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

Chapter VI

NUMBERS— DISEASES— CAUSE OF LIMITED POPULATION— CRIMES AGAINST EUROPEANS— AMONGST THEMSELVES— TREATMENT OF EACH OTHER IN DISTRIBUTION OF FOOD, ETC.

There is scarcely any point connected with the subject of the Aborigines of New Holland, upon which it is more difficult to found an opinion, even approximating to the truth, than that of the aggregate population of the continent, or the average number of persons to be found in any given space. Nor will this appear at all surprising, when the character and habits of the people are taken into consideration. Destitute of any fixed place of residence, neither cultivating the soil, nor domesticating animals, they have no pursuits to confine them to any particular locality, or to cause them to congregate permanently in the same district. On the contrary, all their habits have an opposite tendency.

The necessity of seeking daily their food as they require it, the fact of that food not being procurable for any great length of time together in the same place, and the circumstance that its quality, and abundance, or the facility of obtaining it, are contingent upon the season of the year, at which they may visit any particular district, have given to their mode of life, an unsettled and wandering character.

The casual observer, or the passing traveller, has but little, therefore, to guide him in his estimate of the population of the country he may be in. A district that may at one time be thinly inhabited, or even altogether untenanted, may at another be teeming with population. The wanderer may at one time be surrounded by hundreds of savages, and at another, in the same place he may pass on alone and unheeded.

At Lake Victoria, on the Murray, I have seen congregated upwards of six hundred natives at once, again I have passed through that neighbourhood and have scarcely seen a single individual; nor does this alone constitute the difficulty and uncertainty involved in estimating the numbers of the Aborigines. Such are the silence and stealth with which all their movements are conducted, so slight a trace is left to indicate their line of march, and so small a clue by which to detect their presence, that the stranger finds it impossible to tell from any thing that he sees, whether he is in their vicinity or not. I have myself often when travelling, as I imagined in the most retired and solitary recesses of the forest, been suddenly surprised by the unexpected appearance of large bodies of natives, without being in the least able to conjecture whence they had come, or how they obtained the necessaries of life, in what appeared to me an arid and foodless desert.

Captain Grey has observed in other parts of Australia, the same ingenuity and stealth manifested by them in either cloaking their movements, or concealing their presence, until circumstances rendered it in their opinion no longer necessary to preserve this concealment, vol. i. p. 147, he says: “Immediately numbers of other natives burst upon my sight, each tree, each rock, seemed to give forth its black denizen as if by enchantment; a moment before the most solemn silence pervaded these woods, we deemed that not a human being moved within miles of us, and now they rang with savage and ferocious yells, and fierce armed men crowded around us on every side, bent on our destruction.”

Nor is it less difficult to arrive at the number of the population in those districts which are occupied by Europeans. In some, the native tribes rarely frequent the stations, in others, portions only of the different tribes are to be found; some belong to the district and others not. In all there is a difficulty in ascertaining the exact number of any tribe, or the precise limits to which their territory extends in every direction around. Even could these particulars be accurately obtained in a few localities, they would afford no data for estimating the population of the whole, as the average number of inhabitants to the square mile, would always vary according to the character of the country and the abundance of food.

Upon this subject Captain Grey remarks, vol. ii. p. 246, “I have found the number of inhabitants to a square mile to vary so much from district to district, from season to season, and to depend upon so great a variety of local circumstances, that I am unable to give any computation which I believe would even nearly approach to truth.”

Mr. Moorhouse, who has also paid much attention to this subject, in the neighbourhood of Adelaide, has arrived at the conclusion, that, in 1843, there were about sixteen hundred aborigines, in regular or irregular contact with the Europeans, in the province of South Australia; these he has classed as follows, viz.:—

In regular contact with Europeans,
Adelaide district 300
Encounter Bay 230
Moorunde 300
Port Lincoln 60
Hutt River 30
920
In irregular contact with Europeans,
Adelaide — Encounter Bay 100
Moorunde 200
Port Lincoln 340
Hutt River 40
680

or together about 1600.

