Triumph of the Nomads: A History of Aboriginal Australia
Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1976
Is it possible to romanticize aboriginal peoples and still tell the truth about them?
Geoffrey Blainey did his best to find out with his absorbing study, Triumph of the Nomads. Despite being subtitled A History of Aboriginal Australia, it really is nothing of the sort. Triumph of the Nomads is an anthropological study which deals with the thirty-thousand-year existence of the aboriginal peoples on the Australian continent before the arrival and ascendance of European whites. As would be expected from an academic, Blainey romanticizes the aboriginals quite a bit. At the same time, however, he tells it like it is, and seems to keep ideology to a minimum. This makes Triumph of the Nomads interesting from both a historiographical as well as an anthropological standpoint. But for Dissident Right readers – especially the white ones – Blainey’s honesty and restraint renders a good deal of his work downright enlightening. Triumph of the Nomads is a potentially crucial red-pill in the ongoing culture wars of the early twenty-first century.
Blainey clearly has enthusiasm for the subject matter, and lovingly dwells upon the minutest of anthropological details. For example, he dedicates an entire chapter to the aboriginal diet, and enlightens us on topics such as how the aboriginals killed bandicoots, how they removed poison from yams, and how they ate the raw, still-living flesh of seals. He also entrusts his readers with the knowledge that Tasmanians tended to eat more meat and fish than continental aboriginals. In another chapter, he describes how what’s known as “petrological analysis” can glean the source of an aboriginal axe and trace its path across the continent over many years. As would be expected, several competing theories regarding the origin (or origins) of the aboriginals get lots of attention in Triumph of the Nomads, especially early on.
Despite what I have no doubt is sound science, much of this work goes beyond general interest and will appeal mostly to readers who are interested in either anthropology or Australia, or both. Survivalists planning a trek through the outback might also find much value in this book. For example, who wouldn’t want to know how the aboriginals used frogs to avoid dying of thirst in the desert?
There are also several passages that provide a sense of genuine wonder about aboriginal man. One in particular stands out: the mystery of the giant shell mounds found on various Australian shores. For centuries, the aboriginals had been discarding their empty shellfish shells in gigantic heaps, and – at least as of 1976, when this book was written – no one knew why. One mound in particular was over ten feet high and occupied half an acre. Another was dated to have begun in the seventh century.
Several themes stand out, however, that will not escape the notice of race-realists and others on the Dissident Right. Chapter seven, entitled “Birth and Death,” hits home with gruesome details about how aboriginals fought and killed each other – which they did often. Blainey estimates that only about three hundred thousand pre-colonization aboriginals ever occupied the continent at one time. One of the tricks to their survival as nomadic, stone-age, hunter-gatherers in the arid, isolated environment of Australia was to always keep their populations low. These people had few possessions, never having more than they could carry in their arms. As a result, women would never care for more than one small child at a time, since two would require two arms. This often resulted in the immediate killing of babies upon their mother’s death, as well as the automatic killing of one of a pair of twins at birth. Too many children would simply place a crippling burden on any family or tribe. It is this purely utilitarian logic which led to the appallingly high rates of abortion and infanticide among the aboriginals.
The logic, however, wasn’t always so utilitarian given the prevalence of ritual infanticide among the aboriginals. Selfishness had something to do with it as well. At one aboriginal settlement in 1948, several women supported continuing the high abortion rate because, as Blainey explains, “[T]hey said they wanted to play about with men, not babies.” At this same settlement, it was estimated that at least half the miscarriages were deliberately induced. Blainey did not have to include this information. He could have simply exonerated the aboriginals for bowing to ecological pressures, as other scholars have done – or simply avoided the topic entirely. While he admits that the ecological pressures to limit their population sizes were real, he introduces what he calls “heartless pressures” to explain the utter lack of remorse the aboriginals showed for the slaughter they engaged in.
He also estimates that between thirty to fifty percent of live aboriginal births ended in infanticide, and claims that infanticide was the strongest check on aboriginal populations. This is quite a claim, given how warlike the aboriginals really were. According to Blainey:
While epidemics came irregularly, armed fights were more an annual event in many parts of the continent and Tasmania. Violent death – by spearing or clubbing – was a restraint on the growth of population. Occasionally there were pitched battles or raids in which many men took part. The casualties might not, at first sight, seem large; but the death of two men in a battle involving forty meant that casualties were approaching the scale of the battle of the Somme. An aboriginal fight could absorb a large proportion of the adults within a radius of fifty miles – indeed could involve a far higher proportion of able-bodied adults than any war of the twentieth century could possibly involve.
