The long history of Aboriginal violence — Part II

Written by Tony Thomas

It is not polite to say that pre-contact Aboriginal society was abusive to women and generally violent. This would undercut the long-standing official view that current violence in Aboriginal communities reflects colonial dispossession and on-going victimhood.

For example, a fact sheet from the federal government’s Closing the Gap Clearing House says that, as is typical for Indigenous populations elsewhere, Aboriginal disadvantage “is a consequence of the historical and continuing impact of colonialism and dispossession, which has left many (Aboriginals) impoverished, marginalised, discriminated against, in a state of poor physical and mental health, and with inequitable access to necessary public and private services.”[1] 

Aboriginal lawyer Dr Hannah McGlade in “Our Greatest Challenge” similarly blames colonialism: “The linking of Aboriginal culture to family violence and child sexual assault diminishes the grave harm inflicted on Aboriginal people through colonialism…the way in which colonization systematically deprived Aboriginal people of basic human rights.”[2] But feminist author Stephanie Jarrett, in her introduction to “Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence, says, “It is important to acknowledge [the] link between today’s Aboriginal violence and violent, pre-contact tradition, because until policymakers are honest in their assessment of the causes, Aboriginal people can never be liberated from violence…Deep cultural change is necessary, away from traditional norms and practices of violence.”[3]

Part I: Yabbered To Death

Part II: A Long Bloody History of Violence

Part III: A Blacked-Out Past

Part IV: When The Horrific Is Mundane

Bess Nungarrayi Price, in her foreword to Jarrett’s book, says, “My own body is scarred by domestic violence…We Aboriginal people have to acknowledge the truth. We can’t blame all of our problems on the white man…This is our problem that we can fix ourselves…”[4] 

“The Racial Discrimination Act was there to protect us from white racism and we needed that protection. But it has not protected our people from ourselves. We need an act, we need laws that recognize that the problem now is blackfellas killing blackfellas and killing themselves[5].” 

Jarrett says that misogynist violence and child abuse in Aboriginal communities are at “catastrophic” levels. At the same time, Aboriginal culture must not be criticized, as though the violence sits outside the culture. Liberal democracies should welcome diversity, but not customs that violate human rights, she says.[6] 

Dave Price, non-Aboriginal husband of Bess Price, was shocked by elders’ open comments in 2009 that their women could and should be executed for sacrileges. The comments came after a policewoman drove onto men’s ceremonial grounds while young men were being initiated at Lajamanu in the remote NT. Lyndsay Bookie, chairman of the Central Land Council, told ABC TV news:

“It’s against our law for people like that breaking the law, they shouldn’t be there. Aboriginal ladies, they’re not allowed to go anywhere near that. If they had been caught, a woman, aboriginal lady got caught she [would] be killed. Simple as that.”

Dave Price said Bookie had, for once, openly expressed what all involved with the traditions know but keep silent about. “Both men and women are threatened with execution and grievous bodily harm for offences against the Law. Rape was added to possible punishments in the case of women…This is a fact of life. Lyndsay didn’t invent this Law, it is unchanging, it comes from the Jukurrpa, the Dreaming.

It wasn’t Lindsay’s statement that disturbed me so much. It as the deafening silence of the human rights activists, the opponents of capital punishment, of the feminists and domestic violence activists, of that army of righteous whitefellas inflamed by any public expression of what they deem to be racism or sexism that happens to pop up in the public domain…So I can only assume that threatening to execute women is OK in Australia as long as it is done by someone who is male and indigenous, it is done for cultural reasons, and the women threatened are also indigenous. It’s OK. It’s their culture. They know the rules. They have to cop it sweet.”[7]

Some male Aboriginal groups have acknowledged their culpability. In 2008 there was an apology from nearly 400 men from the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress (CAAC): 

