In the March of 1786, the sheriffs of London presented a petition to the King of England, King George 111, stating the urgent need to transport unwanted, diseased criminals crowding England’s jails and hulks. With the colonies of the America no longer an option – they were lost during the war of independence in 1783, the suitability of various places around the globe was undertaken by a Committee of the House of Commons.
Alexander Dalrymple, an Admiral of the British navy and Scottish geographer, and Joseph Banks, the naturalist and botanists both advised the committee to consider New South Wales. Dalrymple had studied previous European accounts of the still poorly known ‘South Lands’- what was to become Australia, and had influenced a new mission of ‘discovery’ to New Holland in 1769 by Captain James Cook. Based on the largely mistaken observations of this voyage, the continent was described as a land with few people and considered to be ‘in a flourishing state for the introduction of farming and grazing.’ Joseph Banks himself asserted there would be very little opposition from the native inhabitants as there were very few of them, and that whilst they were armed, he believed extremely cowardly. After lengthy consideration by the committee, it was agreed New South Wales would be settled for the effectual disposing of convicts. It was announced terra nullius, that is, no-one’s land, since it appeared to belong to no-one, had no sign of agricultural or pastoral exploitation, and was without frontiers or borders. This made the area extremely attractive to colonise with a view to ultimately becoming a source of profit and power.
In contrast, the First Australians, the ‘native’ inhabitants of the continent, saw a landscape created and inhabited by ancestral spirits that provided the resources necessary for survival. Land was not owned, traded or fenced in, as the concept of borders for the First Australians was in sharp contrast to that of Western culture. Within five years of the First Fleet landing on the east coast of Australia, relations between the British settlers and the First Australians would descend from mutual intrigue and wonder, to distrust, fear and loathing on both sides. The lush meadows of Cook’s distant lands would prove to be more difficult to graze and farm by Governor Phillip and the continually arriving convicts and settlers than first perceived due to Australia’s harsh environment and the fierce resistance of the First Australians in the dispossession of their lands.
The British settlers and convicts arriving on the glimmering shores of Botany Bay in January 1788 had no pre-dated physical contact with the First Australians, although varied descriptions of hunter-gatherers as ‘barbarous’ or ‘savage’ grew out of the contacts Englishmen had with the Africans in the sixteenth century. Dampier’s voyages informed the English, and when he wrote an account in his journal in 1687 of the men of New Holland – Australia as it was known back then, standing around like statues and grinning like Monkeys, he underpinned a core prejudice that has threaded it’s way over more than two centuries, typifying and collectivising Aboriginal peoples, and stagnating them as eternally timeless beings. During the eighteenth century, idealised constructs by French Philosophers of indigenous peoples increasingly came to be read as evidence of a social and political unsophistication. The idea that ‘natives’ lived in untouched natural surroundings and were free from a material and capitalist world culminated in the notion of ‘the noble savage,’ influencing the narratives of voyages such as Rousseau, Tasman and Cook. The quite specific idea of savagery that supported these racial ‘hierarchies’ was underpinned by the assumption that all peoples possessed a capacity to surpass this savage condition.
The first encounters between the British and the First Australians on the shores of Botany Bay were tempered with what Watkin Tench, a young British marine officer, noted in his journal as, ‘curiosity to its utmost’. Tench noted native people shouting and making uncouth signs and gestures on the edge of the cliffs. With societies so radically dissimilar, these actions were received with caution as Tench conveyed the Governor immediately proceeded to land on the other side in order to take possession of his new territory, and bring about an intercourse between its old and new masters. Whilst Tench was initially influenced by the writings of Rousea’s ‘noble savage’, and by all accounts sympathetic toward the First Australians, his statement makes clear there was no question of the British superiority and the subsequent lawful possession of land. It was now just a question of convincing the First Australians. The first Governor of Port Jackson, Admiral Arthur Phillip, was a man of high moral standing and great personal courage. His close study of hints on how to handle natives offered by the Earl of Morton instructed, ‘the shedding of native blood was prohibited’, and ‘land could not be taken without consent’. He attempted to ensure all efforts be made by the colonists to instigate friendly relations with the First Australians, even if this was in an effort to buy their friendship and support to further the colony. The native inhabitants were, after all, considered British subjects and therefore to be treated with respect. In spite of these initial orders, the British government decided that Australia was Terra Nullius and took possession of the land anyway, without asking the First Australians. As Tench remarked, ‘Our first object was to win their affections, and our next to convince them of the superiority we possessed; for without the latter, the former we knew would be of little importance’.
In these initial encounters trinkets such as looking glasses, beads and bits of cloth were laid out on the shore for inspection by the First Australians who reportedly appeared pleased with them but then often discarded them when the colonists had gone. Upon being shown fresh water by the First Australians, Tench re-counts, ‘the natives… pointed to a spot where water could be procured…as on the event of this meeting might depend so much of our future tranquillity, every delicacy on our side was requisite. …The conduct of both parties pleased each other so much, that the strangers returned to their ships with a much better opinion of the natives than they had landed with’. So friendly were these initial meetings within three days Lieutenant William Bradley, upon charting the harbour with a view to moving to Port Jackson, was welcomed ashore by unarmed men who then all mixed hands and danced together and the Surgeon John White expressed wonder at the First Australians powers of mimicry.
