Pesciaroli Letter 29 January 1844

Prepared by: 
Regina Ganter


Translation of Fr. Pesciaroli’s description

published in Annali della Propagatione della Fide, V, VI, 1845: 214-16.


Fr Luigi Pesciaroli at Dunwich, 29 January 1844


Not so far from our residence a band of savages often stops, composed of about forty persons. The most numerous tribes to do not reckon beyond sixty natives. Although each of them has a specified limit, which is considered the hereditary and exclusive property of the tribe, they nevertheless do not occupy any fixed position. Transferring from one place to another their wandering existence, they never encamp more than eight or ten days in the same valley, like, I may say, those roving flocks that hunger drives towards new pastures, and who abandon without regret the prairie after having exhausted it.

Our savages, for want of permanent habitations, construct for themselves miserable huts with the bark of trees, the frail shelter of one day, which the next will see abandoned or reduced to ashes.

On the other hand the Aborigines who are neighbours of ours and who have been for a long time familiarized with Europeans, are more social and willingly come to us and listen to us with docility. Nevertheless, we have been warned not to trust too much to these appearances, for they are of a treacherous nature even to those who do them good.

They have a less disagreeable countenance and a colour less black than the negroes of Africa, but as regards ornaments they do not make a better choice. they believe that they embellish themselves by daubing their faces with charcoal, over which they spread, by way of paint a layer of red earth, or some other deeply coloured matter. Though tall in stature and robust, they are cowardly in the extreme. Their lives are spent in eating to excess and in sleep, though their existence would be much happier if they gave to sleep what they give to revenge.

Though it is rare for members of the same tribe to quarrel among themselves, there is often strife between the tribes, and in wars of this kind they make use of clubs, shields and lances. And even here as in the most elegant society, vanity has its martyrdom.

It is an axiom amongst our savages that pretentions to beauty are the reward of pain. Thus, there is not a man who, to give himself additional grace, would not tear his arms, his chest and legs with shells in order to obtain at each incision a hideous excrescence of flesh which he displays with disgusting ostentation. As to the women, it is less the taste for dress than the idea of a religious sacrifice that leads them to mutilate themselves. When they are still very young the end of the little finger of the left hand is tied up with the threads of a spider’s web, the circulation being thus stopped. At the end of some days the first phalanx is torn off and dedicated to the serpent boa, to the fishes, or to the kangaroo.


No doubt, our savages hope to obtain by this offering a successful hunting and abundant fishing, for they have almost no other means to live. It is true that they also gather a species of root of which the taste differs but little from that of the potato; they also eat, as occasion requires, a reptile somewhat resembling a lizard, but much larger. They sometimes catch the flying-fox, which one might take for a large bat; but next to the kangaroo, which is found in great abundance on the neighbouring islands, their principal food is fish. Being assembled on the coast to the number of six or eight, and armed each with a net made from the root of a tree, reduced and twisted into very fine thread, they advance in a semicircle into the water murmuring in a low voice certain words, and when they have surrounded their prey they pull it gently towards the shore. Then they all together utter loud cries to stun it, as it were, and take it with facility. So soon as caught the fish is thrown quivering upon the lighted coals and devoured before being roasted.

As for fire, they have it always at their command; the custom I should say almost the devotion, of these Aborigines being to walk with a burning brand in their hands. ..... This sort of worship of the Aborigines for fire is often revived at their funerals. With the warrior newly laid in the grave they never fail to place on one side of him one of his weapons of defence, and on the other a burning brand.

..... Their language is difficult and expresses much a in a few words, which is a natural effect of a limited vocabulary. .... this language difficulty makes it hard for us to express an opinion in regard to their conversion, for we are not yet able to explain the truths of faith to them in their own tongue in a way that would bring results ...


Translated by Rev. Osmund Thorpe, CP