Tag Archives: Aborigines

In a first discovery of its kind, researchers have uncovered an ancient Aboriginal archaeological site preserved on the seabed



S Wright, Author provided

Jonathan Benjamin, Flinders University; Geoff Bailey, University of York; Jo McDonald, University of Western Australia; Michael O’Leary, University of Western Australia, and Sean Ulm, James Cook University

For most of the human history of Australia, sea levels were much lower than they are today, and there was extra dry land where people lived.

Archaeologists could only speculate about how people used those now-submerged lands, and whether any traces remain today.

But in a study published today in PLOS ONE, we report the first submerged ancient Aboriginal archaeological sites found on the seabed, in waters off Western Australia.

The great flood

When people first arrived in Australia as early as 65,000 years ago, sea levels were around 80m lower than today.

Sea levels fluctuated but continued to fall as the global climate cooled. As the world plunged into the last ice age, which peaked around 20,000 years ago, sea levels dropped to 130m lower than they are now.




Read more:
Australia’s coastal living is at risk from sea level rise, but it’s happened before


Between 18,000 and 8,000 years ago the world warmed up. Melting ice sheets caused sea levels to rise. Tasmania was cut off from the mainland around 11,000 years ago. New Guinea separated from Australia around 8,000 years ago.

The sea-level rise flooded 2.12 million square kilometres of land on the continental shelf surrounding Australia. Thousands of generations of people would have lived out their lives on these landscapes now under water.

These ancient cultural landscapes do not end at the waterline – they continue into the blue, onto what was once dry land.
Jerem Leach, DHSC Project, Author provided

Landscapes under water

For the past four years a team of archaeologists, rock art specialists, geomorphologists, geologists, specialist pilots and scientific divers on the Australian Research Council-funded Deep History of Sea Country Project have collaborated with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation to find and record submerged archaeological sites off the Pilbara coast in WA.

Location of the finds in northwest Australia (left) and the Dampier Archipelago (right).
Copernicus Sentinel Data and Geoscience Australia, Author provided

We studied navigation charts, geological maps and archaeological sites located on the land to narrow down prospective areas before surveying the seabed using laser scanners mounted on small planes and high-resolution sonar towed behind boats.

In the final phase of the research, our team of scientific divers carried out underwater archaeological surveys to physically examine, record and sample the seabed.

Archaeologists working in the shallow waters off Western Australia. Future generations of archaeologists must be willing to get wet!
Jerem Leach, DHSC Project, Author provided

We discovered two underwater archaeological sites in the Dampier Archipelago.

The first, at Cape Bruguieres, comprises hundreds of stone artefacts – including mullers and grinding stones – on the seabed at depths down to 2.4m.

A selection of stone artefacts found on the seabed during fieldwork.
John McCarthy and Chelsea Wiseman, Author provided

At the second site, in Flying Foam Passage, we discovered traces of human activity associated with a submerged freshwater spring, 14m below sea level, including at least one confirmed stone cutting tool made out of locally sourced material.

Environmental data and radiocarbon dates show these sites must have been older than 7,000 years when they were submerged by rising seas.

Our study shows archaeological sites exist on the seabed in Australia with items belonging to ancient peoples undisturbed for thousands of years.




Read more:
Explainer: why the rock art of Murujuga deserves World Heritage status


In Murujuga (also known as the Burrup Peninsula) this adds substantially to the evidence we already have of human activity and rock art production in this important National Heritage Listed place.

A submerged stone tool associated with a freshwater spring now 14m under water.
Hiro Yoshida and Katarina Jerbić, DHSC Project, Author provided

Underwater archaeology matters

The submerged stone tools discovered at Murujuga make us rethink what we know about the past.

Our knowledge of ancient times in Australia comes from archaeological sites on land and from Indigenous oral histories. But the first people to come to Australian shores were coastal people who voyaged in boats across the islands of eastern Indonesia.

The early peopling of Australia took place on land that is now under water. To fully understand key questions in human history, as ancient as they are, researchers must turn to both archaeology and marine science.

Archaeologist Chelsea Wiseman records a stone artefact covered in marine growth.
Sam Wright, DHSC Project, Author provided

Protecting a priceless submerged heritage

Submerged archaeological sites are in danger of destruction by erosion and from development activities, such as oil and gas installations, pipelines, port developments, dredging, spoil dumping and industrialised fishing.

Protection of underwater cultural sites more than 100 years old is enshrined by the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (2001), adopted as law by more than 60 countries but not ratified by Australia.

In Australia, the federal laws that protect underwater cultural heritage in Commonwealth waters have been modernised recently with the Historic Shipwrecks Act (1976) reviewed and re-badged as Australia’s Underwater Cultural Heritage Act (2018), which came into effect in July 2019.

This new Act fails to automatically protect all types of sites and it privileges protection of non-Indigenous submerged heritage. For example, all shipwrecks older than 75 years and sunken aircraft found in Australia’s Commonwealth waters are given automatic protection.




Read more:
An incredible journey: the first people to arrive in Australia came in large numbers, and on purpose


Other types of site, regardless of age and including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sites, can be protected but only with ministerial approval.

There is scope for states and territories to protect submerged Indigenous heritage based on existing laws, but regulators have conventionally only managed the underwater heritage of more recent historical periods.

With our find confirming ancient Indigenous sites can be preserved under water, we need policy makers to reconsider approaches to protecting underwater cultural heritage in Australia.

We are confident many other submerged sites will be found in the years to come. These will challenge our current understandings and lead to a more complete account of our human past, so they need our protection now.The Conversation

Deep History of Sea Country: Investigating the seabed in Western Australia.

Jonathan Benjamin, Associate Professor in Maritime Archaeology, Flinders University and ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Flinders University; Geoff Bailey, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology, University of York; Jo McDonald, Director, Centre for Rock Art Research + Management, University of Western Australia; Michael O’Leary, Senior Lecturer in Climate Geoscience, University of Western Australia, and Sean Ulm, Deputy Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, James Cook University

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


Enforcing assimilation, dismantling Aboriginal families: a history of police violence in Australia



This sketch depicts the Waterloo Creek massacre (also known as the Slaughterhouse Creek massacre), part of the conflict between mounted police and Indigenous Australians in 1838.
Godfrey Charles Mundy/National Library of Australia

Thalia Anthony, University of Technology Sydney and Harry Blagg, University of Western Australia

Readers are advised the following article contains descriptions of violence that may be traumatic.


