silently and immoveably in the place at first occupied. One of the women then went up to a strange native, who was on a visit to the Moorunde tribe and who stood neutral in the affair of the meeting, and by violent language and frantic gesticulations endeavoured to incite him to revenge the death of some relation or friend. But he could not be induced to lift his spear against the people amongst whom he was sojourning. After some time had been spent in mourning, the women took up their bundles again, and retiring, placed themselves in the rear of their own party. An elderly man then advanced, and after a short colloquy with the seated tribe, went back, and beckoned his own people to come forward, which they did slowly and in good order, exhibiting in front three uplifted spears, to which were attached the little nets left with them by the envoys of the opposite tribe, and which were the emblems of the duty they had come to perform, after the ordinary expiations had been accomplished.

In advancing, the Nar-wij-jerooks again commenced the death wail, and one of the men, who had probably sustained the greatest loss since the tribes had last met, occasionally in alternations of anger and sorrow addressed his own people. When near the Moorunde tribe a few words were addressed to them, and they at once rose simultaneously, with a suppressed shout. The opposite party then raised their spears, and closing upon the line of the other tribe, speared about fifteen or sixteen of them in the left arm, a little below the shoulder. This is the generally understood order of revenge; for the persons who were to receive the wounds, as soon as they saw the weapons of their assailants poised, at once put out the left foot, to steady themselves, and presented the left shoulder for the blow, frequently uttering the word “Leipa” (spear), as the others appeared to hesitate.

Whilst this was going on, the influential men of each tribe were violently talking to each other, and apparently accusing one another of being accessory to the death of some of their people. Disclaimers passed on each side, and the blame was imputed to other and more distant tribes. The manes of the dead having been appeased, the honour of each party was left unsullied, and the Nar-wij-jerooks retired about a hundred yards, and sat down, ready to enter upon the ceremonies of the day, which will be described in another place. [Note 61.]

[Note 61: Chapter V.]

If the meeting of the tribes be for the purpose of war, a favourable situation is selected by one of the parties, and notice is sent to the other, who then proceed to the place of meeting, where both draw out their forces in opposing parallel lines. Day-break, or nearly about sunset in the evening, are the times preferred for these engagements, as the softened light at those hours does not so much affect the eyesight, and the spears are more easily seen and avoided. Both parties are fully armed with spears, shields, and other weapons, and the fight sometimes lasts for three or four hours, during which scarcely a word is spoken, and but little noise of any kind is heard, excepting a shrill cry now and then, when some one is wounded or has a narrow escape. Many are injured generally on both sides, and some severely so; but it rarely happens that more than one or two are killed, though hundreds may have been engaged.

The fights are sometimes witnessed by men who are not concerned in them, by the women and the children. The presence of the females may be supposed probably to inspire the belligerents with courage and incite them to deeds of daring.

The most dangerous and fatal affrays in which the natives engage are those which occur suddenly amongst tribes who have been encamped near one another on amicable terms, and between whom some cause of difference has arisen, probably in relation to their females, or some recent death, which it is imagined the sorcerers have been instrumental in producing. In the former case a kind of melee sometimes takes place at night, when fire-brands are thrown about, spears launched, and bwirris [Note 62.] bran-dished in indescribable confusion. In the latter case the affray usually occurs immediately after the body is buried, and is more of a hand-to-hand fight, in which bwirris are used rather than spears, and in which tremendous blows are struck and frightful wounds inflicted.

[Note 62: A short, heavy, wooden stick, with a knob at one end.]

In wars males are always obliged to join their relatives by blood and their own tribe. Women frequently excite the men to engage in these affrays to revenge injuries or deaths, and sometimes they assist themselves by carrying spears or other weapons for their husbands. I am not aware that women or children are ever butchered after a battle is over, and I believe such is never the case. Single camps are sometimes treacherously surprised when the parties are asleep, and the males barbarously killed in cold blood. This generally takes place just before the morning dawns, when the native is most drowsy, and least likely to give his attention to any thing he might hear. In these cases the attack is generally made under the belief that the individual is a desperate sorcerer, and has worked innumerable mischiefs to their tribe. In their attacks upon European parties I believe the natives generally advance in a line or crescent, beating their weapons together, throwing dust in the air, spitting, biting their beards, or using some other similar act of defiance and hostility. I have never witnessed any such collision myself, but am told that the attack is always accompanied by that peculiar savage sound produced by the suppressed guttural shout of many voices in unison, which they use in conflicts amongst themselves, and which is continued to the moment of collision, and renewed in triumph whenever a weapon strikes an opponent.

