A vision, a Congress, and a struggle for justice

Charles Harris: A Struggle for Justice (William W. Emilsen, 2019, MediaCom)

In August 1983, a National Conference within the Uniting Church was held from 22-26 August at Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island, in the Northern Territory. The Conference inaugurated the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress within the UCA. It built on the work that had taken place in 1982, as a series of meetings brought together Aboriginal and Islander members of the Church and other interested people in a conference at Crystal Creek, near Townsville.

The UAICC, or “Congress”, as it is more commonly called, has remained a significant feature of the UCA nationally, as well as in a number of Synods. Two Synods have contained Presbyteries composed entirely of Congress Congregations.

The Northern Regional Council of Congress (NRCC) functions as one of two Presbyteries in the Northern Synod. Representatives of more than 28 Aboriginal congregations from East Arnhem Land, West Arnhem Land, the West Kimberley region of Western Australia, Alice Springs, Aputula and the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in South Australia, make up the Council.

For many decades, Calvary Presbytery served as the regional Queensland body of Congress, a Presbytery in the Synod of Queensland. It oversees Indigenous congregations in the Cape York and Gulf region (Mapoon, Napranum, Aurukun and Mornington Island), as well as Congress congregations at Gordonvale (south of Cairns), Townsville, and Zillmere (in northern Brisbane). Since 2016, Calvary Presbytery and North Queensland Presbytery have worked together as Carpentaria Presbytery, one of seven Presbyteries in the Queensland Synod.

This unique ecclesial arrangement, of a Congress body functioning within the denominational structures of the UCA, but having the authority to make decisions in all matters relating to ministry with Aboriginal and Islander peoples, had been the vision of the Rev. Charles Harris, an Aboriginal community worker and pastor who was ordained a UCA minister in November 1980.

Charles was the first President of the national body of Congress when it was formed in 1985. This was a role that, over the ensuing decades, has come to be seen as equal and complementary to the position of President of the national Assembly.

Charles Harris would later describe the 1983 conference as a time “of discovery, of one another, of culture, and of common faithfulness. It was a conference dedicated to searching for the will and purpose of God.”

The passion and vision birthed at these historic meetings for First Nations Peoples has not subsided in hearts and minds of members of the UAICC.

William Emilsen has written much on the work of Charles Harris; after a series of articles published over some decades, he has now published a book-length account of the whole of the life and work of Harris, entitled Charles Harris: A Struggle for Justice.

See https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3060-a-destiny-is-born-uaicc-beginnings. The book is available from MediaCom at https://www.mediacomeshop.org.au/test/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=426

At the end of his life, the activist and public servant Charles Perkins, a long-time friend, described Harris as one who helped set ‘the moral and ethical standards for relationships between Aboriginal, Islander and white Australians. A man of principle, whose impact will never be forgotten’ (Foster 1993, 5, quoted in https://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/harris-charles-enoch-18183)

The book by Emilsen provides multiple examples of how Harris lived and worked by his ethical principles, grounded in the understanding that God’s justice is the heart of the Gospel, and our discipleship is to be focussed on seeking that justice in all of life.

The vision of an Aboriginal Congress was central to Charles Harris’ church ministry and community leadership. He toured the country, encouraging, urging, negotiating, to bring this vision to reality. In 1985 the National Assembly welcomed the formation of Congress, and in 1994 the Uniting Church in Australia formally entered into a Covenant with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, to work together for a more just church and nation.

See https://uniting.church/covenanting-resources/

That work arose out of his work with local Aboriginal communities in Queensland, where Charles offered an integrated ministry that attended to material and spiritual needs, whilst building networks and undertaking advocacy for his people.

And the creation of the Congress formed the springboard for the work that Charles Harris undertook among nest Aboriginal communities across Australia, preparing the converge on Sydney in January 1988 for the BiCentenary celebrations. Charles was the driving force behind the creation of the Day of Mourning, with a march through Sydney and a rally at Hyde Park, which attended by 40,000 people, on 26 January.

See https://www.deadlystory.com/page/culture/history/The_1988_Bicentenary_Protest

The Bicentenary protest was carried out in the spirit of the earlier Day of Mourning protest, also organised by indigenous leaders, led by William Cooper. This took place in 1938, on the 150th anniversary of the landing of the first fleet. See https://www.deadlystory.com/page/culture/history/Day_of_Mourning_protests_held_in_Sydney

It is a legacy continues in the current marches and protests organised each January to fight for rights and justice for Aboriginal and Islander peoples.

In telling the story of the role that Charles Harris played in 1988, and in other key events in his life and ministry, William Emilsen had access to the history that Harris himself had begun to sketch, before his health issues predominated, and which led to his early death in 1991.

However, Emilsen has gained access to a wide range of sources–not only published accounts and transcripts of speeches and meetings, but also letters and recollections of events by the colleagues and friends of Charles Harris. He has interviewed and corresponded with key people, including the late widow of Charles Harris, the much-respected Aunty Dorrie (see https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3221-pastoral-letter-rev-dorothy-harris-gordon-1941-2020)

This makes for a rich account, with a proliferation of material enabling the reader to enter into a deep appreciation of the values and commitments of Charles Harris: pastor, community worker, evangelist, student, orator, organiser, visionary, and prophet. It’s a work that is well worth reading.

This whispering in our hearts: potent stories from Henry Reynolds

I have recently finished reading This Whispering in our Hearts, by the doyen of living Australian historians, Henry Reynolds. (Thanks to Barbara Braybrook for loaning me her copy and suggesting I read it, because she thought I would appreciate it. I have, and I did!)

The whole career of Reynolds has been devoted to researching and writing about the Indigenous peoples of Australia—including his investigations of the stream of violent confrontation and massacre of indigenous peoples in what he has, memorably, called “The Frontier Wars”.

The book tells a story that all Australians need to know. It is an inspiring narrative with potent stories. We need to hear the words, sense the passion, know the sagas of our recent post-invasion history.

Time and time again, as I was reading the book, I found myself greatly appreciating its accounts of courageous, deeply-committed people in early Australian society. They saw and spoke out against the terrible racist attitudes towards Australian Aboriginal people, and especially the many massacres that have peppered our history since the late 18th century.

However, I found it equally a rather depressing account. I had to read it in “chunks” of a chapter or two at a time. I needed to let the information in each chapter settle in my mind, as the battle between passionate advocates and redneck racists was played out over decades.

The book is based on Reynolds’ research into debates, and actions, that took place in white Australian society throughout the 19th century, into the early 20th century. There are numerous quotations from all manner of primary sources—letters, speeches, sermons, pamphlets, newspaper articles, books, and more.

“All over Australia there were men and women who stood up and demanded justice for the aborigines”, writes Reynolds (p.xvi). The book tells the stories of nine such men and women—although, truth be told, only one, the 20th century activist Mary Bennett, is a woman.

