Bennelong Papers

A blacked-out past — Part III

Warfare was only one aspect of death-dealing traditions in pre-contact Aboriginal society. Death could result, for example, from accidentally witnessing ceremonies, or performing them incorrectly.    According to TGH Strehlow, “it was this readiness to kill persons who had committed sacrilege either knowingly or unwittingly that caused a great revulsion against Aboriginal religion in Central Australia after the arrival of the white population.”[1]

Violence against girls and women is reflected in many accounts in the past century. Noted anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski surveyed the literature for his 1913 book on the family in Aboriginal society: The husband ‘had a nearly unlimited authority, and in some cases, when he had special reasons (and undoubtedly deemed himself to be within his rights), he might use his authority for a very brutal and severe chastisement.”[2]

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.”[3]

Part I: Yabbered To Death

Part II: A Long Bloody History of Violence

Part III: A Blacked-Out Past

Part IV: When the horrific Is Mundane

Playwright and author Louis Nowra concurs: “Despite local variations, there is a consistent pattern of Aboriginal men’s treatment of women that was harsh, sexually aggressive (gang-rape for instance) and , in our term, misogynist. Given its pervasive nature across the whole of Australia, we can say that it was ancient and long-lasting.”[4]

Nowra quotes Walter Roth (1861-1933) a doctor, anthropologist and Chief Protector of Aborigines in Queensland. Roth described at the turn of the previous 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.”[5]

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.”[6]

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.” [7]
  • 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.”[8]
  • A practice as bad as female genital mutilation is still inflicted on hundreds of boys annually – involuntary sub-incision, the slitting open of the male urethra.[9]

The controversy continues into the current period.

In the 1970s John Coldrey, later a judge of the Victorian Supreme Court, appeared for a Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service client in Alice Springs. The traditional man, drunk, had inflicted 201 separate injuries on his wife who then bled to death. She had been passively crouching, and there were no defensive wounds.The man was punishing her for having been with other men that day. He had not wanted to kill or seriously injure her, he said. J. Coldrey belatedly discovered that the wounds were on traditional punishment areas of the body, and the conviction was then of manslaughter, not murder.[10] 

Peter Sutton finds it distressing that in north and central Australia, relatives of small children “cruel” them by inflicting pain to make the child angry and violent, even from six months old. He believes this is a tradition dating from earliest times when aggression needed to be instilled in children.[11]

NOWRA WROTE his book “Bad Dreaming” after a spell in Alice Springs hospital in 2005, when he saw numerous Aboriginal women and young girls with severe injuries from domestic violence. He 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.”12]

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.”[13]

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 while 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 sentence suspended. 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.[14]

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 gaol 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’.[15]

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.[16]

Nowra also 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.[17]

Lawyer Joan Kimm recounts the tragic case of 37-year-old Jennifer Cook on Bathurst Island, who killed her husband David Mungatopi. She had been promised to a very old man, who had bequeathed her to his grandson. Mungatopi. That man flogged her daily for 18 years. In May, 2000, after a remorseless beating, she stabbed him. Justice Riley said that ‘after years of [her] black eyes, and coughing blood, he did not think that she ought to serve an actual sentence’.

However, she then became a pariah on Bathurst. Mungatopi’s relatives took her six children and Mungatopi’s memory is so honored that the local Snake Beach was closed for two years in tribute.[18]

The Gordon inquiry in WA in 2002 had referred the issue of whether violence to women and abuse of children were ‘traditionally sanctioned’ , to the WA University Centre for Anthropological Research.

The Centre found that family violence or abuse “are invariably within the sphere of traditional practice, ritual or the operation of customary law. We have found little material that suggests that violence or abuse per se are condoned, or took place with impunity, outside traditionally regulated contexts.”

Gordon concluded that “that family violence which occurs in traditional societies appears to be no different to any other societies in the world.” However, the comment ignored the sanctioned violence.

In fact, says Kimm, the Gordon report had established that young girls were the property of their community, the arrangement for the promise was made without their consent, they were ‘handed over’ and they were the reward for ‘male accomplishment’. It is a matter of little grace that actual marital sexual relations did not start until after puberty when this could occur at ten years…[19]

Lawyer Hannah McGlade, however, quotes her mother, Mingli Wanjurri McGlade, a Noongar elder, who talked to an East Kimberley elder, who told her “We have to look after our women. They look after us, they cook for us, they mind us when we’re sick, they give us our children. They are very precious.”

Mingli also mentioned that Catholic male elders of Turkey Creek commented about ‘their promise’ (bride) – “it was very clear that there had been no consummation or intent to consummate those traditional marriages with young girls. Minglie’s experience on law grounds in Broome and Kununurra was that women talk about respect for men’s law, and men talk about respect for women’s law.” [20]

“In Noongar culture women were always very strong, and sexual violence against children unimaginable.” She quotes Pat Baines, an anthropologist who says that traditional Noongar culture featured strong women. Baines quotes a 1988 film by Indigenous filmmaker Tracey Moffatt, conceived by some Perth based aboriginal women, including McGlade, promoting strong Noongar women, “not because we are ‘cultural revisionists’ but because it is what we know to be true from our own knowledge of our history and culture…

“Noongar people will also say that we have no words to describe the sexual violence and abuse of children that is occurring today – it is not part of our culture, but something that has happened as a result of colonization and the breakdown of our Noongar ways.”[21]

Kimm argues, however, that male Aboriginal leaders have focused not on women’s rights to security but on political rights such as land rights, treaties, sovereignty, self-determination and the need for customary law. “The continued public denial that violence is part of traditional culture remains a large part of the ‘root of the problem’. [22]

Specific examples of abusive traditions are disquieting.

