Bennelong Papers

Genuflecting Before Savagery

indigenous woman beatenOK, 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.[1]

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.

Tony Thomas’ new book, That’s Debatable: 60 years in print,
can be ordered here

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.”[2]

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.[3]

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.”[4]

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.[5]

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.”[6]

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).[7] 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.”[8]

Nowra quotes Walter Roth (1861-1933) a doctor, anthropologist and Chief Protector of Aborigines in Queensland.[9] 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.”[10]
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.[11]

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’.[12]

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.[13]

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.[14]

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.’[15]

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.[16]

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




[1] Louis Nowra, Bad Dreaming. Pluto Press, North Melbourne, p10

[2] Joan Kimm, A Fatal Conjunction: Two Laws Two Cultures. Sydney, Federation Press, 2004, p76

[3] Op. cit., Nowra p12

[4] Op. cit., Kimm p46

[5]  Stephanie Jarrett, Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence. Connor Court, Ballan, Vic, 2013, p123

[6] Op. cit., Nowra p6

[7] Stephen Webb, Palaeopathology of Aboriginal Australians. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, p2

[8] Joan Kimm, A Fatal Conjunction. Feeration Press, Leichardt, 2004, p. 64

[9] Op. cit., Nowra p15-16

[10] Keith Windschuttle, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: The Stolen Generations. Macleay Press, Sydney, 2009, p. 443.

[11] Op. cit., Jarrett, p329

[12] Hannah McGlade, Our Greatest Challenge. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2012, p.149.

[13] Op.cit., Nowra p7


[15] John Morgan, The Life and Adventures of William Buckley. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1980 (1852), p189.

[16] Peter Sutton, The Politics of Suffering. Melbourne University Publishing, 2011,


15 thoughts on “Genuflecting Before Savagery

  • Lawriewal says:

    Some 60 years ago as a young Engineer in Central Queensland I came across a drover’s camp which had quite a few aboriginal stockmen. There were also a few aboriginal women.
    It was lunchtime and I was asked by the lead Dover to have a cuppa with them – which I gladly accepted.
    I noted that the aboriginals had their own fire a distance form that of the “whites”.
    I somewhat gingerly asked why the separation.
    I was told, somewhat abruptly’, that was because the aboriginals wanted it that way apparently because they had their women with them.
    I couldn’t help but notice that the aboriginal men sat around the fire cooking and eating. Behind them were their dogs whom they fed with scraps.Their women were huddled further back from the fire and being completely ignored.
    I was told that when the men were finished they would wander off and the women moved in to eat whatever scraps were left that the dogs didn’t get to first.
    When I remonstrated that we must give them some food my host made it very clear to me to mind my own business.
    While the aboriginal men were great horsemen they were savage and easily stirred to violence he told me and by not getting involved in their way of doing things was the only way to keep the peace.
    He went on to inform me of other niceties of this culture which are (as best remembered) similar to those revealed in the piece above.
    Every time I see an Aboriginal Woman dressed in pearls and twin suit under a becoming possum skin cloak presiding over an important cultural event (eg a smoking ceremony) being reverentially addressed as “Aunty Whatever” I am reminded of those poor females huddled together waiting for the dogs to leave them their lunch and I am filled with disgust at the lies we are being told of the Noble Savage Culture we white (males) destroyed!

  • ianl says:

    > 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)

    Tony Thomas records that almost as an aside. Yet anthropology when properly done uses quite a few hard scientific disciplines – geology, chemistry, physics, survey, pathology, genetics etc etc. The UNSW (a *University*, FFS !!) has decreed such research as “inappropriate”. This literally leaves me speechless.

    The short answer, and probably the only sensible one, is to ignore that little diktat completely. I do hope the UNSW academics responsible for that childish inanity are reading here.

    • ArthurB says:

      In my research on the nineteenth century history of Western Australia, I have found that the settlers soon came to be familiar with Aboriginal customs, and often wrote about them. As early as the 1840’s there are reports about the tribal elders prostituting their women to the settlers, in exchange for tobacco and food. There was also a custom, possibly unique to WA, known as revenge or payback killings: when a person died, his relatives believed that his death had been caused by evil spirits, and it was necessary to kill someone from another tribe, which in turn led to more payback killings. As one settler said, many more Aborigines were killed by other Aborigines than were ever killed by the whites. I know a number of independent historians who agree with me about the violence of traditional Aboriginal society, but such things are ignored by academic historians or anyone who has a stake in the Aboriginal industry.