In July 2018, Western Australia’s Police Commissioner Chris Dawson formally apologised for the mistreatment of Aboriginal people at the hands of police, acknowledging the “significant role” the police played in the dispossession of Australia’s First Nations people. Dawson made particular reference to the way:

forceful removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families and communities, the displacement of mothers and their children, sisters, fathers and brothers, the loss of family and resulting destruction of culture has had grave impacts

“Forced removal” references the unique role played by police in many settler colonies such as Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand, the United States and Canada in relation to First Nations peoples: executing assimilationist policies designed to dismantle First Nations families.

A closer look at the history of policing in Australia helps explain some of the dynamics at play in the Black Lives Matter and First Nations Deaths in Custody movement in Australia and a growing push for alternative models of policing.

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The ‘Irish Model’ of policing

Mainstream histories of policing have looked to 19th century British Prime Minister Robert Peel’s London Metropolitan Police “British Model” of policing, with its focus on policing through consensus and “walking the beat”.

There is another model of policing, however, which better reflects the Australian history.

Known as the “Irish Model” from its origins in suppressing dissent in the Irish colony in the 19th century, it set the police against the community, placed them in military style barracks, under a highly centralised and hierarchical chain of command. In general, they were not there to win hearts and minds.

Look to Chris Owen’s magnificent study of policing in the Kimberley region of Western Australia between 1882 and 1905 – titled Every Mother’s Son is Guilty. Policing was based around a highly mobile horse mounted model to cope with the extraordinary distances. As Owen shows, attitudes of the police towards First Nations people were deeply influenced by contemporary beliefs that they were inferior to whites, and a priori criminal.

Many police officers in the frontier colonial era were conscious of being part of a “civilizing mission” and held highly paternalistic attitudes.

One officer who policed the remote regions of Western Australian in the 1920s recalls being

conscientious in my desire for their welfare, for I looked upon them then, as I do now, as children.

Punitive attitudes

Elsewhere, officers exercised often unfettered brutality in punitive frontier expeditions. This was in pursuit of pastoral land grabs, settler occupation and the disintegration of Aboriginal families.

This was a feature of the Native Police Forces that operated in various parts of Australia from the 1830s until the early 20th century.

These forces, responsible for many atrocities against Aboriginal people, consisted of Aboriginal troopers under the command of white officers such as Constable William Willshire whose killings resulted in an unsuccessful murder trial in 1891 and Lieutenant Frederick Wheeler, whose massacres were reviewed by a Queensland parliamentary inquiry in 1861 (which decided to reprimand but not dismiss him).

The inquiry heard evidence of the Native Police Force’s murderous contact with Aboriginal people.

Historical accounts of the Northern Territory’s Native Police, modelled on the Queensland’s Force, documents its fatal force against Aboriginal lives to allegedly defend colonists’ lives and property.

In Western Australia, the 1927 Royal Commission into the killing and burning of Aboriginal bodies in the Forrest River massacre found police were brutal in effecting arrests.

The use of police brutality extended beyond Native Police expeditions, and was characteristic of police powers more widely. The Colonial Frontier Massacres Map documenting massacres of First Nations families across Australia include extensive records of police killings, such as 60 Warlpiri, Anmatyere and Kaytetye women, men and children in the Coniston Massacre in 1928.

Police practices of neck chaining Aboriginal prisoners continued officially into the mid-20th century in parts of Australia.




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Defunding the police could bring positive change in Australia. These communities are showing the way


‘Aboriginal Protection Acts’ were used to control Aboriginal people.
AIATSIS, Author provided

‘Protection’

Ideas of law and order formed only a fragment of the colonial police role where Aboriginal people were concerned. Much of it was taken up with implementing the “Aboriginal Protection Acts” or simply “Aboriginal Acts”, which continued well into the 20th century. Examples abound: the Aborigines Protection Act 1886 (Western Australia), the Aboriginal Protection Act and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (Queensland), the Aborigines Protection Act 1909 (New South Wales), the Aborigines Act 1911 (South Australia); Aboriginals Ordinance 1911 (Northern Territory) and The Aborigines Protection Act 1886 (Victoria).

Aboriginal Acts were used in practice to forcibly relocate Aboriginal people to a place of prescribed confinement, which in practice could include on government settlements, reserves, church missions, hospital lock ups, penal islands, cattle stations and other institutions.

Often police officers assumed the role of Aboriginal Protector under these Acts and exercised broad powers over Aboriginal lives.

Police also gained specific powers under legislation that allowed them to remove Aboriginal children from their families under “child welfare” legislation. Testimony from Victoria in the Bringing them Home inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families reported that:

From 1956 and 1957 more than one hundred and fifty children (more than 10% of the children in the Aboriginal population of Victoria at that time) were living in State children’s institutions. The great majority had been seized by police and charged in the Children’s Court with “being in need of care and protection”. Many policemen act from genuine concern for the “best interests” of Aboriginal children, but some are over-eager to enter Aboriginal homes and bully parents with threats to remove their children.

The experience of one Aboriginal child in Western Australia in 1935 was told to the inquiry:

I was at the post office with my Mum and Auntie [and cousin]. They put us in the police ute and said they were taking us to Broome. They put the mums in there as well. But when we’d gone [about ten miles] they stopped, and threw the mothers out of the car. We jumped on our mothers’ backs, crying, trying not to be left behind. But the policemen pulled us off and threw us back in the car. They pushed the mothers away and drove off, while our mothers were chasing the car, running and crying after us. We were screaming in the back of that car. When we got to Broome they put me and my cousin in the Broome lock-up. We were only ten years old.

Police still play a role in removing First Nations children from their families today. The Family is Culture Report in 2019 noted significant concerns about the use of police during removals, saying:

when police are used for removal, especially riot police, this has historical continuity.

Police powers in the first half of the 20th century extended to the forced isolation and confinement of Aboriginal people on public health grounds, such as in various lock-up hospitals, on the basis of a diagnosis made by a police officer of syphilis or leprosy – or a decision that the person was at risk.

The police acted as the gatekeepers for enclosure in a ubiquity of institutions. At the same time as imposing the law, the police also acted as Protectors of Aboriginal people, distributed rations and blankets, provided pastoralists with Aboriginal workers in remote areas and ensured that they remained on pastoral stations.

Aboriginal worker Hobbles Danyarri said:

If you put your own colour, police tracker, that means he can bring them in. He can bring them in to work and don’t let him steal it [beef]. Let them work. Let them work.

And Aboriginal stockman Barney Barnes remembers the removal of Aboriginal communities accused of cattle killing onto Cherrabun, Go Go and Christmas Creek stations in the Kimberley:

That manager made the police go out and bring all the people in from the desert. He reckoned that they were killing too many bullocks. So the police came out and rounded up all the Walmajarri people […] They kept going at it until nobody was left out there. They didn’t allow the Aboriginal people to live in the desert after that.

