Daily Archives: April 26, 2020

Tall ship tales: oral accounts illuminate past encounters and objects, but we need to get our story straight



Two Dharawal men opposing Cook’s arrival at Kurnell.
Wikimedia

Maria Nugent, Australian National University and Dr Gaye Sculthorpe, The British Museum

Captain James Cook arrived in the Pacific 250 years ago, triggering British colonisation of the region. We’re asking researchers to reflect on what happened and how it shapes us today. We will be publishing more stories in this series in the coming week.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images and names of deceased people.


In the early Sydney colony, newcomers commonly quizzed Indigenous locals about their memories of Captain Cook and the Endeavour.

They believed the arrival of a shipload of British men who stayed for a week was an incredibly memorable event; and assumed that details of it would have been preserved — even treasured — over time.

The accounts given are hardly ever a straightforward recounting of what Cook did. And they rarely tally with what is recorded in the voyage accounts.

Rather, they carry those common qualities of remembering: telescoping, conflating, rearranging time, stripping back detail, and upping symbolism and metaphor. Unpicking the threads of these memories is vital for historians wanting to find agreement on details and interpretations, and provenance of items that changed hands during early encounters.

A new series from The Conversation.

Recollecting memories

Some oral accounts were written down – either at the time they were heard or later. Records reveal accounts extracted out of curiosity, to assist with commemorations, or simply to pass the time.

Efforts are underway to clarify the history and provenance of items like this bark shield, held by The British Museum.
The British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA

One account comes from the early 1830s. Two priests stationed at St Mary’s Cathedral near Sydney’s Domain met an Aboriginal man from Botany Bay. They asked him “if he had any recollections of the landing of Captain Cook”? He was born too late to have witnessed it himself, but he shared a reasonably long story he had inherited from his father, the recollection of which one of the priests later published.

Similarly, in a recent prize-winning essay, historian Grace Karskens reconstructs a tantalising conversation between Aboriginal woman Nah Doongh and her settler friend Sarah Shand.

“Shand was intensely curious about Nah Doongh’s memory of her first contact with white people”, Karsken explains, but was frustratingly incapable of seeing she was implicated in the dispossession of Aboriginal people, including Nah Doongh.

Nah Doongh offered her a story about Cook, whom she presented as big and evil, violent and greedy, in a way that anticipates late 20th-century Aboriginal oral narratives.

Cook emerged as an erstwhile topic in cross-cultural conversations across colonial Sydney, but the substance of what was said and why was less dependent on the details of what Cook and his crew had done in 1770 than on the conditions, contexts and purposes of the chats.

As many have noted, discourses about Cook in Australia are neverending; but their contours and emphases change in relation to – and contribute to change in — broader Australian culture and politics.

Who is speaking?

Sometimes it is not the account given of Cook that is of primary interest, but the identity of the narrator.

Dharawal woman Biddy Giles lived around the Botany Bay area for much of the 19th century. An account she gave of Cook’s landing was written down after her death by a white settler.

He recalled she’d said: “They all run away; two fellows stand; Cook shot them in the legs; and they run away too!”.

Dharawal woman Biddy Giles (left) with Jim Brown, Joe Brown, Joey, and Jimmy Lowndes.
State Library of NSW

This economical account is faithful to longer Endeavour voyage renditions. But researchers are more exercised by biographical information showing Giles was briefly married to a much older man, Cooman. Speculation swirls that Cooman’s grandfather, also called Cooman, was one of the two fellows shot.

When historian Heather Goodall in her book Rivers and Resilience returned to Giles’ life, she made it clear she thought historians who relied on documentary sources should not attempt such jumps.

Repatriation requests

Not all researchers have been so circumspect. In 2016, speculations about the identity of one of the two men shot contributed to formal requests to museums in Britain for the return of artefacts either known to have been collected at Botany Bay during the Endeavour voyage (four spears at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge) or believed to have been (a shield at the British Museum in London).

The repatriation claim repeated historian Keith Vincent Smith’s assertion one of the two men was Cooman.

