“Three canoes lay upon the beach—the worst I think I ever saw.” James Cook at Botany Bay, 29 April 1770

It was 250 years ago today (Sunday 29 April 1770) that British sailor, Isaac Smith, set foot on the east coast of the continent that we know now as Australia. Smith was a sailor on board the ship HMS Endeavour, captained by Lieutenant James Cook, which was on a tour around the globe to explore the seas for what was presumed to be Terra Australis Incognita, the “unknown southern land”. It is said that Cook ordered him, “Jump out, Isaac”, as the boat came in close to shore in the large bay into which they had navigated.

Isaac Smith was not the first European person to setting foot on Australia soil—that honour goes to Dutch navigator, Willem Janszoon, in 1606, on what was was the first of 29 Dutch voyages to Australia in the 17th century. Nor was Smith the first Englishman to touch Australian soil—William Dampier had landed on the peninsula north of Broome that now bears his name, on his trip in 1688. But Smith’s captain, James Cook, and the others on his ship HMS Endeavour, play a dominant role in our Australian historical awareness.

HMS Endeavour had launched in 1764 as the Earl of Pembroke, to work as a collier, transporting coal. The Navy purchased her in 1768 for Cook’s scientific mission to the Pacific Ocean. Cook was in charge of an expedition which included observing the transit of Venus across the sun in 1769, circumnavigating both islands of New Zealand, and then mapping the eastern coastline of Australia, laying claim to the whole continent at the place he named Possession Island, before heading home via Batavia (now Jakarta) and the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa).

Cook and his men followed Smith onto land, setting foot that day on the beach now known as Silver Beach, in the bay which Cook initially called Stingrays Harbour. His log for 6 May 1770 records: “The great quantity of these sort of fish found in this place occasioned my giving it the name of Stingrays Harbour”.

A later imaginative reconstruction of the landing at Stingrays Harbour (Botany Bay) by Cook, Smith, and others from the HMS Endeavour

However, in the journal prepared later from his log, Cook wrote instead: “The great quantity of plants Mr. Banks and Dr. Solander found in this place occasioned my giving it the name of Botanist Botany Bay”. [In the transcriptions from his journal, words which lines through them have been crossed out by Cook and others put in their place. It’s a rough piece of work.]

Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander were two of the three scientists who traveled on the Endeavour (the other was Herman Spöring), along with two artists and four of Banks’ servants. The scientists were to undertake scientific investigations at each place visited, the artists were to record the vistas encountered. The servants, of course, were to attend to the daily needs of these gentlemen.

Daniel Solander, John Montagu (4th Earl of Sandwich), James Cook, and John Hawkesworth, depicted in a 1771 painting by John Hamilton Mortimer.

Cape Solander Lookout (near modern-day Kurnell on the southern head of Botany Bay) and Cape Banks (the northern headland at the entry to Botany Bay) recall their roles in that expedition. And various Sydney suburbs also commemorate Joseph Banks: Banksia, Bankstown and Banksmeadow. Spöring has a statue honouring him in Sydney (although no location is named after him.) We have not forgotten these scientists.

James Cook, of course, is well-commemorated, both in eastern Australia (Cook’s River and James Cook Boys’ Technology High School in NSW, the suburb of Cook in the ACT, James Cook University and Cooktown in Queensland) as well as internationally (the Cook Islands, the Cook Strait which separates the two islands of Aotearoa New Zealand, and the Cook Inlet in Alaska—Cook visited there in 1778). He even has a whole dedicated Wikipedia page listing all the ways his name is remembered! (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_places_named_after_Captain_James_Cook)

And what of Isaac Smith? With a surname like that, the possibility of being remembered in such commemorations is low. Smith was apparently a cousin of Cook’s wife, Elizabeth. He sailed on two of the three expeditions that Cook undertook to the South Sea Islands, as they were then called. And he was promoted to captain of the frigate HMS Perseverance, before retiring (and being promoted to the supernumerary position of Rear Admiral).

