- Category: Edward John Eyre - Aborigines Ch 3
- Written by Edward John Eyre
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The food of the Aborigines of Australia embraces an endless variety of articles, derived both from the animal and vegetable kingdom. The different kinds in use depend in a great measure upon the season of the year and local circumstances. Every district has in it something peculiar to itself. The soil and climate of the continent vary greatly in their character and afford a corresponding variety of productions to the Aborigines. As far as it is yet known there are no localities on its coast, no recesses in its interior, however sterile and inhospitable they may appear to the traveller, that do not hold out some inducements to the bordering savage to visit them, or at proper seasons of the year provide him with the means of sustenance. Captain Grey remarks, in volume 2, of his travels, page 261 —
“Generally speaking, the natives live well; in some districts there may at particular seasons of the year be a deficiency of food, but if such is the case, these tracts are, at those times, deserted. It is, however, utterly impossible for a traveller or even for a strange native to judge whether a district affords an abundance of food, or the contrary; for in traversing extensive parts of Australia, I have found the sorts of food vary from latitude to latitude, so that the vegetable productions used by the Aborigines in one are totally different to those in another; if, therefore, a stranger has no one to point out to him the vegetable productions, the soil beneath his feet may teem with food, whilst he starves. The same rule holds good with regard to animal productions; for example, in the southern parts of the continent the Xanthorrea affords an inexhaustible supply of fragrant grubs, which an epicure would delight in, when once he has so far conquered his prejudices as to taste them; whilst in proceeding to the northward, these trees decline in health and growth, until about the parallel of Gantheaume Bay they totally disappear, and even a native finds himself cut off from his ordinary supplies of insects; the same circumstances taking place with regard to the roots and other kinds of food at the same time, the traveller necessarily finds himself reduced to cruel extremities. A native from the plains, taken into an elevated mountainous district near his own country, for the first time, is equally at fault.
“But in his own district a native is very differently situated; he knows exactly what it produces, the proper time at which the several articles are in season, and the readiest means of procuring them. According to these circumstances he regulates his visits to the different portions of his hunting ground; and I can only state that I have always found the greatest abundance in their huts.”
It is evident therefore that a European or even a stranger native would perish in a district capable of supplying the necessaries of life, simply because he had not the experience necessary to direct him where to search for food, or judgment to inform him what article might be in season at the particular time of his visit. It is equally the same with respect to procuring water. The native inhabiting a scrubby and an arid district has, from his knowledge of the country and from a long residence and practical experience in the desert, many resources at command to supply his wants, where the white man would faint or perish from thirst.
The very densest brushes, which to the latter are so formidable and forbidding, hold out to the former advantages and inducements to resort to them of more than ordinary temptation. Abounding in wild animals of various kinds, they offer to the natives who frequent them an unlimited supply of food: a facility for obtaining firewood, a grateful shade from the heat, an effectual screen from the cold, and it has already been shewn that they afford the means of satisfying their thirst by a process but little known, and which from a difference in habits and temperament would be but little available to the European.[Note 67 at end of para.] In judging, therefore, of the character of any country, from the mere fact of natives being seen there, or even of their being numerous, we must take all these circumstances into consideration; and, in estimating the facility with which a native can remain for a long time in a country, apparently arid and inhospitable, we must not omit to take into account his education and experience, and the general nature of his habits. The two former have accustomed him from infancy to feel at home and at ease, where a European sees only dread and danger: he has thus the advantage over the European in the desert, that a swimmer has in the water over the man who cannot swim; conscious of his own powers and resources, he feels not the least apprehension, whilst the very terrors of the other but augment his danger. On the other hand, the general habits, mode of life, and almost temperament of the savage, give him an equally great advantage. Indolent by disposition and indulgence, he makes very short stages in his ordinary travels, rarely moving more than from eight to twelve miles in the day, and this he does so leisurely and quietly, that he neither becomes excited nor heated, and consequently does not experience that excessive thirst, which is produced by the active exertions or violent exercise of the European, and which in the latter is at the same time so greatly augmented, by his want of confidence and anxiety.
[Note 67: Vide vol. I. p.349 (March 26.)]
Another very great advantage on the part of the natives is, the intimate knowledge they have of every nook and corner of the country they inhabit; does a shower of rain fall, they know the very rock where a little water is most likely to be collected, the very hole where it is the longest retained, and by repairing straight to the place they fill their skins, and thus obtain a supply that lasts them many days. Are there heavy dews at night, they know where the longest grass grows, from which they may collect the spangles, and water is sometimes procured thus in very great abundance. [Note 68 at end of para.] Should there be neither rains nor dews, their experience at once points out to them the lowest levels where the gumscrub grows, and where they are sure of getting water from its roots, with the least possible amount of labour that the method admits of, and with the surest prospect of success.
[Note 69: Vide vol. I. p.349 (March 27.)]
[Note 68: Vide vol. I. p.361 (March 30.)]
Another very important circumstance in favour of the native, and one which results in a measure from some of the above-mentioned considerations, is the fact, that the native sets to work to procure his supply calmly and collectedly, and before he requires it; whilst the European, even if acquainted with the method of obtaining it, would not resort to it until the last extremity, when the body was fatigued and heated by previous exertion, the mouth dry and parched by thirst, and the mind excited and anxious from apprehension. The natural consequence of such a very different combination of circumstances would be, that the native would obtain an abundant and satisfying supply, whilst the European would never be able to procure a sufficiency to appease his thirst, but would rather fatigue and exhaust his strength the more, from his want of skill and experience, and from his body and mind being both in an unfit state for this particular kind of exertion. Such at least, on many various occasions, I have found to be the case both with myself, and with natives with me who have not been accustomed to the scrub, or to this method of procuring water. The difficulty and labour of finding and digging out the roots, our want of skill in selecting proper ones, the great dust arising from the loose, powdery soil in which they were, and our own previously excited and exhausted state, have invariably prevented us from deriving the full advantage we expected from our efforts.
In cases of extreme thirst, where the throat is dry and parched, or life at all in danger, the toil of digging for the roots would be well repaid by the relief afforded. I have myself, in such cases, found that though I could by no means satiate my thirst, I could always succeed in keeping my mouth cool and moist, and so far in rendering myself equal to exertions I could not otherwise have made. Indeed, I hold it impossible that a person, acquainted with this means of procuring water, and in a district where the gum-scrub grew, could ever perish from thirst in any moderate lapse of time, if he had with him food to eat, and was not physically incapable of exertion. Under such circumstances, the moisture he would be able to procure from the roots, would, I think, be quite sufficient to enable him to eat his food, and to sustain his strength for a considerable time, under such short stages as would gradually conduct him free from his embarrassments.
In addition to the value of the gum-scrub to the native, as a source from whence to obtain his supply of water, it is equally important to him as affording an article of food, when his other resources have failed. To procure this, the lateral roots are still made use of, but the smaller ones generally are selected, such as vary in diameter from an inch downwards. The roots being dug up, the bark is peeled off and roasted crisp in hot ashes; it is then pounded between two stones, and has a pleasant farinaceous taste, strongly resembling that of malt. I have often seen the natives eating this, and have frequently eaten it myself in small quantities. How far it alone would support life, or sustain a man in strength, I have of course no means of forming an opinion; but it is, probably, only resorted to when other food is scarce. Several of the roots of other shrubs are also used for food, and some of them are mucilaginous and very palatable.
