The University of NSW demands a keen reverence for the ways and customs of “pre-invasion” Aborigines — an astonishing admonition in the light of current attention to domestic violence. Were those same standards embraced on campus, few female professors, lecturers or students would go unscarred
OK, the University of NSW wants its students to refer to Australia from 1788 as “invaded, occupied and colonized”. Moreover, students should be reverential towards the, er, invadees. For example, “the word ‘Elders’ should be written with a capital letter as a mark of respect.”
These Elders, say the guidelines, are “men and women in Aboriginal communities who are respected for their wisdom and knowledge of their culture, particularly the Law. Male and female Elders, who have higher levels of knowledge, maintain social order according to the Law.” The guidelines note that the “sophistication of Indigenous Australian social organization (is) starting to be more recognized.”
This is all terrific, but I don’t think it quite gets the flavor of pre-contact, and sometimes post-contact, Aboriginal social customs. Helpfully, the earliest white arrivals jotted down their impressions. Sensitive UNSW students and their lecturers, professors, administrators and campus thought-police, may find the rest of my piece upsetting. So I immediately issue them a ‘trigger warning’ and ‘need for safe space’ alert.
Newly-arrived British and French were shocked at the local misogyny they encountered. First Fleeter Watkin Tench noticed a young woman’s head “covered by contusions, and mangled by scars”. She also had a spear wound above the left knee caused by a man who dragged her from her home to rape her. Tench wrote,
They (Aboriginal women) are in all respects treated with savage barbarity; condemned not only to carry the children, but all other burthens, they meet in return for submission only with blows, kicks and every other mark of brutality.
He also wrote,
When an Indian [sic] is provoked by a woman, he either spears her, or knocks her down on the spot; on this occasion he always strikes on the head, using indiscriminately a hatchet, a club, or any other weapon, which may chance to be in his hand.
Marine Lt. William Collins wrote, “We have seen some of these unfortunate beings with more scars upon their shorn heads, cut in every direction, than could be well distinguished or counted.”
Governor Phillip’s confidant, Bennelong, in 1790 had taken a woman to Port Jackson to kill her because her relatives were his enemies. He gave her two severe wounds on the head and one on the shoulder, saying this was his rightful vengeance.
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Phillip was appalled that an Eora mother within a few days of delivery had fresh wounds on her head, where her husband had beaten her with wood.
In 1802 an explorer in the Blue Mountains wrote how, for a trivial reason, an Aboriginal called Gogy “took his club and struck his wife’s head such a blow that she fell to the ground unconscious. After dinner…he got infuriated and again struck his wife on the head with his club, and left her on the ground nearly dying.”
In 1825, French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville wrote “young girls are brutally kidnapped from their families, violently dragged to isolated spots and are ravished after being subjected to a good deal of cruelty.”
George Robinson in Tasmania said in the 1830s that men courted their women by stabbing them with sharp sticks and cutting them with knives prior to rape. The men bartered their women to brutal sealers for dogs and food; in one case, such a woman voluntarily went back to the sealers rather than face further tribal violence.
Also in the 1830s, ex-convict Lingard wrote: “I scarcely ever saw a married woman, but she had got six or seven cuts in her head, given by her husband with a tomahawk, several inches in length and very deep.”
Explorer Edward John Eyre, who was very sympathetic towards Aborigines, nevertheless recorded:
Women are often sadly ill-treated by their husbands and friends…they are frequently beaten about the head, with waddies, in the most dreadful manner, or speared in the limbs for the most trivial offences…
…few women will be found, upon examination, to be free from frightful scars upon the head, or the marks of spear wounds about the body. I have seen a young woman, who, from the number of these marks, appeared to have been almost riddled with spear wounds.
Louis Nowra visited outback communities and found them astonishingly brutal: “Some of the women’s faces ended up looking as though an incompetent butcher had conducted plastic surgery with a hammer and saw. The fear in the women’s eyes reminded me of dogs whipped into cringing submission.”
Bashing of women’s heads appears to have been the custom for millennia. Paleopathologist Stephen Webb in 1995 published his analysis of 4500 individuals’ bones from mainland Australia going back 50,000 years. (Priceless bone collections at the time were being officially handed over to Aboriginal communities for re-burial, which stopped follow-up studies). Webb found highly disproportionate rates of injuries and fractures to women’s skulls, with the injuries suggesting deliberate attack and often attacks from behind, perhaps in domestic squabbles. In the tropics, for example, female head-injury frequency was about 20-33%, versus 6.5-26% for males. The most extreme results were on the south coast, from Swanport and Adelaide, with female cranial trauma rates as high as 40-44% — two to four times the rate of male cranial trauma. In desert and South Coast areas, 5-6% of female skulls had three separate head injuries, and 11-12% had two injuries.
