ON the 29th July 1853 His Excellency Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe addressed a circular letter to a number of the remaining early settlers (many of which had already passed away by this time), requesting information as to the time and circumstances of the first occupation of various parts of the colony of Victoria, Australia.
One of the many responses received, was from William Thomas, an Assistant Protector of the Aborigines who had been appointed to this post in 1839. He was overwhelming diligent and thorough in his job, sacrificing his own lifestyle and family to record and document the lifestyle of the Aborigine and the happenings of the mid 1800’s. In the letter presented to Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe, he provides quite a thorough overview in his “Brief Account of the Aborigines of Australia Felix” – into the lifestyles and traditions of the Aborigines prior to the European invasion and the catastrophe that ensued . . .
In 1839, some 200 ships arrived in Port Phillip, bringing settlers and their livestock. The Aborigine was slowly being evicted from Melbourne and surrounds extending way into the countryside. Batman’s Treaty with the Aborigines had died with him. The Protectorate did not honour the provision of food, supplies nor shelter to the Aborigine:
” . . . not a blanket to cover them and we their Protectors had not a single Blanket at our disposal for these poor creatures. St James the Apostle should have been here. Could the British Parliament or His Excellency have felt our feelings they would certainly never have placed us in such a position without means. They did not however in vain call out dinke – cold – I and my colleagues gave them blankets from our own beds.”
– Source: William Thomas’ Journal, 5th May 1839
“The sheep eat the grass belonging to his kangaroo, and what for no give him sheep?”
– Source: Excerpt – Report of Trial of Aborigines – Quote by Settler – 16th January 1841
“Why you want Black Fellows away? Plenty long time ago Meregeek [means very good] Batman come here. Black Fellows stop long long time. All Black Fellows plenty bread, plenty sugar, etc. etc. . . . “
– Source: Billibellary, head of Warworong Clan, as quoted by Thomas to Robinson, 1st January 1840
. . . to the hopelessness, alcoholism, violence, disease (venereal, flu, measles, etc.), – all introduced by the European settler – though the constabulary did try to claim that it was already amongst their midst – however William Buckley quickly confirmed “they had no such disorder” . . .
. . . the massacres, of which many evade record (e.g. pages removed from Thomas’ journal dating from December 1839 to 1st January 1840 – presumably the pages on which he had listed the deaths that had occurred from the April to the December of 1839 – interestingly, these occurred after the death of John Batman – also, by the 1st January 1840, the encampment at Melbourne was basically deserted by the Aborigines – except for a very few . . . )
. . . the death of so many Aborigines – even to the extent of killing of their own young; as they knew there was no longer a future for them . . .
Some Excerpts from William Thomas’ Journal:
“The blacks very dissatisfied this morning and talk much about no good white man, take away country, no good bush; all white men sit down, gogo kangaroo.
“The black fellows come to Melbourne and white men sulky. No good that. No Black fellows sulky when few white men here and Woodulyul Black.”
This is not the first time they have reasoned in this manner.”
– Source: William Thomas’ Journal, 17th September 1841
“What for white man guns? Big one hungry. Black fellows by and by – no kangaroo – white man take away black fellows Country, now gun. By and by all dead poor black fellow . . . “
“I have a long conversation this day with Billi Bellary on the subject of killing their infants when born, he acknowledged it was so, I named those who had had children since I had been among them – 8 in my tribes only, and only his Suzanna alive – he said they done it with a cord – generally – but sometimes by putting a Koogra [opossum rug] all round its head – he said that Black Lubra’s say ” . . . now no good children, black fellows say no country now for them, very good we kill and no more come up Pickaniny . . . ” – I pointed out to him the wickedness of the practice that God would ask all those Lubras when they died where those children were that they killed – Billybellary promised that he would endeavour to make them let their children live – he said there were 3 who would soon have pickaninys, marry.”
– Source: William Thomas’ Journal, 7th October 1843
The Aboriginal culture had been very enduring, purposeful and rich in nature – surviving for tens of thousands of years – here in Australia. Should the reader not have viewed the letter to Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe as quoted above, the following is an excerpt and insight into the Australian Aboriginal way of life, as documented in William Thomas’ letter :
SUPERSTITION, TRADITION, DEITIES
There is not a more diffident subject to treat upon than the superstitions of savage nations, for in treating of their superstitions wrongfully, you may be an obstacle on the one side to their minds being enlightened, and, on the other, place the people in the estimation of the world in a different light to what they should be.
There is not a portion of the aboriginal character that I feel less confident in remarking upon than their traditionary and superstitious notions, not but that I am aware that they exist, and that to a considerable extent, but to know their full import and meaning I feel persuaded that one had need become an aboriginal native.
