AS SOON AS THE BRITISH ships left Botany Bay, the French built on its north side a palisade fortification to enable new boats or longboats to be constructed in safety. “This precaution was necessary,” wrote La Pérouse, “against the Indians of New Holland, who though very weak and few in number, like all savages are extremely mischievous … for they even threw darts at us immediately after receiving our presents and our caresses.” Expecting conflict, La Pérouse was not disappointed. In an ill-defined event on the shores of Gamay, Botany Bay, a number of Cadigal (Sydney), Bediagal (north shore Botany Bay), and Gweagal (south shore Botany Bay) natives were shot and wounded.” Though this brought a general deterioration in the relationship between the natives and all Europeans, wrote Collins, “We were however firstly convinced that nothing short of the greatest necessity could have induced M. de La Pérouse to take such a step.”
The new people in Warrane, Sydney Cove, seemed to require no fortification, however, nor was the judicious Phillip tempted to erect any. Some wisdom told him that a new society could not be created from within a state of siege. Not that the people in Sydney Cove had been pestered by natives, who stayed away from the area in the early weeks. But on the second Saturday of February, two natives came down to within a small distance of the governor's canvas house. They were “both men pretty much advanced in life” and bore long spears. The governor, determined to be courteous, put on his coat and went out to meet them with a number of officers, and gave one of them a hatchet “and bound some red bunting about their heads with some yellow tinfoil.” The two visitors sat beneath a tree but refused to go any further into the new town. One of them spent the time sharpening the point of his spear with an oyster shell, perhaps in the hope of showing the force he had to hand and thus moderating the behaviour of the newcomers.
When an African boy from one of the ships came up to look at these elders, they opened his shirt and examined his chest, then felt his hair, and by signs begged for a lock of it. Surgeon Bowes Smyth cut off a tress. They put the boy's hair aside in a wreath of grass, and were quite willing to let Bowes Smyth take some of their own. Perhaps they intended to work some ritual of expulsion by using the boy's hair. Perhaps they thought he was one of them, lost.
Whatever their purpose, one could be sure it was unlikely to be idle, and worthy of a better response than bunting and tinfoil. In fact Phillip would soon hear rumours that some of his people had been involved in the rape and plunder of natives, and ultimately of murder, though there was no direct evidence of any of this. Almost certainly the two elders had come, amongst other motives, to observe the people who were so casual in violating the world set up by the hero ancestors, the beings who created the local environment of each clan and language group in the great period of generation known as the Dreaming.
For the individual native, the knowledge, ritual, and mystery attached to maintaining the local earth were enlarged at initiation, and further secrets were acquired through a lifetime, sometimes by means of dreams, sometimes by shared ceremonial. Natives at particular ceremonial sites reenacted the journey and acts of creation of a particular hero ancestor, and by doing that they sustained the earth. As in other places the priest became Christ at the climax of the liturgy, during their reenactment they became the hero ancestor. A network of dreaming tracks existed, criss-crossing the continent and the Sydney basin, connecting one well of water or place of nourishment or shelter with another. The eastern coastline of New South Wales, built up of Hawkesbury sandstone, standing above the sea in great platforms and easily eroded to make caves, was full of such holy sites. All around Port Jackson there existed a huge number of pecked and abraded engravings of humans, ancestors, sharks, and kangaroos on open and sheltered rock surfaces.
As part of what he brought to these contacts, Phillip had the helpful term ab origine to apply to the local people—these humans had been here from the beginning. There were as yet few European challenges to the accepted biblical age of the earth—six or seven thousand years. So though Phillip knew that his convict camp sat cheek by jowl with an ancient people, he did not know how antique was their occupation of the land he had claimed for George III. Indeed, the true chronology would not be known until modern times, and it serves as context to all that went on between the two races.
In what is now western New South Wales, near Lake Nitchie, some 6,800 years ago, a number of men very much resembling these two elders, and members of the species Homo sapiens, worked for the better part of a week cutting a pit into hard sediments and making it large enough to take the body of an important man. He was a tall man at 182 centimetres. He had died in his late thirties from a dental abscess. In 1969 the body was found, still seated after millennia, legs bent and head and shoulders forced down to fit him into the grave pit and bury him before he putrefied. He was daubed with red ochre, and interred with solemn ornamentation: scraps of pearl shell which had somehow reached this distant inland location, a lump of fused silica from a meteor, and a necklace of 178 Tasmanian devil's teeth. (The Tasmanian devil became extinct in mainland Australia nearly 7,000 years ago.) This man was a figure of significance and power—his necklace and the care taken to inter him showed that. And although in some cultural aspects of his life he would have differed from these two elders who visited Phillip in February 1788, and although they spoke a different language from that spoken by the ancient tall man, the essentials of his life—ceremonial, hunting, and social—would have been totally understandable to them. Whereas to Phillip they were, and would be despite his best intentions, an utter puzzle.