Throughout the greater portion of New Holland, where there do not happen to be European settlers, and invariably where fresh water can be permanently procured upon the surface, the native experiences no difficulty whatever in procuring food in abundance all the year round. It is true that the character of his diet varies with the changing seasons, and the formation of the country he inhabits; but it rarely happens that any season of the year, or any description of country does not yield him both animal and vegetable food. Amongst the almost unlimited catalogue of edible articles used by the natives of Australia, the following may be classed as the chief:— all salt and fresh-water fish and shell-fish, of which, in the larger rivers, there are vast numbers and many species; freshwater turtle; frogs of different kinds; rats and mice; lizards, and most kinds of snakes and reptiles; grubs of all kinds; moths of several varieties; fungi, and many sorts of roots; the leaves and tops of a variety of plants; the leaf and fruit of the mesembryanthemum; various kinds of fruits and berries; the bark from the roots of many trees and shrubs; the seeds of leguminous plants; gum from several species of acacia; different sorts of manna; honey from the native bee, and also from the flowers of the Banksia, by soaking them in water; the tender leaves of the grass-tree; the larvae of insects; white ants; eggs of birds; turtles or lizards; many kinds of kangaroo; opossums; squirrels, sloths, and wallabies; ducks; geese; teal; cockatoos; parrots; wild dogs and wombats; the native companion; the wild turkey; the swan; the pelican; the leipoa, and an endless variety of water-fowl, and other descriptions of birds.
Of these articles, many are not only procurable in abundance, but in such vast quantities at the proper seasons, as to afford for a considerable length of time an ample means of subsistence to many hundreds of natives congregated in one place; and these are generally the kinds of food of which the natives are particularly fond. On many parts of the coast, and in the larger inland rivers, fish are obtained of a very fine description, and in great abundance. At Lake Victoria, which is filled with the back waters of the Murray, I have seen six hundred natives encamped together, all of whom were living at the time upon fish procured from the lake, with the addition, perhaps, of the leaves of the mesembryanthemum. When I went amongst them I never perceived any scarcity in their camps. The fish were caught in nets.
At Moorunde, when the Murray annually inundates the flats, fresh-water cray-fish make their way to the surface of the ground from holes where they have been buried during the year, in such vast numbers that I have seen four hundred natives live upon them for weeks together, whilst the numbers spoiled or thrown away would have sustained four hundred more. This fish is an excellent and nutritious article of food, and would be highly prized by the epicure. It is caught by the women who wade into the water in a long close line, stooping down and walking backwards, whilst they grope with their hands and feet, presenting a singular, and to the uninitiated, an incomprehensible spectacle, as they thus move slowly backwards, but keep the line regular and well preserved, as all generally occupy the same position at one time. When a cray-fish is caught the large claws are torn off to prevent the animal from biting, and both claws and body are put into a small net suspended from the neck for that purpose. In two or three hours a woman will procure as many fish as will last her family for a day. The men are too lazy to do anything when food is so abundant, and lie basking under the trees in luxurious indolence, whilst their wives, mothers, or sisters are engaged in cooking for them.
An unlimited supply of fish is also procurable at the Murray about the beginning of December, when the floods, having attained their greatest height, begin again to recede; and when the waters, which had been thrown by the back water channels of the river into the flats behind its banks, begin again to reflow through them into the river as it falls in height. At this time the natives repair to these channels, and making a weir across them with stakes and grass interwoven, leave only one or two small openings for the stream to pass through. To these they attach bag nets, which receive all the fish that attempt to re-enter the river. The number procured in this way in a few hours is incredible. Large bodies of natives depend upon these weirs for their sole subsistence, for some time after the waters have commenced to recede.
Another very favourite article of food, and equally abundant at a particular season of the year, in the eastern portion of the continent, is a species of moth which the natives procure from the cavities and hollows of the mountains in certain localities. This, when roasted, has something of the appearance and flavour of an almond badly peeled. It is called in the dialect of the district, where I met with it, Booguon. The natives are never so well conditioned in that part of the country, as at the season of the year when they return from feasting upon this moth; and their dogs partake equally of the general improvement.
The tops, leaves, and stalks of a kind of cress, gathered at the proper season of the year, tied up in bunches, and afterwards steamed in an oven, furnish a favourite, and inexhaustible supply of food for an unlimited number of natives. When prepared, this food has a savoury and an agreeable smell, and in taste is not unlike a boiled cabbage. In some of its varieties it is in season for a great length of time, and is procured in the flats of rivers, on the borders of lagoons, at the Murray, and in many other parts of New Holland.
There are many other articles of food among the natives, equally abundant and valuable as those I have enumerated: such as various kinds of berries, or fruits, the bulbous roots of a reed called the belillah, certain kinds of fungi dug out of the ground, fresh-water muscles, and roots of several kinds, etc. Indeed, were I to go through the list of articles seriatim, and enter upon the varieties and subdivisions of each class, with the seasons of the year at which they were procurable, it would at once be apparent that the natives of Australia, in their natural state, are not subject to much inconvenience for want of the necessaries of life. In almost every part of the continent which I have visited, where the presence of Europeans, or their stock, has not limited, or destroyed their original means of subsistence, I have found that the natives could usually, in three or four hours, procure as much food as would last for the day, and that without fatigue or labour. They are not provident in their provision for the future, but a sufficiency of food is commonly laid by at the camp for the morning meal. In travelling, they sometimes husband, with great care and abstinence, the stock they have prepared for the journey; and though both fatigued and hungry, they will eat sparingly, and share their morsel with their friends, without encroaching too much upon their store, until some reasonable prospect appears of getting it replenished.
In wet weather the natives suffer the most, as they are then indisposed to leave their camps to look for food, and experience the inconveniences both of cold and hunger. If food, at all tainted, is offered to a native by Europeans, it is generally rejected with disgust. In their natural state, however, they frequently eat either fish or animals almost in a state of putridity.
Cannibalism is not common, though there is reason to believe, that it is occasionally practised by some tribes, but under what circumstances it is difficult to say. Native sorcerers are said to acquire their magic influence by eating human flesh, but this is only done once in a life-time.
[Note 70: The only authentic and detailed account of any instance of cannibalism, that I am acquainted with, is found in Parliamentary Papers on Australian Aborigines, published August, 1844, in a report of Mr. Protector Sievewright, from Lake Tarong, in one of the Port Phillip districts.
“On going out I found the whole of the men of the different tribes (amounting to upwards of 100) engaged hand to hand in one general melee.
“On being directed by some of the women, who had likewise sought shelter near my tent, to the huts of the Bolaghers, I there found a young woman, supported in the arms of some of her tribe, quite insensible, and bleeding from two severe wounds upon the right side of the face; she continued in the same state of insensibility till about 11 o’clock, when she expired.
“After fighting for nearly an hour, the men of the Bolagher tribe returned to their huts, when finding that every means I had used to restore the young woman was in vain, they gave vent to the most frantic expressions of grief and rage, and were employed till daylight in preparing themselves and weapons to renew the combat.
“Shortly before sunrise they again rushed towards the Targurt and Elengermite tribes, who, with about a dozen of Wamambool natives, were encamped together, when a most severe struggle took place between them, and very few escaped on either side without serious fractures or dangerous spear wounds. Although the Targurt tribe were supported by the Elengermite and Wamambool natives, and were consequently much superior in number, they were, after two hours hard fighting, driven off the ground and pursued for about four miles, to where their women and children had retired; when one of the former, named Mootinewhannong, was selected, and fell, pierced by about 20 spears of the pursuers.
“The body of this female was shortly afterwards burned to ashes by her own people, and the Bolagher natives returned to their encampment, apparently satisfied with the revenge they had taken, and remained silently and sullenly watching the almost inanimate body of the wounded female.