Mary Bennett, pioneering feminist and advocate for Indigenous Australians

The others canvassed include Lancelot Threlkeld, George Augustus Robinson, Louis Giustiniani, and Robert Lyon (active in the 1830s and 1840s); John B. Gribble and David Carley (from the 1880s); and Ernest Gribble (from 1926 to 1934).

Pictured: Lancelot Threlkeld (top);
G. A. Robinson and Louis Giustiniani (middle);
Robert Lyon, John B. Gribble, and Ernest Gribble (bottom).

The regions of Australia under scrutiny include the colonies of New South Wales (Threlkeld and Robinson), the Swan River (Giustiniani and Carley), Queensland (with fascinating quotations from letters published in the press in the 1880s), and then Western Australia (both Gribbles, father John and then son Ernest).

The title comes from the closing line of a public lecture delivered by a Sydney barrister, Richard Windemyer, in 1842, a year before he was elected to the Legislative Council. Windemyer had set out to undermine the words and actions of humanitarians who had been advocating for the rights of Aborigines, but ended with the wistful observation, “how is it our minds are not satisfied? what means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts?”

Richard Windeyer (1806-1847),
journalist, barrister and politician

That whispering is still with us, into the 21st century, as we have lived through the High Court judgements of Wik and Mabo, the Stolen Generations Report and the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, the Reconciliation March and the National Apology, and the Statement from the Heart at Uluru. And still, despite these and other important happenings, the life expectancy of indigenous Australians is lower and their incarceration rates are far higher than the Australian average; and awareness that white Australia is premised on living on stolen land is still low amongst the general population.

The most recent NAIDOC Week slogan–Always Was. Always Will Be.–has much distance to go to before it gains traction amongst the general Australian population. As Reynolds notes in the final paragraph of the book, “if true reconciliation is ever consummated in Australia and justice is not only done but seen to be done … after 200 years, the whisper in the heart will be heard no more” (p.251). What he wrote in 1998 remains still the case today. We wait in hope …

*****

From the earliest days, Reynolds reports, there was a clear awareness that the indigenous peoples had the right to possession and ownership of the land, and the British colonisers were there because of an act on invasion. Before Cook, Banks, and the crew of the endeavour had set sail, they were in receipt of instructions from James Douglas, President of the Royal Society until his death in 1768, which clearly stated, “they are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit”.

James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton
(portrait with his family by Jeremiah Davison, 1740)

Douglas continued, “no European nation has a right to occupy any part of their country, or settle among them without their voluntary consent”, and asserted that “shedding the blood of these people is a crime of the highest nature”, and that “conquest over such people can never give just title … they may naturally and justly attempt to repel invaders who they may apprehend are come to disturb them in the quiet possession of their country” (quoted on p.xii).

The book recounts how all nine of these people, along with others, advocated for Aboriginal people, and how all nine of them encountered various pushbacks—arguments, rejections, persecutions or sackings. In the face of strong community resistance, biased legal judgements, and pure racist political leadership, these people continued their prophetic tasks of advocacy, social work, political strategising, and grassroots activism.

The courage, persistence, and zeal of these nine humanitarians, advocates and activists, and of the many others who worked with them, is offset, at times, by the character evaluation that Reynolds provides. Robinson was “thought to be a tiresome and discredited officer, a pompous, prickly upstart” (p.55). Ernest Gribble was “relentlessly self-centred, tactless, self-righteous, courageous” (p.181). Mary Bennett was “excessive in her righteous passion” (p.241).

Yet the dogged, even intransigent, nature of their various characters was probably what fitted them for the roles they undertook, in the face of massive public opinion oriented in the opposite direction. The closing chapter of the book documents the very significant shift that occurred in the aftermath of, first, the 1926 Forrest River Massacre, and then the 1928 Coniston Massacre.

Both of these massacres occurred in Western Australia, long the heart of racist repudiation of any rights for Aboriginal peoples. This shift in the 1930s was only possible because of the persistent and penetrating critique of the time, driven from the eastern states, with leadership from Elizabeth Bennett and active participation from Christian churches.

The commitment of Christian voices throughout the decades is one striking element in the story that Reynolds tells. He cites a number of early clergymen who argued that discrimination against “the Natives” was contrary to the clear teaching of scripture, by which all races are “of one blood” (drawing on the old translation in the King James Version of Acts 17:26).

Ministers of religion were frequently at the forefront of activism in colonial Australia. Their advocacy for the view that black-skinned people are humans with the same capacities and rights as white-skinned people was clear; but, sadly, not compelling enough. After a century and a half of British settlement, the federal parliament actually legislated for a racist policy, popularly known as the White Australia policy.

Before I read this book, I knew about some of these activist-advocates (for instance, I had blogged about Gribble senior in https://johntsquires.com/2019/08/18/dark-deeds-in-a-sunny-land-the-expose-offered-by-john-b-gribble/).

However, there was much that I did not know. This year, as we approach Invasion Day, January 26, commemorated officially as “Australia Day”, I think it is appropriate that we remember, and give thanks, for those who in years past have spoken and acted in support of the First Peoples of Australia and its surrounding islands, as Henry Reynolds reminds us.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/08/always-was-always-will-be-naidoc2020/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/16/the-profound-effect-of-invasion-and-colonisations/

Always Was, Always Will Be. #NAIDOC2020

This week is NAIDOC Week 2020. Earlier this year, the decision was taken to postpone NAIDOC Week from the original July dates, due to the impacts and uncertainty from the escalating Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic across our communities and cities.

The postponement was primarily aimed at protecting indigenous elders and those in indigenous communities with chronic health issues from the disastrous impacts of COVID-19. So National NAIDOC Week 2020 celebrations are being held this week, 8-15 November. See https://www.naidoc.org.au/about/naidoc-week

The theme, Always Was, Always Will Be, recognises that First Nations people have occupied and cared for this continent for over 65,000 years; that they have a spiritual and cultural connected to this land. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were Australia’s first explorers, first navigators, first engineers, first farmers, first botanists, first scientists, first diplomats, first astronomers and first artists.

Australia has the world’s oldest oral stories. The First Peoples engraved the world’s first maps, made the earliest paintings of ceremony and invented unique technologies. They built and engineered structures on Earth, long before well-known sites such as the Egyptian Pyramids and Stonehenge.

The adaptation demonstrated by First Peoples and their intimate knowledge of Country enabled them to endure climate change, catastrophic droughts and rising sea levels.

