Aspects Of Early History


Spearing of Governor Phillip

The first serious steps towards reconciliation were taken, like earlier friendly meetings, on the relatively neutral setting of a beach, with exit lines for both parties open to sea and to land. They began with an apparent catastrophe: the spearing of governor Phillip at manly cove on 7 September 1790.

The spearing has become an iconic moment in Australian history. The slim wooden spearhead which pierced the governor's flesh might still exist somewhere, and haunts the dreams of museum-keepers who long to display this object which magically unites our first British governor with the continent's original inhabitants. Not many years later the spearhead would speak to its interrogators in a double tongue: of the chronic flightiness of 'savages', but also of their 'natural' ability to recognise the moral authority of personal valour and of Christian blood spilt in voluntary sacrifice. Icons speak as many tongues, which is what makes them icons.

At the time, the mystery embodied in the bloodied spear point was that almost immediately after the spearing the Australians around Sydney Cove decided to 'come in' to the settlement to make their peace with the interlopers. David Collins, normally a sensibly sceptical fellow, cheerfully inscribed the astonishing non iequitur in his journal-of-record: 'This accident gave cause to the opening of communication between the natives of this country and the settlement, which, although attended by such an unpromising beginning, it was hoped would be followed by good consequences.' What Collins is offering us is a secular miracle, Enlightenment style: first the 'accidental' spearing, then the submission, then the beginning of the civilising process. And there, effectively the matter has been allowed to rest: we contemplate the spearhead, we wonder at the event, we marvel at the outcome. However psychologically incoherent, the story at the mythic level is a curiously satisfying one - and who, after all, looks for sense in icons or savages?

One would expect more coherent explanations, especially when they concern the actions of peoples who are being dismissed as savages. What was really going on? In this as in earlier encounters our British informants were like infants squinting through a keyhole: they could see only some of the action, and what 6they heard was largely unintelligible babble. They could not know what conversations and other, subtler communications were taking place before their eyes, much less offstage; they did not know where, whom and what to watch. The best we can hope to find in the British eye-witness reports, made before the event were subjected to the mo9ulding pressures of myth-making, are join-the-dots narratives plotted in terms of British expectations of both themselves and the 'natives'. 'We happen4d to notice the following events, which we think are probably connected in this way.' If we re-examine the dots in the several accounts of this famously enigmatic spearing, looking to see if they can be joined differently, we might establish a more satisfying account of Australian actions and reactions.

The first part of the story is uncontentious. Since Baneelon's escape four months before there had been no contact with the Australians beyond the occasional sp0earing of unarmed convict stragglers in the bushy, and increasingly angry brushes over fishing catches. there is fair agreement between the British reports as to what happened next. A great party of Australians, numbering perhaps from several tribes (this is after the decimation of the smallpox epidemic) had gathered at Many beach to feast on the putrefying flesh of a whale carcass washed ashore there. Baneelon and Colbee were among them. A boatload of British on a hunting expedition to Broken Bay, including John white and Nanbaree, saw the feasters and began to pull into the cove. Nanbaree had picked up some English during his eight4en months in the colony, how much we don't know. As the boat approached the beach, a number of Australians picked up their spears, but Nanbaree reassured them in their own tongue. Then John white called out Baneelon's name, and first Baneelon and then Colbee stepped forward from the ruck and genially welcomed their old friend. the oarsmen pulled the boat ashore, and White, Nanbaree and others of the British party joined the people on the beach, the men clustering around them while the women and children kept their usual cautious distance.

A conversation is abo9ut to start, so it is well to consider the likely accuracy of what we are about to hear. any investigation into early cultural encounters is bedevilled by uncertainties as to the adequacy of communication. Initially each side can only interpret the actions and intentions of the other in accordance with their own dictionaries of gesture expressed in a kind of dumb-show (remember Morton's vocabulary of signs). communication by spoken words is negligible, and typically even more effective than the hopeful speakers assume. It is difficult to keep in mind that strangers do not grasp the meaning of your own familiar words, especially when loudly, slowly spoken. Despite the fluent conversations unblushingly recorded in the British accounts, we have to accept that even after several years of association most communications between the races living cheek-by-jowl around Sydney were managed by sign language eked out with a kind of pidgin English. All the British were impressed by the Australian talent for word-mimicry, a talent probably developed from their diplomatic need to fake polite fluency in the tongues of neighbouring language groups, but even when they got the sounds right, we cannot know how much of the sense was comprehended. As the indispensable David Collins was to p0ut it in September 1796, a full six years after the events on the beach:

By slow degrees we began mutually to be pleased with, and to understand each other. Language, indeed, is out of the question; for at the time of writing this, nothing but a barbarous mixture of English with the Port Jackson dialect is spoken by either party, and it must be added, that even in this the natives have he advantage, comprehending, with much greater aptness than we can pretend to, everything they hear us say.

