The Aborigines of Victoria and Riverina/Chapter 13
OF THE HONESTY OF THE ABORIGINES, THEIR FREEDOM FROM HABITS OF PILFERING, &C. OF MURDER, AND ITS PUNISHMENT.
As a rule the habits of the aborigines are so just and upright as regards meum and tuum, at all events, as far as members of their own tribes and their property is concerned, that law is an institution perfectly unknown to them, and never by any chance required; consequently, they do not possess any courts of justice, nor have they any laws by which they are kept honest. Of course, the appropriating of goods belonging to tribes with which they are at variance is deemed laudable in the extreme; therefore, opportunities for such acts of abstraction are never allowed to pass unutilised. There are, 'tis true, odd evasions, when the strong pilfers from the weak, even amongst themselves, and laugh at their dupes, too, should they feel aggrieved enough at the unlicensed appropriation to offer any demur. Such cases, however, are of very rare occurrence, and are limited to thefts of the pettiest description, such as a coveted piece of wood for the making of a weapon, or a portion of cooked fish, which the owner had carefully put aside for further consumption. These, and similar cases to these, the reader can readily see are but mild forms of stealing, and can scarcely be classed under the generic term of dishonesty.
The aborigines not having any courts of justice, as a natural consequence the lawyer element does not obtain amongst them, nor have they any judges or patriarchs to whom disputed points can be referred; but, for all this, they manage to exist in (for savages), a fairish manner.
They do not consider any offence criminal, unless it be that of murder; and when such has been perpetrated, the whole tribe sits in judgment upon the culprit. One of the old men generally prosecutes in these cases. However, the legal acumen required under the circumstances is of the smallest, because as a rule the culprit acknowledges his crime, and the tribe merely assemble to hear any extenuating plea which he may have to offer. Should the prisoner's plea be of no avail, and his crime be adjudged worthy of punishment, he is straightway condemned to stand up as a target, within easy spearing distance, and there to remain, perfectly nude, with only a simple shield for protection, for a space of about twenty minutes, whilst the young men of the tribe essay their marksmanship. The dexterity, however, usually displayed by such criminals in turning aside the spears of their assailants by the simple aid of the shield is truly marvellous, and in most instances brings their persons through the trying ordeal in safety, with perhaps the exception of a few flesh wounds, which are nearly always in the right arm, between the elbow and the point of the shoulder. It is only when the ordeal is too long drawn out, and the dexter arm becomes fatigued in consequence, and therefore unable to wield the shield with the necessary activity and precision, that a fatal result ever ensues. The running of this gauntlet is of frequent occurrence, as the reader may easily surmise, when we tell him that about every fifth man has, some time or other of his life, killed a fellowman.
After a culprit has passed through one of these trying ordeals scatheless, he is received again by his fellows as though he were as free from guilt as a new-born infant; in fact, we are inclined to believe that he is held in higher estimation than ever by reason of the dexterity which brought him so safely through the supreme trial.
In the absence of courts, lawyers, and other civilising institutions, gaols or other contrivances for securing offenders would be out of place; besides, in their code of ethics, there is not any crime sufficiently heinous to warrant confinement, unless it be that of murder, and in that case the trial takes place immediately upon the discovery of the crime. In most cases of the kind, too, the murderer voluntarily gives himself up to be judged.
During our long experience amongst the aboriginal tribes, only one instance has come under our notice of a murderer endeavouring to evade the penalty of his crime by flight; and his endeavour, most wonderful to relate, was in every way successful, for he contrived to ingratiate himself into the favorable notice of a tribe at enmity with his own, by whom he was much thought of and admired. His adoption as a member of the tribe took place ere he had been many days amongst them, after which, as a matter of course, he was safe enough as far as any fear of his being given up to aboriginal justice was concerned.
This red-handed vagabond in after years became the leader of every kind of mischief that was perpetrated on the stock, or persons of those who took up country on the hunting grounds of his adopted tribe in the earlier days of the colony.