Aboriginal people who defied Aboriginal Protection Acts and the rules of reserves and settlements – such as speaking in language, practising culture, marrying without the protector’s permission, or otherwise disobeying orders of the protector – would be sent for punishment to places such as Palm Island. These Acts were often enforced by police officers.

Hope for the future

Moving away from a colonial and assimilationist model of policing in Australia involves restructuring police and honouring First Nations self determination.

Community Patrol models, which are embedded in First Nations communities and work towards the safety and wellbeing of women, children and families, provide a First Nations alternative.

It’s time to consider setting police models on a new course that abolishes force and re-imagines community relationships.


UPDATE: This story has been updated to add more detail and quotes.The Conversation

Thalia Anthony, Professor of Law, University of Technology Sydney and Harry Blagg, Professor of Criminology, University of Western Australia

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


Was there slavery in Australia? Yes. It shouldn’t even be up for debate



In 1891 a ‘Slave Map of Modern Australia’ was printed in the British Anti-Slavery Reporter.
Author provided, Author provided

Thalia Anthony, University of Technology Sydney and Stephen Gray, Monash University

Prime Minister Scott Morrison asserted in a radio interview that “there was no slavery in Australia”.

This is a common misunderstanding which often obscures our nation’s history of exploitation of First Nations people and Pacific Islanders.

Morrison followed up with “I’ve always said we’ve got to be honest about our history”. Unfortunately, his statement is at odds with the historical record.

This history was widely and publicly documented, among other sources, in the 2006 Australian Senate report Unfinished Business: Indigenous Stolen Wages.

What is slavery?

Australia was not a “slave state” like the American South. However, slavery is a broader concept. As Article 1 of the United Nations Slavery Convention says:

Slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.

These powers might include non-payment of wages, physical or sexual abuse, controls over freedom of movement, or selling a person like a piece of property. In the words of slavery historian Orlando Patterson, slavery is a form of “social death”.

Slavery has been illegal in the (former) British Empire since the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade of 1807, and certainly since 1833.

Slavery practices emerged in Australia in the 19th century and in some places endured until the 1950s.

Early coverage of slavery in Australia

As early as the 1860s, anti-slavery campaigners began to invoke “charges of chattel bondage and slavery” to describe north Australian conditions for Aboriginal labour.

In 1891 a “Slave Map of Modern Australia” was printed in the British Anti-Slavery Reporter, a journal that documented slavery around the world and campaigned against it.

Reprinted from English journalist Arthur Vogan’s account of frontier relations in Queensland, it showed large areas where:

… the traffic in Aboriginal labour, both children and adults, had descended into slavery conditions.

Seeds of slavery in Australia

Some 62,000 Melanesian people were brought to Australia and enslaved to work in Queensland’s sugar plantations between 1863 and 1904. First Nations Australians had a more enduring experience of slavery, especially in the cattle industry.

In the pastoral industry, employers exercised a high degree of control over “their” Aboriginal workers, who were bought and sold as chattels, particularly where they “went with” the property upon sale. There were restrictions on their freedom of choice and movement. There was cruel treatment and abuse, control of sexuality, and forced labour.

A stock worker at Meda Station in the Kimberley, Jimmy Bird, recalled:

… whitefellas would pull their gun out and kill any Aborigines who stood up to them. And there was none of this taking your time to pull up your boots either. No fear!

Aboriginal woman Ruby de Satge, who worked on a Queensland station, described the Queensland Protection Act as meaning:

if you are sitting down minding your own business, a station manager can come up to you and say, “I want a couple of blackfellows” … Just like picking up a cat or a dog.

Through their roles under the legislation, police, Aboriginal protectors and pastoral managers were complicit in this force.

Slavery was sanctioned by Australian law

Legislation facilitated the enslavement of Aboriginal people across the Northern Territory, Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland. Under the South Australian Aborigines Act 1911, the government empowered police to “inspect workers and their conditions” but not to uphold basic working conditions or enforce payment. The Aboriginals Ordinance 1918 (Cth) allowed the forced recruitment of Indigenous workers in the Northern Territory, and legalised the non-payment of wages.

In Queensland, the licence system was effectively a blank cheque to recruit Aboriginal people into employment without their consent. Amendments to the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 gave powers to the Protector or police officer to “expend” their wages or invest them in a trust fund – which was never paid out.

Officials were well aware that “slavery” was a public relations problem. The Chief Protector in the Northern Territory noted in 1927 that pastoral workers:

… are kept in a servitude that is nothing short of slavery.

In the early 1930s, Chief Protector Dr Cecil Cook pointed out Australia was in breach of its obligations under the League of Nations Slavery Convention.

‘… it certainly exists here in its worst form’

Accusations of slavery continued into the 1930s, including through the British Commonwealth League.

In 1932 the North Australian Workers’ Union (NAWU) characterised Aboriginal workers as “slaves”. Unionist Owen Rowe argued:

If there is no slavery in the British Empire then the NT is not part of the British Empire; for it certainly exists here in its worst form.

In the 1940s, anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt surveyed conditions on cattle stations owned by Lord Vestey, commenting that Aboriginal people:

… owned neither the huts in which they lived nor the land on which these were built, they had no rights of tenure, and in some cases have been sold or transferred with the property.

In 1958, counsel for the well-known Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira argued that the Welfare Ordinance 1953 (Cth) was unconstitutional, because the enacting legislation was:

… a law for the enslavement of part of the population of the Northern Territory.

Profits from slaves

Australia has unfinished business in repaying wages to Aboriginal and South Sea Islander slaves. First Nations slave work allowed big businesses to reap substantial profits, and helped maintain the Australian economy through the Great Depression. Aboriginal people are proud of their work on stations even though the historical narrative is enshrined in silence and denial.

As Bundjalung woman Valerie Linow has said of her experiences of slavery in the 1950s:

What if your wages got stolen? Honestly, wouldn’t you like to have your wages back? Honestly. I think it should be owed to the ones who were slave labour. We got up and worked from dawn to dusk … We lost everything – family, everything. You cannot go stealing our lousy little sixpence. We have got to have money back. You have got to give something back after all this country did to the Aboriginal people. You cannot keep stealing off us.The Conversation

Thalia Anthony, Professor of Law, University of Technology Sydney and Stephen Gray, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Monash University

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


Destruction of Juukan Gorge: we need to know the history of artefacts, but it is more important to keep them in place



Juukan Gorge photographed May 15.
Puutu Kunti Kurrama And Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation

Jacinta Koolmatrie, Flinders University

A day before Reconciliation Week and the day Australia was meant to be acknowledging and remembering the Stolen Generations, news came of something that seemed to put Australia back a few decades in their journey towards “Reconciliation”. Rio Tinto had detonated a 46,000 year old site known as Juukan Gorge.

