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?