Eyre – Reprise



“There were moral giants in the early days of this colony, and amongst the noblest of them was Edward John Eyre.” – The Express and Telegraph of February 13th 1871.

Pulcanta was a brave and ferocious warrior who had fought colonials in a pitched battle. Taken as a prisoner, he had then been mistreated shamefully before making a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to escape his tormentors, during which he was seriously wounded.

My book was researched and written to try to solve a mystery – how did Eyre succeed in turning Pulcanta, and other hostile Aborigines, into a people who, in Pulcanta’s words, “loved the white man”? What underpinned his startling and perhaps unique success? Can Australia benefit from studying his life and methods?

The first part of the answer was unexpected:

It was his implementation of policy that set Eyre apart. The whole of South Australia was following the same theoretical policies towards Aborigines; however, the way Eyre put these into practice was different.

His was a caring, relational, committed approach, with genuine fondness and concern for Pulcanta and all other indigenous people.

This included sitting down with them and sharing food, camping amongst them and learning their language, having them as guests in his own home, respecting them as equals created in the image of the same God, taking a personal interest in their families and affairs, spending many hours explaining government policies and how their world was changing.

The second part to the answer was:

 Eyre did not paper over weaknesses.

He faced up to the truths of the behaviour of both whites and Aborigines. He allowed no fiction to obscure stark reality, because reality was what he had to deal with on the ground; as does Australia today.

Thirdly was his belief that:

 Aborigines were basically a good people, but certain of their customs and habits were harmful for them.

To confirm this, he quoted at length from those whites that had lived closest to them – the explorers, the missionaries, certain settlers and the Protectors of Aborigines. In the modern era where “culture” has sometimes been used as an excuse for antisocial behaviour, his approach was startlingly different.

We will now explore these three distinctives of Eyre’s successful approach in some detail, but not try to separate them out because in practice they overlapped.

Eyre’s success was founded upon his intimate knowledge of the Aborigines. Other first-contact reports and contemporary comment totally support his accuracy. His observations were precise and insightful and are found in his Manners and Customs of the Aborigines of Australia, which followed Volume II of his Journals.

As we read these Manners and Customs, we should be aware that he himself encountered Aborigines in New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia only, so that his generalisations must be treated with some caution. Despite this, his account, the first of its kind in Australia, is packed with invaluable insights and much of this reprise is based on it.

He dealt sympathetically and respectfully with the indigenous way of life, and the book is loaded with fascinating cultural detail. However, it is primarily historical, because the tribal Aborigines he knew and their way of life in particular have now gone. Therefore the specific information it contains has little to contribute to the debate in modern Australia of how best to improve the lot of the indigenous people, which remains such a pressing need. I shall limit my discussion of his writings to aspects that could have relevance nowadays.

Eyre began his Manners and Customs by refuting the commonly held images of Aborigines. He announced that the Australian Aborigine was erroneously “looked upon as the lowest and most degraded of the human species, and is generally considered as ranking but little above the members of the brute creation”. On the contrary, Eyre found them an attractive people. “When met with for the first time in his native wilds, there is frequently a fearless intrepidity of manner, an ingenuous openness of look, and a propriety of behaviour about the Aboriginal inhabitant of Australia which makes his appearance peculiarly prepossessing.”

Eyre was quick to dispel misjudgements such as Aborigines being child-like and depraved. While they could enjoy life and behave playfully and happily, reminding an observer of children perhaps, they could also discuss issues with great seriousness, maturity and wisdom. Those who accused them of being “child-like” simply could not speak their languages! Or had never sat down and held a serious conversation with them! Nor were they in any valid sense of the word “depraved”. Aspects of their culture harmed them, he admitted that, but they also exhibited the “higher qualities of humankind”, such as kindness, caring, patience, sensitivity, generosity, sorrow and mourning, compassion, support of the injured, tolerance, friendship, love of children, selflessness, courage, and so on.

His claim in his writings was consistently that, “With the same disposition and tempers as ourselves, they are subject to the same impulses and infirmities.”

Amongst dozens of positive statements regarding the friendliness of Aborigines, he made this one:

On many occasions where I have met these wanderers in the wild, far removed from the abodes of civilization, and when I have been accompanied only by a single native boy, I have been received by them in the kindest and most friendly manner….

I have ever found them of a lively, cheerful disposition, patiently putting up with inconveniences and privations, and never losing that natural good temper which so strongly characterizes them.

Furthermore, the indigenous people were very approachable: to sit down with, talk to and negotiate with. Consequently, he built positive relationships with them. “They conceded points to me that they would not have done to their own people, and on many occasions cheerfully underwent hunger, thirst and fatigue to serve me.”

A powerful example of the Aborigines responding to Eyre in ways they did not do to one another was his intervention in an inter-tribal war. He went out alone and unarmed.

In 1844, several tribes were assembled in the neighbourhood, and were, as I was told, going to fight. I walked down towards their huts to see if this was the case, but upon arriving at the native camps I found them deserted, and all the natives about a quarter of a mile away, on the opposite side of a broad deep sheet of water caused by the floods.

