I HAVE seen a coloured king simply smirking with pride, in what he considered modern full dress--a short shirt and an old tall hat.
And I suppose, as far as actual clothing went, it was an advance on the old-time costume of paint and feathers. A black woman's needle was a little bone from the leg of an emu, pointed. Her thread was sinews of opossums, kangaroos, and emus; that was all that was necessary for her plain sewing, which was plain indeed.
Her fancy work consisted of netting dillee, goolays, or miniature hammocks to sling her baby across her back, or, failing a baby, her mixed possessions, from food to feathers; her larder and wardrobe in one.
Her costume being simple in the extreme did not require much room. It consisted of a goomillah, which was a string wound round the waist, made of opossum sinews, and in front, hanging down for about a foot, were twisted strands of opossum hair. A bone, or on state occasions a green twig, stuck through the cartilage of her nose, a string net over her hair, or perhaps only a fillet, or a kangaroo's tooth fastened to her front lock, gum balls dried on side-locks, an opossum's hair armlet, and perhaps a reed bead necklet and a polished black skin, toilette complete, unless for certain ceremonies a further decoration of flowers or down feathers was required.
The principal article of the man's dress was called waywah. It was a belt, about six inches wide, made of twisted sinews and hair, with four tufts about eighteen inches long hanging back and front and at each side from it, made of narrow strips of kangaroo or paddy melon skins.
For warmth in winter they would wrap themselves in their opossum-skin rugs. Sometimes both sexes adorned themselves with strings of kangaroo teeth fixed into gum, in which a little hole was made, round their heads and necks--yumbean they called them; or forehead bands with hanging kangaroo teeth, which were called gnooloogail.
Pine gum they rolled into small egg-shaped balls, warmed them and stuck them in dozens all over their heads, where they would be left until they wore off, hairdressings being only an occasional duty. The gum they used for sticking the kangaroo's teeth was that of the Mubboo, or beefwood tree.
Sometimes wongins were worn; they consisted of cords round the neck and under the arms, crossing the chest with a shell pendant at the centre of the cross. A shell is still a most prized ornament.
The corroboree dress is one of paint; the feature of it being its design, a man can gain quite a tribal reputation for being an originator of decorative designs.
Their original paint colourings were white, red, and yellow; occasionally they said they got some sort of blue by barter, but very occasionally, as it came from very far. White was from Gidya ash, or gypsum; red and yellow, ochre clay; but they also got both red and yellow from burning at a certain stage certain trees, gooroolay for red; the charcoal, instead of being black, having red and yellow tinges. But since the white people came the blue bag has put yellow out of fashion, and raddle is used for the red.
Their opossum rugs used to have designs scratched on the skin sides and also painted patterns, some say tribal marks, others just to look pretty and distinguish each their own.
Feathers tied into little bunches and fastened on to small wooden skewers were stuck upright in the hair at corroborees, also swansdown fluffed in puff balls over the heads.
The Gooumoorh, or corroboree, is a sort of black fellow's opera; as to the musical part, rather, as some one found an oratorio, a thing of high notes and vain repetition.
The stage effects of corroborees are sometimes huge sheets of bark fastened on to poles; these sheets of bark are painted in different designs and colours, something like Moorish embroideries. Sometimes there is a huge imitation of an alligator made of logs plastered over with earth and painted in stripes of different colours, a piece of wood cut open stuck in at one end as a gaping mouth. This alligator corroboree is generally indicative of a Boorah, or initiation ceremony, being near at hand. Sometimes the stage effects are high painted poles merely.
At the back of the goomboo, or stage, are large fires; in the front, in a semicircle, sit the women as orchestra, and the audience; a fire at each end of the semicircle, as a sort of footlights. The music of the orchestra is made by some beating time on rolled-up opossum rugs, and some clicking two boomerangs together. The time is faultless. The tunes are monotonous, but rhythmical and musical, curiously well suited to the stage and layers. These last have a very weird look as they steal Pout of the thick scrub, out of the darkness, quickly one after another, dancing round the goomboo in time to the music, their grotesquely painted figures and feather-decorated heads lit up by the flickering lights of the fires around.
As the dancing gets faster the singing gets louder, every muscle of the dancers seems strained, and the wonder is the voices do not crack. just as you think they must, the dancing slows again; the voices die away, to swell out once more with renewed vigour when the fires are built up again and again; the same dance is gone through, time after time-one night one dance, or, for that matter, many nights one dance.
The dancers sometimes make dumb-show of hunts, fights, slaughters, the women sometimes translating the actions in the songs; sometimes the words seem to have nothing to do with them, and the dances only a series of steps illustrating nothing.
Corroborees seem to fit in with the indescribable mystery of the bush. That the spirit of the bush is mystery makes it so difficult to describe beyond bald realism, otherwise it seems an effort to seize the intangible. Poor Barcroft Boake got something of the mystery into words.
