[Editor: This letter to the editor from Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy) was published in The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 30 October 1902. It was written in reply to an article, by Archibald Meston, which appeared in The Bulletin on 16 August 1902.]
Meston is right (B. 16/8/’02). Despite the undeniable brain-power of the blacks, their extreme conservatism has completed its circle in a certain feckless pliancy, which is not adaptability. They welcome the steel tomahawk, but they keep it no sharper than the old diorite implement. Ironbound prescription has atrophied the initiative of the race, dooming it to a future like its past, or no future at all. Therefore distraction means collapse and dissolution. Actual injury could only accelerate an end which the mere advent of a disturbing element had made inevitable.
None but the very earliest settlers could accurately note the primitive characteristics of this unique race. And the pioneer settlers of our older districts have let the opportunity slip. For one thing, there was no money in ethnology. For another thing, all British text-books, in their large, off-hand way, placed the Australian aborigines lowest in the scale of humanity. And what argument from fact or experience can withstand a British platitude?
But civilisation, at best, is comparative; and these people had reached a degree beyond that of our own lineal forefathers in the mere yesterday of ethnographical record. Moreover, though so hopelessly fettered by the tyranny of immemorial precedent, the intellectual competency of the race was by no means exhausted at this stage. We have aboriginal skulls which indicate a mental capacity beyond that of the average white man; some showing even a mathematical faculty of very high order.
The aborigines of the Upper Yarra, amongst whom my own earliest years were passed, differed considerably in armament, tribal usages, and modes of life, from the blacks described by Meston, Stockdale, Dr. Roth, and other first-hand authorities. (I may mention that my father and mother were Port Phillip immigrants of Feb., ’41 — following Batman and Fawkner by only 5½ years — and that they spent their first 11 years on the Upper Yarra, where I was born in ’43. Hence my own early recollections of the blacks are checked and authenticated by the maturer observation of my parents.) And it may be borne in mind that, at the time and place referred to, the shadow of extinction had not perceptibly closed round what was virtually the last generation of that primeval race. In those days the blackfellow’s unconscious skill in the use of his weapons was so perfect that a mere description would be likely to excite the cheap incredulity which so often veils lack of information.
The wimmera spear was about 5ft. in length, and ½in. in diameter; straight, hard, and of uniform thickness. It was the single stem of a suitable kind of scrub, peeled clean, burned and scraped to a point at one end, and hollowed at the other to receive the claw of the wimmera. The momentum of this weapon was terrific, and its level trajectory must have rendered it almost invisible from the front; yet the nerve and alertness of the blackfellow were such that his light box-wood shield — its 6in. of width presented diagonally — was a sufficient protection. Touching accuracy of aim — my father saw a blackfellow, at 40 yards distance, send his three spears, in rapid succession, through the finger-hole below the latch in the closed door of an empty hut. The hole would not be more than 1½in. diameter.
The barbed spear, about 6½ft. in length — or its equivalent with a fin of sharp flints along each side — was always made of ironbark, and was, of course, cut out of the standing tree. This weapon was used only as a lance, never as a missile. I remember that one of the performances required from a candidate for the degree of manhood was to run down a doe kangaroo, and impale her on his “jag-spear.” The rite of initiation consisted of knocking out the two upper front teeth of the aspirant, and seaming his chest with a dozen, or more, formidable-looking scars. No adult male aboriginal was without these badges of virility.
Our blackfellows had two varieties of boomerang, distinguishable at a glance, but both invariably made of wattle, and taken from the junction of trunk and root. The boomerang for direct flight was longer, heavier, and straighter than the other. It was thrown horizontally, with a flat, or even hollow, trajectory. This was a formidable weapon, of astonishing range, though serviceable only in open country. The return boomerang was a scientific masterpiece; a marvellously successful adaptation of simple means to a difficult end. According to Brough Smyth, Major Mitchell was so impressed by the anomalous properties of this weapon, during his famous expedition of ’35, that he afterwards turned the principle to account by patenting a “boomerang propeller” for steamboats. But this must be incorrect, as there is no corresponding record in the long line of patents issued for that appliance. In any case, the suggestion betrays a scientific misconception. The object of a propeller is to obtain the maximum of thrust with the minimum of peripherical disturbance; whilst the boomerang is fashioned to reduce aerial resistance to the lowest possible amount, meantime enlisting the air itself as a support against gravitation. It is this aerial support, commanded by the shape of the return-boomerang, which causes the weapon, when its projectile force is exhausted, to return diagonally, with its original vigor diminished only by the fraction expended in air-resistance.
This boomerang has two distinct motions; the direct impetus, and the axial revolution. It is the latter alone which fixes the inclination of its plane and engages aerial support. The apex of its flight is reached when the direct force is spent; then the weapon, inadequate to further advance, and held in perfect poise by its rotary motion, returns at an angle determined by its axial inclination. And the whole aerial career of the boomerang — this studied transition from direct motion to retrograde — was regulated with a view to the final striking-point.
