When the Europeans met the First Australians

Posted by barbara on September 21, 2013


Sydney Harbour, north east of Sydney Cove, the site of European 'settlement' in 1788


When people talk about Australia’s early colonial history, the so-called convict days, too often the focus zeros in on the ‘clash of civilisations’ between the incomers, the British, and the incumbents, the First Australians.  

The notion that conflict was the order of the day between the ‘new arrivals’ and the ‘old hands’ is understandable. Most popular accounts, including sensationalised TV programs and books over the years, would have us believe that 'violence and racism' were the order of the day.

As a result, some Australians, including younger generations, grow up believing that there was a deliberate policy to exterminate the First Australians, or at the very least make their life sheer hell, from day one: 26 January 1788. The latest research, however, indicates that encounters between the two disparate civilisations was anything but fractious and evil in intent, especially at the official level. 


A 'tall ship', top right, shares Sydney Harbour with modern day ferries.


Published in 2003, Inga Clendinnen’s incisive and thoughtful book, Dancing with Strangers, reminds us that 'Phillip had arrived burdened with an armful of instructions on how to handle natives'. (Page 23) And as she spells out ‘Governor Phillip brought a determination verging on obstinacy to the business of persuading the local population to friendship; a determination rare, possibly unique, in the gruff annals of imperialism. He pursued Morton’s strategies from refusing the use of guns, even at the cost of taking casualties, down to the detail of the ribbons and looking-glasses.’ (Page 25)

In her equally informative book, The Colony, Grace Karskens talks of co-existence rather than conflict in and around Sydney and beyond between the Europeans and Aborigines.

She explores ‘the aftermath of the invasion which sketches out the impacts of hardening ideas about race, rising respectability and expanding suburbs and industries upon Aboriginal people who had already survived invasion, dispossession and smallpox. On the plain and near the coast, Aboriginal people came to live ‘between the lines of the Europeans’ cadastral grids and boundaries, in areas not yet taken, or not wanted, making other histories in places which were hidden from view. (Page 4)  

As she writes ‘Before the ships had even sailed, Phillip had decided that he would cultivate good relations with the Eora. His instructions were to ‘open an intercourse with them’, to live in amity and kindness’ and to punish those who harmed them or interfered with their ‘several occupations’.  … Phillip would lay down his weapons, and approach them, arms outstretched, palms open’. (Pages 48-49) 


Take away the bulidings dotting the southern side of Sydney Harbour and its possible to imagine the scene that greeted the 'banished convicts, their guards and their governors' in 1788 as referred to by Grace Karskens


So intent on establishing friendly relations was the penal colony's Governor Phillip that he resorted to kidnap, taking into custody an Aboriginal man, Bennelong, at Manly Beach in 1789 so that he could find out more about the native inhabitants of the Great South Land.

Gaining insights into First Australians language and customs was high on his agenda, as was winning them over to what he sincerely believed was a demonstratively superior culture. As a man bearing gifts, Phillip assumed wrongly that the incumbents would jump at the chance to don European clothes to ward off the bitter winter cold. How wrong he was.

The top down attitude towards the Eora, the coastal Aboriginal people, was drummed into the ‘new Australians’. And from 1806, 18 years after the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, newcomers to the colony were left in no doubt about the rules of engagement with the native citizenry.

How do we know? Apart from the public record including proclamations and a vast body of official paperwork built up over the years, the rules of engagement with the First Australians was clearly spelt out in a handy pocket book that anyone who was anyone wouldn’t dream of being without.


Frontispiece for the 1806 pocket almanack


First published in 1806, the New South Wales Pocket Almanack and Colonial Remembrancer was a vital compendium of important dates (local events, festivals, religious observances and so on), tide heights and planting and harvesting times of year. More importantly it, also included an alphabetical listing of the rules of colonial life, known as General Orders.

On page 45, under 'General Orders', the almanack clearly states: ‘Natives not to be treated with inhumanity or injustice; prof. and indictment. June 30 1802'.

What could be clearer than that? The overall intentions of the leadership group were well-intentioned, high-minded even.

That’s not to say that there weren’t skirmishes. Undeniably some convicts interfered with Indigenous women and earned retaliation from their menfolk. Undoubtedly there were 'bad eggs' in the convict ranks. And we know that self serving individuals took the law into their own hands on the so-called ‘frontiers’, beyond the arm of the law. As ex-cons illegally 'squatted' on land beyond the ‘limits of location’, (in other words far beyond the colony's official limits), clearly anything went, on an out of sight out of mind basis when it came to attacks on both sides.

And as to the question of whether the British should have heisted the continent from the First Australians in the first place, it’s worth putting the setting up of a penal colony in 1788 into context.

The British after all were at war with Great Britain. Indeed, for the first 15 (check) years of the penal colony’s existence, there was the very real threat that the French would win the war and help themselves to English lands, buildings and wealth, turfing out the losers.

But to put the ‘incoming’ of the British into the colony of New South Wales into perspective, we need to compare it with age-old ‘invasions’ of the homeland of England, for example. It’s worth remembering that at the very time the British were planning and setting sail for their penal colony, they were facing annihilation at the hands of the French, with the Napoleonic Wars very much ‘alive and well’, and the outcome anything but certain. It was every nation and country for itself.

So great was this fear, especially for the British living closest to the Channel and the likely point of invasion, that some were prepared to sell up their ancient estates and translocate their families to Sydney for fear of losing everything if the British lost the war to Napoleon and his troops. For Gregory Blaxland of Blue Mountains crossing fame, and his older brother and head of the family, John Blaxland of 'Newington' on the Parramatta River, the threat of invasion helped sway their decision to call Australia home rather than England.

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