The Posse

One of the members of the settlement, a woman, has died under suspicious circumstances. The woman’s family consult with the specialists in criminal affairs, who, after carefully considering the evidence, identify the criminal as a member of another community, some hundred miles away. A number of men are selected to go forth and deal with the offender. After swearing solemnly to avenge their friend’s wanton murder, the party set off across the desert on foot. The journey passes without incident, and they draw close to the group in whose midst the malefactor lives. They strike camp some distance from their neighbours, and make contact with the local dignitaries, exposing their suspicions.

Over two days, they make their case to the local leaders, who listen carefully and make their own investigations. At the end of the process, the locals give them three names, a group of known troublemakers and marginals. The visitors are invited to deal with them as they see fit. They decide to carry out the punishments on the following day; the local men lure two of the guilty creatures to a camp-fire meeting, where, once they have been lulled into security, they are ambushed and violently dispatched. Although the third man, cannier or better informed than his comrades in crime, has made off during the night, and so escaped his just desserts, the members of the posse are satisfied with their work. After taking leave of their neighbours, they make their way back to Alice Springs, where they describe their exploits during communal celebrations. Justice has been done.

Spencer and Gillen describe this event at second-hand. If Gillen had known about it at the time, it would have been his duty, as magistrate and as Protector of the Aborigines, to prevent the Arrernte from taking the law into their own hands – and even if he had let the posse go ahead (he was certainly capable of stretching the law when he felt the occasion demanded it), he would not have been able to accompany the men on their mission. The account that we have is Gillen’s understanding of what was told him, probably in pidgin English, by his Arrernte informants, and filtered through Spencer’s rewriting. I have rewritten the story given in “The Central Tribes” in a attempt to strip it of its primitivism; in doing so I have left to one side the political and social conditions prevailing at the time, the nature of the crime that the condemned men were found guilty of, and the reasons for which they were given up so easily. We’ll turn to those now.

Spencer and Gillen tell us that the leader of the Arrernte people at Alice Springs sent out a message to all the local groups asking them to send men to make up an ‘Atninga’, or war party. He was concerned because, as the ethnologists put it :

For a long time the northern groups of the Arunta tribe had been in fear of the Iliaura, who had been continually sending in threatening messages, or at least it was constantly reported that they were doing so, for it must be remembered that imagination plays a large part in matters such as these amongst the natives. (Central Tribes, p. 490)

Spencer’s dismissal of the Arrernte fears as ‘imagination’ can be seen as little more than part and parcel of that ethnocentric and racist condescension which undoubtedly runs through his writings on the Aborigines. The people living at Alice Springs may have had good reason to suspect their neighbours of harbouring malice towards them, for, however prevalent violence may have been between the different groups of inhabitants of Australia prior to the European invasion, the pressure put upon their land and its resources by the arrival of the English inevitably increased tensions and precipitated violent conflicts over territorial rights. Squatting, as they did, the waters of Alice Springs, and being in direct contact with the source of ‘station goods’ such as flour and tobacco, distributed by Gillen, the Arrernte may well have aroused the envy of the more remotely situated Iliaura. R. Brian Ferguson has described how the Yanomami often fought over access to missions and trading station providing coveted goods such as steel tools; it is not unlikely that similar struggles broke out in Central Australia, as the telegraphic coding centres and the pastoralists’ cattle stations brought both considerable restrictions on the local peoples’ free enjoyment of the land, and occasions for the awakening of new desires.

Nevertheless, the role of imagination should not be too quickly rejected. Politics and the imaginary go hand in hand, whether in Westminister, Washington, or Alice Springs. When the Alutunja, head man, chief or leader called upon his companions in the outlying districts to send him warriors he will have summoned into being a community as constructed as any modern Western nation state. At the same time, he affirmed his right to make such a demand, and his interlocutors recognized that right – no mean thing, given the upheavals to which the invasion had subjected them all. Telling the tale to Gillen, the “old men” of the Arrernte were drawing the attention of their appointed protector to the fact that they considered that they were fully capable of protecting themselves. To present – or to imagine – the threat of the Iliaura as being sufficiently dangerous to justify collective action had a political salience beyond the immediate matters at hand.