“[An Aboriginal] Ngabidj related a Kimberley practice, the prelude to which , in his account, was of a child bride being taken crying from her parents, who then go far away. The child then had to bear sexual relations by many men before being taken over by her husband.”[23]

In Warrabri in the 1960s

 “…old men looked upon their young wives ‘as their pension ticket’; it was also a matter of prestige to have a young wife. The wives parents also benefited. In the 1970s when a young girl from Yirrkala was badly beaten for refusing to marry, a journalist observed that with the conversion to money economy, bride prices to be paid to the parents were from $500 to $1000.”[24]

In a 1997 case, a man, his wife and her brother were drinking around their campfire. The husband said something out of place to his wife, and the brother, instead of punishing the husband, hit his sister on the head with a heavy stick, massively fracturing her skull. An elder of the Ngukurr gave evidence that this was a hangover from customary law: “That’s her punishment – you know. She got to take that…In olden days, you know if one breaks down, one little thing, he’s dead. You know, speared — just like that!” [25]

One man at Ernabella in 1978 still felt guilty because, when he was very small 35 years earlier, he had crept out to watch a corroboree. The next morning the group killed his mother over it and he was deposited by the group into the care of Ernabella Mission.[26]

Men could inflict "sacred rape" on a woman or group of women as punishment, to prepare a girl for marriage and penetrate girls upon puberty.

“Women were offered in conciliation to raiding warriors. If their sexual services were accepted it signified there would be no fighting. In the Kimberley a woman might be sent over to a whole group of men visitors.

If a Kimberley woman was thought to be ‘running around’, a group of men would take her into the bush, and so cut her genitals that she would be incapable of ever again having sexual intercourse.”[27]

Other Kimberley accounts tell of girls of nine being impregnated and suffering long and severe labour, only to die at the end. Mother and the baby, whether dead or alive, were buried together.[28]

Boys have been subjected to sometimes equivalent violence.

Boy-wives as young as five were assigned to young unmarried men as lovers. In 1992 Fred Hollows was filmed talking about the practice of Aboriginal elders in some remote communities sodomising boys during initiations, and he complained about the HIV infections. The footage was aired only recently (mid-2000s). Nowra says, “It is highly probable his comments were considered too inflammatory and regarded as culturally insensitive.”[29]

Lyla Coorey in a 2005 report to the Senate, said some elders were abusing boys in fake initiations. Gary Lee, an indigenous researcher, said boys as young as eight are being used for sex, with almost cultural sanction.[30]

In 2004 in a remote NT community, three brothers under 10 were tied to a tree, stripped naked and sexually assaulted repeatedly by a gang of men. The distraught mother had been abused since 13 and fled with the boys to the bush for weeks living off plants until picked up by the police.

In 2005 a four-year-old boy from a Northern Kimberley community was raped by a man until the boy lost control of his bodily functions, had surgery in Perth, was sent back to his community and then brutally raped again, this time by a 12-year-old.

Between April and August 2006, five men and five youths aged 12-39, were charged with sexually assaulting an 11-year-old boy 37 times, initially when he was stoned on marijuana. He was raped by all nine, then later by another three. Later when swimming, he was threatened and assaulted by five men, one of them raping him with a 20cm stick. On the way home he was raped again by the five. The case was unconcluded when Nowra wrote the book, but the five men had been granted bail.[31]

Sutton relates that “at Watha-Nhiin in the 1970s (a girl named Ursula Yunkaporta) had been one of a number of lively, sassy, school-age kids. In the 1990s she presented at Aurukun Hospital scores of times over a two-year period of heavy drinking, repeatedly bashed by her boyfriend and others with whom she also fought. She was treated after being savaged by dogs at night, and was twice examined after giving details of how she was pack-raped by local boys. In the end she took her own life by hanging, at twenty-seven…”[32]

Sutton concluded his book, “If men refuse to do anything then they are responsible for the slow death of the many wonderful aspects of their culture, traditions and customs, and their communities will continue to be on a nightmarish treadmill to cultural oblivion.”[33]

Tony Thomas studied anthropology under Professor Ronald Berndt in Perth in 1961, and in 1974 co-authored, with Dr Carl Georg von Brandenstein ,“TARURU – Aboriginal Song Poetry from the Pilbara”. In 2010 he authored “Stolen Generations: The Pocket Windschuttle”.

His research on Indigenous child removals since the Rudd “Stolen Generation” apology appears in May’s Quadrant.

[1] Jarrett, Stephanie, Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence. Connor Court, Ballan Vic 2013, p107

[2] Sutton, P. The Politics of Suffering, Melbourne University Publishing, Carlton 2011.  p99

[3] Kimm, J., A Fatal Conjunction, Federation Press, Leichardt  2004 p64

[4] Nowra, L, Bad Dreaming, Pluto Press, N Melbourne 2007. p24

[5] Nowra p15

[6] Nowra p16

[7] Windschuttle, Keith, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: The Stolen Generations. Macleay Press, Sydney 2009. p443

[8] Windschuttle p464

[9] Sutton p146

[10] Kimm 109-10

[11] Sutton, p111-13

[12] Op cit Nowra, p6

[13] Jarrett, p329

[14] Nowra p47

[15] McGlade, H., Our Greatest Challenge. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2012 p149

[16] Kimm p72

[17] Nowra p7

[18] Kimm p102-3

[19] Kimm p65

[20] McGlade p62-3

[21] McGlade p64

[22] Kimm p147-148

[23] Kimm p65

[24] Kimm p66

[25] Kimm p47

[26] Kimm p51

[27] Kimm p52

[28] Jarrett p132

[29] Nowra p50

[30] Nowra p51

[31] Nowra p52-53

[32] Sutton p2-3

[33] Nowra, p93

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