Keith Vincent Smith
The engraving shows five Aboriginal boys among fifteen who have just graduated as men after facing the final ordeal in an initiation ceremony that took place in February 1795 at Wogganmagully, a shallow bay in Sydney Harbour we now call Farm Cove.
Initiation, the core of Aboriginal cultural and spiritual life, marked the entry of boys into the adult world through a series of rituals which, in the Sydney coastal area, reached a climax when the upper front incisor tooth of each boy was knocked out.
The new made men could now add to their name the title kebarrah , meaning a fully initiated man whose tooth has been knocked out by a stone, derived from the word kebba or gibba, a stone or rock.
At the end of January 1795 Aboriginal people began to gather at a place they called Yourong or Yoo-lahng, at the eastern side or bank of Farm Cove, close to the present Mrs. Macquarie’s Point.
The site of these ceremonies was identified by the young roving artist Augustus Earle, who in February 1827 painted a series of eight overlapping watercolour views of The Town of Sydney, New South Wales; the harbour of Port Jackson and surrounding country. These pictures were shipped to England and assembled and exhibited by Robert Burford (1791-1861) at his Panorama in Leicester Square, London, in 1829 and 1830.
No trace, alas, remains of the original great canvas circle in which Earle captured Sydney’s beautiful harbour vista, including 48 Government Stables, the prominent castellated building designed by the convict architect Francis Greenway, built for the horses and carriages of Governor Lachlan Macquarie. It now houses the Conservatorium of Music in Macquarie Street, adjoining Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens.
This hand-coloured engraving is from the folding frontispiece of the sixpenny printed key to the Panorama, Description of a view of Sydney, published by Burford in 1829. It locates the site of the 1795 initiation bora ground as 58. Kangaroo & Dog Dance.
The ceremonial ground selected for this ‘extraordinary exhibition’, wrote Collins, was a space which had been prepared for some days by clearing away grass and tree stumps. ‘It was of an oval figure, the dimensions of it 27 feet by 18, and was named Yoo-lahng.’ It occupied the peninsula at the top of the ridge (now Mrs. Macquarie’s Road in the Domain) from which the land sloped gradually to sandstone rocks, giving way to flats that in 1795 were tidal mangrove swamps.
There were no movie cameras or sound recorders in those days, but this Eora gathering is vividly evoked through the written account of Judge Advocate David Collins, an eyewitness at the ceremony, and the visuals of James Neagle (1760-1822), whose engravings appeared in Collins’s book An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, published in London three years later.
The black and white prints that follow were copied by Neagle from a series of watercolours by the artist Collins described as ‘a person well qualified to make drawings of every particular circumstance that occurred’. That person was the Scots artist and convicted forger Thomas Watling, who arrived in Sydney in October 1792.
‘Several youths well known among us, never having submitted to the operation, were now to be made men,’ wrote Collins. In all, fifteen youngsters were to be initiated by garadigal (clever men) and gooringal (elders and guardians) from the Gamaragal or Cameragal, who occupied the north shore of Sydney Harbour.
Among the boys were Nanbarry, nephew of the Gadigal leader Colebee, Boneda (Bundah or Punda), younger brother of Colebee’s wife Daringa, Caruey or Gurrooee (also Gadigal), called Carraway by the English, Yerinibe (a Burramattagal) and a canditae aged about twenty three, who was not known in Sydney.
‘Pe-mul-wy, a wood native, and many strangers, came in’, Collins remarked. No attempt was made to detain the Bijigal resistance leader Pemulwuy, who was responsible for spearing John McEntire (or McIntyre), game shooter to Governor Arthur Phillip, near Botany Bay in December 1790. Pemulwuy might have been the guardian of the older stranger.
While they waited impatiently for the Gamaragal ‘operators’ to cross from the north shore, the south harbour Eora spent the evenings singing and dancing, which was customary. One man Collins described as ‘all together a frightful object’ was painted white to his waist, except for his beard and eyebrows, while others had painted white circles around their eyes ‘which rendered them as terrific as can well be imagined.’