“When death took place, they again expressed the most violent and extravagant grief; they threw themselves upon the ground, weeping and screaming at the height of their voices, lacerating their bodies and inflicting upon themselves wounds upon their heads, from blows which they gave themselves with the leangville. About an hour after the death of the young woman, the body was removed a few hundred yards into the bush by the father and brother of the deceased; the remainder of the tribe following by one at a time, until they had all joined what I imagined to be the usual funeral party. Having accompanied the body when it was removed, I was then requested to return to my tent, which request I took no notice of. In a few minutes I was again desired, rather sternly, and by impatient signs to go. I endeavoured to make them understand that I wished to remain, and I sat down upon a tree close to where the body lay. The father of the deceased then came close up to me, and pointed with his finger to his mouth, and then to the dead body. I was at this moment closely and intensely scrutinized by the whole party. I at once guessed their meaning, and signified my intention to remain, and, with as much indifference as I could assume, stretched myself upon the tree, and narrowly watched their proceedings.
“With a flint they made an incision upon the breast, when a simultaneous shriek was given by the party, and the same violent signs of grief were again evinced. After a short time the operation was again commenced, and in a few minutes the body disembowelled.
“The scene which now took place was of the most revolting description; horror-stricken and utterly disgusted, while obliged to preserve that equanimity of demeanour upon which I imagined the development of this tragedy to depend, I witnessed the most fearful scene of ferocious cannibalism.
“The bowels and entire viscera having been disengaged from the body, were at first portioned out; but from the impatience of some of the women to get at the liver, a general scramble took place for it, and it was snatched in pieces, and, without the slightest process of cooking, was devoured with an eagerness and avidity, a keen, fiendish expression of impatience for more, from which scene, a memory too tenacious upon this subject will not allow me to escape; the kidneys and heart were in like manner immediately consumed, and as a climax to these revolting orgies, when the whole viscera were removed, a quantity of blood and serum which had collected in the cavity of the chest, was eagerly collected in handsful, and drunk by the old man who had dissected the body; the flesh was entirely cut off the ribs and back, the arms and legs were wrenched and twisted from the shoulder and hip joints, and their teeth employed to dissever the reeking tendons, when they would not immediately yield to their impatience. The limbs were now doubled up and put aside in their baskets; and on putting a portion of the flesh upon a fire which had previously been lit, they seemed to remember that I was of the party; something was said to one of the women, who cut off a foot from the leg she had in her possession, and offered it to me; I thought it prudent to accept of it, and wrapping it in my handkerchief, and pointing to my tent, they nodded assent, and I joyfully availed myself of their permission to retire. They shortly afterwards returned to their huts with the debris of the feast, and during the day, to the horror and annoyance of my two boys, and those belonging to the establishment, they brought another part, and some half-picked bones, and offered them to us. The head was struck off with a tomahawk and placed between hot stones in the hollow of a tree, where it has undergone a process of baking, and it is still left there otherwise untouched.”]
Many methods of obtaining the various articles of food, are resorted to by the natives, some of these are very simple; some exceedingly ingenious; whilst others require great tact and skill; and not a few exercise to their fullest extent those qualities, which they possess so greatly, and prize so highly, such as quickness of sight, readiness of hand, caution in arranging plans, judgment in directing them, patience in waiting for the result, endurance in pursuing, and strength in holding fast.
Fish are procured in different ways. They are caught with weirs or dams, as already described; and also with large seines made of string manufactured from the rush, and buoyed up with dry reeds, bound into bundles, and weighted by stones tied to the bottom. This is used just in the same way as the European seine, being either shot from a canoe, or set by swimming or wading, according to the depth of the water. Great numbers of fish of various kinds, and often of a large size, are caught in this way. Fresh water turtles, varying in weight from three to twelve pounds, are also taken in the same way, and are excellent eating.
Another kind of net (ngail-le) used in fishing is made of slender twine, and has a large mesh. It is long, but not more than from two to three feet deep. A string is passed through the loops of the upper part, and is then stretched across a lagoon, or any other sheet of still water, the upper part being nearly level with the surface of the water, and the lower part dangling loose below, without weight. In setting it each extremity is fastened to a pole or spear, stuck firmly in the mud to keep it in its place, whilst a third pole is occasionally put in the middle. A few dry reeds are sometimes fastened at intervals to the line, running through the upper part to prevent the net from sinking too low. When set, the native either remains by it to take the fish out as they are caught, or leaves it there all night. The fish swimming about the lagoon, or sporting near the surface, strike against the net, and get their heads fast in the meshes. The net swinging loose, yields to their pressure, and entangles them the more as they struggle to extricate themselves from it. This is a most destructive mode of catching fish, and generally secures the finest and largest.
Fish are sometimes taken in another way. A party of natives proceed to a lagoon, or lake of still water, each carrying in his hand a small net (ken-de-ran-ko) of a semi-oval shape, about twenty inches long, from seven to nine inches across, and from five to seven inches deep. This net is kept in shape by a thin hoop of wood running round it in the upper part. With this the native dives to the bottom, and searches among the weeds until he sees a fish; he then cautiously places the net under it, and, rising suddenly to the surface, holds his victim at arm’s length above his head; and then biting it to kill it, he throws it on the shore and dives down again for another.
The natives are very skilful in this mode of fishing, and it is an interesting sight to see several of them in the water diving together, and exerting themselves against each other in their efforts to catch the best fish, whilst the affrighted inhabitants of the water swim wildly and confusedly about, seeking shelter in the mud and weeds, only to become an easier prey. I have even seen natives dive down in the river, without net or implement of any kind, and bring up good-sized fish, which they had caught with their hands at the bottom.
Another method of diving with the net is conducted on a larger scale. The net itself is made of strong twine, from six to eight feet long, oval at the top, about two feet across, and two deep. It is looped to a wooden hoop or bow, with a strong string drawn tightly across the two ends of the bow, and passed through the loops of the straight side of the net. With this two natives dive together under the cliffs which confine the waters of the Murray, each holding one end of the bow. They then place it before any hole or cavity there may be in the rocks beneath the surface, with the size, shape, and position of which they have by previous experience become well acquainted; the terrified fish is then driven into the net and secured. Fishes varying from twenty to seventy pounds are caught in this way. It is only, however, at particular seasons of the year, when the female fish are seeking for a place to deposit their spawn that this mode of fishing can be adopted.
Other kinds of hoop-nets are used for catching fish in shallow waters, or for taking the shrimp, and a small fish like the white-bait, but they need not be particularly described.
The next principal mode of procuring fish is by spearing them, and even this is performed in a variety of ways, according to the season of the year, the description of fish to be taken, and the peculiarities of the place where they are found. In the shallow waters upon the sea-coast the native wades with his spear and throwing-stick, and follows the windings of the fish with singular rapidity and skill, rarely missing his aim where he has an opportunity of striking.
In the larger rivers, when the waters are low and clear, a party of natives varying in numbers from five to forty plunge in with their spears, which for the purpose are made of hard wood, with smooth, sharp points, and about six feet long. Forming themselves into a large semicircle in the water, they all dive down, simultaneously, with their weapons, accompanied sometimes by a young man, a few yards in advance of the middle of the party, and without a spear. For a considerable time they remain under water, and then, if successful, gradually emerge, and deliver the fish that have been speared, to their friends on the shore. If unsuccessful they swim a few yards further down, and dive again with their weapons. And thus they frequently go on for a mile or two, until they are either tired or satisfied with their success. I have known a party of thirty natives kill seven or eight fish in the course of an hour, none of which were under fifteen pounds, whilst some of them were much larger.
The regularity with which they keep their relative positions, notwithstanding the current of the river, and the dexterity and order with which they dive under the water, are truly surprising to a person who witnesses them for the first time.
