Aspects Of Early History



We have seen that by the time he had dispatched his 'Narrative' to England in October 1788, Watkin Tench was regretfully deciding the natives of the new land were savages after all, and 'like all other savages, are either too indolent, too indifferent or too fearful to form an attachment on easy terms with those who differ in habits or manners so widely from them'. (He unsurprisingly failed to notice that the British were experiencing much the same difficulty.) But that was because he had lost the hope of continuing contact with those fascinating people. Over the coming months he was to prove, like his friend William Dawes, not the least 'indolent, indifferent or fearful' in pursuit of a better understanding.

Phillip had done his best to improve relations by trying to stamp out the trade in stolen Australian artefacts, forbidding the sale of native fishing tackle or weapons within the camp. But trouble continued: over that first year more than a dozen convicts 'unaccountably disappeared', others were found dead, often mutilated, while others again were found alive, but stripped and wounded as if in exemplary warning. worse, the Australian responses were not predictable. In July 1788 two convicts had sneaked off to Botany Bay, 'gathering vegetables', they said, when they came upon a party of Australians, who signed to them to go back the way they had come. Instead they ran in different directions. Spears were thrown, and one man suffered two wounds. Nonetheless he plunged into the water and 'escaped' by swimming across a narrow arm of the bay - while 'the natives' (who could very easily have killed him) 'stood on the bank laughing at him'. Then yet another Australian found him, and helped him back to the settlement. Collins also reports that despite hostile incidents some Australians were reliably friendly, one 'family' living in an adjoining cove being 'visited by large parties of the convicts of both sexes on those days when they were not wanted for labour, where they danced and sang with apparent good humour, and received such presents as they could afford to make them', which reminds us that a great deal was going on that did not appear in the records.

Tench had first thought the Australian speared convicts in the woods for the fun of it - in 'a spirit of malignant levity', as he put it - but on longer reflection he came to share Phillip's view that it was 'the unprovoked outrages committed by unprincipled individuals' which had led to the change from cautious friendship to dangerous aggression. The change had been slow, and sometimes ambiguous even to those who experienced it, but by late 1788 the situation was clear. Lieutenant Bradley regretfully reported:

What has been experienced lately in several instanced meetings with the Natives, has occasioned me to alter those very favourable opinions I had formed of them, & however much I wished to encourage the idea of their being friendly disposed, I must acknowledge now convinced that they are only so, when they suppose we have them in our power or are well prepared by being armed. Latterly they have attacked almost every person who has met with them that has not had a musquet & have sometimes endeavoured to surprise some who had.

Then the Australians went unequivocally on the offensive, mounting two well-executed raids canoe raids into British territory and making off with a succulent British goat each time, so showing again in Bradley's opinion, 'great cunning'. The strategy was for two canoe-loads of men to swoop down on an edge of the settlement - the Observatory point in this particular case - and while one lot distracted the guard the others would spear a goat, toss the animal into a towed canoe, and make off at speed. the British could not catch them. Then a couple of weeks later, they did it again . Then a whole canoe fleet carrying more than thirty men  barely failed to snatch some precious British sheep.

Just what was going on in these occasional acts of aggressive against British men (attributed, as we see, to an undifferentiated collectivity called 'natives') might become clearer with time. As for the raids, I think that on the evidence we have, we cannot know whether the Australians' abduction of the animals was in retaliation for the disruption of their own hunting, or simply the retaliation for the disruption of their own hunting, or simply the taking of desirable meat from hopelessly incompetent hunters. The elegance of the strategy, however, clearly demonstrates malice aforethought, and some pleasure, too. Phillip regretfully decided that for the moment the Australians would have to be taught to keep their distance, and resorted to firearms to do the teaching.

With alienation increasingly dramatised in 'incidents', he also decided on a strategy of his own. He would kidnap a couple of local men, treat them kindly, teach them English, and so at last be able to communicate the benevolence of his intentions. In vies of the frightening diminution in the colony's supplies, he also hoped to gain access to local food resources. A desperate strategy, to kidnap in order to make friends, but one with a long history in the annals of imperialism. Accordingly, on the second-last day of 1788 a boat under the command of Lieutenant Ball of the supply and Lieutenant George Johnston of the marines pulled into Many cove, and two men were lured within reach by the offer of gifts. Then they were grabbed, and wrestled into the boat. One managed to fight free, but the other was overpowered, bound, and taken to the settlement. He was to remain there until his death from smallpox in May 1789. His name was Arapanoo.

