Australian Frontier Wars – Aboriginal Traditional Warfare – part II

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In part I we discussed various aspects of tribal warfare relating to its conduct. In this part we round out our look at traditional warfare by surveying the weapons used, the same weapons that would be used against the white settlers almost unchanged for 100 years.

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Weapons

The weapons used to fight were largely those used to hunt. The shear scope and number meant that there was no specific design but general usage types related to task or resources to produce them. These included clubs, some Queensland types shaped like swords, fighting picks, sharpened fighting poles, throwing sticks and the iconic non returning boomerang. Each of these weapons had local variations of cutting or stabbing tips, often using stones or perhaps shark’s teeth or stingray barbs depending on availability and the tribe being inland or located on the coast.

All warriors were skilled with the spear, this varying in length from as short as a 1-1.5m stabbing spear for some tribes such as those from Tasmania, with others ranging up to 4m long, with variation in between. Women sometimes were involved in combat when called to do so and tended to use their digging sticks as weapons, not weapons of hunting as their men would. Throwing spears on the whole were generally longer – no concept of formation with weapons existed as each warrior relied on personal prowess to display his martial skills with the weapon of his choice or one available to his tribe.

Spears were typically carved from the ubiquitous acacia tree due to the strength and light weight nature of the wood. When spears increased in size composite spears could be made from hollowed out reed or grass-tree stalks which was combined with solid wood tips, with tips of shark’s teeth or stingray barbs intended to impale and immobilise the target. Stabbing spears were sharpened so as to injure or kill but usually without a barb so as to facilitate easy removal from the injured party and used again in the close quarters combat fight.

Warrior from the Adelaide region, South Australia. Most likely from the Kaurna tribe. Note the variety of weapon sizes and shield size for parrying

The other iconic aboriginal weapon, the Woomera, is a long ranged spear-throwing weapon that increase the range, accuracy and velocity of the spear which it ‘fires’. The ‘thrower’ also doubled as a club. Its use however was not universal; Aboriginal tribes of Tasmania, south and central Queensland and the Tiwi in the Northern Territory did not on whole use the woomera.

Woomeras served multiple functions dependant on their design. Broad and heavy woomeras could double up as a parrying shield, whilst others could be used as close combat clubs, some with sharpened ends for stabbing; thus once all spears had been thrown the warrior could enter combat with an effective weapon – missile fire combined with close combat shock tactics akin to the effectiveness of the musket-bayonet combination was its potential method of use.

To use, the thrower grips the end covered with Spinifex resin and places the end of the spear into the small peg on the opposite end of the spearthrower.  The spear can then be launched with substantial power at an enemy or prey.

A good shot of a ‘prepared’ spear ready for throwing using a woomera to propel it.

A ‘variant’, the so called ‘goose-neck’ woomera significantly increased the weapon’s range but like other woomeras, was not universally adopted, it seeing use with the aboriginal tribes of north-west Northern Territory and the far eastern Kimberley region. This ‘goose’ spear increased the launched range of the spearshaft over 100 meters, and with some accuracy.

Throwing sticks were also utilised, similar to throwing clubs, these being utilised generally by tribes outside eastern Australia. The Tasmanian variety of throwing sticks had points at both ends, whilst those of the Kimberley region had a pointed, and rounded end combination. These weapons were roughly 2′ in length, some straight and others curved like boomerangs. As can be seen, regional differences on weapon use and type were quite common, which is not unusual given the sheer size of continental Australia and remoteness of neighboring communities.

Tasmanian aboriginals for example, did not use shields or boomerangs. They relied on spears up to three meters long, used with great accuracy. They also used rocks as weapons, Tasmania being particularly suited to this form of ‘ready ammunition’. Female aborigines who fought, one notably leading a tribe named Tarenorerer, was said to be ‘ferocious’ by white observers, herself driven to fight largely because of wrongs done against her and her kin – such motivations were common in the untamed wilds of early settlement Australia.

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Warrior throwing boomerang, Central Australia, c. 1930. Note the ‘spare’ boomerang carried along with hand weapon.

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The boomerang, that most well known of all aboriginal throwing weapons, were not as universally adopted as one might think. In warfare they were thrown with no intention of ‘returning’, as they are popularly known. When thrown correctly they can reach distances of 160 metres (175 yards). This is nearly three times the distance a fighting club could be thrown. They were not used in large areas of Australia, however saw service in far afield parts of Arnhem Land  (Northern Territory), the Kimberley coast regions from central and western Australia to Cape York in North Queensland and the Deep South in Tasmania, including regions of South Australia west of the Lakes Eyres and Torrens…a continental wide use of the iconic aboriginal weapon.

Some aboriginal tribes used fighting sticks and knives. Western Australian aboriginals used a 6′ foot stick called a wana. Knives made of stone blades along with many coastal aboriginals of northern Australia who often made the lethal edge with shark teeth attached to a wooden shaft. Even the humble stone, when thrown from above, proved lethal in the hands of well practiced warriors. Well placed on rocky ground with a ready supply of ‘ammunition’ rocks proved surprisingly effective as they have done since ancient times.

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The Bow and Sling, weapons not normally attributed to aboriginals were also employed. They were used by Torres Strait islanders and Cape York Peninsula Aboriginal tribes, the bows being made from bamboo. These groups of Aboriginals were the only known users of the bow and sling.

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aboriginal-slinger
This warrior winds up for a long range slingshot.

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Many warriors were armed with a hardwood shield in a rough elliptical shape, though variations existed. This was primarily aimed at parrying blows in combat whilst a lighter wood shield was considered more effective to deflect missile weapons. These two defensive weapons highlight that both ranged and close combat were typical in aboriginal warfare.

The larger lightweight shields were used in most parts of Australia, except Tasmania, for deflecting spear attacks. Smaller shields were used for hand-to-hand fighting by tribes in south-eastern Australia whilst large, broad shields were common in the northern areas of Queensland. Painting was preferred to carving shield patterns and designs, as the paint could be restored after use in combat and was also used to mark warriors that had passed initiation or earned ‘combat rights’.

 

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I think it can be seen from the above discussion that aboriginal warfare very much existed, being complex and refined through ritual with a variety of weapon systems cleverly thought out and used in an integrated way. The regional differences are pronounced and variety of weapon type is wide. All these are marks of a warrior class of people who spent much energy on this aspect of their culture.

In the next post we shall take a look at the way in which the aboriginal people adapted their warfare to meet the threat posed by the arrival of the British.

 

…I hope to see you then…

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Postscript – For a short but insightful discussion of aspects of Aboriginal warfare this is a good listen by a current leading authority on the subject, Ray Kherhove. Someone who is very much looking at Aboriginal resistance through the lens of an historian with a military bent rather than just a social one. It runs for 20mins and worthwhile.

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