Blainey’s conservative estimate of the annual aboriginal death rate was 1 in 270, but later admits that it could have been as high as 1 in 150. This is the same as Germany’s during the Second World War (the Soviet Union’s was 1 in 130), but we should remember that that war lasted only six years. Blainey’s calculations, however, involves every year. Indeed, his estimates of the sheer lethality of aboriginal warfare matches those of anthropologist Lawrence Keeley in his 1996 classic War Before Civilization. Although Keeley focused little on Australian aboriginals (and, unfortunately, seems not to have cited Triumph of the Nomads in his work), his description of warfare in pre-colonial Africa and South America is quite similar: frequent, low-level wars among primitives over large geographical areas leading to a much higher proportion of casualties than in war between civilized nations. And the warfare never ends.
One character who makes an appearance in Blainey’s work is William Buckley (not, of course, William F. Buckley). William Buckley – all six feet, six inches of him – was an English veteran of the Napoleonic Wars who in 1802 was convicted of stealing cloth in his home country, and sentenced to a convict settlement in Australia. He escaped and then spent over thirty years living among the aboriginals. His reminiscences comprise some of the earliest in-depth accounts of aboriginal life by Europeans, and are a real jaw-dropper when it comes to describing aboriginal war. He claimed that what he had seen was “much more frightful” than his experiences fighting the French in 1799.
I quote Blainey at length because it is truly gripping reading:
As a result of the battle two women in Buckley’s group were killed. That night his group took revenge: they ambushed the sleeping enemy, beating three to death, wounding several more and putting the remainder to flight. The wounded ones were not spared. They were beaten to death, said Buckley, and their legs and arms amputated with sharp shells, flints and stone tomahawks. . . .
This casualty list does not exhaust Buckley’s experience of aboriginal fighting. Near Mount Moriac and close to the present highway between Geelong and Colac, Buckley’s group was temporarily weakened by the absence of most of the men on a hunting trip. His group, being vulnerable, was suddenly attacked, and a boy and a girl were speared to death. A raid to take revenge was successful, killing two of the enemy. Not long after, camped on a freshwater lake, Buckley and his friends heard uproar across the water and next day found people massacred in their sleep or drowned after fleeing into the reed beds. How many women died is not recorded but Buckley saw ‘many women and children’ on the ground, ‘wounded and sadly mutilated’. Near the shores of Lake Modewarre three men were speared to death and a four-year-old child was brained in a further episode of revenge. In another fight, ostensibly over the possession of women, one woman was killed and two severely wounded by the riverside somewhere near the present Queen’s Park at Geelong. Later Buckley’s party was again attacked, and his oldest friend was killed, along with wife and son: in the next round three of the enemy tribe were killed. In recounting these and other fights between wandering bands Buckley tended to remember himself as an armed peacemaker, a conscientious objector, or war correspondent.
Another aspect of Triumph of the Nomads that deserves mention is how Blainey’s admiration for his subjects comes off as condescending. I’m sure he’s being sincere, but he heaps so much flattery on the aboriginals despite their manifest limitations that it’s easy to wonder if he’s trying a little too hard. One of Blainey’s more annoying habits is to constantly compare aboriginal life to European life, and describe it such that the aboriginals come out smelling like a rose. Case in point:
Cottages, fuel, and clothing represented the elimination of negatives more than the adding of positives. A fortunate peasant on the Prussian plain who, by work or by inheritance, possessed a cosy cottage and a large stock of firewood and warm clothes did not necessarily have more comfort than a naked aboriginal whose normal shelter at night was a windbreak and whose fuel was scattered deadwood.
Such a comparison is silly and useless given how the Prussian would have been a lot less comfortable than the aboriginal if they were to actually trade places for a day. From a relative standpoint, you can make the same comparisons between a grizzly bear and a Prussian. If one’s natural habit is to sleep on a pile of leaves under the stars next to a handful of glowing firesticks, of course one would be as comfortable as a white man sleeping on his bed and pillow. They don’t know anything different. But since the aboriginals lived in a constant state of war (or warre, as Hobbes would put it), one wonders how comfortable they really were when they had realistic chances of waking up in the morning facing the pointy ends of their enemies’ spears. At least in Europe, wars were typically declared ahead of time.