Arabanoo must have gone through pure terror on that first day, and then for days to come seized, flung into the bottom of a huge canoe, surrounded by clamouring strangers, stripped, immersed in hot water, and his skin roughly scrubbed and his hair cropped before his whole body was trussed in some strange yielding stuff. But he was, his abductors decided, of a docile, even melancholy, temperament and quickly accustomed himself to captivity. He attracted a great deal of attention over those first days, but long after his novelty wore off for other officer. Arabanoo continued to enthrall Watkin Tench. Up until now Tench had had to focus on mute material objects, like spears or bark shelters or canoes, in his quest for understanding. He had also learnt something of Australian social organisation: he had begun to identify 'wives' and to guess at tribal divisions or alliances from inflections of warmth or hostility between groups. But (like the rest of us) he was most hopeful of arriving at a deepened understanding through getting to know an individual.

Tench spent a great deal of time with Arabanoo, and he learnt a great deal from him. Initially he had the usual difficulty of distinguishing individual quirks from what we would call cultural practises. One example: he was astounded at Arabanoo's prodigious appetite for fish and meat - until he realised this was not peculiar to Arabanoo but an attribute of the nomad hunter, who cannot store what he catches. With the benefit of hindsight we can sometimes guess at things Tench could not see. For example, he knew nothing of leaves of initiation or the hierarchy of knowledge in the male Australian world: he saw Arabanoo's patterned scars, and only wondered at their ugliness. He knew Arabanoo was eager to teach him his language. He therefore judged him to be slow-witted when he would suddenly fall silent. He did not consider that Arabanoo might not have been at liberty to answer certain questions or to speak of certain things. But despite opacities and misunderstanding, Tench came to love Arabanoo, recognising him as a gentle soul, and a remarkably patient one, being especially tender with the children who constantly clamoured around him - including, presumably Tench's young friend from the beach - and we wonder if this warrior tolerance of children was a cultural habit, too.

Tech also noticed another quality: a high, even touchy, sense of self-worth.

Although of a gentle and placable temper, we early discovered that he was impatient of indignity and allowed no superiority on our part. He knew he was in our power, but the independence of his mind never forsook him...If the slightest insult were offered him, he returned it with interest.

That is: he was gentle, but he was a man jealous of his dignity, and even in alien circumstances quick to respond to challenge. Phillip should have taken warning from that.

Arabanoo's capture failed to have the desired conciliatory effect. Interracial relations continued to deteriorate. In March 1789 a party of convicts marched off in a body to plunder people at botany Bay of their fishing tackle and spears. Black warriors routed them, killing one and wounding seven. Phillip, furious at the floating of the orders, had the survivors flogged, and insisted that Arabanoo watch this display of the splendid impartiality of British justice. Arabanoo was sickened by it, as he was sickened by the fetters and chains convicts dragged around with them. He seemed to think that men should not be subject4d to such humiliation.

The education of Arabanoo in the ways of the British was interrupted by the eruption of diseases, first 'the venereal', and then, more alarmingly, smallpox - no one knew from where but they thought perhaps from the ships of La Perouse, long since sailed away. the earnest labour of the British, especially White and his surgeons, in their seeking out and care for survivors, along with their frequent expression of bafflement as to its origin, persuade me that the story of their deliberate infection of the locals by 'variolous matter' brought in by 'doctors' is a nonsense - especially as they had no physical access to individual natives at that early stage except for Arabanoo, who sickened only in the later stages of the epidemic. (Now it has been reasonably demonstrated that the smallpox probably came overland from the Macassan traders who cropped the trepang along the northern coasts of Australia.)

The dimensions of the catastrophe were horribly evident. Soon black corpses were littering the beaches and the bays, and piled in the caves. Of the handful of stricken people found alive and brought into the settlement for treatment, only two, a boy called Nanbaree, about nine years old, and a fourteen-year-old girl, first called Araboo, later corrected to Boorong, survived, and were adopted into the households of Surgeon White and the Reverend Johnson. Arabanoo's tenderness towards his afflicted compatriots so touched Phillip that he had his remaining fetter struck off. He did not use his new liberty to return to his own people, perhaps because too many were dead. David Collins memorialised his anguish:

On our taking him down to the harbour to look for his former companions, those who witnessed his expression and his agony can never forget either. He looked anxiously around him in the different coves we visited; not a vestige on the sand was to be found of human foot; the excavations in the rocks were filled with the putrid bones of those who had fallen victim to the disorder, not a living person was any where to be met with...He lifted up his hands and eyes in silent agony for some time; at last he exclaimed, 'All dead! All dead!'