At the period of floods, and when they have nearly attained their height, and the young reeds and rushes begin to shew themselves above the surface of the water, near the bank of rivers or of lagoons formed by the floods in the alluvial flats behind, another method of spearing fish is practised from a canoe (mun) made out of a solid sheet of the bark of the gum-tree (eucalyptus).
To these reeds the fish are very fond of resorting, probably to feed upon the insects that are found upon the tender leaves; in moving about from one place to another they strike against the reeds, and produce a vibration in the tops above the water; this indicates to the native, who is sailing stealthily along in his canoe, the exact place where they are passing, and suddenly raising his arm with great energy he strikes forcibly among the reeds with his spear, without letting it go out of his hand. If the first blow does not succeed, it is rapidly repeated, and seldom fails in securing a prize. When a large fish is speared, it is pressed downwards to the ground, and the native leaps out of his canoe and dives to the bottom to secure it. The spear (moo-ar-roo) used in this method of fishing varies from ten to sixteen feet in length, and is made of pine, pliant, and of nearly a uniform thickness; it is about an inch and a half in diameter, and has two short pointed pieces of hard wood lashed to one end, projecting about five or six inches, and set a little apart, so as to form a kind of prongs or grains. This instrument is also used for propelling the canoe.
It is used too for spearing fish by night, which is by far the most interesting method of any.
Having previously prepared his canoe, straightened his spear, and hardened and sharpened the points of the prongs, the native breaks up his fire-wood in small pieces, and loads his canoe with a stock calculated to last the time he intends to be absent. An oval piece of bark, about three feet long and two broad, is then coated over with wet mud and placed in the stern of the canoe, on a framework of sticks. One or two sticks are stuck upright in the mud, and others placed around them in the form of a cone. A fire is then put underneath, and the native, stepping into the bow of his canoe, pushes steadily into the stream, and commences his nocturnal employment. The wood of which the fire is made is of a particular kind, and, as only one description of tree will answer, it has frequently to be brought from a considerable distance. It is obtained among the brush of the table-land stretching behind the valley of the Murray, on either side, and its peculiarities are that it is light, brittle, and resinous, emitting when burning a most agreeable fragrance and a powerful and brilliant light, almost wholly free from smoke.
Two men usually accompany each canoe, one to attend to the fire, and keep it always burning brightly, and the other to guide the canoe and spear the fish. As soon as the fire begins to blaze up the scene becomes most beautiful. The low black looking piece of bark floats noiselessly down the middle of the stream, or stealthily glides under the frowning cliffs, now lit up by a brilliant light. In the bow is seen the dark, naked, but graceful form of the savage, standing firm and erect, and scarcely seeming to move, as with the slightest motion of his arms he guides the frail canoe. His spear is grasped in his hand, whilst his whole attitude and appearance denote the most intense vigilance and attention. Suddenly you see his arm uplifted, and the weapon descending with the rapidity of thought, a splash is seen, a struggle heard, and a fish is slowly and cautiously drawn towards the canoe pierced through with the spear. If it is a large one, the native at once plunges into the water, still retaining his hold of the spear, and soon reappears with the trophy in his arms.
Among the rocks under the cliffs, or among logs or roots of trees, or on a clayey bottom, large fresh-water lobsters (poo-ta-ron-ko) are procured in the same way, weighing from two to four pounds each, and of a most delicate and excellent flavour. I have frequently been out with a single native, and seen him spear from ten to sixteen of these in an hour or two.
It has a singular and powerful effect upon the imagination, to witness at midnight a fleet of these canoes, gliding about in the distance like so many balls of fire, imparting a still deeper shade to the gloom of darkness which surrounds the spectator, and throwing an air of romance on the whole scene. Occasionally in travelling at night, and coming suddenly upon the river from the scrub behind, I have been dazzled and enchanted with the fairy sight that has burst upon me. The waters have been alive with brilliant fires, moving to and fro in every direction, like meteors from a marsh, and like those too, rapidly and inexplicably disappearing when the footsteps of strangers are heard approaching.
A few other methods of catching fish are sometimes resorted to, such as stirring up the mud in stagnant ponds, and taking the fish when they come up almost choked to the surface. Groping with their hands or with boughs, etc. etc.
There is also a particular season of the year (about September), when in the larger rivers the fish become ill or diseased, and lie floating on the surface unable to descend, or drift down dead with the current. Fishes weighing nearly eighty pounds are sometimes taken in this way. The natives are always looking out for opportunities of procuring food so easily, and never hesitate to eat any fish, although they may have been dead for some time.
I have never seen the natives use hooks in fishing of their own manufacture, nor do I believe that they ever make any, though they are glad enough to get them from Europeans.
The large fresh-water lobster is sometimes procured by diving, in which case the females are generally employed, as the weather is cold, and night is the best time to procure them. It is extraordinary to see a party of women plunge into the water on a cold dark night, and swim and dive about amongst logs, stumps, roots, and weeds without ever hurting themselves, and seldom failing to obtai the object of their search.
Turtle are procured in the same way, but generally by the men, and in the day time.
Muscles of a very large kind are also got by diving. The women whose duty it is to collect these, go into the water with small nets (len-ko) hung round their necks, and diving to the bottom pick up as many as they can, put them into their bags, and rise to the surface for fresh air, repeating the operation until their bags have been filled. They have the power of remaining for a long time under the water, and when they rise to the surface for air, the head and sometimes the mouth only is exposed. A stranger suddenly coming to the river when they were all below, would be puzzled to make out what the black objects were, so frequently appearing and disappearing in the water.
Cray-fish of the small kind (u-kod-ko) weighing from four to six ounces are obtained by the women wading into the water as already described, or by men wading and using a large bow-net, called a “wharro,” which is dragged along by two or three of them close to the bottom where the water is not too deep.
Frogs are dug out of the ground by the women, or caught in the marshes, and used in every stage from the tadpole upwards.
Rats are also dug out of the ground, but they are procured in the greatest numbers and with the utmost facility when the approach of the floods in the river flats compels them to evacuate their domiciles. A variety is procured among the scrubs under a singular pile or nest which they make of sticks, in the shape of a hay-cock, three or four feet high and many feet in circumference. A great many occupy the same pile and are killed with sticks as they run out.
Snakes, lizards and other reptiles are procured among the rocks or in the scrubs. Grubs are got out of the gum-tree into which they eat their way, as also out of the roots of the mimosa, the leaves of the zamia, the trunk of the xanthorra, and a variety of other plants and shrubs.
One particularly large white grub, and a great bon-bouche to the natives, is procured out of the ground. It is about four inches long and half an inch in thickness, and is obtained by attaching a thin narrow hook of hard wood to the long, wiry shoots of the polygonum, and then pushing this gently down the hole through which the grub has burrowed into the earth until it is hooked. Grubs are procured at a depth of seven feet in this way without the delay or trouble of digging.
Moths are procured as before described; or the larger varieties are caught at nights whilst flying about.
Fungi are abundant, and of great variety. Some are obtained from the surface of the ground, others below it, and others again from the trunks and boughs of trees.
Roots of all kinds are procured by digging, one of the most important being that of the flag or cooper’s reed, which grows in marshes or alluvial soils that are subject to periodical inundations. This is used more or less at all seasons of the year, but is best after the floods have retired and the tops have become decayed and been burnt off. The root is roasted in hot ashes, and chewed, when it affords a nutritious and pleasant farinaceous food.
The belillah is another important bulbous root, which also grows on lands subject to floods. It is about the size of a walnut, of a hard and oily nature, and is prepared by being roasted and pounded into a thin cake between two stones. Immense tracts of country are covered with this plant on the flats of the Murray, which in the distance look like the most beautiful and luxuriant meadows. After the floods have retired I have seen several hundreds of acres, with the stems of the plant six or seven feet high, and growing so closely together as to render it very difficult to penetrate far amongst them.
