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CHAPTER VI.


BREVITY OF ABORIGINAL LIFE; THE SICK AND HOW ATTENDED; BLEEDING AND OTHER MODES OP CURE; THE LAST DRAUGHT; SNAKE-BITE AND ITS TREATMENT; OBSTETRICAL.


As a rule longevity is not a feature which pertains to these people. Old age seems to set in ere thirty-five years have been attained; in fact, long before these few years have been passed they are quite grey, and often bald. About that time, too, their muscular development begins to tend towards attenuation. Few of the women reach even those years, being mostly worn out by drudgery and disease together before they are well past their teens.

Unless in the cases of old worn-out women or bedridden subjects of long standing (who are grudged the very slightest attention), the sick are attended carefully enough. Not being subject to infectious diseases, they have not any cause to fear infection; in fact, they are quite ignorant of the nature either of contagion or infection, and are consequently not aware that disease can be propagated readily by those means.

Phlebotomy is practised to a very considerable extent for many of their ailments. It is performed upon the cupping principle merely, their surgical knowledge being too limited to allow of their understanding the efficacy of opening one of the larger veins when blood-letting is desirable. Their cupping operation is effected in the following manner:—They scarify the part from which they wish to draw the blood by means of a sharpened mussel-shell, and when this has been sufficiently done the operator sucks the wound with his mouth, spitting out the blood from time to time, until he imagines sufficient has been extracted. Much relief is afforded by this practice to those suffering from headache, inflammation of the bowels, and opthalmic sore eyes, all of which ills prevail amongst the natives to an unenviable extent.

For pulmonary affections and rheumatic fever (both of which diseases are very common and very fatal with the aborigines) they make use of the vapour bath, from which much relief is obtained. The bath is constructed in a very similar manner to their cooking ovens, the only real difference being simply that the hole for the bath is made sufficiently large to contain the body of the patient, and the glowing bottom of the hole is covered to the depth of a foot and a half with green boughs which had previously been made damp, instead of a thin sprinkling of moist grass, as is the case when cooking. When the hole has been sufficiently heated the ashes, etc., are scraped out, and the damp green boughs nicely spread, upon which the patient is carefully placed. He is then covered all over by an opossum cloak, with the exception of his face, which is left bare. Then all over the cloak earth is spread of a thickness capable of retaining the steam without weighing too heavily upon the patient. To attain the former and obviate the latter the finest earth that can be procured is used—that is, in the absence of sand, sand in all cases being preferred when obtainable. During the progress of the bath the perspiration exudes from the face in great globules, and the hair becomes quite wet from the same cause. A female attendant is seated by the side of the patient, and it is her duty to wipe off the perspiration as occasion requires, the napkin used for this purpose being a soft piece of the ever useful opossum skin.

When the banyal,[1] or wise man of the tribe, thinks that the patient has been baked enough he is removed from the pit, carefully and expeditiously rubbed dry, after which he is closely rolled up in cloaks and laid so that a breath of wind cannot reach him.

Although the aborigines are perfectly well aware of the vast benefit which patients suffering from many complaints derive from the use of these baths, it is but seldom that their efficacy is tested, simply because the preparation of them entails more labour than they care about expending, unless, indeed, in extreme cases, or when the patient is held in high estimation by the tribe; then, of course, no degree of trouble is deemed burdensome.

When the bleeding operation has not resulted as was expected and desired, and even the vapour bath has failed to yield the relief usually accruing therefrom, and when the disease has progressed until the patient has become moribund they adopt a last and most disgusting remedy, which is deemed infallible in the most extreme cases.

Mulierem ob juventutem firmitatemque corporis lectam sex vel plures viri in locum hand procul a castris remotum deducunt. Ibique omnes deinceps in illa libidinem explent. Tum mulier ad pedas surgere jubetur, quo facilius, id quod maribus excepit, effluere possit. Quod in vase collectum œgrotanti ebibendum praebent.

The aborigines have unbounded faith in this truly horrible dose, and enumerate many, many instances wherein it has effected marvellous cures. We, however, have known of its having been administered in several cases without the remotest revivifying . result. It may be that this fluid is (in fact, some savants positively assert that it is so) the very essence of life, as well as containing the germs thereof, and that administering a draught of it to a patient slowly but surely dying from sheer exhaustion, consequent upon a long fit of illness (the illness itself having died out or been cured) might have the wonderful effect detailed so positively by the natives, but this is purely a question for physicians to consider.

They are singularly successful in the cure of snake poisoning. A native dying from snake-bite is an unknown occurrence, although there are great numbers of them bitten from time to time by these reptiles.