When hostilely disposed from either fear or from having been previously ill-treated, I have seen the natives, without actually proceeding to extremities, resort to all the symptoms of defiance I have mentioned, or at other times, run about with fire-brands in their hands, lighting the bushes and the grass, either as a charm, or in the hope of burning out the intruders. When much alarmed and rather closely pressed, they have run up the trees like monkeys, and concealed themselves among the boughs, evidently thinking they were secure from pursuit there.

If tribes meet simply for the purpose of festivity, and have no deaths to avenge on either side, although they appear in warlike attitude, painted and bearing spear and shield, yet when they approach each other, they all become seated upon the ground. After which, the strangers, should there be any, undergo a formal introduction, and have their country and lineage described by the older men. At these meetings all occurrences of interest are narrated, information is given as to the localities in which food is most abundant, and invitations are issued by the proprietors of these districts, to their relations and friends to accompany them thither.

The position of one tribe towards another, whether on friendly terms or otherwise, is talked about, and consultations are held on the existing state of affairs, whether hostilities shall be continued or withdrawn, and future plans of operation are marked out.

Whilst the men are occupied in discussing these matters, the females engage in a narration of family occurrences, such as births of children, marriages, deaths, etc., not omitting a sprinkling of gossip and scandal, from which, even these ebon sisters of a fairer race, are not altogether exempt.

In the evening, the huts of the different tribes are built as near to each other as practicable, each tribe locating itself in the direction from whence it came. The size and character of the huts, with the number of their occupants, vary according to the state of the weather, and the local circumstances of their position. In fine weather, one hut will contain from two to five families, in wet weather more, each family however having a separate fire.

The amusements of the natives are various, but they generally have a reference to their future occupations or pursuits. Boys who are very young, have small reed spears made for them by their parents, the ends of which are padded with grass, to prevent them from hurting each other. They then stand at a little distance, and engage in a mimic fight; and by this means acquire early that skill in the use of this weapon, for which, in after life, they are so much celebrated. At other times round pieces of bark are rolled along the ground, to represent an animal in the act of running, at which the spears are thrown for the sake of practice.

Another favourite amusement among the children, is to practise the dances and songs of the adults, and a boy is very proud if he attains sufficient skill in these, to be allowed to take part in the exhibitions that are made before other tribes.

String puzzles are another species of amusement with them. In these a European would be surprised to see the ingenuity they display, and the varied and singular figures which they produce. Our juvenile attempts in this way, are very meagre and uninteresting compared to them. [Note 63.]

[Note 63: An amusement of the New Zealand children. — Dieffenbach, vol. 2. p. 32.]

Other gratifications enjoyed by children, consist in learning the occupations and pursuits of after life, as to make twine, and weapons; to ascend trees; to procure food; to guide the canoe, and many other things, which enter into the pursuits of a savage.

The elder boys engage more extensively in similar occupations, as they are more particularly interested in them, and by their exertions have to provide chiefly for their own support. Mock combats frequently take place amongst them, in which they are encouraged by the adults, that they may acquire the dexterities of warfare, in which they are soon to be more seriously engaged. [Note 63.]

[Note 64: For an account of a similar practise among the American Indians, vide Catlin, vol. 1. p. 131.]

Plate I. — Native Ornaments

An amusement of the adults, is a large bunch of emu feathers tied together, (fig. 1. Pl. 1.) which is held out and shaken as if in defiance, by some individual, whilst the others advance to try to take it out of his hands. This occasions an amusing struggle before the prize is gained, in which it is not uncommon to see from ten to twenty strong and lusty men rolling in a heap together. This is a sort of athletic exercise amongst them, for the purpose of testing each other’s strength. On such an occasion they are all unarmed and naked.

