Anthropology (yes!) Friday: The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, 32 years a wanderer amongst the Aborigines…

William Buckely
William Buckely

Hey everyone, today we are reading The Life and Adventures of William Buckley: 32 years a wanderer amongst the Aborigines of the then unexplored Country Bound Port Phillip, the province of Victoria. (That is a long title.)

Buckley, a British soldier caught stealing a bolt of cloth, was shipped out to their penal colony in Australia, ran away to the bush, nearly died, and was rescued by the Aborigines, who taught him how to live off the land. He lived with them for 32 years (from 1804 through 1835,) without sight nor sound of another Englishman, and had likely given up hope of ever returning to civilization when colonists finally arrived in the area. In 1852 he dictated his life’s adventures to John Morgan, who wrote the book, and wow is it Hobbesian.

We’ll start with Buckley’s first encounter with the Aborigines:

Approximate location of Buckley's wanderings
Approximate location of Buckley’s wanderings

“…I thought I heard the sound of human voices; and, on looking up, was somewhat startled at seeing three natives standing on the high land immediately above me. They were armed with spears, and had opossum skins thrown over their shoulders, partially covering their bodies. Standing as they did, en an elevated position, armed too, and being myself totally defenceless, I confess I felt alarmed … They were however soon upon my track, and shouting what I considered to be a call for me to come out, I resolved to do so; indeed I could not have remained there long on account of the water.

“With but faint hopes of meeting with good treatment at their hands, I crawled out from my shelter, and surrendered at discretion. … After seizing both my hands, they struck their breasts, and mine also, l making at the same time a noise between singing and crying: a sort of whine, which to me sounded very like premeditated mischief. Pointing to my hut, they evinced a desire to examine it, so we entered. … One made up a large fire, another threw off his rug and went into the sea for crayfish, which, on his return, he threw alive into the flames, at the same time looking at me with an expression as much as to intimate that they intended to grill me next, by way of a change of diet. I can afford to smile, and even laugh now at the recollection; but, at the time, I assure the reader, I was by no means satisfied with the prospect before me, or with my visitors. At length my suspense ended, by their taking the fish, fairly dividing them, and handing to me the first and best portion.”

EvX: In his defense, the Aborigines in the area did practice cannibalism, though I think of the ritual variety.

Buckley parts ways with his new acquaintances, nearly dies of thirst, then encounters some more Aborigines:

Buckley's escape from the convict ship and discovery by the Aborigines, by Tommy McRae, Aborigine artist
Buckley’s escape from the convict ship and discovery by the Aborigines, by Tommy McRae, Aborigine artist

“Whilst searching for the gum already mentioned, I was seen by two native women, who watched me unperceived. … Presently they all came upon me unawares, and seizing me by the arms and hands, began beating their breasts, and mine, in the manner the others had done. After a short time, they lifted me up, and they made the same sign, giving me to understand by it, that I was in want of food. The women assisted me to walk, the men shouting hideous noises, and tearing their hair. When we arrived at their huts, they brought a kind of bucket, made of dry bark, into which they put gum and water, converting it by that means into a sort of pulp. This they offered me to eat, and I did so very greedily.

Artist's interpretation of Buckley's apperance
Artist’s interpretation of Buckley’s apperance

“They called me Murrangurk, which I afterwards learnt, was the name of a man formerly belonging to their tribe, who had been buried at the spot where I had found the piece of spear I still carried with me. They have a belief, that when they die, they go to some place’ or other, and are there made white men, and that they then return to this world again for another existence. They think all the white people previous to death were belonging to their own tribes, thus returned to life in a different colour. In cases where they have killed white men, it has generally been because tkey imagined them to have been originally enemies, or belonging to tribes with whom they were hostile. In accordance with this belief, they fancied me to be one of their tribe who had been recently killed in a fight, in which his daughter had been speared also. …

Wathaurong people, from the tribe Buckley joined
Wathaurong people, from the tribe Buckley joined

“I remained with them all that night, but in great anxiety, not knowing their intentions; I thought several times of endeavoring to make my escape, but in my weak state, it was impossible. The women were all the time making frightful lamentations and waillings–lacerating their faces in a dreadful manner. All this increased my anxiety and horror, which was added to in J the morning, When I saw the frightful looking demons they had made themselves. They were covered with blood from the bounds they had inflicted, having cut their faces and legs into ridges, and burnt the edges with fire sticks sticks. …”

EvX: Once Buckley learned their language, he figured out that all of this lamenting was for “his” sake, since they believed him to be their family member whose death they were still sad about, and whom they thought had returned from the dead after suffering such horrible traumas that he had clearly lost his memory, forgotten how to speak their language, and become a half-starved idiot who didn’t know how to gather food.