Webb could not rule out women-on-women attacks but thought them less probable. The high rate of injuries to female heads was the reverse of results from studies of other peoples. His findings, according to anthropologist Peter Sutton, confirm that serious armed assaults were common in Australia over thousands of years prior to conquest. Settlers reported that sexual violence, including pack rapes and horrific genital wounding, was inflicted in many groups on girls barely out of the toddler stage.
Solicitor/historian Joan Kimm wrote: “The sexual use of young girls by older men, indeed often much older men, was an intrinsic part of Aboriginal culture, a heritage that cannot easily be denied.”
Nowra quotes Walter Roth (1861-1933) a doctor, anthropologist and Chief Protector of Aborigines in Queensland. Roth described at the turn of the 20th century how, when a Pitta-Pitta girl first showed signs of puberty, “several men would drag her into the bush and forcibly enlarge the vaginal orifice by tearing it downwards with the first three fingers wound round and round with opossum string. Other men come forward from all directions, and the struggling victim has to submit in rotation to promiscuous coition with all the ‘bucks’ present.”
Even worse was his description of practices around Glenormiston:
A group of men, with cooperation from old women, ambush a young woman, and pin her so an old man can slit up the shrieking girl’s perineum with a stone knife, followed by sweeping three fingers round the inside of the virginal orifice. She is next compelled to undergo copulation with all the bucks present; again the same night, and a third time, on the following morning.
In Birdsville, a hardwood stick two feet long with a crude life-sized penis carving at the top, was used to tear the hymen and posterior vaginal wall.
In the Tully area, a very young man would give his betrothed to an old man to sleep with her and train her for him. The idea was that the elder would ‘make the little child’s genitalia develop all the more speedily’. There was no restriction on age or social status at which the bride would be delivered up. As Roth observed, ‘It is of no uncommon occurrence to see an individual carrying on his shoulder his little child-wife who is perhaps too tired to toddle any further.
Accounts from the missionary era are daunting. In 1905, the local telegraph operator at Fitzroy River reported that a five-year-old half-caste girl, Polly, “was out with the old woman, Mary Ann, when a bush black took her away for two nights during which time the blacks here said he made use of her. Such actions as that of Polly and the men are very common among the natives.” Anglican lay missionary Mary Bennett in 1934 testified,
The practice to which I refer is that of intercision of the girls at the age of puberty. The vagina is cut with glass by the old men, and that involves a great deal of suffering…I remember my old Aboriginal nurse speak with horror of the suffering which she had been made to undergo.
A practice as bad as female genital mutilation is still inflicted on hundreds of boys annually – involuntary sub-incision, the slitting open of the urethra.
In contemporary Australia, polygamy and traditions of promised- brides continue in Arnhem Land and other remote areas. Until recently, the judiciary was lenient in such cases involving forced under-age sex. Jarrett writes,
There are Aboriginal men who still claim these modern young girls as their promised possession, and have cars, guns, outstations and kin to help them secure and punish these resistant girls, well away from public purview … A man’s traditional sense of entitlement, and use of violence to enforce it, can still triumph over the emancipation of a young Aboriginal woman’s mind.
In 2004 , at Yarralin near Katherine, a 55-year-old married man physically and sexually assaulted his 14-year-old promised bride for two days even as she pleaded she was too young for sex. In August, 2005, in an under-the-tree session, Justice Brian Martin noted the cultural context and gave the man a one-month suspended sentence. On appeal the sentence was increased to three years and a defence appeal to the High Court was lost. Justice Martin later admitted he had been too lenient.
In 2002, at Maningrida, Jackie Pascoe Jamilmira, a 50-year-old wife killer, had forced sex on a 15-year-old promised bride, for whom he had given presents to the ‘bride’s’ parents. He then fired a shotgun into the air to warn off the girls’ family members. Justice John Gallop of the NT Supreme Court sentenced him to 24 hours jail for unlawful sex, saying the matter should never have come to court. Pascoe, he said, was exercising his conjugal rights in traditional society and the girl ‘knew what was expected of her. It’s surprising to me [that the defendant] was charged at all’.