The thick pulpy leaf of the mesembryanthemum is in general use in all parts of Australia which I have visited, and is eaten as a sort of relish with almost every other kind of food. That which grows upon the elevated table lands is preferred to that which is found in the valleys. It is selected when the full vigour of the plant begins to decline and the tips of the leaves become red, but before the leaf is at all withered. The fruit is used both when first ripe and also after it has become dried up and apparently withered. In each case it has an agreeable flavour and is much prized by the natives.
Many other descriptions of fruits and berries are made use of in different parts of the continent, the chief of which, so far as their use has come under my own observation, are —
1. A kind of fruit called in the Moorunde dialect “ketango,” about the size and shape of a Siberian crab, but rounder. When this is ripe, it is of a deep red colour, and consists of a solid mealy substance, about the eighth of an inch in thickness, enclosing a large round stone, which, upon being broken, yields a well-flavoured kernel. The edible part of the fruit has an agreeable acid taste, and makes excellent puddings or preserves, for which purpose it is now extensively used by Europeans. The shrub on which this grows, is very elegant and graceful, and varies from four to twelve feet in height. [Note 71: A species of fusanus.] When in full bearing, nothing can exceed its beauty, drooping beneath its crimson load.
Another shrub found in the scrubs, may sometimes be mistaken for this, as it bears in appearance a similar fruit; but on being tasted, it is bitter and nauseous. This in the Murray dialect is called “netting.” The natives prepare it by baking it in an oven, which takes the bitter taste away. The “netting” is earlier in season than the “ketango.”
2. A berry about the size and shape of a large sloe, but with a smaller stone; conical in shape, and rounded at the large end. This fruit is juicy and saline, though not disagreeable in taste. There are several varieties of it, which when ripe are of a black, red, or yellow colour. The black is the best. The bush upon which it grows is a salsolaceous bramble [Note 72: Nitraria Australis], and is found in large quantities on the saline flats, bordering some parts of the Murrumbidgee and Murray rivers; and along the low parts of the southern coast, immediately behind the ridges bounding the sea shore. It is a staple article of food in its season, among the natives of those districts where it abounds, and is eaten by them raw, stone and all.
3. A small berry or currant, called by the natives of Moorunde “eertapko,” about the size of No. 2. shot. When ripe it is red, and of an agreeable acid flavour. It grows upon a low creeping tap-rooted plant, of a salsolaceous character, found in the alluvial flats of the Murray, among the polygonum brushes, and in many other places. A single plant will spread over an area of many yards in diameter, covering the dry and arid ground with a close, soft, and velvety carpet in the heat of summer, at which time the fruit is in perfection. To collect so small a berry with facility, and in abundance, the natives cut a rounded tray of thin bark, two or three feet long, and six or eight inches wide, over this they lift up the plant, upon which the fruit grows, and shake the berries into it. When a sufficiency has been collected, the berries are skilfully tossed into the air, and separated from the leaves and dirt. The natives are very fond of this fruit, which affords them an inexhaustible resource for many weeks. In an hour a native could collect more than he could use in a day.
The other sorts of fruits and berries are numerous and varied, but do not merit particular description.
[Note 73: Mr. Simpson gives the following account of the Bunya Bunya, a fruit-bearing tree lately discovered on the N.E. coast of New Holland.
“Ascending a steep hill, some four miles further on, we passed through a bunya scrub, and for the first time had an opportunity of examining this noble tree more closely. It raises its majestic head above every other tree in the forest, and must, therefore, frequently reach the height of 250 feet; the trunk is beautifully formed, being as straight as an arrow, and perfectly branchless for above two-thirds of its height; branches then strike off, nearly at right angles from the trunk, forming circles which gradually diminish in diameter till they reach the summit, which terminates in a single shoot; the foliage shining, dark green, the leaves acutely pointed and lanceolate, with large green cones, the size of a child’s head, hanging from the terminal branches in the fruiting season (January). It is, too, very remarkable that the bunya tree, according to the natives, is nowhere to be met with but in these parts; it is, however, there is no doubt, a species of the araucaria genus, well known in South America; the timber, when green, is white, fine grained and very tough, but whether it retains these qualities when dry, has not yet been determined. The Aborigines are particularly fond of the bunya nuts, which are as large as a full sized almond, including the shell, and, in good seasons, come from a distance of 100 or 200 miles to feast upon them.”]
Bark from the roots of trees and shrubs is roasted, and then pounded between two stones for use.
Gums exude from the trees on which they are procured. These are generally varieties of the Mimosa.
Manna exudes in great abundance from the tree already mentioned, as constituting the firewood which the natives use in fishing by night. It is of a mottled red or brown colour, of a firm consistency and sweet taste, resembling exactly in appearance, flavour, and colour, the manna used medicinally in Europe.
Another variety is yielded by the Eucalyptus mannifera and is found early in the morning under the tree, scattered on the ground. This is beautifully white and delicate, resembling flakes of snow.
Honey is procured by steeping the cones of the Banksia or other melliferous flowers in water. It is procured pure from the hives of the native bees, found in cavities of rocks, and the hollow branches of trees. The method of discovering the hive is ingenious. Having caught one of the honey bees, which in size exceeds very little the common house fly, the native sticks a piece of feather or white down to it with gum, and then letting it go, sets off after it as fast as he can: keeping his eye steadily fixed upon the insect, he rushes along like a madman, tumbling over trees and bushes that lie in his way, but rarely losing sight of his object, until conducted to its well-filled store, he is amply paid for all his trouble. The honey is not so firm as that of the English bee, but is of very fine flavour and quality.
White ants are dug in great numbers out of their nests in the ground, which are generally found in the scrubs. They are a favourite food of the natives in the spring of the year. The females only are used, and at a time just before depositing their eggs. They are separated from the dirt that is taken up with them, by being thrown into the air, and caught again upon a trough of bark.
The eggs of birds are extensively eaten by the natives, being chiefly confined to those kinds that leave the nest at birth, as the leipoa, the emu, the swan, the goose, the duck, etc. But of others, where the young remain some time in the nest after being hatched, the eggs are usually left, and the young taken before they can fly. The eggs of the leipoa, or native pheasant, are found in singular-looking mounds of sand, thrown up by the bird in the midst of the scrubs, and often measuring several yards in circumference. The egg is about the size of the goose egg, but the shell is extremely thin and fragile. The young are hatched by the heat of the sand and leaves, with which the eggs are covered. Each egg is deposited separately, and the number found in one nest varies from one to ten.
One nest that I examined, and that only a small one, was twelve yards in circumference, eighteen inches high, and shaped like a dome. It was formed entirely of sand scraped up by the bird with its feet. Under the centre of the dome, and below the level of the surrounding ground was an irregular oval hole, about eighteen inches deep, and twelve in diameter. In this, the eggs were deposited in different layers among sand and leaves; on the lower tier was only one egg, on the next two, at a depth of four or five inches from the ground. All the eggs were placed upon their smaller ends, and standing upright. The colour of the egg is a dark reddish pink; its length, three inches six-tenths; breadth, two inches two-tenths; circumference, lengthwise, ten inches, and across, seven inches two-tenths. The eggs appear to be deposited at considerable intervals. In the nest alluded to, two eggs had only been laid sixteen days after it was discovered, at which time there had been one previously deposited. The bird is shaped like a hen pheasant, of a brownish colour, barred with black, and its weight is about four pounds and a half.
The eggs of the emu are rather smaller than those of the ostrich. They are of a dark green colour and the shell is very thick. They are deposited by the bird almost upon the ground, in the vicinity of a few bushes, or tufts of grass, and usually in a country that is tolerably open; a great many eggs are found in one nest, so that it is generally looked upon by the natives as a great prize.