When asked for advice on this repatriation request, I (Nugent) concluded there was no consensus about that assertion, noting it was unfortunate that:

historical claims which derive from inconclusive evidence, are based on questionable interpretative leaps, and are not presented in ways that recognise and respect the complexities of writing “early contact” history from fragmentary sources […] were being relied upon.

Other arguments would serve applications for return far better.

The request was unsuccessful, but the process was productive and generally positive. More work has taken place since, both further historical research and object analysis, and importantly, renewed and enriched relationship-building.

Building a material history

Retracing the speculative leaps made between the historical encounters, collected objects, and related written, oral and visual sources reinforces the urgent need for well-resourced, critically reflexive, and multimodal methods of interpretation. This is particularly true when the return of an object and the knowledge it embodies is strongly desired.

A variety of fishing spears, shields, stone hatchets, clubs and swords by Charles Alexandre Lesueur (1807)
Mitchell Collection/State Library of NSW

This year we will commence a new ARC-funded project, Mobilising Objects to draw together objects in international collections, images, written records, oral accounts, and contemporary expertise to generate a material history of early colonial Sydney.

The project aims to build knowledge about exceptional, but poorly-documented, Aboriginal objects from Sydney and the NSW coast (circa 1770-1920s) in British and European museums. We hope to build strong relations between Aboriginal communities and overseas museums and lay robust foundations for future projects seeking the return of Indigenous cultural heritage.

Gathering together records of oral accounts given by Aboriginal people about Cook and other seaborne interlopers, and grappling with the interpretive challenges they present, will be a vital aspect of this work.The Conversation

Maria Nugent, Co-Director, Australian Centre for Indigenous History, Australian National University and Dr Gaye Sculthorpe, Curator & Section Head, Oceania, The British Museum

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Buried under colonial concrete, Botany Bay has even been robbed of its botany



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Rebecca Hamilton, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History; Dan Penny, University of Sydney; Josephine Gillespie, University of Sydney, and Shane Ingrey, UNSW

The HMS Endeavour’s week-long stay on the shores of Kamay in 1770 yielded so many botanical specimens unknown to western science, Captain James Cook called the area Botany Bay.

During this visit, the ship’s natural history expert Joseph Banks spoke favourably of the landscape, saying it resembled the “moorlands of England” with “knee-high brushes of plants stretching over gentle and treeless hills as far as the eye could see”.

Since then, Kamay has become an icon of Australia’s convict history and emblematic of the dispossession of Indigenous people from country.

A new series from The Conversation.

However, memories of the pre-British flora have largely been lost. Ongoing research drawing on ecological data, and Indigenous and European histories, reveals what this environment once looked like. It shows many of the assumptions about the historical landscape we hold today may actually be wrong.

The site better reflects 20th-century European exploitation of the landscape than it does early or pre-British Botany Bay.

From swamps to suburbs

Today, the northern shore of Kamay acts as Australia’s gateway to the world. It hosts Australia’s busiest international airport and one of Australia’s largest container ports, major arterial roads and a rapidly growing residential population.




Read more:
Black skies and raging seas: how the First Fleet got a first taste of Australia’s unforgiving climate


From the early 19th century, urban development gradually overprinted a vast network of groundwater-fed swamplands, whose catchment extended north from Kamay to what is now the southern boundary of Sydney’s CBD.

These swamps have largely disappeared under the suburbs, or have been corralled into golf course ponds or narrow wetlands alongside Southern Cross Drive – a sight familiar to anyone who has driven between Sydney city and its airport.

Kamay holds a rapidly growing residential population.
Shutterstock

Viewed by British colonial authorities as both an unhealthy nuisance and a critical resource, the ever-shrinking wetlands played a crucial role in the water supply and industrial development of early Sydney, before becoming polluted and a disease-causing miasma.

A misremembered past

“Natural” remnants of the former swamplands are today considered to have high conservation value under both state and federal environmental and heritage protection legislation.