As I reached the edge of the water I saw the opposing parties closing, and heard the cry of battle as the affray commenced.

Raising my voice to the utmost, I called out to them and was heard, even above the din of combat.

In a moment all was as still as the grave.

A canoe was brought for me to cross, and I found the assembled tribes fully painted and armed, and anxiously waiting to know what I was going to do.

It was by this time nearly dark, and although I had no fears of their renewing the fight again for the night, I knew they would do so early in the morning. I accordingly directed them to separate, and remove their encampments. One party I sent up the river, a second down it, a third remained where they were, and two others I made recross the water and go up to encamp near my own residence.

His strategy of separating them for a cooling-off period worked, and there was no battle and no bloodshed. He concluded, “All this was accomplished solely by the influence I had acquired over them, for I was alone and unarmed among 300 natives, whose angry passions were inflamed, and who were bent upon shedding each others’ blood.”

This startling influence of Eyre’s was a vital key to his success. It was not won cheaply and took years of interaction with Aborigines to develop. He does not explore the issue himself, but I wonder what part his hospitality towards Aborigines played a role in this? He often had Aborigines staying in his home for shorter or longer periods. This close proximity must have given them an insight into his true intentions and deep concern for them. The news will have spread.

His Manners and Customs was read widely and discussed favourably at the time, but was ignored later by most social theorists because of fundamental differences of opinion expressed by Eyre to their own. In Eyre’s day, the “noble savage” was the popular theory used to describe indigenous people. This was succeeded once evolutionary theory became popular by the degrading fiction of Aborigines being “unevolved losers”, culminating in the greatest popular fiction of all in our own time of proclaiming the value of “all things cultural”.

Unfortunately, hoisting “culture” up onto a pedestal regardless of whether it helps Aborigines in the modern world or not still reaps a multitude of negative consequences. The approach ignores the fact that culture is always changing, and that to hearken backwards to what existed beforehand does not help anyone to face the challenges of today. How many social theorists would themselves like to return to their own culture in the 1940s? Or the 1920s? Or the 1840s? Supposing they did, would they not become anachronisms isolated from the modern world? Yet that is the essence of what many have been promoting for Aborigines.

Besides, many Aborigines in recent years are rejecting this foolishness by their actions. For example, since the Northern Territory Land Rights Act of 1976 and the later Mabo ruling in Queensland, thousands of indigenous people are now living on their own land and could choose to return to a traditional lifestyle if they wanted to. Not surprisingly, few if any have made that choice. Aborigines have moved on and prefer a more settled lifestyle instead with a home and access to modern amenities. Their young people, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, choose an exciting list of possibilities far removed from a traditional lifestyle. An acquaintance of mine who visits indigenous youngsters in the north has been showing them how to track animals. “Oh, now we see what it is our old people have told us about,” they say. But neither they nor any of the watching adults have shown any interest in tracking animals nowadays to secure their food supply. Times have moved on and so have they.

One exciting fact to emerge in our world today is that the past does not have to rob us of the future. Regardless of our roots, we can engage in this revolution towards internationalism – providing that our cultural constraints do not preclude us from participating. Eyre saw this principle clearly and wanted Aborigines to take their place proudly and successfully in the world of his day, leaving behind certain aspects of their culture that would hinder and harm them.

To summarise, Eyre’s contention was that the basic nature of indigenous people was good; it was a few customs, in particular, which were corrupting. He had some telling comments to make along those lines, including:

*All the better feelings and impulses implanted in the human heart by nature are trampled upon by customs.

*Through custom’s irresistible sway has been forged the chain that binds, in iron fetters, a people.

*Whatever alteration therefore we may make in our system for the better, or however anxious we may be for the welfare and the improvement of the Aborigines; we may rest well assured that our efforts are but thrown away, as long as the natives are permitted with impunity to exercise their cruel or degrading customs upon each other.

Eyre was not opposed to all things cultural and wrote respectfully of many cultural practices. Furthermore, he understood the vital part culture plays in supplying Aborigines with a unique identity. Cultural pride was important and still is. Nevertheless, he was quick also to point out those few aspects within their culture that were harmful to the Aborigines themselves. 

Which issues, remaining relevant today, did Eyre identify as “harmful culture”?

The abuse of indigenous women was one harmful cultural issue identified by Eyre. He regularly saw women with a nasty spear wound in a limb or beaten about the head with a waddy until the hair and upper body was bloodied. On asking, he was told this fearful punishment, occasionally causing permanent physical damage or even death, had been administered by the husband for the most trivial of misdemeanours such as not having his food ready when he wanted it. “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.” Women were oppressed and became servile. Eyre writes:

No one under any circumstances ever attempts to take the part of a female, and consequently they are maltreated and oppressed to a shocking degree.

Does a native meet a woman in the woods and violate her? He is not the one made to feel the vengeance of the husband, but the poor victim whom he has abused!

Is there hard or disagreeable work of any kind to be done? The woman is compelled to do it.

