Aborigines

Infanticide in Traditional Aboriginal Society

Infanticide—the deliberate murder of new-born infants and young children—was practised widely, and perhaps ubiquitously, among Australian Aborigines before the coming of Europeans and the imposition of Western values, which, unlike the values of pre-contact Aborigines, regarded the deliberate killing of babies and small children as murder. How common was infanticide among pre-contact Aborigines? According to University of Michigan professor of anthropology Aram Yengoyan: “Infanticide was the primary means of population control. In theory, infanticide could have been as high as 40% to 50% of all births, and the population could have survived. In actuality infanticide rates were lower, and probably ranged from 15% to 30% of all births … Presently, infanticide is no longer practiced on missions and government stations. However, differential care (physical and affective) extended to infants could be interpreted as infanticide.” (Aram Yengoyan, “Biological and Demographic Components in Aboriginal Australian Socio-Economic Organization”, Oceania, Vol. 43 (2), December 1972, p. 88.)

Contemporary European observers of nomadic, tribal Aborigines were in apparent agreement that about 30 per cent of new-born Aboriginal children were routinely killed. According to Samuel Gason (1845–97), an early settler of the Flinders Ranges, writing of the Dieyerie tribe of the Cooper’s Creek area between South Australia and Queensland, “about thirty per cent are murdered by their mother at birth”. He gave as the reasons for this that “many” of the mothers married “very young, their first-born is considered immature, and not worth preserving”, and “because they do not wish to be at the trouble of rearing them, especially if weakly. Indeed, all sickly or deformed children are made away with, in fear of becoming a burden to the tribe.” (Cited in Robert Braugh Smyth, The Aboriginals of Victoria, Vol. I (London, 1878), pp. 51-52.)

This essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe and enjoy immediate access

Similarly, Rev. George Taplin (1831–79), a prominent Congregationalist missionary to Aborigines in the Murray Valley, stated that in the early 1860s, “one-third of the infants which were born were put to death. Every child which was born before the one which preceded it could walk was destroyed, because the mother was regarded as incapable of carrying two … All deformed children were killed as soon as born. Of twins, one and often both were put to death.” (Ibid., p. 52.) James Dawson (1806–90), a Scottish-born pastoralist arriving in 1840, who, according to his entry on Wikipedia “vigorously defended Aboriginal interests against government officials, politicians, and his fellow squatters and others”, agreed. “Children born with any deformity or defect attributable to close consanguinity, and likely to render them an encumbrance in their wanderings about the country, are destroyed. In an instance of two dumb children, which was attributed to this cause, the tribes would have put them to death but for British law.” (James Dawson, Australian Aborigines: Their Languages and Customs of Several Tribes of Aborigines in the Western District of Victoria, Melbourne, 1881, p. 61.)

Most European observers noted that these killings were carried out without the slightest sense of guilt or sadness; they were necessary for the survival of the tribe. Apparently, most infants were killed by burying them alive. Rev. Frederick August Hagenauer (1829–1909), a Moravian missionary in Gippsland, stated that Aboriginal tribes would “bury new-born babes alive in the sand”, which was formerly “a common practice”. (Ibid.) But in many cases, the reality of what occurred was far worse. According to Peter Beveridge (1829–85), a Scottish-born grazier near Swan Hill, who arrived in 1845 and wrote a posthumously published (in 1889) work on the Aborigines, “Infanticide was often practiced, and meals were made by mothers of their own offspring. This practice is attributable to laziness principally; for if a mother has two children, one two years old and the other just born, she is sure to destroy the youngest.” (Ibid.) Similarly, William Edward Stanbridge (1817–94), a founder of Daylesford and a local council member there, gave a similar description of their infanticide customs: “New-born babes are killed by their parents, and eaten by them and their children. When such revolting occurrences take place, the previously-born child is unable to walk, and the opinion is that, by eating as much as possible of the roasted infant, it will possess the strength of both.” (Ibid.)