Always Was, Always Will Be acknowledges that hundreds of Nations and our cultures covered this continent. All were managing the land (“the biggest estate on earth”, as Bill Gammage has described it) to sustainably provide for their future. Through ingenious land management systems like fire stick farming, they transformed the harshest habitable continent into a land of bounty. See https://www.naidoc.org.au/get-involved/2020-theme

So this week offers a good opportunity for people around Australia to pause, acknowledge the care that the indigenous peoples of the continent and its surrounding islands have given to the land, and give thanks for their resilience and dedication over many millennia, into the present age.

Within the Uniting Church, indigenous members of the Uniting Church have argued for a treaty within the councils of the Church, and some Synods (such as NSW.ACT) have supported this call. See https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/07/giving-voice-telling-truth-talking-treaty-naidoc-2019/

The Assembly, the national Council of the UCA, has recognised that indigenous people are sovereign over the land we stand on. See https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/10/the-sovereignty-of-the-first-peoples-of-australia/

Sovereignty is defined with reference to two documents. First, the Preamble to the Constitution of Uniting Church in Australia, which defines sovereignty to be “the way in which First Peoples understand themselves to be the traditional owners and custodians”.

Second, the Uluru Statement from the Heart acknowledges that “sovereignty is a spiritual notion, reflecting the ancestral tie between the land and First Peoples”, and affirms that “the First Peoples of Australia, the Aboriginal and Islander Peoples, are sovereign peoples in this land”.

Statement from the Heart, Uluru, 2017
https://www.referendumcouncil.org.au/sites/default/files/2017-05/Uluru_Statement_From_The_Heart_0.PDF

Alison Overeem (UAICC Tasmania, Leprena) has written a moving reflection for NAIDOC Week 2020, at https://crosslight.org.au/2020/11/05/naidoc-week-2020-reflection/

Uniting Church resources for NAIDOC Week 2020 can be found at https://uniting.church/naidoc-week-2020/ and https://nswact.uca.org.au/about-us/first-nations-resources/

See also my blogs on the works of Gammage and Pascoe at https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/24/resembling-the-park-lands-of-a-gentlemans-residence-in-england/ and on sovereignty at https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

Invasion and colonisation, Joshua 3 and contemporary Australia

This coming Sunday, the lectionary offers us a passage from Joshua (3:7-17). It is the one and only time, in the three years of the lectionary, that we are invited to read from this book.

Joshua as history?

The story from Joshua tells, in a highly stylised way, of the entry of the people of God into the promised land. It is a key incident in the extended narrative history that stretches from Genesis to 1 Kings, recounting slavery in Egypt, the redemptive moment of Exodus, the giving of the Law, the long haul of wilderness wanderings, the battles waged to capture the land under the Judges, and the ultimate vindication of the establishment of the kingdom of Israel under King David.

Of course, it didn’t actually happen like this. For one thing, the book of Joshua is almost universally considered to be a wonderfully embellished and highly stylised narrative constructed by the priests in the sixth century BCE, as they prepared to lead exiled people of Israel in their return to the land from which they had been removed.

The book as a whole is marked by the schematic structuring that was so characteristic of priestly narratives. Structure and order was central to their style (see the various genealogies in various books of Hebrew scripture; the regular identifications of dates and locations; the repeated phrases throughout the “seven days” of Gen 1:1-2:3; the structure of the whole of the book of Numbers, as well as Joshua; and the repeated formulaic assessment of various kings in 1 Ki 11:6, 11:19, 14:22, 15:5, 15:11, 15:26, 15:34, 16:7, etc).

For another thing, we know that the division of Israel into the twelve tribes (3:12), so important in the story that the priests of Israel tell about the nation, was a later ideological construction of the priestly story-tellers—there were no neatly schematised tribes at the time of this incident.

And, of course, the whole story of Exodus, liberation, wilderness and conquest, is beset by multiple historical problems. There is no evidence in the records of the Egyptians about the escape of a large crowd of slaves, not any record of the destruction of the Egyptian Army in the Red Sea. There are no remains in the wilderness between Egypt and Israel that suggest that such a large crowd was travelling, for many years, through the desire—no remains of campsites, no graves of deceased people. And there is no archaeological evidence that correlates the biblical record of the capture of Jericho and other cities in the land. All we have is the story told in the Bible.

The form of the story we have was written down quite some centuries from when the event is alleged to have taken place. It serves an ideological purpose, as exiled people prepare to return to the land. As the 5th century exiles enter the land, the story of the wandering tribes entering the land centuries before provides encouragement and inspiration.

So it is not the historical reliability of this incident itself that is to the fore as the story is told. What we, in the post-Enlightenment era, understand to be “history”, is very different from the way that “history” was understood in the time when the story was written.

Joshua as saga

Rather than history, the narrative offers us a saga that invites us into a creative, thoughtful pondering of the story. It offers the people of Israel, exiles returning from Babylon, hope and assurance for their future. The best question we can ask of this story, is not, “did this actually happen?”, but rather, “what does this story offer to us, today?”

Central in the story is the ark of the covenant. The story tells of the time at Mount Sinai when God established a covenant with Moses and Israel, and the giving of the Law within that covenant relationship. The ark is a sign of the presence of God, continuing on with the people of Israel beyond Mount Sinai (Exod 25:10-22). God is not an absentee God, but very present amongst the people. The ark symbolises and reinforces that message.

The priests serve to mediate the presence of God. They carry the ark of the covenant, maintaining it, ensuring that it remains safe (Deut 10:8, 31:9, 25-26; Josh 3:3, 6, 8, 13). The story offers an indication that holy people are necessities in life; their mediation of the divine in the midst of the mundane is important. (As an ordained person, I confess that I have a vested interest in this claim!) As the priests shape the story, they make sure that priests play a central role in what is narrated.

Joshua as testimony to faith

The story contains a memorable description of God as “the living God” (3:10). The phrase appears elsewhere in a Hebrew Scriptures (Deut 5:26, 1 Sam 17:26, 36, 2 Kings 19:4, 16, Pss 42:2, 84:2, Isa 37:4,17, Jer 10:10, 23:36, Dan 6:20, 26, Hos 1:10) and also in the New Testament (Matt 16:16, 26:63, Acts 14:15, Rom 9:26, 2 Cor 3:3, 6:16, 1 Thess 1:9, 1 Tim 3:15, 4:10, Heb 3:13, 4:12, 9:14, 10:31, 12:22, Rev 7:2). The ark is a sign that this living God is present, active and engaged in the lives of the people.

A striking event demonstrates this: as the priests stand in the river, the waters stand still (3:16), and so the people are able to cross the river and enter the land. Of course, later on in Joshua, another miraculous event takes place, as the sun stands still (10:13). These were not actual events, but symbolic of divine intervention.

We might well compare the New Testament story of the earthquake and resurrection of the saints (found only in Matt 27) after the resurrection of Jesus. This, too, was not an historical event; it was a dramatic tale told to underline that God was active in the story.

