Dr Ian Henderson

Director, Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, King’s College London

Cross-Cultural Encounter in Eora Country

WHAT strange creature is this? 

A fifty-two-year-old human-being he seems, at first. Blue coat of an officer of the Royal Navy, black hat, white leggings. He stumbles down the beach at Manly Cove on a spring afternoon, with his odd extra limbs. 

They are thin and made of hard wood. 

One sticks up from above his right collarbone, rising at an angle several feet from his astonished head. The other, pointing towards the ground, ends in a barb, and emerges with a gush of blood from ‘lower down his back close to the backbone’.

The air still reeks of gunpowder from a shot this creature fired into the air, moments earlier. 

He is assisted back into the boat, strange limbs still attached, and is hurriedly rowed away, across a magnificent harbour. 

This transfigured creature was once the man whom we are commemorating today—Admiral Arthur Phillip—‘citizen of London, founder and first governor of Australia’ as your order of service describes him.

My address today sets out simply to explain and justify my transformation of this good and famous human into an uncanny six-limbed and bleeding creature; and to do so by exploring his interactions with the Eora people of a country we know now as Sydney. 

As such I hope that Phillip’s extraordinary life can shed light on some contentious issues of our immediate present; issues in looming presence among we humans right here, right now at St Mary le Bow church; issues of cultural difference, which encompass diverse concepts of the function of history—of ‘commemoration’ if you will—nation, and leadership. It is the inauguration this past weekend of another New World leader that makes such themes highly topical in this sacred space.

The man, Arthur Phillip, had been speared. It is one of the most famous, much documented, but still obscure incidents of early colonial Sydney Town. The ‘situation’ arose during Phillip’s attempt to reconnect with the most significant Eorawarrior for British-Australian relations in the 1790s: Woollarawarre Bennelong. 

Now, as the information in your order of service makes clear, Phillip commanded the First Fleet of convicts and their keepers which left England on 13 May 1787 and arrived in what they called Botany Bay on 18 January 1788. 

Most tourists still arrive in Australia at Botany Bay, the location of Sydney’s international airport. But Phillip found Botany Bay not the ideal settling point recommended by Captain James Cook and Sir Joseph Banks, whose expedition had ‘discovered’ and described the Bay in 1770. Instead, exploring northwards, Phillip discovered the massive harbour Cook neglected, and raised the British flag at what we now call Circular Quay, flanked now by Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House at Bennelong Point. 

Phillip’s varied career and personal characteristics made him an excellent governor, though he was an obscure and sometimes controversial choice for the role. Any speaker on his achievements could cite his innate sense of justice, his careful management of the sometimes-difficult personalities amongst his fellow officers, his offering hope and reformation for convicts who behaved, his establishment of agriculture, and his weathering of disastrous lacks in stores and settler skills. It would be hard to find a more universally respected man in European-Australian history. 

His dealings with the peoples of the several nations whose countries occupied the spaces he settled are also to be admired, though they are much more contentious, mainly because Phillip was also a man of his time. But as the late Inga Clendinnen wrote in her fascinating and highly readable account of Sydney’s early years, Dancing with Strangers (2003), ‘I have come to think him close to visionary in his obstinate dream of integrating these newly discovered people into British polity’. 

But Phillip’s hands were tied by the paradox of his commanding orders: a paradox which remains unresolved in the subsequent national history of my country, Australia. He was ‘to endeavour by every possible means to open an Intercourse with the Savages Natives and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them’ [the striking through of ‘Savages’ is in the original orders]. This while dispossessing them of their lands.

For on 26 January 1788, Phillip hoisted the Union Jack on Eora land, and re-claimed that ‘belonging’ place, and scoresof others up and down the eastern seaboard (between latitudes of 10°37’S and 43°39’S), for the British Crown. In so doing he re-enacted a ritual performed by LieutenantJames Cook on Bedanug (Possession Island) in the Torres Strait just under two decades earlier (22 August 1770), the first time an imaginary hand swept across these nations and claimed them for Britain. 