See also: Cannibalism in Aboriginal Society

Elderly people who could not keep pace with the younger members of the tribe on their nomadic wanderings in search of food were also killed. As James Dawson observed, “When old people become infirm, and unable to accompany the tribe in its wanderings, it is lawful and customary to kill them … When it has been decided to kill an aged member of the tribe, the relatives depute one of their number to carry out the decision. The victim is strangled with a grass rope, and the body, when cold, is buried in a large fire kindled in the neighbourhood … Very often the poor creatures intended to be strangled cry and beg for delay when they see the preparations made for their death, but all in vain. The resolution is always carried out.” (Dawson, op. cit., p. 62.)

Most contemporary observers, and recent demographers, have agreed that girls were murdered more often than boys. According to Rev. C.W. Schurmann (1815–93), writing in The Aboriginal Tribes of Port Lincoln in South Australia (1846), “From the greater number of male children reared one may infer that not so many of them are killed at birth as of the female sex. In extenuation of this horrible practice, the women allege that they cannot suckle and carry two babies at once” (p. 224). Similarly, William Wyatt J.P. (1804–56), in his Manners and Superstitions of the Adelaide and Encounter Bay Aboriginal Tribes (1879), noted that “female infants at birth are not infrequently put to death for the sake of the more valuable boys, who are still being suckled, though three or four years old, or even more” (p. 162). Anthropologists who have studied gender ratios among colonial-era Aborigines living in tribal conditions have concluded that there were probably about sixty-seven females for every 100 males, strongly suggesting that Aborigines killed far more girls than boys.

The two main reasons for the prevalence of Aboriginal infanticide are straightforward and clear. In their 50,000 years in Australia, Aborigines never planted crops to eat nor domesticated livestock as food. They were, and remained, nomadic hunter-gatherers. At all times, their population was therefore subject to an upper size limit dictated entirely by what a tribe could obtain by hunting and by foraging for eatable vegetation. No tribe could exceed in size the foods procurable by a hunter-gatherer lifestyle; not infrequently, the size of the tribe must be even lower than this figure, when poor weather conditions or natural disasters decreased the amount of food available. Excess mouths to feed could simply not be tolerated; their existence threatened the very existence of any tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers. Infanticide, as well as the killing of the elderly, was the only way that Aboriginal tribes could cope with this upper population limit, as Yengoyan (above) suggests.

The second main reason for the prevalence of infanticide was that the mothers of small children, who were as nomadic as any other members of their tribe, could not carry more than two, or at most three, children, especially given that they also acted as beasts of burden, carrying most of their family’s possessions, as was set out in my previous article on the Aboriginal mistreatment of women. Nor could they suckle more than two or at most three infants, and often fewer, who regularly had no other source of nourishment.

It might be useful here to do some calculations about the number of Aboriginal infants murdered by their parents. The Aboriginal population of Australia in 1788 is generally estimated at about 350,000. If accurate, this suggests that about 10,000 Aboriginal children were born each year in pre-contact Australia. If indeed 30 per cent of them were killed soon after birth, this means—assuming a constant population—that 300,000 Aboriginal infants were killed in the course of each century, or 3 million per millennium. This means that, over the course of 50,000 years, about 150 million Aboriginal babies were murdered during the history of the Aboriginal people in Australia. Today’s radicals and activists constantly (and nonsensically) claim that European settlement here resulted in “Aboriginal genocide”, but what, then, is one to make of a death toll—remember, a murder toll—that makes Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot look like humanitarians?

Had Australia not been settled by the British, who quickly and decisively put a stop to infanticide and the other enormities of Aboriginal society, probably something like 700,000 additional Aboriginal infants would have been murdered by their tribes. Another way of looking at this reality is that, since 1788, the population of Australia has risen from 350,000 to 26 million, with rather fewer inhabitants nowadays engaged as perpetual nomadic hunter-gatherers, with rather less today of the horrors of cannibalism and infanticide I have documented in this series, and with a literacy rate which has risen from zero to 100 per cent.