To return to Manly Cove, with Nanbaree translating reminded of the governor, Baneelon spoke of Phillip affectionately. he was especially delighted to hear that Phillip was nearby on an expedition to South Head. Baneelon had clearly fallen on hard times, being 'greatly emaciated' and sporting a couple of new scars, one on the fleshy part of the arm and one above the left eye. He also seemed to have lost his favourte women Barangaroo to Colbee, which might explain his emaciation, women supplying men with most of their fish diet. but Baneelon was quickly his old animated self, asking very earnestly for hatchets, and readily accepting shirts, knives and a few handkerchiefs. The only tense moment came when a convict gamekeeper or, more correctly, game shooter called McEntire tried to help him don a shirt (during his months of freedom he seemed to have lost the knack), and Baneelon recoiled with extraordinary revulsion. but his loathing seemed to relate only to that individual; when Baneelon begged the use of a razor to shave his beard in the British way, and was offered scissors instead, he set to clipping his hair with every sign of happiness. furthermore, when he was told that the governor was anxious to see him, Baneelon said he would wait for him for two days before seeking Phillip out, and when the British finally departed he insisted on giving them several chunks of the decomposing whale, with the biggest lump designated his personal gift to the governor.

To the amused British the whole incident appeared to be no more than Baneelon up to his old impulsive tricks, but if they were less than delighted with their chunks of decomposing whale, it was in Australians eyes a splendid gift: a rare windfall delicacy. One would guess that that if these dots were joined just a little differently, they might picture Baneelon seizing the chance to initiate political negotiations with what he took to be a placatory British offering of gifts and the promise of more, followed by his own reciprocal gift signalling his readiness to met with the governor to resolve their differences. What happened next is told slightly differently in the several British reports. Historians of the episode have usually chosen to select one of the accounts - often that of Watkin Tench, who wasn't there but who reads beautifully - to rely on, or have cobbled together bits from several mildly conflicting versions to construct a sufficiently coherent narrative. the difficulty is that while the discrepancies may be trivial, they may not be. Discrepancies need not be sinister. Even honest witnesses can disagree as to action s and sequences, as any traffic cop will tell you. but only the reconstruction of actual action-sequences can bring us closer to Australian intentions, so I must tax the reader's patience by occasionally going into slow-motion comparisons and evaluations to get those actions and sequences straight.

By chance the governor, out on his expedition, met the boat bearing his odoriferous present along with the friendly message from Baneelon . Eager for a rendezvous, he went to south head to pick up some small gifts and suitable weaponry - four muskets for the men, a pistol for himself - and then continued to Manly Cove attended by Collins and his aide Lieutenant Henry Waterho9us. they found the Australians still feasting and, at least in Phillip's account, strangely reserved. 'Several natives appeared on the beach as the governor's boat rowed into the bay, but on its nearer approach they retired among the trees.'

Their reticence seems not to have troubled Phillip because he had either been told, or had privately decided, that during the earlier encounter with the hunting party Baneelon 'seemed afraid of being retaken, and would not permit any one to come so near as to lay their hands on him', which is a notion difficult to reconcile with the intimacies of the hair-clipping and shirt-donning. could Baneelon really have thought himself at risk? When he and Colbee had been kidnapped they were first lured into waist-deep water and close to the boat. Indeed we recall that William Bradley, in charge of the kidnapping enterprise, states that the two men were enticed to the very side of the boat and well away from their friends on the beach by the offer to fish. He reports that the rest of the Australians and some of his crew were doing some of that mysterious 'dancing together' when he gave the signal and 'the two poor devils were seized and handed into the boat in an instant', with the rest of the crew scrambling aboard amidst 'great crying and screaming' from the people left on the beach and the yells of the captives. It had been a classic 'snatch'. this time the British party was deep onshore, and Baneelon surrounded by armed tribesmen. so why the cool reception?

The normally modest Phillip was proud of his flair for handling 'natives'. Unlike some of his compatriots, Phillip discounted thir nakedness and their unnerving exuberance because he knew them to be fully human, and therefore fully capable of recognizing and reciprocating trust. As we have seen, his first encounters with the botany Bay people had set his style: he would lay down his arms and advance alone, hands outstretched. 'time and again this strategy had been rewarded when potentially hostile men had accepted his gifts, and - the epiphany - clasped his outstretched hand. After the exchange of what he took to be a universal gesture of trust he was confident that good relations, education and the beginnings of integration could follow.

On this occasion at many, Phillip was explicit in his belief that 'the best mans of obtaining the confidence of a native was by example, and by placing confidence in him'. He therefore stepped ashore unarmed and alone, save for a seaman carrying beef, bread and a few other gifts, and walked forward, calling his old companion repeatedly 'by all his names': a nice touch of anthropological sensibility. Some men appeared in the distance, one came closer and, taking up the gifts Phillip laid on the ground, declared himself to be Baneelon. Given his sadly changed appearance, Phillip seems not to have believed him. but when the man responded to the sight of a brandished bottle of wine by calling out 'the King', echoing the once-familiar toast, Phillip knew that this sorry figure was indeed the once-glossy Baneelon.  

Nonetheless, the strange little dance of advance and retreat continued until Phillip and the seaman, along with a knot of armed Australians, were drawn out of the sight of the anxious men in the boat. and only then, when 'eight or ten of the natives had placed themselves in a position to prevent Baneelon being carried off, Phillip says - only then did Baneelon extend his hand, and allow performance had worked, and that reconciliation had been affected. He therefore went back to the beach and fetched his two officers ashore. Or so Phillip tells it. An agenda guided his telling, how consciously it is not known. Phillip was about to get himself speared, and he knew, writing after the event, that Secretary Collins and most of his officers judged that to have been his own damned fault, plunging in among a people untrustworthy by nature without taking the elementary precaution of deploying some muskets. Phillip therefore had an interest in dramatising Baneelon's mistrust first of the British hunting party, and then of Phillip himself - a mistrust only laid to rest by Phillip's intrepid peace-making.

A Short History of Australia

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