The Passing of the Aborigines, by Daisy Bates

Chapter 21

Birth and Death, Healing Arts and Justice

My healing and my Kabbarli wisdom were a source of all my power. My sympathy and magnetism as I drew the evil out of their bodies, carefully placing it on the fire when my hands had closed upon it, and throwing the smoke of its passing away from the sufferer; my clairvoyance, practised on malingerers now and then; my thunder-and rain-and fire-magic-the knowledge and intuition supernatural in their eyes, helped me through the years in ministering to their ailments and in administering a code of laws that was my own and theirs. My methods of treatment were derived from experience only, without regard to medical theory. Their systems, their foods, their native remedies, their simple ailments, their own ways and lives, their reaction to white things and people, white social housing and hospital conditions,-their unconquerable objection to interference with their bush conditions, all these had to be studied and met and made helpful with my very simple remedies.

I left them in their sandy and grassy beds and shelters, which they could change when they wished or when odours compelled them. I never submitted them to the ordeal of soap and hot water, but used clean olive oil to remove rank smells, but when their odour became objectionable to themselves, they anointed themselves with fresh fat-from bird, animal, or reptile.

Only the commonest of our foods are good foods to them, for bowel disorders usually resulted from the white man’s made dishes, but my own plain diet that kept me healthy made them healthy too. They loved a potato or onion or apple hot from the ashes, cooked a little, part eaten, and again cooked to prolong the pleasure. Their teeth were kept strong and clean through eating the ashes on their cooked foods. Their own varieties of vegetable and root foods were extensive, nutritive and sustaining when droughts limited meat foods, but they were essentially meat-eaters and however plentiful vegetable foods might be, their systems craved strong meat, and quarrels and killings took place.

The sick must be kept tranquil in familiar environment with their own people about them, seeing the dark faces, hearing the familiar speech, and lying on the only bed that their body can adjust itself upon. First and last, their old ways were studied, and so these times of sickness were spent in tranquillity, and they passed over in peace among their own kind. My old-fashioned remedies were particularly successful, making me rejoice that I was of Ireland, where bone-setters and wise women could cure all and sundry. My grandmother’s cough-mixture, the simple recipe of six ingredients that she dispensed to coughing children for fifty miles round-honey, brandy, lemon, olive oil, powdered candy and vinegar (a tablespoon of each)-was most popular, and they desired to continue it long after the cough had gone.

When Gooburdi fell from her mother’s lap into their small fire and both little arms were cruelly burned, carron oil and wadding and white bandages covered with stockings to hide them from the white people’s eyes were made delightful to Gooburdi in a playful way, as I made the tops of the stockings “pocketi” for biscuit or lollie or sweet cake after the dressings were over. I pretended that these came of themselves by Kabbarli’s magic, if Gooburdi would let the little arms rest.

Dhambilgna’s scald from groin to foot, when Dhalberdiggin emptied a billy-can of boiling tea over her and the half-caste child she brought back to Ooldea, was healed in three weeks, with three daily tendings in her sandy bed, Jinnweeli and Nyeedura, her two mothers-inlaw, and their dozen puppies filling the space left for the healer. When I cured Nyeedura’s favourite dog of a broken leg, I received more gratitude and laudation from all camps than when I redeemed a human from the brink of death.

There was gratitude, though there is no native term for it. When I carried poor paralysed Banyarda pickaback to my camp in a heat of 114 degrees that I might sleep beside her to calm her fear, two of the men saw me labouring. “We will carry her, Kabbarli,” they said-the first and only time they had ever offered to relieve me of a human burden or to offer to carry a woman.

There was poor old Banyurda from Koorunda Water, deserted by her group at the siding, whom I carried pickaback to my camp and built her shelter near me, stifling her long wailing with little comforts. But no sooner was she recovered than the men of her group returned, the snake men of two wild and savage groups who had made their first entry into civilization clad in chaff-bags given them somewhere by white men, and they made her crawl to the siding when the trains came, for her pitiable appearance made her an excellent “draw.”

As new mobs came from the great Government Reserves, and mingled with those already within civilization, there were many quarrels. I gave food to the victor to share with the vanquished and doctored the wounds. Soft white ash was an excellent substitute for boracic powder. Rool, the sacred kingfisher, gave Yirgilia a broken thigh-the tree from which he fell was only Rool’s agent. Yirgilia refused to sleep in splints. Day after day we played splinting and unsplinting, but I was able to persuade him to lie quietly, and adjusted the soft sand to the lie of the broken bones until we sent him to Albany, where he recovered.

The few cases of gonorrhoea they brought back with them from their treks along the Bight’s edge and the civilized places were “healed by first intention.” This disease shamed them, and no native sorcerer could cure them. It was visible to their kind, and to the women, and their anger rose and swelled and they beat their women in fury.