In his retirement, Smith shared a house for some time with Cook’s widow, his cousin, Elizabeth. It appears that he never married. In his will he had instructed that a sum of £700 was to be left to the church of St Mary the Virgin in Merton, the interest from which was to support the poor of the parish. A memorial to Smith, originally financed by Elizabeth Cook, stands in the church grounds. His assistance to the poor is testimony enough to his life.

(I found this information also on Wikipedia, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Smith_(Royal_Navy_officer))

*****

Botany Bay, 1788 watercolour by Charles Gore

But for me, the larger question relates to the ways in which we remember (or obliterate) the people who had already lived for millennia on the land on which Smith, Banks, Solander, Cook, and others set foot on, just 250 years ago. The land adjacent to Botany Bay was settled for many thousands of years by the Tharawal and Eora people, and the various clan groups within those nations.

What names did they use to describe this bay? Some suggest it may have been Ka-may. By what names did they refer to the south and north headlands of this bay? I have seen indications of Bunnabi for the north head. And Kurnell itself could have been known as Bunna Bunna.

(See the Australian Museum’s “Place names chart” at https://australianmuseum.net.au/learn/cultures/atsi-collection/sydney/place-names-chart/)

Just a few days before setting foot on Terra Australis, on 23 April, Cook had made his first recorded direct observation of indigenous Australia. When they were near Bush Island off Bawley Point (halfway between the townships now known as Bateman’s Bay and Ulladulla), Cook had written in his journal, “[we] were so near the Shore as to distinguish several people upon the Sea beach they appear’d to be of a very dark or black Colour but whether this was the real colour of their skins or the C[l]othes they might have on I know not.”

It is striking that the first observation made by a white man about the indigenous people relates to the colour of their skin. That colour difference has fuelled so much tension, aggression, misunderstanding, fear, and hatred, and, sadly, caused far too many deaths.

(See https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/23/they-appeard-to-be-of-a-very-dark-or-black-colour-cook-hms-endeavour-and-the-yuin-people-and-country/)

Archaeological evidence from the shores of Botany Bay has yielded evidence of indigenous settlement which can be dated to 5,000 years ago. But the stories of the people reach back countless millennia; the stories they tell are timeless. Evidence from other parts of the continent points to indigenous occupation for 40,000, 60,000, even 75,000 years or more.

During the days that his ship was moored in Ka-may (Botany Bay), Cook had various interactions with the Eora people and made many observations about them. Again and again, Cook demonstrates the essence of the colonial mindset; inevitably, he judged what he saw entirely in terms of the customs and practices of Georgian England.

On 28 April, Cook recounted as follows: “At this time we saw several people a shore four of whome where carrying a small boat or Canoe which we imagined they were going to but into the water in order to come off to us but in this we were mistaken.”

So Cook set out with Banks and Solander, and Tupaia, a Polynesian man whom Banks had convinced to come with them on this journey as a navigator. Cook had met Tupaia in July 1769, on the island of Ra’iatea, in the group we know today as the Society Islands. Sadly, Tupaia would later die en route to England, in December 1770 from a shipborne illness contracted when Endeavour was docked in Batavia. The ship was being repaired in order to be fit the return journey to England.

Cook’s journal continues, “we put off in the yawl and pull’d in for the land to a place where we saw four or five of the natives who took to the woods as we approachd the Shore which disapointed us in our the expectation we had of getting a near view of them if not to speak to them but our disapointment was heighten’d when we found that we no where could effect a landing by reason of the great surff which beat every where upon the shore.”

The aborted attempt to make landfall was not in vain, however, as Cook then writes, “we saw hauld up upon the beach 3 or 4 small Canoes which to us appear’d not much unlike the small ones of New Zeland, in the woods were several trees of the Palm kind and no under wood and this was all we were able to observe of the country from the boat after which we returnd to the Ship about 5 in the evening.”

