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During the HMB Endeavour ‘s stop in Tahiti, Joseph Banks, the lead botanist on board the ship, developed a strong friendship with Tupaia, a Polynesian high priest and star navigator. 

Tupaia’s understanding of Polynesian language and culture, beyond the islands where he lived, was a skill that no one on the voyage possessed. This led Banks to invite Tupaia to join the voyage when it left Tahiti. Tupaia proved to play a significant role for the Pacific voyage.  

When the Endeavour arrived in New Zealand, Tupaia’s cultural knowledge earned him the respect and embrace of the Maori people, whose language and culture have Polynesian roots. He assumed the role of mediator and trade negotiator on behalf of the ship. He met with the Maori people at each stop, including the local chiefs and priests. 

Engagement between the voyagers and the Maori was not always mutually respectful and peaceful. Having Tupaia’s capacity to understand the cultural lore that governed Maori communication gave the voyagers more insight into what was happening in these interactions.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander context

Communication with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Nations of Australia was vastly different. For example, neither Tupaia nor any other crew member was unable to speak with the local clans when they first landed in Botany Bay. The culture of Australian Indigenous people was foreign to them. 

The voyagers did not know that the continent was governed by an existing sophisticated knowledge system linking many nations that strategically managed the continent through a communication system that could be seen, heard, and watched. 

Watching to listen – communication of nations

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people traditionally shared vital intelligence between clans through fire and smoke signals or messengers. Tribal messengers are widely used in traditional society, travelling quickly over long distances to convey information from clan to clan. 

The first visual display of communication between Indigenous Australians sighted from the Endeavour was fire. 

The Endeavour crew saw fires for as far as the eye could see as they sailed up the east coast of Australia, not understanding that the nations were warning of their presence off-shore.

 www.nfsa.gov.au/collection/curated/indigenous-portraits

When you click on the link to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Portraits, scroll down and click in VIEW ALL, then click on Country Song to hear a senior Luritja Aboriginal Man reflect on communication the old way. [The link works best in Internet Explorer]

There was an existing widespread cultural exchange over large areas of the continent. From nation to nation information was relayed - not just through fire, but ceremonies, songs, dances, words and actions. This information flowed back and forth along traditional trade routes and through places of cultural significance. 

Rules of engagement

The Endeavour crew and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples used vastly different languages, concepts, ways of living and systems of order. Each had their own rules of engagement in conflict situations. 

An example is seen in the Endeavour’s encounter with the Guugu Yimithirr people.   

The Endeavour spent weeks at Walmbaal Birri (Endeavour River) while it required repairs, during which the crew was closely watched by the Guugu Yimithirr. Relations between the two groups were friendly at first, even so far as learning significant words from each other.  

However, when preparing to leave Walmbaal Birri the crew started stockpiling fresh provisions for the journey, including twelve sea turtles. The Guugu Yimithirr saw the turtles and recognised them as having come from a breeding place on the reef, connected to a sacred storyline extending from the land to the sea. Taking the turtles was sacrilege, and the Guugu Yimithirr had a duty to act. 

The Guugu Yimithirr came to the crew and demanded the return of several of the turtles but were refused. The crew saw the turtles simply as stock for their larder, unaware of their cultural importance.  

The Guugu Yimithirr attempted to free the turtles, resulting in a small skirmish. The crew now believed they were under attack and shots were fired. This was a terrible breach of local protocol, as the lands they were on were neutral ground for the Guugu Yimithirr and bloody conflict was forbidden there.

Both groups were acting within their own rules of engagement – the one to protect their sacred lore, and the other to protect property. 
The Guugu Yimithirr retreated and about an hour later an older Guugu Yimithirr man approached. He was carrying a spear with the tip broken off – a sign of peace that Cook recognised and accepted. 

When the Endeavour set sail from Walmbaal Birri days later the hills around where they had been were set alight. The Guugu Yimithirr were cleansing the land of the Endeavour’s presence and the conflict that it had brought.