Taking in the southern districts of South Australia 120 miles from Adelaide, the northern ones 160, and the eastern one 200. Mr. Moorhouse estimates that there are altogether only about 3000 natives. This however, appears to me to be a considerably under-rated number, and I should rather incline to the opinion, that there are twice as many, if the Port Lincoln peninsula be added to the limits already mentioned. In the Port Lincoln district, Mr. Schurman conjectures there are about 400.

On the Murray River, which is, perhaps, the most densely populated part of the country, I imagine there are, from Moorunde, about three to four natives to every mile of river, which as it winds very considerably in its course, would give a large population to the square mile, if only the valley of the Murray was taken into account.

There are other tribes also frequenting the river occasionally, from the back scrubs on either side; but as these range through a great extent of country beyond the valley, and only sometimes come down there on a visit; I do not include them in the estimate.

At Moorunde itself I have sometimes had from four to five hundred collected, and among those, only a few, perhaps, from the very remote tribes.

At the Rufus and Lake Victoria, I have seen above six hundred together, where they had no other motive to collect in so large a party, than from custom, and for the enjoyment of festivity.

Large towns are frequently the centre of meeting for many, and very distant tribes. The facility of obtaining scraps by begging, small rewards for trifling jobs of work, donations from the charitable, and a variety of broken victuals, offal, etc. enable them to collect in large numbers, and indulge to the uttermost their curiosity in observing the novelties around them, in meeting strange tribes, and joining them either in war or festivity, in procuring tools, clothes, etc. to carry back and barter in their own districts, and for other similar objects. Thus, Adelaide is nearly always occupied by tribes from one part or other of the country: on an average, it will support probably six hundred in the way I have described, though occasionally eight hundred have met there. The following returns of the numbers who have attended the annual muster on the Queen’s birthday, when bread and beef have been distributed, will show how the ratio has gone on increasing during the last five years.

In 1840 there were present 283 men, women, and children.
1841 there were present 374 men, women, and children.
1842 there were present 400 men, women, and children.
1843 there were present 450 men, women, and children.
1844 there were present 793 men, women, and children.

In the Murray district, where it has been customary, since the first establishment of the post at Moorunde, to issue a certain quantity of flour once in the month (at the full moon) to every native who chose to come in to receive it, the increase in attendance has been progressively going on, viz.

2 issues in 1841 the average attendance were 52 men, women, and children
12 issues in 1842 the average attendance were 94 men, women, and children
10 issues in 1843 the average attendance were 136 men, women, and children
9 issues in 1844 the average attendance were 171 men, women, and children

Occasionally nearly 500 natives have been present at these monthly issues of flour, and the reason that the average attendance is not greater, is, that immediately after collecting at Moorunde, at the full of the moon, to receive their flour, from 100 to 300 would usually set off to Adelaide, where there are so many objects of interest and attraction, and re-remain there for several months at a time, and especially during the winter. As fast, too, as one party returned to their own districts, another would go into town, and thus the average number would be constantly kept down. A third reason why the musters do not appear so large as they otherwise would, is that many of the more distant natives come down at other times than the full moon, and I have then been obliged to deviate from my usual custom, and issue flour to them at the periods when they arrived. The number of natives attending such extraordinary issues do not appear in the periodical returns.

In endeavouring to estimate the numbers and proportions of the sexes, and children, almost as great a difficulty exists as in that of obtaining their aggregate numbers. This arises from the fact of the more distant tribes who visit Europeans stations, frequently leaving their younger wives, or little children at home, with aged relatives, whilst they themselves go to a distance. In all the periodical, or regular issues of flour at the time of full moon, I have accurately kept lists of all who attended. The gross totals of thirty-three issues are as follows:—

Men 1266
Women 1330
Boys 930
Girls 551
Infants 52
4129

From this it is apparent, first, that the women attending the monthly meetings at the Murray have been, on the whole, about five and a half per cent in excess of the men, an extraordinary and unusual circumstance, as compared with the results obtained at other places. I can only account for this upon the supposition before given, that when large bodies of natives leave Moorunde for Adelaide, more men than women go away, and that consequently a larger proportion of females is left behind. Mr. Moor-house remarks, upon this point, that he has found the males to average seventy per cent more than the females, among the Adelaide tribes. My own observation leads me to the opinion that upon the Murray the two sexes are as nearly equal in numbers as may be.