On the day they eventually made landfall, at the place he dubbed Stingrays Bay, Sunday 29 April, Cook provided further observations: “Sunday 29th In the PM winds southerly and clear weather with which we stood into the bay and Anchor’d under the South shore about 2 Mile within the entrence in 6 fathoms water, the south point bearing SE and the north point East. Saw as we came in on both points of the bay Several of the natives and a few hutts.”

Contact was then made: “[We saw] men women and children on the south shore abreast of the Ship to which place I went in the boats in hopes of speaking with them accompaned by Mr Banks Dr Solander and Tupia – as we approached the shore they all made off except two Men who seem’d resolved to oppose our landing – as soon as I saw this I orderd the boats to lay upon their oars in order to speake to them but this was to little purpose for neither us nor Tupia could understand one word they said.”

He continues, “we then threw them some nails beeds & came ashore which they took up and seem’d not ill pleased with in so much that I thout that they beckon’d to us to come ashore but in this we were mistaken for as soon as we put the boat in they again came to oppose us upon which I fired a musket between the two which had no other effect than to make them retire back where bundles of thier darts lay and one of them took up a stone and threw at us which caused my fireing a second Musquet load with small shott and altho’ some of the shott struck the man yet it had no other effect than to make him lay hold of a Shield or target to defend himself.”

Thus was set the pattern for multiple engagements between the British and the indigenous peoples—engagements usually marked by suspicion, and always skewed by the superior power held by the British, with their muskets.

An unknown artist’s impression, dated 1872,
of Cook’s landing and initial contact with the Indigenous people.
The conflicted nature of the relationship is evident
from this imaginative reconstruction,
no doubt shaped by the century of relationships
that stood in between the event and the artwork.

And then, Cook described their response to the musket fire: “emmediatly [sic] after this we landed which we had no sooner done than they throw’d two darts at us this obliged me to fire a third shott soon after which they both made off, but not in such haste but what we might have taken one, but Mr Banks being of opinion that the darts were poisoned made me cautious how I advanced into the woods.”

There would be no genial getting to know each other, no opportunity for cautious enquiry and polite interaction. Suspicion, and judgemental assessment, was in play from the start. The pattern set from this encounter, in the assessment made by Banks and the musket shots fired at the indigenous people by Cook’s soldiers, was a tragic dynamic which would play out again and again, for centuries to come.

Cook continues, “We found here a few Small hutts made of the bark of trees in one of which were four or five small children with whome we left some strings of beeds etc a quantity of darts lay about the hutts these we took away with us – three Canoes lay upon the bea[c]h the worst I think I ever saw   they were about 10 12 or 14 feet long made of one peice of the bark of a tree drawn or tied up at each end and the middle kept open by means of peices of sticks by way of Thwarts.”

The worst I think I ever saw”. Objective description and subjective evaluation and criticism were mixed together; Cook, like many others after him, was unable simply to look, listen, and learn about what was valued for the indigenous peoples. He had to assess in terms of his own criteria and his own perspective, here, and always.

The colonial mindset always saw its own worldview as the norm, and others patterns as inadequate. And what he saw this day, he believed, fell short of his standards—even if it had served the indigenous people perfectly well for thousands and thousands of years.

As a curious postscript to this part of the voyage, those days at Ka-may (Botany Bay) are remembered in another way. An artefact collected during Cook’s time here in 1770 is the bark shield of the local indigenous peoples, now known as the Gweagal Shield. It is a rare instance of such an item.

Rodney Kelly, a Dharawal and Yuin man
from the south coast of New South Wales,
holds the Gweagal Shield
at the British Museum
in London.