The Australians traditionally explained what we would classify as natural human deaths as the fruit of malicious sorcery. They probably began by blaming sorcery for the smallpox, until the deaths multiplied beyond the possibility of individual malice or clan anger. As far as can be judged from biologists' analyses of skeletal remains, theirs was a society unacquainted with epidemic disease. it was also a society careful of human lives once past the vicissitudes of infancy and before the fatal dependency of extreme age. Food-getting had its risks, but no usually lethal ones, and while there were set-piece battles between rival groups and individuals where the risk of injury was high, the annihilation of the enemy was never the object: when courage had been adequately displayed on both sides and enough blood shed, the battle ended. the occasional massacre of whole campfire groups in retaliation for particular secret murders paradoxically only underlines the high value placed on the individual life. Even as late as the 1930s W.E.H. Stanner noticed that while the great battles he witnessed in the Northern Territory provided ample space for courage, skill and fortitude, and were genuinely terrifying to watch, few deaths resulted, because 'an invisible flag of prudence floated over the field'.

In the autumn of 1789 around Sydney cove, deaths came in scores and hundreds. Baneelon, a later captive of Phillip's, told him that the smallpox had killed up to half the local population. We know his fellow captive Colbee had lost all but two of his band to the disease, and had to unite with another clan. What we do not know is the effect this massive loss had either on individual survivors, or on their social practices. In mid-May 1789 Arabanoo died of the small-pox, and Tench and his British friends grieved for him.


John Hunter lamented the death of Arabanoo not only for personal reasons, but because it signalled the death of the hope of reconciliation. Had Arabanoo lived, 'he could have made (his people) perfectly understand that we wished to live with them on the most friendly footing, and that we wished to promote, as much as might be in our power, their comfort and happiness' - which indicates that the British as yet had no awareness of possible conflict over land. Now, despite the weakening effects of the smallpox, 'the same suspicious dread of our approach' and the same acts of vengeance takes on unfortunate stragglers continued unabated. With the colony facing the prospect of starvation, Phillip decided to kidnap again. In December 1789 two men were lured into waist-deep water by the offer of fish; then seized, bound, and taken to the settlement. Their pitted faces made clear that both had survived the smallpox. the child-survivors Nanbaree and Boorong, wildly excited to see them greeted them by name, the older man as Colbee, and the younger as Baneelon.

In a double display of guile and athleticism Colbee managed to escape after a week's captivity, with an iron fetter on his leg as memento of his time among the British, but Baneelon was to remain a captive for the best part of five months. A very cheerful captive: John Hunter, with his informed interest in the effects of rank on behaviour, thought Beneelon 'much more cheerful after Co-al-by's absence, which confirmed our conjecture, and the children's account, that he was a man more distinguished in his tribe than Ba-nalang'.

Why 'Baneelon' instead of the familiar Bennelong'? The issue of correct naming across cultural boundaries is a painful one, and too often, symptomatic of a wider incomprehension. surgeon white noted that, at the time of his capture, 'this native had no less than five names, viz. "Baneelon, Wollewarre, Boinba, Bunde-bunda, Woge trowey". He also noted that 'he likes best to be called by the second'. Tench confirms that at first the captured man called himself 'Woharaware', and bestowed that name on the governor. Years later David Collins would set down his patiently accumulated information on how Australian names were given, and how they might be taken away. Names might claim real or fictive kin relationships, as when Beneelon gave Phillip the name of Be-anna, 'father', while having Phillip call him 'son'. some names were temporary, marking transient states and statuses. Individuals might exchange names to express affection, and then call each other by yet another name to celebrate the exchange. After death the name of the deceased ceased to be spoken, so those who had shared the name took another. (Before you dismiss all this as ridiculous and unworkable, list the number of names you have gone by throughout the course of your life, beginning with your baby name or names.) The British outsiders had no understanding of the complex social meanings stored within their captive's array of names. 'Basneelon' or 'Bennilong' or 'Ba-na-lang' was what they chose to call him - an uncertain sequence of sounds designating an individual, stripped of kin and social and ritual relationships, stripped of gender, stripped of status. (We learn from Tench that Baneelon meant 'Great Fish'. He also tells us that Baneelon 'has been seen to kill more than twenty fish by this method (of spearing from a canoe) in an afternoon', so it is possible 'Baneelon' was a feat-name.)