This news was simply gut-wrenching.

Artefacts found at the site were among some of the oldest in Western Australia, making it incredibly significant not only for the Traditional Owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, but also for the history of this continent.




Read more:
Rio Tinto just blasted away an ancient Aboriginal site. Here’s why that was allowed


Also startling for many was this detonation had been in process for several years. The dating of the site to 46,000 years old had been uncovered through salvage excavation in preparation for this destruction.

I cannot speak for the Traditional Owners, nor can I speak on the complexities surrounding the approval of the blast, but the removal of artefacts from their place has impacted every single Aboriginal person on this continent. That is what I can speak on.

Salvage excavations

Salvage excavation is archaeological work conducted to record and collect all evidence of human occupation at a site that has been or will be impacted by development.

Excavation itself is destructive. The moment a trowel is inserted into the ground, the site has been destroyed. Salvage excavations, like all excavations, require this destruction to be worth it. Comprehensive recording of every aspect of an excavation is necessary, from changes in soil to recording each artefact found.

Archaeology also considers how artefacts will be cared for in the long term: where they will be kept and who will be caring for them. It is preferable for artefacts to remain at their location. In cases where this proves impossible, salvaging is required.

At a surface level, it seems unproblematic if everything was collected from the ground, analysed and placed in a box: those artefacts would be preserved for all of eternity. Now, they are no longer subject to erosion, animal activity or (the more perplexing argument) the threat of humans. But cultural institutions are not immune to disaster.

In 2019, Brazil’s national museum was devastated by a fire. This summer, Australian galleries closed due to the potential impact of smoke on collections. The South Australian Museum has repeatedly discussed the threat of water leaks to their collections.

These institutions are built to preserve heritage but they should not be viewed as the only preservation option, especially for heritage heavily intertwined with place.

Why is place important?

There is a common narrative Aboriginal people wandered this continent aimlessly. Rarely is there discussion our ancestors moved with intention, demonstrated clearly in the ways they passed down generational knowledge to us. Why else would they have mapped this land?




Read more:
It’s taken thousands of years, but Western science is finally catching up to Traditional Knowledge


Where they chose to leave their presence should be viewed as intentional and as representation of that significance.

This significance has flowed through time, strengthening the connection of this place to us. In cases where there is a physical presence of our ancestors, it is integral we maintain the connection of this physical history to place.

For many, Juukan Gorge was mainly significant because of its early date. But not all Aboriginal heritage is afforded this same interest. Not all of our heritage can be dated that early, and a lot of our heritage simply is not tangible. A vast majority of our heritage is found in our knowledge of the land that traverses this continent. Mostly, this heritage goes unseen by our colonisers, making it easily overlooked in favour of development.

Sometimes, the tangible heritage found in these places is the only thing standing in the way of destroying a place. It is the only thing demonstrating we are a people who have deep connections to this land. Not only from a spiritual side, but also from a linear western view of time.

Aboriginal knowledges of these places, and how this knowledge links to the archaeological record, is what can fully contextualise the meaning of these places for our ancestors – and for us today.

The importance of empathy

Maintaining the connection of place with our ancestors’ possessions found at these places may be solidified through the implementation of stricter laws. But if a company wants something and our heritage is standing in the way, those laws can always be bent. The value of destroying these places is much higher than the value of keeping them – at least in the eyes of our colonisers. A loophole will be found, and our communities will suffer and grieve another loss.

If we want something long lasting, something transcending laws, empathy needs to be much stronger, something embedded into the mind and heart. Not the type of empathy that emerges when one has to say “sorry”, but the type existing before “sorry” is even considered.

With empathy, how could you justify the hurt Aboriginal people on this continent experience when we find out another culturally significant place has been destroyed?The Conversation

Jacinta Koolmatrie, Lecturer in Archaeology, Flinders University

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


Rio Tinto just blasted away an ancient Aboriginal site. Here’s why that was allowed


Juukan 1 and 2 in June, 2013.
Puutu Kunti Kurrama And Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation

Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

In the expansion of its iron ore mine in Western Pilbara, Rio Tinto blasted the Juukan Gorge 1 and 2 – Aboriginal rock shelters dating back 46,000 years. These sites had deep historical and cultural significance.

The shelters are the only inland site in Australia showing human occupation continuing through the last Ice Age.

The mining blast caused significant distress to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama traditional land owners. It’s an irretrievable loss for future generations.

Aboriginal cultural heritage is a fundamental part of Aboriginal community life and cultural identity. It has global significance, and forms an important component of the heritage of all Australians.

But the destruction of a culturally significant Aboriginal site is not an isolated incident. Rio Tinto was acting within the law.

In 2013, Rio Tinto was given ministerial consent to damage the Juukan Gorge caves. One year later, an archaeological dig unearthed incredible artefacts, such as a 4,000-year-old plait of human hair, and evidence that the site was much older than originally thought.

But state laws let Rio Tinto charge ahead nevertheless. This failure to put timely and adequate regulatory safeguards in place reveals a disregard and a disrespect for sacred Aboriginal sites.

The destruction of a significant Aboriginal site is not an isolated incident.
Puutu Kunti Kurrama And Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation

Not an isolated incident

The history of large developments destroying Indigenous heritage sites is, tragically, long.

A $2.1 billion light rail line in Sydney, completed last year, destroyed a site of considerable significance.

More than 2,400 stone artefacts were unearthed in a small excavated area. It indicated Aboriginal people had used the area between 1788 and 1830 to manufacture tools and implements from flint brought over to Australia on British ships.




Read more:
Four ways Western Australia can improve Aboriginal heritage management


Similarly, ancient rock art on the Burrup Peninsula in north-western Australia is under increasing threat from a gas project. The site contains more than one million rock carvings (petroglyphs) across 36,857 hectares.

This area is under the custodianship of Ngarluma people and four other traditional owners groups: the Mardudhunera, the Yaburara, the Yindjibarndi and the Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo.

But a Senate inquiry revealed emissions from adjacent industrial activity may significantly damage it.

The West Australian government is seeking world heritage listing to try to increase protection, as the regulatory frameworks at the national and state level aren’t strong enough. Let’s explore why.

What do the laws say?