Sadly, Blainey eschews this kind of analysis in his effort to rehabilitate the aboriginal image. He also delivers high praise whenever he can, such as when he describes the aboriginals’ “astonishing knowledge of plants, animals, birds, and fish.” In some cases, I would imagine, his praise is justified, such as his reporting on the aboriginal knack for reading the clouds, Moon, and stars in order to accurately forecast the weather. He also mentions their physical gifts, as in for example how their physiques made them more suitable than whites for (ahem) spear-chucking. But to claim that the aboriginals had powerful “intellectual equipment” because they could distract a fleeing goanna by imitating the sound of a hawk, or because they could catch mussels with their toes while wading in the river, is pushing it a bit too far. (I knew of someone in college who could play “The Beautiful Blue Danube” with his armpits – is that evidence of powerful intellectual equipment?) And for several pages, Blainey goes on breathlessly about how the aboriginals hunted magpie geese, and endeavors to impress us with their determination, tactics, and organizational skills. Sure, as anthropology this is interesting. But Blainey fails to grasp that this sort of thing hardly classifies as a great accomplishment. After thirty thousand years of trial and error, one would hope that the aboriginals would have figured out how to hunt geese.
Blainey tips his condescending hand in another way, and it’s fascinating. He calls his book a history, yet in it he fails to mention more than four aboriginals by name. Imagine a proper history in which hardly any of the principals are mentioned by name! In the case of Triumph of the Nomads, here they are: 1) Billi-Billeri , a legitimately historical figure, although Blainey’s reference to him is fairly oblique; 2) one Tommy Came-last, whose big claim to fame was a passable Scottish accent; 3) one Dick-a-Dick, who traveled to England in 1868 and threw a cricket ball one hundred fourteen yards; and finally, 4) one Cole-be, a man who, upon the death of his wife, killed his infant child by dropping a large stone on it and then hastily buried it with its mother so the white onlookers wouldn’t realize what was going on. He later defended his actions by saying that without its mother, the baby was going to die anyway, so he might as well have gotten it over with as quickly as possible.
How can an author convince us of the aboriginal “gift for observation and deduction,” or argue that their abilities “suggest that our definition of intelligence or perception might be too narrow,” when the most noteworthy aboriginals he can come up with are these four? And speaking of intelligence, Blainey, like all other mainstream academics (even as far back as 1976), never really describes the shortcomings of the aboriginals. He goes into great detail regarding their strengths, mind you, but never for their failings. For example, when hypothesizing about why the aboriginals never picked up agriculture, he serves up the following humdinger:
We are also inclined to imagine that Cape York was probably too barren, too dry to support adequate gardens. It is tempting to conclude that even if aboriginals had wished to be gardeners, the harsh physical environment prevented them. This argument was dissected by Jack Golson. In the end he decided that the absence of gardens could not be explained by deficiencies in the environment, the absence of techniques or the scarcity of cultivable plants. Clearly the northern aboriginals must have preferred not to be gardeners.
Sure. It was all a matter of preference. Like the Sub-Saharan blacks knew about Madagascar, and knew how to build boats, but just preferred not to go there. Perhaps the reason for this preference against farming was that the aboriginals just didn’t have the IQ for it? It’s a question Blainey was too cowardly to ask, let alone answer, when he wrote his book.
This last passage is indicative not only of the weaknesses of Triumph of the Nomads but also its strengths. Geoffrey Blainey did do a lot of good work and is not afraid to lead the reader – especially Dissident Right readers – to politically incorrect, race-realist conclusions, even if he himself does not make them. This reticence, I believe, is part of his overarching effort to protect the aboriginals from the contempt of whites. And, fair dinkum on that. White people shouldn’t have contempt for the Australian aboriginals. If a white ethnostate ever gets formed on the Australian continent, semi-autonomous land should be set aside for the aboriginals, and their rights as indigenous people should be respected. At the same time, however, we shouldn’t have contempt for the Truth. Whites should recognize aboriginals for what they are and never let the Left or anyone else use them as weapons against us . On this front, Triumph of the Nomads is a triumph indeed.
Spencer J. Quinn is a frequent contributor to Counter-Currents and the author of the novel White Like You .