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HERE BE CANNIBALS

CANNIBALISM IN AUSTRALIA



There is no doubt that cannibalism existed among them until recent times, and possibly in such dangerous areas as Arnhem Land, in the far north of Northern Territory, may exist to this day. Motives for the eating of human flesh, as elsewhere, are varied, and often closely intertwined. The need for sacrifice; the demands of magic; the desire for revenge; all these are present, as elsewhere; but in the case of the Blackfellows they are perhaps less clearly evolved and crystallized.

Garry Hogg, Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice, p. 179.




The eating of human flesh was not practised by the Australian native to the extent that it was by the South Sea Islander. The term ‘cannibalism’ is usually taken to mean gorging on human flesh, and with relish; and that seems a valid description of the cannibalism of the Melanesian indigènes of New Caledonia, who appear to have regarded man-meat much as we regard the Sunday-joint. Not all cannibalism is the same in purpose.

In hard summers, the new-born children were all eaten by the Kaura tribe in the neighbourhood of Adelaide, according to Dr McKinley. In 1933 I was able to talk to old men who had eaten human flesh. The chief of Yam Island described to me how he had eaten finely-chopped man-meat mixed with crocodile-meat, at his initiation. He added that it had made him sick. The purpose, as he put it, was ‘to make heart come strong inside.’

In the Wotjobaluk tribe, a couple who already had a child might kill their new-born and feed its muscle-flesh to the other one to make it strong. The baby was killed ritually, by striking its head against the shoulder of its elder brother or sister.

Human flesh-eating among many tribes was a sign of respect for the dead. At a Dieri burial, relatives received, in strict order of precedence, small portions of the body-fat to eat. ‘We eat him,’ a tribesman said, ‘because we knew him and were fond of him.’ But revenge cannibalism is typified in the custom of the Ngarigo tribe, who ate the flesh of the hands and feet of slain enemies, and accompanied the eating with loud expressions of contempt for the people killed.

Colin Simpson, Adam in Ochre, Angus & Robertson, 1938.




The body [during burial rites] was dried over a fire or in the sun, after the internal organs had been removed through an incision and it had been packed, bound up and, usually, painted. It was then made up into a bundle, and is carried around by the mourners until their grief had been assuaged. It is finally disposed of by internment, cremation, or by being put inside a hollow tree. In some districts, the preparation is complicated by cannibalism, so that the bundle consists only of the bones, or the bones and the dried skin.

Cannibalism forms a ceremony, not only in connexion with mummification in parts of Queensland, but also precedes the exposure of the body on the tree-stage among other tribes. Parts of the body have to be eaten by prescribed relations. Practised in Queensland, as part of burial, cannibalism was considered a most honourable rite, to be used only for persons of worth. It was, incidentally, a quick method of preparing the ‘mummy,’ the flesh being eaten instead of merely being dried in the sun or over a fire.

A. P. Elkin, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney, The Australian Aborigines, Angus & Robertson, 1938.




The first case was at Apawandinna, halfway from Cowarie. A very fat Blackfellow chased an emu and became overheated in the chase, and died. The other Blackfellows were very worried over the death. They examined the man, but could not find anything to show as a cause of his death. He was a good-natured man, very popular with the tribe, so that it was unlikely that he had been ‘boned’ – a form of magic widely practised among the Wonkonguru tribe.

Finally, the old men of the tribe decided to cook the body. They cut it up and distributed it right round the camps of the tribe, which at that time extended from Killalpaninna to Birdsville in Queensland. The idea of the old men was that if the dead man had been ‘boned,’ his flesh would poison the man who had ‘boned’ him, and anyone who was innocent would be protected from such a death by eating a piece of him. I talked it over with one old man who had eaten it in order that the rest would not think him guilty of ‘boning’ the dead man. He put it to me this way: ‘’Spose ’em me no eat ’em. ’Nother fella say, Him kill ’em. Me eat ’em, then all right.’

Horne, G. and Aiston, G., members of the Australian Mounted Police, Savage Life in Central Australia, Macmillan, 1924.




Though the original cause of misunderstanding and strife between the white settlers and the natives in Cape York Peninsula was undoubtedly not one-sided, the toll of white and Chinese lives taken in this district was appalling. Hundreds of Chinese were killed and eaten, so that, when packing goods across to the Palmer goldfields, they invariably travelled in large numbers and in single file. As a further protection against the blacks, the Chinese kept up a loud chatter of conversation, which even though not understood could be heard some distance away.

The blacks’ outrages were usually accompanied by the lowest treachery. Their extreme savagery and cannibalistic habits incensed the settlers and diggers; it was impossible to secure safety and order with less severe measures, and extreme action had to be taken. One of the most ghastly murders in the Peninsula was that of a German carrier, John Strau, his wife and little daughter at Murdering Lagoons on the Normanby River. Before condemning measures taken against the blacks the reader should study W.H. Corfield’s account of this terrible outrage in his Reminiscences of Queensland and consult the genuine records of the past in the works of other pioneers.



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Urquhart, who was a most unassuming man, went home to England, and shortly after his arrival, at a tea-party, was tackled on the native question by a lady friend of his family’s.

‘I suppose you are here posing as a hero after murdering a lot of poor defenseless blacks in Australia’ said the lady.

‘I never posed as a hero in my life,’ Urquhart replied. ‘I only did my duty in Australia, and do not want any praise, and I don’t care for that sort of criticism.’

‘Well, whatever you say, I think you are a murderer.’

‘Well,’ said Urquhart, ‘what would you do if away out in the bush you saw a dozen niggers coming at you with eight-foot spears, intent, not only on killing you, but on eating you at a tribal feast?’

‘I just don’t believe you,’ was the reply.



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The habit of cannibalism went on for many years before finally dying out. One evening one of the station blacks came up to Kennedy and said:

‘Bobby altogether die alonga camp.’

‘All right,’ was the answer, ‘I’ll come over in the morning and bury him.’

On making his way over to the camp in the morning, carrying a shovel, he was met by the black who with a broad grin extended his hand in which were several of Bobby’s fingers, saying, ‘My word Bobby good fellow all right.’ The titbits had been saved for Kennedy, and there was very little left of Bobby to bury.



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What a time the boys had when killing-time came round! All was chatter and excitement. The gins yelled to their men from the ‘camp’ to secure them favourite pieces, meanwhile seeing that there was a good supply of dead boughs and sticks handy to build a fire for the cooking. Not a single piece of the meat would be left. Men who cheerfully ate their dead comrades cleaned up a bullock down to hair and hoofs, whether diseased or otherwise.



Fysh, H., Taming the North, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1st ed. 1933, 2nd revised ed. 1950 (in Cooke, pp.154-155).




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