The shield is currently (and controversially) held by the British Museum; that itself perpetuates the inherent colonial element, as the British laid claim to the shield and simply took it from those who had valued and utilised it. See https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-05-11/british-museum-battle-for-stolen-indigenous-gweagal-shield/11085534

For more thoughts on indigenous history, see my previous blogs at:

On the Day of Mourning, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/16/the-profound-effect-of-invasion-and-colonisations/

On Arthur Philip, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/18/endeavour-by-every-possible-means-to-conciliate-their-affections/

On James Cook, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/20/we-never-saw-one-inch-of-cultivated-land-in-the-whole-country/

On William Dampier, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/22/they-stood-like-statues-without-motion-but-grinnd-like-so-many-monkies/

On recent books, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/24/resembling-the-park-lands-of-a-gentlemans-residence-in-england/

On Cook and Flinders, https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/25/on-remembering-cook-and-flinders-and-trim-bungaree-and-yemmerrawanne/

On Cook and the Yuin people, https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/23/they-appeard-to-be-of-a-very-dark-or-black-colour-cook-hms-endeavour-and-the-yuin-people-and-country/

“They appear’d to be of a very dark or black colour”. Cook, HMS Endeavour, and the Yuin people and country.

On this day, 250 years ago, as the HMS Endeavour sailed up the east coast of Terra Australis Incognita, the captain of the ship, Lieutenant James Cook, wrote a significant comment in his journal. Cook was looking out across the sea to the land on which the sailors were yet to set foot—the land on which indigenous inhabitants had lived, slept, married, grown crops, caught fish, died and were buried, for centuries—for millennia. He described some people whom he saw on the land he was observing.

Cook had given a description of the land, itself, which he was able to observe from on board his ship. On 20 April, he wrote in his journal: “The weather being clear gave us an oppertunity to View the Country which had a very agreeable and promising Aspect the land is of moderate height diversified with hills, ridges, planes and Vallies with some few small lawns, but for the most part the whole was cover’d with wood, the hills and ridges rise with a gentle slope, they are not high neither are there many off them.”

[Cook’s journaling was strikingly absent of punctuation—we take it as it is, and make sense of it as we will.]

And he had also described some of the animal and bird life he was able to observe. On 18 April, he wrote, “Last night we saw a Port Egmont Hen and this morning two more, a Pintado bird several Albetrosses and black sheer-waters. The first of these birds are certain signs of the nearness of land.”

But on 23 April, he made comments specifically about the people that he was able to see on that land. He wrote, “after this we steerd along shore NNE having a gentle breeze at SW and were so near the Shore as to distinguish several people upon the Sea beach they appear’d to be of a very dark or black Colour but whether this was the real colour of their skins or the C[l]othes they might have on I know not.”

It would be almost another week before anyone from his ship actually set foot on the land that they had been sailing next to for some days. On Sunday 29 April, 1770, one of the sailors on board the HMS Endeavour, Isaac Smith, stepped off the ship and onto land beside what we now know as Botany Bay. Smith was the first British person to stand on the land of the east coast of the continent that we know now as Australia. (William Dampier, a British sailor of an earlier generation, had made landfall on the west of the continent back in 1688).

The relationships between the white explorers and the dark indigenous inhabitants would build and grow and become complex, over time—and be marked by numerous occasions of great tragedy, violence, misunderstanding, and sadness. For the moment, at this first sighting, Cook simply observes and describes.

We know the place where Smith and others made landfall as Kurnell, of Botany Bay, in New South Wales, on the continent Australia. What was it called by the indigenous inhabitants at the time when Smith, Cook, and other crew members from the HMS Endeavour, set foot there?

One hypothesis is that the name Kurnell derives from a Dharug word, variously transcribed as cunthal, kundle, or koondool, perhaps meaning “place of or where the wild carrot grows”. This was the suggestion made by W. Wentworth Bucknell, Honorary Secretary of the Royal Anthropological Society, in a letter published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 6 December 1912 (see https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/15381124)

An alternative explanation is that it is a corruption of the surname of John Connell, who was granted land in the area in 1821. We cannot be certain about the precise of origin of this place’s name.

The issue of place names is a significant one. The indigenous inhabitants knew their country; their relationship with the land was, quite clearly, enmeshed with their culture, spirituality, lifestyle, and sense of identity. When white explorers sailed into their territory—and then, later on, when white settlers invaded and colonised the land, subdued and massacred the people, and established their own patterns of farming and living on the land of these indigenous inhabitants—they provided their own names, from their own culture.