Secondly, it would appear, that of the Moorunde issues, the number of girls attending has been little more than one half that of the boys. This may, perhaps, arise in some measure from females assuming the duties of women, and being classed as such, at an age when males would still be considered as only boys. The principal reason, however, must, as before, be ascribed to a greater number of girls being left behind by the more distant tribes when they come to visit Moorunde.

Thirdly, from the list I have given, it seems that to each woman there would be about 1 1/3 child. Upon this subject Mr. Moorhouse remarks, that his investigation has led to the conclusion that each woman has, on an average, five children born (nine being the greatest number known), but that each mother only rears, upon an average, two; and this I think, upon the whole, would be a tolerably correct estimate.

There is one point connected with the return I have given, peculiarly striking, as it shews the comparatively small increase that now appears to be going on among the more numerous tribes of the Aborigines, I allude to the fact of there only having been fifty-two young infants among 1330 women. By infants I mean such as had to be carried in the arms, for those who could walk at all have been classed among the boys and girls.

I have never known a case of twins among the Aborigines, and Mr. Moorhouse informs me that no case has ever come under his observation; but Captain Grey found such to occur sometimes in Western Australia. On the number and proportion of the sexes he observes, that 4.6 seemed to be the average number of children born to each woman, and that there was one female to every 1.3 males. With respect to the duration of life among the Aborigines, Captain Grey says, vol. ii. p. 246–248 —”With regard to the age occasionally attained by the natives, I believe very erroneous ideas have been prevalent, for so far am I from considering them to be short lived, that I am certain they frequently attain the age of seventy years and upwards.” “Yet were these instances of longevity contrasted with the great number of deaths which take place during the period of infancy, there can be no doubt whatever that the average duration of life amongst these savage tribes falls far short of that enjoyed by civilized races.”

These remarks, as far as my observation has extended, apply to the natives of New Holland generally. I have frequently met with many venerable, white-headed men among the Aborigines, who could not, I think, have been less than eighty years of age, and who yet retained the full vigour of mind, and the bold, upright, though now wasted form, that had characterised them in the pride of manhood; but about sixty-five appears perhaps to be the average age attained by the old.

The second inference is more than borne out by the statement already recorded, that for every five children born on an average to each mother, two only are reared, and these subject to all the casualities and dangers which savage life is exposed to.

[Note 90: This can of course only apply to tribes tolerably well known to Europeans, and more or less frequently coming in contact with them. Of tribes in their natural state we can have no accurate data, and but few passing notes even that are worthy of confidence. Generally I have found children to be numerous among tribes who have never had intercourse with Europeans’ and it is a well known fact that the increase of numbers in aboriginal tribes is checked in proportion to the frequency, or the extent of their communication with Europeans. At Flinders island to which 210 Van Diemen’s Land natives were removed from Van Diemen’s Land in 1835, this is singularly exemplified. In 1842 Count Strzelecki says, page 353 —”And while each family of the interior of New South Wales, uncontaminated by contact with the whites, swarms with children, those of Flinders island, had during eight years an accession of only fourteen in number.”]

Upon inquiry into the causes which tend to prevent population going on in an increasing ratio among the natives of Australia, the following appear to be the most prominent. First, polygamy, and the illicit and almost unlimited intercourse between the sexes, habits which are well known to check the progress of population, wherever they prevail.

Secondly. Infanticide, which is very general, and practised to a great extent, especially among the younger and favourite women.

Thirdly. Diseases, to which in a savage state young children are peculiarly liable, such as dysentry, cold, and their consequences, etc.

[Note 91: Huic accedit, ex quo illis sunt immisti Europaei, lues venerea. Morbum infantibus matres afflant, et ingens multitudo quotannis inde perit.]

Fourthly. Wars and quarrels, occurring sometimes from the most trivial circumstances, and often ending in deaths, or wounds that terminate in death.

The diseases to which the natives are subject, are with the exception of those induced by artificial living, as gout, rheumatism, etc. very similar to those which afflict Europeans, the principal being the result of inflammation, acute, or chronic, arising from exposure to the cold, and which affects most generally the bronchiae, the lungs, and the pleura. Phthisis occasionally occurs, as does also erysipelas. Scrofula has been met with, but very rarely. A disease very similar to the small-pox, and leaving similar marks upon the face, appears formerly to have been very prevalent, but I have never met with an existing case, nor has Mr. Moorhouse ever fallen in with one. It is said to have come from the eastward originally, and very probably may have been derived in the first instance from Europeans, and the infection passed along from one tribe to another: it has not been experienced now for many years.

