Sunday, 10 August 2008

The Aborigines of Snake Bay (Chapter 13 – Snake Bay Burial Corroboree)

During the beginning of the third week we awoke one morning to the sound of most dismal semi-musical cadences. Laurie One-Eye told us that it was his sister-widowed some time previously -trying to 'sing' her husband back to life. Laurie One-Eye intimated that the day was very near when the whole tribe would hold 'Pukamuni' (a burial corroboree) to bury the dead man and cast him out of their memories for ever. Since the poor fellow had died he had been mourned by his wife and a host of near and distant relatives. The 'Pukamuni' would send him finally and irrevocably to the land of his ancestors and his name would be taboo ever after.

As the day for the send-off corroboree drew nearer, excitement mounted in the camp and more time was devoted to celebration preparations, and Nita and I waited expectantly.

While Joe hunted in a desultory fashion, prior to the 'One-Bloody-Big-Fella Corroboree', his young wife Fillissy, carrying her baby piccaninny, fossicked among the steaming mangrove swamps for giant crabs and oysters. A rewarding pastime, provided a wary eye was kept for marauding shark and crocodile, of which the Melville Island variety are reputed to be the hungriest and most ferocious in the world. Joe himself was nearly taken by a croc and bore some ugly scars on arms, chest, and shoulders that he would carry with him to the grave: 'Him debil-debil a'right dat one.' (Joe's uncle, Larry One-Leg, had acquired his white-fella name from the same source.) These occupational hazards, however, are viewed by the aborigines with the resignation of city-dwellers towards road accidents.

By this time, my wife and I were almost two of the tribe. It was no longer quite so astonishing to watch a man make fire with two sticks almost as quickly as I could light a match, and I ceased to gasp with amazement when Joe's throwing stick sped unerringly into a clump of foliage and a dead bird or lizard fell out instantaneously. We knew that when Fillissy suddenly darted at a hollow log, thrust a long stick into the black cavity and pulled, a furry creature-'possum usually-would be brought struggling forth, its fur hopelessly entangled round the end of the stick. We were no longer amazed, but our admiration at the prowess of these hunting nomads increased as the days passed.

And sitting round the camp-fire at night under a soft velvet sky, with the water lapping gently against the nearby beach, the contented murmur of gossiping natives, piccaninnies, and dogs became blurred at times as I wondered about the 'advancement' of mankind. Here was life in its simplest form, and I'm not sure that complexity is preferable.

The 'Pukamuni' started haphazardly enough. One morning we crawled from our sleeping-bags to find nearly all the tribe assembled in camp. They weren't doing anything much, but no one seemed anxious to pick up hunting spear or throwing stick. Pretty Polly (an effervescent old woman, hideously mutilated by yaws) made the first positive move in the corroboree preparations. Squatting cross-legged she began to mix a number of different make-up paints from ochre, wood ash, and the sap of certain trees. Then, with a line of little clay pots before her, she began to colour her own particular offering to the dead man, a woven bark basket. Soon, most of the other women followed suit and by midday all were industriously weaving, painting, binding, and carving. The pile of 'send-off' presents grew larger each minute. In the nearby bush an unseen mourner began a rhythmic tap-tapping on a hollow-log drum. A feeling of expectancy crept into the air.

While the women toiled at an increasing speed to swell the gift pile, the men occupied themselves with more personal adornment. Joe extricated himself from between a couple of his dogs and sparked off the proceedings by casually robbing his wife of some of her coloured paints and, using the lid of a food tin as a mirror, began to decorate his face and neck with a startling and most impressive series of zebra stripes. In his hair were placed the exotic tail plumes of birds he had successfully hunted, and around his neck was placed a gut necklace with a fur bobble attached, which he told us would 'keep debil-debill-o-n-g wayway'.