And yet much has been written by individuals who have had little or no intercourse with them, which has materially bewildered the world touching the aborigines of Australia, as to whether they have not been so low in creation as to have no conception (judging from the vague accounts that have already emanated from different authors) of a Deity.
- E., an intelligent writer, whose heart is warmly engaged in the cause of these poor heathens, remarks (in No. 2 on aboriginal subjects, which appeared in the Geelong Advertiser in 1844):
“It is doubtful whether there exists among them any notion of the existence of a Supreme Being which contains the slightest analogy to revealed truth,” and, further, “that where any idea of a Supreme Intelligence exists, there have usually existed some outward indications thereof, as manifested in sacred relics, idols, rites, and ceremonies constituting religion; the entire absence of everything of this sort among the savages of Australia seems, therefore, corroborative of the utter loss of the knowledge of God.” Equally, on the same ground of reasoning, may the conclusion be arrived at in this colony a few years since, by one travelling from Gippsland to the River Glenelg, and from the Bay to the Murrumbidgee, for what “outward indications” would he have witnessed among the white people ? and had he come from some strange land, of a strange tongue not having any idea from whence we came, who or what we or our fathers were as far as “outward indications” are concerned, what other impression would the traveller have than that we had altogether lost (if we ever had had any) all idea of an intelligent Supreme, and upon the very same grounds adduced by this zealous writer, that there are no “sacred relics, rites, or ceremonies constituting religion” to be observed among us. We should consider, moreover, that people may have notions of what perhaps their very superstitious laws enjoin perfect silence upon, and much of this mute solemnity is to be observed in the character of the aboriginal inhabitants of Australia.
Mr. Assistant-Protector Parker, of the Loddon, has supposedly discovered “in their ceremonies and superstitions the obscure and nearly obliterated relics of the ancient ophiolatry or serpent worship,” and this from the Mindye. The Miudye is certainly considered by them as a visible and invisible being. According to their account, he is seen and not seen at one and the same time; but there is no ceremony whatever that I can trace among them that bears any analogy to what he supposes can give me any belief that they have any notion of the “Ancient Ophiolatry” so prevalent formerly, and still known in India and Africa. The Mindye has its residence, and some old prejudices exist among the aged that a certain family has the power of enchanting or incanting this being. The small-pox brought forward by Mr. Parker is no more than any other epidemic occasioned by the Mindye. The being called the Mindye has no independent power; he is under the control of the Creator of all things, and, as they superstitiously believe, the family afore-mentioned. The term ” Monola Mindye,” as Mr. Parker has it “dust of the Mindye” is incorrect. “Lillipook Mindye,” which Mr. P. has as a further proof “scales of the Mindye” is still more ridiculous. “Lillipook” means the cup which held the pock. The personages of the other Deities or Superior Beings spoken of by Mr. Parker do not tally with accounts received by me. Although I am in possession of much of their mythology, yet I am so dissatisfied with my own belief of the real meaning that I venture only to give you what I think you may safely commit to the press, worked up in your own superior style.
What I give you has been tried over and over again from statements made by old and young of different tribes at various times. I have been so scrupulously doubtful of the accuracy, like Thomas the Apostle; I have done as much as could be done without becoming an aboriginal native to arrive at the truth.
The Australian aborigines believe in two principal Deities, viz.: Punjil, the maker of the earth, trees, animals, and man. Punjil, they say, had a wife named Boi Boi, but he never saw her face. She, however, bore him two children, one a son named Binbeal, the other a daughter named Karakarook.
Binbeal is committed the sovereignty of the heavens, and;
Karakarook the incidental occurrences on earth;
while great Punjil stalks like a “big one gentleman” in the clouds, on the earth, &c., always carrying a “big one sword”.
The Australian’s next Deity is Pallian, brother of Punjil
Pallian made all seas, rivers, creeks, and waters; also all the fish in the ocean, seas, rivers, &c. He governs the waters; was always in the waters, walking, bathing, and going over the seas.
Creation of Man
Punjil one day cut, with his large knife, two pieces of bark, mixed up a lot of clay, and made two black men, one very black and the other not quite black more like dirty red brick. He was from morning till night making them; it was not bright day then, but the sun was like blood all day. He began to make man at the feet, then made legs, and so on to the head. He then made the other in like manner, and, smoothing them both over with his hand from the feet to the head, he put on one’s head curly hair and named him Kookinberrook; on the other straight hair and named him Berrookboorn. After finishing the two men, Punjil looked on them, was pleased, and danced round them. He then lay on each of them, blowing into their nostrils, mouth, and navel, and the two men began to move. He bade them get up, which they did (young men, not like pickaninnies); he told them their names; he showed his brother Pallian the two men he had made.