The key aspect of the story of the escape from Egypt, as the story is found in Exodus 14-15, is the connection with the Feast of the Passover. The story that is attached to the Exodus actually serves a liturgical purpose; the priests have developed the story to reinforce and highlight the way that God was able to redeem the people—as in the story, so in the experience of the returning exiles.

Likewise, the key aspect of this story of the entry into the land, in Joshua 3, is not the actual physical wading across the river, but the assurance of faith that comes from the telling of the story of entering the land. God is not only the redeemer, who delivers the people into freedom, but the one who delivers the land to the people. The promise of the gift of land, first made to Abraham (Gen 12:1, 15:7, 17:8), then reiterated to Jacob (Gen 28:4,13, 35:12) and again to Moses (Exod 3:8,17, 6:4,8, 12:25, 13:5,11), is now coming to fulfilment.

Joshua as military victory

Indeed, the crossing of the river itself points to the symbolism that this story contributes to the overarching narrative. Leaving Egypt, the Lord God parts the waters, the people pass through, the army is bogged and drowned, and their escape from Egypt is secure. Entering Canaan, the Lord God once again stops the flow of the waters, the priests who carried the ark of the covenant enable the people to cross the river and enter the land, and their hold on the land is made secure. Josh 4:19-24 draws this comparison quite explicitly.

The parallel continues in the strong militaristic element, found in the list of the peoples whom “the living God who without fail will drive out from before you”. The text specifies “the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites” (3:10). Even before the battles are waged, the victories have been declared. This also provides a neat bookend: the army of Egypt is crushed in Exodus 15, the inhabitants of the land are subdued and defeated in Joshua 3.

What follows on from this story of entering the land is a highly schematic presentation of the military conquest of the land, in the rest of the book of Joshua. The invaders take the key areas in turn: first the Central area (chs. 6-8), then the Southern regions (chs. 9-10) followed by the Northern areas (ch 11). Chapter 12 then provides a summary of the conquest, listing “the kings of the lands whom the Israelites defeated”—a kind of victor’s gloating, “thirty one kings in all” (Josh 3:24).

The story of taking control of the land is then followed by a parallel schematic account of the allotment of the land to each of the tribes. The Transjordan (the land to the east of the Jordan River) is allotted in ch. 13; the Central regions in chs. 14-17; and then the peripheral regions to the north and south in chs. 18-19. Chapter 20 details the allocation of the five “cities of refuge”, whilst chapter 21 identifies the forty-eight towns which were allotted to the tribe of Levi, from which the priests came.

None of these are historical accounts. The schematic ordering carries symbolic weight, rather than being an historical account. Indeed, the twelve tribes of Israel were a later construction by the compiler of the narrative, rather than being an actual organisational principle at the time of any such conquest.

And even as the list of conquered peoples are identified, the savagery of this glorious moment is revealed. The memorial stones provide a reminder of the event (Josh 4:1-10), a reminder of the power of the invading force as they colonise the settled inhabitants of the land. We hear the story from the perspective of the victorious invaders—the people of Israel. The dispossession and death of so many Canaanites is simply “collateral damage” in this process.

Joshua and Israel, Britain and Australia, and the indigenous perspective

This is a story of land, invasion, massacre, colonisation, and victory. It is an ancient story which resonates strongly with the experience of indigenous peoples in the modern era of history. Time and time again, from late medieval times onwards, “explorers” set out from Western powers, “discovered” new lands, followed by “settlers” who came and established “civilisation”, most often by means of “subduing” the indigenous peoples, making them subservient to the “new order”—and even, in many instances, punishing those who resisted their new ways, even utilising means of killing the indigenous peoples.

This is the dynamic of the story of “Israel entering the promised land” which is told in Joshua, as well as the story of “establishing British civilisation in the land of Australia” which is the story of our own continent. The imposition of a new way of living by a more powerful force, the subjugation of those who already were living in the land, and the use of violence and murder to ensure that the new order was maintained and could flourish—all of this is in the history of Australia since 1788.

The story of invasion and settlement, defeat and decline, resonates with the contemporary Australian experience of the indigenous peoples of the continent and its islands. Which gives us pause for thought: how, then, do we hear and understand that story recounted in Joshua?

James Cook: Captain? Discoverer? Invader? Coloniser? Cook, the Endeavour, and Possession Island.

It is 250 years ago, today, since British sailor James Cook “took possession” of the continent we know as Australia—a land that he named New South Wales—on behalf of the reigning monarch of one of the dominant world powers of the day, the British Empire.

We know Cook as “Captain Cook”. Technically, at that time, he was still Lieutenant Cook, although he was indeed captain of the ship HMS Endeavour, in the middle of a government-sponsored expedition in which he circumnavigated the globe.

During this journey, Cook and his crew observed the transit of Venus across the sun in 1769, circumnavigated both islands of New Zealand, and then mapped 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).

After he had travelled the length of the eastern coastline of Australia, Cook landed on Possession Island, in the area we now call the Torres Strait. It is known as Bedanug or Bedhan Lag by one of the indigenous peoples of the islands, the Kaurareg, whose country includes the lower western Torres Strait islands grouped around Muralag.

(The Ankamuti also lay claim to being indigenous to the island. They were based on the western side of Cape York, but frequented Bedanug, Muralag, and other islands off the coast.)

Today, Possession Island is located at the centre of the Possession Island National Park, an area of 5.10 km2 established as a protected area in 1977 and currently managed by the Queensland Parks and a wildlife Service.

See https://parks.des.qld.gov.au/parks/possession-island/about/culture

There, on Possession Island, just before sunset on Wednesday 22 August 1770, Cook declared the land to be a British possession:

Notwithstand[ing] I had in the Name of His Majesty taken possession of several places upon this coast, I now once more hoisted English Coulers and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole Eastern Coast . . . by the name New South Wales, together with all the Bays, Harbours Rivers and Islands situate upon the said coast, after which we fired three Volleys of small Arms which were Answerd by the like number from the Ship.

A monument in recognition of this event has been erected on the headland above the beach where Cook raised the flag in 1770. It states:

LIEUTENANT JAMES COOK R.N.

ON THE “ENDEAVOUR”

LANDED ON THIS ISLAND

WHICH HE NAMED

POSSESSION ISLAND

AND IN THE NAME OF HIS MAJESTY

 KING GEORGE III

TOOK POSSESSION OF THE WHOLE EASTERN

 COAST OF AUSTRALIA

FROM THE LATITUDE 38° SOUTH TO THIS PLACE

AUGUST 22nd 1770

See https://www.monumentaustralia.org.au/themes/landscape/exploration/display/100194-possession-island-

*****

Cook and the HMS Endeavour play a dominant role in our Australian historical awareness. The (misleading and inaccurate) claim that Cook “discovered Australia” is made even in our own times—when we should know better. Western scientific and historical knowledge now correlates strongly with Indigenous narratives that indicate that the land had long been inhabited and cared for, by the peoples we know call Aboriginal.

