Botany Bay - Early Perceptions


How did the Australians (Aborigines) see the British intruders? Clues litter the British accounts. Consider John White's observations on Australian attitudes to the British taking of fish. He records an incident soon after the British landfall at Botany Bay, when the Australians were still displaying what he diagnosed as 'a kind of cautious friendship'. The British lowered a net one evening and took a great haul of fish. Some local men were watching. They did not interfere, rather seeming astonished by this novel and efficient mode of fishing, and excited by it too. But White recalls that 'no sooner were the fish out of the water than they began to lay bold of them, as if they had a right to them, or as if they were their own upon which the officer of the boat, I think very properly, restrained them, giving, however, to each his part'. White adds that at first the sharing-out did not appease the Australians, but they quietened after each had received his fish.

'As if they had a right to them, or as if they were their own' - and then peace as each man received his fish. Because immediate hunger could be satisfied? Or for some other reason? Why were fish a cause of conflict? Unlike Cook, who tended to call in the muskets when puzzled or affronted, Phillip was ready to be patient. He knew that Australian behaviour deserved careful watching and careful interpretation. He decided that in this case the raiders were driven by hunger, and sensibly ordered that natives always be given a share of the catch. Watching from our comfortable distance, we think that men restricted to fishing lines and spears would not easily tolerate such mass looting of their limited resources. It did not occur to Phillip that the Australians thought themselves owners of the fish; that they had been hospitable to these graceless, greedy visitors long enough; that the belated readiness of the British to share their fish was taken to be an (inadequate) recognition of local ownership and visitors' obligations. Fishing rights and fishing equipment were to become a constant theme in the developing contest between the two peoples, and between underlying understandings of 'ownership' and 'rights'.

With the move to Sydney cove puzzles multiplied. Unarmed convicts wandering in the 'woods' who encountered parties of Australians might be treated gently, even guided back to the colony while others, engaged in gathering herbs or the native 'tea' (sarsaparilla), or cutting rushes for roofing, were threatened with spears or even killed. For Phillip the victims had been innocently collecting the natural bounty of the forest. He therefore concluded that the attacks must have been acts of vengeance: that some convict had injured some Australian, and they had exacted a reasonable man's revenge. It did not occur to him that his men were pillaging the locals' larder with neither permission and payment. He took it as a mark of trust and therefore teachability when Australians readily occupied what he thought of as free 'gifts' of fish or bread or trinkets. Remember too his famous 'circle in the sand' at his first meting with the Port Jackson people. Phillip did not and could not fathom the Australians' more subtle and comprehensive understanding of reciprocity.

The British also had the habit of appropriating any unattended objects which attracted them. They had been doing it for years. On cook's second voyage in 1883 Captain Tobias Furneaux's ship the Adventure, separated from cook's Revolution, made landfall on the coast of Van Diemen's Land. His people saw clear signs of native presence - piles of scallop shells, smoke from fires - but failed to make contact with them. Then they came upon several 'wigwams, or huts', where they found some net bags, and in one of those bags the stone used to strike fire, along with some tinder made of bark. Another hut yielded a slender spear. These things the Adventure's people carried away, leaving instead of them, medals, gun flints, a few nails, and an old emp0ty barrel with iron hoops' - that is, metal items they thought the locals would covet. Was this thieving, 'collecting', or compulsory trade? Furneaux seems to have thought that what he saw as fair exchange could be no robbery.

Around Sydney, even as that first good-humoured 'romping' and dancing was going on, convicts and soldiers had begun to pick up the spears, spear-throwers, nets and paddles they found lying on the beach or tucked among the rocks to trade with home-bound sailors for the curiosity market at home. Payment was usually in spirits, an urgent need in that grim place. Did they think of this as theft? Might not these strangely feckless people have simply thrown the things away? The incomers could not know the value in hours and skill expended of their maker in the detail of the making, and would never be appropriated by an Australian. By the end of that first year Phillip reported 'the inhabitants of New South Wales to be among themselves perfectly honest. (They) often leave their spears and other implements upon the beach, in full confidence of finding them untouched'. Tench was equally clear, commenting, as formal trade was initiated late in 1790 (which was when he learnt how highly one warrior valued his spear? 'It is a painful consideration that every previous addition to the cabinet of the virtuosi from this country had wrung a tear from the plundered Indian.'

Despite such intuitions regarding the ownership of Australian objects and the sentiments stored within them, the British were less capable of analysing their own responses: when Australians in their turn picked up European objects they happened to want, like the metal spades or hatchets they saw lying about among the strangers, they risked being shot. Phillip himself tells of one old man, who within weeks of the British landfall had welcomed Phillip's second visit to his home territory, the southern branch of Broken Bay, 'with a song and a dance of joy'. On both visits he tended the wants of the British party with hostly warmth, and was accordingly rewarded with a hatchet and other small presents. Then he dared to pick up a spade. Phillip immediately gave him a couple of slaps on the shoulder, and pushed him away. He was astonished when the man flew into a rage, grabbed up his spear, and threatened his guest with it. Phillip remained steadfast; the old man lowered his spear - and Phillip was persuaded a valuable moral lesson regarding the sanctity of property had been learnt.