By late afternoon we were surrounded by a ferocious-looking tribe of warriors-only one or two of whom we could still recognize-who looked quite capable of overpowering Nita and me without the slightest qualm and popping us into the ashes for their next meal. Joe now appeared positively frightening, his charcoal-smeared face slashed with vivid white and red ochre streaks. He had added a couple of armbands of sharks' teeth and approached us clutching his ceremonial spear in one hand and a vicious-looking panga in the other. His words, however, were not in keeping with his appearance: 'Gibbit li'l bit 'bacco, Baas.'

Gladly I gave him a pinch from my ever-open tin, as I rested for a moment from filming the colourful scenes around me. Even the camp dogs had caught the fever and were chasing each other round and round the camp, livelier than we had yet seen them. One of the bitches pupped in the middle of the proceedings and again Nita and I marvelled at these aborigines, the only primitive people we had ever met who showed kindness to dumb animals. Under the supervision of the dog's owner, a host of naked children dashed around collecting leafy branches, and within minutes the litter and anxious mother were transplanted to their own whirlie to be left in complete peace under the cool shade of the boughs.

I felt certain that the actual ceremony would start directly dusk fell, and I cursed our equipment which could not cope with semi-dark conditions. Joe had been trying to tell me something about a special corroboree ground, but it was too much for his limited English. Nita and I watched the restless nomads closely, wondering what form the great occasion would take. We watched, and, with camera poised, we waited.

We were still waiting when the warriors had become nothing more than vague silhouettes around the flickering camp-fires. The solitary drummer was still beating out the monotonous dirge and the rest of the tribe were still restlessly milling around between the
whirlies. But by nine o'clock there was one different aspect which Nita spotted, and she exclaimed with some amazement, 'All the women are gone.' Somewhat alarmed (for I did not want the men to slip away and hold the corroboree without my getting at least a part of it on film), I approached Joe. He was non-committal, but partly reassuring. 'Alllubra goin' c'rob'ree ground; bye'm bye all men goin' same; makim one bloody-big c'rob'ree true. . . .'

'Bye'm bye' turned out to be next morning. Nita and I were awakened by a bustling in the camp and already the men were filing away in ones and twos towards the thick walls of the jungle. We jumped up, grabbed our camera equipment, and fell in behind Joe. Somehow we knew that this time it was no false alarm.

As the sun filtered through the last of the dawn mists which rolled in from the sea, our party-strangely silent and reverent, despite their savage adornment-emerged from the dense jungle into a clearing already thick with wood smoke. Nita and I gasped with amazement as we broke through the last barriers of foliage. We were in the burial grounds of our aborigines.

All around the clearing stood groups of huge tree-trunks thrusting up like totem poles. Gaudily painted and painstakingly carved, these were the headstones of the tribal dead. Some of the monuments seemed very old, yet still highly impressive like gaunt fire-blackened fingers-many over fifty feet high-pointing nakedly to the sky. Most of them, however, appeared to be recent additions, for the paint was bright and unfaded. In the middle of these commanding pillars the corroboree ground, an area about fifty feet square and inches thick in dust, lay ready.

When we arrived there was one figure in the centre of the stamping ground: the grief-stricken widow, who swayed about, wailing a dirge and beating two throwing sticks together in a monotonous rhythm. She had been mourning thus for two days and nights

Nita and I took up positions as unobtrusively as possible at the edge of the clearing. While my wife made sure that all our available film was ready for immediate use, I took one or two shots of the tribe surrounding the corroboree ground and the mourning widow. Another woman's wail joined that of the chief mourner, and someone else started tapping out a rhythm; then another voice, still female, added to the lament until all the women were wailing in a mournful, strangely rhythmic chorus.

Suddenly, Laurie One-Eye leapt from the crowd of men and assumed a commanding stance in the middle of the clearing. He chanted rapidly in a roaring baritone for something like a minute and then ceased abruptly, his spear raised above his woolly head.
From the throats of the entire tribe a great crescendo of shouts rent the silence of the jungle. No undisciplined yelling this, but a swelling volume of sound that crashed from an exciting vocal staccato to an ear-splitting roar. The corroboree had begun.