If I had a fortune to spend upon them, I should not build one hospital or sick-room, but would repeat and extend my services, keeping them in their own environment. As I myself would shrink from illness under a tree in the open, surrounded by dogs and unwashed humans, with grub and lizard to regale me, so does the wild native suffer in the white man’s beds and bedding and discipline of confinement. My system was primitive. So were my patients. I allowed them to live their own lives and die happy.

Motherhood came easily to them. Birth had no pangs for the young mother. She knelt down, rested her buttocks on her heels, pressed her breath, and the baby was born, so easily, so free from pain or obstruction, that there was rarely a cry. The operation performed upon young girls and their initiation to womanhood at an early age tends to this painless birth. The baby is left on the ground, a mother or elder sister will snip the umbilical cord with her strong and long nails, leaving two or three inches on the navel. This is tied in a loose knot and flattened down, and later, when it dries and falls off, hair is netted about it in a little ring, to be hung round the baby’s neck and left there for weeks and months. It is supposed to contain part of the child’s spirit existence, and when it withers off the baby has absorbed the spirit. The baby is massaged tenderly with soft ashes and charcoal. The pink new-born colour had often given me a pang, lest it should prove to be a dreaded half-caste, until I learned that all new-born black babies are of that special pink colour. [On two occasions, in 1920 and 1934, I found white-haired children among a group that came to me out of the wild areas on the border of Central and Western Australia, of different parentage, yet having an ashy-grey skin, straight features, thin lips, European head, and white straight hair. I wondered if they might provide an elucidation of the mystery of the lost explorer Leichhardt and his men.]

On the day of the child’s birth, the mother may go on a journey of thirty miles if the group is travelling, but throughout this period she must keep apart from the men. She is not punished if she elects to kill and eat the baby, and returns to camp with or without it to resume her work of vegetable food-gathering. A fire is always made over the spot where the birth took place.

Early in my work I had frequent occasion to study and compare British justice with native law. My first studies were, happily for me, conducted amongst the two most law-abiding people in Western Australia-the Bibbulmun of the South-west and the Broome groups of the North-west. From the remnants of these I learned the admirable native system; based wholly on legend and tradition, and implicitly obeyed without authority or overlord laws which made for morality and amity.

A man who killed another gave himself up to the dead man’s brothers to be killed. Breaches of the totemic and marriage laws among the law-abiding groups were capital crimes. Theft had been unknown, because individual ownership was unknown, and there was never transgression of group boundaries.

In all offences, whether against the white man or the black, I followed their own simple systems throughout, reconciling them with the British according to their lights. Such became their decadence, as civilization spread, that during the last thirty years, among the lawless central groups, I have had to reply more and more upon a clear, straight interpretation of “King’s law,” especially where white and black philosophies are at variance, in murder, robbery and the killing of cattle and sheep. A subject would be discussed sometimes for weeks and months before they fully comprehended that they must no longer take the law into their hands. When I had an object lesson among white wrong-doers to show them, the simplicity of these “King’s laws” and their impartiality were brought home to the wildest and most primitive among them.

The only systems that can be followed today is the British system, with a sprinkling of such few native rules as have survived our settlement in Australia. By careful inquiry into all complaints and misdemeanours, and by fair play always, I have been able to keep the groups, with which I have contacted through thirty-five years, quiet and law-abiding. There has been no tragedy in my camps.

Cruelty to women has been age-long, and this, too, had to be met by our own British law, suiting the punishment to the native’s conception of punishment, and thereby stopping the practice of breaking wrist-bone or ankle. Sending them “to Coventry” was my chief punishment, and its results would interest the psychologists of today if they studied its gradual but certain effect on the sinner. And my heart always rejoices when I think that there were no half-castes begotten in any of my camps.

As I saw the effect, year after year, of my dealing out of the King’s laws to these primitive, lawless creatures, I began to think of the wonderful easing of their inevitable passing, that would follow the appointment of a King’s High Commissioner over these declining people, from north to south, from east to west, of this continent with no limitation to his discretionary powers, no political or religious dominance to shadow his authority, the co-ordination of all missions, settlements and institutions under such a man, and his benevolent supervision of all the derelicts. Their very primitiveness claims our highest.

This thought and hope inspired all my service. I have voiced the desire to many a Minister and many a Ministry, and perhaps before I pass on may see the appointment of such a universal friend. It is to me the one broad solution of the whole sorrowful problem.

Amongst these decadents today no intricate anthropological study of social laws is necessary, only the administration of British rule, founded on our highest and best traditions. Anthropology can be given its due place, though in the breakdown of all their old tribal laws through contact with civilization it is scarcely necessary. What they need most is the governance and fatherhood of the Empire-makers, men of the sterling British type that brought India and Africa into our Commonwealth of Nations-a Havelock, a Raffles, a Lugard, a Nicholson, a Lawrence of Arabia.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51