    • Lawrie Ayres says:

      I can’t imagine them reading here; they already know everything so further study is superfluous. Beside there must be a consensus since the modern academic is not equipped to argue another point of view. Thankfully these educated morons will make themselves irrelevant as their disciplines stagnate in ignorance.

  • says:

    I have read books and biographies on Governor Phillip other early explorers an settlers and quite a fair proportion of them mentioned the barbaric way aboriginal women were treated. As many were written over half a century ago they were done before the political re-writing of history occurred so I suspect that they had no ‘agenda’ and were undoubtedly accurate.

  • says:

    I think it is instructive to read the actual words written by Full-blooded Aborigines who lived through the actual “invasion” experience to get a complete picture of Aboriginal life at that time. Two books come immediately to mind – “I, The Aboriginal” and “Moon and Rainbow”. It is near to criminal that such books are widely ignorred in favour of the invented fantasies of people a generation or two separated from the events. This quote from Waipuldanya in “I, the Aboriginal” describes the fear implicit in all traditional pre-settlement cultures.

    “All aborigines smile and laugh easily. We are a naturally happy people. … While I lived in the camps this seemed natural, but lately I have realized that it is probably a cloak of bravado for the many fears that every aboriginal lives with throughout their lives. From my earliest youth I have been afraid of the Doctor Blackfellows, the Medicine Men who sing their victims by using hyperphysical powers. During my hunting walkabouts I was afraid of the Burgingin, the immensely strong pygmy people who can crush a man’s bones in a bear-hug. They were our bogymen. Their haunting memory has stayed with me always. I have never lost my inherent fear of the spirits of the Malanugga-nugga, the Stone People who lived near the Ruined City in the Arnhem Land escarpment. Even though they are gone, no Alawa tribesman will gladly visit their country today. I am frightened of the Shades of dead men, and the Mulunguwa executioner. I would commit any sin or pay any price not to incur the wrath of my Kangaroo Dreaming (totem). But there is another fear, common to all my tribesmen, a dire physical threat by one man to another, or by woman to woman: ‘I‘ll have your kidney fat.’ “

    • lloveday says:

      Wouldn’t “emancipation” be a more accurate term than “invasion”. I’d be in agreement with Jan 26 being renamed “Emancipation Day”.

    • ian.macdougall says:

      I the Aboriginal is the autobiography of Waipuldanya, a full-blood Aboriginal of the Alawa tribe at Roper River in Australia’s Northern Territory, as told to Douglas Lockwood.
      To my knowledge, ‘full-blood’ Aborigines are not usually found south of the Tropic of Capricorn. This, and the attendant genetic changes, can only have come about by the places of young Aboriginal men in the Aboriginal breeding population, being taken by young white men, or by young men of mixed ancestry: one way or another.

  • says:

    The Australian writer and Gallipoli veteran Ion Idriess in his many books on the Outback in the early 1900’s mentions in passing, occasionally with photographs, some of these violent and misogynistic aboriginal practices. That he sometimes without criticism used the phrase ‘the worlds last stone age culture’ may be one of the reasons his books were dropped from elitist circles in the 1960’s.

  • says:

    Aborigines, men in particular, are a perfect fit with Islam. In fact, they could teach the Muslims a thing or two. After all, they had some 45000 years to “develop and refine their culture” as against the Muslim’s 1400 years. Their treatment of women, compulsive warring between tribes (think Shia/Sunni) and a raft of superstitions are uncannily similar to “Muslim culture”. Who would have thought ….

  • Nezysquared says:

    …and one wonders why the terms of reference of the child abuse royal commission were limited to Catholics…. Perhaps Professor Dodson could be persuaded to speak on behalf of Aboriginal Culture and defend this sort of behaviour.

  • ian.macdougall says:

    But then again, there’s brutality in the truth as well….

  • 8457 says:

    Given that it was inevitable that the Australian continent was going to be colonised by somebodywe can all celebrate invasion day on the basis that it could have been the Portuguese doing the honours rather than the British.

    • ian.macdougall says:

      There were at least three waves of Aboriginal arrivals preceding the first Europeans. The first documented arrival was that of Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon, in 1606. Though the British were not here first, they were first to create a settlement. The Aborigines, with their tools and weapons of wood and stone were still in a ‘stone age’, and when Phillip arrived in 1788, the least technically developed people on Earth came face to face with those most technically advanced.
      I celebrate January 26 (under whatever name) because if it had not occurred, my mother an father would never have met and I would not be here. Nor would any of my descendants.
      Ironically, all of the prominent Aborigines who revile ‘Invasion Day’ are themselves part-European. So they are cursing the arrival of some of their own ancestors: and thus their own individual existences.
      ‘Australia Day’ is good enough for me.

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