250 years ago the HMB Endeavour voyaged along the east coast of Australia. This moment, seeing each other from ship and shore, was the first of many encounters between the crew and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Nations of Australia – a collision of cultures and ways of knowing.
The perspective of the people on board the Endeavour is well known, but the experience from the shore has been a missing chapter for most people.
The oral histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities are important to the conversation about their encounters during Cook’s voyage to Australia. It is appropriate and respectful to consider those oral histories. The descendants of those who encountered the voyages are telling the stories as they have been passed down to them over generations.
Encounters with the Endeavour were communicated between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Nations right up the east coast of the continent, each group having their own experience and story. Their descendants still share these stories today.
In the journals of Cook and others on board the Endeavour, it is written that Cook and his landing party came to the shore of Kurnell and were met by two Gweagal warriors. After attempting and failing to communicate with the men, Cook fired his musket and wounded one of them. It has been recorded in the journals that one warrior responded with spears and a rock, and further shots were fired.
Dr Shayne T. Williams, a Dharawal man, recounts the same encounter through an Aboriginal cultural lens.
‘If you look at this same encounter from our perspective you would understand that two Gweagal men were assiduously carrying out their spiritual duty to Country by protecting Country from the presence of persons not authorised to be there. In our cultures it is not permissible to enter another culture’s Country without due consent. Consent was always negotiated. Negotiation was not necessarily a matter of immediate dialogue, it often involved spiritual communication through ceremony.’
The Endeavour voyagers did not realise that the continent had a very sophisticated system of living and management, foreign to their ways of understanding knowledge. Nor did the voyagers know what the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island nations believed them or their ship to be.
To the Yuin people it was like a great pelican, something out of the Dreamtime and a symbol of greed. This was a reflection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, which is intrinsically connected to place, through natural systems and order.
Guugu Yimithirr encounter
Cook made contact with local people, travelling further north. The ship ran aground on a reef, now known as Endeavour Reef, and to repair it the crew beached the Endeavour at Waalumbaal Birri on the country of the Guugu Yimithirr peoples. The Endeavour journals record that the crew spoke with the Guugu Yimithirr, that they traded, had conflict and found resolution.
Alberta Hornsby, Guugu Yimithirr traditional owner and historian, explains that the Waalumbaal Birri is traditionally a neutral zone, where disputes are settled and cultural ceremonies are celebrated. Their law required that the Guugu Yimithirr people could not war in Waalumbaal Birri. She states,
‘Without our story, and without the cultural and spiritual beliefs that governed our people - the Guugu Yimithirr people and the people that surrounded the Endeavour River - Captain Cook would not have had a successful first voyage.’
By exploring the oral and written histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who had contact with the Endeavour’s voyage along the coast, we can understand the experience from the shore, what happened and what it means for us today.