[Note 92: Ex morbis quos patiuntur ab adventu Europaeorum longe frequentissima et maxime fatalis est lues venerea. An hic morbus indigenis, priusquam illis immiscebuntur Europaei erat notus, sciri nunc minime potest. Ipsi jamdiu ex oriente adductum dicunt, ex quo maxime probabile videtur, eum, origine prima ex Europa, inde de gente in gentem per totam poene continentem esse illatam. Neque dubium eum in gentibus iis quibus non immiscentur Europaei, neque frequentem esse, nec acrem, eorum autem per immistionem terribilem in modum augescere. Quinetiam ii sunt indigenarum mores, ut, adveniat modo forma sub pessima morbus, velox et virulentus qualis nusquam alias illico latissime effluat. Licet bene sciant hae gentes, hunc, sicut ejus modi alii morbum per contactum contractum esse illis tamen pestem cujus indies spectantur tantae tamque terribiles offensiones, vitare minime curae est. Vidi egomet plurimos non modo aegrotorum in tentoriis otiari, verum etiam foedatus ita secure induere vestes aut iisdem in stragulis cubare, ac si optima ibi adesset sanitas. Mihi stationem publicam ponendi causa ad “Morrandi” in mensa Octobris, 1841, advenienti, occurrebant populi morbis poene liberi formam atque membra bene formati; postea autem ex frequenti cum oppido et proximis stationibus commercio, circa Octobrem 1844, morbos quam maxime horridos contraxerant. Inde eo tempore moribundi erant plurimi, nonnulli mortui, paucique ex iis, qui frequenter coibant, ex omni aetate et sexu hujusce pestis formis omnino expertes erant. Apud indigenas morbus hic eodem fere modo quo apud Europaeos sese ostendere videtur variis tamen ex causis etiam magis odiosum, eo praesertim quod pustulae rotundae, magnitudinem fere uncialem habentes, simul in cute exsurgunt. His gradatim, cum pure effluente, pars media expletur, et inde magis magisque crescentibus et dispersis corporis universi superficies tabe ac scabie laborat, quae propinquantibus simul horrorem ac nauseam movent. Ulcera haec aliquando infra sex vel octo menses ipsa se cohaerent; plerumque autem incitamentorum et vi causticorum ad locum adhibita infra hebdomadas tres sanantur. Nec minus apud indigenas quam apud Europaeos, remedium hujusoe morbi speciale: medicamenta sunt mercurialia, majore tamen illis cum periculo, tum propter eorum mores, quum quod plerumque sub dio vivunt, omni absente medicina. Post annum primum aut alterum morbus evanescit, interdum mortem affert. Semper autem aegrotis miseris cruciatus maximus et dolores perpetui inde flunt. Moorhousi de morbo hoc opiniones in paucis a meis experimentis dissident, quum ille num glandem penis aut inguinis, principio nunquam, glandem autem penis rarissime vel secundo attingere arbitrabatur. Ego autem et hoc et illud in ripis Murray fluminis vidi.]

Many natives of deformed persons are occasionally to be met with, especially in the extremities. I have seen natives tall, and perfect, and well built in the body and limbs, from the head down to the knees: but from that point downwards, shrivelled and blighted, presenting but skin and bone. Many are blind in one eye, some in both; sometimes this appears the effect of inflammation, or of cataract; at others, it may be the result of accident. Among those natives inhabiting the sandy drifts along the western coast, where the sand is always circling about in a perfect shower, I have no doubt but that many become blind from its effects.

In October, 1839, Mr. Moorhouse found nine inhabitants in two huts to the south; out of these, five were quite blind, and one had lost one eye; they were occupied in making nets.

Deaf and dumb persons are not often found among the Aborigines, but I have met with instances of this kind. One of the most intelligent natives I ever met with, was a deaf and dumb youth at the Wimmera. From this poor boy, I could more readily and intelligibly obtain by signs a description of the country, its character, and localities, than from any native I ever met with, whose language I was at the time quite unacquainted with.