At nightfall on 2 February 1795 twenty Gamaragal beached their nawi (canoes) at Wogganmagully / Farm Cove. Their bodies were painted up and they carried shields, clubs, spears and womeras (spear-throwers). Each is wearing the waistband of an initiated man.
Collins named the senior carradhy or garadji (clever man) as ‘Boo-der-ro, the native who had throughout taken the principal part in the business’. Booderro is obviously the thin, white-bearded older man seen in Neagle’s engravings holding an ornamented shield, usually standing apart and giving directions.
Whenever they spoke about the ceremony, said Collins, his Aboriginal informants always used the words Yoo-lahng erah-ba-diahng.
The term Yoo-lahng erah-ba-diahng [sic] must therefore be considered as applying solely to this extraordinary occasion; it appears to be compounded of the name given to the spot where the principal scenes take place, and of the most material qualification that is derived from the whole ceremony, that of throwing the spear. I conceive it to be the import of the word erah-ba-diahng, erah being a part of the verb to throw, erah, throw you, erailley, throwing.
With hindsight this speculation has proved to be inaccurate.
The name of the ceremony is given as Yoo-long Erah-ba-diang in the captions to the illustrations but as Era-bad-djang, translated as the ‘ceremony or operation of drawing the tooth’, in the handwritten wordlist collected by Governor Phillip and his aides, which I call the Governor’s Vocabulary (Anon 1791:17.17). Its literal meaning, from yirra ‘tooth’ and badiang ‘hurt’, would mean ‘tooth hurting or wounding’.
THE SKY WOULD FALL
At the start of the ceremony, the Gamaragal elders stand at one end of the ceremonial ground facing the novices. Abruptly, they advance towards them with a shout, rattling their spears against their shields, stamping their feet and sending up a thick cloud of dust.
In the uproar, each boy is seized by his guardian and thrust into the circle of gooringal where they are prevented ‘by a grove of spears from any attempts that his friends might make to rescue him’. The boys then sit at one end, their heads bowed, hands clasped and legs submissively crossed beneath them.
Collins was told they were forbidden to look up or to drink anything. In initiations in the Brisbane area about 1834, described in his Reminiscences (1904) by Tom Petrie, the boys were warned that ‘the sky would fall and smother them’ if they looked up. Bundjalung initiates at Woodenbong in northern New South Wales in 1898 were frequently ‘forced to hold down their heads so that they cannot see’.
In a ritual resembling a Balinese or Haitian trance dance, one garadji lay on the ground, writhing and gesturing as though in pain. He ‘appeared at length to be delivered of a bone, which was to be used in the ensuing ceremony’, wrote Collins. While this was going on, a crowd of men danced around the medium, singing loudly. One man beat the garadji on the back until he produced the bone, leaving him exhausted and bathed in sweat. Another man produced a second bone in the same way. Collins astutely noticed that the bone had been concealed ‘in the girdle [waistband] that he wore’.
In his published account, Collins was at pains to point out that he had not been deceived by these ‘mummeries’. At the same time he realised that the antics of the Aboriginal doctors were meant to ease the suffering of the initiates. The more the elders suffered, the less pain the boys would feel.
When Collins left at nightfall the boys were sitting silently in a position of subjection ‘in which they were told they were to remain until morning’.
The next morning (3 February) Collins found the Gamaragal operators sleeping apart in a group. Physical and mental exhaustion had overtaken the boys, who slept outside the circle and did not stir until sunrise. One by one the garadigal arrived, shouting on entering the circle, then running around it two or three times. The boys were brought in, again with their heads bent and hands clasped together, and seated on a low mound at the edge of the circle.
The first plate illustrates the ceremony that Collins understood gave initiates ‘power over the dog’ (tungo : dingo) and endowed them with the good qualities of the animal. The late Dr. Frederick David McCarthy characterised this as the ‘dingo taboo rite’, which licensed men to hunt and kill dingoes. Six initiates, heads bowed, watch as the twelve operators run around the ring on hands and feet ‘imitating the dogs of the country’. Two older men supervise. Twelve men have curved wooden ‘sword clubs’ stuck in their waistbands to represent dingo tails. Each time they pass, the dancers throw up sand and dust with their hands and feet over the boys, who sit still and silent.
