The first arrivals in Botany Bay and Sydney Cove wrote their impressions of the Aboriginals they came across in small groups. Among other observations, they noticed that the Aboriginal women showed signs of constant bashing. Indeed, it was no different from the bashing and child abuse presently witnessed among Aboriginal groups in central Australia. The indefatigable promoters of Aboriginal separatism see the history of Aboriginal society differently, Now Aboriginal society pre-settlement cannot be glorified too much. In all respects, they assert, Aboriginal society was superior to the white racists who established the complex society we see around us today. And to point out what the real first Australians achieved, is to earn the title of ‘white supremacists’. The history of Aboriginal society is either being rewritten or reinvented. Occasionally, a real historian will break through the fantasy and propaganda to state the truth.
Life and Death in Pre-Contact Aboriginal Australia
William D Rubinstein, Quadrant, 18 November 2020
When Europeans first settled in Australia in 1788, they encountered an Aboriginal society of almost incredible barbarism and violence. This was the reality of what they found. The reasons for the violence and barbarism of Aboriginal society derive entirely, or almost entirely, from one factor alone. All of the Aborigines of Australia were hunter-gatherers who had not domesticated livestock nor grown crops for food. As a result, the lives of the hundreds of small tribes that constituted Aboriginal society were engaged in a never-ending struggle to find what food they could from what little existed on this continent.
Directly because of this central fact, it was absolutely necessary to keep the size of each tribe small enough for its members to be kept alive by what food and other sustenance they could find. It was therefore absolutely necessary for them to avoid adding any excess mouths to feed to the limited numbers who could be kept alive by the methods of hunter-gatherers in the Dry Continent. They did this by systematically eliminating the excess mouths.
Probably the most important method of eliminating these excess mouths was infanticide, as Ludwik Krzywicki detailed in his 1934 anthropological study Primitive Society and Its Vital Statistics. Deliberate infanticide existed throughout Aboriginal society, and it was practised by nearly all of the Aboriginal tribes in Australia. “Horrible tales were told about it.
R. Oberlander was shown a woman who had murdered ten children.” Elderly women from the Dieri (Diyari) tribe admitted to South Australian mounted policeman Samuel Gason “of having disposed in this manner of two to four of their offspring: in this way, about 30% of new-born infants perished at the hands of their mothers in the Lake Eyre district”. Among the Narrinyeri (Ngarrindjeri) of the lower Murray district, “more than one half of the children fell victim to this atrocious custom”; the Congregationalist missionary George Taplin “knew several women who had murdered two or three of their new-born children”. Mounted policeman William Henry Willshire:
says of the parts of Central Australia known to him, that at least 60% of the women committed infanticide. He tells of one woman that she had five children, three of whom she murdered immediately after birth, and she explained in her broken English: “me bin keepem one boy and one girl, no good keepem mob, him to[o] much wantem tuckout!” Therefore the women of the bush daily murder their children and do not wish to raise more than two.
The ostensible reasons for widespread infanticide varied. Victorian government surveyor Philip Chauncy saw a young woman, shortly after her child’s birth, scratch “a hole in the sand behind her hut and having given it a ‘little’ knock on the head, laid it in the hole and kept on crying, the child crying too, till she could bear it no longer, and she went out and gave it another little knock which killed it”. Asked by Chauncy how she could do such a thing, she “replied pointing to the bag on her back that there was room only for one child, and she could not possibly carry another”. When Albert Alexander Le Souef, son of the protector of Aborigines in the Goulburn district, asked a young woman “why she had dashed her infant’s brains out against a tree” she “replied coolly: ‘Oh! too much cry that fellow”.
Frail and malformed children were murdered, among other reasons, just because they were frail. A twin was killed (and sometimes both) because the mother could not suckle it … When a mother died while suckling a child, the infant was buried with her, and death often awaited the babe when its father, who as a hunter maintained the family, departed this life.
Moreover, “sometimes an infant was murdered and cooked for its elder brother or sister to eat, in order to make him or her strong by feeding on the muscle of the baby”. Superstitions regarding twins often resulted in the murder of one or both. There were occasional cases of infants being killed to enable their mothers to suckle orphaned dingo pups instead.
At base, the reasons for widespread infanticide were the product of the Aborigines’ ubiquitous hunter-gatherer lifestyle. “The natives are generally much attached to their children … and yet there is no doubt that infanticide prevailed to a fearful extent.” Krzywicki cites the reasons for this as
connected with the difficulty of bringing up a child in the conditions of native life in Australia, and namely: the long sucking of the child at its mother’s breast, and the necessity of carrying the child on her back for several years during the wanderings inseparable from a roving way of life.