Phillip’s New South Wales included ‘the Country Inland to the Westward as far as the One hundred and Thirty fifth Degree of East Longitude’ because the far west coast of the island continent had been claimed—though not settled—by the Dutch as New Holland, and no one knew if Cook’s eastern coast joined it to create a single land mass.

These declarations ignored the complex and—to early colonists—often self-evident connections to particular countries demonstrated by the different groups among the Eora specifically, and by First Nations peoples in Australiagenerally over the unfolding story of European invasion.The so-called ‘Native title’ that these men and women possessed in these territories before Cook’s and Phillip’s declarations were not recognised in Australian law until 1992. 

These cultures of belonging—which the term ‘Native Title’ aims to define legally—were the legacy a 60,000-year-long political, social and cultural history, whose ongoing machinations were much in evidence to early colonists, as they recorded various arguments and skirmishes among the Eora (as they also did, I might add, for those that occurred among themselves). 

But that the lives of the locals took place within a cultural and legal estate was invisible to the colonists, and remainsinvisible to many non-Indigenous people—but very fewFirst Nations Australians—even though its record is written into the very contours of the Australian earth. In my mind it is a knowledge estate of equivalent cultural magnitude to that currently stored at the British Library; if we take into account the British Library’s connection to the internet. 

Nothing about his ancestry, experience, beliefs, or tribal-military status could lead us to expect Phillip to see this estate in all its glory; nor, even if he did see hints of it, to allow it to override direct instructions from his own council of elders, the British Admiralty, acting on behalf of King George III, to take possession of New South Wales. 

But he also took the instruction ‘to open an Intercourse with’ the locals and ‘conciliate their affections’ very seriously; Phillip’s diligence is one of his most outstandingand consistent characteristics. But more than that, one senses in him an awareness that his concerted and sustained efforts in such matters of conciliation counteracted at a human level the larger-scale processes of dispossession that his official actions set in train: without, ultimately, subverting the latter; but enabling, within his own professional life, a personal negotiation of that foundational paradox which still energises/haunts 21st-century Australia. 

Initial contact with the Eora and others was fleeting but positive, leavened by gift exchanges, dancing, and the whistling of tunes. But there were also disputes over fishing rights—now there’s a topic of enduring difficulty—and skirmishes occasioned by wondering convicts and others going after artefacts and women. In fact, unknown to them—other than in its registration as fear or apprehension in certain circumstances—all the British were constantly breaking laws, like bumbling ignorant bulls in a streetscape of complex and delicate ecological and social china shops. Or children let loose with textas and crayons in the manuscript room at the British Library. 

Even so, the locals mostly avoided the settlement to the dissatisfaction of Phillip. For that reason he resorted to an age-old imperial strategy for winning friends and influencing people: kidnap. 

Arabanoo was the first victim at the end of 1788, but he succumbed to the smallpox epidemic which had a catastrophic effect on Aboriginal populations in the late 1780s. Bennelong was his replacement, captured with another warrior, Collbee, who subsequently escaped. But Bennelong settled into Sydney Cove life, learning some English, and impressing with his strong personality, sense of humour and, some say, his vanity. 

Just as things seemed to be going well—Phillip knew at least five of Bennelong’s names, and Bennelong called him Be-anna, father—the young man escaped and was not seen for four months. 

It was then that an unusually large gathering of Aboriginal men, women and children appeared at Manly Cove. People of several clans, they were there to make an expedient but highly structured, ritually sanctioned feast of a whale which had beached itself. 

Now, the spearing was interpreted by the British as yet more evidence of First Nations people’s infantile habits, lawlessness and unpredictability. But using multiple accounts of the incident, Inga Clendinnen has recovered quite another story. 

Phillip, rushing from nearby South Head with gifts to appease his former favourite (and, admittedly, an armed guard), had got out of his boat, laid down his arms, and approached Bennelong, who was surrounded by many other warriors. 