The recently renamed federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment is responsible for listing new national heritage places, and regulating development actions in these areas.

At the federal level, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) provides a legal framework for their management and protection. It is an offence to impact an area that has national heritage listing.




Read more:
Australia’s problem with Aboriginal World Heritage


But many ancient Aboriginal sites have no national heritage listing. For the recently destroyed Juurkan gorge, the true archaeological significance was uncovered after consent had been issued and there were no provisions to reverse or amend the decision once this new information was discovered.

Where a site has no national heritage listing, and federal legislation has no application, state laws apply.

For the rock shelters in the Western Pilbara, Rio Tinto was abiding by Western Australia’s Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 – which is now nearly 50 years old.

Section 17 of that act makes it an offence to excavate, destroy, damage, conceal or in any way alter any Aboriginal site without the ministerial consent.

But, Section 18 allows an owner of the land – and this includes the holder of a mining licence – to apply to the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee for consent to proceed with a development action likely to breach section 17.

The committee then evaluates the importance and significance of the site, and makes a recommendation to the minister. In this case, the minister allowed Rio Tinto to proceed with the destruction of the site.

No consultation with traditional owners

The biggest concern with this act is there’s no statutory requirement ensuring traditional owners be consulted.

This means traditional owners are left out of vital decisions regarding the management and protection of their cultural heritage. And it confers authority upon a committee that, in the words of a discussion paper, “lacks cultural authority”.




Read more:
Separate but unequal: the sad fate of Aboriginal heritage in Western Australia


There is no statutory requirement for an Indigenous person to be on the committee, nor is there a requirement that at least one anthropologist be on the committee. Worse still, there’s no right of appeal for traditional owners from a committee decision.

So, while the committee must adhere to procedural fairness and ensure traditional owners are given sufficient information about decisions, this doesn’t guarantee they have a right to consultation nor any right to provide feedback.

Weak in other jurisdictions

The WA Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 is under review. The proposed reforms seek to abolish the committee, ensuring future decisions on Aboriginal cultural heritage give appropriate regard to the views of the traditional Aboriginal owners.

NSW is the only state with no stand-alone Aboriginal heritage legislation. However, a similar regulatory framework to WA applies in NSW under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974.

There, if a developer is likely to impact cultural heritage, they must apply for an Aboriginal Heritage Impact Permit. The law requires “regard” to be given to the interests of Aboriginal owners of the land, but this vague provision does not mandate consultation.

What’s more, the burden of proving the significance of an Aboriginal object depends upon external statements of significance. But Aboriginal people, not others, should be responsible for determining the cultural significance of an object or area.

As in WA, the NSW regulatory framework is weak, opening up the risk for economic interests to be prioritised over damage to cultural heritage.

Outdated laws

The federal minister has discretion to assess whether state or territory laws are already effective.

If they decide state and territory laws are ineffective and a cultural place or object is under threat, then the federal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 can be used.

But this act is also weak. It was first implemented as an interim measure, intended to operate for two years. It has now been in operation for 36 years.




Read more:
Australian rock art is threatened by a lack of conservation


In fact, a 1995 report assessed the shortcomings of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act.

It recommended minimum standards be put in place. This included ensuring any assessment of Aboriginal cultural significance be made by a properly qualified body, with relevant experience.

It said the role of Aboriginal people should be appropriately recognised and statutorily endorsed. Whether an area or site had particular significance according to Aboriginal tradition should be regarded as a subjective issue, determined by an assessment of the degree of intensity of belief and feeling of Aboriginal people.

Twenty-five years later, this is yet to happen.The Conversation

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

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


Cook commemorations are mute on intimate encounters and their profound impact on Indigenous women



Artist: John Pickles, Author provided

Katie Pickles, University of Canterbury

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. You can see other stories in the series here and an interactive here.


History is always selective, particularly when it is tied up with national identity. Certain stories are recovered, while others remain silent.

Intimate encounters are often muted, even though we know they played a central part in first encounters during the colonial era.

Tuia 250, a government-sponsored series of events to commemorate 250 years since Captain James Cook arrived in New Zealand, focused on Pacific voyaging and first onshore encounters between Māori and Pākehā (non-Māori) during 1769–70, at the expense of reconsidering private history.




Read more:
My ancestors met Cook in Aotearoa 250 years ago. For us, it’s time to reinterpret a painful history


Colonial comfort

The laborious maps and longhand entries in explorers’ journals, their sketches of specimens gathered during their long journeys – these can all be seen as skillful antiques of a bygone era. But they also represent potent past tools of imperialism.

Tuia 250 was about both voyaging and encounter histories, but it seems that re-enacting traditional sailing was easier than restaging the intimate encounters that were central to the colonial enterprise.

Captain Cook charted New Zealand during his voyage in 1769.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

Commemorations of voyages across the open oceans sailed clear of the awkward topic of intimacy. The history of intimate encounters remained consigned to a private space, perceived as outside of the making of history and national identity.

But as historian Anne Salmond has written, bodily contact involved Cook’s sailors exchanging items such as nails for sex with women.

In her book The Trial of the Cannibal Dog, Salmond describes the Endeavour’s arrival at Anaura Bay, where Cook’s party went ashore, and the expedition’s official botanist Joseph Banks commented about Māori women being less accessible than Tahitian women.

Banks remarked ruefully that they ‘were as great coquettes as any Europeans could be and the young ones as skittish as unbroke fillies’. If the local women were reluctant to make love with the strangers, however, they were wise, because by Cook’s own reckoning several of his men had stubborn venereal infections, and at least half of the rest had contracted venereal diseases in Tahiti.

In historian James Belich’s view, described in his book Making Peoples, sexual contact became the initial intercultural trade in New Zealand.

The sex industry began at first contact in 1769, and from the 1810s it became large and important – very probably preceding wool, gold and dairy products as New Zealand’s leading earner of overseas exchange.

But Hazel Petrie has argued that intimate encounters have to be considered within the context of cultural practices that emphasised hospitality.

Contemporary Western attitudes sometimes led to characterisations of more casual sexual activity between Māori women and visiting Pākehā men as ‘prostitution’, and in our own time such liaisons have been deemed to represent a ‘sex industry’. But these perceptions may be in large part the result of the different moral codes of the narrators and seeing sexual relationships through different lenses. Māori society may have more typically viewed short- to medium-term relationships with sailors or other visitors in terms of manaakitanga or the normal extension of hospitality with expectations of a courteous material response.




