“Cannibalism is practised by all natives on the north coast with whom I have come in contact, with the exception of a very small tribe inhabiting the immediate neighbourhood of Port Essington … The eating of grown-up people—that is, of natives—is, as far as I can ascertain, not practised. Only children of tender age—up to about two years old—are considered fit subjects for food, and if they fall ill are often strangled by the old men, cooked, and eaten, and all parts except the head, which is skinned and buried, are considered a delicacy. Parents eat their own children, and all, young and old, partake of it. The only instance I have heard where grown-up people have been eaten, was that of two Europeans who were out exploring in the neighbourhood of the Tor Rock, about forty miles inland from Mount Norris Bay; this was in 1874. These unfortunate travellers were, according to the statements of the friendly natives, killed by the ‘Tor Rock’ tribe, cooked and eaten; and from my own knowledge of the natives in that neighbourhood I have no reason to doubt this statement to be correct.” (P. Foelsche, “Notes on the Aborigines of North Australia”, in Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, vol. 5, 1882.)
“The natives to the south eat human flesh. It is said that they engage in regular human hunting parties for this purpose … It is even said that they roast and eat their own infants, if they succeed each other too quickly. Only last year a woman not far from here did it, and when reproved for so doing, by means of an interpreter (for they speak a different language), she was surprised at being found fault with, as she considered the roasting and eating of her own child as something quite natural.” (Rev. Louis Schulze, missionary, “The Aborigines of the Upper and Middle Finke River: Their Habits and Customs”, in Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, vol. 14, 1891.)
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There are literally hundreds of accounts of Aboriginal cannibalism, dating from the first European settlement in Australia to the 1930s or even later. These accounts were made in all the states and territories of Australia with the possible exception of Tasmania. They were written by witnesses and commentators from a wide variety of backgrounds who wrote in many genres—newspaper articles; autobiographies, many not meant for publication; court reports; scholarly proceedings, as in the accounts quoted above. They were written by persons not in contact with one another, often hundreds of kilometres apart, and having no knowledge of the accounts made by other white Australians, and whose veracity, when they wrote on other topics, would not be questioned.
Reports of Aboriginal cannibalism comprised a significant component of works on Aboriginal society down to the 1950s or even later. Since then they have vanished from all depictions of Aboriginal society, and, if asserted today, would be regarded as the embodiment of racism, and dismissed out of hand. These old and frank depictions of Aboriginal society have been replaced by their opposite: veneration for the indigenous inhabitants of Australia and their society as utopian and pristinely moral, and any trace of the endemic and nightmarishly barbaric world inhabited by the Aborigines found by virtually all early observers here has been totally erased, its depiction as fact wholly taboo.
Aboriginal cannibalism had many different aspects, but the practice existed because of one all-important fact. The Aborigines were pre-literate nomadic hunter-gatherers, who did not grow crops or domesticate livestock for food, and thus were often starving, and were certainly lacking in protein sources. As a result, they turned to eating human flesh, often making a virtue of necessity by endowing the practice with religious significance. Sometimes their cannibalism consisted of deliberately killing and eating small children, women, or the elderly, sometimes of eating enemy warriors slain in battle in the frequent inter-tribal wars and conflicts (which are also almost entirely missing from recent accounts of Aboriginal society). Another means of accomplishing the all-important goal of limiting a tribe’s population to a level which could realistically be supported by the available resources was infanticide, which was widely practised and which has also been excluded from contemporary depictions of Aboriginal life. (On the reasons for Aboriginal cannibalism and infanticide, see my article “Life and Death in Pre-Contact Aboriginal Australia”, Quadrant, October 2020.)
“Mr Willshire declares that infanticide is a very common crime among the natives, and that lubras [Aboriginal women] as a rule kill off their surplus offspring, two being considered a full family. A sable matron once owned to him that she had killed three of her five children immediately after birth, and remarked, ‘me bin keep em one boy one girl, no good keep em mob, him too much wantem tuckout’.” — Review of W.H. Willshire’s The Aborigines of Central Australia, in the South Australian Register, May 14, 1889.
Aboriginal cannibals demonstrated a number of distinctive culinary preferences. It appears that they greatly favoured the taste of Chinese people, whom they found and killed in remote areas of settlement, over the apparently saltier taste of Europeans:
“Urquhart says his boys always told him the blacks did not like the taste of whites much—they were too salt [sic]—but that they relished Chinamen, hundreds of whom were killed while packing provisions across the Peninsula to the Palmer River goldfields [in Queensland] in the days following Mulligan’s discovery of the field. This fact was put down to the salt-beef diet of the early whites, while the Chinese lived more on rice. Urquhart was called out to hunt up the murderers of a Chinaman living in a lonely hut by the roadside … Following up the blacks, Urquhart came upon them while engaged in the preparation of a meal. He and his troopers dashed into the camp and scattered the natives in all directions. On the fire was a looted pot, and simmering inside it was the Chinaman’s foot and some sweet potatoes.” –-Hudson Fysh, Taming the North (1933), referring to the period after gold was discovered in 1873.