There followed some mysterious manoeuvres. Bennelong, having identified himself, shaken Phillip’s hand, taken gifts, quaffed a drink, and toasted the King, laid a spear—the spear which would soon enter Phillip’s body—on the ground, drawing attention to it, but refusing Phillip’s request that it be made a gift (a different spear was gifted). Bennelong also displayed some new scars from other spearings, and appealed at times to witnesses among his fellow countrymen. 

It was as Phillip went to leave that another man rushed forward and speared him. The rest, as they say, is history. Or rather, the lethal and ‘weird’ story of the entanglement of many nations in the space we call Australia.

For Phillip ordered no recriminations. And after further gift exchanges, contact with Bennelong was restored. And indeed Eora people now began, for the first time, to frequent the settlement voluntarily. 

Clendinnen interprets the event as follows: 

− That Bennelong’s authority had waned during his capture, as evinced in the loss of one of his wives to Collbee, and the new scars.

− That Bennelong saw the opportunity of Phillip’s appearance to take charge of relations between the British and his people, and he could do so by stage-managing a ritual spearing of Phillip.

− The latter was ‘payback’ for the wrong Phillip had done the warrior. 

The brilliance of this reading rests in its turning the tables on British accounts of the Eora. They—the British—are now the ‘children’, as Clendinnen writes, ‘like infants squinting through the keyhole’ at complex Eora law and sociability in action, but hearing only ‘unintelligible babble’. 

And here we have remained for over two centuries, deeply and disastrously underestimating the knowledge of Australia’s First Nations people. And, I think, only recently are we beginning to tap into what has for so long been cautiously proffered to us; to take up, that is, the actions Phillip initiated on Manly shores.  For Australia is also a problem of mind. And to see how it is such, we need to expand the reach of the historical parameters which have mostly framed Australian ‘history’, 1788-present. We need to think instead of ‘deep time’, the geological time of the planet that is preoccupying some of the most interesting theorists of ‘world’ history and culture. 

For a start, we can think not of nations but of species. DNA evidence, available since the 1990s, has revealed our species, homo sapiens, is only 200,000 years or so old, venturing out of Africa only 80-100,000 years ago. We reached Australia some 60,000 years ago; and Europe 40,000 years ago. In some few centuries the whole of the Australian continent was occupied, and there our species developed one of the world’s great intellectual cultures, which was written into and shaped by the contours of the Australian earth. Country is library for First Nations Australia. An elder in country is concentrating and processing information like I do in the Reading Room at the British Library. This genius developed over tens of thousands of years in relative isolation only to collide with a curious amalgam of Christian and Enlightenment thinking, encased in eleven ships moored in Sydney Harbour in early 1788. 

The strange creature with whom I began this address, then, is not Arthur Phillip, the admired figure of imperialist history. It is Arthur Phillip transfigured witness to the single most significant set of events in the burgeoning story of planetary thinking: a lethal collision of epistemologies that had developed, isolated from one another, over tens of thousands of years on opposite sides of the earth. 

To venture being an intermediary between two ways of knowing alters what it is to be human, and will do most dramatically in the years to come…within the lifetimes of the young people in this room. Phillip embodied one of two extremes: extreme differences in habits of thinking, and in the inscription and transfer of knowledge. But as such, what he enacted in Manly, models all subsequent interchanges across cultures and ethnicities, wherein even ‘difference’ is understood differently. 

Comprehending and drawing positive outcomes from such exchanges conditions our survival on a thriving planet. And this begins by factoring a recognition of cultural incommensurability into exchanges between any two members of a genetically uniform, recently formed,but culturally diverse species, exchanges which nonetheless prioritise conviviality and, to tip that into Christian terms, loving kindness within the grace of God.

This must become a guiding principle for any future enterprise; and the necessary moral underpinning of any figuration of just leadership. For it is not genuine cross-cultural exchange, vital to the future of this earth, if both parties are not transfigured in the process. And in this, we have a strange creature, Governor Arthur Phillip and spear, as a telling icon for our planetary future. 

An edited version of this paper was given at the annual Memorial Service for Governor Arthur Phillip (1738-1814) at St Mary Le Bow, City of London, on Monday 23 January 2017.

For Robert James Henderson, my father, on his birthday