Read more:
An honest reckoning with Captain Cook’s legacy won’t heal things overnight. But it’s a start


Women as agents of history

According to historians, Cook disapproved of the sexual behaviour of his officers and men, but was unable to stop it. In his journal, Cook wrote:

A connection with Women I allow because I cannot prevent it, but never encourage tho many Men are of opinion it is one of the greatest securities amongst Indians, and it may hold good when you intend to settle amongst them; but with travelers and strangers, it is generally otherwise and more men are betrayed than saved by having connection with their women, and how can it be otherwise since all their Views are selfish without the least mixture of regard or attachment whatever; at least my observations which have been pretty general, have not pointed out to me one instance to the contrary.

Sailors embodied the complex, disease-ridden, sexual shipboard culture of the 18th century, combined with western unequal attitudes towards women and the perception of Polynesian women as exotic.

As indigenous and cultural studies scholar Alice Te Punga Somerville puts it:

Gender is so central to the story of Cook. And how Cook, and everything that came after, has done so much to gender in this region.

Māori women were entangled in the encounters as two worlds met. First contact marked the beginning of changes to customary processes (tikanga Māori), ended pre-colonial balance and had profound effects on Māori women’s lives, as the work of indigenous scholar Ani Mikaere has shown.

Mikaere has argued that:

It is often assumed that, according to tikanga Māori, leadership was primarily the domain of men and that men in Māori society exercised power over women. However, evidence abounds which refutes the notion that traditional Māori society attached greater significance to male roles than to female roles.

It came to pass that Māori women, white women missionaries and settlers were all integral to history. As feminist scholar Anne McClintock pointed out of women in imperialism, they were not “hapless onlookers”. They were variously colonisers and colonised.

Just as women were a central part of those first encounters in 1769-70, they continued to be agents of history. Some women, as the helpmeets of Empire, taught generations of schoolchildren about Cook the hero as part of an imperial curriculum.

Navigating a shared future needs to recognise women’s part in colonial encounters. It needs to consider that in the present, as with the past, public and private spaces are interconnected.The Conversation

Katie Pickles, Professor of History at the University of Canterbury and current Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi James Cook Research Fellow, University of Canterbury

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


A failure to say hello: how Captain Cook blundered his first impression with Indigenous people



David Crosling/AAP

Maria Nugent, Australian National University

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. You can see other stories in the series here and an interactive here.

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


In 1970, the bicentenary of the Endeavour’s voyage along the east coast of Australia contributed to a renaissance of storytelling about Captain James Cook.

While government-sponsored commemorations celebrated Cook as an Enlightenment explorer and national founder, Aboriginal people provided their own viewpoints on Cook and his legacy.

During this commemorative period, Indigenous stories about Cook were recorded in the Kimberley region, Arnhem Land and the Wave Hill region in the Northern Territory, along with places on the Queensland coast.

Coinciding with an emerging national movement for Indigenous land rights, these renditions of Cook provided radically different accounts of colonisation and its enduring structures and effects.

These stories questioned the settler mythologising that rendered Cook’s actions as heroic, benign or of historical interest only. And they politicised in unprecedented ways the figure of Cook and the longstanding traditions around the ways Australians remember and celebrate him.

In time, these alternative accounts transformed the ways we understand Cook in Australia – both his own time here in 1770, as well as the cultural production of him as a historical figure in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Captain Cook’s Landing Place Park.
Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

The stories told by Hobbles Danaiyarri

Deborah Bird Rose.
Wikipedia

I began thinking quite differently about my own research on Cook’s encounters at Botany Bay in 1770 after reading the stories told by Hobbles Danaiyarri, a senior Aboriginal lawman and knowledge holder, to the ethnographer Deborah Bird Rose.

Danaiyarri considered Bird Rose a consummate listener, faithful recorder, intelligent interlocutor, incisive interpreter and generous executor. And as Bird Rose later recounted, almost from the moment she arrived to do anthropological fieldwork at Yarralin in the Northern Territory in 1980,

Hobbles had been telling me about Captain Cook and the hidden history of the north.

For nearly three decades, she wrote about the gifts of knowledge – and ways of knowing – he shared with her. Danaiyarri’s spoken-word poetic history – which focused quite extensively on Cook – is one of the great pieces of Australian literature, yet it is still not as widely known as it should be.

The power of a greeting

There’s one section in Danaiyarri’s epic narrative – or saga, as Bird Rose calls it – in which he describes Cook’s failure to say “hello” to the people whose territory he had entered on the east coast. He explains:

[Cook] should have asked him – one of these boss for Sydney – Aboriginal people. People were up there, Aboriginal people. He should have come up and: ‘hello’, you know, ‘hello’. Now, asking him for his place, to come through, because [it’s] Aboriginal land. Because Captain Cook didn’t give him a fair go – to tell him ‘good day’, or ‘hello’, you know.

Portrait of Hobbles Danayarri 1980, from the book Balls and Bulldust.
Håkan Ludwigson

This sharp accusation that Cook’s monumental failing during his initial trespass into Aboriginal territory was “not saying hello” – rather than, for instance, opening fire – draws attention to the social and cultural expectations, values and dynamics that should have governed such an event.

Danaiyarri’s account peeled back the curtain to show us how this first encounter might have looked from “the other side of the beach”.

Until this time, such critical Indigenous knowledge had not penetrated the vast amount of settler storytelling devoted to Cook’s first landing on the shores of Botany Bay.

The stories we inherited of this episode had cast the Aboriginal people Cook encountered as either ferocious warriors or pathetic cowards. They were not properly seen as bosses for the country, who would expect a stranger to recognise them in that way and act accordingly.

Without acknowledgement of that fundamental principle, our interpretations of Cook’s landing were lacking a full understanding of this moment, specifically what motivated the local people’s responses to his forceful entry onto their land.




Read more:
Captain Cook wanted to introduce British justice to Indigenous people. Instead, he became increasingly cruel and violent


Responding to the crew’s presence

What does it mean to accuse Cook of failing to say hello? Why was this such a blunder and what were the implications of this impolite behaviour?

Curious about the implications of what Danaiyarri said, Bird Rose asked Yarralin people what would have happened if Cook had asked properly to enter the local people’s land. She explained,

I was told that either he would have been denied permission and therefore would have gone way, or he would have been allowed to stay but only on terms decided by the owners of the country.

Cook was in Botany Bay for eight days, and throughout that time, the local people sought to impose the terms on which the crew stayed.

They kept their distance from the strangers and never opened up direct communication with them. But they also did not abandon the country to Cook’s crew. Rather, they orchestrated as best they could the crew’s presence – keeping them contained within a limited space.

They behaved, as Danaiyarri would put it, as bosses should.

