Dr Kevin Fewster

Director National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Phillip and the first Australians1

Coo’ee.  There can be no more distinctively Australian sound than this cry let out when one is seeking to attract attention whilst in the bush.  It’s an aboriginal word, first recorded by Europeans early in the life of the new colony.  This first noting of the word is contained in one of three notebooks, now held by the Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.  Two of the notebooks were compiled by William Dawes, a marines officer who served as surveyor and engineer in the infant colony.  The third book is in three different hands, including Arthur Phillip’s, the Governor.2

It was very much in character for Phillip to have encouraged the recording of indigenous languages.  His father was a German migrant to England, earning his living teaching languages.  Arthur became fluent in six languages plus Latin.  His mother had a naval captain cousin; this is what probably led young Arthur to gain entry to the Greenwich Hospital School for the sons of poor seamen.

Phillip’s efforts to foster direct communication with the Indigenous peoples through the learning of each others languages is but one of many examples of his very sincere engagement with the local peoples.   In the entry on Arthur Phillip in the Oxford Companion to Australian History, historian Alan Atkinson warmly praises the first Governor, declaring that ‘his was the most creative period of Australian race relations before the late twentieth century.’3

Cook had noted the widespread presence of natives in his Endeavour voyage reports, thus the British authorities were well aware that the First Fleet was not going to an uninhabited land.  Consequently, in his instructions, Phillip as governor of the new colony, was instructed:
You are to endeavour by every possible means to open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections...  You will endeavour to procure an account of the numbers inhabiting the neighbourhood of the intended settlement.4
Put plainly, Phillip was expected to maintain friendly relations with the native peoples if possible and to transmit back to England such information of scientific interest as he might be able to gather.  He was well suited to this task; having forged considerable sympathy for indigenous peoples from his naval service in the West Indies where he became an ardent anti-slaver.

As commander of the First Fleet, Capt Phillip, masterfully oversaw the safe passage of the 11 ship convoy on the eight month, 15,000 mile voyage from Portsmouth.  His ship, HMS Supply, dropped anchor in Botany Bay on 18 January 1788.  It was immediately apparent to Phillip that, contrary to Cook’s report, the bay was not a suitable place for the new settlement.  Thus, three days after arriving, he took three ship’s boats and headed north looking for more agreeable sites.  As we all know, they found the magnificent Sydney Harbour.  As the boats explored one of the northern reaches of the great harbour, a group of natives waded out toward them.  Impressed by their ‘confidence and manly behaviour’, Phillip named the small bay Manly Cove….221 years ago today.  Manly was thus the first place named by the newly arrived Governor and it’s noteworthy that he chose the name out of respect for the local inhabitants.

Phillip’s hectic early months ashore understandably were focussed mainly on laying down rudimentary support for the 1030 people, including 548 convict men and 191 convict women, who had arrived with him from England.  Nevertheless, he could hardly help but notice the indigenous Eora peoples whose lands they shared.  His insistence that the Aborigines be treated with respect was disregarded by many of his own flock.  Phillip refused to countenance revenge against Aboriginal wrongdoers and punished convicts and marines alike who mistreated the Aborigines.  In July 1788, six months after first raising the British flag at Sydney Cove, the Governor opined in a letter back to England:
The Natives are far more numerous than expected, I reckon from fourteen to sixteen hundred in this Harbour, Broken Bay, and Botany Bay…   The Women are constantly employed in the Canoes where I have seen them big with Child, and with very young Infants at their Breasts…
I have reason to think that the Men do not want personal Courage [,] they readily place a confidence and appear to be friendly and inoffensive peoples unless made Angry and which the most trifling circumstance does at times.  Three convicts have been killed by them in the Woods, and I have no doubt but that the Convicts were the [aggressors?].
They…are fond of any very Soft Musick, and will attend to singing any of the Words which they very readily repeat.  But I know very little at present of the people.  They never come into the Camp, and I have had few hours to seek them out.5