Is there a scarcity of food at the camp when the husband comes home hungry? The wife is punished for his indolence and inactivity.

Sexual abuse was common. He describes the pitiful condition of any woman who happened to be viewed as attractive within the culture.

The early life of a young woman at all celebrated for beauty is generally one continued series of captivity to different masters, of ghastly wounds, of wanderings in strange families, of rapid flights, of bad treatment from other females amongst whom she is brought a stranger by her captor. And rarely do you see a form of unusual grace and elegance but it is marked and scarred by the furrows of old wounds; and many a female thus wanders several hundred miles from the home of her infancy, being carried off successively to distant and more distant points.

Eyre hoped that improvements in their legal standing might one day give the women sufficient security from this culture of abuse.

Protected to some degree by modern law, many indigenous women have become influential leaders in the Australia of today.

Despite progress, there is still a long way to go. Statistics in 2004/2005 in four Australian states indicated that indigenous females were 44 times more likely to be hospitalised for assault than non-indigenous females. By 2013, the figures were little better and climbed to 80 times more likely in Alice Springs.

Eyre considered aspects of Aboriginal culture to be stultifying for their youth. “The complete subserviency of the younger people of both sexes in the savage community, to the older or leading men, is another very serious evil they labour under. The force of habit and of traditional custom has so completely clouded their otherwise quick perceptions, that they blindly yield to whatever the elders may require of them.”

For modern indigenous children, the nature of this abuse has shifted and may manifest on many different levels: morally, sexually, physically and psychologically. Consider a quote from the parliamentary document ‘Doing Time’:

Victims of child abuse and adult violence also tend to move on to prisons. About 70% of Indigenous women in NSW gaols said they had suffered sexual abuse as children, 44% had been sexually assaulted as adults, and nearly 80% had been violence victims as adults. Virtually all those sexually assaulted as children now had a drug problem.

Most modern indigenous children are not educated for today’s world and some lapse into the despair of drugs, violence, even suicide, and live in the frustration of their potential lying dormant. Children are born with a natural curiosity and love a challenge, but too often indigenous children become locked up in a culture that is going nowhere for them. They see an exciting modern world on TV and the internet, but are not being trained such that they can take their place in it. As internationalism marches on such that “culture” is no longer needed exclusively to supply a sense of worth and belonging, they are trapped in a backwater.

Exceptions nowadays are those with great natural talent in sports or artistic activities such as painting, drama or music.

In the past, many gifted indigenous young people had been so indoctrinated against other cultures or were ignorant of them that they found it hard to live outside their own for long periods, falling into many of the snares waiting for the unprepared.

In more recent times significant role models have begun emerging, such as Cathy Freeman (athletics star), Lionel Rose (boxing), Evonne Goolagong Cawley (tennis), Artie Beetson, Laurie Daley and Gorden Tallis (Australian Rugby League captains), Jimmy Little (music), Aden Ridgeway (politics), Sir Douglas Nicholls (Governor and Christian minister), Noel Pearson (educationalist and activist), Kelvin Kong (surgeon and indigenous health advocate) and others.

The future looks promising, with hugely talented Aborigines emerging who see it as their responsibility to provide leadership for the young.

A further cultural problem identified by Eyre involved indigenous spirituality. He did not delve deeply into Aboriginal beliefs but recognised their influence and ability to keep Aborigines in bondage.

He generalised that, “All natives of Australia believe in sorcery and witchcraft.”

This belief included spells and curses together with the malign activity of evil spirits that operated invisibly on earth. These beliefs gave power to witchdoctors (sorcerers) who claimed to be able to negotiate and deal with evil spirits; they developed a baleful influence over the tribe as a consequence.

Eyre described in graphic detail an exorcism he observed to set an Aborigine free from the malign intervention of one of these spirits. He does not mention whether the boy was helped by the ceremony. However, it made a lasting impact on Eyre himself, and it is easy to imagine the powerful effect it had on the tribe watching it.

It was a long time before I lost a vivid impression of this ceremony: the still hour of the night, the naked savages with their fancifully painted forms, their wild but solemn dirge, their uncouth gestures, and unnatural noises, all tended to keep up an illusion of an unearthly character and contributed to produce a thrilling and imposing effect upon the mind.

Sadly, a fear of black magic remains widespread in indigenous communities, with negative consequences.

To conclude this rapid exploration of certain harmful aspects of Aboriginal culture, it is essential to emphasise that many cultural practices of all nations can be helpful, harmful or neutral to an individual’s progress.

Consider the world’s largest economies – USA, China, Japan, India, Germany, Russia – each of these nations has retained its own distinctive culture, but each has also been softened and changed for the better by their interaction with one another and with the world at large. This process of internationalisation continues.

If Eyre’s belief is correct that all mankind is created in the image of one God, or if scientists are correct that all mankind shares a common heritage, or both, then any process of internationalisation that brings mankind closer together is natural and moves us towards a safer world.

All future children will benefit from this process, excepting perhaps those from cultures that withdraw from it.