Eggs are eaten in all stages. I have even seen rotten ones roasted, and devoured with great relish.
Kangaroos are speared, netted, or caught in pit falls. Four methods of spearing them are practised. 1st. A native travelling with his family through the woods, when he sees a kangaroo feeding or sleeping, will steal silently and cautiously upon it, keeping, as he advances, a tree or shrub between himself and the animal, or holding up before him, if he be in an open place, a large branch of a tree, until sufficiently near to throw the fatal weapon. 2ndly. Two natives get upon the track of a kangaroo, which they follow up perseveringly even for two or three days, sleeping upon it at night, and renewing their pursuit in the morning, until, at last, the wearied animal, fairly tired out by its relentless pursuers, is no longer able to fly before them, and at last becomes a prize to the perseverance of the hunters. 3rdly. A small hut of reeds is made near the springs, or water holes, in those districts, where water is scarce; and in this, or in the top of a tree, if there be one near, the native carefully conceals himself, and patiently waits until his game comes to drink, when he is almost sure to strike it with his spear, seldom quitting his lurking place without an ample remuneration for his confinement. 4thly. A large party of men go out early in the morning, generally armed with barbed spears, and take their stations upon ground that has been previously fixed upon in a large semicircle. The women and children, with a few men, then beat up, and fire the country for a considerable extent, driving the game before them in the direction of the persons who are lying in wait, and who gradually contract the space they had been spread over, until they meet the other party, and then closing their ranks in a ring upon the devoted animals, with wild cries and shouts they drive them back to the centre as they attempt to escape, until, at last, in the conflict, many of them are slaughtered. At other times, the ground is so selected as to enable them to drive the game over a precipice, or into a river, where it is easily taken. Netting the kangaroo does not require so large a party; it is done by simply setting a strong net (mugn-ko) across the path, which the animal is accustomed to frequent, and keeping it in its place by long sticks, with a fork upon the top. A few natives then shew themselves in a direction opposite to that of the net, and the kangaroo being alarmed, takes to his usual path, gets entangled in the meshes, and is soon despatched by persons who have been lying in wait to pounce upon him.
Pitfalls are also dug to catch the kangaroo around the springs, or pools of water they are accustomed to frequent. These are covered lightly over with small sticks, boughs, etc. and the animal going to drink, hops upon them, and falls into the pit without being able to get out again. I have only known this method of taking the kangaroo practised in Western Australia, between Swan River and King George’s Sound,
The emu is taken similarly to the kangaroo. It is speared in the first, third, and fourth methods I have described. It is also netted like the kangaroo, indeed with the same net, only that the places selected for setting it are near the entrance to creeks, ravines, flats bounded by steep banks, and any other place where the ground is such as to hold out the hope, that by driving up the game it may be compelled, by surrounding scouts, to pass the place where the net is set. When caught the old men hasten up, and clasping the bird firmly round the neck with their arms, hold it or throw it on the ground, whilst others come to their assistance and despatch it. This is, however, a dangerous feat, and I have known a native severely wounded in attempting it; a kick from an emu would break a person’s leg, though the natives generally keep so close to the bird as to prevent it from doing them much harm.
The emu is frequently netted by night through a peculiarity in the habits of the bird, that is well-known to the natives, and which is, that it generally comes back every night to sleep on one spot for a long time together. Having ascertained where the sleeping place is, the natives set the net at some little distance away, and then supplying themselves with fire-sticks, form a line from each end of the net, diverging in the distance. The party may now be considered as forming two sides of a triangle, with the net at the apex and the game about the middle of the base; as soon as the sides are formed, other natives arrange themselves in a line at the base, and put the bird up. The emu finding only one course free from fire-sticks, viz. that towards the net or apex of the triangle, takes that direction, and becomes ensnared.
Opossums are of various kinds and sizes. They inhabit the hollows of trees, or sometimes the tops, where they make a house for themselves with boughs. They are also found in the holes of rocks. They are hunted both in the day-time and by moon-light. During the day the native, as he passes along, examines minutely the bark of the trees, to see whether any marks have been left by the claws of the animal in climbing on the previous night. If he finds any he is sure that an opossum is concealed, either in that tree or one adjoining. The way he distinguishes whether the marks are recently made or otherwise is, by examining the appearance of the bark where the wound is, if fresh it is white, has rough edges, or has grains of sand adhering to it; if otherwise it is dry and brown, and free from loose particles. Having ascertained that an opossum has recently been there, he then ascends the tree to look for it; this, if the tree be in a leaning position, or has a rough bark, is not difficult to him, and he rarely requires any other aid than his hands and feet; but if the bark be smooth, and the tree straight, or of very large dimensions, he requires the assistance of his stone hatchet, or of a strong sharp-pointed stick, flattened on one side near the point (called in the Adelaide dialect, “Wadna,” in that of Moorunde “Ngakko,”); with this instrument a notch is made in the bark about two feet above the ground. In this the small toes of the left foot are placed, the left arm is employed in clasping the trunk of the tree, and the right in cutting another notch for the right foot, about two feet above the first; but a little to one side of it, the wadna or ngakko is now stuck firmly in the bark above, and serves to enable him to raise the body whilst gaining the second notch, into which the ball of the great toe of the right foot is placed, and the implement liberated to make a third step on the left side, and so on successively until the tree is ascended. The descent is made in the same manner, by clasping the tree, and supporting the feet in the notches. The principle of climbing in the way described, appears to consist in always having three points of contact with the tree, either two arms and one leg, or two legs and one arm.
Having got up the tree, the native proceeds to search for any holes there may be in its trunk, or among the boughs; these vary from one foot to nine, or more, in depth, for the whole trunk itself is sometimes hollow. To ascertain in which hole the opossum is, the native drops in a pebble or a piece of bark, or a broken bit of stick, and then applying his ear to the outside, listens for the rustling motion made by the animal in shifting its position, when disturbed by what has been dropped upon it. A stick is sometimes made use of, if the hole be not very deep, for the same purpose, after inserting it in the hole, and twisting the rough end round and withdrawing it, he looks to see if any fur is left on the point, if so, the animal is there, but if the point of the stick shews no fur, he goes to the next hole or tree, and so on until he finds it.
If not very far in the hole the native puts in his arm, and draws it out by the tail, striking its head violently against the tree to prevent its biting him, as soon as it is clear of the orifice; if the hole be deep, the furthest point to which the animal can recede is ascertained, and an opening made near it with whatever implement he may be using. If the whole trunk of the tree, or a large portion of it be hollow, a fire is made in the lower opening, which soon drives out the game.
When opossums are hunted by moonlight, the native dog is useful in scenting them along the ground where they sometimes feed, and in guiding the native to the tree they have ascended, when alarmed at his approach. They are then either knocked down with sticks or the tree is ascended as in the day time.
Flying squirrels are procured in the same way as opossums. The sloth, which is an animal as large as a good sized monkey, is also caught among the branches of the larger scrub-trees, among which it hides itself; but it is never found in holes.
Wallabies are of many kinds, and are killed in various ways. By hunting with bwirris, by nets, by digging out of the ground; the larger sorts, as rock wallabies, by spearing, and several kinds by making runs, into which they are driven. In hunting with bwirris (a short heavy stick with a knob at one end) a party of natives go out into the scrub and beat the bushes in line, if any game gets up, the native who sees it, gives a peculiar “whir-rr” as a signal for the others to look out, and the animal is at once chased and bwirris thrown at him in all directions, the peculiar sound of the “whir-rr” always guiding them to the direction he has taken. It rarely happens that an animal escapes if the party of natives be at all numerous.
