In their defence, they were invincibly ignorant. Or were they?

William D. Rubinstein at Quadrant: The Incidence of Cannibalism in Aboriginal Society.

A quaint theological notion and seldom encountered nowadays in the wild, the invincibly ignorant are those for whom theistic enlightenment or, more broadly, a rudimentary moral awareness that makes possible the discernment of right and wrong, is both absent and intransmissible. In a single individual, this might be because of an upbringing bereft of solicitude or blameless deficiencies of intellect; in the case of an entire culture, inescapable, primordial brutality. Back when judging the likelihood of salvation mattered more than it does today, the distinction between those who sinned with perfect knowledge and those who didn’t was a serious one. A confronting question for today’s theologians is whether moderns are as knowledgeable in this sense as the witnesses of Aboriginal cannibalism quoted by Rubinstein. I fear the obvious answer is no. They at least were dismayed by the inhuman survivalism that caused a tribe to kill its own children.

It’s necessary to point out that Rubinstein’s intention is not to assert the superiority of white mores but to lament the deliberate redacting of Aboriginal history. Alone, the left’s noble savage racism is not the worst part. The real harm is caused by encouraging an idyll that cannot be revived because it never existed. That “illegitimate” children especially were routinely eaten is noteworthy because it points to another possibility about the culture encountered by early explorers and settlers.

Namely, by 1788 this mixture of old lore and a possibly novel cannibalism may speak of inexorable decline. Anthropologically, it would be useful to know how widespread man-eating was across the continent and the circumstances attending its rise. Such a survey would be stymied and decried by governments and academies, of course. A way of life in which surplus infants were shown to have been the cooked coinage of a starvation economy would blow the stardust off the Dreamtime and fatally injure the white left’s romantic primitivism. We need to know more. Allowing that novelty in an Aboriginal time-frame could mean centuries, I table it as plausible for this reason: I suspect that like peoples everywhere in all eras, Aborigines chose to do what they knew to be wrong. Yes, the ‘invasion’ probably saved them but that isn’t something contemporary Australians from other backgrounds should boast about. Who will save us?

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3 Responses to In their defence, they were invincibly ignorant. Or were they?

  1. Shy Ted says:

    It’s impossible to find a book by one of the early explorers/missionaries/anthopolgists or similar on any public library shelf. Lotsa books by learned justalittlebitbrownfellas, all with crispy, untouched papers. Many of them “award-winning” bestsellers apparently.

  2. Shy Ted says:

    Best book I read was Buffaloes
    Not professional writers, just a couple of blokes so they tell it as it was. Large parts of Arnhem Land were still relatively “native” in the 20s.

  3. Entropy says:

    One of the reasons new print runs of Ion Idriess will never happen.

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