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aboriginal australia

Australia’s attitude to its indigenous people has changed dramatically over the centuries and still has a long way to travel. Recording early indigenous material presents major dilemmas for any folklorist as the material is often racist and sexist. My job is to record such material and I would caution anyone wishing to use this material in a detrimental way.


Early impressions of Australia’s indigenous people were not flattering and based on complete misunderstanding of Aboriginal people. This, of course, was typical of the time. Our greatest insult, apart from invading their land, was to build our townships on the prime food gathering sites. Being a hunter/gatherer nation they were immediately forced out of their own land. The indigenous people had much to teach us however European white man had little appreciation of any coloured skin – considering them all as ‘primitives’. These early writings on Australian Aboriginal people provide an historical insight into 18th and 19th attitude. We are obviously slow learners. WF.


The inhabitants of this country are the miserablest people in the world. The Hodmadods of Monomatapa, though a nasty people, yet for wealth are gentlemen to these; who have no houses, skin garments, sheep, poultry, ostrich eggs, and fruits of the earth as the Hodmadods have . . . Setting aside their human shape, they differ but little from brutes. They are tall, straight-bodied, and thin, with small long limbs. They have great heads, round foreheads, and great brows. Their eyelids are always half closed, to keep the flies out of their eyes. . .

. . . They have no houses, but lie in the open air without any covering, the earth being their bed and the heaven their canopy. They live in companies — twenty or thirty men, women, and children together. Their only food is a small sort of fish, which they get by making weirs of stone across little coves or branches of the sea. Every tide brings them in and leaves them as a prey to these people, who constantly search for them at low water. They have no instruments to catch large fish, should they come, nor could we catch any with hooks and lines all the while we stayed there. In other places at low water they seek for cockles, mussels, and peri-winkles, of which there are fewer still, so that their chief dependence is on what the sea leaves in their weirs. At their places of abode the old people and infants await their return; and what providence has bestowed on them they presently broil on the coals and eat it in common. Whether it be much or little, every one has his share. When they have eaten they lie down till the next low water, and then all that are able march out. Be it night or day, rain or shine, ‘tis all one; they must attend the weirs or else they must fast, for the earth affords them no food at all. There is neither herb, root, pulse, nor any sort of grain for them to eat, that we saw, nor any bird or beast that they can catch, having no instruments wherewith to do so.

W. Dampier, “A New Voyage round the World,” 1698


The Natives of this Country are of a middle Stature straight bodied and slender-limb’d, their skins the Colour of Wood soot or of a dark chocolate their hair mostly black, some lank and others curled, they all wear

it crop’d short, their Beards which are generally black they likewise crop short or singe off. Their features are far from being disagreeable and their voices are soft and tunable. They go quite naked both men and women without any manner of Cloathing whatever, even the women do not so much as cover their privities.

Their defensive Weapons are Shields made of Wood, but these we never saw us’d but once in Botany Bay. I do not look upon them to be a Warlike People, on the Contrary I think them a timorous and inoffensive race, no ways inclinable to cruelty, as appear’d from their behaviour to one of our people in Endeavour Eiver which I have before mentioned.

From what I have said of the Natives of New-Holland they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon the earth: but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a Tranquillity – which is not disturbed by the Inequality of Condition:
The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life; they covet not Magnificent Houses, Household-stuff &c. they live in a warm and ‘ fine Climate and enjoy a very wholesome Air: so that they have very little need of Clothing and this they seem to be fully sensible of for many to whome we gave Cloth &c. to, left it carelessly upon the Sea beach and in the woods as a thing they had no manner of use for. In short they seem’d to set no value upon anything we gave them nor would they ever part with any thing of their own for any one article we could offer them this in my opinion argues that they think themselves pro-vided with all the necessarys of Life and that they have no superfluities. . . .

From Captain James Cook’s Journal


The Koolah, or Sloth, a singular animal of the Opossum species, having a false belly, was found by the natives, and brought into the town alive, on the 10th of August, 1803. This is a very singular animal; for when it ascends a tree, at which it is astonishingly expert, it will never quit it until it has cleared it of its leaves. It is mostly found in the mountains and deep ravines to the southward and northward of Broken Bay, and the natives instantly discover its concealment by observing the leaves of the Gum-tree eaten off, this being the tree which it usually selects. It is astonishingly indolent, and is uniformly found with a companion, locked in each other’s arms, as it were. Its claws are very strong, and are of material service in assisting it to climb trees; its length from eighteen inches to two feet; and two stuffed specimens are to be seen in Mr.Bullock’s Museum.

Latterly also, a species of the Hyena has been found at Port Dalrymple, which is extremely ferocious in appearance, has a remarkably large mouth, is striped all over, very strongly limbed, and its claws strong, long, and sharp. This animal is likewise of the Opossum kind, having, like the generality of subjects found in New Holland, a false belly. Notwithstanding its apparent ferocity, it has never yet ventured to attack any human being, but has confined its ravages to sheep and poultry, amongst which it has committed frequent and very serious depredations. No one of these animals, I believe, has hitherto been brought over to England, either alive or dead, since their native fierceness renders them less easy of capture than the Koolah. Flying Mice are likewise found, in considerable numbers, inthis country, of a very handsome appearance, and also of the Opossum species. The tail of this interesting little animal resembles a feather; its belly is white, and its back brown; and it is covered with a down as soft as satin. It flies like an Opossum. This subject is much regarded for its beauty.