See https://www.aboriginalart.com.au/aboriginal_australia.html and http://www.workingwithindigenousaustralians.info/content/History_2_60,000_years.html

Our history did not start with Cook, however. Indeed, if we read the observations made by Cook in his journal as he sailed his ship alongside the eastern coast of New South Wales, we find that he was observing, not only the unfamiliar flora and fauna of the continent—but also the indigenous people of the land.

See my blogs on the time that Cook sailed along the eastern seaboard of Australia, at

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/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/29/three-canoes-lay-upon-the-beach-the-worst-i-think-i-ever-saw-james-cook-at-botany-bay-29-april-1770/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/17/we-weighd-and-run-into-the-harbour-cook-the-endeavour-and-the-guugu-yimithirr/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/19/james-cook-the-endeavour-and-the-guugu-yimithirr-3/

So all along his journey beside the eastern coastline, Cook had recorded signs that the land was inhabited, and he even reported that he had met a number of the Aboriginal inhabitants. In his journal, on Saturday 21st April (at the southernmost point of this leg of his journey), Cook wrote:

Winds Southerly a gentle breeze and clear weather with which we coasted along shore to the northward. In the PM we saw the smook of fire in several places a certain sign that the Country is inhabited.

But he still pressed ahead with his report that he had claimed all the lands for the British Crown. This, despite the fact that he knew there were inhabitants in the land.

*****

Cook, of course, was acting in accord with his royal orders. And those orders had been promulgated under the Doctrine of Discovery, a long-standing understanding amongst European trading nations, that they had every right—indeed, a divine right—to explore, invade, colonise, and convert the “natives” of distant lands.

On the Doctrine of Discovery, see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/how-was-aboriginal-land-ownership-lost-to-invaders and my reflections at https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

So Cook planted the British flag on the continent of Australia. This action demonstrated how the imperial colonising power operated: the land, and the people, were to be subsumed under imperial rule, simply because the imperial power wished that to be so. The people already living in those places were simply to bend in obedience to this greater power. And, as we know, if they resisted, although there might be some initial attempts to live together peaceably, ultimately they would be met with force, violence, and murder.

What became a cause of enduring conflict over many decades was the subsequent activity of settling on the land, erecting fences, planting crops, farming animals, protecting the property and claiming exclusive rights to the crops and animals now installed on the land.

To those who had formerly lived on this land, this was theft from their land. To those who had established a “civilised” lifestyle on the land, the former inhabitants were irritants to be kept at bay, and eventually enemies to be removed.

Thus murder was normalised in the years of settlement. And the original inhabitants experienced this as aggressive invasion and enforced colonisation.

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

*****

On this day, as we remember the actions and words of Cook, on behalf of the British monarch, we need to make a commitment to tell the truth, on behalf of the indigenous peoples, whose land was invaded, whose lifestyle was disrupted, whose peoples were massacred, whose families were torn apart, over the decades and indeed centuries that followed.

We need to tell the truth on behalf of these First Peoples, who have cared for this land for millennia, who have nurtured community, strengthened family, traded and visited amongst the 270 language and culture groups which existed prior to Cook and the subsequent British invasion.

http://www.shareourpride.org.au/sections/our-culture/index.html

The church in which I serve, the Uniting Church, is committed to telling truth. This truth is confronting and challenging. In the revised Preamble which was adopted a decade ago by the Uniting Church, we sought to tell the truth.

Drawing on the voices of Indigenous Peoples, we have named the settlement of this continent as a colonising movement, generated by foreign imperialism, manifesting in violent invasion and genocidal massacres, spread from north to south, from east to west, of this continent. We must continue to prioritise this commitment to tell the truth.

See https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/16/the-profound-effect-of-invasion-and-colonisations/

Likewise, at the 14th Assembly, meeting in Perth in 2015, we decided to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, that medieval theological foundation upon which the worldwide invasion and colonisation of lands was based—including the invasion and colonisation of Terra Australis. This has been part of our commitment to tell the truth.

See https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

As a result of this, the Uniting Church is committed to talking treaty. We are supportive of the formalisation of treaties with the various nations of Peoples who have inhabited, nurtured and cared for this land since time immemorial. This commitment is based on a recognition of the Sovereignty of each of those nations, sovereignty over the land that the people have inhabited, nurtured, and cared for over those many millennia.

See https://www.insights.uca.org.au/hear-the-statement-from-the-heart/

Sovereignty, as articulated in the Statement from the Heart of 2017, is understood by the First Peoples as a spiritual notion, reflecting the ancestral tie between the land and the First Peoples

See https://ulurustatement.org/

Also https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/on-covenant-reconciliation-and-sovereignty/ and https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/on-covenant-reconciliation-and-sovereignty/

And we need to listen to the voice of the indigenous peoples, in this a statement, and in other ways.

For an indigenous perspective on Cook, see https://www.nla.gov.au/digital-classroom/senior/Cook/Indigenous-Response/Maynard

There are fine resources on the website of the National Museum of a Australia relating to Bedanug (Possession Island) at https://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/endeavour-voyage/bedanug-thunadha-bedhan-lag-tuidin-possession-island

As we remember Possession Island, 1770, may this be the legacy of Cook, 250 years on: that we remember his observation that the Country is inhabited, that we value those people who had long inhabited this land and held sovereignty of the land, who continue to live in our midst today, and that we tell the full history of this country.

James Cook, the Endeavour, twelve turtles and the Guugu Yimithirr (3)

Ngahthaan gadaai thawun maa naa thi hu. “We come to make friends.”

As the story is told amongst the Guugu Yimithirr people of the area we call North Queensland, one of the elders of the people, Ngambri Yarrbarigu, said these words to James Cook, captain of the HMS Endeavour, 250 years ago this week. The ship had been laid up on the land of the Guugu Yimithirr for some weeks, as the British sailors repaired its hull after it had struck a reef in May 1770.

The men withdrew, placed their spears on the ground, and sat down. They were acting in the manner prescribed, in their culture, to signal friendship.

What had caused this desire to seek reconciliation? That was the incident relating to the turtles, from the penultimate visit to the ship by the Guugu Yimithirr. That took place on 17 July. That visit severed the relationships that had grown over recent weeks, which they then sought to repair.

The British had been engaging with the Guugu Yimithirr on and off over the weeks that they were beached, beside the river which Cook names the Endeavour River. To the people of that land, this was Waalbumbaal Birri, the river wending its way to the sea from the nearby mountain Gaya.

Waalbumbaal Birri
(Endeavour River)

It was their land. They had their own customs, their own practices. They had every right to expect that the visitors would adhere to these customs and practices. It was their land, their river—they had been custodians of the land since time unknown. They had stories in their collective memory of times past (what we white folk later would call “the Dreamtime”).