If an Australian Wagner could be born we might hope for a musical adaptation of corroborees. Wagner was essentially the exponent of folk-lore music, wherein must be expressed the fundamentals of human passion unrefined.
The most celebrated weapon is probably the boomerang the most celebrated kind to whites, though not most useful to blacks, is the Bubberab, or returning boomerang. These are made chiefly of Gidya and Myall. Here these 'Come backs' are never carved, are more curved than the ordinary boomerang, and were greased, rubbed with charred grass, and warmed before being used, so that the slightest warp would be straightened. It is marvellous the accuracy with which an adept can throw one of these weapons, locating it on the exact place to which he wishes it to return.
Gidya is the favourite wood for boomerangs. They are first roughly shaped, then thrown into water and soaked for two or three days; taken out and made into the proper shape, rubbed with charred grass, greased well, and carved in various designs with an opossum's tooth.
Boomerangs have many uses--in peace two clicked together as a musical instrument, as a war weapon, and as a weapon in the chase. Its last and rapidly approaching use will be as a curio for collectors.
Billah, or spears, are made of Belah (swamp oak) or Gidya. These too are cut roughly first and thrown into water, then cut a little more, thrown into water again, and so day after day until finished. Sometimes they are carved with a running featherstitch-like pattern from end to end, sometimes have bingles, or barbs, cut down one or both sides; some barbarous things with barbs pointing both ways, so that they could be neither pushed out nor drawn through a wound; some are plain, painted at each end or darkened with poison tips.
Billah are war weapons; a larger kind called Moornin are used for spearing emu.
Woggarahs, the hatchet-shaped weapons, were made of Myall, Gidya, and other woods, carved as were boomerangs, each carver usually having a favourite design by which his weapons were recognised.
Booreens, or shields, were of three kinds: a narrow kind made of hardwood, a broad flat kind of Kurrajong, and a medium-sized one of Birah, or whitewood, all painted in coloured designs. It is wonderful the way a man can defend himself single-handed against a number of men, he having only a narrow shield, the only defence he is allowed when he has to stand his trial for a breach of the laws.
Their tomahawks, or Cumbees, were of dark-green stone, of which there is none in this district, so it must have been obtained by barter, as in the first instance were the flat, light Booreens from the Queensland side, and the grass-tree gum from the Narrabri mountains side, for which Gidya boomerangs were given in exchange.
The stone tomahawks have a handle put over one end of the stone, gummed on with beefwood gum, then drawn together under the stone, crossed, and the two ends tied together as a handle, with sinews of emus, opossums, or kangaroos.
Muggils, or stone knives, are just sharpened pieces of stone.
Moorooleh are plain waddies used in war and for killing game; a smaller kind called Boodthul are thrown for amusement.
Boondees are heavy-headed clubs used in war.
The black fellow won't allow his womenkind a heaven of rest, for the spirit women are supposed to make weapons which the wirreenuns journey towards the sunset clouds to get--the women's heaven is in the west--giving in exchange animal food and opossum rugs, no animals being there.
For carrying water they used to make bags of opossum skins. To prepare the skins they would pluck the hair off, and, after cleansing them well, sew up the skins with sinews, leaving only the neck open. They would fill this vessel with air and hang it out to dry.
As, a water vessel, to mix their drinks and medicines in, they used Binguies or Coolamons, a deep, canoe-shaped vessel cut out of solid wood, carved sometimes and painted, a string handle to it. They used little bark vessels to drink out of, like shallow basins, cut from excrescences on eucalyptus trees; these were called wirree. A larger bark vessel they used for holding water, honey, or anything liquid.
While on the subject of personal decoration I forgot the Moobir, or cuts on the bodies, some of which are tribal marks, some marks of mourning, some merely of ornamentation. Both men and women are seen with these marks in the Narran district; some huge wales on the skin from the shoulders half-way down the back, some on the chest and the forepart of the arms. They are cut with a stone knife, licked along by the medicine man, filled in with charcoal, and the skin let grow over.
Various reasons are given for these marks: some say they are to give strength, others as a tribal sign, others just to took pretty. Some give the final reason for everything, 'Because Byamee say so.'
In summer the blacks are great bathers, and play all sorts of games in the water. Their soap is clay; they rub themselves with that, the women plastering it under their arms again and again; the little children rub themselves all over with it, then tumble into the water to wash it off.
In winter they forgo bathing, and rub themselves with liberal applications of grease.
The old blacks used to have very good teeth; they never ate without afterwards rinsing out their mouths, and sometimes munched up charcoal to purify them. But the younger generation have discarded the mouth-rinsing habit, and not yet attained to a tooth-brush: result, gradual deterioration in teeth, a deterioration probably helped by the drinking of hot liquids. Blacks of the old time drank nothing hot. Perhaps, too, their tough meats gave muscular strength to their jaws.
To blacks, kissing is a 'white foolishness,' also handshaking; in olden times even to smell a stranger was considered a risk.