Botany Bay 18-26 Jan 1788 – Part 4

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

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

[For part 3 (Weapons) see here]

The first words

Three writers agree in recording the first native word: wara (Captain John Hunter) / warra (Judge Advocate David Collins) / whurra (Marine Lieutenant Watkin Tench) (Jakelin Troy, in her various academic publications, adopts the spelling wuruwuru), which Tench states ‘signifies, begone’. (Collins, rather circuitously, says that this word, ‘by the gestures that accompanied [it], could not be interpreted into invitations to land, or expressions of welcome’; Hunter does not specifically interpret it.) The writers adopt different spellings (foreshadowing recurring difficulties regarding orthography) and disagree about the circumstances. Hunter places it as the ships were sailing into the bay: the English were not welcome in the first place. Tench places it at the end of an hour’s apparently friendly conversation, and Collins as the governor’s longboat sailed from Botany Bay to Port Jackson: the British may or may not have been welcome, but had overstayed.

The first English word recorded as used by the natives is ‘No?’. The question mark is significant. Navy Lieutenant Philip Gidley King reports:

‘they … express[ed] their want for anything by putting their finger on it, gently looking me in the face, and saying “No?” I must do them the justice to say that I believe them to be conscientiously honest.’

He also records an exchange of words, but doesn’t say which ones:

‘We asked them the names of a number of articles, which they told us, and repeated our words.’

and at the end of the day’s intercourse, he writes:

‘We wished the natives good bi wi ye [God be with you/goodbye], which they repeated.’

The other attempted verbal exchange recorded was between the natives and a black convict:

‘A Black man was landed among the working Party with whom the Natives were much pleas’d & seem’d astonished that he did not understand them, they wished him to stay with them & followed the Boat that he was in as far as they could, as the Boat left the shore they retired apparently as well satisfied as if the Man of their own Complexion had remained with them.’ (Navy Lieutenant William Bradley).

Several of the writers use words such as ‘interview’, ‘conversation’ and ‘conference’ without specifying the medium, probably non-verbally, as Tench specifies ‘nearly an hour’s conversation by signs and gestures’. (The original meanings of ‘interview’ (to see each other), ‘converse’ (keep company with to) and ‘conference’ (to bring together) all didn’t necessarily involve speaking.)


The writers’ descriptions of the land, flora and fauna, while interesting in themselves, are beyond the scope of this essay (in that they don’t involve intercourse with the natives, and would have been the same if they hadn’t been here), [originally in a footnote: I can’t resist noting the only positive assessment: ‘the Bay is very hand Some one as Ever I Saw in my Life Every whare Seeming Level with Sanddy Beach in most places’ (Marine Private John Easty, written before he had seen Port Jackson), and by far the most negative: ‘I cannot Say from the appearence of the Shore that I will like it the only thing I ask is that it may be a healthy place … I hope that the Comr. will find out a better place at Port Jackson for use to Settle for if we are oblige to Settle here at the Place they intend there will not a Soul be a life in the course of a Year’ (Marine Lieutenant Ralph Clark).] with one exception. Some of the writers use a word which Cook had recorded in North Queensland – ‘kangaroo’ – mostly with no further explanation. Navy Surgeon Arthur Bowes Smyth adds: ‘As there is a most exact print of this uncommon Animal in Capt. Cook’s Acct. of this Country I shall not take the trouble to discribe it’, though it is not clear whom he is addressing. (Almost all of the writers use the word at some point; only some use it within the first week. Several writers later give full descriptions.) The British later discovered that this word was unknown in the Sydney region (indeed the natives thought it was an English word), but continued to use it even after they learned the local word[s]. [The local words are badagarang (the eastern grey kangaroo), banggaray (the swamp wallaby) and wulaba (the rock wallaby) [Troy’s spellings. The First Fleet writers spell them in a variety of ways]. (The ‘real’ red kangaroo macropus rufus was not recorded in the Sydney region.)]

Two other famous animals are mentioned, but of course the native names weren’t known yet.  Bowes Smyth writes: ‘The Animals we saw during our stay [included] Dogs [and] a Bird of a new genus, as large & high as an Ostrich.’ [‘Dingo’ is from the local language; ‘emu’, somewhat surprisingly, is from Portuguese – there were/are some large-ish birds in Brazil. Its name in the local language is marayong.]

