Aboriginal Customs & Beliefs from the Early Days of Brisbane
By Greg Spearritt
Many Queenslanders will know the name ‘Petrie’ from various place-names around Brisbane. Andrew Petrie arrived in 1837, about 12 years after the foundation of Brisbane, to become the settlement’s first proper superintendent or engineer of works.
Andrew’s son Tom, born in 1831 (before the family emigrated from Edinburgh), grew up as the new township grew around him. He played as a boy with local aboriginal children, participating in and observing many indigenous activities. He saw the making of ‘kippas’ (the name for the newly-initiated boys), learned to speak the local languages fluently and accompanied local tribes folk on hunting trips and excursions, including to the bunya (“bon-yi”) nut feast in the Blackall Range.
Much of what is known about Tom Petrie comes from a book written by his daughter, Constance Campbell Petrie, published in 1904. Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland is available in a UQP paperback edition, though any edition is at present hard to come by. The work is, however, available online in various formats.
The detail in this book of everyday life in early Brisbane is as interesting as the exceptional events that Constance records, both about indigenous life and about the life of white settlers and convicts. However, the veracity of her information about Tom and about the customs and beliefs of local Brisbane aborigines must be qualified by at least three factors. First, these are memories recounted to Constance some 50 years after the actual events; second, there is the whiff of hagiography about some of the writing; and third, there are bound to be agendas driven by attitudes and events of the early 1900s influencing the work. Certainly the ‘noble savage’ motif makes an appearance, and Constance is clearly influenced by the rationalist temper of the times, being inclined to scepticism in regard to religion and belief.
Nonetheless, Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences is recognised as a valuable source of information about the customs and beliefs of local Brisbane aborigines, in particular the Turrbal tribe which ranged west to Moggill, south to the Logan and north to North Pine.
This article presents a small selection of material from Reminiscences relating to beliefs and customs (inevitably coloured, as noted above, by Constance’s own beliefs). Perhaps many could come under the rubric ‘religion’, but that is of course a ‘white-fella’ term. 1. A number of them have a curiously contemporary ring.
The state of aborigines when Constance is writing is bemoaned a number of times:
They used to be fine, athletic men, remarkably free from disease, tall, well-made and graceful, with wonderful powers of enjoyment; now they are often miserable, diseased, degraded creatures. The whites have contaminated them. (14-15)
Apparently it wasn’t just disease and drink that were to blame, either. In noting the joy of the food-gathering life, and the open-handed and generous nature of the aborigines (for example in sharing food), Constance remarks: “And there were no missionaries in those days to make them think how bad they were.” (16)
Power and Magic
Some men were known to have special abilities, courtesy of the “kundri”, “a small crystal stone” which others believed they carried inside their body, “being able to bring it up at will by a string and swallow again!” . A “turrwan” or “great man” generally specialised in one particular ability (‘superpower’?). He could, for example, “fly, kill, cure or dive into the ground, and come out again where and when he liked”. The stones were to be found wherever a rainbow touched the water; they were the work of “Taggan”, the spirit of the rainbow. (29)
The power of crystals, apparently, spans the cultures.
The Cry for the Dead
Death was an ever-present fact of life and was called daily to mind:
When aborigines are collected anywhere together, each morning at daylight a great cry arises, breaking through the silence: this is the “cry for the dead.”… It was crying and wailing and cursing all mixed up together, and was kept going for from ten to twenty minutes, such a noise being made that it was scarcely possible to hear oneself speak… There was never a lack of someone to mourn for; so this cry was never omitted, night or morning. (12-13) 2.
Petrie notes wryly, “Whether the dead were the better for the mourning who can say?”.
Healing, Death and Burial
Wounds of all kinds were common, in part because most gatherings of tribes involved at some point a ritualistic battle in which both men and women took part in earnest. (E.g. 160 – 165.)
Faith healing loomed large in the medicine of the Turrbal tribe:
Father has seen [a “turrwan”]… kneeling and sucking a sick man’s body on the part where the pain was, then, rising after a time, pull the “kundri” from his mouth, saying he had sucked it from the sufferer’s body. There is said to be power in belief, and it would seem so, for the sick man believing his enemy’s stone was removed would feel better and probably recover. The “turrwan” would be cute enough not to do this if he thought the case hopeless. (64)
Culpability for killing seems to have worked in ways very different to our thinking. According to Constance Petrie, if an aborigine dies at the hands of another, that person is not considered responsible for the death:
Aborigines do not believe they ever die a natural death; death is always caused through a “turrwan” of another tribe. When a man dies, they think that at some previous time he has been killed before without its being known to anyone even himself. Verily a strange belief. They think he was killed with the “kundri” and cut up into pieces, then put back together again; afterwards dying by catching a cold, or perhaps, being killed in a fight. The man who killed him then is never blamed for the deed; “he had to die, you see!” But they blame a man from another tribe for the real cause of the death, and do their best to be revenged… (30)
And so, says Constance, some hapless fellow from another tribe, having been determined by a bone-cracking ceremony to be the real killer, will one day find himself cut down out of the blue.
