A Place for Strangers:
Towards a History of Australian Aboriginal Being

Tony Swain

Cambridge University Press 1993
A book review by Danny Yee © 1993 https://dannyreviews.com/
A Place for Strangers is the first work of anthropology I have read about the Australian Aborigines; for a would-be anthropologist living in Australia I am rather shamefully ignorant of the indigenous peoples of my own country. This volume was an enjoyable education.

A Place for Strangers is, in the author's own words,

about the historical coexistence of two spiritual principles in Australian Aboriginal Law. On the one hand there is the 'waterhole': a site-based life potential co-joined with specific human beings. This is immanent and radically pluralistic. On the other hand there is a continuum which can lead to 'Heaven': non-locative powers which, in their most extreme form, are relegated to a distant and unknown place. Here is a tendency to social and spatial transcendence, potentially pan-Aboriginal, and at times flirting dangerously with monistic ideals.
My thesis, quite simply, is that the latter principle has emerged, in varying degrees, as Aboriginal people sought to accommodate outsiders and make a place for strangers.

The first chapter looks at the first of these principles, at "pre-contact" Aboriginal ontologies. Swain begins by trying to clear up some of the confusion about Aboriginal understanding of time and the body, arguing that their attitude to these is a result of their affirmation of place as a primary ontological category. He discusses their construction of place and its stress on relationships and links between places rather than on autonomous locations. (This part of the book may be of particular interest in the wake of the recent Mabo High Court judgment on native title and the attendant political brouhaha.) The next four chapters are case studies of different encounters of the Aboriginal people with strangers, in each case focused on the resulting changes in their world-view.

In the Torres Strait the Australian Aborigines came into (or perhaps have always been in) contact with the Melanesian peoples of the New Guinea archipelago. These were Lawful peoples, albeit people with a different Law, and were linked to the Aborigines through trade and intermarriage. Cosmologically the Aboriginal response to this contact was the Hero myths, which are representations of a "connection without union". The same Heroes feature in rather different Guinean myths designed to do the same thing — make the "other" understandable within their own ontological framework. The conclusion is that the Aborigines and the Melanesians had a shared cosmology but different ontologies. The Australian Heroes are trans-locational, and it is suggested that the matrilineality of many Cape York groups is part of a response designed to prevent them becoming "transcendental beings", and thus to maintain the primacy of place.

Traditional theory has it that Aboriginal culture was too inflexible and rigid to respond to the White invasion in the south-east. Swain argues that this was not the case at all, and that by the 1830s, when the first detailed accounts of Aboriginal customs were written, Aboriginal cosmology and ritual had already changed in response to the invasion. This response was not a simple matter of borrowing elements of the invaders' philosophy and religion. Aboriginal groups in south-east Australia accepted the existence of "evil" not as a result of the teachings of missionaries, but as a concept necessary to understand the behaviour of unLawful Whites. They created the All-Father and raised the sky above the earth not as a direct borrowing from Christianity but as a deliberate attempt to root their ontology in a source of power other than the land, since their links to that had been fractured by dispossession and death.

The contact with Macassan traders in Arnhem land, while nothing like the White invasion in impact, was more threatening than the contact across the Torres Strait. The Macassans brought no women with them, so intermarriage was impossible and exchange of goods was the only binding force. The All-Mother cult was an attempt to control the implications of this contact, and the threat of occupation of land by the visitors. It embodied a vision of Aboriginal unity transcending the existing locative ontology ("the mother of us all"), but still respecting plurality of place. The contradiction and tension inherent in this was a consequence of trying to maintain the importance of place while interacting with a people with a Land-less Law. The possible origins of elements of the All-Mother cult are found amongst the Bugis and Toraja of Sulawesi. The metamorphosis of the All-Mother into a passive Earth-Mother is a later phenomenon, and one assisted by the preconceptions of ethnographers, popular writers and missionaries.

The final study is of Aboriginal interaction with pastoral white Australia over the course of the last century or so, and in particular the history of some of the major cults. The Mulunga cult was focused around military opposition to white settlers and was pan-Aboriginal, involving the breaking down of territorial boundaries. Throughout pastoral Australia the Aborigines were forced to accept a new moral order that incorporated such things as rations, pay, labour and a cash economy. The Djanba cult in the Kimberley region was a response to this which drew on the universalising elements of the Arnhem land All-Mother cult and made a place for time — and a universal conception of space — in the world. The Woagaia cult involved seeking equality within the framework of White Law, something that allowed the involvement of Whites such as Don McLeod. Both this cult and its descendant Djulurru had aspects that are sometimes considered representative of 'Cargoism'; Swain sees these as "an attempt to reestablish cosmic balance through the symbolic acquisition of equality within a White Law expressed in terms of commodity wealth". This is tied in with the beginnings of the land rights movement.

I don't know enough about the Australian Aborigines to evaluate the central thesis of A Place for Strangers, but it seems plausible enough and Swain presents his case convincingly. Whether it is correct or not, the general coverage of Aboriginal ontological frameworks provided is extremely informative; the summary I have given does little justice to the depth of this work. A Place for Strangers was lent to me by a friend, but I was sufficiently impressed by it that I intend to buy my own copy if the paperback is cheap enough.

November 1993

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%T A Place for Strangers
%S Towards a History of Australian Aboriginal Being
%A Swain, Tony
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 1993
%O hardcover, references, index
%G ISBN 0521430054
%P xi,303pp