On 15 July, Cook wrote in his journal: “Gentle breezes at South-East and East. P.M., got on board the Spare Sails and sundry other Articles. In the A.M., as the people did not work upon the Ship, one of the Petty Officers was desirous of going out to Catch Turtles. I let him have the Pinnace for that purpose, and sent the Long boat to haul the Sean, who caught about 60 fish.” The invaders must surely have rejoiced at this haul of sea creatures, destined, no doubt, to be cooked and eaten.

The next day, Cook’s journal records, “In the evening the Yawl came in with 4 Turtle and a Large Sting ray, and soon after went out again; but the Pinnace did not return as I expected.”

Then, on 17 July, another journal entry: “In the evening the Pinnace returned with 3 Turtles, 2 of which the Yawl caught and sent in”, recording the arrival of yet more bounty—before continuing with a lengthy technical discussion of astronomical phenomenon: “At 7 hours 41 minutes 17 seconds p.m. observ’d the first Satellite of Jupiter to Emerge …”

The area surrounding the Waalbumbaal Birri (Endeavour River)

What are we to make of this regular fishing-and-catching activity of the British? From one point of view—from the perspective of the invading sailors, arriving at this place from their sea journey—this natural bounty was there to be caught and used for their own purposes. There was no sign that announced “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted”. There was no expectation, in their minds, that these animals were there for any other reason, than to be observed, analysed, caught, and eaten.

But from the point of view of the people on the land—the Guugu Yimithirr who had lived on and cared for the land for millennia—this was their land, their river, their ocean, and their creatures. Theirs, not in the sense of personal possession and ownership; but theirs, in the sense of given over to them to care for and nurture, for which they bore an enduring custodial responsibility. What would they have made of the regular forays to capture their fish and turtles?

(The indigenous understanding of relationship to the land, articulated as one of sovereignty, is clearly expressed in the Statement from the Heart; see https://ulurustatement.org/the-statement. On the Uniting Church attitude towards the sovereignty of the land of Australia, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/10/13/on-covenant-reconciliation-and-sovereignty/)

Statement from the Heart
Uluru, 2017

So on 18 July, the British encountered the Yuugu Gimithirr once again. Cook writes, “Mr. Banks, Dr. Solander, and myself took a turn into the woods on the other side of the water, where we met with 5 of the Natives; and although we had not seen any of them before, they came to us without showing any signs of fear. 2 of these wore Necklaces made of Shells, which they seem’d to Value, as they would not part with them.” This encounter, as previous ones had been, was congenial and mutually respectful.

Cook continues, “In the evening the Yawl came in with 3 Turtle, and early in the A.M. she went out again. About 8 we were Visited by several of the Natives, who now became more familiar than ever.” He notes that he and Banks then took a trip along the shore for 6 or 8 miles, before returning, and noting that “we return’d to the Ship … and found several of the Natives on board. At this time we had 12 tortoise or Turtle upon our Decks, which they took more Notice of than anything Else in the Ship, as I was told by the officers, for their Curiosity was Satisfied before I got on board, and they went away soon after.”

The focus of attention was now very clearly on the turtles. They had obviously become a point of contention for the Yuugu Gimithirr. Were the British aware of this?

Twelve Turtles, by Wanda Gibson

The next day, 19 July, another group came to the British—this time, 10 or 11 of them. “Most of them came from the other side of the Harbour, where we saw 6 or 7 more, the most of them Women, and, like the men, quite naked.” It was clear that they had come to retrieve “some of our Turtles” (as Cook wrote). In the attempt to remove some turtles, “they grew a little Troublesome, and were for throwing every thing overboard they could lay their hands upon.”

Cook offered bread, which “they rejected with Scorn, as I believe they would have done anything else excepting Turtle”. The aim of the exercise was clearly to take some turtles with them.

Cook’s journal then reports the dramatic events that ensured: “one of them took a Handful of dry grass and lighted it at a fire we had ashore, and before we well know’d what he was going about he made a larger Circuit round about us, and set fire to the grass in his way, and in an instant the whole place was in flames.” The cordial relationships had turned to fierce antagonism.

“As soon as they had done this they all went to a place where some of our people were washing, and where all our nets and a good deal of linnen were laid out to dry; here with the greatest obstinacy they again set fire to the grass, which I and some others who were present could not prevent, until I was obliged to fire a Musquet load with small Shott at one of the Ring leaders, which sent them off.” The man whom Cook wounded with a musket shot ran away.

Cook reports that the fore “spread like wild fire in the Woods and grass”, and reports that one man was injured: “we saw a few drops of blood on some of the linnen he had gone over”. Cook and Banks stepped out and met 3 or 4 men. “As they had each 4 or 5 Darts, and not knowing their intention, we seized upon 6 or 7 of the first darts we met with. This alarm’d them so much that they all made off.”

The British pursued the Yuugu Gimithirr; “after some little unintelligible conversation had passed they laid down their darts, and came to us in a very friendly manner. We now return’d the Darts we had taken from them, which reconcil’d everything.”

The journal report then concludes, “all came along with us abreast of the Ship, where they stay’d a short time, and then went away, and soon after set the woods on fire about a Mile and a half or two Miles from us.” Descendants of the Yuugu Gimithirr recall, today, this encounter as a sign of reconciliation.

However, Cook appears to have omitted a significant detail at the critical point. Mark McKenna, an Australian historian, has explored this encounter by reading the journals of both Cook and of Banks, as well as interviewing descendants of the Yuugu Gimithirr, Alberta Hornsby and Eric Deeral. They told McKenna stories which have been passed down amongst their people. Those stories add other elements to the events that took place while the British and the Yuugu Gimithirr interacted.

(You can read a review of McKenna’s book, From the Edge, at http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/n4634/pdf/book_review03.pdf)

They claim this as an important historic event, as it is believed that this is the first recorded reconciliation between Europeans and Indigenous Australians ever. The explanation that Alberta Hornsby provides is fascinating, and revealing.

She tells McKenna the story she knows. Angered by several men who’d set fire to the grass where he’d left a “forge and a sow and a litter of young pigs,” Cook fired his musket, wounding an Aboriginal man, after which the men immediately retreated.

Seizing the spears that they had left behind, Cook and Banks were approached about an hour later by “a little old man” carrying a spear “without a point,” with several men brandishing spears walking only a few metres behind him. As he walked towards them, the old man halted several times, “collecting moisture from under his armpit with his finger” and drawing it “through his mouth.” Cook and Banks “beckoned him” to come closer.

At this point, the old man turned to his comrades, who “laid their lances against a tree.” Then, slowly, they all came forward to meet one another. After they exchanged gifts and greetings, Cook returned their spears, remarking later in his journal that this seemed to have “reconciled everything.”