His vagabond career, however, was fitly and very abruptly terminated at last by the aboriginal police. These police in charge of a European commandant had been sent by the Government of the day out to the border districts with the view of keeping the wild blacks in some kind of check, making their head-quarters in the vicinity of Swan Hill, on the Murray River, from whence they patrolled the country in all directions. The natives, in their semi-civilised character, used to come to the camp of the police upon occasion, until they and the police became somewhat friendly, so much so indeed that the latter frequently joined in the fishing parties of the natives without in any way clashing. One day, however, when the police camp had been left in the charge of only one policeman, two or three of the blacks came about, one of whom was the renegade vagabond in question; after staying about the camp for a little time, they induced the policeman caretaker to go fishing with them, which he readily agreed to, starting off with them in all good faith. The pseudo fishing party, after getting about half-a-mile from the police camp, and whilst in the middle of a dense bed of reeds, caught hold of the too-unsuspecting aboriginal trooper, threw him to the ground, where he was firmly held by two of the party until the renegade had excised the poor fellow's kidney fat. After the performance of this ruthless cruelty they started off in haste, leaving their poor mutilated victim to die unattended mid the reeds. Fortunately, however, the butchered trooper had sufficient vitality left to enable him to crawl (although in the acutest agony) to the camp, where, before he died, he gave an account of the murderous assault, together with a clear description of the perpetrators.
But a short space of time elapsed after the recital of this diabolical outrage ere most of the native troopers had started in a body on the trail of the murderers. They soon discovered where the villains had crossed the river, and made but very small bones of crossing after them—horses, accoutrements, and all— taking all sorts of care during the passage not to allow their ammunition to get wet.
After a ride of about ten miles the encampment of the villainous blacks came in sight, and just as they were about to enter it, one of the troopers discried the renegade creeping away from the camp through the tall saltbushes, like some great emu. Pursuit was soon given by the troop, which, when the renegade perceived, he stood up from his bounding position and ran, as only an aboriginal can run, when dear life is the guerdon; but his running, swift as it was on this occasion, availed him but little, as the foremost trooper, even though going at full gallop, took aim across his bridle arm, and sent a bullet crashing through the skull of the dastardly savage. As he reeled to the earth a victorious shout from the troop echoed again amongst the trees as they rushed up pell mell to their prostrate foe; they threw themselves in a crowd from their horses, and with flashing sabres smote the carcase of the villainous renegade until it was reduced to pieces not larger than a hand's breadth, deeming that proceeding, butchery though it was, but a fitting caution to all coveters of other people's kidney fat.
When a trial for murder has resulted in the condemnation of the criminal, the capital ordeal follows immediately upon the passing of the sentence, in the presence of all the assembled tribe, including sexes as well as children. In short, it takes the form of a high holiday spectacle, wherein much delight is experienced; much criticism, laudatory and the contrary, obtains as a well or ill-thrown cast is made. Remarks also on the dexterous use of the shield by the culprit are freely interjected, culminating in a spontaneous shout, when a well-aimed spear is caught and smashed on the shield.
The most patriarchal aborigine in the tribe is selected to act as umpire on these occasions, and, in the absence of timepieces, the twenty minutes' ordeal is either lengthened or curtailed by him, according to the amount of interest that he takes in the proceedings. In general the ordeal lasts a good long twenty minutes, to which the culprit could readily testify; as in most cases, he is on the very verge of fainting, by reason of the continued and violent exertion necessary upon those occasions, ere he gets notice that his penalty has been duly paid. When this good news reaches him, he, with much gladness, throws himself prone to the ground, panting and exhausted; thereupon one of the softer sex belonging to him—wife, sister, or ward—goes up to the prostrate and quivering ordealist, and forthwith proceeds to dry the fervid perspiration, with which his weary body is plentifully suffused, speaking such words of comfort to him the while as can only emanate from one of Eve's sympathising daughters.
Meanwhile the spectators have all dispersed by twos and threes to their usual avocations, commenting freely upon the bravery and expertness displayed by him who hadundergone the supreme trial.