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  • Online publication date: December 2014

5 - Martial Bodies


Many of the explorers who navigated Australian waters in the late eighteenth century were familiar with philosophical conjecture about the nature of socalled savage societies, and to them none must have seemed as important as theories of ‘primitive’ warfare. The explorers’ need to protect themselves ensured that they not only armed themselves with weapons but also with knowledge of the martial capabilities of indigenous people. In addition, the more inquisitive of the explorers were intrigued by long-standing questions about the social and political implications of war for human progress. During this period philosophers increasingly looked towards savage societies to ascertain whether or not ‘mankind is innately warlike and has always been so’. Scholars suggest that this line of inquiry was dominated by two key theses: proponents of Thomas Hobbes contended that savage life suffered the burden of perpetual warfare, while Jean-Jacques Rousseau countered that the state of nature was inherently peaceful and that wars were a manifestation of hostility between sovereign states. These opposing views were reflected in the explorers’ accounts, with some explicitly invoking Hobbes and Rousseau in their discussions of Aboriginal men's martial practices. Furthermore, the explorers were in the privileged position of testing their theories first-hand and so sought to investigate the martial drives of the Aboriginal men they encountered.

Leviathan (1651), written during the English Civil War, reflected Hobbes's concern with the question of how civil unity and an enduring peace could be maintained. He proposed that war and conflict were the natural state of man, for ‘Nature hath made man … equall’, and such equality would lead to ‘quarrells’ caused by competition, diffidence and the desire for glory. In turn, this antagonism would result in savage man living ‘in that condition which is called warre’ which could only be prevented by a ‘common Power to keep them all in awe’. Lacking this single authority to make and enforce laws ‘men live without security’, so there is ‘no place for Industry’, ‘Knowledge’ and ‘Arts’. ‘[W]orst of all’ man lives in ‘continuall feare, and danger of violent death’.