William Thomas was one of the Guardians of Aborigines appointed by government in the early months of the settlement of Melbourne and his particular duty was to protect the interests of the members of the Yarra Yarra and Western Port Tribes. Both tribes regularly visited the Rowville area. Thomas was a conscientious guardian who lived with the tribes and thus learned a great deal about them. Despite his best endeavours he witnessed the rapid corruption of the tribes through their exposure to some of the unpleasant features of life brought to the Port Phillip district by European settlers.
The following is an extract from a report written in March 1854 by Thomas and published in “Letters from Victorian Pioneers” by the Public Library of Victoria in 1898.
Australia Felix was the term used by Major Thomas Mitchell to describe the lush pastureland of western Victoria he saw in his journey of discovery in 1836. (Felix is a Latin word meaning happy or, in this context, blessed).
The Father Heads the Family
Their government is patriarchal, the head of each family having control over his household; nor is he accountable to the community for his conduct touching them, even after his children come to years of discretion, if they be unmarried. They, however, are by no means arbitrary, nor cruel; and with the children are foolishly indulgent. It is only in passion that their conduct is revolting, and then they are generally checked by one or more powerful friends arresting the angered, while others try to appease him by reason. Although the head of the family is not accountable to the community, a mother will not tamely see her child ill-used, and when a son is grown up, if his mother is ill-treated he will show fight. I have witnessed some dreadful frays between father and son on the mother’s account. Should one kill his wife, the friends or relatives of the woman will have satisfaction, when the tribes meet, the slayer must show himself naked among them, and unflinchingly await their anger.
Each tribe has a chief, who directs all its movements, and who, wherever he may be, knows well where all the members of the community are. About once in three months the whole tribe unite, generally at new or full moon, when they have a few dances, and again separate into three or more bodies, as they cannot get food if they move en masse; the chief, with the aged, makes arrangements for the route each party is to take. In their movements they seldom encamp more than three nights in one place, and oftener but one. Thus they move from one place to another, regardless of sickness, deaths, births, etc. They will not wait for anything when they have an object in view. I have known instances of females having an infant at night, and compelled to tramp in the morning, and the men to carry their sick from one encampment to another. In each body are a few old men, who take charge of the small community, and give instruction in the morning where they will encamp at night.They seldom travel more than six miles a day. In their migratory moves all are employed; children in getting gum, knocking down birds, etc., women in digging up roots, killing bandicoots, getting grubs etc.; the men in hunting kangaroos, etc., scaling trees for opossums, etc., etc. They mostly are at the encampment about an hour before sundown – the women first, who get fire and water, etc., by the time their spouses arrive.
I should have stated that besides chiefs they have other eminent men, as warriors, counsellors, doctors; dreamers, who are also interpreters; charmers, who are supposed to be able to bring and drive rain away; also to bring or send plagues among other nations, and to drive away the same, as occasion requires. Although they have chiefs, doctors, counsellors, warriors, dreamers, etc., who form a kind of aristocracy, yet these are in no way a burthen to the community. The chiefs govern, doctors cure, counsellors advise, and warriors fight, without pay. All alike seek their food, and He who is mindful of the ravens is not unmindful of these sable sons of Australia.
They hold that the bush and all it contains are man’s general property; that private property is only what utensils are carried in the bag; and this general claim to nature’s bounty extends even to the success of the day; hence at the close, those who have been successful divide with those who have not been so. There is “no complaining in the streets” of a native encampment; none lacketh while others have it; nor is the gift considered as a favour, but a right brought to the needy, and thrown down at his feet. In warm weather, while on the tramp, they seldom make a miam – they use merely a few boughs to keep off the wind; in wet weather a few sheets of bark make a comfortable house. In one half-hour I have seen a neat village begun and finished. The harmony that exists among them when none of another tribe is in the party is surprising. I have been out with them for months without a single altercation. Wherever one is born, that is considered his or her country.
They have no regular burial places; their bones lie scattered through the bush. Over the men, according to their importance, an oration is delivered, the purport of which is that they, his survivors, will avenge his death, and begging the defunct to lie still till they do so. Over the women and children no ceremony is performed. After the body is interred, the encampment breaks up, leaving a fire at the east of the grave. Orphans are taken great care of. It is considered a great honour to have an orphan added to the family.
They have various kinds, day and night. Although a stranger, after seeing one, may think the whole alike and merely a monotony of sounds and motion, such is not the case; the song and words are to the motion of the body, like our country dances and reels. One ignorant of dancing would look upon the movements as monotonous; there is as much sense in the one as in the other. If the blacks’ orchestra is inferior, their time and motion are better.
They have many, all admirably adapted to strengthen and expand the corporeal powers, as running, jumping, throwing, etc.; but the most manual wrestling; and certainly everyone who has ever seen them at this exercise has acknowledged that it is equal to any description given of the ancients, and destitute of the brutality often resorted to by the ancients, to gain the mastery. The aborigines’ is sheer, fair wrestling. They challenge each other by throwing dust in the air towards those they desire to strive with, which is answered by return; they run towards each other; on approaching, each puts his hands on his antagonist’s shoulder, and it is not till both are nearly exhausted that one is down.
First published by the Public Library of Victoria in 1898. Republished in the July 1998 edition of the Rowville-Lysterfield Community News.