Whilst many place names today can claim Aboriginal origins, still the vast majority of our places, suburbs, streets, and geographical features, bear names from the British (or Irish, or German, in some instances) who invaded, settled, and dominated the land. (The process of bestowing names goes by the term toponymy, from the two Greek terms topos, place, and onoma, name.)

Cook’s own journal provides numerous instances of his naming features that he observed from his ship, and bestowing British names on what he saw. On 19 April he called one location Point Hicks. This was the first land on mainland Australia which Cook sighted, and named.

It is said that Cook’s practice was to reward the first person to sight land with a gallon of rum, plus the distinction of having a place named after him. On this occasion, the prize fell to Lieutenant Zachary Hicks, who called out “Land ho” when he saw “land making high” in the hinterland of Australia’s south coast.

The traditional custodians of the land surrounding Point Hicks are the Bidhawal and Gunaikurnai peoples, who called the point Tolywiarar. That name is lost, now, in modern Australian toponymy.

The next day, 20 April, Cook’s journal records his comments about a place that he named Cape Howe, in honour of Admiral Earl Howe, the Treasurer of the British Navy at that time. I haven’t been able to find any reference to the indigenous name for this location. [My googling skills obviously leave something to be desired.]

On the following days, Cook noted and named many places along the south coast: Mount Dromedary and Cape Dromedary on 21 April, Batemans Bay and Pigeonhouse Mountain on 22 April, Cape St George, named for the day it was first sighted by Cook, on 23 April, and Long Nose Bay and Red Point on 25 April.

Gulaga is the place of ancestral origin within the culture and stories of the Yuin people, whose land encompasses the south coast of NSW, from Cape Howe to the Shoalhaven River. Gulaga is a large mountain inland from the current village of Tilba Tilba (between Narooma and Bermagui). In Yuin story-telling, holds particular significance for the Yuin people. The mountain and surrounding area is seen as a place of cultural origin. The mountain is regarded as a symbolic mother-figure providing the basis for the people’s spiritual identity.

In May 2006 the Gulaga National Park, incorporating the former Wallaga Lake National Park, was handed back to its traditional Aboriginal owners, the Yuin people, in a historic agreement signed by the NSW Government and the Yuin people. Gulaga, of course, was the mountain which Cook named as Mount Dromedary, as its figure reminded him of the hump of a camel.

In his journal for 22 April, Cook wrote: “At 6 o’clock we were abreast of a pretty high mountain laying near the shore which on account of its figure I named Mount Dromedary Latde 36°..18′ & Longde 209°..55′ Wt / The shore under the foot of this Mountain forms a point which I have named Cape Dromedary over which is a peaked hillick.“

The traditional custodians of the land surrounding Batemans Bay are the Walbunja clan of the Yuin people. The traditional language spoken by the Walbunja people is Dhurga. A number of sites in the region are considered culturally significant to the Aboriginal peoples.

On 22 April 1770, Cook first sighted this bay; he immediately gave it a British name. Cook gave no reason for the name, which may commemorate either Nathaniel Bateman, the captain of HMS Northumberland when Cook was serving as her master (1760-62), or John Bateman, 2nd Viscount Bateman, a former Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty in the 1750s.

Further south, there are a number of locations which are considered to be significant sites for the Yuin people: Umbarra (Merriman Island), Barungba (Montague Island), and Dithol (Pigeon House Mountain).

Pigeonhouse Mountain was first seen by Cook at 7 a.m. on 21 April, 1770. Cook later noted in his journal, “The land near the Sea coast still continues of a moderate hieght forming alternatly rocky points and Sandy beaches, but inland between Mount Dromedary and the Pigeon house are several pretty high Mountains two only of which we saw but what were coverd with trees and these lay inland behind near to the Pigeon house and are remarkably flat atop with steep rocky clifts all round them as far as we could see – the trees in this Country hath all the appearence of being stout and lofty.”

