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Original Documents on Aborigines and Law, 1797-1840

Document 85

Original Document 85

[672] Notes on the habits

of the Aborigines of New South Wales

Government

None: the cleverest men in the tribe are attended to in their consultations, but nothing of any consequence is determined upon by a tribe, without a general meeting of all its members, who give their advice, and that which appears best is adopted & so exact are the natives in these meetings, and in their subsequent arrangements, that each member of the tribe is apprised of the movements of every other individual belonging to the tribe, and can at any time tell where all the others are.

Religion

None, except an indescribable superstition which causes them to be afraid of darkness : they have vague ideas of evil spirits, but none of any good spirits.    This of itself would shew that all such ideas among them are the effects of fear .    They have names which they apply to these evil spirits and will describe them [673] hideous monsters with feet behind & before, Janus heads &c., but they will all make these very spirits the subjects of their merriment in the daytime, or when in numbers around their fires: but they are all afraid of darkness, and [1]dare not go  [2] at night except when they are in numbers, unless they are necessitated to do so by a night attack of a hostile tribe, when their fear of human enemies totally overcomes their superstitions, and they go without hesitation through any part of the bush.

Stature, Appearances

Generally the natives are well-proportioned, in fact none but robust children could survive the hardships which they have to endure even in childhood: from the moment of their birth they are exposed to night-dews, hot sun, rain, cold weather, and frost in winter, with no other covering than a few opossum skins now & then thrown over them. [674]   For these reasons they are also a short-lived race; attaining manhood at 15 or 17 years of age, and old age at 40, their old age being much accelerated by rum drinking.   There is one native in Maitland (taken when quite an infant) who is now, at the age of 18 years, no more advanced in appearance than others, who are exposed to the climate are at 26 or 30 years of age.   He has been brought up as white children are, and knows nothing of the habits of his countrymen.

Habitations

None: in rainy weather they sometimes prop up pieces of bark with sticks, for shelter.

Mode of living

Itinerant: they seldom remain in one place for any length of time, they easily procure food sufficient for their wants; the opossums are very numerous; they often obtain birds, kangaroos; and frequently fish.   They are very expert in tracking and killing their game.

Courtship

The violence described by travellers is undoubtedly sometimes practised by the natives in obtaining their wives, but not often, as the women generally follow their lovers without compulsion; if they are reluctant to go, they are ill-treated, but the brutality described by Collins & others as a necessary [675] concomitant of their courtship, is anything but common, being only resorted to, in case of the young lady's refusal, which is naturally rare, as they well know that the blows, kicks &c., described by Collins would be the consequence of their non-compliance: indeed, if a gin refused to go with a native, he would without doubt kill her rather than leave her triumphant.   The women therefore generally yield, unless having another lover or husband, they resist, in the hope, if he is near, of obtaining his assistance, or at least of proving that they did not voluntarily forsake him: as the deserted husband would most surely revenge himself by killing his fickle spouse, and also her lover, if he thought himself able to do so.   Sometimes, the woman leaves her husband by mutual consent of both parties, and marries into another tribe (marriage is with them, nothing but co-habitation, as they have no nuptial ceremony) and if at the time of the separation the woman has any children, she is bound to, and always does take care of them until they can run, walk, and lived without her: when they are returned to their father, [676]the woman's original husband, the children being considered to belong to the tribe of the father , and not to that of the mother , she having no claim to the child, unless she be of the same tribe as the father & lives in it.

   If a black offends a neighbouring tribe, he suffers punishment, by being made to stand in front of a number of the offended party, who endeavour to spear him, while he, being provided with a shield wards off the spears, if he can; sometimes he is speared; if not, the ordeal ceases after a short time and all parties are friendly again.

   If a black offends an individual of his own tribe they fight with waddies , giving alternate blows, till one falls; but sometimes in the heat of anger, they quarrel and give blows at random.

Ceremony of Initiation of Young men: knocking out the tooth

A correct description of this is to be found in Collins: the boys are taught particular songs, which woman and children never hear; and are allowed to eat kangaroo, etc.   (At different ages they are allowed to eat different food; very young children having few articles of food permitted to them; one by one all animals are allowed to them till the ceremony of knocking out the tooth, when they are considered men.) [677] these restrictions being of course made, because the boys, being young are not able to procure this food and are not to be furnished with it at the expense of the labour of the tribe: the boys if offered any forbidden articles of food by a white man , would refuse it.   I never heard an instance of a native, young or old disobeying the laws which are traditionally established among them.   The boys are instructed at this ceremony in a peculiar manner of cooeying and answering which women never are allowed to hear, and do not understand.   The boys are also shewn a transparent stone or chrystal , which the natives carry about with them as a charm, in lumps about the size of a hen's egg.   Generally, the natives, when unwell, swallow the powder which they obtain by scraping this stone, thinking that it will cure them.   The women are never allowed to see this.   (The disturbances on Williams River were occasioned by 2 shepherds shewing one of these stones (which they had obtained by theft) to a black woman: the natives discovering the occurrence, killed the native woman, and subsequently destroyed the 2 shepherds, upon which the police were sent against the blacks.) [678]    If a black man were to shew one of these chrystals to a gin, both the gin and himself would be killed by the rest of the natives.

Funerals

When a native dies, his opossum cloak (or his clothes, if he has any) are carefully wrapped around his body and confined by means of his opossum belt, his body is stretched at full length & bound so; the tribe make a mournful howling and crying at intervals during the whole of the ceremony: his wooden calabash (for holding water) if he had any is burnt carefully; no native would use or touch. [3]   His tomahawk, flint for sharpening spears, and any small article which he may have had when he died, are collected & tied up by the wife or nearest relative of the deceased.   The grave is made about 4 feet deep if possible: the men proceed to the dead body and commence howling in unison with the other members of the tribe who are at their fires around.   During this part of the ceremony tears flow down all their cheeks!   The stoutest man cries like a child; their tears are dried up in an instant & the body is placed in the [679] hands of the men, and carried to the grave, which is previously lined with green boughs on which the corpse is deposited: another layer of boughs is then placed on the body, and then pieces of bark to prevent the earth from going to the body: the grave is then filled up and pains taken to make the hillock regular; the grass is pulled up round the grave and the ground made smooth.   When the body is first deposited the wife or nearest relative who had collected his various items of property gives the bag which contains them, to the man who[4]  is most active in the burial: he takes it, and asks in a loud voice and with a furious and excited manner, recapitulates all the articles one by one: the woman replies to each interrogatory in the same excited manner in the affirmative; the dead man's implements of war are also placed in the grave with him, and his name is never mentioned afterwards.   If a man dies in [680]battle, his interment is generally more honoured, and his friends cut their heads with tomahawks till the blood streams down their bodies.

Civilization

The natives at present existing in N.S. Wales will I think, never be civilized: restraint or work would make them pine and die.   If taken when infants, before they can speak, it is of course easy to teach them anything, as then their ideas are formed from seeing and doing as white people do.

[681] 1838

Notes on the habits

of the Aborigines of New South

Wales

No 85

Notes

[1] Deleted word: only

[2] Deleted words: in numbers

[3] Deleted words: or afterwards use it

[4] Deleted word: supervises

Published by the Centre for Comparative Law History and Governance of Macquarie University, and State Records NSW