Read more:
Friday essay: histories written in the land – a journey through Adnyamathanha Yarta


But attempting to protect ecosystems that reflect a version of the past has a major constraint. Long-term information about their past species composition and structure can be fragmented, misremembered, or absent.

A map showing the Kamay (Botany Bay) Swamplands from 1894.
Image from the Mitchell Collection, State Library of NSW, Author provided

This is especially problematic in the case of the Kamay swamplands, which, like many urban ecosystems, have been fragmented, hydrologically altered, and polluted.

Yet not all is lost. We studied pollen released from flowering plants and conifers, which can accumulate and preserve in sediment layers through time.

Looking at this preserved pollen lets us develop a timeline of vegetation change over hundreds to thousands of years.

Lachlan swamp

One wetland remnant, called Lachlan Swamp, occurs at the springhead of the swamplands in Centennial Parklands. Boardwalks and signs at the site encourage visitors to imagine the swamps and the paperbark forest (Melaleuca quinquenervia) surrounding them as a relic of pre-British Sydney.

Paperbark trees dominate the landscape at Lachlan Swamp.
Author provided

We used the pollen technique at Lachlan Swamp to determine whether the contemporary ecosystem reflects the pre-European landscape being protected.

And our results reveal that, at the time of British occupation, the swampland was surrounded by an open, Ericaceae-dominated heath. Casuarina and Leptospermum species were the dominant swamp trees, not the swamp paperbark.

This plant community was present at the site for at least the previous 2,000 years, and was only replaced by the contemporary paperbark forest between the 1890s and 1970s.

An 1844 drawing of Lachlan Swamp showing an open landscape.
Image from the Dixon Collection, State Library of NSW, Author provided

Cultural knowledge

Ongoing work from the La Perouse Aboriginal Community led research team drawing on Indigenous knowledge and European history suggests this open heathland vegetation grew consistently across the Lachlan and Botany Swamps during and prior to European colonisation of Sydney.

Continuous cultural knowledge about the environment, held by local Dharawal people, can provide a rich picture of Kamay’s botany and how it was used – well before the arrival of the HMS Endeavour.




Read more:
The Memory Code: how oral cultures memorise so much information


For instance, the Garrara or grass tree (Xanthorrhoea), which is depicted in many early colonial paintings, is a multi-use plant used to construct fishing spears – a tradition upheld today within the La Perouse Aboriginal community.

Similarly, other food and medicinal plants have been long been used by this community. This includes Five Corners (Ericaceae), Native Sarsaparilla (Smilax), Lomandra (Lomandra) and multi-use heath and swamp plants such as the coastal wattle (Acacia longifolia), swamp oak (Casuarina glauca) and coastal tea tree (Leptospermum laevigatum).

Xanthorrhoea plants grew throughout Botany Bay before European colonisation.
Shutterstock

The plant species described and utilised by the local people correlates with the pre-European vegetation reconstructed from the Lachlan Swamp pollen record, and with what is described in early British records.

Not all is lost

Our common understanding of the Kamay landscape, as recognised in the protected swamp remnant in Centennial Park, is based on a misremembering of the past.

If our future goals are to conserve beautiful, unique ecosystems that have escaped European exploitation and mismanagement – such as the version of Botany Bay described by Banks – it’s crucial to start including and listening to long-term environmental histories to compliment our scientific research.




Read more:
The Dreamtime, science and narratives of Indigenous Australia


We must protect a resilient, ecosystem-rich landscape informed by accumulated Indigenous knowledge, passed down over many generations.

Though Sydney’s environmental past may be misremembered, it’s not lost entirely. Its legacy is subtly coded into the remnant landscapes of pre-British occupation, and preserved in the continuous knowledge systems of the land’s first peoples.

With care, it can be read and used to support resilient and authentic urban ecosystems.The Conversation

Rebecca Hamilton, Postdoctoral Researcher in Palaeoecology, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History; Dan Penny, Associate Professor, University of Sydney; Josephine Gillespie, Senior lecturer, University of Sydney, and Shane Ingrey, Postdoctoral research fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH), UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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