Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Feud and Warfare                                                                                                                                                   

In traditional Aboriginal society, warfare was armed conflict by the members of one social unit, it could be a tribe or clan, or in the name of the unit, against another unit. Feud, though it may have wider implications, involving many people, was armed conflict between family groups or kin groups. Feuds sometimes became warfare. Howitt describes incidents of armed combat and duelling. He also reported that a blood feud could spread, eventually involving an entire tribe (Howitt, 1904).

Some feuds in western and eastern Arnhem Land went back a number of years, attempts at peacemaking failing repeatedly.

Basedow (1925) divides Aboriginal warfare into 2 categories, inter-tribal fighting and intra-tribal (or inter-clan) feuding. He claimed inter-tribal fighting was common in the early days of contact, but the number of such instances that were actually inter-tribal fighting has been disputed, though some instances are supported by other observers. It is believed that in most cases incidents that were described as inter-tribal warfare were actually armed expeditions that were socially sanctioned for a particular purpose, such as to avenge a death, or to punish an offender.

Howitt (1904) and Gason (in Woods, 1879) described a Dieri armed party (pinya). The pinya were given the task of dealing with the man  by the headman when a man is condemned to death by a special council. The men taking part in the pinya wear a white headband, their beards are tipped with human hair, and diagonal red and white stripes were painted across their chest and stomach. When they reach the camp of the condemned man they ask for him. The people of the camp know the reason for the demand and usually hand over the man for justice. He is taken by the hand, they announce his sentence, then lead him aside and he is killed by one of the pinya with a blow from a large boomerang. Howitt reported a case where a man who was apprehended by the pinya men pointed to his elder brother to  take the blame, because an elder brother should ideally protect his younger brother. In some examples sorcery could be used instead of physical violence.

In 1953 a man from Arnhem Land was accused of an incestuous relationship. Before his trial he fled the camp, automatically incurring the death penalty. He was taken to the Darwin hospital where tests failed to find any reason for his sickness. He believed he would die because he had been 'bone pointed'. On the 5th day he died, not believing that 'western magic' was strong enough to overcome the power of the 'bone'.

Among the Aranda the avenging party is called atninga. They are usually formed following a quarrel between 2 groups, often over women or a death suspected of resulting from sorcery. (Spencer and Gillen, 1938). According to Spencer and Gillen, the atninga enter the camp of the accused man fully armed, but don't usually resort to physical violence, attacking only with words, and things settle down after a wile, though occasionally there is fighting. sometimes the atninga hide and wait for their victim who they then spear. One case is known of where the men of the atninga were offered women in the ordinary way. They indicated their hostile intentions by rejecting the women. They reached an agreement after a couple of days, in return for the death of 3 men, the 3rd man had boasted of killing a man from the tribe of the atninga, the local men would be unharmed and help the atninga men. 2 of the accused men were speared through trickery but the 3 rd grew suspicious and left the camp. The avengers danced around the bodies while the others watched passively. The actual killers were called immirinja and the decoys were called alknalarinika. When the atninja returned to their camp they were greeted by old women dancing and waving their fighting clubs.

It was fairly common to send women to a camp of visitors whose intentions were uncertain. It was usually done as a friendly gesture to appease an enemy. But sometimes it was used to put the visitors off their guard and so vulnerable to an attack. Sometimes members of avenging parties captured the wives and daughters, and occasionally sons, of the men they killed. A number of such instances were mentioned by Howitt, 1904. On the Hunter River, the Geawegal keep captured women of the correct intermarrying group. Many cases of similar events have been reported, such as from the Maryborough region of Queensland, southeast South Australia, southwestern Victoria, the Yorke peninsula, and Gippsland. It is now believed that many of these reported captures were simply examples of the custom of marrying by capture, the party of men go for a woman, not as revenge, but as a marriage custom.

In the Western Desert the wanmala is the equivalent of the atninja of the Aranda. It was most commonly used to avenge a sorcery death or to track and kill a runaway wife and her lover. A native doctor or sorcerer summoned several men who went into nearby bush and painted themselves and prepared their special wibia shoes. These shoes were usually made of woven human hair and included other items such as bird feathers. They left little or no footprints. Once they are ready there is a short ceremony in the main camp in which the women sit beating time for them while they rattle their spears and wave them about. As they leave the camp they fling spears as they go.  They also have other ceremonies that foreshadow the fight which will take place on reaching the victim's camp. They sing songs of the mythical Wadi Banbanbalala, Bell Bird Man, who 'makes wanmala'. Even in normal life people hearing a bell bird can feel uneasy, saying there must be a wanmala nearby. The elders carry bundles of spears on the wanmala journey.

According to traditional accounts they enter the victim's camp stealthily, and taking the victim by surprise, surround him, hold their spears ready as the old men sing a traditional song, and kill him as the final word is sung.

On Bathurst Island and Melville Island, the Tiwi duel to resolve disputes. If the duels don't resolve the dispute, full scale fighting between 2 groups of armed men may occur. (Hart & Pilling, 1960).

In northeastern and north-central Arnhem Land the most highly organised warfare in all of Australia took place. (Warner 1937/1958). The fighting unit here is the clan or linguistic unit, the most usual source of trouble is the killing of a woman. A point that has been supported by the findings of Berndt and Berndt is that most of the fighting takes place between neighbouring clans of the same moiety. Warner comments that "feuds between clans  of opposite moieties are more likely to die out for lack of the stimulus provided by competition for women. Such clans are likely to allow a magarada to be held . . . ." and "kinship solidarity extends warfare but also has the opposite tendency: that of limiting its scope when it has reached very large proportions. All the clans are interrelated, and generally many will find their loyalties divided . . ." In this region the main aim of fighting is to cause the enemy to suffer the same injury it has inflicted, an eye for an eye.

Warner has named at least categories of armed attack, not all of which are normally considered warfare. For example, the magarada is mainly settlement by ordeal, though at times it can lead to further fighting. Camp fights (Nirimaoi julngu) are based on adultery accusations, and is mostly loud talking rather than physical fighting that could lead to death. In narub or djawald a victim is killed or wounded while sleeping. Responsibility for this is ascribed to the clan as a whole, regardless of the fact that no sanction was obtained by the men involved prior to the event. Miringu (maringo, death adder, according to Warner) is much more like the normal sense of warfare. It is usually caused by an inter-clan killing. The members of the mirringu party carry out magical rites, such as going through the motions of finding and spearing the victim's image that has been drawn on the ground or moulded from clay and identified by name. A bone from the dead man is used to show them the direction they should take. They move off to the victim's camp in a snake-like formation. They surround it in a way prescribed by tradition, then kill him, and possibly others as well.

The mirringu is analogous to the wanmala of the Western Desert, the pinya of the Dieri and the Atninga of the Aranda.

In northeastern Arnhem Land there are 2 other types of fighting, the milwerangel, that involves a number of clans, is pre-arranged, and the gainger, on a regional basis, is on a larger scale, is very rare. It results from high levels of anger that has been building over long periods of feuding, and according to Warner is intended to be 'a spear fight to end spear fights', and hopefully bring peace to the whole area. Magical rites precede the gainger in which the spears of each moiety are symbolised by special decorations. These are later sent out as an invitation and challenge. The number of deaths resulting from this type of fighting, in which any ruse is permissible,  was expected to be higher than with any other type of warfare. Even with this type of fighting the number of deaths would not be expected to reach more than about a dozen.

Sources & Further reading

R.M. & C.H. Berndt, The World of the First Australians, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1964


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 30/09/2011
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