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Tribal Justice in Australia

Nature volume 135, page 297 (23 February 1935) | Download Citation



A PERTINENT example of the practical bearing of the results of anthropological investigation is afforded by the defence set up in a trial for murder of two aborigines from Alice Springs, South Australia. The facts of the case are set out in a dispatch from the Adelaide correspondent of The Times in the issue of February 15. The defence rested on a plea of tribal justice. It has been put forward that the two accused were acting in accordance with custom and under the instructions of the elders of the tribe in putting to death a man who had revealed ceremonial secrets to a woman. Failure to comply, it was stated, would have entailed death. As might be expected, anthropologists have not failed in the endeavour to bring the aboriginal point of view before the court. Expert witnesses, however, were not heard; but their special knowledge was placed at the service of the defence. Ever since Spencer and Gillen first recorded, nearly forty years ago, the special reverence of the natives of Alice Springs for everything pertaining to tribal ceremonial, anthropologists would have been prepared to expect death as the logical consequence of so grave a threat to tribal safety as the breaking of taboo involved in the disclosure of ceremonial objects or procedure to a woman. It is, at the very least, the equivalent of a combination of high treason and sacrilege in a civilised community. As recent trials in Africa have shown, a court rooted in European law is not prepared to admit that in such cases tribal justice may demand and exact the supreme penalty, in the manner in which in a civilised society a traitor who discloses State secrets may be imprisoned for life or condemned to death. Those who carry out the sentence of the tribe must, in accordance with the laws of the country, be adjudged guilty of murder, even though the extreme penalty may not eventually be imposed.

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