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The Aborigines of Western Australia

Albert F. Calvert

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This short book looks at the life and beliefs of The Aborigines of Western Australia. As with most of the books from this era and dealing with this type of subject, you have to be wary of the racism that underlines them. Chapters include: Languages; Early Accounts; Contemporary Accounts; Laws Of Marriage; Land Ownership; Law; Women; Hunting And Gathering; Physical Strength; Childhood; Music And Poetry; Religion And Mythology; Funerals; Old Testament Parallels; Boomerangs; Humor; and, Protection Of Aborigines.

This book has 53 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1894.

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Excerpt from 'The Aborigines of Western Australia'

The natives of Western Australia did not impress their first visitors from England very favourably. In Captain William Dampier's book, published in St, Paul's Churchyard, London in 1697, he describes his visit to the North Western coasts and quaintly calls the aborigines "The poor winking people of New Holland." In another part of his work they are declared to be "the miserablest people in the world." To shew his very poor opinion of them, the plain spoken Buccaneer assures his readers that the Hottentots ("Hodmadods" he calls them), whom he allows to be rather a nasty lot, were perfect gentlemen in comparison with the objectionable folk he was describing. The "Hodmadods," it appeared were possessed of houses, skin garments, sheep, poultry, and fruits of the earth, whereas the unfortunate people who so excited his disgust differed "but little from ye brutes." The worthy captain admits that they were tall and straight bodied but the extreme thinness of their legs was painful to behold. Also their "great heads, round foreheads and big brows" did not altogether please him.

It seems to have been, however, the ocular eccentricities of the poor creatures which most excited the circumnavigator's contemptuous pity. "The, eyelids," he informs us, were "always half closed to keep the flies out of their eyes, they being so troublesome, that no fanning would keep them from coming to one's face, and without the assistance of both hands to keep them off." He continues "they will creep into one's nostrils and mouth too, if the lips are not shut very close." So that "the poor natives from their infancy being thus annoyed with these. insects they do never open their eyes as other people; and therefore they cannot see far, unless they hold up their heads as if they were looking at somewhat over them."

The "great bottle noses" of the poor Australians also much disgusted the gallant voyager. And their "full lips and wide months," the two front teeth wanting in all of them, men and women. I fancy Mr Dampier was mistaken regarding the women--old and young, likewise irritated him. Whether they drew them out he unfortunately "knew not." "Neither," he goes on to remark, in his unflattering description, "have they any beards. They are long visaged, and of a very unpleasing aspect, having no one graceful feature in their faces. Their hair is short, black, and curls like that of the negroes, and not long and lank like the common Indians. The colour of their skins is coal black, like that of the negroes of Guinea."

The poor creatures appear in every way to have disappointed Dampier, inasmuch they had no houses, "the earth being their bed and the Heaven their canopy, and no food except a small sort of fish which they got by making wares of stone across little coves or branches of the sea." These they eked out with cockles, mussels, and periwinkles. Then strange to say they broiled these on the coals, the only respectable sort of thing he noticed about them; though as to how they got their fires, he confesses his ignorance. Anything in the shape of work they declined to perform, and when the crafty mariner gave to one an old pair of breeches, to another a ragged shirt, and to a third a jacket "that was scarce worth owning," expecting the savages in return to "work heartily" at filling the ship's water barrels, he was chagrined at their behaviour. As a matter of fact they stood "grinning at him and at one another like so many monkeys!" In this it may be remarked they were not quite such fools as they looked. Such an account as the famous voyager gave, in England, of his visit to Western Australia, in January, 1688, was not calculated to encourage emigration; nor, indeed, was the record of his later experiences on the same coast eleven years later.

Dampier was regarded as one of the most intelligent and trustworthy of the navigators of his time, and, because his descriptions are quaint and forcible, I have quoted him rather fully. When, however, he states solemnly that "the earth affords the natives no food at all," and that "there is neither herb root pulse, nor any sort of grain, nor any sort of bird or beast that they can catch or kill, having no instruments wherewithal to do so"; it only proves how erroneous are apt to be superficial or cursory observations. Dampier's indictment was, however, chiefly directed against the country itself, the natives being treated with a sort of amused commiseration.

Throughout Australia as in America, and elsewhere, the gradual extinction of the natives seems to be one of the inevitable results of civilization. Even where the most humane measures have been adopted, it seems the flat of some inscrutable power that the savage race must cease to exist. The surrounding conditions of life, mental and physical being entirely changed, those who collect around townships and stations slowly but surely follow the fate of their fellows who have previously been killed in conflict with the first settlers. Upon the white man, alas! the responsibility chiefly rests. His vicious habits are too faithfully copied by the sons and daughters of the desert; drunkenness and the diseases which follow in its train being a potent factor in thinning the aboriginal ranks. It is their misfortune to have stood in the way of colonization, and it is scarcely to be wondered at if they have endeavoured to avenge occupation, invasion, and robbery of their hunting grounds by deeds of bloody atrocity. It must not be forgotten, however, that the colonists were the aggressors, and that they were oftentimes guilty of crimes against the natives of even more ferocious cruelty than those of the savages themselves. It is, indeed, a humiliating reflection, that British colonization has (lone much to destroy, and British Christianity but little to save, the aborigines of Australia. Their degrading customs and brutal crimes have been put forward as a justification for their speedy extinction; while their nobler qualities, as true friends and faithful servants, have been forgotten. If degradation alone be held to justify extinction, how many subjects of Her Majesty might well be wiped off the face of the earth, within a four-mile radius of the British Museum! Civilized human nature is a strange and fantastic compound, whether it owes allegiance to the Union Jack, the Stars and Stripes, the Tricolor, or any flag that flies. Is it then to be marvelled at, that we find among these untaught savages a wild conglomeration of wisdom and folly, nobility and depravity, honour and treachery?

Many of our habits, doubtless, they refuse to imitate. They will cook their food on the embers, but object to boiling or steaming; most kinds of work they rather object to, but smoking and drinking are of course readily acquired. Praiseworthy efforts have been made by both Protestant and Catholic Missionaries among the natives of Western Australia; the most successful of the missions being that started by Bishop Salvado. This Monastic Institution at New Norcia--conducted by Spanish monks--was that spoken of by Sir F. Napier Broome, G.C.M.G., in a paper read by him to the members of the Royal Colonial Institute some years ago.

He says "Australian natives not only sing in church or study in school, but are engaged side by side with the Monks in agriculture and various other industries, also, besides playing the violin and other instruments in the Mission Band, playing cricket in the Mission eleven which visits Perth for an occasional match, and is generally victorious.

The New Norcia Mission merits much more notice than time allows me to give to it. Its philanthropic and practical work among the aborigines of the Colony, has now been carried on for more than a generation year by year. With infinite pains, labours, and expense it turns a number of the natives into Christian and civilized beings. The first principle of the work at New Norcia is that it shall go beyond schooling and religious teaching. I have known a full-blooded low type savage go forth from this Mission into civilized life, not only a good Christian but an expert telegraphist."

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