In 2012, one of my masters subjects was on Australia’s Indigenous Languages. One chapter in the textbook was on personal and language contact between the British and the local people in the early years of British settlement here. Being generally interested in Australian history, I checked some of the original sources (available online) and found there was a lot else about language in particular and communication in general. In fact there was so much that I had to limit my essay to the first nine days, from when the British ships arrived in Botany Bay to when they relocated in Sydney Harbour. The word limit was 2000 words, but I included a lot of quotations, in the text and in footnotes. There was also a very large number of footnotes. Reproducing the essay here, I have moved most of the quotations in footnotes into the text and deleted all the footnotes. (The longer quotations were originally in the text, and the shorter ones in footnotes.) I have also added a few comments in square brackets.
First impressions: Intercourse between the British and the Gamay-gal and Gwea-gal around Gamay/Botany Bay 18–26 January 1788
Between 18 and 20 January 1788, the 11 ships of the First Fleet sailed into Gamay/Botany Bay. On 26 January, they sailed from there to Waran/Sydney Cove. In between, the British and the Gamay-gal and Gwea-gal interacted non-verbally, exchanged possessions, demonstrated weapons, learned their first words of the others’ language and began patterns of interactions which were to shape the next few years in particular and the next 22 in general. At least 12 published accounts and unpublished journals survive, making it possibly the best-documented first contact between a colonial force and an indigenous people in history. [While researching for my honours dissertation, I found approximately 25. The most important ones are covered in this essay.]
Non-verbal communication started before the British landed. Various writers record the natives ‘brandishing their Spears & hallooing’ (Navy Lieutenant Philip Gidley King) and ‘shouting and making many uncouth signs and gestures’ (Marine Lieutenant Watkin Tench).
Specific non-verbal communication started as the landing party approached shore. Navy Surgeon George Worgan gives the fullest account:
‘The Governor, attended by several Officers, went in two armed Boats towards a part of the Shore where, 6 of the Natives, were, and had been sitting the whole time the Supply was entering the Bay, looking and pointing at Her with great Earnestness; When the Boats had approached pretty near this Spot, two of the Natives got up, and came close to the Waters-Edge, making Motions, pointing to another part of the Shore and talking very fast & loud, seemingly, as if the Part to which they pointed, was better landing for the Boats, they could not however, discern any thing unfriendly, or threatening in the Signs and Motions which the Natives made.
Accordingly the Boats coasted along the Shore in a Direction for the Place, to which, they had been directed, the Natives following on the Beach. In the mean Time, the Governor, or somebody in his Boat, made Signs that they wanted Water, this they signified by putting a Hat over the Side of the Boat and seeming to take up some of the salt Water put it to his Mouth, the Natives, immediately, understood this Sign and with great Willingness to Oblige, pointed to the Westward, and walked that Way, apparently with an Intention to show their Visitors the very Spot.’
There are numerous references to pointing, signs and gestures throughout all of the accounts, generally:
‘they entered into conversation with us, which was very fully interpreted by very plain signs’ (King); ‘an hour’s conversation by signs and gestures’ (Tench); ‘they could not however, discern any thing unfriendly, or threatening in the Signs and Motions which the Natives made’ (Worgan),
and specifically signifying ‘stay away’ (in the first place):
‘we soon saw a party of the Natives who hallood & made signs for us to return to our boats’ (King),
‘we met another party of the Natives … we made signs to them & a number came round the boat’ (King); ‘the Governor held up some Beads, Red Cloth & other Bawbles and made signs for them to advance’, ‘One of Us, now laid down the Musket and advanced towards them singly, holding out some Bawbles, and making Signs of Peace’ (Worgan),
‘I am interested in this’:
‘The child seemed to attract their attention very much, for they frequently pointed to him and spoke to each other’ (Tench); ‘where, 6 of the Natives, were, and had been sitting the whole time the Supply was entering the Bay, looking and pointing at Her with great Earnestness’, ‘They all of them … took any thing that was offered them, holding out their Hands and making Signs for many things that they saw’ (Worgan),
‘I want information / I am giving information’:
‘they expressed a wish to know whether the People in our Boat were Men or Women & made themselves understood by bringing some of their women down, pointing to themselves, our people & the women alternately’ (Navy Lieutenant William Bradley); ‘he … seemed by words and gestures to threaten revenge if any advantage should be taken of his situation’ (Governor Arthur Phillip); ‘At last an officer in the boat made signs of a want of water, which it was judged would indicate his wish of landing. The natives directly comprehended what he wanted, and pointed to a spot where water could be procured’ (Tench); ‘He then, by signs and gestures, seemed to ask if the pistol would make a hole through him’ (Navy Surgeon John White); ‘two of the Natives got up, and came close to the Waters-Edge, making Motions, pointing to another part of the Shore and talking very fast & loud, seemingly, as if the Part to which they pointed, was better landing for the Boats’, ‘the Governor, or somebody in his Boat, made Signs that they wanted Water, this they signified by putting a Hat over the Side of the Boat and seeming to take up some of the salt Water put it to his Mouth, the Natives, immediately, understood this Sign and with great Willingness to Oblige, pointed to the Westward, and walked that Way, apparently with an Intention to show their Visitors the very Spot’ (Worgan).
‘I want to do something’:
‘We could see these curious Evites peeping through the Bushes at Us, and we made signs to the Men, who were still with Us, that We wished to give some Trinkets to the Women’ (Worgan)
‘I want you to do something’:
‘they … pointed to the Shore where a number of Women & Children were sitting … [and] made signs for us to go to them’ (King); ‘One of the most friendly, and who appeared to be the most confident, on signs being made to him, stuck the end of his shield in the sand, but could not be prevailed upon to throw his spear at it’ (White); ‘one of y oldest of the Natives …. approached … making signs for the things to be laid on the Ground’, ‘they did not like the Soldiers, and made signs for us to take them away’ (Worgan),
and ‘go away’ (at the end of intercourse):
‘Some of the Officers going to that part of the Wood, to which they [some natives] retreated occasioned them to stop & make signs that they did not like to be followed, on which they were left to themselves to walk off with their Fish’ (Bradley); ‘they then in a very vociferous tone made signs for us to go away’ (King).
to be continued …
[For part 2 (Exchange of possessions and What sex are you?) see here]
[For part 3 (Weapons) see here]
[For part 4 (The first words and Descriptions/opinions/attitudes) see here]
[For part 5 (Naming/claiming) see here]