The North Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service relied on expert anthropological evidence to argue that promised marriages were common and morally correct under Aboriginal law, and supported his application to the High Court. Nowra cites the case of a middle-aged Aboriginal man who anally raped a 14-year-old promised bride, and who was sentenced merely to detention for the duration of the NT court session.
Tribal warfare and paybacks were endemic. In Journey to Horseshoe Bend, anthropologist T.G.H. Strehlow described a black-on-black massacre in 1875 in the Finke River area of Central Australia, triggered by a perceived sacrilege:
The warriors turned their murderous attention to the women and older children and either clubbed or speared them to death. Finally, according to the grim custom of warriors and avengers they broke the limbs of the infants, leaving them to die ‘natural deaths’. The final number of the dead could well have reached the high figure of 80 to 100 men, women and children.
Revenge killings by the victims’ clan involved more than 60 people, with the two exchanges accounting for about 20% of members of the two clans. When Pauline Hanson, then member for Oxley, quoted this account in 1996, an Aboriginal woman elder (or “Elder” as UNSW would write it) replied, “Mrs Hanson should receive a traditional Urgarapul punishment: having her hands and feet crippled.”
Escaped convict William Buckley, who lived for three decades with tribes around Port Phillip, recounted constant raids, ambushes and small battles, typically involving one to three fatalities. He noted the Watouronga of Geelong in night raids ‘destroyed without mercy men, women and children.’
Historian Geoff Blainey concluded that annual death rates from North-East Arnhem Land and Port Philip, were comparable with countries involved in the two world wars, although Blainey’s estimate could be somewhat on the high side.
Other black-on-black massacres include accounts from anthropologist Bill Stanner of an entire camp massacre, an Aurukun massacre in the early 20th century, Strehlow’s account of the wiping out of the Plenty River local group of Udebatara in Central Australia, and the killing of a large group of men, women and children near Mt Eba, also in Central Australia.
Strehlow’s wife, Kathleen, wrote:
It would be no exaggeration to say that the system worked as one of sheer terror in the days before the white man came. This terror was instilled from earliest childhood and continued unabated through life until the extremity of old age seemed to guarantee some immunity from the attentions of blood avenger or sorcerer alike for wrongs real or imaginary…children were not exempted from capital punishment for persistent offences against the old tribal code.
The Murngin (now Yolngu) in north-east Arnhem Land during 1920s practiced a deadly warfare that placed it among the world’s most lethal societies. The then-rate for homicides of 330 per 100,000 (which author Stephanie Jarrett suggests could be grossly under-estimated) was 15 times the 2006-07 “very remote national Indigenous rate” of 22, and 300 times the 2006-7 national non-Indigenous rate. That Murngin rate was worse than in Mexico’s present Ciudad Juarez drug capital (300 homicides per 100,000), and more than three times worse than the worst national current rate (Honduras).
Aboriginal practices extant during white settlement were not all that worthy of current required genuflection by academia. Nor, of course, did the settlers effect much, or any net improvement, given the fatal diseases they introduced and the dispossession and cultural collapse they precipitated. What was, was; what happened, happened. There’s no need for UNSW to smother historical realities in a haze of political correctness.
Tony Thomas blogs at No B-S Here, I Hope
 Louis Nowra, Bad Dreaming. Pluto Press, North Melbourne, p10
 Joan Kimm, A Fatal Conjunction: Two Laws Two Cultures. Sydney, Federation Press, 2004, p76
 Op. cit., Nowra p12
 Op. cit., Kimm p46
 Stephanie Jarrett, Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence. Connor Court, Ballan, Vic, 2013, p123
 Op. cit., Nowra p6
 Stephen Webb, Palaeopathology of Aboriginal Australians. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, p2
 Joan Kimm, A Fatal Conjunction. Feeration Press, Leichardt, 2004, p. 64
 Op. cit., Nowra p15-16
 Keith Windschuttle, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: The Stolen Generations. Macleay Press, Sydney, 2009, p. 443.
 Op. cit., Jarrett, p329
 Hannah McGlade, Our Greatest Challenge. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2012, p.149.
 Op.cit., Nowra p7
 John Morgan, The Life and Adventures of William Buckley. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1980 (1852), p189.
 Peter Sutton, The Politics of Suffering. Melbourne University Publishing, 2011,