After the initial incantations there followed, in symbolic mime, a reconstruction of a burial ceremony that has remained unaltered through the centuries. Indeed, as these whirling, glistening figures were direct descendants from world's most primitive man, certainly much of what we were now witnessing had been enacted long before Australia became peopled with white men.

But on Melville Island today, with white man ruling supreme, there have to be modifications to an age-old ritual. No longer is the youngest wife of the deceased burnt alive, and never again will the nearest relatives hurl themselves from nearby treetops to commit suicide in a frenzy of grief. Yet, in spite of the make-believe and the miming, the magnetic pull of ancestral practices is still extremely strong. The warriors had the greatest difficulty in restraining the buxom young widow from throwing herself into the fire. Instead of standing calmly over the token fire, which was merely a handful of twigs giving off a wisp of smoke, she tore herself from the paint-streaked elders and dashed across the clearing straight for the huge cooking fire, which was about two yards in width and crackling merrily. Fortunately some of the old women realized what was happening and intercepted the suicidal widow, who fought like a wildcat in a frantic effort to hurl herself into the flames. For the next hour she remained sobbing-almost in a trance-but now very safe, lashed firmly with twine to four of her compatriots.

The potential suicides from the treetops went more smoothly. While twenty or thirty men clung to the topmost branches, poised before crashing to their deaths fifty feet below, the rest of the tribe entreated them not to take the plunge: the tribe would be weakened; the dead elder would not go on his way rejoicing, etc. Without too much difficulty these relatives were persuaded to abandon the death plunge and they climbed carefully down, wailing tenfold in order to disguise their discomfiture; for even though the entire ceremony is only symbolic, it is still very hard for a warrior to appear chicken-hearted.

After the initiation ceremony, all the gifts were carried reverently to the newly carved group of totem poles. The body had been buried some time previously and now the hump of earth, surrounded by the ornate tree-trunks, was smothered with the parting gifts. The tribe, about a hundred strong, fell silent and stepped back from the grave.
A line of young warriors, heavily armed and formidable in their ceremonial paint, formed up and pointed their spears at the remains of their comrade. There was a moment's pause and another of the tribal elders-white-fella name Death's-Head Leo-incited the younger men to frighten away the evil spirits which lurked in the vicinity ready to capture the dead man's spirit as it left the body.

The warriors stamped their feet savagely, once, twice, then twice again, and repeated the pattern at increasing speed, shaking spears and throwing sticks at an imaginary enemy. From the crowd of watchers a ripple of synchronized handclapping arose in an ever-increasing swell, urging the spearmen on to greater effort. Clouds of dust billowed beneath the thudding feet, and a series of blood-curdling yells rent the air.

It was a magnificent spectacle and I hoped fervently that our stock of film would last through this fantastic performance. The sight of the young men, pitting themselves against the unknown, was quite terrifying, and many of the young children were crying with fright at the sight of their normally gentle elder brothers transformed into savage, whirling demons. Nita and I thought quite seriously at one point that they might run amok. Surely those demoniac creatures, almost hypnotized in a welter of dust and sweat, with the goading chant ringing loudly in their ears would not be satisfied with lunging savagely at the empty air! I was frankly quite relieved when the tempo slowed down after about twenty minutes and the dancers, utterly exhausted, fell off one by one and collapsed at the edge of the clearing.

At the end of the casting out of the evil spirits, as the last man staggered on buckling legs back to the crowd, Joe leapt into the centre to tell the story of the dead man's life in mime. Beside us, Billy Geranium told us in hushed pidgin-English whispers exactly what Joe was portraying. It was the story, in savage primordial ballet, of the life of a man of Snake Bay.

Joe danced non-stop for three-quarters of an hour, re-enacting all the major events in the life of his dead brother. The lad at our side pinpointed some of the more intricate phases of the dance, but the verbal assistance was hardly necessary.