In netting the wallabies, a party of seven or eight men go in advance, with each a net of from twenty to forty feet long, and when they arrive near the runs, usually made use of by these animals, a favourable spot is selected, and the nets set generally in a line and nearly together, each native concealing himself near his own net. The women and children who, in the mean time had been making a considerable circuit, now begin to beat amongst the bushes with the wind, shouting and driving the wallabies before them towards the nets, where they are caught and killed.
Other species of the wallabie burrow in the ground like rabbits, and are dug out. The large rock-wallabies are speared by the natives creeping upon them stealthily among the rugged rocks which they frequent, on the summits of precipitous heights which have craggy or overhanging cliffs.
In making runs for taking the wallabie, the natives break the branches from the bushes, and laying them one upon another, form, through the scrubs, two lines of bush fence, diverging from an apex sometimes to the extent of several miles, and having at intervals large angles formed by the fence diverging. At the principal apex and at all the angles or corners the bushes are tied up, and a hole in the fence left like the run of a hare. At each of these a native is stationed with his bwirris, and the women then beating up the country, from the base of the triangle drive up the game, which finding themselves stopped by the bush fence on either side, run along in search of an opening until the first angle presents itself, when they try to escape by the run, and are knocked on the head by the native guarding it.
Native companions and swans are sometimes speared or killed with bwirris; the latter are also caught easily in the water holes or lakes when moulting, as they are then unable to fly. Pelicans are caught in nets or whilst asleep in the water, by natives wading in and seizing them by the legs.
Wild dogs are speared, but young ones are often kept and tamed, to assist in hunting, in which they are very useful. The wombat is driven to his hole with dogs at night, and a fire being lighted inside, the mouth is closed with stones and earth. The animal being by this means suffocated, is dug out at convenience.
Birds are killed on the wing, with bwirris, or whilst resting on the ground, or in the water, or upon branches of trees. They are also taken by spearing, by snaring, by noosing, and by netting. In spearing them the natives make use of a very light reed spear (kiko), which is pointed with hard wood, and projected when used, with the nga-waonk or throwing stick. They resort to the lagoons or river flats, when flooded, and either wading or in canoes, chase and spear the wild fowl. The kiko is thrown to a very great distance, with amazing rapidity and precision, so that a native is frequently very successful by this method, particularly so when the young broods of duck and other wild fowl are nearly full grown, but still unable to fly far. Getting into his canoe, the native paddles along with extraordinary celerity after his game, chasing them from one side of the lagoon to the other, until he loads himself with spoil.
Ducks and teal are caught by snaring, which is practised in the following manner. After ascertaining where there is a shelving bank to any of the lagoons, which is frequented by these birds, and upon which there is grass, or other food that they like near the edges, the natives get a number of strong reeds, bend them in the middle, and force the two ends of each into the ground, about seven inches apart, forming a number of triangles, with their uppermost extremities about five or six inches from the ground. From these, strings are suspended with slip nooses, and when a sufficient number are set, the natives go away, to let the ducks come up to feed. This they soon do; and whilst poking their heads about in every direction a great many push them through the snares and get hung.
Noosing waterfowl is another general and very successful mode of taking them. It is performed by a native, with a tat-tat-ko, or long rod, tapering like a fishing rod, but longer, and having a piece of string at the end, with a slip noose working over the pliant twig which forms the last joint of the rod. [Note 74: Plate 4, fig. 1. (not reproduced in this etext)] This being prepared, and it having been ascertained where the birds are, the native binds a quantity of grass or weeds around his head, and then taking his long instrument, plunges into the water and swims slowly and cautiously towards them, whilst they see nothing but a tuft of grass or weeds coming floating towards them, of which they take no notice, until coming close upon them he gently raises the tapering end of the instrument, and carefully putting the noose over the head of the bird, draws it under water towards him. After taking it out of the noose, he tucks its head in his belt, or lets it float on the water, whilst he proceeds to catch another, or as many more as he can before the birds take the alarm at the struggles of their companions, and fly away. A windy day is generally selected for this employment, when the water is ruffled by waves. On such occasions a skilful native will secure a great many birds.
Netting birds remains to be described, and is the most destructive mode of taking them of any that is practised. Geese, ducks, teal, widgeons, shags, pelicans, pigeons, and others are procured in this way. The method adopted is as follows:— a large square or oblong net, (kue-rad-ko) from thirty to sixty feet broad, and from twenty to forty deep, is formed by lacing together pieces of old fishing nets, or any others, made of light twine, that they may have. A strong cord is then passed through the meshes of one end, and tied at both extremes of the net. The natives then go down to a lagoon of moderate width, where two tall trees may be standing opposite to each other on different sides, or they select an opening of a similar kind among the trees on the bank of the river, through which the ducks, or other birds, are in the habit of passing when flying between the river and the lagoons. An old man ascends each of the trees, and over the topmost branch of both lowers the end of a strong cord passing through the net. The other end is tied near the root of each tree, and serves for the native, who is stationed there, to raise or lower the net as it may be required. When set, the ropes are hauled tight, and the net dangles in the air between the two trees, hanging over the lagoon, or dry passage, as the case may be. All being ready, a native is left holding each end of the rope, and others are stationed at convenient places near, with little round pieces of bark in their hands to throw at the birds, and drive them onwards as they approach the net. The women are then sent to put the birds up, and they come flying through the open space towards the net, not dreaming of the evil that awaits them; as they approach nearer, the two natives at the trees utter a shrill whistle, resembling the note of the hawk, upon which the flock, which usually consists of ducks, lower their flight at once, and proceeding onwards, strike full against the net, which is instantly lowered by the men attending to it, and the birds are left struggling in the water, or on the ground, entangled in its meshes, whilst the natives are busy paddling in their canoes, or scampering towards the net on the ground, to wring their necks off, and get the instrument of destruction raised again, to be ready for the next flight that may come. Should the birds fly too high, or be inclined to take any other direction, little pieces of bark are thrown above them, or across their path, by the natives stationed for that purpose. These circling through the air, make a whirring noise like the swoop of the eagle when darting on his prey, and the birds fancying their enemy upon them, recede from the pieces of bark, and lowering their flight, become entangled in the net. Early in the morning, late in the evening, and occasionally in the night, this work is conducted, with the greatest success, though many are caught sometimes in the day.
As many as fifty birds are taken in a single haul. I have myself, with the aid of a native, caught thirty-three, and many more would have been got, but that the net was old, and the birds broke through it before they could be all killed. On other occasions, I have been out with the natives, where a party of five or six have procured from twenty to thirty ducks, on an average, daily, for many days successively. In these occupations the natives make use of a peculiar shrill whistle to frighten down the birds; it is produced by pulling out the under lip with the fore-finger and thumb, and pressing it together, whilst the tongue is placed against the groove, or hollow thus formed, and the breath strongly forced through. Whistling is also practised in a variety of other ways, and has peculiar sounds well known to the natives, which indicate the object of the call. It is used to call attention, to point out that game is near, to make each other aware of their respective positions in a wooded country, or to put another on his guard that an enemy is near, etc., etc.
Such is an outline of some of the kinds of food used by the natives, and the modes of procuring it as practised in various parts of Australia where I have been. There is an endless variety of other articles, and an infinite number of minute differences in the ways of procuring them, which it is unnecessary to enter upon in a work which professes to give only a general account of the Aborigines, their manners, habits, and customs, and not a full or complete history, which could only be compiled after the observation of many years devoted exclusively to so comprehensive a subject.