Inga Clendinnen, in her masterful account of relations between the first European colonists and the Aboriginal Australians, Dancing with Strangers, states her belief that ‘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…’  ‘The energy Phillip expended on his relationship with the Australians’, Clendinnen writes, ‘is to my mind remarkable.  I have come to think him close to visionary in his obstinate dream of integrating these newly discovered people into the British polity.’6

In December 1788 a local man, Arabanoo, was detained in the hope that it might be possible to learn his language, but he died of smallpox some months later.  A year later, Phillip engineered the kidnapping of two adult Eora men by enticing them to wade into waist deep water to accept a proffered gift of fish.  One of the entrapped men, Colbee, escaped within a week, but the other, Bennelong, a man in his mid 20s, struck up a friendship with Phillip based on mutual respect.  This trust may have been aided, at least in the early days, through Phillip by chance lacking the incisor tooth on the right side of his mouth – a mark in local Aboriginal society of a fully initiated man.  Through Bennelong Phillip was keen to learn more about indigenous customs and language.  Bennelong often ate at Government House and sometimes stayed there.   He called Phillip Beanga (Father) and referred to himself as Doorow (son).   His wife, Barangaroo, sought to give birth in the Governor’s house, possibly because aborigines attached great significance to one’s birth place.  Phillip later had a brick hut specially built for Bennelong on the eastern point of Sydney Cove, now named Bennelong Point - today the site of the Sydney Opera House.

But despite such seemingly positive overtures, the impact of the new arrivals was already proving catastrophic for the traditional peoples.  The British brought with them smallpox which, within a year of their arrival, had halved the Aboriginal population in the Sydney region and decimated the Cadigal tribe in the immediate area surrounding Sydney Cove, from around 53 to 3.  Furthermore, the newcomers had ursurped the fresh water stream and disrupted local hunting and fishing.  Put bluntly, the arrival of a thousand hungry mouths had placed unprecedented pressure on local food resources and introduced diseases against which the locals had little resistance.

Most modern historians agree that the Aboriginal Australians extracted symbolic retribution for these grievances by spearing Governor Phillip, the white-fella leader, at Manly Cove beach on 7 September 1790.  He had been invited there by Bennelong to feast on a beached whale.  Eye-witness accounts of what happened vary. Most agree Phillip offered Bennelong some gifts and asked Bennelong for an unusual spear he was holding as a return offering.  Bennelong then placed the spear on the ground.  As Phillip stepped forward, arms outstretched in a symbolic act of friendship and saying ‘Beanga’ (father), another warrior, seemingly unprovoked, flicked up the spear from the ground with his toes and hurled it, hitting Phillip above the right collarbone.  The marines managed to get their leader back into the boat where he endured an excruciating two hour row back to the settlement.  Historians proffer several reasons for suggesting the attack was premeditated and not intended to be fatal:
- Aboriginal warriors were usually deadly accurate hurling spears much greater distances than was here the case, thus it seems probable that, in line with customary law, the thrower was aiming merely to wound;
- The spear did not carry a stone or shell barb, thus allowing easy removal
-     All of the subsequent spears thrown missed their supposed targets.

During his six weeks convalescence Phillip was visited often by Bennelong.  The Governor ordered that no retribution be instigated.  How one accounts for this response is made more perplexing by the very different way that Phillip reacted only three months later when his convict game-warder, John McEntire, was mortally wounded by a spearing attack in the bush behind today’s Bondi Beach.  McEntire claimed the attack was unprovoked but he was known to be an unreliable witness and many doubted his story.  McEntire died several weeks after the wound was inflicted.  Unlike when he was attacked, Phillip now ordered two senior officers, Watkin Tench and William Dawes, to lead a punitive expedition with the intent of indiscriminately killing 10 Aborigines as a lesson in retribution.  Both officers fiercely objected to the order, thereby risking their careers.  Phillip reduced the bag to six heads.  Given the circumstances, it was perhaps not surprising that the expedition returned empty handed, claiming only to have seen a few old people in their three day mission.