Nothing of the dead man's life was omitted, from the day he was born (Joe interpreted this with graphic mimicry of a woman in labour), throughout his career as a hunter and fighter (here there were long sequences of deadly battles fought with knife and spear against animal and human adversaries), to the slowing down of the pace representing age, infirmity, and the last struggle of all. The finale showed Joe briefly and magically endowed with the strength of youth to make the final long walk-about, then a sudden collapse in the centre of the dust-filled arena. The chanting died away for a brief space, and there was a strange silence in the fetid jungle clearing.

But only for a moment. Joe rose wearily to his feet, made his way back into the crowd, and was hardly swallowed up among the glistening ebony bodies when another member of the tribe sprang out with a blood-curdling whoop to perform his own interpretation of an incident in the life they were mourning.

Late in the afternoon we ran out of film. For a while our still-camera was constantly clicking, but even that stock had expired by dusk. We had, however, recorded all that was possible with the very limited means at our disposal, and I was hoping that some highly spectacular ceremony was not being withheld to the last moments of daylight.

We need not have worried. The corroboree had hardly started. All through that night the drums barely paused in their frenzied beat. We slept fitfully and were awakened every few minutes-it seemed-by a wild shriek or a wailing lament. They were still hard at it the next morning and all through the second day, but luckily for our recording the ceremonials proved to be fairly repetitive. A full forty-eight hours elapsed before the burial rites showed the first signs of abating. But once into the third day the incredibly overtaxed stamina wilted rapidly. The whole tribe were now afflicted with the equivalent of a gigantic hangover.

Nita and I, heavy-eyed through lack of sleep but jubilant at the thought of our rolls of precious film, carrying the unique record of a Snake Bay burial ceremony, made our way slowly back to the aboriginal camp on the jungle headland. The exciting climax to our odyssey was almost at an end.

Our whole journey, started more than eighteen months before, had culminated in the moment when we dropped from the tropical skies above the Timor Sea by the most modern method of transport, 'and entered the lives of these primitive people, who were to act as our hosts during one of their rare periods of tribal ritual. I most sincerely hoped that the film we had taken would be as exciting when projected as it was through the viewfinder.

We were to catch the mail plane in the morning. Around us the crowds of black tribesmen, faces split in wide grins, jostled each other laughing and chattering to give us a send-off. Comfortably weighed in our arms were the many presents bestowed on us by our new friends. There was the pair of ironwood throwing sticks, presented by Death's-Head Leo: 'You takem Boss sure. Takem longa your country all-a-time white-fella.' There, too, was the beautifully carved spearhead (we just couldn't transport the shaft) which Joe carved specially for us; a debil-debil bobble of tightly woven feathers to ward off evil spirits, and two woven baskets together with a group of little carved figures for Nita.

Those Melville Islanders are a wonderful people. Happy, generous, kind to their animals, they were apparently glad to have had us share their company for a while. For my wife and myself, the Melville Island experience had been extremely educational, balancing our sense of values to a great extent. We had found a race of people who could still live a full and satisfying life without any of the amenities of modern civilization. Australia is working on an integrative policy, the plan being to merge the black with the white, rather as New Zealand has done with the Maori. We ourselves hope that for all the full-blooded aborigines, like Warnpiat-L-Miri (alias Black Joe), this will be entirely beneficial.

The little speck in the sky grew larger, and soon its snarling aero-engines were shattering the peace of the Snake Bay jungle. Twin puffs of dust rose as its wheels touched down on the dry earth and it taxied along the short narrow strip. A quick turn-round, the mail-bags bustled out, and the plane was ready for the take-off .

We shook hands solemnly with Black Joe for the last time and walked across to the waiting aircraft. The Melville Islanders' word for goodbye is 'Nim Bungi'. It sounded very moving when shouted from a hundred throats.