Burial customs are described in some detail (chapter 4). In essence, bodies were placed into tree platforms and the bones later retrieved, some of which were carried about by a female relative for some months. In certain cases, for instance if the dead person was a ‘turrwan’, the body was eaten rather than buried; this procedure is given in rather grisly detail. The parallel with holy communion – where the “great man” of Christian tradition is (at least in Catholic lore) literally consumed – is intriguing.
Coming of Age
The “lesser ceremony” for transforming Aboriginal boys into “kippas” (young men) took three or four weeks. (See Chapters 5 – 7.) It was performed by unrelated men from a neighbouring tribe and followed strict guidelines involving separating the boys from their relatives (especially women), requiring strict silence from the boys (despite the old men tempting them in various ways to speak or laugh) and forbidding them to look up to the sky. Sanctions for breaking these rules were reportedly severe, but Constance adds an interesting aside:
Father, who saw all these ceremonies when a boy, would sometimes plague the lads when the old warriors had their backs turned, tempting them to look up, etc.; the boys would grin and perhaps do so, though they dare not before the men. Children, black and white, are much the same the world over, I suppose, and of course these boys would speak if they got the chance. (41)
Perhaps because Tom would not have been privy to ‘women’s business’, Constance has little to say about how young girls came of age.
Tom recounts some “superstitions” from his younger days which according to Constance are no longer evident among aborigines when she is writing. When a dog ran through the legs of one blackfellow, “the man stood stock still and called the dog back, making it return through his legs. When asked why, he said they would both die otherwise.” Similarly, blacks would not pass underneath a tree that had fallen onto an adjoining tree. (Not so remarkable, perhaps, in view of the fact that there are still plenty of 21st-century westerners who won’t walk under a ladder.) When Tom himself did so to show there was no harm in it they reportedly replied, “Oh, but you are white.” (14)
For the Brisbane aborigines of the 1800s, life and its events were imbued with meaning. Rather like those today who claim that everything happens for a purpose (even if the mind of God in such events is maddeningly inscrutable), these aborigines saw significance in everything. No-one died without another person being responsible for the death; if a storm blew up, a “turrwan” of another tribe had sent it. An eclipse signified a death, and dreams were taken with the utmost seriousness.
For many contemporary Christians the efficacy of prayer is an article of faith. The belief is unfalsifiable, of course, since God sometimes says ‘no’. A similar dynamic seems to have been played out among the aborigines of Tom Petrie’s day:
A bird, the piping shrike-thrush… which the blacks christened “mirram,” was always watched when it came near a camp, and it was spoken to and asked questions about certain things. The blacks noticed whether it called out in reply or not, and they took warning and acted accordingly. If the bird were silent all was well. Supposing, however, in spite of its silence something went wrong after all, then instead of losing faith in the bird they blamed themselves for not having asked it the correct question. (62)
Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences covers very much more than is recorded here: aboriginal humour, games, naming and hunting practices, story-telling and much besides. It also covers specific events, such as excursions by whites into ‘virgin’ land west and north of Brisbane and life in the township at a time when the Windmill was used for milling grain and Creek St was still a creek.
For me, one thing Constance’s book does is reinforce that humans are driven to seek meaning. Whether they live in a stone-age culture or in the ‘information age’ the ways they do that can be remarkably similar.
All page numbers following quotations are from the fourth edition of Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland (UQP, 1992).
- Wilfred Cantwell Smith describes religion as a “confusing, unnecessary and distorting” western notion arrived at through a process of reifying or theoretically abstracting a ‘system’ or generic truth from the lives of people living religiously: The Meaning and End of Religion (Mentor, 1964) 48ff.
- This practice was noted by Judith Wright, and indeed provided the title for her book chronicling the effect of the pastoral invasion of Queensland in the 1800s and 1900s, The Cry for the Dead (Oxford Uni Press, 1981)