One might assume that this societal relic of the Stone Age, surpassed throughout Europe and Asia by societies and nations whose cultural and scientific advancement enabled them to support and feed vastly larger populations at incalculably higher standards of living, would be regarded with horror and disgust today by any rational observer. But for the contemporary Australian Left, as well as by most of the uninformed mainstream, precisely the opposite is true, with pre-contact Aboriginal society regarded as a virtual utopia on earth, a utopia destroyed by the coming of white Europeans.

This view is not merely inaccurate, but Orwellian in being the exact opposite of the truth. Virtually all recently published works by writers obviously sympathetic to the Aborigines delete from their accounts any of the enormities highlighted in my recent articles in Quadrant—cannibalism, infanticide, the gross mistreatment of women—which were apparently a ubiquitous part of Aboriginal life for 50,000 years; in contrast, all of the large-scale deficiencies and ills in Aboriginal society since 1788 down to the present are always blamed on the white man.

The Left’s distortion of the real nature of Aboriginal society is sometimes described by conservative commentators as stemming from “cultural Marxism”. Although one can understand why this term has been used, in my opinion it is an accurate description of the situation only by an extended use of the term; the situation today is in fact far worse. Ironically, orthodox Marxists would regard pre-contact Aboriginal hunter-gatherer nomadic society as inevitably doomed to be replaced by a higher and more advanced mode of organising the means of production, and rightly so: they would shed no tears about its passing. Indeed, if Australia had somehow had a Marxist government a century ago, whatever remained of the Aborigines’ hunter-gatherer lifestyle would have been abruptly ended, with no apologies or regrets.

The distortion of the real nature of Aboriginal society by today’s Left is, in fact, a combination of all-embracing anti-white racism, and an equally all-embracing attempt to depict Australian society as it has emerged since 1788 as intrinsically evil and racist. Indeed, the catastrophe which allegedly (and inaccurately) occurred to the Aborigines after 1788 is today always at the heart of the Left’s indictment of Australian society, having replaced its former preoccupation with social class inequality, which was at the heart of its critique until the 1970s or 1980s. Today, little is heard of the exploitation of the white Australian working class, formerly ubiquitous. The best way of dealing with this gross distortion is to set out the awful realities of pre-contact Aboriginal society, exposing again and again how this was the exact, Orwellian opposite of what the Left invariably claims.

William D. Rubinstein held chairs of history at Deakin University and at the University of Wales. He is a frequent contributor to Quadrant. He wrote on cannibalism in traditional Aboriginal society in the September issue, and on the mistreatment of women in Aboriginal society in the November issue

18 comments
  • DougD

    “before the coming of Europeans and the imposition of Western values, which, unlike the values of pre-contact Aborigines, regarded the deliberate killing of babies and small children as murder. ” Not quite – The Infanticide Act in the UK, copied in Australia, effectively abolished the death penalty for a woman who deliberately killed her newborn child, while the balance of her mind was disturbed as a result of giving birth. Long before, juries refused to convict new mothers of the capital murder of new-born infants. Governments finally recognised this an created the non-capital offence of infanticide.

  • rosross

    These articles are so important. I realise that the Wokeists will be incapable of reading or processing such material but there is a large segment of society which can and will become better informed.

    I find the patronising denial of stone-age hunter-gatherer realities to be racism of the worst kind. We cannot understand or appreciate Aboriginal peoples unless we know all that they were. The best and the worst of it.

  • Daffy

    I remember attending a seminar on Aboriginal Cultural Awareness, and was proudly told that Aboriginal languages had no word for ‘disability’. Now I know why. They did away with deformed babies, and I daresay those with developmental disabilities as well.

  • ChrisPer

    I wonder is this true also of the Bushmen of Southern Africa? All the resource limitations of this country apply there too.
    And I now contrast the notion of resource limitation with the reported hunter-gatherer labour intensity – all necessities obtained with only 3-4 hours work a day. If that is so, outside of droughts, the Aborigines could have sustained many more children. Remember, after only age three they are 100% available forgathering food themselves. And modern aboriginal kids have to, because they may not eat if they are not self-starters.