It has been chosen to call this man by the unfamiliar version 'Baneelon' (the spelling Watkin tench bestowed on him) to help us keep in mind what was so casually swept away, and so that we might escape the freight of banalities time has placed on the word 'Bennelong'. We have seen the temptation of confusing individual and cultural qualities in the manner of Arabanoo's prodigious appetite. Generalising from individuals to groups has similar perils. Baneelon was a very different character from the reflective and melancholy Arabanoo. Young (he was guessed to be about twenty six), tough and touchy, he would have been flamboyant in any society. Stanner, always attracted to dignified characters, dismissed him as 'a mercurial upstart', which is a common judgment. It is thought that most commentators have seriously underestimated him, and Colhee too.

One would be puzzled by the relationship between these two men, and also by some oddities about the mode of their capture. Here is William Bradley's account of what happened, giving us not only a close account of the events, but some insight into Bradley himself:

Wednesday 25th (November 1789) Governor Phillip judging it necessary that a Native should be taken by force, (no endeavour to persuade them to come among us having succeeded) I was ordered on this service, having the Master, two petty officers & a Boat's crew with me in one of the Governor's boats: as we went down the harbour we got some fish from the boats that lay off the (?) arms fishing, I proceeded up that arm in which we saw a great number of Natives on both sides & several landed on the beach at the (sth?) Cove hauling their Canoes up after them. As we got near the upper part of the (?) cove, we held two large fish up to them & had the good luck to draw two of them away from a very large party by this bait, these people came round the rocks where they left their spears & met us on the beach near the boat and at a distance from their companions sufficient to promise success without losing any lives, they eagerly took the fish, four of the crew were kept in the boat which was...backed close to the beach where the natives and the rest of our people were, they were dancing together when the signal was given by me, and the two poor devils were seized & handed into the boat in an instant. the Natives who were very numerous all round us, on seeing us seize those two, immediately advanced with their spears and clubs, but we were too quick for them, being out of reach before they got to that point of the beach where the boat lay, they were entering on the beach just as everybody was in the boat and as she did not take the ground we pulled immediately out without having occasion to fire a musket. The noise of the men, crying & screaming of the women and the children together with the situation of the two miserable wretches in our possession was really a most distressing scene they were much terrified, one of them particularly so, the other frequently called out to those on shore apparently very much enraged with them.

Bradley's generous distress is evident. But there are peculiarities about the events he describes so carefully. Arabanoo had been lured out to a British boat and seized, with his people horrified onlookers. What possessed Colbee and Baneelon to wade out to a British boat baited with grins and a couple of dangled fish? I do not suggest that they wanted to be captured, but were they perhaps playing a game of dare with the British, for the delectation of their fellows on the beach? Was this an act of competitive daring that went wrong? These two were always rivals. We will be looking at the capture in more detail in the next Web site, but we notice that Colbee made his escape with insulting ease, despite his fettered leg, within the week while Baneelon stayed put. for the last few weeks his captivity, with his own fetter removed, seems close to voluntary. He escaped with dispatch at a moment of his own choosing. Certainly Phillip did not expect him to run, and ordered his steward, Baneelon's keeper, flogged for neglect of duty.

At the least we have to accept that Baneelon adjusted to his captive state remarkably well. Quickly throwing off the wariness Watkin Tench thought natural for a man in his situation, he feasted without caution on unfamiliar foods and drank the strongest liquors 'with eager marks of delight and enjoyment'. For all of his stay with the British he remained exuberantly experimental, ready to tackle whatever these peculiar strangers had to offer. Baneelon was also determined to communicate even without benefit of a shared language. there was none of Arabanoo's reserve. Tench reports that Baneelon 'sang, danced and capered, told us all the customs of his country and all the details of his family community'. 'Very early' he bestowed on Governor Phillip his own tribal name and adopted his, and took to calling him 'father'. And whenever he thought of his enemies from the tribe of the Cameragal on the north shore of the harbour 'he never solicit the governor to accompany him, with a body of soldiers, in order that he might exterminate this hated name'.

