Friday, 7 March 2014

Hunting Aborigines for Fun and Dinner

     As every schoolboy knows, during the last four decades of the 19th century Queensland imported large numbers of Melanesians - kanakas - as indentured labourers on the cane fields. And no, "kanaka" is not a derogatory term in Australia. It is a technical term for  those indentured labourers and the descendants of those who were allowed to settle here. Melanesians who arrived in the 20th century are not called kanakas. And no, they were not slaves nor, except in the earliest few years, were they kidnapped. The government very quickly regulated the system and cracked down on abuses. At the expiry of their term, they would go home, bringing the consumer goods they had accumulated, and encourage their friends and relatives to do the same. Even so, in the last couple of decades Queensland had to compete with Germany and France for their services.
      In other words, the system worked to the mutual advantage to both sides. However, there were hiccups. For a start, the Melanesians were cannibals.
     A planter named Charles Eden who, with his wife, took up land for a plantation near Cardwell, described how he went to the docks and bought twenty New Hebrideans to work it. Six were Tanna men, eight from Vanua Lava, and the rest from other islands in the group.
     They were all fine, strapping fellows. They worked hard and he treated them well, giving them Sundays off to go hunting in the bush. Eden described in rather detached fashion how they often went hunting the local Aborigines, who were themselves savage fighters, cannibals, and no mean quarry.
     Sali, the Tanna man who became the kanakas' leader, once told Eden how they had surprised ten Aborigines in the bush and, whooping with delight, pursued them to a waterhole where the Aborigines sought refuge. Armed only with tomahawks, cane knives and improvised clubs, the kanakas could not get at the Aborigines until one of the Lava men got the idea of tying to a long pole a knife made from the blade of an old pair of hand shears, and jabbing at the men in the waterhole until they came close enough to the other side of it to be grabbed and knocked on the head. One by one all ten Aborigines were caught. Then fires were lit and a great feast held. There was too much meat to be eaten, Sali explained, and much of it was wasted.
     One day, the kanakas came back from their Sunday foraging proudly bearing a dead cassowary and a live Aborigine boy about six or seven years old. With vivid pantomime they described the killing of the cassowary and the capture of the boy.
     They had not killed the boy, explained Sali proudly, because he was nice and plump and they wanted to demonstrate to Mrs. Eden how they killed and cooked men for eating in the islands and, as a special honour, invite her to join in the feast at which the boy would be eaten. Eden apparently expressed suitable regret and declined the invitation on his wife's behalf. He told them to let the boy go and kill no more Aborigines. After that no more prisoners were brought home.
Reference: Hector Holthouse (1969), Cannibal Cargoes, Rigby, chapter 5.

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