[Yoo-long Erah-ba-diang. 2.]
In the second scene the fifteen initiates sit together in a semicircle around some cut bushes. Two garadigal inside the circle approach the boys. The first, wrote Collins, carries on his shoulders ‘a pat-ta-go-rang or kangaroo made of grass’ (though it looks more like a big lizard), while the second, who bears ‘a load of brushwood’ also has a flowering branch thrust through the hole in the septum of his nose. Six men with clubs in their belts squat in a circle around Booderro, who sings as he beats his shield with clapsticks.
Limping and halting, the two actors give the impression that they are weighed down by a heavy burden. Finally, they drop their load at the feet of the young men.
Collins thought the brushwood might symbolise the haunt of the kangaroo. At the back of the circle, six spectators watch from a slight rise next to a large fallen log, where a dozen spears are stacked. A smoking campfire burns between the two groups.
‘The boys were left seated at the Yoo-lahng for about half an hour,’ wrote Collins, ‘during which the actors went down into a valley near the place, where they fitted themselves with long tails made of grass, which they fastened to the hinder parts of their girdles, instead of the sword [club], which was laid aside during this scene.’
Here the dancers mimic kangaroos ‘now jumping along, then lying down and scratching themselves, as those animals do when basking in the sun.’
In this scene, nine initiates, huddled on a raised mound, witness the traditional Eora kangaroo hunt, involving nineteen Gamaragal operators. A songman at right beats time with a club on a shield while fourteen ‘kangaroo men’ hop along the pathway in a line, knees bent; arms and hands held out like paws.
At left are two ‘kangaroo hunters’ armed with spears and shields, one with a barbed spear poised in his womera, ready to throw. Two supervisors stand on an embankment just above the first kangaroo dancer, who looks towards them. The hunters stalked their quarry, said Collins, ‘pretending to steal upon them unobserved and spear them’. The boys being made men are now authorised to chase and spear kangaroos for the rest of their lives.
[Yoo-long Erah-ba-diang. 4.]
The dancers stand erect and quickly remove their grass ‘kangaroo’ tails. Each seizes a boy and places him on his shoulders. None of the boys’ friends and relations attempted to interfere or ‘molest these north shore natives in the execution of their business,’ Collins noted.
In the engraving, six initiates, arms outstretched, are carried on the shoulders of the Cameragal, who hold their hands to steady them. The men have put their clubs back into their waistbands.
Three men brandish flat-topped clubs like wooden mallets, probably used in tooth evulsion. Two quite small men at the front appear to be chanting.
The spearman standing on one leg to the right of Booderro is most likely Pemulwuy.
[Yoo-long Erah-ba-diang. 5.]
The boys are taken a short distance to a flat area, let down from the shoulders of the men and placed in a group, their heads lowered and hands clasped.
At this stage some of the operators disappeared for ten minutes ‘to arrange the figure of the next scene’ and Collins was excluded from this part of the rites. ‘I was not admitted to witness this business, about which they appeared to observe a greater degree of mystery and preparation than I had noticed in either of the preceding ceremonies,’ he wrote.
This was a significant and deeply spiritual part of initiation.
When Collins and Watling were allowed to return they saw the scene recreated in the fifth engraving.
Here two men sit on tree stumps, each with a man balanced on his shoulders; all four with their arms extended. The boys are guarded by men armed with spears. A dozen gooringal lie huddled closely together on the ground, some on top of others. Only the back of their heads and bodies can be seen.
As the boys and their attendants approach, the two men on the stump begin to move from side to side, ‘lolling out their tongues, and staring as wide and horribly with their eyes as they could open them’. The boys are guided over the bodies of the men on the ground, who writhe as if in agony, ‘uttering a mournful dismal sound, like very distant thunder’. The men on the second stump pull grotesque faces as the novices pass. Collins wrote:
A particular name, boo-roo-moo-roong, was given to this scene; but of its import I could learn very little. I made much inquiry; but could never obtain any other answer, than that it was very good; that the boys would now become brave men; that they would see well, and fight well.