How might one explain this seemingly out of character reaction from a man noted for his humanitarian nature?  Over Christmas I happened to read Tony Horwitz’s excellent book, Blue Latitudes, in which he retraces James Cook’s three voyages around the Pacific.  It seems to me that there are many parallels in the circumstances of these two great Georgian leaders.  Cook was 48 when he set sail on his fateful third voyage.  Phillip was 49 when the First Fleet departed Portsmouth.  Unlike his earlier voyages, Cook had had little time to prepare his ships before sailing and, from the outset, things did not go well.  His mood, in Horwitz’s words, soon ‘showed clear signs of curdling’.7  Uncharacteristically, he regularly lost patience with his crew, ordering more than double the number of lashings meted out on either of his earlier voyages.  Similarly, he demonstrated sudden bouts of fury towards islanders, ultimately at the cost of his own life.  Cook, Horwitz believes, ‘may have been simply exhausted, psychologically as well as physically’8, labouring under exceptional strain yet, as a commander isolated half a world away from home, needing to maintain a stoic exterior no matter what happened around him.

It seems to me that, by December 1790, Arthur Phillip as Governor of the struggling colony, was labouring under similar burdens.  Cook had been away from England two and a half years when he died; by December 1790 Phillip had been bearing the heavy responsibility of ultimate command for over three and a half years.  Not only was the colony not going well, his own health was poor.  Moreover, like Cook he carried the burden of office alone, having no partner with him in whom to confide.  As Atkinson and others have noted, it seems that the ‘psychological effects of extreme isolation’ were, by December 1790, clouding his judgement.9

Despite these difficulties, Phillip battled on another two years before finally departing the colony in December 1792.  Bennelong had become a good friend and he along with another Aboriginal man, Yemmerrawannie, sailed back to England with the departing Governor.  But their adventure ended in tragedy.  Yemmerrawannie died in London (he’s buried at Eltham, near Greenwich); Bennelong returned to his homeland in poor health some three years after leaving it.  As has so often proved the case, his cross cultural encounter had left him an outsider both in his own and in European culture.  Sadly, he sank into alcoholism, dying in 1813.  

It is easy to criticise Phillip for misguided paternalism in taking the two aborigines to England where he had them meet the King.  But such criticism is, I feel, unfair.  On balance, Phillip’s behaviour towards the first Australians showed a genuine wish to engage and co-exist, even if the mores of the times dictated that it be achieved essentially through ‘civilising’ the natives into the ways of the British.  As Inga Clendinnen, concludes, his mission failed because of the Aborigines ‘stubborn refusal to see their condition as impoverished’.10

When Bennelong met George III, Phillip persuaded the monarch to sign a treaty that he had prepared acknowledging the New South Wales’ indigenous peoples.  Sadly, Parliament never ratified this treaty.  While we can rewrite history, its events cannot be changed.  Thus, its mere idle speculation to ask ourselves how different modern Australia’s story might have been had Phillip’s treaty been enacted.  What we can say, I believe, is that the sorry tale of subsequent relations between white and black Australians suggests that Phillip’s attempt to produce a treaty was an enlightened endeavour.   In a sense, it would have been a loud Coo’ee  –  here we are… acknowledge us, respect us.

1 I wish to thank my friend Dr Chris Cunneen for his assistance in researching this address.
2  J Troy, ‘The Sydney language notebooks and responses to language contact in early colonial NSW’, Australian Journal of Linguistics 12 (1992) pp.155,166
3 G Davison, J Hirst, S MacIntyre (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian History (Melbourne 1998) p.504
4 J Troy, op. cit, p.146
5 I Clendinnen, Dancing with Strangers (Melbourne 2003) p.26
6 Ibid, pp.25,23
7 T Horwitz, Blue Latitudes (New York 2002) p.329
8 Ibid, p.331
9 Davison et al, p.504
10 Clendinnen, p.242