Nothing is so ignorant as a man's left hand, except a lady's watch.
--Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar.
You notice that Mrs. Praed knows her art. She can place a thing before
you so that you can see it. She is not alone in that. Australia is
fertile in writers whose books are faithful mirrors of the life of the
country and of its history. The materials were surprisingly rich, both
in quality and in mass, and Marcus Clarke, Ralph Boldrewood, Cordon,
Kendall, and the others, have built out of them a brilliant and vigorous
literature, and one which must endure. Materials--there is no end to
them! Why, a literature might be made out of the aboriginal all by
himself, his character and ways are so freckled with varieties--varieties
not staled by familiarity, but new to us. You do not need to invent any
picturesquenesses; whatever you want in that line he can furnish you; and
they will not be fancies and doubtful, but realities and authentic. In
his history, as preserved by the white man's official records, he is
everything--everything that a human creature can be. He covers the
entire ground. He is a coward--there are a thousand fact to prove it.
He is brave--there are a thousand facts to prove it. He is treacherous
--oh, beyond imagination! he is faithful, loyal, true--the white man's
records supply you with a harvest of instances of it that are noble,
worshipful, and pathetically beautiful. He kills the starving stranger
who comes begging for food and shelter there is proof of it. He succors,
and feeds, and guides to safety, to-day, the lost stranger who fired on
him only yesterday--there is proof of it. He takes his reluctant bride
by force, he courts her with a club, then loves her faithfully through a
long life--it is of record. He gathers to himself another wife by the
same processes, beats and bangs her as a daily diversion, and by and by
lays down his life in defending her from some outside harm--it is of
record. He will face a hundred hostiles to rescue one of his children,
and will kill another of his children because the family is large enough
without it. His delicate stomach turns, at certain details of the white
man's food; but he likes over-ripe fish, and brazed dog, and cat, and
rat, and will eat his own uncle with relish. He is a sociable animal,
yet he turns aside and hides behind his shield when his mother-in-law
goes by. He is childishly afraid of ghosts and other trivialities that
menace his soul, but dread of physical pain is a weakness which he is not
acquainted with. He knows all the great and many of the little
constellations, and has names for them; he has a symbol-writing by means
of which he can convey messages far and wide among the tribes; he has a
correct eye for form and expression, and draws a good picture; he can
track a fugitive by delicate traces which the white man's eye cannot
discern, and by methods which the finest white intelligence cannot
master; he makes a missile which science itself cannot duplicate without
the model--if with it; a missile whose secret baffled and defeated the
searchings and theorizings of the white mathematicians for seventy years;
and by an art all his own he performs miracles with it which the white
man cannot approach untaught, nor parallel after teaching. Within
certain limits this savage's intellect is the alertest and the brightest
known to history or tradition; and yet the poor creature was never able
to invent a counting system that would reach above five, nor a vessel
that he could boil water in. He is the prize-curiosity of all the races.
To all intents and purposes he is dead--in the body; but he has features
that will live in literature.
Mr. Philip Chauncy, an officer of the Victorian Government, contributed
to its archives a report of his personal observations of the aboriginals
which has in it some things which I wish to condense slightly and insert
here. He speaks of the quickness of their eyes and the accuracy of their
judgment of the direction of approaching missiles as being quite
extraordinary, and of the answering suppleness and accuracy of limb and
muscle in avoiding the missile as being extraordinary also. He has seen
an aboriginal stand as a target for cricket-balls thrown with great force
ten or fifteen yards, by professional bowlers, and successfully dodge
them or parry them with his shield during about half an hour. One of
those balls, properly placed, could have killed him; "Yet he depended,
with the utmost self-possession, on the quickness of his eye and his
The shield was the customary war-shield of his race, and would not be a
protection to you or to me. It is no broader than a stovepipe, and is
about as long as a man's arm. The opposing surface is not flat, but
slopes away from the centerline like a boat's bow. The difficulty about
a cricket-ball that has been thrown with a scientific "twist" is, that it
suddenly changes it course when it is close to its target and comes
straight for the mark when apparently it was going overhead or to one
side. I should not be able to protect myself from such balls for
half-an-hour, or less.
Mr. Chauncy once saw "a little native man" throw a cricket-ball 119
yards. This is said to beat the English professional record by thirteen
We have all seen the circus-man bound into the air from a spring-board
and make a somersault over eight horses standing side by side. Mr.