The weapon is usually described as a missile which will strike an object in its flight and return to the feet of the thrower. This is entirely misleading. The whole course of the boomerang, direct and return, depends on an equilibrium which would be fatally disturbed by impact with any object during its flight. Nor was the weapon designed to return to the feet of the thrower. According to original purpose, it was usually made to descend a spear-cast in front of the thrower, after passing far beyond the vertical line of that point. The weapon was designed to search cover — to force a sheltered enemy into frontal encounter, And, apart from explosives, no other engine so efficient in that branch of tactics has ever been invented. Besides this, it was similarly used to confuse an enemy’s guard by rear-attack. The aboriginal warrior was far from regarding it as a toy. An incident, illustrating the potency of the weapon in actual combat, holds place amongst my own early recollections.
I remember a blackfellow — a young man, tall and athletic, genial and intelligent — who frequented our place, with his lubra. In compliment to my father he had assumed the name of “ Sam.” My father — then incidentally collecting specimens for a private museum in the old country — offered to treat with Sam for his shield; but the good-natured blackfellow forced the shield on him as a present. Otherwise fully armed, Sam left our place; and next day his lubra returned alone, half-distracted, her face lacerated by self-inflicted tomahawk cuts. Her husband had fallen in single combat, a victim to inter-tribal vendetta. When Sam met his assailant his lubra was, as usual, travelling 50 or 100 yards in the rear, to avoid startling kangaroos or other game. Each warrior took cover behind a tree, and the fight began. My memory does not hold the details clearly enough for precise description. But, at all events, each combatant was driven from shelter by the return flight of the other’s boomerang; but while the opponent covered himself with his shield during exposure, Sam was transfixed by a spear. Then the victor rushed upon Sam as he fell, gashed his loins with repeated tomahawk blows, and tore out his kidney-fat. When he had gone his way with his ghastly trophy, Sam’s lubra approached, and stayed with her husband till he died. At our place she found others of her tribe, who buried Sam with the observances of his race.
This took place not more than 30 miles from Melbourne, early in ’51 — say 15½ years after Fawkner’s Enterprise was moored in the Yarra. At that time the blackfellows had entirely vanished from many districts of Victoria. No historian has had access to the details of their passing. Doubtless, sheep were occasionally speared; doubtless, poisoned flour was occasionally dropped from station drays. But let it be recorded, to the honour of the Ryries and other pioneer settlers on the Upper Yarra, that, from first to last, their treatment of the blacks was irreproachable.
The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 30 October 1902, The Red Page (verso of front cover) (columns 1-2)
Brough Smyth = Robert Brough Smyth (1830-1889), a civil servant, geologist, mining engineer, and author; born near Wallsend (Northumberland, England) in 1830, died in Prahran (Victoria) in 1889
diorite = a granitoid rock, principally composed of hornblende and feldspar, with biotite and/or augite (when quartz is present in a sizable quantity, it is called quartz diorite)
doe kangaroo = an adult female kangaroo
dray = a large and strong four-wheeled wagon, without sides, built for transporting heavy loads
game = any wild animal hunted for food, for animal products, for recreation or sporting, or for trophies (can also refer to the meat of those animals, regarding food)
genial = friendly, cheerful, pleasant
lubra = an Aboriginal woman
Major Mitchell = Sir Thomas Mitchell (1792-1855), Australian explorer, Surveyor General of New South Wales; born in Grangemouth (Stirlingshire, Scotland) in 1792, died in Darling Point (Sydney, NSW) in 1855
Meston = Archibald Meston (1851-1924), civil servant, explorer, and journalist; born in Donside (Aberdeen, Scotland), died in Brisbane (Queensland) in 1924
old country = a reference to the country from where one came or from where one’s family originated; in an Australian context, “the old country” also has a meaning regarding the nation which settled Australia, and thus the phrase commonly refers to the United Kingdom (or to England specifically) [in the case of the Furphy family, it is a reference to Ireland]
Roth = Walter Edmund Roth (1861-1933), doctor, anthropologist, and government-appointed Protector of Aborigines; born in London (England) in 1861, died in Georgetown (British Guiana; now known as Guyana) in 1933
seaming = to mark with a groove, ridge, scar, wrinkle, or any other line or mark which may look like a seam
station = a large rural holding for raising sheep or cattle; the term “property” is used for smaller holdings
Stockdale = Harry Stockdale (1841-1919), an artist, explorer, and author; born in Croft (near Darlington, Yorkshire), died in Randwick (Sydney, NSW) in 1919
terrific = something which is extraordinary or great in its amount, degree, or intensity (e.g. to drive at a terrific speed); awe-inspiring; admirable, excellent, magnificent, very good, very impressive, very enjoyable; (archaic) something which causes terror or gives a bad fright; dreadful, very bad; terrifying, very frightening
[Editor: Changed “force is exhaused” to “force is exhausted”.]