“The blacks west of Cooktown showed me several of the clay white-ant nest camp ovens, where they roasted the Chinese in the old Palmer digging days. On one occasion, I was present where two Chinese were roasted, and cut up, smelling and looking exactly like roast pork, even the yellow skin crinkled like that of pork, the resemblance being astonishing. One man they refused to eat, as he had been an opium eater, and his flesh had the odour of opium.” –“Memories of the Late Archibald Meston”, courtesy of E.A. Meston, in Cummins and Campbell’s Monthly Magazine, December 1936.
Cannibalism apparently became part of the religious practice among at least some of the Aborigines.
“In parts of New South Wales such as Bathurst, Goulburn, the Lachlan or Macquarie, it was customary long ago for the first-born of every lubra to be eaten by the tribe, as part of a religious ceremony; and I recollect a blackfellow who had, in compliance with the custom, been thrown when an infant on the fire, but was rescued and brought up by some stock-keepers who happened accidentally to be passing at the time. The marks of the burns were distinctly visible on the man when I saw him, and his story was well known in the locality.” –– R. Brough Smith, The Aborigines of Victoria, Volume One, 1878.
It would seem, however, that most of the people eaten by the Aborigines had already died, and their bodies were cooked and eaten rather than buried. There are dozens of contemporary reports about this practice, which appears to have been almost ubiquitous in some parts of Australia.
“When anyone dies, provided he or she be not too old, certain of the male relatives take the body out into the bush and cook it in a native oven … When all the flesh is removed—apparently everything is eaten—the bones are collected, and, with the exception of the long ones from the arm, are wrapped in paperbark and handed over to the custody of a relative.”— Walter Baldwin Spencer and Francis James Gillen, Across Australia, 1912.
There are also a great many reports of the cooking and eating of warriors from hostile tribes who had been killed in one of the many and frequent tribal wars and violent clashes.
As noted, however, infanticide appears to have been an important means of population limitation. Nineteenth-century European observers of Aboriginal life in South Australia and Victoria stated that about 30 per cent of Aboriginal infants were killed at birth. According to Gillian Cowlishaw, writing on “Infanticide in Aboriginal Australia” in Oceania (vol. XLVIII, 1978), deformed children were “always killed at birth”, as were “one or both of twins”, and illegitimate children.
In addition to accounts by settlers, reports about cannibalism were made to Australian government officials and accepted by them. For instance, in forwarding to the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, Lord Stanley, a copy of an account by Charles Sievwright, assistant protector of the Aborigines of the Port Phillip District, dated April 25, 1841, Governor Gipps noted: “It exhibits, perhaps, one of the most ferocious acts of cannibalism on record.” The account, describing the fate of the corpse of a young Bolagher woman, who had been speared by a member of the Targurt people at Lake Terang, west of Melbourne, makes gruesome reading. (I owe this reference to Michael Connor, The Invention of Terra Nullius, Macleay Press, 2005, pp. 91–94):
On being directed by some of the women, who had likewise sought shelter near my tent, to the huts of the Bolaghers, I there found a young woman, supported in the arms of some of her tribe, quite insensible, and bleeding from two severe wounds upon the right side of the face; she continued in the same state of insensibility till about 11 o’clock, when she expired …
About an hour after the death of the young woman, the body was removed a few hundred yards into the bush by the father and brother of the deceased; the remainder of the tribe following by one at a time, until they had all joined what I imagined to be the usual funeral party. Having accompanied the body when it was removed, I was then requested to return to my tent, which request I took no notice of. In a few minutes I was again desired, rather sternly, and by impatient signs, to go. I endeavoured to make them understand that I wished to remain, and I sat down upon a tree close to where the body lay. The father of the deceased then came close up to me, and pointed with his finger to his mouth, and then to the dead body. I was at this moment closely and intensely scrutinized by the whole party. I at once guessed their meaning, and signified my intention to remain, and, with as much indifference as I could assume, stretched myself upon the tree, and narrowly watched their proceedings.
With a flint they made a small incision upon the breast, when a simultaneous shriek was given by the party, and the same violent signs of grief were again evinced. After a short time the operation was again commenced, and in a few minutes the body disembowelled.
The scene which now took place was of the most revolting description; horror-stricken and utterly disgusted, while obliged to preserve that equanimity of demeanour upon which I imagined the development of this tragedy to depend, I witnessed the most fearful scene of ferocious cannibalism.