  • Claude James

    Then ask this:
    What would it take to place these facts, as set out by Professor Rubenstein, into the mainstream media and the education systems, and have them discussed nightly on the ABC and SBS?

  • NFriar

    @RosRoss
    ‘I find the patronising denial of stone-age hunter-gatherer realities to be racism of the worst kind. We cannot understand or appreciate Aboriginal peoples unless we know all that they were. The best and the worst of it”.

    Exactly – reading some of the anthropological studies done and reading old journals is fascinating.
    The invented ‘culture’ today is just cringeworthy – but it pays well.

    @Bill – thank you – I enjoyed reading this paper a second time.~Narelle

  • Katzenjammer

    Aboriginal kinship, clan, tribal relationships are complex, encompassing responsibilites and cultural rites far beyond our usual western concept of an extended family of three blood related generations. Has any study been conducted to ascertain how this complexity would have developed alongside the constant deaths of all ages in a population to sustain individuals in a clan. Unlike our demographic where for centuries approx one on four died before childbearing age with most other dying later than child rearing age, the inter-tribal warfare, infanticide, brutal sexual violence, death would have been more uniformly spread across all age ranges.

  • Adam J

    Katzenjammer: My guess is that if you managed to survive then you would be valuable as a child bearer, a warrior-hunter, or a gatherer. Otherwise that inter-tribal warfare might see you all exterminated.
    And who knows how many tribes and ‘nations’ were genocided: they didn’t exactly leave any writings and if they did they wouldn’t have been preserved by their genociders.

  • lbloveday

    I have a good friend with many good qualities and who has pretty well finished the wonderful job she’s done raising their brood, so she’s aiming to be a teacher and is undertaking a Uni degree with that in mind.
    .
    She wrote to me:.
    .
    In 2022, I’m looking forward to continuing my teaching studies. In particular, I am eagerly discovering my potential, as an educator, for facilitating healing – healing for the horrific wounding of my people against the First Nations peoples of Australia.)
    .
    Whither Australia? What to do? I despair and am thankful I’m much closer to the end of my life than the beginning.

  • Rebekah Meredith

    Not much comfort for those of us who assume that we’re at the other end.

  • lbloveday

    I sent her a copy of Bitter Harvest and a bundle of articles by Messrs Rubinstein, Windschuttle and others.

  • lbloveday

    The misuse of school classes to push agendas is far from new.
    .
    Twenty seven years ago an English teacher at a SA Adult Re-entry High School set students an essay to write about Hiroshima Day.
    .
    A student wrote in her essay that if it had not been for the bombing of Hiroshima she would likely not have been born as her forebears were amongst the millions enslaved in Japanese-occupied Indonesia or sent as slave-labour to other Asian countries, where as many as 80% died, and she was forever grateful the Americans brooked no delay in bombing Hiroshima and bringing a quick end to the war and thus ensuring the end of Indonesian occupation and the starving and mistreatment of her people, particularly her forebearers. About 1,000 Japanese were found guilty of war crimes in Indonesia and hundreds received the death sentence.
    .
    The teacher handed it back unmarked and told her “That is not what I want”.

    I carefully proof-read it for her and she re-submitted an essay which, while it was not entirely her own work, was grammatically correct and contained no spelling mistakes.

    The teacher again refused to grade it, on the basis that it was not what she wanted. Clearly what she demanded was for the student to agree with the teacher that Hiroshima’s bombing was wrong. That is a debate for another subject and should have no place in an English class; the student had presented her views on the topic in a rational manner in good English, which should have been the objective of the essay.
    .
    Read this extract from Wikipedia (ok,ok) and see if you agree with the student or the teacher:
    .
    Initially, most Indonesians welcomed the Japanese as liberators from their Dutch colonial masters. The sentiment changed, however, as between 4 and 10 million Indonesians were recruited as forced labourers (romusha) on economic development and defense projects in Java. Between 200,000 and half a million were sent away from Java to the outer islands, and as far as Burma and Siam. Of those taken off Java, not more than 70,000 survived the war.[2] Four million people died in the Dutch East Indies as a result of famine and forced labour during the Japanese occupation, including 30,000 European civilian internee deaths.