Chauncy saw an aboriginal do it over eleven; and was assured that he had
sometimes done it over fourteen. But what is that to this:
"I saw the same man leap from the ground, and in going over he
dipped his head, unaided by his hands, into a hat placed in an
inverted position on the top of the head of another man sitting
upright on horseback--both man and horse being of the average size.
The native landed on the other side of the horse with the hat fairly
on his head. The prodigious height of the leap, and the precision
with which it was taken so as to enable him to dip his head into the
hat, exceeded any feat of the kind I have ever beheld."
I should think so! On board a ship lately I saw a young Oxford athlete
run four steps and spring into the air and squirm his hips by a
side-twist over a bar that was five and one-half feet high; but he could
not have stood still and cleared a bar that was four feet high. I know
this, because I tried it myself.
One can see now where the kangaroo learned its art.
Sir George Grey and Mr. Eyre testify that the natives dug wells fourteen
or fifteen feet deep and two feet in diameter at the bore--dug them in
the sand--wells that were "quite circular, carried straight down, and the
work beautifully executed."
Their tools were their hands and feet. How did they throw sand out from
such a depth? How could they stoop down and get it, with only two feet
of space to stoop in? How did they keep that sand-pipe from caving in
on them? I do not know. Still, they did manage those seeming
impossibilities. Swallowed the sand, may be.
Mr. Chauncy speaks highly of the patience and skill and alert
intelligence of the native huntsman when he is stalking the emu, the
kangaroo, and other game:
"As he walks through the bush his step is light, elastic, and
noiseless; every track on the earth catches his keen eye; a leaf, or
fragment of a stick turned, or a blade of grass recently bent by the
tread of one of the lower animals, instantly arrests his attention;
in fact, nothing escapes his quick and powerful sight on the ground,
in the trees, or in the distance, which may supply him with a meal
or warn him of danger. A little examination of the trunk of a tree
which may be nearly covered with the scratches of opossums ascending
and descending is sufficient to inform him whether one went up the
night before without coming down again or not."
Fennimore Cooper lost his chance. He would have known how to value these
people. He wouldn't have traded the dullest of them for the brightest
Mohawk he ever invented.
All savages draw outline pictures upon bark; but the resemblances are not
close, and expression is usually lacking. But the Australian
aboriginal's pictures of animals were nicely accurate in form, attitude,
carriage; and he put spirit into them, and expression. And his pictures
of white people and natives were pretty nearly as good as his pictures of
the other animals. He dressed his whites in the fashion of their day,
both the ladies and the gentlemen. As an untaught wielder of the pencil
it is not likely that he has had his equal among savage people.
His place in art--as to drawing, not color-work--is well up, all things
considered. His art is not to be classified with savage art at all, but
on a plane two degrees above it and one degree above the lowest plane of
civilized art. To be exact, his place in art is between Botticelli and
De Maurier. That is to say, he could not draw as well as De Maurier but
better than Boticelli. In feeling, he resembles both; also in grouping
and in his preferences in the matter of subjects. His "corrobboree" of
the Australian wilds reappears in De Maurier's Belgravian ballrooms, with
clothes and the smirk of civilization added; Botticelli's "Spring" is the
"corrobboree" further idealized, but with fewer clothes and more smirk.
And well enough as to intention, but--my word!
The aboriginal can make a fire by friction. I have tried that.
All savages are able to stand a good deal of physical pain. The
Australian aboriginal has this quality in a well-developed degree. Do
not read the following instances if horrors are not pleasant to you.
They were recorded by the Rev. Henry N. Wolloston, of Melbourne, who had
been a surgeon before he became a clergyman:
1. "In the summer of 1852 I started on horseback from Albany, King
George's Sound, to visit at Cape Riche, accompanied by a native on
foot. We traveled about forty miles the first day, then camped by a
water-hole for the night. After cooking and eating our supper, I
observed the native, who had said nothing to me on the subject,
collect the hot embers of the fire together, and deliberately place
his right foot in the glowing mass for a moment, then suddenly
withdraw it, stamping on the ground and uttering a long-drawn
guttural sound of mingled pain and satisfaction. This operation he
repeated several times. On my inquiring the meaning of his strange
conduct, he only said, 'Me carpenter-make 'em' ('I am mending my
foot'), and then showed me his charred great toe, the nail of which
had been torn off by a tea-tree stump, in which it had been caught
during the journey, and the pain of which he had borne with stoical
composure until the evening, when he had an opportunity of
cauterizing the wound in the primitive manner above described."
