First Contact

Australian Indigenous Peoples #

First Contact: #

European first contacts with Australian indigenous peoples began with Willem Janszoon in 1606, Dirk Hartog, 1616, William Dampier in 1688, as well as rumours of Portuguese before that. Most reports gave negative views.

In fact the view from the shore, by Australia’s first inhabitants is quite contrary. They see white men as the mythical bogey man embodying all the destruction caused by 250 years of white settlement. Their ancestors had taken good care of the land for more than 65 thousand years, only for Joseph Banks to declare, “these are the most uncivilised savages of the world because they can’t make proper use of the land”.

On the contrary, James Cook’s impressions were quite positive. Here is a summary of his observations:

“The natives of New Holland may appear to some to be the most wretched people on the earth, but in reality they are far happier than we Europeans, who are wholly unacquainted with the superficiality of the necessary conveniences so sought after in Europe. They are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a tranquility not disturbed by inequality of condition. The earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life. The care not for magnificent houses or household extravagances. They live in a warm and fine climate and enjoy wholesome air”.

Cook was under strict express orders “to look for signs of occupation and negotiate with any natives they encountered”. he was further ordered “to open dialogue and establish friendship”.

Thomas Morton, President of the Royal Society added:

“any natives you encounter are to be considered natural and legal possessors and no European nation has the right to occupy or settle among them without their consent.

The natives made it quite clear all they wanted is for the White people to be gone and leave them alone. Cook eventually decided to disobey his orders, by declaring the country “terra nullius” allowing him after three months of mapping the coast, planting a British Flag on Possession Island laying claim with his lie, to all of New Holland, renaming it New South Wales. And this man is made a hero?

Busts and statues of Cook abound – even the French, however recently, several statues in honor of Cook have been defaced in protest. “Take care that a falling statue does not strike you dead!” (Nietzsche ) Original inhabitants are demanding a bit of truth in memorialising our foundations.

Paul Daley claims the toppling of statues overseas might give Australia pause to reconsider who we celebrate.

Indigenous Australians and their supporters have for over a century been perplexed about some statues and place names that make false assertions about white European achievement and celebrate the murderers and murder of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Curiously, it was not until 2017 when a debate broke out over the removal of Confederate statues in America, that a broader cultural and media awareness gave rise to the so-called “statue wars” here.

Captain Phillip’s first encounters: #

When the first ships of the first fleet arrived in Botany Bay, it was closely followed by the Gweagal clan, wondering why the huge clouds of ships with white people had returned.

Two natives awaited the tender sent out from the Endeavour. There were many indications that all they wanted is for the whites to leave. Phillip knew from Cook’s diary to be wary and conciliatory.

Here is Francis Webb’s imaginary re-enactment in 1964:

End of the Picnic #

When that humble-headed elder, the sea, gave his wide
Strenuous arm to a blasphemy, hauling the girth
And the sail and the black yard
Of unknown Endeavour towards this holy beach,
Heaven would be watching. And the two men. And the earth,
Immaculate, illuminant, out of reach.

It must break-on sacred water this swindle of a wave.
Thick canvas flogged the sticks. Hell lay hove-to.
Heaven did not move.
Two men stood safe: even when the prying, peering
Longboat, the devil’s totem, cast off and grew,
No god shifted an inch to take a bearing.

It was Heaven-and-earth’s jolting out of them shook the men.
It was uninitiate scurf and bone that fled.
Cook’s column holds here.
Our ferry is homesick, whistling again and again;
But still I see how the myth of a daylight bled
Standing in ribbons, over our heads, for an hour.

Arthur Phillips’s instructions attached to his commission from the Crown were clear:

“You are to endeavour by every means to open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them, and if any of our subjects shall wantonly destroy them, or to give them any unnecessary interruption in the exercise of their several occupations, it is our will and pleasure that you do cause such offenders to be brought to punishment”.

On January 22, a fishing net hauled in a large quantity of fish. The natives came by, made a large shout and took some of the fish as their privileged ownership. The English saw it as primitive pilferage. The next day, the natives came back, struck the fishermen with spears, and ran off with more fish as an assertion of native ownership.

There is no evidence that Phillip made any effort to establish a treaty with the natives to cede their lands with any offer of reciprocity.

William Wentworth, in 1820, reflecting fallacious white views about the inferiority of Aboriginal people and lack of affinity with cultivation and domesticity, wrote:

“The aborigines of this country occupy the lowest place in the gradatory scale of the human species. They have neither houses nor clothing; they are entirely unacquainted with the arts of agriculture; and even the arms which the several tribes have … and the hunting and fishing implements with which they administer to their support, are of the rudest contrivance and workmanship.”