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  • Online publication date: December 2014

3 - Face


The European explorers’ accounts of Aboriginal men's faces bore many similarities: most described the face as an inventory of different features, each evaluated separately. Their aesthetic appraisals of the men's faces on the other hand were wide ranging, exemplifying David Hume's tenet that ‘Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them’. However, eighteenth-century musings on the face were not just about beauty. The face was considered the body's most nuanced sign, and, as Deidre Lynch argues, was ‘understood less as a natural fact, and more as a prototypical sign, an exemplary sort of reading matter’. A range of qualities were believed to be legible in the face. The Earl of Shaftesbury supposed that the face revealed one's life experiences, as though etched onto a tabula rasa, while satirist William Hogarth claimed that the ‘face is an index of the mind’. The Comte de Buffon held that ‘the image of [Man's] soul is painted in his face’. The eighteenth-century face was a highly nuanced symbol to be interpreted in various ways.

For the explorers, reading the Aboriginal face was a vital necessity, especially given the absence of a common language or culture. As Scott Juengel suggests, it is not surprising that given an ‘unfamiliar[ity] with native languages’ the face becomes an ‘expressive marker of race, class, sensibility and compatibility’. Interpreting this part of the body was one of the only means by which they knew how to gauge the Aboriginal temperament and passions, measure their morality and intellect or determine their affinities to the other varieties of man. This chapter will examine the explorers’ representations of the aesthetics of the Aboriginal male face, including its various adornments, and their attempts to read Aboriginal men's countenance and physiognomy. I will suggest that the dynamic and changing relationships between Europeans and Aboriginal people complicated attempts, influenced by Lavater, to read the Aboriginal character through physiognomy, since the wide variety of countenances observed depended on whether the encounters were transient or based on more enduring relationships.