In the language spoken by the Eora boo-roo-moo-roong literally meant ‘thunder in the clouds’, a good description of the ‘mournful dismal sound, like very distant thunder’ heard by Collins. In nearby coastal initiations, bullroarers, called variously boo-ro-wa or mooroonga, were sounded continually during this secret part of the ceremony.
The bullroarer, a flat piece of wood or hard animal skin used in sacred ceremonies, emits a low, humming sound when whirled through the air at the end of a string. Bullroarers might have been sounded at Farm Cove after David Collins had been led away.
This is a serious and shocking psychological moment for the initiates. As they slide over the prone and apparently bloody mass of bodies on the ground they are filled with dread of the unknown, fearing they are about to be eaten by a strange creature whose voice like rumbling thunder has been simulated by the moaning of the men (or the whirr of bullroarers). At this moment of transformation, the boys have been killed and reborn as men.
An old Aboriginal woman told A.W. Howitt: ‘All I know about Tharamulun (Daramulan) is that he comes down with a noise like thunder, to make the boys into men, We call him Papang (father).’ In some clans, the young initiates believed they would be eaten alive by Daramulan, who would restore them to human shape with their upper incisor tooth missing. Around Brisbane, the bullroarer or buggaram was said to be the noise made by the ‘great men’, who, it was thought, swallowed the boys and vomited them up again.
[Yoo-long Erah-ba-diang. 6.]
Having survived this ordeal, the boys, at the threshold of manhood, are seated in a semi-circle under a tree, their heads still averted.
Booderro has his back to them, facing a circle of Gamaragal officials armed with spears and shields as he rhythmically strikes his shield with his club. At every third beat, the warriors thrust their spears at Booderro, touching the centre of his shield.
‘It appeared significant of an exercise which was to form the principal business of their lives, the use of the spear,’ commented Collins.
The moment had come for the great final shock of initiation: the removal of the upper front incisor. ‘The first subject they took was a boy of about ten years of age,’ Collins recorded. This boy, restrained by a man on each side, balances on the shoulders of his guardian who sits in the grass.
A throwing stick is first cut about 8-10 inches from the end, by placing it upon a tree. A sharpened bone magically produced by a carradhy the previous evening is used to loosen the boy’s tooth from his gum. The narrow end of the prepared stick is then placed against the top of the tooth. A goringal strikes the stick with a large stone, pretending to hit it three times before the actual blow, repeating the operation as often as necessary. Another man holds the boy’s head in place. Collins:
They were full three minutes about this first operation, the tooth being, unfortunately for the boy, fixed very firm in the gum. It was at last forced out and the sufferer was taken away to a little distance, where the gum was now closed by his friends.
One by one, the teeth of the remaining initiates are knocked out in the same way, except for a ‘pretty boy about eight or nine years of age’, he could not endure the pain after one blow, broke free and escaped. This might have been Nanbree or Nanbarry, a Gadigal.
As each tooth was removed, the assistants ‘made the most hideous noise in the ears of the patients’, crying loudly and repeatedly ‘e-wah e–wah, ga-ga ga-ga’. This, said Collins, was to distract the boys’ attention and to drown out any cries, but they ‘made it a point of honour to bear the pain without a murmur’.
[Yoo-long Erah-ba-diang. 8.]
Fourteen newly initiated men sit together along the trunk of a fallen tree the evening following the tooth evulsion ceremony. Each graduate wears a headband, with white blades of the base of the grass tree (Xanthhorea) thrust into it to make a headdress like a small crown. Each has a wooden club in his initiation waistband and carries a waddy in his right hand. His left hand is placed over his mouth to stop him speaking. He is not permitted to eat any kind of food that day.
At right, Nanbarry is comforted by his uncle Colebee, who applies a cooked fish to quell the pain in his gum ‘which suffered from the stroke more than any others’.
Immediately afterwards the new men jump up and rush into Sydney Town ‘driving before them men, women, and children, who were glad to get out of their way’. Wherever they went, they set the grass on fire. Collins concluded:
They were now received into the class of men; were privileged to wield the spear and the club, and to oppose their persons in combat. They might now also seize such females as they chose for wives. All this, however, must be understood to import, that having submitted to the operation, having endured the pain of it without a murmur, and having lost a front tooth, they received a qualification which they were to exercise whenever their years and their strength should be equal to it.