“We acknowledge and say sorry for the hurt, pain and suffering caused by Aboriginal males to our wives, to our children, to our mothers, to our grandmothers, to our granddaughters, to our aunties, to our nieces and to our sisters”[8]

However,   Jarrett says there is also willful blindness to traditional causes of violence, focusing instead on blaming whites. Such a rationale allows men to retain core privileges of law, gender hierarchy and kinship obligations.[9]

JARRETT spends more than 30 pages critiquing the 2002 National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Island Social Survey (NATSISS) of 9,359 Indigenes. This survey was the basis of influential work by Lucy Snowball and Don Weatherburn, purportedly showing that current violence is not an outcome of traditional culture but rather reflects poor living conditions and substance abuse. The researchers concluded: 

“Our findings provide strong support for lifestyle/routine activity theory, moderate support for social deprivation and social disorganization theories, but little or no support for cultural theories of violence.”[10]

Their multivariate analysis did not find violence strongly correlated with traditional homelands, Aboriginal-language speakers, and remote communities.

These findings have involved on-going academic debate, both over the original survey validity and the researchers’ methodology. Jarrett for example, notes that the most violent households are too dangerous for survey-takers to approach. In many other vengeful households, only a foolhardy woman would admit to having suffered violence. Jarrett says household violence is catastrophically worse in the remote communities, compared with Aborigines in mainstream locations, and this fact destroys the rationale for encouraging “traditional lifestyle in self-determined communities”. The political problem, she says, “is blunting critical scrutiny of Aboriginal violence statistics even at the highest echelons of data analysis and report-writing. This is a national travesty.”[11] 

Author Louis Nowra complains that sometimes a whole community will protect a vicious abuser. In November, 2006, Judge Michael Finnane, in sentencing the Aboriginal rapist Phillip Boney to 23 years jail, criticized the Moree Aboriginal community, which refused to help police find the rapist after his first attacks. By protecting him, the community allowed Boney to rape again. Within the space of one month, he kidnapped the woman on three occasions, assaulted her and raped her five times.[12] 

Indigenous communities, Nowra says, have to recognize they are part of Australian society and grasp the idea of personal and individual responsibility for their actions.[13] Romanticising remote life is dangerous. There have been instances of white women or urban Aborigines moving into relationships in remote communities. After getting their first or subsequent “proper good hiding” they are lucky to escape.[14] 

Violence levels are evidenced for thousands of years into pre-history.

Paleopathologist Stephen Webb in 1995 published his analysis of 4500 individuals’ bones from mainland Australia going back 50,000 years. (Priceless bone collections at the time were being officially handed over to Aboriginal communities for re-burial, which stopped follow-up studies).[15] Webb found highly disproportionate rates of injuries and fractures to women’s skulls, with the injuries suggesting deliberate attack and often attacks from behind, perhaps in domestic squabbles. In the tropics, for example, female head-injury frequency was about 20-33%, versus 6.5-26% for males.

The most extreme results were on the south coast, from Swanport and Adelaide, with female cranial trauma rates as high as 40-44% — two to four times the rate of male cranial trauma. In desert and south coast areas, 5-6% of female skulls had three separate head injuries, and 11-12% had two injuries.

Web could not rule out women-on-women attacks but thought them less probable. The high rate of injuries to female heads was the reverse of results from studies of other peoples.[16] His findings, according to anthropologist Peter Sutton, confirm that serious armed assaults were common in Australia over thousands of years prior to conquest. [17]

From 1788, British and French arrivals were shocked at local misogyny. First Fleeter Watkin Tench noticed a young woman’s head “covered by contusions, and mangled by scars”. She also had a spear wound above the left knee caused by a man who dragged her from her home to rape her. Tench wrote, “They are in all respects treated with savage barbarity; condemned not only to carry the children, but all other burthens, they meet in return for submission only with blows, kicks and every other mark of brutality.”[18]

He also wrote, “When an Indian [sic] is provoked by a woman, he either spears her, or knocks her down on the spot; on this occasion he always strikes on the head, using indiscriminately a hatchet, a club, or any other weapon, which may chance to be in his hand.”