The Aboriginal name for the mountain is Didthul, Didhol, or Dithol, which means “woman’s breast”, on account of the distinctive shape of the mountain.

Cape St George was named for the day it was discovered—St George being the patron saint of England whose saints day is 23 April. On 24 April his journal includes the comments, “A point of land which I named Cape St George we having discover’d it on that Saints day, bore West distant 19 Miles and the Pigeon house So 75° West, the Latitude and Longitude of which I found to be 35°..19′ S and 209° 42′ West.” I have not been able to find any reference to the indigenous name for the area.

The next day, Cook recorded, “About 2 leagues to the northward of Cape St George the Shore seems to form a bay which appeard to be shelterd from the NE winds but as we had the wind it was not in my power to look into it… The north point of this bay on account of its figure I named Long Nose, Latitude 35 degrees 4 minutes S.3.” Long Nose Bay is obviously named for its appearance. Again, I can’t see any indication of what the indigenous name for this place was.

There are other names in the localities which Cook was observing, which today bear names derived from the local indigenous language. In what follows, I am drawing from the notes provided by the NSW Government Geographic Names Board (see https://www.gnb.nsw.gov.au/place_naming/place_name_search) as well as various local history or tourism sites, which provide insight into local understandings of the origins of the names of these places.

The list below traces indigenous names in existence today from Batemans Bay south to Eden, retracing in reverse the path of Cook’s 1770 voyage. (I have focussed on this region because it is the area of the South Coast which falls within the Presbytery in which I am currently ministering, the Canberra Region Presbytery.)

Eurobodalla is said to be named from an Aboriginal word meaning “small haven for boats” or “land between waters”. Several meanings have been put forward for the name Bodalla, including “Boat Alley”, “tossing a child up in the arms”, “haven for boats” and “several waters”.

The name Moruya is said to be derived from an Aboriginal word, (phonetically) mherroyah, meaning “home of the black swan”. Black swans can still be seen in the lakes and rivers around Moruya, and the black swan is used locally as an emblem.

In Narooma, the story is that this name comes from an Aboriginal word for ‘clear, blue water’. It was to become the name of the area after Francis Hunt sold his property known as “Wagonga” in 1839 to Thomas Forster who renamed it Noorooma. Yuin Elder Gubbo Ted Thomas advises, however, that Noorawa is the Yuin word for the bubble yellow seaweed that grows in the inlet.

Bermagui is derived from a word in the Dyirringany language (a language group within the Yuin nation), permageua, possibly meaning ‘canoe with paddles’. Tilba Tilba is the original name of the district, and is said to be a word from Tharwa (another language group within the Yuin nation) meaning “many waters”. Cobargo may have originated from a Yuin word, cubago, which some sources claim was used to describe the nearby mountain, Gulaga. Quaama is a Yuin word meaning “shallow waters”.

One claim is that the name Bega is derived from a Yuin word meaning “big camping ground”. Another claim is that it is a corruption of the word bika, meaning “beautiful”. Just outside Bega, there is a village called Tarraganda. The story locally is that a man named Joshua Higgs claims to be the one who named Tarraganda. Many years ago, Higgs told W F Braine of the Bega Gazette that “we asked the blacks what they called the spot and, in their quick way, they said what I took to be Tarraganda”. It is said to mean “a string of waterholes”.

There is considerable debate about the Aboriginal (presumably Yuin) meaning of Merimbula. Some sources claim it means “big snake”. Others claim the word means “place of two waters or lakes”. The name Pambula is derived from a Dharwa word panboola, meaning “twin waters”.

It is good that we have many names that honour the names given to these places by the indigenous peoples, who for so long have cared for these lands. It is also good that we can delve below the British names in at least some locations, to recover and recall the indigenous names for these places.