Alberta Hornsby and her late uncle, Eric Deeral, have explained the story through Guugu Yimithirr law: how the old man, by drawing sweat from under his armpits and “blowing the sweat on his hands into the air,” was performing a ritual known as ngalangundaama, a call for “protection and calm.” In Guugu Yimithirr law, no blood was to be spilt on Waymburr, the land on which Cook had come ashore and fired his musket.

At last it was possible to understand the old man’s gesture of reconciliation from the perspective of the Guugu Yimithirr; it was a request for his law to be honoured and calm to be restored. For Alberta and Loretta, the story represents an inspiring moment of reconciliation; an historic moment in the history of this continent.

*****

I have written a series of blogs on the time that Cook sailed along the eastern seaboard of Australia, at:

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/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/29/three-canoes-lay-upon-the-beach-the-worst-i-think-i-ever-saw-james-cook-at-botany-bay-29-april-1770/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/17/we-weighd-and-run-into-the-harbour-cook-the-endeavour-and-the-guugu-yimithirr/

See also

https://www.nla.gov.au/digital-classroom/senior/Cook/Indigenous-Response/Mark-McKenna

https://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/endeavour-voyage/waalumbaal-birri-endeavour-river

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

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

“We weigh’d and run into the Harbour”. Cook, the Endeavour, and the Guugu Yimithirr

On 11 June 1770, Lt James Cook and his ship, HMS Endeavour, ran afoul of the Great Barrier Reef and seriously damage was done to the ship’s hull. To avoid sinking, all the crew and stores had to be offloaded in order to free the Endeavour from the reef.

42 year old Cook held the rank of Lieutenant at the time; he was to be promoted to Commander on his return to England in 1771, and then promoted to Post-Captain in 1775. (See https://www.captaincooksociety.com/home/captain-cook-society/faq)

Cook provides a dramatic account in his journal for that day, writing “Upon my sounding the 2nd time round the Ship I found the most water a Stern, and therefore had this Anchor carried out upon the Starboard Quarter, and hove upon it a very great Strain; which was to no purpose, the Ship being quite fast, upon which we went to work to lighten her as fast as possible, which seem’d to be the only means we had left to get her off.

“As we went ashore about the Top of High Water we not only started water, but threw overboard our Guns, Iron and Stone Ballast, Casks, Hoop Staves, Oil Jarrs, decay’d Stores, etc.; many of these last Articles lay in the way at coming at Heavier. All this time the Ship made little or no Water.

“At 11 a.m., being high Water as we thought, we try’d to heave her off without Success, she not being afloat by a foot or more, notwithstanding by this time we had thrown overboard 40 or 50 Tuns weight. As this was not found sufficient we continued to Lighten her by every method we could think off; as the Tide fell the ship began to make Water as much as two pumps could free: at Noon she lay with 3 or 4 Streakes heel to Starboard.”

Cook needed to find safe waters for his ship, so he sailed his damaged 368 ton vessel towards the closest river he could find. After trying for some days, he was eventually able to bring the ship into safety.

He wrote in his journal, on 17 June 1770: “Most part strong Gales at South-East, with some heavy showers of rain in the P.M. At 6 a.m., being pretty moderate, we weigh’d and run into the Harbour, in doing of which we run the Ship ashore Twice.

“The first time she went off without much Trouble, but the Second time she Stuck fast; but this was of no consequence any farther than giving us a little trouble, and was no more than what I expected as we had the wind. While the Ship lay fast we got down the Foreyard, Foretopmast, booms, etc., overboard, and made a raft of them alongside.”

The crew set camp and prepared to repair the hull of the ship. Cook’s stay in that harbour was to be his longest onshore stay for his entire voyage. It would not be until early August that he was able to put out to sea once more.

He later named the river “Endeavour” after his ship. It was the only river in Australia that he would name (he named bays, harbours, headlands, mountains—but only one river!). The town which was later established near this site is named Cooktown, in honour of Cook. The mountain that rises behind the river, would become Mount Cook, and the mountain next to it, Mount Saunders. The visit of Cook and his ship would be impressed into white understandings of history. It stands as a seminal moment in white Australian consciousness.

However, the place already had a name, known and used by the Guugu Yimithirr people, who had lived there for millennia: it was Gangaar. The river was Waalumbaal Birri, the mountain was Gaya, the nearby mountain was known as Milngaar. These were the names given and used by the Guugu Yimithirr.

And they called Cook and his men the Wangaar: ancestors who had returned to their descendants, ghostly white as they came from another realm. They perceived their arrival as some form of spiritual encounter. They were, initially, reverent, apprehensive, and deferential. These weeks would be remembered within their stories, passed down over the generations, as well.

(Here I am drawing from the fascinating account of the encounter at Gangaar constructed by historian Mark McKenna, in his book, From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories. See https://www.mup.com.au/books/from-the-edge-paperback-softback and a brief review at https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/2016/10/31/the-edge/14764500003843)

This was the sixth place where members of the Endeavour’s crew had set foot on the land of Australia: first at Botany Bay on 29 April, and then at locations which Cook named in his journal: Bustard Bay, Thirsty Sound, Cleveland Bay, and Cape Grafton. The names he gave are retained in contemporary Australian society. The names by which these places had been known throughout millennia of inhabitation by the indigenous peoples, are largely lost to our knowing today.

(On the impact of Cook’s names and the search to find the indigenous names of places further south on his journey, see my posts at 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/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/29/three-canoes-lay-upon-the-beach-the-worst-i-think-i-ever-saw-james-cook-at-botany-bay-29-april-1770/)

Today, 17 June, is when the Endeavour sailed into the safety of that river. It remained there for three weeks, as repairs were undertaken. During the time that the Endeavour was laid up, being repaired, Joseph Banks and others from the ship’s crew were diligently exploring the land, collecting botanical specimens. Banks recorded the sightings and the collections made in his journal.

Joseph Banks

A local tourist website portrays the significance of this time for tourists today, in this way:

“Banks and his team of botanists spent their whole time exploring and discovering many botanical and natural history wonders which were totally new to science at the time. Banks and Solander found a large portion of Endeavour’s East Coast botanical collection while here. They discovered many new species of insects, fish, bugs and butterflies.

Daniel Solander

“They saw, for the first time in this country, a crocodile, dingo, flying fox, and many species of lizards, snakes, fish and insects. The crew fished and collected giant clams and turtle for food. They found green vegetables and yams to supplement their diet.”

(http://www.cooktownandcapeyork.com/do/history/cookslanding)

One of Sydney Parkinson’s botanical drawings

Indeed, this period of time has imprinted itself into the Australian consciousness in another way. It was here, at Gangaar, that white men first saw a kangaroo. The unusual animal was duly shot and killed by the British, who then cooked and ate it. Sydney Parkinson, an artist working with Banks and Solander, drew a sketch of the animal.