And he proceeded on the journey the next day, "as if nothing had
happened"--and walked thirty miles. It was a strange idea, to keep a
surgeon and then do his own surgery.
2. "A native about twenty-five years of age once applied to me, as
a doctor, to extract the wooden barb of a spear, which, during a
fight in the bush some four months previously, had entered his
chest, just missing the heart, and penetrated the viscera to a
considerable depth. The spear had been cut off, leaving the barb
behind, which continued to force its way by muscular action
gradually toward the back; and when I examined him I could feel a
hard substance between the ribs below the left blade-bone. I made a
deep incision, and with a pair of forceps extracted the barb, which
was made, as usual, of hard wood about four inches long and from
half an inch to an inch thick. It was very smooth, and partly
digested, so to speak, by the maceration to which it had been
exposed during its four months' journey through the body. The wound
made by the spear had long since healed, leaving only a small
cicatrix; and after the operation, which the native bore without
flinching, he appeared to suffer no pain. Indeed, judging from his
good state of health, the presence of the foreign matter did not
materially annoy him. He was perfectly well in a few days."
But No. 3 is my favorite. Whenever I read it I seem to enjoy all that
the patient enjoyed--whatever it was:
3. "Once at King George's Sound a native presented himself to me
with one leg only, and requested me to supply him with a wooden leg.
He had traveled in this maimed state about ninety-six miles, for
this purpose. I examined the limb, which had been severed just
below the knee, and found that it had been charred by fire, while
about two inches of the partially calcined bone protruded through
the flesh. I at once removed this with the saw; and having made as
presentable a stump of it as I could, covered the amputated end of
the bone with a surrounding of muscle, and kept the patient a few
days under my care to allow the wound to heal. On inquiring, the
native told me that in a fight with other black-fellows a spear had
struck his leg and penetrated the bone below the knee. Finding it
was serious, he had recourse to the following crude and barbarous
operation, which it appears is not uncommon among these people in
their native state. He made a fire, and dug a hole in the earth
only sufficiently large to admit his leg, and deep enough to allow
the wounded part to be on a level with the surface of the ground.
He then surrounded the limb with the live coals or charcoal, which
was replenished until the leg was literally burnt off. The
cauterization thus applied completely checked the hemorrhage, and he
was able in a day or two to hobble down to the Sound, with the aid
of a long stout stick, although he was more than a week on the
But he was a fastidious native. He soon discarded the wooden leg made
for him by the doctor, because "it had no feeling in it." It must have
had as much as the one he burnt off, I should think.
So much for the Aboriginals. It is difficult for me to let them alone.
They are marvelously interesting creatures. For a quarter of a century,
now, the several colonial governments have housed their remnants in
comfortable stations, and fed them well and taken good care of them in
every way. If I had found this out while I was in Australia I could have
seen some of those people--but I didn't. I would walk thirty miles to
see a stuffed one.
Australia has a slang of its own. This is a matter of course. The vast
cattle and sheep industries, the strange aspects of the country, and the
strange native animals, brute and human, are matters which would
naturally breed a local slang. I have notes of this slang somewhere, but
at the moment I can call to mind only a few of the words and phrases.
They are expressive ones. The wide, sterile, unpeopled deserts have
created eloquent phrases like "No Man's Land" and the "Never-never
Country." Also this felicitous form: "She lives in the Never-never
Country"--that is, she is an old maid. And this one is not without
merit: "heifer-paddock"--young ladies' seminary. "Bail up" and "stick
up" equivalent of our highwayman-term to "hold up" a stage-coach or a
train. "New-chum" is the equivalent of our "tenderfoot"--new arrival.
And then there is the immortal "My word!" "We must import it."
"In cold print it is the equivalent of our "Ger-rreat Caesar!" but spoken
with the proper Australian unction and fervency, it is worth six of it
for grace and charm and expressiveness. Our form is rude and explosive;
it is not suited to the drawing-room or the heifer-paddock; but "M-y
word!" is, and is music to the ear, too, when the utterer knows how to
say it. I saw it in print several times on the Pacific Ocean, but it
struck me coldly, it aroused no sympathy. That was because it was the
dead corpse of the thing, the 'soul was not there--the tones were
lacking--the informing spirit--the deep feeling--the eloquence. But the
first time I heard an Australian say it, it was positively thrilling.