When the Endeavour arrived in 1770, a great many people already lived here. They made up different groups, sometimes living together in large numbers, speaking many different languages.

This continent was a country of many nations.

‘This was a country not of one people, but of many different groups.’

Maria Nugent, Captain Cook Was Here, 2009

Sacred land

Where the Wild Flowers Once Grew - painting showing dense forest with thick undergrowth of flowers. The predominant colours in the painting and for the flowers is blue.
Gordon Syron, Where the wild flowers once grew, 2005. From the Australian National Maritime Museum. Click here to view this item digitally in Trove.

Where the Wild Flowers Once Grew presents a contemporary pre-contact vision in which Indigenous people trod lightly on the landscape. It shows the unspoilt majesty of rainforest, wildflowers and trees before the Europeans came to this land. According to Gordon Syron, who belongs to the Birpi/Worimi language group, ‘The wildflowers were the way that the rainforest around Sydney Harbour must have looked before the tree clearing began. The clearing of trees took all the elements and goodness out of the soil … the wildflowers don’t grow in their natural state anymore’. 

Stars and seasons

‘In our culture, stories and other knowledge of our world have always been handed down orally from generation to generation since time immemorial.’

Billy John McFarlane Missi 

This linocut print tells the story of how the people of the Zenadh Kes (Torres Strait) learn how to read the stars, the moon and the ever-changing sea. Their intimate knowledge of the seasons helps them go about their daily lives, on land and sea.

Indigenous Australian art depicting patterns and the sky. Predominant colours are black and white.
Billy John McFarlane Missi, Kulba Yadail (Old Lyrics), 2006. From the Australian National Maritime Museum. Click here to view this item digitally in Trove.

Tattoo tools

‘Tattoos in Polynesia covered the body (face, neck, chest, armpits, arms, hands, legs, feet, anus) and even the late chief’s skull, most often from the hips to the knees, making the person look as if he wore clothes, with patterns which would trace the memory of events (death, birth of a child, the social position, the passage of puberty), natural elements, (flora, fauna), geometric symbols representing a clan, a god, a totem animal … 

Tattoos were meant to exalt sexual attraction, inspire terror to the enemies. They matched with the splendid ornaments worn for celebrations … People believed they would bring the person a magic power against diseases, recover wounds, help procreate and give birth.’

Natea Montillier Tetuanui, Tahiti, Cultural office of French Polynesia  

Drawings of 10 tools from the Societ Islands laid out next to each other. Predominant colours are creme and grey.
John Record (engraver), after John Frederick Miller (artist), Tools from the Society Islands, 1773. From the National Library of Australia. Click here to view this item digitally in Trove.

Canoes in the Pacific

‘This picture tells us that Tongans are sea warriors because they loved boats and they lived by the sea and this is their connection to the other islands – having to use canoes. But nowadays they use this as their favourite sport. It’s called tawa alo. But in Cook’s days, it used to entertain kings and royal families.’

Sioana Faupula, Tongan Community, Canberra

Drawing of 8 people in 2 canoes rowing in the sea.
John Webber, Canoes of the Friendly Islands, c. 1777. From the Rex Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia. Click here to view this item digitally in Trove.