The blind, or the infirm, are generally well treated, and taken care of when young, but as soon as they advance in years, or become an impediment to the movements of the tribe, they are abandoned at once by their people, and left to perish.

The crimes committed by the natives against Europeans do not bear any proportion, either numerically, or in magnitude, to their number, as a people, and the circumstances of their position. When we consider the low state of morals, or rather, the absence of all moral feeling upon their part, the little restraint that is placed upon their community, by either individual authority, or public opinion, the injuries they are smarting under, and the aggressions they receive, it cannot but be admitted that they are neither an ill disposed, nor a very vindictive people. The following are the returns of the convictions of natives in South Australia for the years 1842 and 1843, viz.:—

SUPREME COURT.
OFFENCE. 1842 1843 1844
Larceny 2 0 2
Assault with intent to murder 2 0 0
Wilful murder 0 3 1
Sheep stealing 1 2 1
Cattle stealing 0 1 2
RESIDENT MAGISTRATE’S COURT.
Assault 0 3 3
Breaking windows 1 0 0
Intoxication 3 0 0
Injuring park trees 0 0 2
9 9 11

In the colony of New South Wales, the return of all the trials of the Aborigines, from 10th February, 1837, to the 24th July, 1843, amounted to thirty-three cases, and implicated sixty-one individuals. The offences were chiefly murder and assault, or stealing sheep and cattle. In ten cases only, out of thirty-three, convictions took place, and nineteen individuals were sentenced, viz., twelve to death, six to transportation for ten years, and one to a flogging.*

[Note 93: For particulars vide Papers on the Aborigines of Australian Colonies, printed for the House of Commons, August 9th, 1844.]

Among the natives, but few crimes are committed against each other; in fact, it would be somewhat difficult to define what their idea of crime would be, for that which is offensive on the part of another is considered a virtue in themselves. Accustomed to act upon the impulse of the moment, and to take summary vengeance for injury, real or imagined, their worst deeds are but in accordance with their own standard of right, having no moral sense of what is just or equitable in the abstract, their only test of propriety must in such cases be, whether they are numerically, or physically strong enough to brave the vengeance of those whom they may have provoked, or injured. Custom has, however, from time immemorial, usurped the place of laws, and with them, perhaps, is even more binding than they would be. Through custom’s irresistible sway has been forged the chain that binds in iron fetters a people, who might otherwise be said to be without government or restraint. By it, the young and the weak are held in willing subjection to the old and the strong. Superstitious to a degree they are taught from earliest infancy to dread they know not what evil or punishment, if they infringe upon obligations they have been told to consider as sacred. All the better feelings and impulses implanted in the human heart by nature, are trampled upon by customs, which, as long as they remain unchanged, must for ever prevent them from rising in the scale of civilization and improvement, or to use the apt and expressive language of Captain Grey upon this point, vol. ii. p. 217:—

“He (the native) is in reality subjected to complex laws, which not only deprive him of all free agency of thought, but at the same time, by allowing no scope for the development of intellect, benevolence, or any other great moral qualification, they necessarily bind him down in a hopeless state of barbarism, from which it is impossible for him to emerge, so long as he is enthralled by these customs, which, on the other hand, are so ingeniously devised as to have a direct tendency to annihilate any effort that is made to overthrow them.”

Those customs regulate all things, the acquisition and disposal of wives, the treatment of women, of the elders, the acquiescence of the younger members of a tribe in any measure that may have been decided upon by the old men, the rules which guide the international intercourse between different tribes, the certain restrictions or embargoes that are put upon different kinds of food or at certain ages, the fear of sorcery or witchcraft if they transgress the orders of the elders, or break through the ordinances that have been imposed upon them, and many other similar influences.

