Wednesday, August 5

“Manners, none; customs, beastly” – a depiction of Aboriginal people

“ In mental qualities they stand very low, having no fore-thought, prudence, self-restraint, or sense of decency.”

How widely held was this view of indigenous Australians in the latter part of the 19th century? Too widely, must be the answer. The quotes above come from an impressive, encyclopedic reference work which would have been used by many settlers to understand their new country.

Published in 1884, the Australian edition of the Universal Self-Instructor and Manual of General Reference (pictured against a mobile phone to show its size) carried the article reproduced below in full. Today we are appalled by its claims, but at the time of publication many settlers would have accepted them as justification for forcing this “primitive race” off their land to be “superseded by higher tribes.”

Publication came at a time when the dispossession of Aboriginal people and their removal to missions and reserves was at its peak.

(This article was run without paragraphing, which I've added for easier reading.)


The native blacks of Australia are as distinct and peculiar as are its vegetable and animal life. They belong to the group of tribes known as the negritos or Austral negroes, being entirely distinct from
the Malays, Papuans, and Polynesians.

In physical appearance they are of height little inferior to the European, but of small muscular development, and inclined to corpulence. The cranial formation is, on the whole, long and narrow; the color varies from coffee color to black.

In mental qualities they stand very low, having no fore-thought, prudence, self-restraint, or sense of decency. Marriage is merely a form of slavery, and chastity is unknown.

These aborigines dwell in caves, rock shelters, and rude huts, in winter wear skins, and in summer go altogether naked, and live upon every form of animal life, including snakes, insects, lizards, ants, frogs, and occasionally human flesh.

In the construction of their weapons they show some ingenuity, and they wield the spear, boomerang, and throwing-stick with great dexterity.

The only form of government is that of the family ; the only law, the club. Summing up their manners and customs, we may say, "manners, none; customs, beastly" Dread of ghosts and demons forms the only religious belief.

The languages of the tribes are numerous, but closely connected. In sound they are harmonious and polysyllabic, but are incapable of expressing abstract ideas, and evince no sense of number. Most
tribes can count only to three, a few to five.

It is believed that the Australians represent a primitive race, superseded in other lands by higher tribes. The number of natives at the time of settlement by Europeans was about 150,000 ; it is now
supposed to be from 70,000 to 80,000.

Grumpy Old Journo is indebted to a fellow book club member who bought the Universal Self-Instructor in a carton of old books, and brought it in to show us. It's almost 700 pages, and it would have been a fine example of the bookbinder's trade.

It is bound in leather over hard boards, and the front and spine are embossed with gilt lettering.

The book appears to be an Australian adaptation of a similar book published in New York in 1882, and no doubt it retained many of the features of the US book. Within its covers, the user could refer to articles on writing, bookkeeping, business practice, household management, physical exercise and rules of games, etiquette, geography and history, quotations, selected poetry and lots more.

Let's hope those topics were better researched than the article on Aborigines.

Title page of the book


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