Phillip's usurpation of Sydney Cove with its small but reliable water supply and its grassy spaces, the features which had led him to select the site, had also excluded the Australians from reliably accessible water and good hunting grounds. Arthur Bowes Smyth had seen a mob of eleven kangaroos soon after the landing, but British stalking techniques, even aided by muskets, could not match the locals' hunting skills, and soon kangaroos were surely seen. By July 1788 Phillip knew the Australians around the settlement to be 'much distressed for food'. They would appear whenever the boats went out to haul the nets, but now they lacked the strength to fight for a share in the catch, instead being 'very weak and anxious to get the small fish, of which they made no account in the summer'. They were still avoiding the settlement, and three convicts, one with four spears left in him, had already been killed in the bush, but they still accompanied the Sirius or any other boat going down the harbour in their canoes, presumably hoping for fish. But now, catching fewer fish themselves, and with so many sick men to feed, the British could offer them little.

So how did the Australians living around the harbour see the British intruders? The people who first came upon the British fishing or exploring the coves of the harbour seem to have accepted their presence with unnerving equanimity. This suggests that they thought they knew who the strangers were, that they could make adequate sense of their sudden appearance within their own cosmology. Did they think the British were visiting ghosts, changed in form but familiar in sensibility, who would in time go on their mysterious ghostly way? Would that explain their keen curiosity as to whether these pallid creatures were sexual beings? Tench tells us that in those first beach encounters the Australian women had usually been kept back, but that sometimes they seemed to be 'offered with every appearance of courteous hospitality'. Why? Were the local males merely indicating that, in this regard at least, they possessed enviable wealth? Or were they testing the newcomers' corporeality? It remains impossible to know, because no one took them up on the offer, offer is really was.

One would have two main worries about the popular 'ghosts returned' hypothesis. First, there seems to have been no abrupt change in attitude, which is what we would expect had there been a radical revision of identification, second, the funeral rites described by Collins suggest the recently dead were troubling, even malign, presences which the living were anxious to speed on their way. One would expect a mob of returned ghosts to generate more anxiety. Were the British perhaps seen as a distant tribe, ignorant of the finer local protocols, but to be tolerated for as long as they were transients, especially as they came bearing gifts? In time, of course, local attitude clarified when, having established through experiment that the British were certainly human, they realised that these humans intended to stay, and to make their alienation of land and resources permanent.

What would they have seen as the young settlement established itself? Tench gives a brisk description of the unloading of the ships and the setting-up of the encampment from the British point of view:

Business now sat on every brow and the scene to an indifferent spectator, at leisure to contemplate it, would have been highly picturesque and amusing. In one place a party cutting down the woods, a second setting up a blacksmith's forge, a third dragging along a load of stones or provisions, here an officer pitching his marquee with a detachment of troops parading on one side of him and a cook's fire blazing upon the other. Through the unwearied diligence of those at the head of the different departments, regularity was, however, soon introduced, and as far as the unsettled state of matters would allow, confusion gave place to system.

There were other far from indifferent spectators of the scene, and one would doubt they found it 'amusing'. What could they have made of all that scrambling activity? Then two days after the landing there was a stranger spectacle. The Reverend Johnson conducted his first Sunday service, with troops and convicts gathered around a great tree. What would the silent watchers have made of a man shouting and occasionally gesticulating at other men and some women, grouped by sex, drawn up in rigid rows, and maintaining rigid silence? This must have been at least as bewildering a spectacle as White's mysterious 'war-party or wedding'. 

It is possible to construct some hypotheses. After all the initial exuberance between the British and local parties around the harbour, the encampment at Port Jackson saw only a few visits to its fringes before they fell away altogether some time aft4r that courtesy visit from the two old men. There followed a prolonged silence. Phillip was disappointed: what had gone wrong? Neither he nor we can know, but my suspicion is that the secret watchers saw men mindlessly attacking trees, including many useless for canoes or spears, and bringing them to the ground; shamefully demeaning themselves with women's work, digging in the ground where no yams grew while women sat idle; men dragging metal chains, carrying rocks, piling them up, while other men shouted and hit them; men decked in bright garments but quite unpainted, strutting and turning in the dullest dance ever seen. Meanwhile these peculiar people were feeding themselves on smelly dry stuff they tugged out of barrels and with the fish and greens they pilfered from the rightful owners, while marvellously edible animals were left to wander about on their own four legs, free to run away on a whim. The Australians were used to the wild wariness and dazzling speed of goannas and of absconding kangaroos. They knew nothing of the centuries of breeding which had produced the staid ways of domesticated flocking animals.

