Among The Aborigines Or Native Australians
( Originally Published 1904 )
WE have waved good-by to our pearl-diving friends at Thursday Island, and are now sailing westward along northern Australia. The captain has stretched canvas over the deck, for the tropical sun is terribly hot, and the water reflects its rays in a blinding glare. The sea is like glass, and our vessel moves through it without perceptible motion.
It takes us two days to cross the Gulf of Carpentaria, which cuts almost as deep into the land as the Gulf of Mexico. Farther on we pass numerous green islands inhabited by natives and finally come to anchor before Palmerston, the chief city at this end of the continent. Palmerston is the capital of the northern territory. It has but a few hundred people, and among them some Chinese and East Indians, who act chiefly as servants and laborers. It is situated on a hill sixty feet above the harbor which almost surrounds it, making it cool notwithstanding the tropical sun. The town has many good buildings, including a courthouse, two or three banks, a church or so, some stores, and, what is better than all, a post office where we send letters home.
Strolling through the streets, we meet many of the half-savage natives, and learn that they come from camps not far away. This part of the continent has aborigines, or native Australians, than any other. Vast tracts are almost uninhabited except by these curious people. They were never many in number, and, more five like our Indians, they have become fewer and those places where the whites have taken up the good lands. They have also decreased elsewhere until now only a few thousand are left. Some are employed upon the sheep farms as hunters, and others have camping grounds here and there in the wilds, but in no other place are there so many as where we are now.
What odd-looking people! They are a race of their own like unto no other on earth. At first sight they make us think of negroes, but they are brown rather than black, fewer in and their hair is not woolly. Their lips are not so thick, and their noses not so flat as those of the African. Many are fine looking, having broad foreheads, bold, piercing eyes, straight forms, and deep chests. Others are ugly, crooked, and scrawny. The older men have thick, black beards covering their faces and long, pitch-black hair on their heads, arms, legs, and chests. All have strong white teeth, which show when they laugh.
How queerly they dress! It is only in the settlements, in this warm, northern country, that they wear clothes at all, and even here the children are naked. Farther back in the country a string or so about the waist or neck, and perhaps a coat of fish oil or a little paint, is a full suit for a man or woman, although in other regions where it is colder they have, in the winter, opossum skins tied to their waist belts and thrown over their shoulders.
Each tribe has its own way of dressing, and especially of fixing the hair. Some natives bind the head about with cloths, some stick feathers into their hair, and tie the knuckle bones of kangaroos and kangaroo teeth to the forelocks so that they hang down over the eyes. About Port Darwin we see men who use nose pins ten inches long. The nose is pierced just under the nostril, and the pin so thrust through that it stands out on each side for five inches or more. Other natives pierce their ears, using kangaroo bones as plugs.
Notice the scars on the bodies of the men, women, and children. They are made for ornamentation, the flesh being gashed with flint or shells and powdered charcoal dusted into the wounds, so that upon healing ridges as thick as your finger are left. There is a man now with scars on his back, and here comes one who is covered with cuts. A parent who is proud of his boy often cuts pieces out of his skin to make him look fine.
Many of the native women we see have scars made by their husbands, who treat them as though they were slaves. The woman is thought to belong to her husband, and if he clubs her or cuts her with knife or spear, no one objects. The woman is expected to do the work of the family, from building the house to cooking the food and taking care of the children. She carries the furniture to the new camp when the tribe moves, and there puts up the shelter of bark or skin under which all crawl in bad weather. She chops her own fire wood and often gathers the food.
What do these people eat ? We are afraid to say for fear our friends will not believe us. They eat anything they can get from kangaroos or opossums to ants, worms, and snakes. They pick the larvae of beetles out of rotten trees and cook them in red-hot ashes. They eat lizards of many kinds, especially one which is very large and tastes not unlike spring chicken, and also grasshoppers and locusts which sometimes swarm over parts of Australia.
They throw the grasshoppers into the fire to burn off the wings and legs, and then take them out and cook each grasshopper separately. Such food is said to taste like roasted nuts.
There are ants which the natives esteem a great delicacy. They eat also the young leaves of certain trees, grass seeds, roots, and all sorts of wild nuts and fruits, as well as frogs, fish, and eels. Honey is got from wild bees by sticking a little white feather upon the back of a captured bee and following it home. Some natives are cannibals, but there are not many such, although explorers say they have caught them eating human beings.
Native Australians are excellent hunters and trappers. The men are skilled in throwing spears and clubs, especially the boomerang, a flat club about a yard or more long bent into a sort of bow, which they can hurl in such a way that if it does not strike anything it will rise in the air and sail back to their feet. Boomerangs are used more as playthings and for killing small birds than for fighting or heavy hunting.
The natives spear fish, and they catch emus and kangaroos by driving them into nets concealed in the bushes. They make fire by rubbing two sticks together, but as this is not easy to do in wet weather, they seldom allow their fires to go out.
These aborigines are about as low in civilization as any people on earth. Very few of them learn to read and write. They believe in witches, demons, and ghosts, and think their medicine men can, if they wish, cause one to fall sick or die. They have charms to ward off evil spirits, but they carefully avoid caves and thickets which, as they suppose, are haunted by them. Some tribes believe that the white settlers are natives who have died and come to life again, and that, after death, they themselves will be born again with white bodies.