Once the mourning ends, there proceeds a great deal of singing, dancing, and celebration:

“The reader, in these colonies, will be aware that what I had witnessed was nothing more than a great Corrobberree, or rejoicing, at my having come to life again, as they supposed. After eating some roots I lay down by the side of my new friends, and although so recently highly exited, yet I enjoyed a sleep undisturbed by dreams, either of the past, the preset, or the future.”

r331409_1494994EvX: So Buckely is basically “adopted” into the Wathaurong tribe, taking the place of the dead man everyone believes him to be. “His” sister and brother-in-law take charge of him, making sure he has food and water, teaching him to hunt and speak, etc.

Unfortunately, the Wikipedia page on the Wathaurong people doesn’t say much about their traditional culture or lifestyle beyond:

Wathaurong, also called the Wathaurung and Wadawurrung, are an Indigenous Australian tribe living in the area near Melbourne, Geelong and the Bellarine Peninsula. They are part of the Kulin alliance. The Wathaurung language was spoken by 25 clans south of the Werribee River and the Bellarine Peninsula to Streatham. They were sometimes referred to by Europeans as the Barrabool people. They have inhabited the area for at least the last 25,000 years, with 140 archaeological sites having been found in the region, indicating significant activity over that period.

Personally, I am extremely skeptical of any group sticking around in the same spot for 25,000 years, but I’m not in the mood to go hunting down the relevant archaeological journals to see if someone has proved conclusively how to distinguish Wathaurong artifacts from those of their neighbors and that those same artifacts were being produced in the area 25,000 years ago (or someone could dig up an ancient skeleton and test its DNA to see who it matches.) Regardless, someone was living there.

From here the book is dominated by accounts of violence, eg:

“in the mean time, the women behind the huts were all fighting with clubs and sticks. Presently the men, excepting the two with me, rushed toward them, in order to separate the combatants, after which they brought roots which they roasted and offered me. What the fight was about I could not understand, but think it must have originated in the unfair division of the food.”

“At break of day, I heard a great noise and talking; at length I saw that a quarrel had ensued, for they began to flourish their spears as a token of hostilities I should here observe, that these spears are very formidable weapons, about twelve feet long, sharp at one end; others are about half that length, being made of a kind of reed with pointed sticks joined to them; these are sharpened with hard cutting stones, or shells. …

“After a little time, and a great deal of challenging bluster, the two tribes commenced fighting in reality. When my relations, for so for convenience, I suppose, I must sometimes call them, saw what was going on, they led me a short distance off, where they remained
with me, looking at the conflict. It was any thing but play work–it was evidently earnest. One man was speared through the thigh, and removed into the bush, where the spear was drawn, A woman of the tribe to which I had become attached, was also speared under the arm, and she died immediately. At last peace was restored, and the parties separated, except about twenty of the tribe to which the woman belonged who had been killed…”

“we left this place, and joined a friendly tribe, about fifty in number, and on the evening of our meeting had a Corrobberree. The next day we all started together to meet another tribe; but on joining, from some cause or other, they quarrelled, commenced fighting, and two boys were killed. I could not then understand what all these quarrels were about, but afterwards understood that they were occasioned by, the women having been taken away from one tribe by another, which was of frequent occurrence. At other times they were caused by the women willingly leaving their husbands, and joining other men, which the natives consider very bad.”

