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.
The natives of this part of Australia are, beyond comparison, the most barbarous on the surface of the globe. They are hideously ugly, with flat noses, wide nostrils, eyes sunk in the head, and overshadowed with thick eyebrows. The mouth very wide, lips thick and prominent, hair black, but not woolly; the colour of the skin varies from dark bronze to jet black. Their stature is below the middle size, and they are remarkably thin and ill-made. To add to their natural deformity, they thrust a bone through the cartilage of the nose, and stick with gum to their hair matted moss, the teeth of men, sharks, and kangaroos, the tails of dogs, and jaw-bones of fish. On particular occasions they ornament themselves with red and white clay, using the former when preparing to fight, and the latter for the more peaceful amusement of dancing. The fashion of these ornaments was left to each person’s taste, and some, when decorated in their best manner, looked perfectly horrible: nothing could appear more terrible than a black and dismal face, with a large white circle drawn round each eye. They scarify the skin in every part with sharp shells.
The women and female children are generally found to want the first two joints of the little finger of the left hand, which are taken off while they are infants, and the reason they assign is, that they would be in the way in winding the fish-lines over the hand.
The men all want one of their front teeth, which is knocked out when they arrive at the age of fifteen or sixteen, with many ridiculous ceremonies; but the boys are not allowed to consider themselves as men before they have undergone that operation.
They live chiefly on fish, which they sometimes spear and sometimes net; the women, on the parts of the coast, aiding to catch them with the hook and line. “The facility,” (observes Captain Sturt), “with which they procured fish was really surprising.
“They would slip, feet foremost, into the water, as they walked along the bank of the river, as if they had accidentally done so; but, in reality, to avoid the splash they would have made if they had plunged in head foremost. “As surely as a native disappeared under the surface of the water, so surely would he re-appear, with a fish writhing upon the point of his short spear.
“The very otter scarcely exceeds them in power over the finny race, and so true is the aim of these savages, even under the water, that all the fish we procured from them were pierced either close behind the lateral fin or in the very centre of the head.”
In a new World or Among the Gold Fields of Australia. Horatio Alger 1850s
Speaking generally of the natives, they are a filthy, disagreeable race of people; nor is it my opinion that any measures which could be adopted would ever make them otherwise. Their wars are as frequent as usual, and are attended with as much cruelty both towards men and women. They are still ready at all times to commit depredations upon the Indian corn, whenever there is a probability of their attempts being attended with the desired success; and this predatory disposition renders it frequently necessary to send detachments of the military to disperse them; but the utmost care is taken to prevent any fatal circumstances from attending these acts of needful hostility, and orders are uniformly issued never to fire upon the natives, unless any particularly irritating act should render such a measure expedient. They are amazingly expert at throwing the spear, and will launch it with unerring aim to a distance of thirty to sixty yards.
I myself have seen a lad hurl his spear at a hawk-eagle (a bird which, with wings expanded, measures from seven to ten feet), flying in the air, with such velocity and correctness as to pierce his object, and bring the feathered victim to the earth. This circumstance will tend to shew how soon the youth of these tribes are trained to the use of the spear, and the dexterity to which they attain in this art before they reach the age of manhood. Indeed, instances are by no means uncommon, where an army of natives is seen following a youthful leader of fifteen or sixteen years of age, and obeying his directions implicitly, because his previous conduct had been characterized by remarkable vigour of body, and intrepidity of mind—virtues which qualify natives of every age and rank for the
highest honours and the most marked distinctions amongst these untutored sons of nature.
Their attachment to savage life is unconquerable; nor can the strongest allurements tempt them to exchange their wild residences in the recesses of the country, for the comforts of European life. A singular instance of this fact occurred in the case of Be-ne-long, who was brought to England by Governor Phillip, and returned with Governor Hunter. For some time after his return, it is true, he assumed the manners, the dress, and the consequence of an European, and treated his countrymen with a distance which evinced the sense he entertained of his own increased importance; and this disposition was encouraged by every method which suggested itself to the minds of those of the colony with whom he associated; but, notwithstanding so much pains had been taken for his improvement, both when separated from his countrymen, and since his return to New South Wales, he has subsequently taken to the woods again, returned to his old habits, and now lives in the same manner as those who have never mixed with the civilized world.
Sometimes, indeed, he holds intercourse with the colony; but every effort uniformly fails to draw him once again into the circle of polished society, since he prefers to taste of liberty amongst his native scenes, to the unsatisfactory gratification which arises from an association with strangers, however kind their treatment of him, and however superior to his own enjoyments. Yet there are many of the natives who feel no disinclination to mix with the inhabitants occasionally—to take their share in the labours and the reward of those who toil.
The Present Picture of New South Wales 1811
D D Mann – many years resident in several official situations
Pub London 1811