Not that the man of Lake Nitchie is the oldest of rediscovered burials in Australia. A female cremation-burial that occurred 26,000 years ago has been uncovered at Lake Mungo in western New South Wales. The light-boned woman's body was not totally consumed by flames when it was cremated on the beach of Lake Mungo, and the remaining bones were broken up and placed in a pit. Half a kilometre distant, but some 2,000 years earlier, another body, almost certainly a woman's, her right shoulder badly afflicted with osteoarthritis, had been buried, ornamented with red ochre. Both these women were Homo sapiens and it is likely that their cosmology too coincided in essentials with that of the elders who came to visit Sydney Town.
OTHER CONTACTS MADE EARLY in that remarkable month of February confirmed the idea that the natives were interested in the new people but distressed by their unauthorised taking of fish and game. A pernicious trade in native souvenirs had also started between the convicts on land, and even some of the marines, and the sailors of the transports. The sailors knew they would soon be departing and were willing to buy stolen spears, throwing sticks, and native nets as mementos. The fishing lines used by the native women were difficult for them to replace, being arduously spun from the inner bark of the kurrajong tree. Women would roll long strips of the bark on the inside of their thighs, twisting it together to make the lines. They used the sap of the red bloodwood tree to prevent the line from fraying. They also used bark fibre to make fishing nets, carrahjun maugromaa,and net bags, which they hung from their necks or foreheads and used to carry their fishing lines and other possessions..
Burra, fishhooks, made either of hardwood or of the spiral vortex of shells, were also stolen. The Eora forebears had fished with hooks and handlines and the multipoint spears the Europeans called fizgigs—from the Spanish fisga, harpoon—for at least two millennia. The men used canoes chiefly to cross from one bay to another, but always fished in the shallows. One European declared that he had seen a native catch more than twenty fish in an afternoon by standing up in the canoe and striking at fish with his fizgig made of the flowering stem of the grass tree, or of wattle acacia, its four barbs fastened in place by gum. The wooden prongs were honed in the fire and headed with animal-bone points, sharp fish-bones or teeth, or viciously cutting stingray spurs..
Collins said that at convict musters and morning military parades, soldiers and convicts had been warned against depriving the natives of their spears, adhesive yellow gum, or other articles. But there were obvious violations, and the bad conduct of a particular boat crew led to a landing party in one of the coves in the lower part of the harbour being driven off with spears.
Tit-for-tat, a game the natives played with the same vigour as the Europeans, was now established. A party of Aboriginal men, perhaps sixteen or eighteen, landed on the Garden Island of the Sirius and carried off a shovel, spade, and pick-axe. One of the sailors there picked up a musket and got a shot away. A wounded native dropped the pick-axe. Was the attempt to take this item straight theft, was it the unknowing and accustomed picking up of whatever lay in nature, or was it an attempt at an adjustment of the books? It was, in any case, interpreted on the newcomers' side only as predictable native thievery. Captain Collins lamented, “To such circumstances as these must be attributed the termination of that good understanding that had hitherto subsisted between us and them, and which Governor Phillip laboured to improve wherever he had the opportunity.” Collins was fair enough to acknowledge that the loss of their fishing lines and other implements must have created “many inconveniences” for the Eora..
Nagle, however, like most of the other new arrivals, saw the Aborigines' assertions of ownership to be pure mischief. “When we would be shooting the seine and came across a school of fish, and the natives see us, they would come down with spear in hand and take what fish they thought fit until we got them [the fish] into the boat, and push off. A few days after we had been robbed of our fish, we were shooting the seine in a large cove opposite the cove we had been robbed of our fish. One of the natives came over in his bark canoe and seemed very friendly. We knew him to be one of them that robbed us on the other side.” Nagle got this native to accept into his hand the powder from a cartridge, and then have fire put to it. “Which he did, but the flame, smoke and the powder flying in his face, and the burning of his hand, he gave a spring and a hollow that I never saw equalled and run to his canoe and put off, sometimes paddling with one hand and then the other until he got to the other side.” Such little games expressed the annoyance that ordinary seamen and soldiers felt at the natives' intrusions on their activities, and carried inherent in them the seed of the interracial tragedy that was taking shape in Sydney Cove.
By the end of February 1788, the indigenous people began to shun the settlement. But contact between the two races was a daily occurrence on the water. The natives were scared of the 200 red-coated marines of the four companies. “From the first, they carefully avoided a soldier, or any person wearing a red coat,” wrote an observer. The natives called the musket the gerubber, or gerebar, fire-stick. Before long they would experience further demonstrations of its power.