Creation of Woman
The next day Pallian was in a creek paddling and beating in the water, in which he used to indulge. After some time the water got thick like mud, so that he could scarcely move; he plucked off a small bough from a tree that hung over the creek, and looked through the bough at the water, and said, “name you”. He beat harder and harder, and saw near him come up four hands, then two heads, and so on, till breasts, and two human figures complete appeared. Pallian exclaimed, “like my brother Punjil, me make two Bagrooks.” He beat again the waters, and the two lubras came above the water and fell on the land, but they could not move; he carried one and then the other to his brother Punjil, who breathed into their nostrils, mouth, and navel, and Punjil gave them names to one Kunewarra, to the other Kuurrook. They gave each koolin a lubra. Punjil put a spear in each koolin’s hand, and Karakarook, daughter to Punjil, put in each lubra’s hand a kannan (woman’s stick). Punjil, Pallian, and Karakarook go out with them some days, showing them how to get their food. The two men were taught to spear kangaroos, emus, &c., and the two lubras to get gum, roots, bandicoots, grubs, &c. One morning, when they awoke, they “no see Punjil, Pallian, and Karakarook”; “they had gone up above”. The blacks say that all this took place “very far, far away” to the N.W., not where “now blackfellows all about here sit down,” alluding to their belief that man and woman were first created in other countries. All agree (I mean different tribes) in stating that that country was “far, far away,” beyond what they know to the N.W., over seas. If the point they direct to be correct, it tallies with our position of the western part of Asia.
How Man first came in possession of Fire
They say that long time after Punjil made man and woman, blacks had no fire, were very cold, and eat all flesh raw”; that some lubras went out to get food. They were with their kannan digging up murrar (piss-ants’ eggs), when several snakes of all kinds came up out of the earth where they were digging; that they were terribly frightened; kept beating the snakes but could not kill them. To their relief came down Karakarook with a large kannan, and two young men named Tourt and Tarrer; that Karakarook and the lubras fought the snakes for a long time, when the end of Karakarook’s stick broke off; from the piece broken off arose smoke. A bird (by their account of the same kind as a crow, only of a great size as large as an eagle) flew down and ran off with the fire. Tourt and Tarrer immediately flew up in pursuit of the crow, while Karakarook remained with the lubras. The crow flew to a mountain named Nun-nur-woon, where it was overtaken by the two flying young men. Tarrer returned with the fire safe, having pulled off bark from one tree and another to keep it from being exhausted. “Tourt no more come back”; he was burnt to death on a mountain named Munnio, where he had kindled a small fire lest what small quantity he had should be lost, and Punjil, for Tourt’s good deed, turned him into a large star, that always looks like fire. Karakarook showed the lubras her stick, and, having examined the qualities of it, bade them never to be without fire. Tarrer afterwards directed them to where the stick might be found, and showed them how to make fire; disappeared, and was no more seen.
Notions of the Flood
The blacks say that after they had fire they were all marnumuk (meaning comfortable), and increased to great numbers; and after many, many years “blackfellows get very bad (wicked), when Punjil and Pallian big one sulky.” “Punjil come down with his big one knife and cut the earth all over like blackfellow cut up damper, and come up water, and Pallian drive all big one water from sea on land; then like great guns come up koor-reen (storms) and pull up all trees, and come up water everywhere, and very bad blackfellows drowned, and that great many not very bad, Punjil take up and make stars of, and that Punjil when all gone water, send another very good man and woman, named Berwool and Bobinger, and take and cut up one kangaroo and other animals into small pieces and they became a great number. ” Karakarook and Tarrer, directed by Punjil, again descend and make Berwool and Bobinger acquainted with the way to provide themselves with food and fire, but stop “only little time” and then leave them.
Tradition of the Dispersion of Mankind
The blacks have also a tradition of the dispersion of mankind over all the earth. They say that mankind, after many years, got very many and again very bad, fighting, killing, and eating one another “no work, blackfellows only beat and make lubras get ’em tunanan (victuals); blackfellows all sit down only one country; Punjil come down again with his big knife, big one sulky, and cut into pieces all men, women, and children, kangaroo, and all living animals, but they not die. Then come up a great storm (koor-reen), followed by many whirlwinds (pit-ker-ring), and take up all the pieces and carry them everywhere far, far away and drop them in every country; then blackfellows in all countries; no blackfellows in all countries till then; and blackfellow no more see ’em Punjil; he too much sulky. Black doctors sometimes dream of him”.