In the preparation and cooking of their food, and in the extent to which this is carried, there are almost as many differences as there are varieties of food. Having no vessels capable of resisting the action of fire, the natives are unacquainted with the simple process of boiling. Their culinary operations are therefore confined to broiling on the hot coals, baking in hot ashes, and roasting, or steaming in ovens. The native oven is made by digging a circular hole in the ground, of a size corresponding to the quantity of food to be cooked. It is then lined with stones in the bottom, and a strong fire made over them, so as to heat them thoroughly, and dry the hole. As soon as the stones are judged to be sufficiently hot, the fire is removed, and a few of the stones taken, and put inside the animal to be roasted if it be a large one. A few leaves, or a handful of grass, are then sprinkled over the stones in the bottom of the oven, on which the animal is deposited, generally whole, with hot stones, which had been kept for that purpose, laid upon the top of it. It is covered with grass, or leaves, and then thickly coated over with earth, which effectually prevents the heat from escaping. Bark is sometimes used to cover the meat, instead of grass or leaves, and is in some respects better adapted for that purpose, being less liable to let dirt into the oven. I have seen meat cooked by the natives in this manner, which, when taken out, looked as clean and nicely roasted as any I ever saw from the best managed kitchen.
If the oven is required for steaming food, a process principally applied to vegetables and some kinds of fruits, the fire is in the same way removed from the heated stones, but instead of putting on dry grass or leaves, wet grass or water weeds are spread over them. The vegetables tied up in small bundles are piled over this in the central part of the oven, wet grass being placed above them again, dry grass or weeds upon the wet, and earth over all. In putting the earth over the heap, the natives commence around the base, gradually filling it upwards. When about two-thirds covered up all round, they force a strong sharp-pointed stick in three or four different places through the whole mass of grass weeds and vegetables, to the bottom of the oven. Upon withdrawing the stick, water is poured through the holes thus made upon the hissing stones below, the top grass is hastily closed over the apertures and the whole pile as rapidly covered up as possible to keep in the steam. The gathering vegetable food, and in fact the cooking and preparing of food generally, devolves upon the women, except in the case of an emu or a kangaroo, or some of the larger and more valuable animals, when the men take this duty upon themselves.
In cooking vegetables, a single oven will suffice for three or four families, each woman receiving the same bundles of food when cooked, which she had put in. The smaller kinds of fish and shell-fish, birds and animals, frogs, turtle, eggs, reptiles, gums, etc., are usually broiled upon the embers. Roots, bark of trees, etc., are cooked in the hot ashes. Fungi are either eaten raw or are roasted. The white ant is always eaten raw. The larvae of insects and the leaves of plants are either eaten raw or in a cooked state. The larger animals, as the kangaroo, emu, native dog, etc. and the larger fishes, are usually roasted in the oven.
In preparing the food for the cooking process a variety of forms are observed. In most animals, as the opossum, wallabie, dog, kangaroo, etc. the the bones of the legs are invariably broken, and the fur is singed off; a small aperture is made in the belly, the entrails withdrawn, and the hole closed with a wooden skewer, to keep in the gravy whilst roasting. The entrails of all animals, birds, and fishes, are made use of, and are frequently eaten whilst the animal itself is being prepared. Most birds have the feathers pulled or singed off, they are then thrown on the fire for a moment or two and when warm are withdrawn, skinned and the skin eaten. The meat is now separated on each side of the breast bone, the limbs are disjointed and thrown back, and the bird is placed upon the fire, and soon cooked, from the previous dissection it had undergone, and from hot coals being put above it.
The smaller fish and reptiles are simply thrown upon the fire, sometimes gutted, at other times not. The larger fish are divided into three pieces, in the following manner. The fish is laid on its side, and a longitudinal cut made from the head to within three or four inches of the tail, just above where the ribs are joined to the back bone, these are separated by a sharp pointed stick, and the same done on the other side; a transverse incision is then made near the root of the tail, the gills are separated from the head, the fleshy part covering the back dissected from one to two inches thick, over the whole surface left between the longitudinal cuts that had been made in the sides, and extending from the head to the transverse incision near the tail. The divisions then consist of three pieces, one comprising the head, backbone, and tail, another the fleshy part that covered the back, and the third the belly and sides. The last is the most prized of the three. This method of dividing the fish is well adapted for ensuring rapid preparation in the process of cooking; it is also well suited for satisfying the respective owners and claimants; the three pieces being, if not quite equal in size, sufficiently so for the purpose of partition.
There are many usages in force among the natives respecting the particular kinds of food allowed to be eaten at different ages; restrictions and limitations of many kinds are placed upon both sexes at different stages of life. What is proper to be eaten at one period, is disallowed at another, and vice versa. And although laws of this nature appear to be in force throughout the whole continent, there appear to be occasional differences of custom as to restriction in regard to both food and age. It also appears that there are more restrictions placed upon the females, until past the age of child-bearing, than upon the males.
Infants are not often weaned until between two and three years old; but during this time any food is given to them which they can eat, except those kind of vegetables which are likely to disagree with them. No restrictions are placed upon very young children of either sex, a portion being given to them of whatever food their parents may have. About nine or ten years appears to be the age at which limitations commence. Boys are now forbidden to eat the red kangaroo, or the female or the young ones of the other kinds; the musk duck, the white crane, the bandicoot, the native pheasant, (leipoa, meracco), the native companion, some kinds of fungi, the old male and female opossum, a kind of wallabie (linkara), three kinds of fish (toor-rue, toitchock, and boolye-a), the black duck, widgeon, whistling duck, shag (yarrilla), eagle, female water-mole (nee-witke), two kinds of turtles (rinka and tung-kanka), and some other varieties of food.
When young men they are disallowed the black duck, the widgeon, the whistling duck, the emu, the eggs of the emu, a fish called kalapko, the red kangaroo, the young of other kinds of kangaroo, if taken from the pouch; a kind of shag called yarrilla, the snake (yarl-dakko), the white crane, the eagle, a kind of water-mole (nee-witke), two kinds of turtle (rinka and tung-kanka), the musk-duck, the native dog, the large grub dug out of the ground (ronk), a vegetable food called war-itch (being that the emu feeds upon), the native companion, bandicoot, old male opossum, wallabie (linkara), coote, two fishes (toor-rue and toit-chock), etc. etc.
Married men, until from thirty-five to forty years of age, are still forbidden the red kangaroo, the young of any kangaroo from the pouch, the fish kelapko, the shag yarrilla, the coote, the white crane, the turtle rinka, the native companion, the eagle, etc.
Young females, before the breasts are fully developed, are disallowed the young of any of the kangaroo species if taken from the pouch, the red kangaroo, the white crane, the bandicoot, the native companion, the old male opossum, the wallabie (linkara), the shag (yarrilla), the eagle, etc.
Full grown young females are not allowed to eat the male opossum, the wallabie (linkara), the red kangaroo, the fish kelapko, the black duck, the widgeon, the whistling duck, the coote, the native companion, two turtles (rinka and tung-kanka), the emu, the emu’s egg, the snake (yarl-dakko), cray-fish which may have deformed claws, the female or the young from the pouch of any kangaroo, the musk duck, the white crane, the bandicoot, the wild dog, two kinds of fish (toor-rue and toitchock), the shag (yarrilla), the water mole (neewitke), the ground grub (ronk), the vegetable food eaten by the emu (war-itch), etc. When menstruating, they are not allowed to eat fish of any kind, or to go near the water at all; it being one of their superstitions, that if a female, in that state, goes near the water, no success can be expected by the men in fishing. Fish that are taken by the men diving under the cliffs, and which are always females about to deposit their spawn, are also forbidden to the native women.
Old men and women are allowed to eat anything, and there are very few things that they do not eat. Among the few exceptions are a species of toad, and the young of the wombat, when very small, and before the hair is well developed.