Spencer will have regarded the crimes which were the immediate occasion of the chief’s decision to send the posse as being undoubtedly imaginary, for they were murders carried out by witchcraft. Several deaths had been imputed to Iliaura magicians by Arrernte doctors. Australian peoples believe that death is nearly always caused by malignance, often magical; this is often seen as yet another proof of their primitive ways of thinking, and Spencer certainly saw it in this light. However, the attempt to make death meaningful is probably universal, and causal attributions usually comport a strong moral element. What psychologists call the ‘fundamental attribution error’ consists in looking to the personal characteristics and dispositions of social actors as the source of unpleasant outcomes, for example, when it is situational factors that are really of greater weight. The error will naturally be reinforced in situations where the situational causes are obscure, mysterious, and where individual and collective control over events has been weakened. This was certainly the case in Central Australia at the time that Gillen carried out his observations: in his letters to Spencer, he paints a picture of a people prey to multiple vicissitudes, ranging from arbitrary punishments imposed for deeds that were perfectly legitimate prior to the arrival of the European to epidemics of unknown and lethal diseases. Normal naturalistic explanations no longer sufficed. To attribute blame to their neighbours was to identify an enemy the Arrernte could hope to master, thus imposing some order of their own devising upon a world which was increasingly escaping their control. A British Prime Minister, presiding over a nation slipping from the status of a world power to that of a minor member of a local trading block, might similarly launch an attack upon a distant enemy held to be in possession of a magical weapon that could bring destruction upon the UK within the hour.

In the opening to the section on the Atninga, Spencer and Gillen say that such sorties may be more or less lethal, more or less inclusive in their violence. In their illustrative case, the posse makes it clear to the members of the Iliaura group that they have not arrived on a friendly visit: they refuse to lie with the women that are sent to them in a gesture of good-will. However, rather than opening hostilities immediately, the two parties negotiate with each other. It turns out that the Iliaura are quite happy to allow the visitors to kill some of their own people. All of the three designated victims are morally reprehensible, and have already transgressed the rules of their own people. Two of them have made wrong marriages, and are thus guilty of incest. The third, we are told is very quarrelsome and strong in magic and has boasted of killing your people by means of Kurdaitcha and other magic. 

It is likely that the numbers of ‘wrong marriages’ was increasing at the time that Gillen was stationed at Alice Springs. As we have seen, death rates were high: disease and violence were taking their toll, and it would have been difficult to ensure that there would be sufficient partners of the correct marriage classes to enable the rules to be applied. Within any such system, there are always deviations from preferred practice, as there were in the isolated villages of Europe, where ecclesiastic dispensations were sometimes necessary to allow people to marry within the notionally forbidden degrees of relationship – or, indeed, among member of Royal Houses, attempting to consolidate the power of lineage.

Moreover, as the younger members of the Aborigine groups found sources of wealth beyond the limits of their group, working for the pastoralists, or joining the police force, so they sometimes seized the opportunity to break away from the control of the older men, and to choose their own marriage partners, people of their own age, breaking such taboos as that against the relationship between son-in-law and mother-in-law. We don’t know what was the exact case in the episode reported on here, but that the elders of the Arrernte might collaborate with the elders of the Iliaura to restore their power over the distribution of women within their own group should not surprise us. And indeed, the text informs us that

This killing of Iturka men by strange blacks belonging to other groups has been a common practice amongst the tribes. When a case of this kind arises, the old men of the group to which the offender belongs hold a meeting to discuss the matter, and if all of them vote in favour of the death of a man or woman, a neighbouring group is asked to come and carry out the sentence. (p. 495)

We are not led to believe that there had been such deliberate collusion in the present instance; perhaps the Iliaura elders opportunistically seized the occasion offered to them to rid themselves of a clutch of trouble-makers, or perhaps the Arrernte old men had, indeed, been in touch with their Iliaura peers, and had together arranged their affairs in such a way as to reinforce the authority of the elders in both groups. Either way, the pressures that threatened their positions of power would continue to press down on them. However cunning a prince may be, he will struggle to little avail if the global forces stand against him.

