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  • Online publication date: December 2014

7 - Indolent Bodies


European explorers witnessed many different examples of Aboriginal people's labours, although these were almost exclusively limited to those concerning basic survival, such as obtaining food and seeking shelter. They described and illustrated various Aboriginal manufactures, such as weapons, tools and assorted canoes and dwellings, as well as their methods for hunting and fishing. To the European eye these represented the full extent of the Aboriginal people's industriousness and ingenuity, and their evaluations of these were overwhelmingly derogatory. It was not uncommon for the Europeans to view them as a ‘stupid and indolent set of people’ or ‘ignorant and wretched’. However, the most damning appraisals were reserved for Aboriginal men, who were almost universally seen as oppressive tyrants who exploited their women's labour.

These perceptions were not solely determined by Aboriginal men's actual labours or lack thereof, but instead reflected eighteenth-century ideas about the nature of so-called savage societies’ ‘arts and industry’. Enlightenment thinkers pondered the reasons why some societies seemed not to have progressed to the same civilized state as Europeans, and assumed that for the most part it was because, as the Comte de Buffon said of Native Americans in general, that ‘they were all equally stupid, ignorant, and destitute of arts and industry’. Not all eighteenth-century philosophers were as concise as Buffon, and many elaborated theological, physiological and environmental causes to explain savage man's apparent indolence and ignorance. Their ideas on labour and land use were inevitably influenced by imperial and commercial interests, as slavery and colonization haunted their discussions of whether Aboriginal people could be considered industrious.

The explorers’ contemptuous observations of Aboriginal men's labour were unusually uniform compared to their accounts of other indigenous practices and appear to have been informed by eighteenth-century discourses on industry and intelligence. This chapter will examine the explorers’ accounts of Aboriginal men's contribution to the procurement of food, their purported economic reliance on women and the insights into Aboriginal men's ingenuity revealed through their manufactures. It will consider how these representations reflected Enlightenment discourses on indigenous indolence and technological ignorance.