The Porcupine Ant-eaters are found in most parts of the country, and are esteemed very good eating; they burrow in the earth, and have a tongue of remarkable length, which they put out of their mouth, and the ants immediately crowd upon it, as if lured by some particular attraction, and when it appears to be pretty well covered, it is drawn in with rapidity, and the insects are expeditiously swallowed.—Stuffed specimens of these are also to be seen in the Museum of Mr. Bullock.

The Present Picture of New South Wales 1811
D D Mann – many years resident in several official situations
Pub London 1811


The tribe of Camerra inhabit the north side of Port Jackson; the tribe of Cadi inhabit the south side, extending from the South Head to Long Cove, at which place the district of Wanne, and the tribe of Wangal, commences, extending as far as Parramata or Rose Hill; the tribe Wallumede inhabit the north shore, opposite Warrane or Sydney Cove, and are called Wallumatta. The space between Rose Hill and Prospect Hill is distinguished by eight different names, although the distance is only four miles.”—

Hunter’s Journal.


An old man Dalaipi. told a colonist who befriended him:
“Before the white fellow came we wore no dress and were not ashamed. and were all free and happy; There was plenty to eat and it was a pleasure to hunt for food. Then the white man came We were hunted from our ground, shot, poisoned and had our daughter’s, sisters and wives taken from us. Could you blame us if we killed the white man? . . . And, besides look what a lot of blacks who did no harm were shot by the native police’ And what a number were poisoned at Kilcoy . . . Why did the white man not stop in his own country, and not come here to hunt us about like a lot of kangaroo?”

Tom Petrie Reminiscences of Early Queensland

My father always noticed how open-handed and
generous the aborigines were. Some of us would do well
to learn from them in that respect. If there were unfortunates who had been unlucky in the hunt tor food, tt made no difference; they did not go without, but shared equally with the others.
Tom Petrie’s Daughter

Tom Petrie Reminiscences of Early Queensland


They have committed some depredations, such as spearing a few sheep and such-like. Otherwise their conduct has hitherto been peaceable and orderly, and they very logically exculpate their own misdemeanours by saying, “White man come kill black man kangaroo. Black man kill white man sheep. Very good.”

Diary and letters of Mary Thomas 1836-1866” ed .E. K. Thomas, Adelaide 1925


… A convict was at length taken in the act of stealing fishing-tackle from Dar-in-ga, the wife of Colbee. The governor ordered that he should be severely flogged, in the presence of as many natives as could be assembled, to whom the cause of punishment should be explained. Many of them, of both sexes, accordingly attended.

Arabanoo’s aversion to a similar sight has been noticed: and if the behaviour of those now collected be found to correspond with it; it is, I think, fair to conclude, that these people are not of a sanguinary and implacable temper. Quick indeed of resentment, but not unforgiving of injury. There was not one of them that did not testify strong abhorrence of the punishment, and equal sympathy with the sufferer. The women were particularly affected; Daringa shed tears; and Barangaroo, kindling into anger, snatched a stick, and menaced the execution-er. The conduct of these women, on this occasion, was exactly descriptive of their characters. The former was ever meek and feminine; the latter, fierce and unsub-missive.

Captain Watkin Tench, Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, London, 1793


Considering the poor black Natives, or Aborigines of the colony, entitled to the peculiar protection of the British government, on account of their being driven from the sea-coast by our settling thereon, and subsequently occupying their best hunting grounds in the interior, I deemed it an act of justice, as well as humanity to make at least an attempt to ameliorate their condition’ and to endeavour to civilize them in as far as their wandering habits would admit of.

With this in view I called general meeting or congress of the natives inhabiting the country lying between the Blue Mountains and Port Jackson. This meeting took place accordingly, at the town of Parramatta, on the 28th of December 1814, when several propositions were made to the natives in respect to their discontinuing their present wandering predatory habits, and becoming regular settlers.

Governor Macquarie’s report to Earl Bathurst, secretary of state for the colonies 1812-1887, 27 July 1828. Upon our landing, 7 or 8 of the natives came close up to us. They were all provided with lances of a great length, pointed with the bone of a stingray at one end, and a piece of oyster shell at the other grown or rub’d to a fine edge, and one of them had a heavy bludgeon, which I persuaded him to exchange with me for a looking glass. They were all perfectly naked, rather slender made, of a dark black colour, their hair not woolly, but short and curly. Everyone had the tooth next the fore-tooth in the upper jaw knocked out and many of them had a piece of stick about the size of a tobacco pipe, and 6 or 8 inches in length, run through the septum of the nostrils, to which, from its great similitude, we ludi-crously gave the name of a sprit sail yard. They all cut their backs bodies and arm which heal up in large ridges and scars. They live in miserable wigwams near the water, which are nothing more than 2 or 3 pieces of the bark of a tree set up sideways against a ridge pole fastened to 2 upright sticks at each end. They are about 2 or 3 feet high and few amongst them are to be found which are weather proof.Their principal food consists of fish, which they in general eat raw. Sometimes they feast upon the kangaroo, but I believe them to be too stupid and indolent a set of people to be able often to catch them. . . .

Surgeon Arthur Bowes’ journal, 21 January 1788