The bowels and entire viscera having been disengaged from the body, were at first portioned out; but from the impatience of some of the women to get at the liver, a general scramble took place for it, and it was snatched in pieces, and, without the slightest process of cooking, was devoured with an eagerness and avidity, a keen, fiendish expression of impatience for more, from which scene, a memory too tenacious upon this subject will not allow me to escape; the kidneys and heart were in like manner immediately consumed, and as a climax to these revolting orgies, when the whole viscera were removed, a quantity of blood and serum which had collected in the cavity of the chest was eagerly collected in handsful [sic], and drunk by the old man who had dissected the body; the flesh was entirely cut off the ribs and back, the arms and legs were wrenched and twisted from the shoulder and hip joints, and their teeth employed to dissever the reeking tendons, when they would not immediately yield to their impatience. The limbs were now doubled up and put aside in their baskets; and on putting a portion of the flesh upon a fire which had previously been lit, they seemed to remember that I was of the party; something was said to one of the women, who cut off a foot from the leg she had in her possession, and offered it to me; I thought it prudent to accept of it, and wrapping it in my handkerchief, and pointing to my tent they nodded assent, and I joyfully availed myself of their permission to retire. They shortly afterwards returned to their huts with the debris of the feast, and during the day, to the horror and annoyance of my two boys, and those belonging to the establishment, they brought another part, and some half-picked bones, and offered them to us. The head was struck off with a tomahawk and placed between hot stones in the hollow of a tree, where it has undergone a process of baking, and it is still left there otherwise untouched.
“I regret to state that I know of 44 non-Christian infants who have been killed by their mothers at birth, and one child even of four years of age who was killed and eaten by its mother: now the latter is a Christian. I always let the blacks know when I visit their camps that I am fond of their children, and offer them so much rice and flour for any infant they do not want.” — Report of Father Nicholas, Parish Priest in Broome, in Royal Commission on the Condition of the Natives, Parliamentary Papers 5 of 1905, Perth.
“Since their baptism the missionaries are informed of many matters which were formerly never admitted. New-born children are frequently killed by their mothers—of twins the female, or if [of] one sex the weaker, also all the children who are feeble or cripples, and many bastards.” (Report by Friedrich Krichauff, MP, on the Finke River Mission Station, in the South Australian Register, 1 July 1889.)
That cannibalism was widely practised by Australian Aborigines was a commonplace in virtually all accounts of their society down at least to the 1950s. As late as 1957, Frederick McCarthy, an eminent anthropologist and the Foundation Principal of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, could assert as a matter of fact in his Australian Aborigines: Their Life and Culture that “Cannibalism existed not only as a part of death and mourning rites, but also in the custom of infanticide.”
By around 1970 or slightly later, however, such assertions were conspicuous by their absence from newly published accounts of Aboriginal society, with nothing said about cannibalism and infanticide. Anyone making such assertions would be condemned. A typical example of this may be found online, in a biographical account—by Lauren Gawne, posted in 2016 on something termed the “Dangerous Women Project”—of the career of Daisy Bates (1859–1951), who spent several decades living with outback Aborigines and wrote several well-known books and 270 newspaper articles on Aboriginal life. Dr Gawne was there described as “a linguist working on the documentation of linguistic diversity, particularly in Nepal”, and is now Senior Lecturer in the Department of Languages and Linguistics at La Trobe University. According to her, Bates’s “reports of cannibalism among the Aborigines of Australia were discredited during her lifetime, to her embarrassment … These stories of cannibalism illustrate Bates’s slippery relationship with the truth. Julia Blackburn, in her very perceptive biography, is direct in her appraisal: ‘Daisy Bates was a liar, of that I am sure’.”
Speaking of liars, the situation since the 1970s has, as noted, changed utterly, and a wholly mendacious work like Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu can be hailed as the gospel truth about pre-contact Aboriginal societies simply because it credits them—wholly falsely—with a structure which has moved beyond the hunter-gatherer stage, a mode of development outgrown in the West several thousand years earlier.
Not only is criticism of the Aborigines now utterly taboo, but they are seen as embodying the highest of social values. For instance, another award-winning book, Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (2012) claims that they created “parks” and “estates” whose aesthetic sensibility was apparently very similar to that shown by Capability Brown when he laid out gardens for eighteenth-century English dukes and earls. The Aborigines demonstrated this remarkable artistic sense despite the fact that there was no equivalent of Blenheim and Althorp around which to set out these gardens: there was, in fact, not a single permanent building of any kind in pre-contact Australia.
The exaltation and veneration of the Aborigines is, blatantly, a new weapon by the Left to undermine the moral and political worth of mainstream Australian society and of the values of the West. It bears no relationship to the historical truth, and ought to be exposed relentlessly with truthful and accurate depictions of the nightmarish brutality of Aboriginal society, some of which has been explained in this essay, whose examples will surely be completely new to most readers, and which only scratch the surface of the actual facts.
William D. Rubinstein acknowledges the assistance of, in particular, Peter Bridge. Dr Rubinstein held Chairs of History at Deakin University and at the University of Wales, and is a frequent contributor to Quadrant.