As the Arrernte men leave the Iliaura encampment after their lawfully sanctioned act of murder, one of the younger men grasps hold of the young daughter of one of the victims. He carries her on his back, away from her father’s dead body, away from her mother and her friends, back across a hundred miles of desert to Alice Springs. To what destiny did the assassin take the orphaned girl, and what memories did she take with her to her new home?


A purely accidental view …

In a letter dated ‘Good Friday, 1895′, Frank Gillen passes in review some of the cultural objects that he has obtained from the Arrernte people living around the telegraph repeater station at Alice Springs. He talks of the sacred stones, or ‘churinga’, as he calls them, and which he has offered to give to Edward Stirling, the appointed anthropologist of the scientific expedition to Central Australia which was the occasion of his meeting Spencer. He makes it clear that he is having second thoughts; he is now regularly sending specimens of Central Australian fauna and flora to Spencer, and would rather focus his generosities upon the one recipient. Turning from the stones, he mentions a Nurtunja, a kind of decorated pole which is prominently displayed during one of the rites of masculine initiation. He writes :

It now adorns the corner of my den, and the (men) are greatly exercised lest some of the (women) or (children) should get a glimpse of it through the doorway.*

He goes on to say that any woman or child who was so unfortunate as to be caught looking at such an object, even if it were ‘a purely accidental view’, would, if the thing were not prevented by the invader’s law, be put to death, or at the least blinded. ‘I have, he writes, known many poor wretches, male and female, to be blinded for yielding to a momentary curiosity …’

The case appears simple enough: the ‘howling savages’, as Spencer will call them in subsequent books, need the firm policing of the civilized if they are not to massacre each other over something as absurd as a piece of wood with a few feathers and bits of greenery stuck to it with dried blood. But it bears thinking about: if we compare the Arrernte practices with our own, do we come off so much the better of the two?

Let’s approach the question under two heads. First, compare the punishment, its severity, the suffering that it brings upon the victim. We can point to a very recent past in which people living in Western nation states were subjected to equally atrocious penalties, if not worse. One may recall the torture to which the regicide, Damiens, was subjected, an account of which opens Foucault’s ‘Surveiller et Punir’. Or, of more recent date, one could invoke the cruelties of the lynch mobs in the Southern states of the USA in the latter part of the 19th Century, and on into the 20th, cruelties such as those that accompanied the collective murder of Henry Smith, in Paris, Texas, on the 2nd of February, 1893.

Today we are less bloody in our sanctions. But are we less cruel? The prison has replaced the scaffold: as David Garland points out, even those nation states that still use capital punishment have reduced it to a medical operation, undertaken to eliminate the unreformable rather than punish the evil-doer. But how humane is the prison? For some, being sent to prison is the equivalent of a death sentence: suicide rates for prisoners in the U.K. were five times higher than for the general population in 2005 – and eighteen times higher for 15-17 year-olds. For others, life in prison is brutal: during the 70s and 80s in the USA, the murder rate was some five times higher inside than outside. This has, happily, been overcome in recent times, and today you are less likely to be murdered in prison than you are outside, but brutality remains an ongoing element in the life of the American prisoner, as the Human Rights Watch report on sexual abuse in the system, ‘No Escape’, asserts.

But the people who are in prison, you may rejoin, are deserving of punishment. The women and children killed or blinded by the Arrernte elders for nothing more than catching a glimpse of a sacred object are in a completely different case. Our punishments may be harsh, but they are deserved.