In their intercourse with each other I have generally found the natives to speak the truth and act with honesty, and they will usually do the same with Europeans if on friendly terms with them. In their treatment of each other, and in the division of food, policy and custom have induced them to be extremely polite and liberal. Old men are especially well off in this respect, as the younger people always give them the best and largest share of everything. Males generally are generous and liberal to each other in sharing what food they have, but it is not often that the females participate in the division. When following their usual pursuits upon the Murray, I have seen the men after an hour or two’s fishing with the nets, sit down and devour all they had caught, without saving anything for their family or wives, and then hurry about noon to the camps to share in what had been procured by the women, who usually begin to return at that hour, with what they have been able to collect. Favourite kinds of food are also frequently sent as presents from one male to another, and at other times two parties will meet and exchange the different kinds they respectively bring. Among the younger people I have often seen a poor hungry fellow, who had by his skill or perseverance obtained some small article of food, compelled by the rules of savage politeness to share out the petty spoil among a group of expectant sharks around, whilst he whose skill or labour had procured it dared hardly taste it, and was sure to come in for the smallest share.

Naturally, I do not think they are bloodthirsty; custom or example may sometimes lead them on to shed blood, but it is usually in accordance with their prejudices or to gratify the momentary excitement of passion. With many vices and but few virtues, I do not yet think the Australian savage is more? vicious in his propensities or more virulent in his passions than are the larger number of the lower classes of what are called civilized communities. Well might they retort to our accusations, the motives and animus by which too many of our countrymen have been actuated towards them.

I have remarked that as far as my observation has enabled me to judge, the natives are rarely guilty of offences (which they deem such,) towards members of their own tribes. There are many acts, however, which according to our ideas of right and wrong, are acts of the greatest cruelty and tyranny, which they exercise towards each other, though sanctioned by custom, and enforced by daily practice. Such are the cruelties inflicted upon the women, who are looked upon in the light of slaves, and mercilessly beaten or speared for the most trifling offences. No one under any circumstances ever attempts to take the part of a female, and consequently they are maltreated and oppressed in a shocking degree. Does a native meet a woman in the woods and violate her, he is not the one made to feel the vengeance of the husband, but the poor victim whom he has abused. Is there hard or disagreeable work of any kind to be done — the woman is compelled to do it. Is there a scarcity of food at the camp when the husband comes home hungry — the wife is punished for his indolence and inactivity.

[Note 94: In February 1842, Mr. Gouger, then Colonial Secretary at Adelaide, caused a dog belonging to a native to be shot for some cause or other I am not acquainted with. The animal had been left by its master in the charge of his wife, and as soon as he learnt that it was dead, he speared her for not taking better care of it.]

The complete subserviency of the younger people of both sexes in the savage community, to the older or leading men, is another very serious evil they labour under. The force of habit and of traditional custom has so completely clouded their otherwise quick perceptions, that they blindly yield to whatever the elders may require of them; they dare not disobey, they dare not complain of any wrong or indignity they may be subjected to this has been and will be the greatest bar to their civilization or improvement until some means are taken to free them from so degrading a thraldom, and afford that protection from the oppression of the strong and the old which they so greatly require.

On the Murray river, or amongst the Adelaide natives I am not aware that any stated punishments are affixed to specific crimes, except that of spearing in the arm to expiate deaths. Vengeance appears usually to be summarily executed and on the spot, according to the physical strength or number of friends of the individual injured; otherwise it is made a cause of quarrel between tribes, and a battle or disturbance of some kind takes place. This appears to be one great point of distinction between the practice of some of the tribes in Southern and Western Australia. Captain Grey says in reference to the latter place, (vol. ii. p. 243.)

“Any other crime may be compounded for, by the criminal appearing and submitting himself to the ordeal of having spears thrown at him by all such persons as conceive themselves to have been aggrieved, or by permitting spears to be thrust through certain parts of his body; such as through the thigh, or the calf of the leg, or under the arm. The part which is to be pierced by a spear, is fixed for all common crimes, and a native who has incurred this penalty, sometimes quietly holds out his leg for the injured party to thrust his spear through.”

This custom does not appear to hold among the tribes of South Australia, with whom I have come in contact; but I have often been told by natives of tribes in New South Wales, that they practised it, although an instance of the infliction of the punishment never came under my own observation.

Injuries, when once overlooked, are never revenged afterwards. Tribes may compel members to make restitution, as in the case of stealing a wife; but I have never known an instance of one of their number being given up to another tribe, for either punishment or death. Occasionally they have been induced to give up guilty parties to Europeans; but to effect this, great personal influence on the part of the person employed is necessary to ensure success. Though they are always ready to give up or point out transgressors, if belonging to other tribes than their own.

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