Understanding why the ‘beach’ is so important

One of the marketing slogans for this year’s (now suspended) 250th anniversary of Cook’s voyage along the east coast was

the view from the ship and the view from the shore.

While it implies equal weighting would be given to understanding both sides of the story of Cook’s landing, it’s a wrong-headed idea. It suggests each party remained – and can remain still – suspended in their own separate worlds: on the ship or on the shore.

Missing from the tagline is the “beach” – the literal and metaphorical space where cross-cultural encounters, misunderstandings and, too often, violence has taken place.

As Danaiyarri reminds us, Cook did come ashore and the way he did set some of the terms for future colonial-Indigenous relations.

These encounters are challenging and complex to understand. Aboriginal stories, like those told by Danaiyarri, tell us what ought to have happened on the beach. And they ensure none of us forget where, how and why the troubles between Indigenous and other Australians began.

This year’s 250th commemoration provides yet another occasion to grapple with this difficult history – but the opportunity will be lost if we remain blinkered in seeing things only from one, or other, vantage point.The Conversation

Captain Cook’s Landing Place Park.
Wikipedia, CC BY-NC-SA

Maria Nugent, Co-Director, Australian Centre for Indigenous History, Australian National University

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


Terra nullius interruptus: Captain James Cook and absent presence in First Nations art



Vincent Namatjira, Western Arrernte people, Northern Territory, born 1983, Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Close Contact, 2018, Indulkana, South Australia, synthetic polymer paint on plywood; Gift of the James & Diana Ramsay Foundation for the Ramsay Art Prize 2019.
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, photo: Grant Hancock

Bruce Buchan, Griffith University and Eddie Synot, UNSW

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. You can see other stories in the series here and an interactive here.

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


In Vincent Namatjira’s Ramsay Award winning Close Contact (2018), the artist construes Captain James Cook as the reverse image of his own self-portrait. The colonising presence of Cook looking toward a colonial future is satirised by making another present: Vincent Namatjira’s self-portrait looks out in a diametrically different direction.

Towards what, exactly?

Australia’s link to Cook has always been mediated by iconography. Cook was a promise recollected in pigment, bronze and stone to a nation at war with its first inhabitants and possessors.

Cook, and the violence of colonisation in his wake, embodied a claim to a vast inheritance: of Enlightenment and modernity at the expense of peoples already here.

Since his foundational ritual of possession, First Nations people have called for a reckoning with Cook’s legacies, and in recent years First Nations artists have reinvigorated this call.

By invoking the presence of Cook, they ask their audience to recognise how colonisation and empire rendered them all but absent – and his celebration today continues to do so.

Taking possession

In Samuel Calvert’s 1865 print, Cook Taking Possession of the Australian Continent on Behalf of the British Crown, the noisy presence of the newcomers’ industry and weapons drives two huddled Aboriginal men into the bush.

Captain Cook taking possession of the Australian continent on behalf of the British Crown A.D. 1770 (c. 1853-1864), colour process engraving.
National Gallery Victoria

Wathaurung Elder Aunty Marlene Gilson re-worked Calvert’s image in The Landing (2018): widening the lens to show peoples living in the landscape.

Gilson imaginatively runs together Calvert’s imagery with accounts of Governor Phillip’s later landing. As the flag is hoisted ships hover in the bay. Colonisation was a process of denying who was already there, the First Nations families and figures Gilson captures in lively habitation on land and water.

The landing, 2018, Marlene Gilson, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2019.
© Marlene Gilson

Gilson challenges the mythology of empire: that empty territory needed no treaty.

Gilson’s image is also a homage to Gordon Bennett’s earlier reworking of Calvert in Possession Island (1991). Bennett deliberately obscured Cook and his companions, with the exception of one dark-skinned servant. The presumptuous act of possession is only glimpsed behind a Jackson Pollock-like forest of lines. Visual static intervenes. Terra nullius interruptus.

This obscurity stands in marked contrast to Christian Thompson’s Othering the Explorer, James Cook (2015). Part of his Museum of Others series, his images invite us to consider the effacement of First Nations people by colonial authority and knowledge.

Dr Christian Thompson AO, Museum of Others (Othering the Explorer, James Cook), 2016. c-type on metallic paper, 120 x 120 cm, from the Museum of Others series.
Courtesy of the artist & Michael Reid Sydney + Berlin

Thompson superimposes Cook’s head and shoulders on the artist’s own. His choice of images is deliberate, the 1775 Nathaniel Dance portrait of Cook in full naval regalia glowering over his Pacific “discoveries”.

Official portrait of Captain James Cook, c 1776, by Nathaniel Dance.
National Maritime Museum, United Kingdom

Since European colonisation, the assertion of the discoverer’s right to possess has erased the rich tapestry of prior ownership and belonging. In Thompson’s wry self-effacement, Cook’s superimposition is a reminder of someone already there. This was always the coloniser’s ploy. Presence as absence is a conceit of colonisation.

The presence of absence informs Daniel Boyd’s re-imagination of Cook’s landing in We Call Them Pirates Out Here (2006), a re-working of E. Phillips Fox’s Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay (1902).

E. Phillips Fox, Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770, c1902.
National Gallery of Victoria

Phillips Fox portrayed Cook restraining his men from shooting the distantly pictured “natives”. This was empire as it wished to be seen: peaceful, British, white and triumphant.

Boyd plays on the flattery of imperial self-imagining by exposing the wilful piracy of colonial possession. Boyd’s Cook cuts the same imperial dash, but with an eye patch and skull and crossbones on the Union Jack behind him empire is revealed as the pirate’s resort.

Daniel Boyd, We Call them Pirates Out Here, 2006, oil on canvas, Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased with funds provided by the Coe and Mordant families, 2006.
© Daniel Boyd

Challenging mythologies

The growing First Nations challenge to Cook’s iconography highlights his continued presence in our nation’s colonial mythology.

It is a challenge to Cook’s elevation as hero of the modern Australia built on Indigenous erasure. Jason Wing’s bronze bust of a balaclava-wearing Captain James Crook (2013) symbolises that challenge.

Jason Wing, Captain James Crook, 2013, bronze, 60 x 60 x 30cm, edition of 5. Photograph by Garrie Maguire.
Image courtesy of the Artist and Artereal Gallery.

Wing’s addition of the balaclava forces us to confront Cook’s legacy not as the projected shining icon of Enlightenment, but as a mythic presence built on deliberate theft, dispossession and violence.

These are only a small collection of artists reconsidering the place of Cook in our collective memory. Provocative, challenging, arresting, often satirical and sometimes funny, First Nations artists powerfully challenge us to reconsider Cook and our nation’s iconography.