So this is our second head: our own system of penal sanctions is rationally based: we punish those activities which any reasonable soul would agree should be sanctioned. The murderer, the thief, the rapist – these are people who strike at the heart of civilized society. Their actions have been sanctioned wherever humans have gathered together in association. As society has progressed from its primitive beginnings through enlightenment and into modernity, it has pared off the accidental outgrowths of magic and superstition: we no longer punish the witch, nor do we sacrifice our fellow beings to dark spirits. This is the position that Durkheim took, and one that many would still hold to today.

From this point of view the punishments meted out to the Arrernte women and children are shocking because they sanction imaginary crimes. A glance stolen from between an adolescent’s fingers can harm no-one, however holy the object of its fleeting gaze.

However, it can be objected that this is too simple a view both of our own system of criminal law, and of the functioning of Arrernte punishment practices. In both cases, the rules and the sanctions are as much about shoring up a particular set of power relations, a given hierarchy. In our own system, the crimes of the weak are punished with a certain severity: the people who find themselves in our prisons are the weak and the powerless. In many cases, they are the mentally ill: in the USA, according to Human Rights Watch, over half of all prisoners are affected by mental health problems, while the British Mental Health Foundation goes so far as to claim that only one prisoner in ten is ‘untouched by mental illness’. A disproportionate number of convicted criminals have a background of being brought up in care, of having low educational attainment, and of belonging to an ethnic minority. They are people who have suffered under some form or other of stigmatisation since their childhood.

Meanwhile, the crimes of the powerful largely go unpunished, as sociologists like Steven Box or Colin Sumner have demonstrated, and as the immunities offered by governments to the bankers and other financial criminals over the last two or three years illustrate.

The punishment system is, as Durkheim recognized, a signaling device, which directs the public gaze onto a small segment of society and helps distract us from greater evils. For as Box argues – and as the polluting activities of oil companies like BP, or the lethal and largely unpunished negligence of Union Carbide in Bhopal illustrate – the crimes of the powerful are far more dangerous than those of the weak.

The blinding of the Arrernte women and children was similarly intended to shore up the symbolic order upon which the hierarchies of the Central Australian desert were built, before the European invasion and land grab crushed the Aborigine population into submission. With their fire-sticks, the older men were maintaining order in much the same way as Bloody Jeffries did when dealing with the Monmouth Rebellion – or, indeed, as the English magistrates did in the aftermath of last year’s riots, passing down sentences of an unusually harsh nature for relatively minor delinquencies.

Gillen himself shows compassion for the victims of Arrernte justice on several occasions. One of the factors that led to his ceasing to steal the sacred stones from their store-houses was the putting to death of a man who had indicated to him where he could find a rich haul of such goods. But he is nevertheless ready to administer the justice of the colony, sending the young men who dared treat the animals of the pastoralists as they had ever treated the animals that they found upon their home territory off to be whipped by the local policeman, or, if they were repeat offenders, packing them off to jail.

Anthropologists continually warn us that we must avoid ethnocentrism, avoid judging people of other cultures by our own standards. But although it may be possible to imagine that one is suspending judgment while looking into the facts of the case, our beliefs about wrong and right are to a large extent so tightly soldered into us that we are for the most part unaware of them; they are an ingrained habitus, directing our attentions and our accountings in ways that are difficult to escape or to neutralize. I offer the above journey not because I believe that we should not recoil in horror from the fate of those blinded by Arrernte fire, but because I believe that if we do so, we should be equally ready to see the horrors of our own institutions for what they are.

* The quote is from ‘My Dear Spencer‘, edited by Mulvaney, Morphy and Petch. Those who have read the book will see that I have bowdlerized Gillen; I found my fingers unwilling to type the words that he actually used. At some stage, I will address Gillen’s language, and the nature of his racism, and then I will necessarily quote him verbatim, but for the moment I prefer to avoid that particular question.




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