Various writers describe the natives and their possessions, including their colour, general physical appearance, smell, hair, noses, teeth in general or the missing [ritually excised] upper front tooth in particular, beards, scarification, body paint or other decoration, shelter, canoes and other tools, and food.  (Weapons have been discussed separately.) [It is, of course, not recorded what the natives thought of the British. In The Timeless Land, Eleanor Dark has an unnamed native describe the British as: ‘repellent and hideous to a quite remarkable degree. Their white, naked faces, their pale eyes, their pinched noses, looked incredibly evil and malign, and they exhaled a peculiar and unpleasant odour, so that the black men, their nostrils twitching, looked at each other uneasily, smelling danger as an animal smells it, mistrusting the unknown.’ ]

Descriptions of and opinions as to individual and collective character vary [originally in a footnote: ‘even within one sentence by one writer (Navy Surgeon George Worgan): ‘The same Emotions of Pleasure, Astonishment, Curiosity & Timidity, appeared in these poor Creatures, as had been observed in our first Acquaintances’). He later (and therefore strictly outside the scope of this essay), described them as ‘an Active, Volatile, Unoffending, Happy, Merry, Funny, Laughing Good-natured, Nasty Dirty, Race of human Creatures as ever lived in a State of Savageness’.], and span stupid, shy, fearful or cautious, simple and easily controlled, gentle, friendly, funny and playful, confident, resolute, firm and calm, and ‘manly’, ‘rude [and] unsociable’, and hostile.

Responses to new experiences were especially strong:

‘they seem’d surpris’d at the Sight of the Ships’ (Bowes Smyth).

‘An officer one day prevailed on one of them to place a target, made of bark, against a tree, which he fired at with a pistol, at the distance of some paces. The Indians, though terrified at the report, did not run away, but their astonishment exceeded their alarm, on looking at the shield which the ball had perforated. As this produced a little shyness, the officer, to dissipate their fears and remove their jealousy, whistled the air of Malbrooke’ (Tench)[originally in a footnote: possibly Marlbrough s’en va-t-en guerre.]

‘A pot was boiling in which there was some Fish for the Workmen’s Dinners, One of the Natives (who never had seen or felt hot Water before) very deliberately put his Hand in to take a Fish out, when, feeling a very smart Sensation, he gave an amazing Jump squalling out most Hideously, on which, his Companions seeing us laugh, joined Us very heartily, while the poor Fellow was skipping about & blowing his Fingers’ (Worgan).

Clark made up his mind before he had met them:

‘the Supply Boat has been on Shore often had intercourse with the Natives who the[y] Say are very friendly but I will not trust them’.

He was later ‘known for his empathy with the local indigenous people’.

Descriptions of their characters overlap with descriptions of their actions, which span avoidance or running away on the first encounter, running away when guns were demonstrated, indifference, helpfulness, cautious then more confident approach, curiosity and friendly mixing, at least for a while, defiance and throwing spears.

Bowes Smyth offers the strongest opinion about the language:

‘their Language is excessively Loud & harsh & seems to consist of a very short Vocabulary’.

The first part of that statement was later supported by Tench and Southwell but Marine Lieutenant William Dawes’s [later] list of [the] sounds [of the local language] doesn’t contain anything which could be considered a guttural sound. [Dawes’s two notebooks, dating from 1790-91, provide by far the most important information about the local language, going beyond word lists to grammar, but are beyond the scope of this essay.] The second part can be dismissed on the grounds that he had had very little contact with the natives by the time he wrote it (indeed he had very little contact with them before he left three months later; this did not stop him from making the most consistently strong negative opinions about them). Tench later, and on longer and closer acquaintance, writes:

‘They use the ellipsis in speaking very freely; always omitting as many words as they possibly can, consistent with being understood.’

Various writers record the natives talking loudly, whooping, shouting, jabbering, exclaiming, muttering, laughing, jumping, grunting, hallowing and squealing. In particular, their reaction to seeing British genitals was energetic, vocally and gesturally.

to be continued …

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


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

  1. Pingback: Botany Bay 18-26 Jan 1788 – Part 3 | 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 2 | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

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

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