Tradition of the Origin of Wind
Hurricanes and whirlwinds, as well as wind, the blacks have a tradition came from an immense flight of magpies a larger species than those at present seen. The blacks say that they came in great numbers like flights of cockatoos; that after they came a rushing wind and a number of large bags like sacks appeared in the air, at first not full; they filled as they passed along, as you would blow full a bladder, and when full “they busted, made noise like gun, and then came wind; no wind before this”. It is singular that this occurred also “far, far away,” and came from N.W.
Thunder and Lightning
Thunder and lightning they believe to be the voice and fire from the eyes of Binbeal (I should state in the Australian Deities that Binbeal is a god that has a face that encompasses the earth, and has a lubra that always accompanies him. Binbeal is the rainbow, and his lubra is the reflection which may be seen occasionall.) when he is sulky with the elements, and will be obeyed; and when he has silenced all, he makes the sun stand before him.
Of all the beings most dreaded by the blacks, the principal is the Mindye. It appears to have no independent power, but by the command of Punjil is sent to destroy or afflict any people for bad deeds, that is to say, when they have done very bad things, or not killed enough wild blackfellows for their dead. Its form is that of a snake, but of great size, though it can contract itself into a small compass extend or contract as we would a telescope. The blacks give awful accounts of this being; it can make itself extend miles in length. They say that there are little Mindye; that Mindye inhabits a country named Lillgoner to N.W. in this district, and resides on a mountain named Bu-ker Bun-nel, and drinks at a creek named Neel Kumm; that the ground for a distance round is so hard that no rain can penetrate it (kulkubeek); that no wood but mullin grows near it; and that the land is covered with hard small substances like hail. A family named Munnie Brumbrum, the blacks say, have been the only blacks that have ventured to put foot on this awful country where Mindye resides, and they are the only blacks that can stay the ravages of the Mindye, or send it forth. It differs from a snake, by having a large head and two ears; it has three fangs coming from its tongue, and when it hisses out its fury the earth around is covered with white particles like snow, from which the blacks say the disease is inhaled. It often ascends the highest tree in a forest, and, like a ring-tailed opossum, secures its hold, and stretches itself over a vast extent of 20 and 30 miles.
When Mindye is in a district the blacks run for their lives, setting the bush on fire as they proceed, and not stopping to bury their dead or attend to any seized. Many drop down dead on the road. When seized, pains seize them in the back, with violent retching. When they try to get up they fall down; those not seized are quite well. The celebrated Munuie Brumbrum, the blacks say, can arrest and stay the Mindye by a secret move with his hand or finger. Such is the nature of the attack of the Mindye.
Any plague is supposed to be brought on by the Mindye or some of its little ones. I have no doubt that, in generations gone by, there has been an awful plague of cholera or black fever, and that the wind at the time, or some other appearance from N.W., has given rise to this strange being.
Superstition about Consulting Bears
The bear is a privileged animal, and is often consulted in very great undertakings. I was out with a celebrated Western Port black tracking five other blacks. The tracks had been lost some days at a part of the country where we expected they must pass. We ran down a creek; after going some miles a bear made a noise as we passed. The black stopped, and a parley commenced. I stood gazing alternately at the black and the bear. At length my black came to me and said, “Me big one stupid; bear tell me no you go that way”. We immediately crossed the creek, and took a different track. Strange as it may appear, we had not altered our course above one and a half miles before we came upon the tracks of the five blacks, and never lost them after. The bear, too, must not be skinned. The blacks have a strange tale of the bears having stolen all their tarnuk (buckets) and drained a creek of Avater, and so bewildered the blacks that Karakarook came down, and it was settled by Karakarook, on the part of the blacks, that they would no more take the skins from the bears’ bodies, and on the part of the bears, that they would no more in any way molest the blacks in supply of water and vessel. The wombat (or warren) is also a sacred animal, and must not be skinned. Many birds are also sacred; some may be eaten by the aged only; others by the doctors only.
Superstitious Notions of the Warmum
The blacks have superstitious notions of many places, in which, no doubt, in bygone days some awful calamity had befallen their forefathers. Warmum is a very high mountain N.W. of Gippsland and N.E. of Western Port. The blacks have a superstitious notion that whoever looks on this mountain direct will first be struck blind, and then dead; no one can look at it and live unless through some medium. The lubras veil their faces when they come within sight, or put boughs and twigs before their faces. The men, when prompted by curiosity to behold it, look along a stick as white people would do through a telescope. The blacks say that “big one Punjil once sit on that mountain”.