At nights, dances or plays are performed by the different tribes in turn, the figures and scenes of which are extensively varied, but all are accompanied by songs, and a rude kind of music produced by beating two sticks together, or by the action of the hand upon a cloak of skins rolled tightly together, so as to imitate the sound of a drum. In some of the dances only are the women allowed to take a part; but they have dances of their own, in which the men do not join. At all times they are the chief musicians, vocal and instrumental. Sometimes, however, they have an old man to lead the band and pitch the tunes; and at others they are assisted by the old and young men indiscriminately.

The natives have not any war-dance, properly so called, though sometimes they are decorated in all the pomp and circumstance of war. Being excellent mimies, they imitate in many of their dances the habits and movements of animals. They also represent the mode of hunting, fighting, love-making, etc. New figures and new songs are constantly introduced, and are as much applauded and encored, as more refined productions of a similar kind in civilized communities; being sometimes passed from tribe to tribe for a considerable distance. I have often seen dances performed to songs with which I was acquainted, and which I knew to belong to distant parts of the country where a different dialect was spoken, and which consequently could not be understood where I heard them. Many of the natives cannot even give an interpretation of the songs of their own districts [Note 65.], and most of the explanations they do give are, I am inclined to think, generally very imperfect, as the measures or quantities of the syllables appear to be more attended to than the sense.

[Note 65: “Not one in ten of the young men who are dancing and singing it, know the meaning of the song they are chaunting over.”— Catlin, vol. 1. p. 126. Also the case in New Zealand, with respect to some of the songs. — Vide Dieffenbach, vol. 2. p. 57.]

Of these amusements the natives are passionately fond; and when once they have so far overcome their naturally indolent disposition as to be induced to engage in them there is no knowing when they will give over. Dances are sometimes held during the day, but these are of rare occurrence, and seem to be in some way connected with their ceremonial observances or superstitions, since rude figures, and lofty branches of trees, decorated with tufts of feathers, emu plumes, swan’s down and red ochre, occupy a prominent part in the exhibition, although never met with in the dances by night.

The dances vary a great deal among the different tribes, both as to figures and music; the painting or decoration of their persons, their use of weapons, and the participation of the females in them. Throughout the entire continent, as far as it is known. there are many points of resemblance in the dances of all the Aborigines, such as the practice of painting the body with white and red ochre, carrying boughs in their hands, or tying them round their limbs; adorning the head with feathers or down, bearing bunches of feathers, tied in tufts in their hands, the women singing and beating time upon folded skins, the men beating time upon sticks or some of their smaller weapons, an old man acting as leader of the band, and giving the time and tune to the others; the dances representing the actions of animals, the circumstances of the chase, of war, or of love; and the singular and extraordinary quivering motion of the thighs when the legs are distended, a peculiarity probably confined to the natives of the continent of Australia.

The most interesting dances are those which take place at the meeting of different tribes. Each tribe performs in turn, and as there is much rivalry, there is a corresponding stimulus to exertion. The dances usually commence an hour or two after dark, and are frequently kept up the greater part of the night, the performers becoming so much excited that, notwithstanding the violent exercise required to sustain all their evolutions, they are unwilling to leave off. It is sometimes difficult to induce them to commence a dance; but if they once begin, and enter into the spirit of it, it is still more difficult to induce them to break up.

The females of the tribe exhibiting, generally sit down in front of the performers, either irregularly, in a line, or a semicircle, folding up their skin cloaks into a hard ball, and then beating them upon their laps with the palm of their hand, and accompanying the noise thus produced with their voices. It is surprising to see the perfect time that is kept in this way, and the admirable manner in which the motions of the dancers accord with the music. There is no confusion, irregularity, or mistake. Each person is conversant with his part; and all exhibit a degree of elasticity and gracefulness in their movements which, in some of the dances, is very striking and beautiful.

In many of the figures, weapons are carried, such as the waddy, the shield, the spear, etc. and in these it is amazing to behold the facility and skill with which they form in close array, spread into open rank, change places, and thread through the mazes of the dance, without ever deranging their plans, or coming in contact with each other.

