Medical Journal of Australia
Volume 1, Number 4, 1946
A Sociological Study of the Aborigines in the Northern Territory of Australia and Their Eye Diseases
Michael Schneider, Major, Army Medical Corps
The Sociological and Psychological Background
Distributed over an area of about 500,000 square miles,
comprising the Northern Territory, are some 15,000 full-
blooded aborigines. A number estimated at about 6,000
and classified nomadic have had very little contact with,
and live outside of, European influence. Approximately
50% of these are to be found in Arnhem Land. Approxi-
mately a further 6,000 live in supervised camps, and the
remaining 3,000 or thereabouts are in regular employment.
The nomadic group live in the way of their ancestors. Free
and fearless, they roam in their tribal country eking out
an existence on what can be gathered from the soil, the
plants and water, and by the chase. They have no know-
ledge whatsoever of food production and conservation.
Those residing in supervised camps have become almost
entirely dependent on the white man for their existence.
At intervals a primitive urge to go 'walkabout' compels
them to disappear into the trackless wastes and bush, and
to live the way of their ancestors. The third group,
classified as in regular employment, occupy a social position
somewhere between the nomadic and the supervised camp
inhabitants. They are employed chiefly on cattle stations
as cattle musterers, gardeners, goat herders, hewers of
wood and drawers of water. In return for their services
they are provided with a ration of flour, sugar, tea, tobacco,
a little beef and a lot of offal. At times, which in the
northern areas correspond to the monsoonal wet season,
many station managers send them into the bush to live
in their primitive way, in country largely depleted of food
and game owing to the invasion of the white man's cattle.
Native habitations are never clean, and those connected
with cattle stations are extraordinarily filthy and squalid.
Some three or four feet high, constructed of any available
local material - boughs, odd pieces of iron sheets, bags,
scraps of canvas, with the earth as a floor and the roof a
sloping extension of the walls - they provide but slight pro-
tection against the elements. Scraps of food lie on the
ground and adorn the forks of adjacent trees and shrubs or
the roof of a wurlie. Innumerable lean, flea-infested dogs
slink about uneasily. There is no pretence at sanitation,
and water may be in a distant stream or billabong. In
these surroundings the aborigines squat, or lie on dirty
blankets or canvas or on the ground. Clothing if worn
is never washed. In the dry areas flies are clustered
over scraps of food, refuse, dogs and human beings alike,
and add to the general misery.
In the nomadic state the natives move from one site
to another in their search for food, and the elements
cleanse the vacated sites.
During the last six or seven decades, more and more
tribal hunting grounds have been alienated from the
aborigines and occupied by pastoralists. The consequent
competition between cattle and native animals has invari-
ably led to a considerable reduction in the number of the
latter. Spearing of cattle is denied to the natives, and with
game becoming progressively more depleted, the erstwhile
possessors of the land have been compelled either to seek
help from the cattle station managers or to perish. This has
produced a gradual drift from the independent free nomadic
state to that of subservience to the white man. This drift
has been considerably accelerated during the war by the
army in its search for local labour.
As a nomad the aboriginal has a dignified bearing and
behaviour indicative of freedom and independence. Once
he has sold his birthright for a mess of pottage by accepting
the white man's dole, his character changes completely.
His face betrays his servility and shame, and his eyes
reveal his fears and doubts. Some few aborigines can
adapt themselves to our world, but the vast majority
fail hopelessly. This failure cannot be entirely ascribed
to the white man's lack of interest, greed, intolerance
or fears. Many teachers have attempted to educate them,
and missionaries to Christianize them, and at the present
time unionists wish to enlist them under the same wage
awards as a white man.
It is the aboriginal himself who is unable to 'make the
grade'. Not only is he unable to adopt our mode of life,
but the mere attempt spells annihilation and extinction
for him. Separated from us by countless generations of
evolution, he has a simple child-like mind which cannot
assimilate what we have to offer. His mind has developed
on an entirely different evolutionary scheme; it is a
scheme in which his environmental economy is all-
important. He has become a part of it. From his earliest
years all his activities, physical and mental, have been
related to it. The plants and trees, animals and birds,
the fish and streams and waterholes, the rocks and hills,
the clouds and rain, the wind, the stars, the sun and moon,
are all of the greatest significance to him, not only in his
sole practical avocation of food gathering, but still more
so in his totemic existence. Of much greater importance
to him than actual parents are his totemic forebears who
created these natural objects. These natural objects form
an integral part of his life and his conception of the
future world. They are the basis of his health and
happiness, his beliefs and his survival. He has struck a
balance with nature in the same manner as our unique
fauna and flora have done. When he is severed from this
association, his psychological make-up never recovers, his
joy and happiness disappear, his life becomes empty and
purposeless, and he declines and degenerates into a pitiable
No matter how well-meant and willing our efforts, we
cannot obviate this decay. The native simply cannot bridge
the gulf separating his world from ours. This decay is not
obvious to him. He begins by adopting a passive attitude
to our world, and this is rapidly followed by indifference
to his personal welfare, to his survival, and to the survival
of his race. His lubra in consequence practises abortion
and infanticide, neither of which is countenanced in the
nomadic state, with perhaps the exception of multiple
births, in which case the environmental economy may extract
a relevant ruling. Furthermore, when he is in this stage
of decay he seeks the few small pleasures which he
associates with the white man - flour, tea, tobacco, calico,
knives, hatchets and in some instances opium and alcohol.