  • rosross

    @Katzenjammer,

    No doubt all stone-age hunter-gatherer societies had similar practices. Things would only begin to change, and that would happen relatively quickly, once they developed ways to ensure they could feed themselves, i.e. the development of agrarian societies.

    In terms of: responsibilites and cultural rites far beyond our usual western concept of an extended family of three blood related generations.

    I suspect this was a more recent development after the arrival of the British. We need to remember that even in 19th century Britain/Europe and certainly earlier, there were responsibilities to extended family, i.e. third and fourth cousins or more, in ways we do not have today.

    And, having lived in India for quite some years, it was clear that such ‘responsibilities’ were a part of Indian culture. There are many similarities to lesser and greater degrees, between Aboriginal and Indian, i.e. ‘what is yours is mine;’ you have an obligation to share all you have with me; you have an obligation to shelter and feed me always, etc. etc. etc.

    None of what are today called attributes of Aboriginal cultures, were or are, particularly to Aboriginal peoples. They are human traditions and responses from less developed societies and no doubt for valid reasons relevant to the times.

    In terms of high rates of death in previous centuries, it needs to be remembered that such things became more common as humans gathered together in large cities and towns with poor sanitation and hygiene. Once those things were addressed, mortality rates, particularly in the first five years of life plummeted and epidemic instances diminished.

    Studies of ancient Egyptian and South American mummies has revealed that humans with optimal living conditions lived as long thousands of years ago as they do today. It is a common modern myth that people live longer because of modern medicine, but it is simply not true. We have more people who reach greater ages because we have more people, most having survived the first five years.

    Anyone who studies family ancestry is likely to find this. My great-grandparents and great-great grandparents and even 3G often had a dozen children and all of them survived childhood. This was of course easier in sunny, well-fed, minimally populated Australia than the crowded and stinking pits of London.

  • rosross

    @lbloveday,

    Younger generations are brainwashed on many issues and Australian history and Aboriginal peoples is one of them. They have been educated, to believe that opinion is the equal of fact.

  • Tallaijohn

    I lived in Canada for many years and I remember that the native Eskimo people had similar customs. Old people who could not keep up with the tribe, were left on the ice to die.

  • Goddy

    These articles by Professor Rubinstein deserve a much wider audience and should be published as a book for general Australian readers. While it will be hard, if not impossible, to find a mainstream publisher given the inevitable backlash – it is critical that the gross distortions of the Left are countered by the inconvenient truth.
    As any such book would not seek to demonise or in any way denigrate Aboriginal Australians but rather shed light on long standing practices before the arrival of Europeans, it is important that the practices be placed in their proper context.

  • Tricone

    As rosross has implied, we all have hunter-gatherer ancestry if you go back far enough, and it’s almost certain that we all have such violence in our backgrounds. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, unless you glorify it.
    .
    It’s also almost certain, that , no matter how kindly the settlers of 1788 onwards were, simply establishing settlements with secure food supplies and medical help would be enough to destroy any traditional nomadic culture, since the nomads will gravitate to these places where food and shelter is so easily had.

  • abrogard

    You just have to pretend to join them.

    Say things like ‘It was a far more sensible thing to kill and eat the unwanted babies than just waste them…’

    And outright nonsense like ‘ Of course the old ways were best, why do you think there’s so many aboriginals today opting to go walkabout naked and live in the bush for months on end? ‘

    Outrageous nonsense like : ‘ Of course aboriginal women really loved being treated like cattle, knocked about, punished, doing all the work, given away to other men and so on… it’s in a woman’s basic nature… why do you think so many women in Arabia love to wear the burkha and walk behind their men?’

    You’ve just got to talk utter crap to them all the time.

    Because that’s all they’re going to talk to you.

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.