Darwin meets First Peoples

Charles Darwin. Jan16 1836


“Although this is such a this country flourishes country so remarkably, the appearance of infertility is to a certain extent the truth degree real; the soil without doubt is good, but there is so great a deficiency in rain & running water, that it cannot produce much. — The Agricultural crops & indeed often those in gardens, are estimated to fail once in three years; & it has so even thus happened more than one on successive years: — So that New S. Wales hence the Colony cannot supply itself with the bread & vegetables which its inhabitants consume. — It is essentially pastoral, & chiefly so for sheep & not the larger animals quadrupeds: the alluvial land near Emu ferry is some of the best cultivated which I have seen; & certainly the scenery on the banks of the Nepean, bounded to the West by the Blue Mountains, was pleasing even to the eye of a person thinking of England. —

At Sunset by my good fortune a party of a score of the Aboriginal Blacks passed by, each carrying in their accustomed manner a bundle of spears & other weapons. — By giving a leading young man a shilling they were easily detained & they threw their spears for my amusement. — They were all partly clothed & several could speak a little English; their countenances were good-humoured & pleasant & they appeared far from such utterly degraded beings as usually represented. — In their own arts they are admirable; a cap being fixed at thirty yards distance, they transfixed it with the spear delivered by the throwing stick, with the rapidity of an arrow from the bow of a practised Archer; in tracking animals & men they show most wonderful sagacity & I heard many of their remarks, which manifested considerable acuteness. — They will not however cultivate the ground, or even take the trouble of keeping flocks of sheep which have been offered them; or build houses & remain stationary. — Never the less, they appear to me to stand some few degrees higher in civilization, or more correctly a few lower in barbarism, than the Fuegians. —

It is very curious thus to see in the midst of a civilized people, a set of harmless savages although certainly harmless wandering about without knowing where they will sleep, & gaining their livelihood by hunting in the woods. — Their numbers have rapidly decreased; during my whole ride with the exception of some boys brought up in the houses, I saw only one other party. — These were rather more numerous & not so well clothed. — I should have mentioned that in addition to their state of independence of the Whites, the different tribes go to war. In an engagement which took place lately the parties, very singularly chose the centre of the village of Bathurst as the place of engagement; the conquered party took refuge in the Barracks. — The decrease in numbers must be owing to the drinking of Spirits, the Europaean diseases, even the milder ones of which such as the Measles are very destructive, & the gradual extinction of the wild animals. It is said that from the wandering life of these people, great numbers of their children die in very early infancy. When the difficulty in procuring food is checked increased, of course the population must be repressed in a manner almost instantaneous as compared to what can takes place in civilized life, where the father may add to his labor without destroying his offspring.


Early in the morning we crossed passed the Nepean in a ferry boat…”

Two very different Ways.

Of course, we do not know what “the score of Aboriginal Blacks” thought about Charles Darwin. While they leave no record, we must remain mindful that they would have had their views on this encounter. There are two sides to these stories, even if we have become habituated to only hearing one.

To them he may have appeared as someone ready to engage with them – and someone who (had he stayed around long enough) been a candidate to learning a little more about their country. Experience in other parts of Australia demonstrates that First Peoples (especially those suffering the first waves of invasion) were often keen to educate those in authority about Australians realities. Fashioning new eyes and ears for the heedless intruders would help them to find themselves.

But there has been a lack of such a cross-cultural dialogue for over two centuries. Rather than ‘settlement’, it has been worlds in collision. Two galaxies of meaning intersecting, and rarely making any connection of lasting value.

A temporary alliance at best, soon pulled apart by the centrifugal forces in one and the centripetal in the other.

When Charles Darwin arrived in Australia he was part of what we may think of as a socially ‘expanding’ universe. For Darwin it was part of a British imperialism which involved ‘commerce’ as much as it did other forms of colonialism.

The roots of this expansion can be traced back to neolithic times, and to the ‘spread’ of Indo-European in particular.

“Farmers” do not merely stay where they are, they expand into the lives and countries of other peoples.

Over this long period (and for those parts of life which underwent these transformations) grand master narratives had developed as part of an unconscious-in-culture.

These increasingly included a notion of ‘humanity’, which set part of life apart from the rest of life. Life could be refashioned to meet ‘human’ needs.

Darwin’s life work involved refuting one part of the grand master narrative – in which an imaginary creator fashions the whole of life.

Irrespective of whether or not evolution is accepted, all this makes ‘sense’ within those life formations belonging to the neolithic and Indo-European traditions.

But while the neolithic transformation and the Indo-European expansion account for a large part of life, that is not the whole story.

There are other Ways –such as those which have been practiced by Australia’s original peoples – which are between characterised as ways designed to maintain position.

The modern anthropologist Levi-Strauss has made the useful distinction between ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ societies. Australia’s First Peoples are a particularly good example of a ‘cold’ society.

In Australia, the unconscious-in-culture can be characterised as being directed to maintaining a generative context in which life is a text. Looking after the the whole of life is the task set for peoples surplus energy and this is done by sending life-balancing messages back into the cosmos.

For those who make sense with by means resulting from neolithic and Indo-European transformations, the practices of First Peoples make ‘no sense’.

At the present time, however, when we are faced by global warming – at least partially the result of modern practices – we begin to gain a new appreciation of the wisdom of other peoples Ways.

We too begin to think that there is much to be said for ‘maintaining’ position in the scheme of things, rather than sacrificing all to notions of progress.

Rather than framing our logic in terms of an expanding universe, and a world without limits, we can approach Australian life from positions which find our best interests to include a real commitment to the liberation of Australia’s First Peoples from their captive positions within the modern Anglo-Australian nation state.

This is vastly different from the type of imaginary ‘objective’ stance of gentlemen of science, busily ensuring their own privileged well-being while denying the role of anything but reason and rationality in their practices.

It can be said fairly plainly – new forms of life are emerging and our ‘liberation’ aligns with the struggle of Australia’s First Peoples for their voices to be heard and their cosmologies and associated cosmic maintenance practices to be recognised.


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