Transcript

Aboriginal Sorcery with Henry Reynolds

24 October 2008

Professor Henry ReynoldsProfessor Henry Reynolds

You can also listen to the interview [MP3 10.4 MB].

Matt:

This is the La Trobe University Podcast, I'd be your host Matt Smith. Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening, it does all depend on where you're standing. And joining me today is Professor Henry Reynolds. He's a lecturer in Aboriginal history and Australian history at the University of Tasmania. Thanks for joining me today, Henry.

Henry:

It's a real pleasure.

Matt:

Now you're here at La Trobe University today giving a talk on Aboriginal sorcery.

Henry:

That's right, that's right, yes.

Matt:

What sort of steps did you take that let you approach this topic?

Henry:

In the large amount of work that I did now many years ago, in which I read a vast amount of 19th century material, of explorers and missionaries and pastoralists who were in contact with Aborigines and discussed things with them, they reported many examples of the way in which Aboriginal people had used ‘magic' I suppose is the easiest way to put it, to resist Europeans and my argument is that this is something that has been understudied, it should be taken seriously, and it may well have been a much more significant part of Aboriginal resistance to the Europeans than anyone has yet suggested.

Matt:

There isn't a great deal of written Aboriginal history before white colonisation of Australia unfortunately, so what evidence is there that they practised sorcery and magic?

Henry:

There is certainly the way in which 19th century as we call them ‘ethnographers', who were very interested in Aboriginal society, and they learnt a lot about the way in which sorcery and magic was practised. Now that insight of course has been more than backed up by the many many studies by anthropologists in the 20th century. So we can't directly trace back 20th century anthropology and apply that to the 19th century in different parts of Australia, but there is quite a strong continuity in the understanding of Aboriginal magical practises.

Matt:

So it wasn't sorcery in the conventional sense that we'd know it as, was it?

Henry:

Well it depends on, I suppose, what you mean by the conventional sense. Yes it is, it's using supernatural means, I suppose, to do all sorts of things. To bring about the death of people, it bring about their misfortune, to control the weather, to have people struck down by lightening, to bring storms to damage European property. All of these things were part of the overall sense of using magic as a way of resisting Europeans, in a way that Europeans probably weren't aware of, and therefore wouldn't take revenge for.

Matt:

Is it something that European colonists took seriously?

Henry:

Well those who studied it took it seriously. They were aware, people told them. They said that the ‘clever men', the powerful men in our tribe, they are able to control the weather, they can call up storms, and they have done this to punish Europeans. So those that reported it, they may not have believed that this was literally true, but they certainly realised that Aboriginal people took it very seriously indeed. Now there are many specific examples, one of the ones I quoted was an account by the famous explorer Edward Eyre. Now Edward Eyre wrote a very interesting study, two volumes about the Aborigines, about his exploring but also about Aboriginal people. And he had seen Aboriginal people in remote areas of Australia, often the first white man in the district, he also became a government official, a protector of Aboriginals in South Australia. And he gave an account of an old man who had left his son with Edward Eyre while he went off hunting, and while he was away, and it was a journey of several days, a comet had appeared. And the man returned and insisted that Edward Eyre give his son back because he was going to travel as far away as he could with his son, because the Aborigines in the north of South Australia were sending the comet as a way to punish all the Europeans. And he thought that when the comet reached Adelaide that it would wipe out all the Europeans, so he also warned Edward Eyre and said ‘for goodness sake, you beware yourself because it's a very dangerous situation.' So here was a clear case, a direct report, a contemporary report, about Aboriginal belief in the power of their own clever men, their own magicians, to bring about serious punishment to Europeans.

Matt:

Is it a threat that Edward Eyre took seriously?

Henry:

He realised that the Aboriginal people were very serious about it, it didn't that he thought that pestilence and earthquake and fire was suddenly going to engulf Adelaide, no, he was sceptical, but he realised for the Aboriginal people that this was a very serious threat.

Matt:

You talked before about weather makers, was that anything different from clever men?

Henry:

No, these were among the powers that the more senior men were able to do, they were able to control the weather, they were able to bring the rain, they were able to bring wind, they were able to control storms, they had the power over nature, and people believed this very very strongly.

Matt:

Well it would have been an effective threat against the colonists in Australia, because the ability to grow crops would have been very important to them, and if the weather got altered…

Henry:

Yes, that's right, and there are several reports of Europeans who were quite convinced that the local rain maker whose responsibility it was to bring the rain was deliberately refusing to bring the rain at a time of drought, in order to drive the Europeans away. So that was a case where the rainmaker was not making rain deliberately.

Matt:

Do you think that's what's happening now? Could explain a few things!

Henry:

Well there are certainly people who feel that if we have prayer meetings it might bring the rain, so it certainly isn't an idea that has completely disappeared from our consciousness.

Matt:

Well it's no more ridiculous than what the government's been suggesting, really.

Henry:

No, that's true, that's true.

Matt:

Are there any current examples of these sort of powers at work in the Aboriginal community today?

Henry:

Well this is something that I don't know at first hand, they are issues that average people don't want to talk about and they don't think I should talk about it. But there's plenty of evidence that people still believe that there those who have special powers and they can exercise them. There are clearly incidents still in contemporary Australia where people have been sung to death. This is quite commonly experienced in North Australia, it's when someone with the right powers conducts a ceremony that is directed at you and brings about your slow and painful death. And there are numerous examples where such people are clearly ailing and look as though they're going to die are taken to western hospitals and the doctors find these cases absolutely perplexing. Sometimes indeed they can cure them and sometimes they don't, so people can die for reasons that aren't immediately obvious. So this is probably related to the fact that people who feel as though they are being sung literally wills themselves to death.

Matt:

How would events like these be interpreted in modern times, these examples of sorcery in the past?

Henry:

There are clearly people who are thought to have exceptional powers still in many parts of indigenous Australia. Many white Australians would be sceptical, but nonetheless they would be aware that these are still powerful forces within Aboriginal society.

Matt:

Is it something that Aboriginals did as a form of resistance because they didn't have a lot of other ways to retaliate?

Henry:

Yes, I think that's probably an important point to make. Aborigines of course resisted Europeans violently by killing Europeans and by attacking their property, and often by stealing their possessions and animals, but by and large the Europeans made it very clear that any such attack would be met by massive retaliation. As a result of the disparity in power many Aboriginal communities came to realise that it was a losing game and try and overtly resist and attack the European. It was probably a much more safer way to conduct secret ceremonies against them. And many many Europeans who died by accident, in falling from horses, or dying in mining accidents, or dying in fires, or people who had the misfortune to lose their properties, it was very possible for many Aboriginal people felt that this had been bought about by their own magic men.

Matt:

Professor Henry Reynolds, thankyou for your time today.

Henry:

Always a pleasure.

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