The tribes who are not engaged in dancing, are seated in a large semicircle as spectators, occasionally giving a rapturous exclamation of delight, as any part of the performance is well gone through or any remarkable feat of activity exhibited. Where natives have not much acquaintance with Europeans, so as to give up, in some measure, their original habits, if there is any degree of jealousy between the respective tribes, they are sometimes partitioned off from each other by boughs of trees, whilst they look at the dance. On one occasion I saw five tribes met together, and the evening was of course spent in dancing. Each tribe danced in turn, about forty being engaged at once, besides sixteen females, eight of whom were at each corner of the male performers. The men were naked, painted in various devices with red and white, and had their heads adorned with feathers. The women wore their opossum cloaks, and had bands of white down round their foreheads, with the long feathers of the cockatoo sticking up in front like horns. In the dance the men and women did not intermingle; but the two sets of women who were dancing at the corners of the line, occasionally changed places with each other, passing in this transit, at the back of the men. All sung, and the men beat time upon their smaller weapons whilst dancing, the whole making up a wild and piercing noise, most deafening and ungrateful to the ears.

The natives of the Rufus and Lake Victoria (Tar-ru) have a great variety of dances and figures. One of these, which I witnessed, representing the character, habits, and chase of the kangaroo was admirably performed, and would have drawn down thunders of applause at any theatre in Europe. One part of this figure, where the whole of the dancers successively drop down from a standing to a crouching posture, and then hop off in this position with outstretched arms and legs, was excellently executed. The contrast of their sable skins with the broad white stripes painted down their legs; their peculiar attitudes, and the order and regularity with which these were kept, as they moved in a large semicircle, in the softening light of the fire, produced a striking effect; and in connection with the wild and inspiriting song, which gave an impulse to their gesticulation, led me almost to believe that the scene was unearthly.

Kangaroo Dance of King George’s Sound, J. Neill

In some of the dances the music varies rapidly from slow to quick, and the movements alter accordingly. In some they are altogether measured and monotonous, in others very lively and quick, keeping the performers almost constantly at a double quick march, moving in advance and retreat, crossing past or threading through the ranks, and using a kind of motion with the feet in unison with the music, that bears a strong resemblance to the European mode of dancing. At particular points the figures terminate by some simultaneous motion of the whole performers, accompanied by a deep, gutteral “Waugh,” [Note 66.] uttered by all together; at others by the actors closing in a dense circle, and raising and pointing their weapons upwards with the same exclamation.

[Note 66: This very peculiar sound appears to be common among the American Indians, and to be used in a similar manner. — Vide Catlin, vol. 2. p.136.]

The “Paritke,” or natives inhabiting the scrub north-west of Moorunde, have quite a different form of dancing from the river natives. They are painted or decorated with feathers in a similar way; but each dancer ties bunches of green boughs round the leg, above the knees, whilst the mode of dancing consists in stamping with the foot and uttering at each motion a deep ventral intonation, the boughs round the knees making a loud rustling noise in keeping with the time of the music. One person, who directs the others in the movements of this dance, holds in his hands an instrument in the form of a diamond, made of two slight sticks, from two and a half to three feet long, crossed and tied in the middle, round this a string, made of the hair of the opposum, is pressed from corner to corner, and continued successively towards the centre until there is only room left for the hand to hold the instrument. At each corner is appended a bunch of cockatoo feathers. With this the chief performer keeps a little in advance of the dancers, and whisking it up and down to the time of the music, regulates their movements.

In another dance, in which women are the chief performers, their bodies are painted with white streaks, and their hair adorned with cockatoo feathers. They carry large sticks in their hands, and place themselves in a row in front, whilst the men with their spears stand in a line behind them. They then all commence their movements, but without intermingling, the males and females dancing by themselves. There is little variety or life in this dance, yet it seems to be a favourite one with the natives.