Charmers or Enchanters
There are characters among the blacks Avho are supposed to possess powers according to their various qualifications. When a continuance of rain is desired, the charmer is applied to, who sings,
” Won-ner-rer Nger-wein Barm-we-are Won-ner-rer
Tin-der-buk Koo-de-are Nger-wein Koo-de-are Tin-der-buk
During the time that this is sung the charmer sits in his mia-mia, and with a piece of thin bark, about a foot or eighteen inches long, continues throwing hot dust from the fire into the air, alternately mumbling and singing the above song; in fact, all their charmings are in mumbling language, not known to the rest of the blacks. I have not succeeded in getting a translation of this song, if indeed the words have any meaning at all.
We have the Western Port tribe a celebrated charmer-away of rain, old Bobbinary. I have known this man to be kept singing for hours. The blacks say, when Bobbinary was a child that it had been raining for some days, and “blackfellows all sad, their bellies tied up to keep off hunger; that the child Bobbinary began to sing, and that sun immediately came out, and no more rain. That ever since then he has been able to send rain away”.
The blacks have various kinds of doctors for eyes, bowels, head, &c., and, like white physicians, are noted in proportion to the remarkable cures said to have been wrought. But the highest pitch of the profession is flying. Among the tribes who have visited the settlement there has been but one, that has come to my knowledge, possessed of this power, whose name is Malcolm, of the Mount Macedon tribe. I have known this man to be sent for 100 miles. The blacks say that he has power to soar above the clouds, and to fly like an eagle; he also can, in some cases, recover the marmbula (kidney fat) when it has been stolen. I have a most singular account of one of his serial journeys, together with the solemnity of the encampment during his two hours’ flight, but cannot trace it now. This Malcolm (aboriginal name Myngderrar) is said to have inherited this power from his father, who was famous before him.
Murrina Kooding, or Strength Lost
In the encampment south of the Yarra, on the evening of l were Goulburn, Mount Macedon, Barrabool, Yarra, and Western Port blacks. The Goulburn lubras, quite naked, stole upon seven young men. No sooner had the women their hands on the heads of the young men than the latter appeared helpless; they cut from each young man a lock of his hair. As soon as the hair was cut the young men fainted; the women took the ornaments from the men’s heads and decamped. The young men’s friends came about them to comfort them, but life apparently could scarcely be kept in them. Their friends sat with them the whole of the night.
On the following morning, the doctors assembled; a fire was made about a quarter or half a mile from the encampment, and the seven young men were brought, each borne by two friends bearing pieces of lighted bark in their hands, to the spot; the young men were placed round the large fire at some distance, and before each was the bark brought by the friends. The doctors, mumbling and humming, with a piece of glass bottle commenced scraping off all the hair from the crown of the head to the feet, and then rubbed them from head to feet with werup (red ochre). The young men lay speechless during the whole of the time the ceremony was being performed, and every muscle of their faces seemed to be keenly noticed by the doctors. This ceremony lasted from sunrise to three hours afterwards. I understand that these young men would have died had not this ceremony been performed. Strength left them as the lock fell from their heads. (Is not this some semblance to Samson’s case?)
Although there may be 150 mia-mias (native huts) erected on the formation of a fresh native encampment, no altercation, to my knowledge, has ever taken place touching site, or trees to be barked. They know beforehand where the chief’s mia-mia is to be, and the distance required for his immediate connexions none asking his fellow permission or advice. They commence barking and building; in one half hour’ I have seen one of the most beautiful, romantic, and stillest parts of the wilderness become a busy and clamorous town, and the beautiful forest marred for materials for their habitation, and as much bustle as though the spot had been located for generations.
Although to a casual observer a native encampment may appear void of arrangement, such is not the case; if the whole or most of a tribe be present, it is divided into small hamlets of about six mia-mias each, distant from each other five or six yards, merely sufficient to prevent the fires of one from molesting the other. The hamlets are about twenty yards from each other, or more, according to the space of ground on which they are encamped. In each of these hamlets is one married man of consequence, whose duty it is to keep order, settle differences, &c. It often happens that one hamlet may have an altercation with another; a lubra may have been seduced, or what not. The two hamlets will settle the dispute early on the following morning, the other hamlets no more interfering than if nothing was on the carpet, precisely as in some of our courts and alleys in England when two neighbours quarrel, the others take no more notice than if nothing was the matter. I have often been much annoyed, when I have seen one knocking the other about and blood flowing from the head, to see an influential black of the next hamlet, coolly sitting at his mia-mia smoking his pipe merely looking on. They hold no animosity when the quarrel is settled by the magistrate of the hamlet. The combatants may be seen sitting together sucking or cleaning each others’ wounds, or smoking their pipes and eating together.
View other important events in Victoria’s History . . .