“After the skirmish just mentioned was over, the tribe to whom the boys belonged retired farther into the bush, when we made our huts, as I have described, with boughs and bark. Suddenly in the night, the others came upon our party and drove us away. The bodies of the two boys who were killed were laying in one of the huts, so they cut off their legs and thighs, carrying them away; the remains of their bodies our people burned in the usual manner…”

“On our arrival at the battle ground, about twenty miles distant, we found five different tribes all collected together, and ready for action. The fight commenced immediately, and it lasted about three hours, during which three women were killed, for, for strange to say, the females in these quarrels generally suffered the most. These continual contests alarmed me, for the contending parties were always pointing toward me, as if I had been their origin, and I again began to think I should be sacrificed as a peace offering. Quiet was at length restored, and the tribe we had joined separated from the others, and came toward where I was standing. ”

Waddies made by the Aranda people (wikipedia)
Waddies (Aboriginal war clubs) made by the Aranda people

“we were unexpectedly intruded upon by a very numerous tribe, about three hundred. Their appearance, coming across the plain, occasioned great alarm, as they were seen to be the Waarengbadawa, with whom my tribe was at enmity. … The women ran with their children into the bush, and hid themselves, and being a living dead man, as they supposed, I was told to accompany them. On the hostile tribe coming near, I saw they were all men, no women being amongst them. They were smeared all over with red and white clay, and were by far the most hideous looking savages I had seen. In a very short time the fight began, by a shower of spears from the contending parties. One of our men advanced singly, as a sort of champion; he then began to dance and sing, and beat himself about with his war implements… Seven or eight of … our opponents, then got up also, and threw their spears at him; but, with great dexterity, he warded them off, or broke them every one, so that he did not receive a single wound. They then threw their boomerangs at him, but he warded them off also with ease. After this, one man advanced, as a sort of champion from their party, to within three yards of him, and threw his boomerang, but the other avoided the blow by falling on his hands and knees, and instantly jumping up again he shook himself like a dog coming out of the water. At seeing this, the enemy shouted out in their language “enough,” and the two men went and embraced each other. After this, the same two beat their own heads until the blood ran down in streams over their shoulders.

“A general fight now commenced, of which all this had been the prelude, spears and boomerangs flying in all directions. The sight was very terrific, and their yells and shouts of defiance very horrible. At length one of our tribe had a spear sent right through his body, and he fell. On this, our fellows raised a war cry, on hearing which, the women threw off their rugs, and each armed with a short club, flew to the assistance of their husbands and brothers; I being peremptorily ordered to stay where I was, my supposed brother’s wife remaining with me. Even with this augmentation, our tribe fought to great disadvantage, the enemy
being all men, and much more numerous.

“As I have said in the early part of this narrative, I had seen skirmishing and fighting in Holland; and knew something therefore, of what is done when men are knocking one another about with powder and shot, in real earnest, but the scene now before me was much more frightful, both parties looking like so many devils turned loose from Tartarus. Men and women were fighting furiously, and indiscriminately, covered with blood; two of the latter were killed in this affair …

“Soon after dark the hostile tribe left the neighbourhood, and, on discovering this retreat from the battle ground, ours determined on following them immediately, leaving the women and
myself where we were. On approaching the enemy’s quarters, they laid themselves down in ambush until all was quiet, and finding most of them asleep, laying about in groups, our party rushed upon them, killing three on the spot, and wounding several others. The enemy fled precipitately, leaving their war implements in the hands of their assailants and their wounded to be beaten to death by boomerangs, three loud shouts closing the victors triumph.”

EvX: After a while I got tired of recording battles and decided just to count them:

Fights: 34
Deaths: 60

I can’t promise that I caught 100% of them; some sections of the book were badly scanned and hard to read. Also, the numbers only reflect the deaths Buckley specifically reported. In instances where he merely said something like “a few people died,” or “many people died,” I recorded only that a fight had occurred, not deaths. So the real death toll must actually be much higher than my accounting.

To be fair, these occurred over the course of 32 years, but Buckley began trying to avoid fights later in the book, so there may have been many more fights his tribe was involved in that didn’t make it into the book.

Consider, for quick comparison, how many people you have personally seen murdered or killed in battle. Chances are none–only 4/100,000 people are murdered in the US every year, and most other Western countries have even lower rates.

Luckily for Buckley, his status as already dead meant that no one thought it worth bothering to kill him again.

Buckley blames the constant warfare on fights over women, but a certain aspect of magical thinking frequently at play in animist religions is also clearly present: any death, even by natural causes, is believed to have been caused by human malice. As I noted back in my previous Anthropology Friday on the Aborigines, they had quite complicated explanations for how someone could have secretly snuck into another tribe’s camp and magically killed them without anyone else noticing. As a result, any death, even by wholly natural causes, could lead to the members of one tribe deciding to exact murderous revenge on another tribe, which would naturally endeavor to return the favor.