They also watched the strangers spread their dark airless habitations over the flats y the stream where the kangaroos came to graze and then frighten away the few which still came by outrageously inept stalking. Even with muskets the British could not approach the Australians' success. Later they would watch the newcomers unleash great dogs which would pull kangaroos down, at any season, in any numbers, with no thought of conserving supply. They would also see sick men lying untended, and other men seized, bound and punished by their fellows by that strange tool of civilisation, the whip. They would watch as men screamed or, worse, remained silent, as gobbets of bloody flesh flew. And they would see men strung up by their necks before silent companions in terrible isolation, with no intervention by kin, and then the bodies left to hang, their spirits uncomforted. There are other episodes we are not told they saw, but have reason to believe they did. When the British made their expeditions around the harbour and into the bush they kept a wary watch for Australians, but seemed to think that they themselves were invisible. One would doubt they were. One would also think the settlement was ringed by eyes, and all their sorties noted, discussed, puzzled over. Now consider the following story told by John Hunter.

The governor and most of his senior officials had been out on one of their expeditions, this time around Broken Bay and along the Hawkesbury, in June 1789. Now they were going home, and had arrived after a hard day's walk at the northern arm of Port Jackson. They had not arranged for a boat to meet them, and when a bonfire failed to attract attention from Sydney cove they had to set off the next day on another long walk to reach Middle harbour. Once there they still could not attract attention even by firing their muskets, so two of the rank and file, whether sailors or marines we don't know, offered to paddle a native canoe they found on the beach across the water to the cove where the Sirius was anchored. There was, however, a problem the first man who tried to get into the canoe immediately overset it and had to swim ashore. Pooling their formidable nautical expertise, the party then set about making a catamaran 'of the lightest wood we could find'. When it was finally launched it could not carry the weight of a single man, quietly sinking beneath him. 

It must have been an awkward situation, with the naval cream of the colony standing about defeated by a stretch of calm water, wondering what to do next. Some proposed making the tough two-day walk over the mountains and through the scrub to Sydney Cove. Hunter's shoes were already in shreds, so with the walk beyond him, he and his friend Collins decided to make the easier walk back to Broken Bay and wait for the boats there. Then two of 'the people we had with us' (after days of slogging and camping out, lesser ranks were still not worth mentioning by name), gallantly offered to swim across to a spur of land near the Sirius, a 400-metre swim achieved, as Hunter proudly tells us, in seven minutes the first Bay-to-Bay in Sydney Harbour. Another triumph of British pluck, if not of British seamanship, entered the record.

What would watching Australians have made of so pathetic a performance from British males, when their own women would take their frail canoes out past the breakers with infants aboard? What Tench and his friends indirectly tell us is that these wee a people who cultivated preternatural physical prowess to compensate for the necessary simplicity of their equipment. They were also a people who, living heroically hard, travelled heroically light. Travelling light is a necessity for all genuinely nomadic societies, where men and women must carry what they need as they travel between seasonal food sources, constantly moving on. They are not to be confused with the very different 'nomadic' pastoralists, who move through the land to favoured grazing, carting their supplies and equipment along with them in wagons or on pack animals, and doling food out for consumption at measured intervals. Such cautious travellers are not true nomads, who are rare creatures in the world.

To return to those astonishing canoes: a group called 'Tribal Warrior' has been working recently to restore the Aboriginal maritime presence on the waters of Sydney Harbour. They can take pride in their seafaring ancestors, the iron men and women of 1788. The anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner directs us to another more elusive quality which might have infused the canoe contretemps for Australian watchers. He points out that traditional Australian societies achieved an enviable equilibrium of effort and return: they not only lived confidently and (usually) well in austere circumstances, but 'sweetened existence by spiritual pursuits of life in no way concerned with mere survival... the least-cost routines (of material and social life) left free time, energy and enthusiasm to be expended - as they were, without stint - on all the things for which life could be lived when basic needs had been met: the joys of leisure, rest, song, dance, fellowship, trade, stylised fighting and the performance of religious rituals'. He sums up this complex as a talent for 'jullifying humdrum... it seemed to be a law of Aboriginal life to embroider the unavoidable'. 

'Jollifying humdrum.' the ability to see the comedy lurking in human affairs. Many British doings must have brought rich amusement to the Australians, along with the anxiety and the anger.

too much emphasis on mutual misreadings can obscure a remarkable fact. There may have been an early assumption among the British that these Australian 'savages', who seemed barely able to cling to life in their natural state, would either withdraw or simply die out, now that a higher civilisation had arrived. But our white forefathers regarded themselves as convict-keepers rather than settlers, and as invaders not at all. There were no pitched battles between residents and incomers, but instead, as we have seen, rather touching performances of mutual good will and gift-giving, and a remarkably determined endeavour by Phillip to bring the Australians into regular contact with the settlement so they could experience the benefits of civilised life. These natives had no pigs or breadfruit to in cite greed, they guarded their women well, and their spasmodic gestures of hostility posed no serious threat to the British. Phillip knew his enemy was not the Australians, but starvation.

Unusually in colonial situations, or at least the ones one would know about, for most of his five-year rule Phillip pursued an energetic policy of amity with the local population. Even more remarkably he, like many of his officers, recognised that these skinny, naked creatures were not animals in vaguely human form, but men like himself. And the Australians returned the compliment: gross and bleached as they were, impossibly inept at the basic business of living, their probably defective bodies kept wrapped and hidden from sight, the strangers were human too.

A Short History of Australia

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