Within the art lies an open invitation to reflect on who we have become and where we are headed.

This invitation is highlighted in Fiona Foley’s most recent retrospective, named for a song by Joe Gala and Teila Watson performed in Badtjala and English: Who are these strangers and where are they going?




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


The song weaves together the narratives of the First Nations people who first saw the Endeavour make its way along the coast. Together with the photographs and installations drawn from across Foley’s long career, the retrospective is a powerful affirmation of continuing presence: in 1770, in 1788, and today.

As we confront the Cook commemorations, Foley’s and the Badtjalas’ question, like Namatjira’s double-sided self-portrait, is a nudge to our nation’s future. Who are these strangers and where are they going?

By reminding us that the question was asked of Cook’s sudden presence in 1770, we must ask it again of ourselves to confront the absence his possession still makes present for us 250 years on.The Conversation

Bruce Buchan, Associate Professor, Griffith University and Eddie Synot, Centre Manager, Indigenous Law Centre, UNSW

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


Explorer, navigator, coloniser: revisit Captain Cook’s legacy with the click of a mouse


Justin Bergman, The Conversation; Sunanda Creagh, The Conversation, and Wes Mountain, The Conversation

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.

Click through below to explore Cook’s journey through the Pacific, his interactions with Indigenous peoples and how that journey led to Australia becoming a penal colony 18 years later.

You can see other stories in the series here.


Click through to explore the interactive.The Conversation

Justin Bergman, Deputy Editor: Politics + Society, The Conversation; Sunanda Creagh, Head of Digital Storytelling, The Conversation, and Wes Mountain, Multimedia Editor, The Conversation

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


‘They are all dead’: for Indigenous people, Cook’s voyage of ‘discovery’ was a ghostly visitation


Alison Page, University of Technology Sydney

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. You can see other stories in the series here and an interactive here.


On a recent trip to Cape York, I was privileged to sit with Kaurareg/Gudang Yadhaykenu man Uncle Tommy Savage, on a beach in the town of Umagico.

We listened as he sang a song called Markai an Ghule (meaning “ghost ship”), composed by his ancestors when James Cook arrived at Possession Island in August 1770.

A new series from The Conversation.

A sad lilt permeated the song, an expression of the grief the Kaurareg people felt at having to hide their cultural system, while they determined what the arrival of this preternatural being and his big ship was all about.

We recorded Uncle Tommy’s song for inclusion in The Message, a film commissioned by the National Museum of Australia and opening in April to coincide with 250 years since Cook arrived.

While researching the film, I spent much of last year travelling Australia’s east coast interviewing historians, curators and traditional owners, piecing together stories from the ship and the shore. Here are the stories that have stuck with me.

A voyage of the dead

What is so often described as Cook’s “voyage of discovery” has been viewed consistently by Indigenous people as a voyage of the dead; a giant canoe carrying the reincarnation of ancestral beings.

At the first encounter in Botany Bay, two Gweagal warriors throw stones and spears to Cook, saying “warrawarrawa,” meaning “they are all dead” (not “go away”, as it is often translated).

Perhaps this explains why Banks and Cook write of Aboriginal people persistently declining any of the gifts they were offered. You would have to be crazy to take gifts from the dead!

The warnings about these ghostly visitors were quickly and accurately sent by fire, smoke and message stick up the coast, adding a deeper meaning to the many fires Banks and Cook noted as they travelled north (“Saw several smooks along shore before dark and two or three times afire in the night,” Cook writes).

A collision of beliefs

When the Endeavour smashes into the reef in Cooktown and is forced to stay for 48 days on the river for repairs, Cook and his crew captured “eight or nine” turtles (tellingly, Banks refers repeatedly to “our turtles”).

A contingent of local Guugu Yimithirr men board HMS Endeavour and try to take at least one turtle back, but Cook’s men soon wrest it away – refusing to share or acknowledge the possibility they’d taken too many.

Lamenting this environmental loss, a group of warriors light the grass fires in protest (“I had little Idea of the fury with which the grass burnt in this hot climate, nor of the dificulty of extinguishing it when once lighted”, Banks writes) and Cook shoots one of the Guugu Yimithirr men.

The rising tension is then released by an older man who stands forward in an extraordinary act of governance and breaks the tip off a spear to signify “weapons down”.

‘… in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans’

The incident brought together threads still relevant in Indigenous-settler relations today: environmental care, reconciliation and cultural governance. And this collision of beliefs, it seems, was not lost on Cook.

As he sailed off from the tip of Cape York, Cook wrote an unusual diary entry:

From what I have said of the Natives of New-Holland, they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholy unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniencies so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them.

They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life; they covet not Magnificent Houses, Houshold-stuff […]

[…] they live in a warm and fine Climate and enjoy a very wholsome Air, so that they have very little need of Clothing and this they seem to be fully sencible of, for many to whome we gave Cloth to, left it carlessly upon the Sea beach and in the woods as a thing they had no manner of use for.

In short they seem’d to set no Value upon any thing we gave them, nor would they ever part with any thing of their own for any one article we could offer them; this, in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life and that they have no Superfluities —

For a working class man from Georgian England to see and appreciate the cultural values of Indigenous people is remarkable, considering that clarity of understanding is only just dawning on the average Australian.

The role of Joseph Banks

After all the conversations I’ve had over the last year with historians, traditional owners and curators, I’ve come to believe that history has been unkind to Cook. He is blamed for the many wrongs inflicted on my people.

Joseph Banks, however, emerges as a much colder, unkinder figure. It was Banks who convinced the British government that Australia would be perfect for a penal colony, given it could no longer send convicts to America.

Banks’s view that Australia was “thinly inhabited” (and he speaks frequently of savagery and simplicity of its people) fed directly into the declaration of terra nullius. Banks never went inland, but declared with great hubris that it was almost certainly “totally uninhabited”.

In the end, the decisions made in the 18 years between Cook leaving and the First Fleet arriving have shaped modern Australia far more than those early fleeting ethereal encounters.

There are so many lost chapters in the story of Australia.

But as a nation, we can invite Uncle Tommy and his people – and all those other excluded songs and stories – to come out of hiding.

Revealing our shared history is the only way to make peace with those ghostly visitors of the past. But we will only find that peace in the truth and it’s the truth of our history, which will be our new voyage of discovery.


Alison Page was commissioned by the National Museum of Australia to create the film The Message for the museum’s Endeavour 250 exhibition, opening on April 8.The Conversation

Alison Page, Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Technology Sydney

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


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