There’s lots of detail about Cook, the Endeavour, and his voyages, at https://www.captaincooksociety.com/home

For information about Yuin country, see https://livingknowledge.anu.edu.au/learningsites/kooricoast/05_map.htm

https://aiatsis.gov.au/exhibitions/south-coast-new-south-wales

https://earthtreasurevase.org/2018/10/south-east-coast-yuin-country-australia/

http://bermaguihistoricalsociety.org.au/djiringanj-yuin-nation/

For more thoughts on indigenous history, see my previous blogs at:

On the Day of Mourning, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/16/the-profound-effect-of-invasion-and-colonisations/

On Arthur Philip, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/18/endeavour-by-every-possible-means-to-conciliate-their-affections/

On James Cook, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/20/we-never-saw-one-inch-of-cultivated-land-in-the-whole-country/

On William Dampier, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/22/they-stood-like-statues-without-motion-but-grinnd-like-so-many-monkies/

On recent books, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/24/resembling-the-park-lands-of-a-gentlemans-residence-in-england/

On Cook and Flinders, https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/25/on-remembering-cook-and-flinders-and-trim-bungaree-and-yemmerrawanne/

It’s been just over a month—but there have been lots of learnings!

It’s been just over a month since we moved into a period when restrictions on social gatherings came into force because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 1.5 metres between individuals, no more than two people at an outdoor gathering, no more than five people at a wedding, no more than ten people (including the minister) at a funeral, and certainly no gathering together as a congregation for worship, whether that be as twelve people, or 45 people, or 200 people in one church building.

There is no doubt that this will be an extended period while we need distancing and isolating. There will be weeks, even months, ahead of us in the same mode. We will have plenty of time to reflect on our situation, and to look forward to the time when restrictions are eased and regathering becomes possible.

But a month, give or take, is a good time to step back and assess: what have we learnt, during this intense and most unusual period of time? I want to offer some reflections from my own perspective. Here are a handful of things that I have learnt.

1 Relationships are critical.

Human beings are relational creatures. We like to, and need to, relate to other people. Spending far more time in our own homes, and far less time at work or at school, in social outings and family gatherings, is proving to be a challenge.

Social distancing and self isolation are essential to ensure that we minimise, as much as possible, the spread of the COVID-19 virus. But they are challenging to the very core of our being, as humans. Social engagement and interpersonal connections are what we need, and value, in our lives. We need one another. Relationships are critical.

2 Worship is important.

For people of faith, gathering together each Sunday (usually in the morning) is seen as the centre of what it is to be church. Worship is important, but conversation and connection is more important. My home congregation gathers-apart each Sunday, meeting up online via ZOOM, and people are clear that they appreciate the work of our minister (my wife, Elizabeth) each Sunday, in leading prayers, curating musical items, and offering reflections on scripture. Worship is important.

But the group “comes alive” in two moments: at the start, when people recognise others from the Congregation as they join the gathering, and see the faces of their friends appear on the screen; and after worship, during the virtual morning tea, when the conversations really flow. This is where the energy of the group coalesces and builds. Indeed, some congregations have pre-recorded worship which they then follow with live morning tea times, so people can interact over a cuppa. Connection is incredibly important.

3 Good communication is desirable.

We rely on good communication in everyday life. But how good it is depends on the ability to read subtle signs, to see body language and micro signals, to have conversations that ebb and flow in a natural rhythm, like breathing. Online communication diminishes our capacity for subtle communication. It is a blunt instrument.

Being able to see each other on the screen and talk with each other across the ether is very good—but it lacks some critical elements. We can rejoice that we live in an age when we can communicate online across vast distances. Nevertheless we need to recognise how that medium shapes our communications and inhibits deep connection with, and understanding of, one another.

Perhaps we can take this learning on into the post-COVID 19 situation and allow it to inform how we communicate with and relate to others? We need up-close, person-to-person engagement, for good, effective communication to occur.

4 Creativity can flourish under pressure.

I have watched in awe as my various ministerial colleagues have demonstrated great creativity, offering their preaching and praying gifts in new ways. I have read imaginative poems, heard engaging sermons, entered into deep prayer, watched striking short videos, and appreciated the fine photos that have been offered by ministers and pastors, lay preachers and other lay worship leaders, as they nurture their people by creative ways in worship.

