The Aborigines of Victoria and Riverina/Chapter 17



The continued and persistent endeavour of these people to forget those of their tribes who have paid nature's just debt prevents them from possessing any monuments or other analagous objects wherewith to commemorate particular or striking events. Even the rude cavern common to most uncivilised races is unknown here, but the reason for this is obvious enough. Any such lasting work would, without doubt, have the effect of keeping the memory of those who constructed them, or those whom they were intended to honour, ever present to their descendants, and the avoiding of this is the one thing in which all the aborigines of tho colony are unanimous.

The innate terror of death, which the aborigines as a rule possess, gives rise to this peculiar characteristic, besides it is the cause which induces the cowardice so largely found in the aboriginal character, and altogether precludes anything approaching to combinations in their relations with hostile tribes, as (to quote their own adage)—"What would it advantage me if my tribe quite destroyed the Bukeen, if I should be killed in the struggle?" Thus it follows that every individual man's corpus is every individual man's special care, or, in other words, number one is the aboriginal golden rule.

Their method of generating fire, we imagine, to belong exclusively to the Australian aboriginal tribes, at least we never heard of the same system being followed by other races. Their modus operandi is as follows:—

A hard dry log is selected, having a sun crack in it about half an inch wide at the surface and about an inch and a half in depth, and this crack is filled to within half an inch of the lips with dry grass, well teased out to make it soft. Then the operator, having a piece of dry wood fourteen inches long and from two to three broad, fined down to a blunt edge on one side, holds it by one end in both hands and rubs the blunt edge backwards and forwards across the crack immediately above the part containing the dry grass. At first the rubbing is performed very slowly, but with considerable pressure; as the crack, however, begins to get filled with the filings the rate of motion is increased, until the filings quite fill he crack to the top; then, for the space of half a minute, the rubbing is done so rapidly, the rubbing stick cannot be distinguished. At this stage the operator suddenly pauses, without lifting the rubber from the groove, which by this time he has cut across the crack, and gently fans the filings under the rubber with one hand, and if the smoke continues to ascend the operator knows that the result is satisfactory and that fire has been procured; therefore, with great care, he lifts out the dry grass upon which are the ignited filings (it is these filings which take fire, and not the rubber as many would be inclined to suppose) enveloping them nicely with the grass, waves it gently in the air, and in a short time it bursts into flame.

The whole operation is most simple, and takes much less time to perform than we have taken to describe it; so easily is it done we many times have had a native do it merely to get our pipe lighted.

The best timber for effecting this purpose is red gum (a eucalyptus), pine, grass-tree, and salt-bush. Those timbers of the eucalyptus family, known by the colonists as box, messmate, and stringy bark, are utterly useless for the purpose of generating fire by friction, but for what reason we cannot tell. We only know that such is the fact, though doubtless it is either for their lacking altogether, or containing too much of some requisite principle, this, however, is a question for chemists to solve.

Should it be necessary to make fire when the timber has been saturated by continued rains the native cuts down the log on which he intends to operate until he has got beyond the saturated portion, then he cuts a groove to take the place of the sun crack, and the rubber is split from the heart of a smaller log to ensure dryness. If it be raining at the time fire is required an opossum cloak is held over the operator until the desired end is achieved.

In the matter of tattooing these people differ considerably from other savage races. The tattooing performed by most savages, more especially the New Zealanders, is more like the marking produced by pricking Indian ink or gunpowder into the skin, as practised by seafaring men, than anything else, whilst the tattooing of these natives is prominent enough, even in the dark. One ornament of this kind, which we have found common to all the aboriginal tribes, is the raising of hard, smooth lumps across the back from the point of one shoulder to. the point of the other; these lumps graduate from the centre of the back, where they are longest, to each shoulder, where they are shortest. In the centre of an adult's back the lumps are about three inches long, by a thickness in the middle of about three-quarters of an inch, and the short ones on the shoulder are two inches in length, with a diameter in the middle of half an inch. These excressences are ovate in form, and are placed at regular intervals from each other, which when seen at a little distance, looks like a broad ornamental band stretching from shoulder to shoulder. The excrescences do not show any scars, but are perfectly smooth, more so in fact than any other portion of the person, and when seen on a man inclined to be hairy their lack of capillary growth is most peculiar. These tattooings are formed by cutting through the skin and filling up the incisions thus made with opossum fat, previously mixed with fine, wood ashes; the wounds by these means are kept open for several months, and during all that time suppurate and slough considerably, but notwithstanding this fact the wished for excrescences continue to grow. When the growth is deemed sufficient, the fat is applied in a pure state, when, in the absence of the irritating ashes, the wounds soon heal up, and, strange to say, without leaving the faintest trace of scar behind. They also make bands of a similar character, only less in size round the upper portion of the arm, the excressences being parallel with the length of the limb.