Marine Lt. William Collins wrote, “We have seen some of these unfortunate beings with more scars upon their shorn heads, cut in every direction, than could be well distinguished or counted.” [19]

Governor Phillip’s confidant, Bennelong, in 1790 had taken a woman to Port Jackson to kill her because her relatives were his enemies. He gave her two severe wounds on the head and one on the shoulder, saying this was his rightful vengeance.[20]

Phillip was appalled that an Eora woman within a few days of delivery had fresh wounds on her head, where her husband had beaten her with wood.

In 1802 an explorer in the Blue Mountains wrote how, for a trivial reason, an Aboriginal called Gogy “took his club and struck his wife’s head such a blow that she fell to the ground unconscious. After dinner…he got infuriated and again struck his wife on the head with his club, and left her on the ground nearly dying.”[21] 

In 1825 French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville wrote “that young girls are brutally kidnapped from their families, violently dragged to isolated spots and are ravished after being subjected to a good deal of cruelty.”[22] George Robinson in Tasmania said in the 1830s that men courted their women by stabbing them with sharp sticks and cutting them with knives prior to rape. The men bartered their women to brutal sealers for dogs and food; in one case such a woman voluntarily went back to the sealers rather than face further tribal violence.[23]

Also in the 1830s ex-convict Lingard wrote: “I scarcely ever saw a married woman, but she had got six or seven cuts in her head, given by her husband with a tomahawk, several inches in length and very deep.”[24] Explorer Edward John Eyre, who was very sympathetic towards Aborigines, nevertheless recorded:

“Women are often sadly ill-treated by their husbands and friends…they are frequently beaten about the head , with waddies, in the most dreadful manner, or speared in the limbs for the most trivial offences…

“Few women will be found, upon examination, to be free from frightful scars upon the head, or the marks of spear wounds about the body. I have seen a young woman, who, from the number of these marks, appeared to have been almost riddled with spear wounds.”[25]

TRIBAL warfare and paybacks were endemic. In “Journey to Horseshoe Bend”,   anthropologist T.G.H. Strehlow described a black-on-black massacre in 1875 in the Finke River area of Central Australia, triggered by a perceived sacrilege:

“The warriors turned their murderous attention to the women and older children and either clubbed or speared them to death. Finally, according to the grim custom of warriors and avengers they broke the limbs of the infants, leaving them to die ‘natural deaths’. The final number of the dead could well have reached the high figure of 80 to 100 men, women and children.”[26]

Revenge killings by the victims’ clan involved more than 60 people, with the two exchanges accounting for about 20% of members of the two clans. (When Pauline Hanson, then member for Oxley, quoted this account in 1996, an Aboriginal woman elder replied, “Mrs Hanson should receive a traditional Urgarapul punishment: having her hands and feet crippled.”)[27]

Escaped convict William Buckley, who lived for three decades with tribes around Port Phillip, recounted constant raids, ambushes, and small battles, typically involving one to three fatalities. He noted the Watouronga of Geelong in night raids ‘destroyed without mercy men, women and children.’[28]

Historian Geoff Blainey concluded that annual death rates from North-East Arnhem Land and Port Philip, were comparable with countries involved in the two world wars, although Blainey’s estimate could be somewhat on the high side.[29] 

Other black-on-black massacres include accounts from anthropologist Bill Stanner of an entire camp massacre, an Aurukun massacre in the early 20th century, Strehlow’s account of the wiping out of the Plenty River local group of Udebatara in Central Australia, and the killing of a large group of men, women and children near Mt Eba, also in Central Australia.[30] 

Strehlow’s wife Kathleen Strehlow wrote:

“It would be no exaggeration to say that the system worked as one of sheer terror in the days before the white man came. This terror was instilled from earliest childhood and continued unabated through life until the extremity of old age seemed to guarantee some immunity from the attentions of blood avenger or sorcerer alike for wrongs real or imaginary…children were not exempted from capital punishment for persistent offences against the old tribal code.”[31]

The Murngin (now Yolngu) in NE Arnhem Land during 1920s practiced a deadly warfare that placed it among the world’s most lethal societies. The then-rate for homicides of 330 per 100,000 (which Jarrett suggests could be grossly under-estimated) was 15 times the 2006-07 “very remote national Indigenous rate” of 22, and 300 times the 2006-7 national non-Indigenous rate. That Murngin rate was worse than in Mexico’s present Ciudad Juarez drug capital (300 homicides per 100,000), and more than three times worse than the worst national current rate (Honduras).

Jarrett says that surely no aspect of Murngin culture, such as polygamy, was worth the lives of the many young men sacrificed in war to maintain it. [32]

Jarrett wrote: “Even if Australian governments on grounds of harm minimization allow traditional physical punishment, there are some settings – wrong or disputed accusations, a person’s refusal to submit to traditional punishment, and traditional punishment for non-crimes – where such appeasement is either unworkable or particularly immoral.”[34]

Yolngu punishments are deemed valid for wives if they leave scars but do not kill. In one 2008 case, a husband stabbed his wife multiple times with a steak knife, which was within traditional bounds. The husband got a short sentence and this minor punishment was quashed by Southwood J.[33]

Mass violence today can involve large numbers of Yolngu, with a 300-person riot in 2008 and another of 400 people on Elcho Island. At Galiwinku Council Offices in late 2010, 500 people were involved.[35]

Tomorrow: Part III

Tony Thomas studied anthropology under Professor Ronald Berndt in Perth in 1961, and in 1974 co-authored, with Dr Carl Georg von Brandenstein ,“TARURU – Aboriginal Song Poetry from the Pilbara”. In 2010 he authored “Stolen Generations: The Pocket Windschuttle”.

His research on Indigenous child removals since the Rudd “Stolen Generation” apology appears in May’s Quadrant.

[1] http://www.aihw.gov.au/uploadedFiles/ClosingTheGap/Content/Publications/2010/ctgc-rs03.pdf
[2] McGlade, Hannah: Our Greatest Challenge: Aboriginal children and :. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2012. P56
[3] Jarret, Stephanie, Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence. Connor Court, Ballan, Vic., 2013 p1
[4] Jarrett p v
[5] Jarrett p291
[6] Jarrett p275
[7] Jarrett p292
[8] Jarrett p279
[9] Jarrett 286
[10] Jarrett p24
[11] Jarrett p51-52
[12] Nowra p72
[13] Nora p92
[14] Jarrett p144
[15] Webb, Stephen, Palaeopathology of Aboriginal Australians. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995. p2
[16] Webb p202-206
[17] Sutton p195
[18] Nowra p10
[19] Sutton p100
[20] Sutton p100
[21] Nowra, Louis, Bad Dreaming. Pluto Press, N. Melbourne, 2007, p 13
[22] Kimm, Joan, A Fatal Conjunction: Two Laws Two Cultures. Sydney, Federation Press, 2004. p76,
[23] Nowra 12
[24] Kimmn p46
[25] Jarrett p123
[26] http://tghstrehlow.wordpress.com/1922/10/11/wednesday-the-eleventh-day-of-october-1922/
[27] http://www.gwb.com.au/gwb/news/296/phletter.html
[28] John Morgan, The Life and Adventures of William Buckley: Thirty-two years a wanderer among the aborigines of the unexplored country round Port Philip. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1980 (1852), p. 189.
[29] Sutton p91-92
[30] Sutton p94
[31] Jarrett p106
[32] Jarrett 215
[33] Jarrett p225
[34] Jarrett, p293
[35] Jarrett 220-1

About the author

Tony Thomas

Leave a Comment