They did not appear to live in societies

On the AustKin project I’m going through 19th century sources in rough chronological order to try to trace European conceptualisations of Aboriginal social organisation.

The lexicographer finds it hard to resist early mentions and antedatings – whether or not they offer anything of substantial research value.  So far, the earliest European reference to Aboriginal social organisation that I can find is certainly a little disappointing. It’s from William Dampier, who wrote in 1699 in the vicinity of Shark Bay:

Among the New Hollanders whom we were thus engaged with, there was one who by his appearance and carriage, as well in the morning as this afternoon, seemed to be the chief of them, and a kind of prince or captain among them.

The phenomenon of identifying European hierarchies in indigenous populations is well known (and discussed at some length by Benedict Anderson in Imagined communities). The Spanish recognised kings, nobles, commoners and slaves in Philippine communities, and James Cook wrote of the Tahitians in 1770 (p239):

Their orders are, Earee rahie, which answers to king ; Earee, baron ; Manahouni, vassal ; and Tou-tou, villain.

Speaking of which here is Cook’s earliest stab at describing Australian social organisation in Botany Bay (May 1770):

All the inhabitants that we saw were stark naked ; they did not appear to be numerous, nor to live in societies, but, like other animals, were scattered about along the coast, and in the woods. (p90)

What? No kings or barons? Preposterous!

More usefully for the project, the earliest settler description of an positively identifiable social category system is from George Grey (1841) who described sections in use in Western Australia between the 30th and 35th parallels; in other words, Noongar country:

One of the most remarkable facts connected with the natives is that they are divided into certain great families, all the members of which bear the same names, as a family, or second name: the principal branches of these families, so far as I have been able to ascertain, are the:


But in different districts the members of these families give a local name to the one to which they belong, which is understood in that district to indicate some particular branch of the principal family. The most common local names are:



These family names are perpetuated and spread through the country by the operation of two remarkable laws:

1. That children of either sex always take the family name of their mother.

2. That a man cannot marry a woman of his own family name.

As far as I can tell nothing else was written of Australian social categories until William Ridley’s paper of 1856 on Kamilaroi which created something of an international sensation. But that’s the subject of another post.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s