The women are not tattooed in any way, this honour being reserved exclusively for the lords of creation. The operation is performed shortly after the attainment of puberty.

In the making of their opossum cloaks it might be said that they display at least a modicum of taste approaching to the artistic. When an opossum skin has been thoroughly dried and all the fat removed it requires to be scraped to ensure pliancy; this part of the operation is performed by means of sharp-edged mussel-shells, and scraping so performed is generally done so as to represent a pattern of some kind. They succeed in doing this so well that the various portions scraped upon the separate skins join together most accurately when sewn into the rug.

Before the advent of Europeans these cloak patterns usually took a scrolly shape, and striking objects in nature, such as flowers, foliage, or animals, were never copied. Since then, however, we have seen the great glaring designs common to cheap druggists very successfully reproduced, even to the colours. These colours are made by mixing pigments of different shades with fish oil, and laying the shades on the respective portions of the designs requiring them, thus produce an exact counterpart of the copy. Should a rugmaker be entirely lacking in artistic taste he merely scrapes the skin diagonally. When the whole skin has been thus scraped he turns the skin round and again scrapes diagonally, this time, of course, the scraping crosses the lines first made, thus forming a lossenge-shaped design. This latter method, as regards utility, is unequalled by any other, for thus treated, if the pattern be a small one, the skins become pliant and soft as well-prepared doe-skin.

The prepared skins are sewn together by means of fine sinews, which are drawn from opossum tails, instead of thread; these sinews are used whilst in a damp state, therefore when well shrunk, which they become from drying, the seams formed by them are both strong and firm. Needles not being known to them in their savage state, a bodkin made of bone was the instrument by which the punctures to receive the sinews were made, and the quickness and dexterity displayed in the manipulation of these rude instruments and appliances is truly astonishing.

In wet weather the rug is invariably worn with the fur to the weather. Worn in this manner they are almost impervious to rain, whereas when the flesh side is exposed to the wet the cloak becomes saturated and consequently unpleasant in a very short space of time.

In those portions of Australia where nardoo[1] and other freely seeding plants containing farina in the seeds abound the natives possessed mills[2] wherewith to bruise the seed into a coarse description of flour. These mills were made of quartz slates, shaped like an ellipsis, shelving gradually from the edges to the centre; in size they were two feet six inches long by eighteen inches broad, the pestal being a clumsy piece of the same material, shaped somewhat like a steelyard weight.

These mills were quite common from the north-western portion of Victoria right through to Cooper's Creek, on the confines of New South Wales, and thence to Lake Hope, in South Australia, but doubtless they are extant to this day in the regions remote from settlement.

The operation of milling was always performed by women, and the method thereof was by rubbing the clumsy pestal round and round on seed in the hollow slab, with, of course, an occasional thump or two.

This grinding or bruising, or in fact a combination of both motions, requires two operators, one to use the pestal and the other to stir the meal during the process. The meal would stick to the mill by reason of the thumping were it not constantly kept stirred As the clumsy pestal if wielded for long by one person, becomes fatiguing the lyoor millers change alternately from that implement to the stirring culk (stick).

They do not possess any means whereby the husks can be separated from the meal, it is therefore used as it leaves the mill. They seldom convert the meal into bread, but when they do, it is formed into thin cakes and baked on the hot coals, as bush men do their leather jackets.

The way in which the meal is commonly prepared for consumption by the aborigines is by mixing it with water until it is of the consistency of gruel, in which state it is greedily consumed by old and young.

  1. Nardoo. This is the plant upon the seed of which those gallant explorers, Burke and Wills, strove to sustain life at Cooper's Creek, in Central Australia, and failed.
  2. We speak here in the past tense, because these primitive machines have been altogether discarded wherever the aborigines have come into contact with Europeans.