The women have occasionally another mode of dancing, by joining the hands together over the head, closing the feet, and bringing the knees into contact. The legs are then thrown outwards from the knee, whilst the feet and hands are kept in their original position, and being drawn quickly in again a sharp sound is produced by the collision. This is either practised alone by young girls, or by several together for their own amusement. It is adopted also when a single woman is placed in front of a row of male dancers to excite their passions; for many of the native dances are of a grossly licentious character. In another figure they keep the feet close together, without lifting them from the ground, and by a peculiar motion of the limbs advance onwards, describing a short semicircle. This amusement is almost exclusively confined to young females among themselves.

It has already been remarked, that the natives, on particular occasions, have dances which they perform in the day-time, which are different from others, and seem to have some connection with their ceremonial observances or superstitions. I have only witnessed one of these. It took place at Moorunde, in March 1844, on the occasion of a large number of distant natives coming to visit the place; and the visitors were the performers. The Moorunde natives were seated upon the brow of a sand-bank; the strangers, consisting of two tribes, down in a hollow a little way off, among a few bushes. When ready, they advanced in a line towards the others, dancing and singing, being painted and decorated as usual, some having tufts of feathers placed upon their heads like cockades and others carrying them in their hands tied to short sticks. Nearly all the males carried bunches of green boughs, which they waved and shook to the time of the song. The women were also painted, and danced in a line with the men, those of each tribe stationing themselves at opposite ends of the line. Dancing for a while, they retired again towards the hollow, and after a short interval advanced as before, but with a person in the centre carrying a curious, rude-looking figure, raised up in the air. This singular object consisted of a large bundle of grass and reeds bound together, enveloped in a kangaroo skin, with the flesh side outwards, and painted all over in small white circles. From the top of this projected a thin stick, with a large tuft of feathers at the end to represent the head, and sticks were stuck out laterally from the sides for the arms, terminating in tufts of feathers stained red to represent the hands. From the front, a small stick about six inches long was projected, ending with a thick knob, formed of grass, around which a piece of old cloth was tied. This was painted white and represented the navel. The figure was about eight feet long, and was evidently intended to symbolise a man. It was kept in its elevated position by the person who carried it, and who advanced and retired with the movements of the dancers. The position of the latter was alternately erect and crouching, whilst they sang and beat time with the green boughs. Sometimes they stretched out their right arms simultaneously, and at other times their left, apparently for the purpose of marking the time at particular parts of the song. After dancing for a while in this way, they again retired to the hollow, and for a few moments there was another pause; after which they again advanced as before, but without the image. In the place of this two standards were exhibited, made of poles, about twelve feet long, and borne by two persons. These were perfectly straight, and for the first eight feet free from boughs; above this nine branches were left upon each pole, having at their ends each a bunch of feathers of the hawk or owl. On the top of one of the standards was a bunch of emu feathers. The branches were stripped of all their smaller twigs and leaves, and of their bark. They were painted white, and wound round with the white down of the black swan, twisted into a rope. This also extended for a considerable distance down the pole, below the undermost branch.

Having again retired towards the hollow, they remained there for a few minutes, and then advanced for the third time. On this occasion, however, instead of the image or standards, they all carried their spears. After dancing with these for some time, they went forward towards the Moorunde natives, who sprang upon their feet, and seizing their weapons, speared two or three of the strangers in the shoulder, and all was over. I was anxious to have got hold of the rude figure to have a drawing made of it, but it had been instantly destroyed. The standards I procured.

This dance took place between nine and ten in the morning, and was quite unlike any thing I had seen before. A stranger might have supposed it to be a religious ceremony, and the image the object of worship. Such, however, I am convinced was not the case, although I believe it to have had some connection with their superstitions, and that it was regarded in the light of a charm.

Before the country was occupied by Europeans, the natives say that this dance was frequently celebrated, but that latterly it has not been much in use. No other instance of it ever came under my own observation in any part of New Holland.