Sydney Parkinson’s sketch of a ganguuru

Later, when contact with the Guugu Yimithirr people had progressed to a reasonable level of communication, the name of the animal was understood to be ganguuru—which has lived on in the Australian language as kangaroo. This was one of 130 words recorded by Parkinson, whose diligence has provided a documented collection of the basics of this language.

These three weeks thus have significance for the development of botanical understanding in the late 18th century, and for a unique contribution to the Australian language (and psyche).

But there was something else of great significance that took place during that period of three weeks, as the men of the Endeavour engaged in ongoing encounters with the Guugu Yimithirr people of that area.

And that’s another story for a later day ….

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/25/on-remembering-cook-and-flinders-and-trim-bungaree-and-yemmerrawanne/

Racism and Reconciliation

“I can’t breathe.” Three short words. Three words that shot around the world. “I can’t breathe.”

We all know who said that, and the circumstances that drew these words from his mouth. We all know that soon after he said this, George Floyd died. Another black man, dead, at the hands of a white police officer.

“Ah well, that was in America”, you might think. Yes, it was. And many other Afro-American people have died in similar circumstances, victims of what appears to be, quite simply racism. A shameful story. A shameful record. But in America. Not here. Not in Australia.

Except—not so fast! Because here, in Australia, we have recently been reminded, there are 434 people—black men and women, indigenous Australians—who have died whilst in police custody, since 1991. (That was the year when the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody ended.)

And one of the more recent people to die in such circumstances in Australia also uttered those words: “I can’t breathe.” (David Dungay, in 2015. And he said this phrase twelve times, before he died.)

So we Australians are not exempt from the shame of this racist record. Our very own nation has not yet found a way to address the systemic bias, the systematic persecution, of indigenous Australians. They are only 3% of our population, but they are represented amongst the prison population in numbers out of proportion to their presence in society.

And from all of those 434 deaths, after multiple enquiries, there have been—how many convictions? The sum total remains at zero.

What does this have to do with our faith? How does this impact on us as we go about our lives as followers of Jesus?

Last week, Dr Deidre Palmer, the President of the National Assembly of the Uniting Church, wrote:

“In the Bible, our sacred text, we hear God’s cry for justice for those who are living in poverty, those who are oppressed by unjust systems, those who are excluded and discriminated against.”

She went on to say:

“The Jesus we know from the Gospel stories, calls leaders to use their power in service to others, to call forth in others compassion, justice and kindness, unity and community. These are the leaders, we are called to be and that we need in the world today.”

Pastor Mark Kickett, the Interim National Chairperson of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, joined his voice on this issue, saying:

“It boggles the mind as to how such inhumanity continues to exist in the modern world in which we live, yet it still does.” He quoted the Prophet Amos: “Amos speaks very clearly in relation to this matter where he says; ‘But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream’” (Amos 5:24).

Our faith includes a clear call, for us to work so that we avoid perpetuating such injustices in our society. Our President said, in her Pastoral Letter for National Reconciliation week:

“We need to strengthen our actions for justice, healing and reconciliation. This is not an abstract call – it is seen expressed daily in our relationships with one another in this country.

It is seen when we:

• call out racism;

• tell the truth about the history of colonisation, dispossession and the undermining of First People’s culture, language and spirituality;

• advocate for First People’s voice to be heard in determining their future;

• respect and appreciate the culture and stories of First Peoples, and work together to deepen our relationships based on reconciliation that arises from justice, and leads to healing; and.

• live in harmony with the sacred land that we share.”

That is the challenge that sounds forth from our church leaders. That is the challenge that sits at the heart of the Gospel. As we live our lives by faith, following the way of Jesus, might we know also the claim that these words have on us.

We are called to stand firm for justice, to stand firm against injustice. We have a charge to call out racism, to call for reconciliation.

If that means that no black person in custody will then have to utter those tragic words, “I can’t breathe”—it will be worth taking that stand, making that call.

https://www.abc.net.au/religion/how-should-christians-respond-to-black-lives-matter/11173976

https://www.eternitynews.com.au/opinion/black-lives-matter-a-message-from-chris-mcleod-national-aboriginal-bishop/

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/jun/06/aboriginal-deaths-in-custody-434-have-died-since-1991-new-data-shows?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

See the links to the two pastoral letters from Uniting Church leaders at https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3196-pastoral-statement-racism-and-police-brutality

Saying sorry, seeking justice, walking together, working for reconciliation

Today is National Sorry Day. It stands at the head of National Reconciliation Week, which runs from 27 May to 3 June each year. This week was initiated in 1996 by Reconciliation Australia, to celebrate Indigenous history and culture in Australia and promote discussions and activities which would foster reconciliation.

The dates of National Reconciliation Week hold special historical significance. On 26 May 1997, the Bringing Them Home report was tabled in Federal Parliament. This report addressed them impacts of the fact that in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century, Australian government policies resulted in many Stolen Generations, in which thousands of Indigenous children were separated, often forcibly, from their families, with the aim of removing them from their culture and turning them into “white Australians”.

Because of this, the date 26 May carries great significance for the Stolen Generations, as well as for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and its supporters among non-indigenous Australians. So Sorry Day is an annual event that has been held around the continent on 26 May since 1998, to remember and commemorate the mistreatment of the country’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.

27 May marks the anniversary of the 1967 referendum in Australia, which gave the vote to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, while 3 June marks the anniversary of the 1992 judgement by the High Court on the Mabo v Queensland case.

Sorry Day (26 May) and the National Apology (made in Federal Parliament on 13 February 2008), the 1967 referendum, the 1992 Mabo decision, along with the Wik decision on native title (delivered by the High Court on 23 December 1996), are considered to be key events in addressing the historic mistreatment of indigenous Australians, and in taking steps towards reconciliation and restorative justice.

But these were only steps. The path still lies ahead. We need to take more steps, walking together, to foster deeper relationships, advocate for a more embedded restoration of justice, work for wider and more lasting reconciliation within our communities. We are in this together. May we tread that pathway with compassion and intent.

See https://www.reconciliation.org.au/national-reconciliation-week/

Click to access 150520-Sorry-Day.pdf

https://australianstogether.org.au/discover/australian-history/1967-referendum/

https://australianstogether.org.au/discover/australian-history/mabo-native-title/

The picture montage shows a Sorry Day poster, celebrations after the 1967 referendum, Eddie Mabo who brought the High Court case that was resolved in 1992, Gladys Tybingoompa dancing outside the high court in Canberra on 23 December 1996 following the Wik people’s native title win, and the front page of a national newspaper reporting the National Apology in 2008.

“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/