The Cradle Carriers


Very little was ever recorded on the women’s activities within the Ka’bi clans of the Mary River Valley-Cooloola coast region. It appears the woman’s role in daily routines was that of a food gatherer, meal preparer, and of child caring. She was secretive in rituals and beliefs. She was the “cultural guardian” of social and marital classes. Men were not privy to what we term today as “women’s business’”.

Courtship itself was always performed through clan law. Should a man take a wife without the consent of the woman's relatives, the law states her male relatives or another suitor must challenge his actions by means of a fighting duel. Such a male challenge under Ka’bi law was called Kgin-bumbe - the fight over a woman. These “fights” were conducted when lawbreakers were apprehended or challenged.

Male combatants were always reminded of the code of law prior to the challenge. The code prohibited the intentional striking on the shoulders and breast. Class distinguishing scars must not be defaced. Neither must attack the other unawares. Fighting must always be performed face on. Any violation of the code was punishable by death from the relatives or spectators. The slaying of an adversary while in the sitting position of recovery oblivious to his senses was a most despicable act. The perpetrator would be speared to death. Most combatants adhered to the code fortunately.

On matters of personal ownership, a woman was only permitted to possess food tools, nets, threads, baskets and so forth. Rights of ancestral land succession did not apply because in Ka’bi custom, there was scarcely aught to claim except as territorial hunting lands. These themselves belong to the entire clan families as a group and not as the personal property of one, two or three persons. Of land succession then, there was no dispute. The woman possessed, apart from her tools of survival, only a name and her assets of womanhood. She was man's most precious property according to clan law. Stripped of his woman and devoid of pride, the warrior became nothing but a shell of his former self - a pathetic being of self-imposed out-casting – similar attitudes to that of the European society when a man loses his woman.

The age-old custom in many cultures of acquiring a woman as one's "own property" persists in all connubial dominions. Even in the most primitive forms of relationship, the coveting of women as man's right of possession is identical to that of the Ka’bi law. This was applied either by force, agreement or by authority of age. To act upon or outside this law sentenced or forced young warriors to be alone (to temporarily become a member of the unspoken class of Pin’aru) until a woman was obtained through capture or grant from another source.

A common trait of Ka’bi women was the tenderness extended to blind relatives no matter what age he or she professed. Such persons were given the best of everything in foods. They were always seen in the best of condition while others bordered on starvation. Should they require immediate assistance, a sign was given by stretching forth a spear or walking stick. No word was ever spoken. On sight of such action, a woman (or if a man was of closer proximity) would cease their activity, take the spear or stick, and show sincere guidance for whatever ails the relative or friend. The blind one would then give a blessing of good fortune.

An early historical observer’s report on childbirth customs states:

"At the oncoming or during the woman's bleeding period, coupling is not permitted… an unclean, foul act… regarded badly with myths of superstition… woman is shunned… directed for residence at secret women's places… coupling is not permitted… periods determined by the sorcerer during and after the occasion of childbirth and during the childbearing…childbirth is imminent, the expectant mother departs the campsite… under the care of at least two elderly midwives… advent of these womanly events is governed by strict law… a woman must not be seen by a man; must not touch anything that is used by a man or any other native; and must not walk on common pathways used by others… the law until she returns with her newborn child…”

… woman bathes… gives birth with her midwives… midwives take their bags of concoctions… newborn child is rubbed entirely with powdered charcoal and beeswax… child is then called Nguin, the Ka’bi name for a now blackened newborn child… still covered with the charcoal dust adhered by the beeswax, the infant is bathed with iguana fatty oil to keep insects and ants from its body… task of childbirth is that of the woman's right... Men were not allowed in the presence of a woman giving birth. This was for good reason... Should an unwanted female child be born… drowned… child was malformed… allowed to drown… twins, the midwives would make the decision as to which of the two would survive - normally a male child… midwives cannot make a decision, one is given to the mother and the other shared between the midwives… Two healthy twins is a good sign and many are saved in this manner… mother and midwives would choose a birthplace or conception name… would remain as their pre-initiation title until such time as adulthood is proclaimed…”

An early observer’s report on Mothers-in-law, Sons-in-law, and women’s marriage status notes:

“… the old strict law where a mother cannot look upon; recognise; yet speak to the husband of her daughter. The son-in-law must reciprocate in the same manner. The Mother-in-Law is called… according to local custom… Son-in-Law is given the name… Both must cover their eyes in pretence of a bat… men would refer to their mother-in-law as an "old bat"… women had many terms for a son-in-law, some… most foul in nature… women far exceeded the men in foul vocabularies… marriage status of women was identified physically… without question, some clans did adopt and variate those which suited them… must accept the interpretations of his people's custom on women marking or mutilation… barbaric and painful rite of knocking out front teeth at initiations or for mourning was not witnessed in any of the Ka’bi clans… were instances… amongst the Wak’ka, Ba’tja and the southern peoples."

Based on early pioneer reports, it appears apart from the initiation and clan identification markings, all other scarring on men and women was for decoration. Mothers began the markings on a child and added designs as the years passed until the child was conversant with the procedures and able to perform the finished designs as part of their teachings. As one attained adult status, the nose septum and ear lobes were holed for the placement of a bone ornament or shell decoration. The Dha’kgulu (of the coast) were not of the same origin – their ornamentation was presented as body stains of delicate design like that of a tattoo. It is also pointed out that mothers ensured their young children (boys and girls) never ate any of the taboo foods. These were always associated with sexual spiritualities and associated activities.

Even though the women's “totemic” law survived the eons of time, elopements between traditional clan families and their neighbours persisted. Many lawbreakers were in fact the women themselves. Such actions it appears were instigated by women desiring men of their choice and prowess – repulsed by the whims of old men who had first choice of the young beauties before passing them to younger men.
The actions of the women inevitably brought about challenges, fighting and other hostilities. The act of wife bigamy was rife in some quarters. Only by strict ancestral marriage codes was such an act permitted. However, should one disobey, cause a mischief, or break a law, it was in that instance that a husband would cruelly beat the wife in question. However, despite the fracas at the time, both returned to good terms within a day or so. The men it appears rarely ventured – their punishment saw them put to a cruel death through barbaric actions – the men therefore never “wandered” for fear.

Eventually with the decline of the aboriginal spiritual cultures, woman's “totemic” law was disregarded. Christianisation began the collapse of age-old traditions. It is noted that with the Ka’bi, traditions were continued to their very end c.1885-90. What became of the Ba’tja laws and their peoples continuing beliefs is unknown – they had been decimated at ever-increasing rates by port exploitations of various kind. The sexually disease ridden, alcoholic and drug dependent survivors were virtually non-believers of their ancient culture by c.1905 – the last few members were taken away to the collective Barambah Mission for religious re-education. It is strongly doubted if any true traditional blooded natives of the Ba’tja ever survived the relocations or justices of the European settlements.

Customary early age betrothal agreements of mutual benefit also became non-existent as the women became of their own mind. Young men often exchanged sisters in marriage. Senior menfolk however, continued to appropriate young virginal women under their old laws as did the senior women educate young virginal youths. When all these marriage laws finally collapsed – the age of women's “totemic” law became nothing more than an anecdote in history.

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