1788 and All That!
My ancestral connection this to wonderful land that we call Australia dates back to 8am on January 20th 1788. That 235 years may seem a long time but it is of course rather dwarfed to insignificance by the tens of millennia of ancestral connection held by families of the original inhabitants.
Why January 20th and not the 26th?
January 20th is the date that the Sirius first made landfall in Australia. Accompanied by the slower ships of the Fleet, it had arrived at the entrance to Botany Bay the evening before. Arthur Phillip, on the Supply, had reached the Bay on the 18th. The faster ships of the Fleet had arrived in the Bay on the 19th.
On November 25th 1787, 12 days after they had left Capetown, Arthur Phillip split the Fleet up. He moved from the Sirius to the Supply taking with him carpenters and artificers. He had hoped the Supply would get him to Botany Bay 2 or 3 weeks before the rest of the fleet where he could choose a site for the settlement and have temporary storehouses built for the supplies.
The three best sailing transports left the rest of the Fleet that same day under the command of Lieutenant Shortland. This left Captain John Hunter in command of the remaining vessels including the Charlotte which had sailed so poorly that it even had to be towed for several days earlier in the Fleet’s journey to stop it falling too far behind.
Hunter however was a shrewd sailor who had earned his captainship the hard way. He took these slower ships further south to gain the benefit of the stronger winds. It made for a much rougher voyage but he brought all those “slow” vessels safely into Botany Bay only hours behind the rest of the Fleet.
The successful arrival of the First Fleet was indeed a remarkable feat for the British, but it had a dark side. It marked the beginning of a long-lasting conflict of cultures, a history of mutual misunderstandings and dispossession.
Any rights of the existing inhabitants had been dismissed as non-consequential years before. In his arguments supporting the proposed Botany Bay settlement, Joseph Banks, who had travelled there with Captain Cook, had claimed:
there would be little Probability of any Opposition from the Natives as, during his stay there, in the year 1770, he saw very few, and had reason to believe there were not above Fifty in the whole Neighbourhood … and [they] constantly retired from our People when they made the least Appearance of Resistance.
As they arrived in 1788, the British may not have understood the language but they were certainly made well aware they were not welcome by members of the Tharawal and Eora1 Nations:
Lieutenant King, on the Supply as it passed by Cape Solander on January 18th, saw:
several of the Natives running along the Top of the Hills brandishing their Spears and halloing
and that afternoon when he went to the north shore with Phillip:
… the Natives who before were sitting down got up, and called to us in a very menacing and vociferous tone of voice, at the same time poising their Spears or Lances as if intending to throw them at us.
When the rest of the Fleet arrived on January 20th, Hunter observed:
As the ships were sailing in, a number of natives assembled on the south shore, and, by their motions, seemed to threaten; they pointed their spears, and often repeated the words, wara, wara, wara.
Lieutenant William Bradley tells how, when men from the Sirius were sent to clear a run of water on the south side of Botany Bay:
The Natives were well pleased with our People until they began clearing the ground at which they were displeased and wanted them gone.
The British, perceiving this growing displeasure, thought it a good time to demonstrate the superiority of British weaponry. Lieutenant Ball, Commander of the Supply:
took one of their Shields and set it up against an old stump of a tree and fired one of his pistols at it which [frightened] them when they heard the Report but much more when they saw the ball went through the Shield.
Later, as the fleet entered Port Jackson, Master’s Mate Daniel Southwell said:
The natives, too, form'd a [part] in the [landscape], for some of them had posted themselves on the overhanging cliffs here and there, as [though] to dispute our passage up, brandish'd their lances …
There were attempts to buy friendship with baubles and trinkets but apart from giving some initial amusement these were not treasured. While interactions were sometimes cordial, the British efforts to “form friendships” were often met with aggression.
The sort of “friendship” they were offering was, at best, patronising. Comments, made in many of the officers’ journals and letters, were often derisive and demeaning.
In some of these interactions, the Europeans seemed to believe it was the Aborigines who were the intruders.
For example, Watkin Tench, a captain of the marines, in writing about the La Perouse visit to Botany Bay, said:
Like ourselves, the French found it necessary more than once, to chastise a spirit of rapine and intrusion which prevailed among the Indians around the bay. The menace of pointing a musket to them was frequently used, and in one or two instances was fired off, though without being attended by fatal consequences.
The Eora’s main food source was fish but the British were now harvesting the waters of the harbour. Necessity forced the Eora into an uneasy alliance.
David Collins, who would become Judge Advocate and Secretary of the Colony, wrote:
The natives who had become accustomed to assisting our people in hauling the seine2, and were content to wait for such reward as the person who had the direction of the boat thought proper to give them, either driven by hunger, or moved by some other cause, came down to the cove where they were fishing, and, perceiving that they had been more successful than usual, took by force about half of what had been brought on shore.
After that, an armed petty officer was to be sent to stop such a thing happening again.
Was the arrival of the British an Invasion or a Beneficent Act?
The area around Sydney Cove had been the home of the Gadigal Clan of the Eora Nation. The Tank Stream had provided them with fresh water. The waterways had supplied them with fish. In the surrounding bush and grassland they had hunted and foraged. But the British now occupied that land, at first with tents and soon after with more solid buildings. They took the water from the stream and harvested the fish. The Gadigal had been pushed out.
Six weeks after the Fleet’s arrival in Port Jackson, David Collins commented that:
It was natural to suppose that the curiosity of these people would be attracted by observing that, instead of quitting, we were occupied in works that indicated an intention of remaining in their country …
In writing this, David Collins was clearly focused on what he (wrongly) thought was a lack of curiosity on the part of the local community. But in that sentence we also have Collins, a Judge Advocate who presided at the law courts of the budding colony, acknowledging that the British were building their first settlement on land that they knew belonged to someone else. “[Our] intention of remaining in their country” he wrote.
So the British newcomers:
- had been told many times to leave by the original inhabitants; but instead
- were establishing a settlement on land they knew belonged to someone else; and
- were prepared, where necessary, to apply their demonstrably superior force of arms to defend the appropriation of that land and its resources.
The establishment of the Sydney Cove settlement seems therefore to have had all the elements of an invasion: it was an unwelcome takeover by an armed force.
Yet eighteenth century British minds did not see it that way at all. New South Wales had been claimed for Britain and their Government had determined that a base there was necessary. In any case, spreading British influence, British culture, they believed to be a beneficent act. Any opposition received from the previous inhabitants would be just another obstacle to be overcome.
Phillip and his officers had been assigned a mission. Phillip in particular had a dogged determination to see it through. He had a vision of creating a thriving outpost of the British Empire. He had loyal British subjects prepared to do their duty to assist.
The scene was thus set for many years of hurt and confrontation.
At this point only Eora land had been taken. Dharug land would be taken next. Over the months, years and decades that followed, the expansion of this British outpost would see Aboriginal Nations across the continent dispossessed of their lands.
This year, 2023, I will take the opportunity of voting for the Voice. It is just one small step in the recognition of the original inhabitants of this land but an important one.
This article contains extracts from an, as yet, unfinished book that I have been writing far too slowly and for far too long. I have chosen to omit the long list of references.
1 The term “Eora” was what the British thought must have been the name for the people occupying the land around Port Jackson and down to Botany Bay. The Tharawal’s lands went south from Botany Bay.
2 Seine: A vertical fishing net that is hauled along in an attempt to encircle a large number of fish.