January 2, 1911
Infant cannibalism was practised, where it could not be prevented—as it still is among all circumcised groups. One of the old men, Bully-bulluma, having been an epic meat-hunter in his day, had eight wives.
The Passing of the Aborigines
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The Trappists led a life of rigorous poverty, intensified in this barren remote land to the point of starvation. There were cattle on the station, but meat was excluded for religious reasons, and the monks existed on one meal a day of pumpkin and rice, and a little beer they had made from sorghum grown in the garden. Rising at 2 a.m. they kept vigil in the dark chapel till dawn, then worked till daylight’s end, speaking no word save in necessity, and closing the day with some hours on their knees on the bare earth. I was the first white woman to appear among them at the Mission, and the first that the natives of the region had seen.
From the newly arrived stores, Brother Sebastian had provided a strange and varied meal for us according to his lights, extraordinary stews and puddings served in any order and all strongly flavoured with garlic; milkless tea in a huge jug that was both teapot and cups for us all. Poor Brother Sebastian may have been a paragon of piety, but he was no cook. In my keeping today is a fragment of petrified bread roll he made for me in 1900! It has been mistaken for a geological specimen, and, always carried with me in loving memory, it has survived, without losing a crumb, thousands of miles of rough transport.
Perhaps the first woman in history to sleep in a Trappist bed, I was allotted the abbot’s bag bed and seaweed pillow, and the sawn-off log for my chair or table. I woke to hear the natives singing a Gregorian chant in the little chapel near by. Half clothed and, for all the untiring work of the missioners, still but half-civilized, they comprised the Nyool-nyool tribe, of the totem of a local species of snake. Most of the women and men had their two front teeth knocked out, and some still wore bones through their noses. Infant cannibalism was practised, where it could not be prevented—as it still is among all circumcised groups. One of the old men, Bully-bulluma, having been an epic meat-hunter in his day, had eight wives. Another, Goodowel, was dressed in trousers and shirt, one stocking, his face painted red with white stripes from each corner of his mouth in broad lines. A red band was round his head, the hair drawn back to form a tight knob, and stuck in the knob was a tuft of white cockatoo feathers and a small wooden emblem. I know now that he was in the sixth degree of initiation.
Although they had tried their hardest, with prayer and precept, to teach these natives cleanliness and Christian living, giving their very lives to the work in torture and privation, those Spanish priests could hope for little headway in the first generation. There was one terrible manifestation of savagery that I can never forget.
A man had been found dying of spear-wounds out in the bush, and carried to the Mission as he was breathing his last. I watched two of the lay brothers bearing the stretcher to one of the huts, a horde of natives following. I noticed that they held their burden curiously high in the air. Suddenly, as it was lowered for entry to a doorway, the natives crowding round, to my horror, fell upon the body of the dying man, and put their lips to his in a brutal eagerness to inhale the last breath. They believed that in so doing they were absorbing his strength and virtue, and his very vital spark, and all the warnings of the “white father” would not keep them from it. The man was of course dead when we extricated him, and it was a ghastly sight to see the lucky “breath catcher” scoop in his cheeks as he swallowed the “spirit breath” that gave him double hunting power.
The women quite frankly admitted to me that they had killed and eaten some of their children—they liked “baby meat.”
Baby cannibalism was rife among these central-western peoples, as it is west of the border in Central Australia. In one group, east of the Murchison and Gascoyne Rivers, every woman who had had a baby had killed and eaten it, dividing it with her sisters, who, in turn, killed their children at birth and returned the gift of food, so that the group had not preserved a single living child for some years. When the frightful hunger for baby meat overcame the mother before or at the birth of the baby, it was killed and cooked regardless of sex. Division was made according to the ancestral food-laws. I cannot remember a case where the mother ate a child she had allowed, at the beginning, to live.
It was no unusual sight to see anything up to 100 of these cannibals, men, women and children, several of them but a week in civilization, climb aboard an empty truck and go off to an initiation ceremony farther up the line. I use the word cannibal advisedly. Every one of these central natives was a cannibal. Cannibalism had its local name from Kimberley to Eucla, and through all the unoccupied country east of it, and there were many grisly rites attached thereto. Human meat had always been their favourite food, and there were killing vendettas from time immemorial. In order that the killing should be safe, murderers’ slippers or pads were made, emu-feathers twisted and twined together, bound to the foot with human hair, on which the natives walk and run as easily as a white man in running shoes, their feet leaving no track. Dusk and dawn were the customary hours for raiding a camp. Victims were shared according to the law. The older men ate the soft and virile parts, and the brain; swift runners were given the thighs; hands, arms or shoulders went to the best spear-throwers, and so on. Those who received skull, shoulder or arm kept the bones, which they polished and rounded, strung on hair, and kept on their person, either as pointing-bones or magic pendants.
Every one of the natives whom I encountered on the east-west line had partaken of human meat, with the exception of Nyerdain, who told me it made him sick. They freely admitted their sharing of these repasts and enumerated those killed and eaten by naming the waters, and drawing a line with the big toe on the sand as they told over in gruesome memory the names they dared not mention.
My first words to them were always “No more man-meat.” From the weekly supply train, I would procure part of a bullock or sheep and show them the game food areas, mallee-hen’s eggs, rabbits and so on, that must be their meats now, with as many dampers as I could provide, and a drink of sweetened tea.
One morning very early, the news came that Nyan-ngauera had left the camp, taking a fire-stick and accompanied by her little girl. No one would follow her or help to track her. For twelve miles I followed the track unsuccessfully, but Nyan-ngauera doubled many times and gave birth to a child a mile west of my camp, where she killed and ate the baby, sharing the food with the little daughter. Later, with the help of her sons and grandsons, the spot was found, nothing to be seen there save the ashes of a fire. “The bones are under the fire,” the boys told me, and digging with the digging-stick we came upon the broken skull, and one or two charred bones, which I later sent to the Adelaide Museum. A grown man will never avenge the death of his own child, nor will he, under any circumstances, share the meal.
The late Frank Hann, on a survey exploration, conferred the name of Mount Daisy Bates upon a height a little south of Mount Gosse. I discovered that it was the area of one of the worst groups of cannibals in the Centre.