The songs of the natives are of a very rude and unmeaning character, rarely consisting of more than one or two ideas, which are continually repeated over and over again. They are chiefly made on the spur of the moment, and refer to something that has struck the attention at the time. The measure of the song varies according to circumstances. It is gay and lively, for the dance; slow and solemn for the enchanter; and wild and pathetic for the mourner. The music is sometimes not unharmonious; and when heard in the stillness of the night and mellowed by distance, is often soothing and pleasing. I have frequently laid awake, after retiring to rest, to listen to it. Europeans, their property, presence, and habits, are frequently the subject of these songs; and as the natives possess great powers of mimicry, and are acute in the observation of anything that appears to them absurd or ludicrous, the white man often becomes the object of their jests or quizzing. I have heard songs of this kind sung at the dances in a kind of comic medley, where different speakers take up parts during the breaks in the song, and where a sentence or two of English is aptly introduced, or a quotation made from some native dialect, other than that of the performers. It is usually conducted in the form of question and answer, and the respective speakers use the language of the persons they are supposed to represent. The chorus is, however, still the same repetition of one or two words.

The following specimens, taken from a vocabulary published by Messrs. Teichelmann, and Schurmann, German Missionaries to the Aborigines, will give an idea of the nature of the songs of the Adelaide tribe.

KADLITPIKO PALTI. Pindi mai birkibirki parrato, parrato. (DE CAPO BIS.)

CAPTAIN JACK’S SONG. The European food, the pease, I wished to eat, I wished to eat.

MULLAWIRRABURKARNA PALTI. Natta ngai padlo ngaityarniappi; watteyernaurlo tappandi ngaityo parni tatti. (DA CAPO.)

KING JOHN’S SONG. Now it (viz. the road or track) has tired me; throughout Yerna there is here unto me a continuous road.

WILTONGARROLO kundando Strike (him, viz. the dog) with the tuft of eagle feathers.

Kadlottikurrelo paltando Strike (him) with the girdle

Mangakurrelo paltando Strike (him) with the string round the head

Worrikarrolo paltando Strike (him) with the blood of circumcision

Turtikarrolo paltando Strike (him) with the blood of the arm. etc. etc.

Kartipaltapaltarlo padlara kundando

Wodliparrele kadlondo

Kanyamirarlo kadlondo

Karkopurrelo kadlondo

“This curse or imprecation is used in hunting a wild dog, which, by the mysterious effects of those words, is induced to lie down securely to sleep, when the natives steal upon and easily kill him. The first word in each line denotes things sacred or secret, which the females and children are never allowed to see.

* * *

KAWEMUKKA minnurappindo Durtikarro minnurappindo
Tarralye minnurappindo  Wimmari minnurappindi
Kirki minurappindo      Wattetarpirri minnurappindo
Worrikarro minurappindo

“These sentences are used in hunting opossums, to prevent their escape, when the natives set fire to hollow trees in which the opossums are living.

* * *

KARRO karro wimmari     Karra yernka makkitia
Karro karro kauwemukka  Makkitia mulyeria
Karro karro makkitia

“These words are rapidly repeated to the NGULTAS, while undergoing the painful operation of tattooing; they are believed to be so powerful as to soothe the pain, and prevent fatal consequences of that barbarous operation.”

Another specimen may be given from the Vocabulary published by Mr. Meyer, another of the German Missionaries at Encounter Bay.

“Miny-el-ity yarluke an-ambe what is it road me for Aly–..el–..arr’ yerk-in yangaiak-ar! here are they standing up hill . . . . . . s

What a fine road is this for me winding between the hills!

“The above words compose one of the native songs. It refers to the road between Encounter Bay and Willunga. All their songs appear to be of the same description, consisting of a few words which are continually repeated. This specimen, it will be observed, consists of two regular verses:

-u|—|u–|u-u -u|—|u–|u-u

“This may, however, be accidental.”

I have not thought it worth while to give any specimens of the songs I have collected myself, because I could not be quite certain that I should give the original words with strict accuracy, neither could I be satisfied about the translations.

The assemblage of several tribes at one place for any of the objects I have described, rarely continues uninterrupted for any great length of time, for even where it has taken place for the most pacific purposes, it seldom terminates as it began; and the greater the number of natives present, the less likelihood is there that they will remain very long in a state of quiescence.

If not soon compelled to separate by the scarcity of food, or a desire to follow some favourite pursuit, for which the season of the year is favourable, they are generally driven to it by discord and disagreements amongst themselves, which their habits and superstitions are calculated to foment.

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