First fleet Captain John Hunter recounts, ‘…will be no very difficult matter, in due time, to conciliate their friendship and confidence….. I am inclined to think, that by residing some time amongst, or near them, they will soon discover that we are not their enemies, a light they no doubt considered us in on first arrival’. Phillip then reportedly attempted to define a boundary between native land and the land he appropriated for his settlement. Initially the colonial officials were convinced the First Australians were satisfied with this arrangement. Tench relates, ‘they not only received our people with great cordiality, but so far acknowledged their authority as to submit, that a boundary be drawn on the sand, and which they have attempted not to infringe’. This ‘authority’ was short lived and officers were ordered to guard the area with guns.
Nonetheless Phillip persevered, proclaiming, ‘we are still in the dawn of the world, with friendship between unlikely peoples a blossoming hope – given the universality of reason and local good will.’ His confidence in this early colonial representation of the First Australians emphasises his belief there was no innate, permanent difference in races, and ‘savagery’ was a stage of transition all peoples went through on the way to civilisation. His belief the superiority of the British must have been obvious to all parties was probably interpreted by the First Australians as acts of insouciance or tolerant courtesies. He fostered a relationship with a young married man by the name of Bennelong who lived in Wangal territory who proved an important member of the colony and a great source of information for Phillip.
Not all colonists however shared Phillip’s attitude or investment in the peaceful relations he tried to instil. Whilst often it was more probable it was the convicts who were the aggressors, hostilities were felt by the British in the presence of large crowds. Colonists increasingly complained of their fears and mistrust to Phillip and banned First Australians from their land. Mixed reports heightened the fear amongst the settlers and whispers the ‘natives’ were cannibals was asserted by Captain Hunter when he wrote in his journal a claim human bones had been found near a fire where the ‘natives’ were feasting and that ‘the people who had committed the murder had certainly ate him’.
As the colony began to expand and it became apparent the British were not here to visit, Tench recounts the First Australians who had visited Sydney cove gradually did not return. Other tribes retaliated by threatening to spear colonists who did not accommodate their demands. Finding themselves increasingly isolated from their resources and sacred sites, at the end of Phillips third year in a confusing encounter he was speared by a First Australian. In spite of, or perhaps because of this, the First Australians finally filtered into Government house which provided a source of food. Not all British shared in Phillips delight stating, ‘They eat, drink and sleep in the camp with the most perfect sang-froid’.
Although the First Australians at this time had a long history of contact with other people and cultures, such as the Macassan trepan fisherman coming from the north, they were never confronted with these people permanently settling. Relations between the two parties deteriorated in spite of the ‘friendly’ intentions of the administrators, and it soon became clear that expropriation of land went together with resistance. As the colonists expanded far beyond the original penal settlements of the First and Second Fleets, fights and clashes between the two cultures became more and more frequent. The new British settlers established more and more large scale farms and relied on fences and local settler militia to keep the First Australians from encroaching on their newly claimed land. This isolated the First Australians from their resources and sacred sites and weakened their spiritual connections to their societies. Lietenant-Colonel David Collins recounts in 1791, ‘The natives at the Hawkesbury were at this time very troublesome, burning a dwelling-house and a stack of wheat belonging to a settler there, after having plundered him of all his possessions’. Further to this incident, the First Australians were in the habit of catching fish in the harbour and exchanging them for meat or bread in Parramatta of which they had now grown very fond. Some convicts however maliciously destroyed a canoe of a young First Australian named ‘Bellooderry’ during one such exchange. Such was Bellooderry’s rage that although the offenders were eventually prosecuted, he speared two innocent convicts twice through the body. This caused Phillip to forbid the natives to come over to the settlement.
As the war of resistance continued and the colonist’s failed to assert their superiority over the First Australians, frustration and disappointment turned to hostility and the evoking of traditional European stereotypes of ‘savagery’ in the justification of colonisation. David Collins writes in 1797, ‘The savage inhabitants of the country, instead of losing any part of their native ferocity of manners by an intercourse with the Europeans among whom they dwelt, seemed rather to delight in exhibiting themselves as monsters of the greatest cruelty, devoid of reason, and guided solely by the impulse of the worst passions’. Emotions ran high on both sides. By this point, Captain John Hunter gives no hint in his writings that he thought the Australians even potentially educable: when ‘passion’ overcame them, he said, ‘they act as all savages do, as madmen’. For a while, it looked like something was possible here that hadn’t happened anywhere else, that something remarkable might have been achieved. But that dawn closed, quickly and catastrophically, within a few years.
Efforts to ‘civilise’ the First Australians were thus made in the 1820’s and 1830’s, inducing them to give up their wandering by grouping them on reserved areas modelled on an English village. Here they were encouraged in the ways of Christianity, settlement and cultivation. European place names and the mapping of Australia according to the European perspective of an undiscovered land coincided with a narrative separation of European settlers from the Aboriginals to formalize and legitimise Britain’s imperialism.
The idea they were incapable of improvement in general and cultivation in particular by the mid nineteenth century defined them as having an innate deficiency and a permanent ‘savage’ condition, inspiring greater acts of terror by the colonists in the ever increasing conception they were doomed to extinction. Relations in Sydney town had now disintegrated, rum had taken hold and as Dr Marcia Langton describes, ‘Aborigines became fringe dwellers and despised and hated’ setting the tone for the duration of European colonisation.
The ‘hopeful anticipations’ of Cooks distant lands proved fruitless in the relations between settlers and First Australians which were cemented in the early years of colonisation. The First Australians refusal to submit to the supposed ‘superiority’ of the British and their desires of land and friendship invoked conventional stereotypes in the wake of the dispossession of their lands. This is faultlessly expressed in Bennelong’s obituary, once an important member of British society in those first instrumental years of contact, denigrated in his obituary to ‘a naturally barbarous and ferocious thorough savage’, setting the tone for relations between settlers and First Australians for the duration of British colonisation.