[Editor: This article, written by Archibald Meston, was published in The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 16 August 1902. A reply to this article was written by Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy) and published in The Bulletin on 30 October 1902.]
[For The Bulletin.]
In Kendall’s poem on the “Last of his Race,” he mentions “the nulla, the sling, and the spear.” Kendall was evidently not aware that the sling, like the bow and arrow, was absolutely unknown on the Australian continent. The sling was the favorite weapon of the New Caledonia aborigines, and they could use it to some purpose, as was promptly discovered by the French soldiers in their first conflicts with the primitive inhabitants.
The intense conservatism and spirit of isolation of the Australian tribes is nowhere more sharply illustrated than in the northern point of Cape York Peninsula. There I found that the Straits islanders, who are pure Papuans, were using the bow and arrow of New Guinea, and the woomera and woomera spear of the Cape York Australians, obtaining the latter by barter. Though this barter must have continued for unknown hundreds or thousands of years, the Australian copied nothing from the Papuan. You expect a reason, and I surmise that the Australian aborigine represents the oldest living race of mankind, in the stage when all weapons are thrown or used as a club, long before the advent of the bow and arrow.
The deltoid throwing-muscle of the Australian aboriginal is more developed than in any other race at present in existence. An old grey-headed myall, or a youth of 16, or a thin eight-stone man of any age, whose muscles are in working order, can throw a missile with a force that the most robust white cricketer could only feebly imitate.
The old, grey-haired blackfellow who speared Sub-Inspector H. P. Kaye on the Woolgar, west of Cooktown, on Sept. 14, 1881, was about 60 years of age, and certainly not more than 8st., yet he jerked the woomera spear from under his arm and drove it through lungs, heart and chest, and Kaye fell dead from his horse into the grass. A white man was speared beside me, in 1881, on Liverpool Creek; the black palm woomera spear was driven through him, and penetrated the grass-tree beside which he was standing, so that it had to be cut out with a tomahawk.
The Australian aboriginal with the boomerang, nulla, and woomera spear is to be credited with making the most formidable wooden weapons mentioned in the history of mankind. With him, the wooden weapon had reached the maximum development, and there was no further stage of evolution.
The woomera spear, when properly made and effectively thrown, is a much deadlier weapon than the bow and arrow. The return boomerang, weighing from 4oz. to 9oz., will either make frightful gashes and ricochet, or go clean through a man. I have seen a boomerang, striking end-on, go through a ½in. pine board as if it were a sheet of paper. The Australian aboriginal, being in the “throwing stage,” has therefore, so far, not adopted the weapons of any other race.
In the early history of Victoria, two or three aborigines were at large, with rifles and ammunition, and did considerable damage, but their example was never imitated. It is a curious fact that hundreds of aborigines have since been owners of firearms and skilled in using them, and yet there are not more than four deaths credited to firearms in the hands of pure-blooded aborigines in the last 50 years of Australian history!
The astounding conservatism which prevented one tribe from either adopting the weapons or learning the dialect of another, was curiously illustrated by the distribution of the woomera spear and boomerang, and the separation of two dialects by a river, or range of mountains, or an arm of the sea.
The woomera spear in use by the Sydney blacks, and thence round the Australian continent, westward and northward and eastward to the Cape York peninsula, stopped abruptly on the east coast at the Bellenger River, and from there north for 1200 miles was unknown until it reappeared at Townsville beyond the Burdekin. The return boomerang was absolutely unknown in Cape York Peninsula, or anywhere north of Mackay, until taken there by blacks from boomerang-throwing tribes.
Three entirely different dialects were spoken on Stradbrooke, Morton, and Bribie Islands, though all three are in sight of each other. Three different dialects were spoken on Fraser’s Island, the negatives being “warr,” “wacca,” and “cabbee.” Still, as there are three entirely distinct languages — English, Gaelic, and Welsh — and numerous dialects, spoken on the very small island of Great Britain, and an astonishing variety on the continent of Europe, two languages being occasionally only separated by a river or range of mountains, this is less extraordinary than it looks.
The Australian aborigine must die with his language and his weapons. All three will become extinct together. It is well that it should be so, for one is not worth preserving without the other. They are doomed — that ancient and venerable Trimurti.
The Australian aborigine has come down to the present direct from the first-born of Human Protoplasm, when it was breathed on by the spirit of Life, rocked in the cradle of the Primeval Deep, and lullabied by the music of wild Silurian storms far back in the misty morning of the World.
Weirdly and unspeakably pathetic is the picture of that rapidly-disappearing ancient race, of whom the few melancholy survivors stand to-day amid the oldest existing flora and fauna — the gloomy Araucarias, the feathered Macrozamias, the black-stemmed Xanthorrhea, the last of the Marsupialia, and the Dipnoid Ceratodus, “Children of Elder Time,” the Deep of the present calling unto the Deep of the Mesozoic through the measureless Ether and the awful silence of unknown ages recorded only in the Doomsday annals of God!!
The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 16 August 1902, p. 31 (column 2)
Kendall = Henry Kendall (1839-1882), an Australian poet; born in Ulladulla (NSW) in 1839, died in Surry Hills (NSW) in 1882
myall = an Australian aborigine; an uncivilized or wild person (from the Aboriginal word “miyal” for stranger); may also refer to an acacia tree (wattle tree), especially the Acacia pendula (weeping myall)
nulla = a “nulla nulla”, a wooden club used by Australian Aborigines