Botany Bay 18-26 Jan 1788 – Part 3

[For introduction and part 1 (Non-verbal communication) see here]

[For part 2 (Exchange of possessions and What sex are you?) see here]


In any interaction between opposed groups, weapons can be utilised by visibly laying them down, brandishing them, demonstrating them (not against people), or using them against people. The first three of these occurred, on both sides, during the first interactions. Navy Surgeon George Worgan reports:

‘the Governor … shewed them his Musket, then laid it on the Ground, advancing singly towards them, they now seeing that He had nothing in his Hands like a Weapon one of y oldest of the Natives gave his Spears to a younger, and approached to meet the Governor.’

Navy Lieutenant Philip Gidley King writes:

‘two of the Natives then approached but kept their Spears poised, being fearfull of the Marines who were at some distance in the rear … one of them threw a lance wide of us, in order to shew the force & power of their arms, the distance it was thrown was as near as I could guess about forty Yards, & when it was taken out of the Ground it required an Exertion to pull it out. As this might be deemed a threat, which was accompanied with much generosity in shewing the power of their Arms, I advanced again towards them, on which they retreated backwards, & seeing that no advantage could be gained by a longer stay I joined the party & we went down the hill to go to the Boat we had scarcely got to the foot of the hill when a lance was thrown amongst us, but without any striking any person, As they appeared on the top of the Hill & seemed disposed to throw more lances I ordered one of the Marines to fire his musquet with powder only, on which they flew with great haste.’

Sometimes the demonstration of weapons was less urgent. Navy Surgeon John White reports:

‘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. Finding he declined it, I fired a pistol ball through it. The explosion frightened him, as well as his companions, a little; but they soon got over it, and on my putting the pistol into my pocket he took up the shield, and appeared to be much surprised at finding it perforated.’

The native was not convinced. White continues:

‘He then, by signs and gestures, seemed to ask if the pistol would make a hole through him, and on being made sensible that it would, he showed not the smallest signs of fear; on the contrary he endeavoured, as we construed his motions, to impress us with an idea of the superiority of his own arms, which he applied to his breast, and by staggering, and a show of falling, seemed to wish us to understand that the force and effect of them was mortal, and not to be resisted.’

Worgan reports:

‘One of them was bold enough to go up to a Soldier and feel his Gun, and felt the point of the Bayonet, looked very serious, & gave a significant Hum!’

The throwing of spears seems to have been exceptional. Two writers report that the spear throwers were admonished by their own. Worgan reports:

‘Before we took our leave of the Tribe that threw the Lance; they endeavoured to convince Us, that it was not thrown by general Consent, and one of them severely reprimanded the Man who threw it, and several of them struck him, but more to shew Us their Disapprobation of what he had done, than as a Punishment for it.’

Although various writers report other weapons:

‘one of them had a heavy Bludgeon’ (Navy Surgeon Arthur Bowes Smyth); ‘either a Spear, a Lance for striking Fish or a Club’ (Navy Lieutenant William Bradley); ‘every one of them armed with a short stick which had a hook at one end of it, others with Short Bludgeons & some with stone hatchetts’ (King); ‘They were then armed, two of them with shields and swords, the rest with lances only. The swords were made of wood, small in the gripe, and apparently less formidable than a good stick’ (Governor Arthur Phillip); ‘each of them was armed with a spear or long dart and had a stick, with a shell at the end, used by them in throwing their weapons. Besides these, some few had shields made of the bark of the cork tree, of a plain appearance but sufficient to ward off or turn their own weapons, some of which were pointed and barbed with the bones of fish, fastened on with some kind of adhesive gum’ (White); ‘each of them had long Spears and a short Stick in their hands’, ‘armed with Spears, Clubs & Shields’ (Worgan),

the spear was clearly the weapon of choice. Sometimes the natives went unarmed:

‘none of them had any spears or offensive weapon’ (Bowes Smyth); ‘the natives, twenty of whom waded into the water unarmed’ (Phillip).

The British sought safety in numbers:

‘prudence forbade a few people to venture wantonly among so great a number, and a party of only six men was observed on the north shore, the Governor immediately proceeded to land on that side’ (Marine Lieutenant Watkin Tench),

but compare:

‘we saw twenty-nine of the natives on the beach, looking towards the shipping; upon which Lieutenants Ball and King, Mr. Dawes, and myself went on shore, landing at the place where they were’ (White).

They were wary of being caught alone or outnumbered:

‘I lost myself & cd. not find my way back to the Wooding Party, which threw me into no small panic least I shd. meet with any of the Natives before I cd. extricate myself from the Labarynth I had got into … I was apprehensive I shd. be seen by them’ (Bowes Smyth)

He didn’t learn from the experience. The next day:

‘Mr. Palmer, the Purser of the Sirius & myself walked a great way along the Beach (at least 2 miles) & on looking back we perceived abt. the midway between us & the Watering Party (who were intirely out of Sight by means of a point of Land intervening) 3 of the Natives & immediately turn’d back with no very pleasing reflections on our imprudence in trusting ourselves so far not knowg. the Consequence of being intercepted by a party of the Natives.’

The natives were friendly and unarmed, but:

‘Mr. Palmer happen’d to have his Pocket Pistols abt. him loaded, one of which he deliver’d to me & the other he kept himself in case we shd. be under the disagreeable necessity of using force in defense of our Lives: but we Where very happy to find no occasion for making use of them … As soon as they left us Mr. P & I both congratulated each other upon the very fortunate issue of this Event making a resolve at the same time never more to run such risks in future.’

They were prepared to use pistols against unarmed men!

Phillip (or more likely his ghost-writer) optimistically states:

‘nor did any kind of disagreement arise while the ships remained in Botany Bay.’

[At least some of Phillip’s account was written by a ghost-writer, probably working from his notes. It is impossible to be certain who wrote what.]

Judge Advocate David Collins concurs:

‘the natives had hitherto conducted themselves sociably and peaceably toward all the parties of our officers and people with whom they had hitherto met, and by no means seemed to regard them as enemies or invaders of their country and tranquillity.’

These statements are untenable given the other accounts of spear throwing and gun firing. Certainly, by the time their accounts were finalised, both were aware that relations had deteriorated. Phillip writes:

‘It has been uniformly remarked by our people, that defenceless stragglers are generally ill-treated by the natives of New South Wales, while towards parties armed and on their guard, they behave in the most amicable manner.’

and Collins:

‘How grateful to every feeling of humanity would it be could we conclude this narrative without being compelled to say, that these unoffending people had found reason to change both their opinions and their conduct!’

White was realistic:

‘I am well convinced that they know and dread the superiority of our arms …  as they, on all occasions, have discovered a dislike to a musquet: and so very soon did they make themselves acquainted with the nature of our military dress, that, from the first, they carefully avoided a soldier, or any person wearing a red coat, which they seem to have marked as a fighting vesture.’

Ultimately, the intercourse between spear and gun was tragically one-sided.

to be continued …

[For part 4 (The first words and Descriptions/opinions/attitudes) see here]

[For part 5 (Naming/claiming) see here]


4 thoughts on “Botany Bay 18-26 Jan 1788 – Part 3

  1. Pingback: Botany Bay 18-26 Jan 1788 – Part 2 | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

  2. Pingback: Botany Bay, 18-26 Jan 1788 – Part 1 | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

  3. Pingback: Botany Bay 18-26 Jan 1788 – Part 4 | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

  4. Pingback: Botany Bay 18-26 Jan 1788 – Part 5 | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

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