He was also notably eager to impress. A man of fine physique, he brimmed with stories of his prowess in battle and of his sexual exploits, which to his listeners often sounded like another form of war. (Later we will hear the story behind a crescent scar on his hand.) At a later time his volatility would disquiet the British as they came to see him as alarmingly unpredictable, but it seems to have been tolerated, even relied on, by his fellows, and was rebuked by violence only when he went too far. We are reminded of the tolerance extended to restless, aggressive young males among the Plains Indians - for as long as these qualities served the group. Then, if the difficult individual accumulated too many transgressions, he would be abruptly exiled from the tribe.

Collins says Baneelon was a Wanghal. We do not know how his tribe fared during the smallpox epidemic. All we know is that both he and Colbee, who was a Cadigal, survived it and wore its scars on their skins. We can be sure that its ravages must have necessitated a radical redrawing of old political arrangements. Those relations had always been tense. As one anthropologist crisply puts it, 'the relations between the groups seem to have alternated between feasting and fighting'. After the disruptions of the smallpox they must have been in disarray. My guess is that Baneelon had decided on trying for an alliance with the strangers shortly after his capture. (He might have toyed with the idea even earlier.) Under this hypothesis most of his actions and reactions can be explained, not least that tireless boasting of his sexual and fighting prowess: if he aspired to prominence among his people in this time of dizzying change, where traditional wisdom seemed of little avail, it was the virtues of young manhood he would need to dramatise. In action he was both a fast learner and a highly conscious performer. During his captivity his swift adoption of British manners, especially his extravagant courtesies to the females in the colony, prove his quick eye for style. Later, when he sailed back to England with Phillip, one of the few things we know of his three lonely years there is that he was especially struck by the performance of one lordly old gentleman, who glanced up as Beneelon and his entourage swept into a room - and then turned aside in an exquisitely calculated display of indifference to take a pinch of snuff and call for the bottle. Baneelon appreciated social theatricality in all its forms.  

Baneelon's use of clothing was to become an important indicator of his state of mind. Arabanoo had learnt the perils of clothing early. After his capture, after his bath, after he had been put into a shirt, he backed close to a fire for the reassurance of familiar warmth on his skin. His shirt tail caught alight. He suffered terrifying seconds as the flames licked his back before they could be quenched. He was thereafter wary of clothing, but to please his hosts he learnt to tolerate it. Baneelon, with his sense of cultural styles, recognised the British use of different cloths and colours to mark status, and happily accepted the distinction lent his person by formal garments. He was especially proud of the bright red jacket with silver epaulettes he wore on dress occasions. John Hunter suggests Phillip's very different interest when he reports that while Phillip put Baneelon into genteel nankeen on Sundays, his everyday dress, however hot the weather, was trousers and jacket in thick red kersey, 'so he may be so sensible of the cold as not to be able to go without cloaths'. Phillip's very basic strategy was to develop a physical dependence on warmth - and then to inculcate psychological notions of modesty in a man who felt no 'natural shame'. Baneelon's understanding of the language of dress was altogether more sophisticated.

Then in May 1790, after five months' captivity, Baneelon made off. Writing to Banks a couple of months after the escape, Phillip remarked that 'our native has left us...and that too is unlucky for we have all the ceremony to go over again with another'. He concluded that 'that Man's leaving us proves that nothing will make these people amends for the loss of their liberty'. Passion for freedom might have been fed by a more carnal motive. Baneelon's captivity had been celibate. He probably wanted a woman, and there were none available to him in the settlement. Boorong told Phillip 'he had gone after a Woman he had often mentioned'. She may have been the good-looking woman Bradley recalled exchanging words with Baneelon from a beach when they had been out on one of their boat expeditions together. Baneelon had tried to coax her into the boat with him; she had refused. Her name was Barangaroo.

Other appetites were also going unsatisfied. Food supplies even for this pampered prisoner, and even though supplemented by a special allowance of fish and corn, had dropped to famine levels. (For the next months, starvation would be a serious prospect for the colony.) Baneelon was not philosophical about being put on short rations. He presumably could not understand the perversity of doling out miserable allowances and leaving beasts uneaten while warriors, especially guests, were left to starve. Tench records that prior to his escape the want of food had been making Baneelon 'furious and melancholy'. Tench sums up: 'We knew not how to keep him and yet were unwilling to part with him.'

Then Baneelon resolved the dilemma by slipping away to rejoin his own people.

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