Myth Of The Noble Savage

Christopher Pearson, The Australian (Sydney), July 14, 2007

Last Monday we learned that more than 30 men had been implicated in sexual assaults on children as young as 11 at Halls Creek in Western Australia. Another 26 men from the Kimberley region were also expected to be charged with similar offences. At Yalata, in outback South Australia, an Aboriginal man was convicted on Wednesday of trading petrol for sex with three under-age girls, whom he’d later attempted to silence with death threats.

There’s ample reason to believe the federal Government’s intervention in the 60 or so isolated communities in the Northern Territory will uncover comparable levels of child abuse. Aboriginal women and children are increasingly finding the courage to speak to police prosecutors and to give evidence in the courts. What’s more, black leaders such as Noel Pearson and Warren Mundine have been admirably forthright in saying that this is fundamentally a moral and legal issue rather than something that can be deplored and excused as a consequence of disadvantage or the dispossession of tribal land.

In the midst of all these painful but necessary attempts to come to grips with an intractable problem, which is far more prevalent in Aboriginal families than the rest of society, the last thing needed in the debate is a return to romanticising Aborigines and the myth of the noble savage.

Yet it’s the best that Robert Manne, identified in a recent Fairfax press straw poll as our foremost public intellectual, could bring to the national conversation in his column “The Lost, Enchanted World” in the June edition of The Monthly.

He speaks of Australian anthropologists of the past century observing “not an Edenic but an enchanted world, in the technical sense of the sociologist Max Weber. They discovered an intricate social order in which, through the kinship structure, every human being had a precise and acknowledged place. They discovered a world that was filled with economic purpose; leavened by playfulness, joy and humour; soaked in magic, sorcery, mystery and ritual; pregnant at every moment with deep and unquestioned meaning.”

As habitual readers of this column will appreciate, I’m far from dismissive of world views that are suffused with the numinous and where, in American sociologist Peter Berger’s famous phrase, the sky forms a sacred canopy. But Manne’s emphasis on playfulness, joy and humour suggest to me that he’s conjuring with the Arcadian fantasies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau rather than traditional Aboriginal life.

Enchantment, in the technical sense, ought not to blind us to the often murderous realities of hunter-gatherer existence. It’s possible to understand the ritual or religious dimensions of practices such as infanticide and cannibalism, for example, without losing sight of what else was involved. A world filled with magic looks a whole lot less entrancing when you understand that most deaths other than in infancy or old age were explained in terms of malevolent sorcery and punished with endless irrational cycles of payback. Having a precise and acknowledged place in the scheme of things may not have been all that much of a comfort if it was a role of wretched subjugation as a young woman in a male gerontocracy.

Mircea Eliade, the great historian of religion, proposed some useful categories. In the case of the Aztecs, for example, he didn’t hesitate to conclude that a society based on large-scale human sacrifice was a perversion of the religious impulse. Likewise, belief systems that legitimated constant inter-tribal warfare and an extremely high incidence of violent death were common to most hunter-gatherer societies. There is no sense in romanticising them.

Manne’s account of the lost, enchanted world before the arrival of the First Fleet makes some concessions to reality.

He says: “There is no doubt that in pre-contact Aboriginal society adult interpersonal violence of many kinds was very common: male on male; female on female; male on female; even, as we have seen, female on male. It is also clear that, although in Aboriginal society sex was decoupled from shame, sexual violence against women was common.

“But it is acknowledged by almost everyone that no violence of any kind was directed against children.”

The last point, that traditionally Aboriginal children were never subjected to any kind of violence, is the rhetorical climax of his argument and another lapse into Arcadian fantasy. He offers it as a complete refutation of Louis Nowra’s book Bad Dreaming and in particular his argument that contemporary Aboriginal sexual abuse of children is an aggravated version of patterns of behaviour that were part of traditional culture.

Manne says: “Any argument about contemporary abuse as a pathological tradition must begin by explaining the awkward fact that one of the two main forms of contemporary Aboriginal male violence—the sexual abuse of children—didn’t exist in the pre-contact world.”

But in this argument it is Manne who has a lot of awkward facts to explain.

Nowra notes evidence of “boy-wife arrangements that are known to have existed late into the end of the 19th century”, citing the work of Carl Strehlow. “Pederasty is a recognised custom among the Arunta and has a name, kwalanga. It prevails especially among the Western Loritja and tribes north of the MacDonnell Range, the Katitja, Ilpara, Warramunga, etc. Commonly a man, who is fully initiated but not yet married, takes a boy 10 or 12 years old, who lives with him for several years.” Referring to the southern part of the Kimberley, he cites Alfred Radcliffe-Brown on “the custom for a man before marriage to take as a boy-lover a member of the prescribed kinship section from which he must later obtain his wife, and who is therefore sociologically equivalent to the wife’s brother and sister’s husband.”

Nowra comments: “Boys in a boy-wife arrangement were called chookadoo (about age five) or mullawongah (ages five to seven). Some boys could remain in such a marriage up until the age of 11. . .. Even into the 1930s, there was evidence of homosexuality (among) the Kimberley Aborigines. The youths of 17 or 18 who were still unmarried would take boys of 10 or 11 as lovers.

“The women did not regard it as shameful and considered the practice a temporary substitute for marriage.”

We can be reasonably confident that Manne has read the relevant chapter of Bad Dreaming because in his review article he complains about it specifically.

If he has read it, the question then becomes: what part of the phrase boy-wives doesn’t he understand? Does he imagine that these were partnerships willingly entered into and consensual, an indigenous variation on a Socratic theme? Does he deem the arrangements non-abusive, despite the involvement of children as young as five, because they were traditionally sanctioned?

Nowra’s evidence of heterosexual abuse is just as compelling. For example, he says that “when a nine or 10-year-old girl was handed over to her husband, there was generally no sexual intercourse (until) after puberty” but notes anthropologist Phyllis Kaberry’s caveat that “sexual intercourse without penetration did take place but infrequently”.

Can Manne, when he read it, have imagined that these relationships were free of psychological violence?

On the subject of incestuous abuse, Nowra summarises an account from A.W. Howitt’s The Native Tribes of South-East Australia. “Girls from the Dieri tribe would be kidnapped by their intended husbands and friends, who would then drag her away, she screaming and biting as much as she was able. If she put up too much resistance, other men were called in to help constrain the struggling girl. Then all of the men took turns to have sex with her over a one or two-day period, which was regarded as consummation of the marriage. After this the group, with the resigned girl in tow, would return to camp, where there were ‘several days of ceremonial dancing, during which time there was between her and the men of the camp a period of unrestricted licence, not even excluding her father’.”

How could Manne have concluded “the sexual abuse of children did not exist in the pre-contact world”, despite the anthropological evidence to the contrary? Perhaps once he began to imagine “the lost, enchanted world”, he peopled it with noble savages who could do no wrong. Then again, perhaps he’s simply adopting a Gramscian view of the past in which it doesn’t matter what really happened and the only question worth worrying about is what sort of history best serves the interests of progressive politics.

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