Humans are innately creative beings, and creativity can flourish, even (perhaps especially) in pressured situations. Let us hope that this creativity can continue and indeed flourish into the future time, when gathering-together once again will be possible.

5 New skills can be acquired rapidly.

Given the will (and perhaps also the need) to learn new skills, people are capable of fast tracking the process and acquiring new skills very quickly. I have now been told of so many people of mature—very mature—ages, who have taken the challenge, downloaded ZOOM, learnt how to enter a ZOOM meeting, start their video camera, and mute and unmute their speakers—all skills that they never envisaged they could do, just a month or two ago!

What might our churches look like, if we learnt from this? If we took on the challenge to reshape our worship, start fresh expressions of church, adopt new patterns of gathering and sharing and deepening our faith? How might the current experience of individuals learning new skills provide a template for communities setting out on experimental or pioneering pathways? It’s an exciting prospect!

6 Patience is paramount.

In a stay-at-home situation, this is the case; even in a regular situation where we come and go each and every day, patience is at a premium. People who live by themselves are learning a new level of patience, as they wait for fleeting encounters with other people at their front doors, or on the phone, or on the screen.

People who live in families with energetic bundles of energy (children) on hand 24/7 are learning another level of patience, as they isolate together as a family and attempt to conduct the business required to draw a wage and feed a family, even whilst supervising learning-at-home programs. Patience is paramount, in these, and in every, situation that people find themselves at this time.

7 We are well off.

Yes, we are very well off. Indeed, we are very, very, very well off! The great toilet paper panic was an ugly and unsightly episode, but it illustrates how privileged we actually are. At least we have toilet paper to use. Many people don’t. The constant injunctions to wash our hands are important. But we have water on tap (literally) to wash our hands with. Many, many people don’t.

And we have space, the space in our houses and the space on our streets, to practice social distancing. Many, many, many people do not have such space; they live in crowded homes, in overcrowded city areas, where keeping appropriate distance is just not possible. By comparison, it is clear: we are well off.

8 Science is invaluable.

The advances in scientific understanding in recent centuries have enabled us to understand how pandemics (what used to be called plagues) spread. Microbiologists and infectious disease specialists are able to harness their specialised understandings and insights for the benefit of the common good. Medical researchers are able to focus on possible drug treatments, conduct experiments, and produce guidance as to what will assist, and what will not help, as we seek to minimise the spread of the virus.

Science and medicine reporters are doing a fabulous job on the media, providing us with technical insights into how diseases work and how our bodies respond, breaking this information down into understandable bites of information, assuring us of the steps that are being taken to find the vaccine for this virus. We can be grateful for scientific and medical insights.

9 Faith provides a bedrock foundation.

When living in troubled, challenging times, people have regularly turned to some form of faith, for comfort and assurance. We have seen that throughout history. Perhaps that may be happening, these days, when we see the upsurge of interest that has been experienced by churches offering online worship. Many report large “attendances” at online worship, larger than the in person gatherings of past months. It may be too early to tell—but could it be that people are turning to spiritual resources in this time of need?

Certainly, people of faith are active and to the fore, in regular times and now in this unusual time, in ensuring that the vulnerable people in our society are given care and support in these challenging times. I know of many people of faith who are making extra phone calls and offering a compassionate listening ear to people in need.

I know of other people of faith who make home deliveries of food packages to elderly people, or who are staffing food banks operating out of church facilities. Protocols about social distancing are being observed, and needy people are being supported. Looking to the material needs of people in society is important. And in this regard, we clearly see that faith in action undergirds our society. So many people of faith are involved in these kinds of projects. This demonstrates how true religion is (as James writes), “to care for orphans and widows in their distress”.

That’s what I have learnt, this far into the process of social distancing and self isolating. What do you reckon? What are your key learnings?

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/