Monday 5 December 2011

Life for women among the Australian Aborigines c1840


From An account of the manners and customs of the Aborigines, by Edward John Eyre, 1845.


In the female the average height is about five feet, or perhaps a little under. The anterior part of the brain is more limited than in the male; the apex of the head is carried further back; the facial angle is more acute; and the extremities are more attenuated.

The latter circumstance may probably be accounted for from the fact, that the females have to endure, from a very early age, a great degree of hardship, privation, and ill-treatment.

Like most other savages the Australian looks upon his wife as a slave.

To her belongs the duty of collecting and preparing the daily food, of making the camp or hut for the night, of gathering and bringing in firewood, and of procuring water. She must also attend to the children; and in travelling carry all the moveable property and frequently the weapons of her husband. In wet weather she attends to all the outside work, whilst her lord and master is snugly seated at the fire. If there is a scarcity of food she has to endure the pangs of hunger, often, perhaps, in addition to ill-treatment or abuse.

No wonder, then, that the females, and especially the younger ones, (for it is then they are exposed to the greatest hardships,) are not so fully or so roundly developed in person as the men. Yet under all these disadvantages this deficiency does not always exist.

Occasionally, though rarely, I have met with females in the bloom of youth, whose well-proportioned limbs and symmetry of figure might have formed a model for the sculptor’s chisel. In personal appearance the females are, except in early youth, very far inferior to the men.


In their domestic relations with one another polygamy is practised in its fullest extent. An old man having usually from one to four wives, or as many as he can procure.

The females, and especially the young ones are kept principally among the old men, who barter away their daughters, sisters, or nieces, in exchange for wives for themselves or their sons. Wives are considered the absolute property of the husband, and can be given away, or exchanged, or lent, according to his caprice.

A husband is denominated in the Adelaide dialect, Yongarra, Martanya (the owner or proprietor of a wife). Female children are betrothed usually from early infancy, and such arrangements are usually adhered to; still in many cases circumstances occur frequently to cause an alteration; but if not, the girls generally go to live with their husbands about the age of twelve, and sometimes even before that.

Relatives nearer than cousins are not allowed to marry, and this alliance does not generally take place.


Brothers often barter their sisters for wives for themselves, but it can only be done with the parents’ consent, or after their death. If a wife be stolen, war is always continued until she is given up, or another female in her place.

There is no ceremony connected with the undertaking of marriage. In those cases where I have witnessed the giving away of a wife, the woman was simply ordered by the nearest male relative in whose disposal she was, to take up her “rocko,” the bag in which a female carries the effects of her husband, and go to the man’s camp to whom she had been given.

Marriage is not looked upon as any pledge of chastity, indeed no such virtue is recognised.


But little real affection consequently exists between husbands and wives, and young men value a wife principally for her services as a slave; in fact when asked why they are anxious to obtain wives, their usual reply is, that they may get wood, water, and food for them, and carry whatever property they possess.


No age is prescribed for matrimony, but young men under twenty-five years of age do not often obtain wives, there are exceptions, however, to this: I have seen occasionally young men of seventeen or eighteen possessing them.

When wives are from thirty-five to forty years of age, they are frequently cast off by the husbands, or are given to the younger men in exchange for their sisters or near relatives, if such are at their disposal.


NOTE “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.”


Women are often sadly ill-treated by their husbands or friends, in addition to the dreadful life of drudgery, and privation, and hardship they always have to undergo; they are frequently beaten about the head, with waddies, in the most dreadful manner, or speared in the limbs for the most trivial offences. No one takes the part of the weak or the injured, or ever attempts to interfere with the infliction of such severe punishments.

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.

COMMENT: It should be noted that the author of this book was writing as an advocate of the Aborigines, and much of the book is taken up with documentation of the abuses and injustices they had suffered at the hands of whites, and ideas for improving their condition.



Daniel said...

Thank you very much for these posts on the Aborigine's Bruce. i have emailed them to my Australian friends.

Wurmbrand said...

So sad that Christian missionaries came along and interfered with their traditional way of life.