Excerpt from Following the Equator (1897) by Mark Twain
Nothing is so ignorant as a man's left hand, except a lady's watch.
--Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar
YOU notice that Mrs. Praed knows her art. She can
place a thing before you so that you can see it. She
is not alone in that. Australia is fertile in writers
whose books are faithful mirrors of the life of the country and
of its history. The materials were surprisingly rich, both in
quality and in mass, and Marcus Clarke, Ralph Boldrewood, Gordon, Kendall, and the others, have built out of them a brilliant
and vigorous literature, and one which must endure. Mate
rials--there is no end to them ! Why, a literature might be
made out of the aboriginal all by himself, his character and
ways are so freckled with varieties not staled by
familiarity, but new to us. You do not need to invent any
picturesquenesses; whatever you want in that line he can furnish you; and they will not be fancies and doubtful, but realities and authentic. In his history as preserved by the white man's official records he is everything--everything that a human creature can be. He covers the entire ground. He is a
coward--there are a thousand facts to prove it. He is brave--there are a thousand facts to prove it. He is treacherous--oh, beyond imagination ! he is faithful, loyal, true--the white man's records supply you with a harvest of instances of it that are noble, worshipful and pathetically beautiful. He kills the starving stranger who comes begging for food and shelter--there is proof of it. He succors, and feeds, and guides to safety, to-day, the lost stranger who fired upon him only yesterday--there is proof of it. He takes his reluctant bride force, he courts her with a club, then loves her faithfully through a long life--it is of record. He gathers to himself another wife by the same processes, beats and bangs her as a daily diversion, and by and by lays down his life in
defending her from some outside harm--it is of record.
He will face a hundred hostiles to rescue one of his children,
and will kill another of his children because the family is large
enough without it. His delicate stomach turns, at certain details of the white man's food; but he likes over-ripe fish, and
brazed dog, and cat, and rat, and will eat his own uncle with
relish. He is a sociable animal, yet he turns aside and hides
behind his shield when his mother-in-law goes by. He is
childishly afraid of ghosts and other trivialities that menace
his soul, but dread of physical pain is a weakness which he is
not acquainted with. He knows all the great and many of the
little constellations, and has names for them; he has a symbol
writing by means of which he can convey messages far and
wide among the tribes; he has a correct eye for form and expression, and draws a good picture; he can track a fugitive by
delicate traces which the white man's eye cannot discern, and
by methods which the finest white intelligence cannot master- he makes a missile which science itself cannot duplicate
without the model--if with it; a missile whose secret baffled
and defeated the searchings and theorizings of the white
mathematicians for seventy years; and by an art all his own
he performs miracles with it which the white man cannot approach untaught, nor parallel after teaching. Within certain
limits this savage's intellect is the alertest and the brightest
known to history or tradition; and yet the poor creature was
never able to invent a counting system that would reach above h
five, nor a vessel that he could boil water in. He is the prize-curiosity of all the races. To all intents and purposes he is
dead--in the body; but he has features that will live in literature.
Mr. Philip Chauney, an officer of the Victorian Government, contributed to its archives a report of his personal observations of the aboriginals which has in it some things which I wish to condense slightly and insert here. He speaks of the quickness of their eyes and the accuracy of their judgment of the direction of approaching missiles as being quite extraordinary, and of the answering suppleness and accuracy of limb and muscle in avoiding the missile as being extraordinary also. He has seen an aboriginal stand as a target for cricket-balls thrown with great force ten or fifteen yards, by professional bowlers, and successfully dodge them or parry them with his shield during about half an hour. One of those balls, properly placed, could have killed him; "Yet he depended, with the utmost self-possession, on the quickness of his eye and his agility."
The shield was the customary war-shield of his race, and would not be a protection to you or to me. It is no broader than a stovepipe, and is about as long as a man's arm. The opposing surface is not flat, but slopes away from the centerline like a boat's bow. The difficulty about a cricket-ball that has been thrown with a scientific " twist " is, that it suddenly changes it course when it is close to its target and comes straight for the mark when apparently it was going overhead or to one side. I should not be able to protect myself from such balls for half-an-hour, or less.
Mr. Chauncy once saw " a little native man " throw a cricketball 119 yards. This is said to beat the English professional record by thirteen yards.
We have all seen the circus-man bound into the air from a spring-board and make a somersault over eight horses standing side by side. Mr. Chauncy saw an aboriginal do it over eleven; and was assured that he had sometimes done it over fourteen. But what is that to this:
" I saw the same man leap from the grouped, and in going over he dipped his head, unaided by his hands, into a hat placed in an inverted position on the top of the head of another man sitting upright on horseback--both man and horse being of the average size. The native landed on the other side of the horse with the hat fairly on his head. The prodigious height of the leap, and the precision with which it was taken so as to enable him to dip his head into the hat, exceeded any feat of the kind I have ever beheld."
I should think so ! On board a ship lately I saw a young Oxford athlete run four steps and spring into the air and squirm his hips by a side-twist over a bar that was five and one-half feet high; but he could not have stood still and cleared a bar that was four feet high. I know this, because I tried it myself.
One can see now where the kangaroo learned its art.
Scanned, tagged, and corrected by Adriana Rissetto 12/4/96
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