David Collins described only one large oval shaped ceremonial ground at Farm Cove, but elsewhere in southeastern Australia, initiation were traditionally staged within two circles connected by a pathway. Collins, who did not witness some parts of the ritual, might have missed these features.
In the Kamilaroi and Wiradjuri cultures to the north and west of Sydney, the initiation rite was called bora and the circles bora rings, suggesting two circles rather than one.
In a vocabulary titled ‘Native of New South Wales’, sent in March 1791 by David Blackburn, Master of HM Storeship Supply, to Richard Knight at Devizes in England, bora is given as meaning ‘testicle’, again suggesting two circles.
However, the Reverend Charles Greenway (1878) interpreted bora or boorrah as the Kamilaroi name for the boorr or ‘belt of manhood’ given to initiated men.
Look more closely and you will see that Watling had drawn two circles, clearly shown in Neagle’s engravings. For instance, the circle in Yoo-long Erah-ba-diang 1 is surrounded by a low ridge of earth formed by scraping off bushes and topsoil. This is not seen in Plates 3 to 8, in which the circles are surrounded by vegetation.
Plate 3 shows the muru or path running between steep banks with trees on a ridge in the background and low shrubs on the downhill side.
Bora grounds in what is now south-east Queensland usually had two rings, with a path between them, said to symbolise the transition between childhood and manhood. Initiates there, aged 14 to 15, were called kippas. The placenames Kippa-Ring, 24 kilometres north of Brisbane and Keparra, meaning ‘young man standing’ were named for bora sites.
In Plate 8, the initiated men sit on a long log, which is otherwise only seen in Plate 2. A small creek or cove can be glimpsed in the background of these two views.
Reviewing the initiation at Farm Cove, David Collins said he would consider the ceremony as a tribute to the Cameragal (Gamaragal), except for the fact that ‘all the people of Cam-mer-ray, which were those who had extracted the tooth, were themselves proof that they had submitted to the operation. I never saw any among them who had not lost the front tooth.’
The practice of tooth evulsion in Australia is ancient. Archaeologist Dr. Alistair Campbell examined skulls of Aboriginal males, dated to 8000 years before the present, in which the upper right incisor teeth had been removed. Tooth evulsion was the central focus of initiation throughout southeastern Australia. While in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) during 1792 the French botanist Jacques-Julien de Labillardière (1755-1834) observed some men ‘in whom one of the middle teeth of the upper jaw was wanting, and others in whom both were gone’.
Watkin Tench (1793) described the method used by the gooringal to extract the front tooth of initiates.
The tooth intended to be taken out is loosened, by the gum being scarified on both sides with a sharp shell. The end of a stick is then applied to the tooth, which is struck gently, several times, with a stone, until it becomes easily movable, when the coup de grace is given, by a smart stroke.
Thomas Watling drew a pencil sketch of one of the 1795 initiates Gur-roo-ee – that is Caruey or Carraway (garawi : white cockatoo) – clearly showing the gap where his incisor was knocked out during initiation. The portrait is in the Watling Colletion at the Natural History Museum in London.
Caruey, a Gadigal, exchanged names with a fellow initiate, Yeranibe, a Burramattagal, who was afterwards called Yeranibe Goruey. Caruey died from a spear wound in December 1805 and was buried, wrapped in paperbark, at the Brickfields (present Chippendale).
There are astonishing parallels between the initiation rites described by David Collins in 1795 and ceremonies observed by anthropologists in much later years and in places a long way from Sydney.
The explorer and ethnologist Alfred William Howitt, who witnessed a Burbung ceremony among the Wolgal (or Walgalu) observed that the ceremonies usually lasted two or three days and new dances were shown and taught to others.
While the people are waiting for the arrival of the contingents there is singing and dancing each evening.
Howitt said that during the Burbung, the boys were repeatedly threatened by men with weapons ready to strike if they disclosed anything they had seen to the uninitiated.
[See A.W. Howitt, The Native Tribes of south-east Australia, Macmillan, London, 1904]
Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2018