He accepts the comparatively poor food doled out to him
and passively abandons the food, environment and social
structure more suited to his existence. Being incapable
of abstract thought, he cannot assess the comparative
advantages and defects of the two states.
The white man's attitude to his black employees can
be summed up by the statement that it is motivated by gain,
but is otherwise one of complete indifference. This applies
almost universally. Few cattle stations would be solvent
but for the cheap source of labour supplied by the natives.
All too frequently in return the native is not viewed as an
indispensable servant, but is despised and spurned, and
tolerated only if he is able-bodied and useful. This indict-
ment must be modified in the case of many cattle owners
who support non-working dependants of their black
employees. Unfortunately ill-advised legislation tends to
penalise employers who adopt this humane practice.
This, then, briefly outlines the sociological and psycho-
logical background of the aboriginal in the Northern
Territory. The impressions thus penned were formed
during a sojourn of some twenty-one months in the area
with Australian general hospitals. It was during the
period when the Australian Army Medical Corps included
the aborigines in its care. Excursions were made to
various localities along the Stuart Highway (Alice Springs
to Darwin), to the large rivers - Roper, Victoria, Daly,
Adelaide and Katherine. Natives were examined where
they were found, and in particular at the cattle, police and
mission stations, and at Army native camps; occasionally
also the roaming food-gatherer was examined.
Of the general diseases encountered very little will be
mentioned, apart from the enumeration of those most
commonly seen, with a note on their frequency rate. The
eye diseases were noted more carefully.
Ocular Manifestation of Yaws
Under this heading are listed a number of people.
'If it is assumed that infection by Treponema pertenue immunizes a people
against infection by Treponema pallidum, then syphilis is not likely to be
encountered in the aborigines, and it is probable that the following cases
may be listed as presenting unusual manifestations of yaws'
Case 1 - Aiden was aged about 30 years. He belonged to the Djappada tribe
in the Wyndham area. The patient intimated that his lubra and
two children were well.
Case 2 - Topsy, aged about 20 years, belonged to the Rimburrunga tribe in
lower Arnhem Land.
Case 3 - Blind Maggie, aged about 25 years, belonged to the Nowla tribe
in the Victoria River area.She stated she had been blind
'long time' and that the blindness had 'come slow'.
Case 4 - An infant, aged about 2 months, belonged to the Ngullican tribe
in the Roper River area. The subsequent history is not known
as the family disappeared silently and suddenly into the bush
soon after treatment was initiated.
Trachoma - Severe Trachoma
Case 1 - Judy, aged about 55 years, belonged to the Wadamar tribe.
Case 2 - January, aged about 20 years, belonged to the Ngeinman tribe.
A series of well defined scars on his throat indicated an
ineffectual attempt at suicide.
Case 3 - Joe, aged about 70 years, belonged to the Billi-ngarra tribe.
Case 4 - Charlie, aged about 75 years, belonged to the Ngeinman tribe.
Completely blind from trachoma.
Charlie was conducted by Joe (mentioned above) in the manner
invariably used by natives when leading their blind. Joe's
visual acuity was just sufficient for him to avoid large
obstacles and pitfalls, and he led Charlie at the end of a
stout cudgel some five feet long. They proceeded in single
file, one at each end of the stick held loosely and
horizontally by their sides.
Case 5 - Mary Anne, aged about 45 years, belonged to the Ngongalli tribe.
Case 6 - Nellie, aged about 60 years, belonged to the Djamindjang tribe.
She was blind in both eyes from trachoma.
Trachoma - Mild Trachoma
Case 1 - Biblingi, aged about 30 years, belonged to the Ngandi tribe.
Case 2 - Cobiyaryack, aged about 12 years, belonged to the Nungabuya tribe.
Case 3 - Irinstone, aged about 30 years, belonged to the Rimburrunga tribe.
Case 4 - Paddy, aged about 25 years, belonged to the Melville Island tribe.
Case 5 - Don, aged about 20 years, belonged to the Millingimbi tribe.