In a recent interview, Napoleon Chagnon, the anthropologist famous for studying the Yanomamo, (who are famous for being very violent,) stated:

The important thing that I’ve discovered about the Yanomamö is the answer to the question of a lot of highly educated people in our society who say, “Oh, it would be so wonderful if we could just go back to an earlier time when life was so much simpler, and pleasant, and neighbors cooperated…” And what I found is the further back in time you go, the more that unpleasant things are ubiquitous in your environment. Violence is just around the corner, and wishing for a return to the noble savage past is possibly one of the biggest errors that one might make philosophically. I don’t think life in the state of nature was nearly as pleasant as a lot of people would like it to be.

One example I give from my travels across the United States: I happen to have been invited on a trip into the Grand Canyon by the man who was then Governor of Arizona, Fife Symington, and we had the park ranger, the archeologist for the Grand Canyon area, along with us, and he took us into parts of the Grand Canyon that most tourists don’t see. One of the most astonishing things we saw, Pueblo houses built into the edge of the Grand Canyon, with a 1,000-foot drop below, and these houses were occupied by prehistoric Indians who were so terrified of their neighbors that they’d climb down vines and ropes with their kids on their back, and firewood under their arm, and the day’s catch in their baskets, because they were just terrified of their neighbors. And that’s the way the Yanomamö live. Even the missionaries who have lived among the Yanomamö the longest have pointed out repeatedly to me and other people that these people are terrified of neighbors. It’s like Hobbe’s war of “all against all” in many respects, and Rousseau is way off the mark. …

PINKER:  What about standing back and saying—at some point they must figure this out—”We’re avenging that death, which was caused when they avenged the previous death, and the cycle of violence keeps going on. Is there some way that we can extricate ourselves from this cycle?” Did that thought occur to them? Because they must at some point do the math and realize, well, not every killing could be in revenge.

CHAGNON:  You are asking a profound question here. And the answer to that is best explicated in an incident that happened to me when the Yanomamö began being aware of Venezuelans, for example. It was a territorial capital 200+ miles away, and some of the missionaries sent young guys to the territorial capital to learn practical nursing to come back to the village and treat snake bites, and scratches, and wounds, and things like that, and to give them malaria pills. And they taught them how to use microscopes.

But one of these guys came back and he was just terribly excited when he told me that he discovered policia. I was like, “Well, what’s policia?” “They will grab people and haul them off and put them in these little separate houses, if they do something wrong. And I think we need policia, because my brother killed a man from Iwahikorobateri five years ago, and I’m always worried that the Iwahikorobateri are going to come and kill me, because he’s my brother.” And he thought that if they had law, law would be a good thing. …

PINKER:  So you discovered kind of a Yanomamö Hobbes, who discovered the Leviathan.

CHAGNON:  Right.

We’ll return to both Buckley and Chagnon’s interview (which I must credit with inspiring me to read Buckley’s account) later… Perhaps in Part 2.

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10 thoughts on “Anthropology (yes!) Friday: The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, 32 years a wanderer amongst the Aborigines…

  1. Buckley has a very interesting story, he travelled quite a distance over time. If you look at a map of Port Phillip Bay where he escaped from is now the town of Sorrento on the Mornington penisula and he got to the Bellamarine penisula which are on the opposite sides of the entrance to the bay, so he probably travelled the entire length of the 260km bay on his escape attempt.

    Liked by 1 person

    • *Calculates* yes, given what a determined walker can cove in a day, that sounds about right. The lack of water was a real problem in those early days, though. Quite amazing he made it.

      Like

  2. Fascinating read. I’m as guilty as any of romanticizing the hunter-gatherer past. I think it’s mostly the idea that I’d have people I know surrounding me and access to nature. Those parts are the positives, I suppose.

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    • I probably romanticize it, too. 🙂

      I think it’s easy to forget just how good we have it, especially since we hear about every homicide on the news and so are likely to think that murder is much more common than it actually is.

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  3. Great read, thanks for posting this. I found your blog looking for the genetic stuff but the anthropology is by far the most fascinating.

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