Their method of extracting the poison is by severely pinching the bitten part between the thumbs, after which they suck the wound for five minutes, or until a piece of opossum skin which is being heated is deemed sufficiently warm for their purpose. When it is so they cease sucking, and place the heated opossum skin on the wound, holding it tightly pressed against the bitten part with the palm of the hand. When the skin becomes comparatively cool sucking is again had resource to and continued until the skin is again heated to the required degree, when sucking is again discontinued, and the warm skin applied, and so on until the patient is deemed out of danger.

A sting from a deaf adder, however, is considered by them a hopeless case; therefore they never attempt the extraction of the deadly virus injected by that reptile's horny tail spur; in fact, they have not time to try a cure, for the victim rarely lives twenty minutes after being wounded.

These reptiles are the most dreaded, as well as the most dangerous, of the snake kind, not only because of the superior virulency of their poison, but for the reason that nothing will induce them to move from the position in which they are found. If one is touched by a foot, or even a stick, he does not crawl away as quickly as possible, as it is the habit of the other reptiles to do; no, indeed, he merely raises his head and tail simultaneously with the rapidity of thought, and seizes the disturbing object with his mouth, holding firmly thereby whilst he drives his tail spur into it repeatedly.

We once saw a native bitten on the shin by a black snake. When it accurred we were shooting ducks on a Murray lagoon. The blackfellow, after being bitten, got a stick and killed the snake. He then squatted on the ground, and pinched the bitten part very hard between his thumb nails. The blood, as a matter of course under this treatment, oozed from the punctures pretty freely, and as long as the slightest indication of blood was visible, so long did the native continue the pinching. However, the whole operation did not occupy more than ten minutes. After that lapse of time the blackfellow got up, said it was all right, and there was an end of the matter. On another occasion we knew of a native being bitten on the great toe, also by a black snake. He was walking to the camp from the fishing ground after sunset when it happened, and as he had still two miles to go after the accident the poison had ample time to get into the circulation. In this case the poison could not be pinched out, as the punctures were in the horny[2] part of the toe. On reaching the camp he was attended to at once, but the poison had been too long in the system to allow of a perfect cure. Certainly, his life was saved, but he could not move out of the camp for two years afterwards without assistance, and the whole of these two years of enforced confinement he was continually breaking out in boils and blotches, which in all cases left very incurable sores and ulcers behind. All the sole of the bitten foot suppurated and came away piecemeal, leaving the bones and tendons of the foot quite bare. He never regained his wonted strength, or even a semblance of it. Although he could walk about a little, it was quite an effort to do so. He wasted and dwindled quietly away without the least pain for a few years more, when he died. At the time of his death he was the veriest skeleton we ever saw, and so light that he could easily have been raised from the ground by one hand.

In their obstetric practice they are very primitive indeed; but then, to be sure, scientific assistance is rarely required by them during the periods of parturition, their unconventional manner of living, together with the simplicity of their dress, making Dame Nature's assistance ample on nearly all occasions. It does happen sometimes that a woman about to become a mother will be accompanied by one of her own sex into that part of the bush selected for the interesting event, but this is merely for company's sake, and not with the view of rendering assistance. As the mothers in all cases have their wits so well about them during those seasons, they even fasten the umbilical chord themselves. As soon as the dark mite of aboriginal humanity is brought forth the mother picks it up and carries it straight to the nearest available water, when she washes it clean, and that, too, without taking the chill off the water. When this essential has been satisfactorily concluded she rolls it up in her cloak, and walks off to the camp with the utmost composure. When she arrives there neither her appearance nor that of her new production elicits the least wonder or surprise. The putative father even sits calmly by, and pays no particular heed.

It frequently happens that a woman will be taken with the pains of labour during a trail from one place of encampment to another. When this occurs she merely drops out of the line of march, and under the shelter of some convenient bush brings forth her young, after which she picks up the trail again, and walks on to the new place of encampment, carrying her latest progeny with her in the most nonchalant manner imaginable, as though the penalty incurred by Eve had not descended to her aboriginal sisterhood.

During our very long experience of the aborigines, we have only known of one instance of death due to childbearing, and in that solitary case the woman, in our opinion, was physically incapacitated for the ordeal of maternity, even although it is such a simple matter from an aboriginal point of view, she being the veriest pigmy we ever saw; besides, she gave birth to twins on the occasion, which may have had something to do with it. Most singular, too, as far as we have been able to learn, this was the first and only instance of twins being born (and these were by a white father), known to the aborigines.

  1. Banyal: Doctor.
  2. The under portion, as well as a good distance up the sides of the feet and toes of the aborigines, the skin is nearly as hard as a horse's hoof. This merely applies, as, in fact, the whole of this book does, to the unsophisticated aborigines.