Black Lives Matter. Now—and Then.

#BlackLivesMatter. The importance of this hashtag has been highlighted in recent weeks.

First, it gained attention in the USA, where yet another incident of the unwarranted treatment of a black man and the resulting unjust death of that man, George Floyd, led to widespread protests, resistance, and riots across the country.

The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter originated in 2013, after Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager, was killed in an argument in Florida. The man charged with his order was acquitted, resulting in the community response that saw #BlackLivesMatter gain traction.

See https://www.adl.org/education/educator-resources/lesson-plans/black-lives-matter-from-hashtag-to-movement

The hashtag has also had prominence in Australia, especially in recent weeks. After the death in America of George Floyd, a black man killed while in police custody in Minneapolis in early June, the BLM movement became active once again. The widespread unrest in the USA was clearly evident.

Around the same time, reports in Australia were indicating that there were 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 there had been no conviction of anyone responsible for any of those deaths over all that time.

See my blog on this at https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/09/racism-and-reconciliation/

So #BlackLivesMatter. We know this now, in our own time. This movement has generated widespread public support. The Pew Research Centre in the USA has reported their recent findings, noting that “two-thirds of U.S. adults say they support the movement, with 38% saying they strongly support it”.

See https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/06/12/amid-protests-majorities-across-racial-and-ethnic-groups-express-support-for-the-black-lives-matter-movement/

All of this points to the need for ongoing, continuing, relentless lobbying, advocating for First Peoples, protesting injustices and working towards a more just situation in our society, today. Without question, this is a critical priority.

Alongside that, let me suggest the importance of remembering that #BlackLivesMatter when we turn to scripture, when we listen to the Bible being read in church or in Bible study groups, or when we open its pages ourselves and read the stories it contains. Do we imagine the skin colour of the people who are in these stories? Do we remember that the vast majority of them are dark-skinned?

Some years back, an enterprising forensic artist, Richard Neave, created a model of a Galilean man for a BBC documentary, “Son of God”. Neave took an actual skull found in the region (not claiming that it was actually the face of Jesus) and built a model of what the person might have looked like.

The end result was not the blue-eyed, blonde-haired, “gentle Jesus meek and mild” of traditional Sunday School storytelling. The darker colouring of the skin (historically accurate) caused controversy at the time (and still does, whenever I use it with groups). The aim was to prompt people to consider how Jesus was a man of his time and place—a darker-skinned Middle Eastern man.

See https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-general/reconstructing-jesus-using-science-flesh-out-face-religion-004942

There’s a more detailed discussion of “what did Jesus look like?” by Dr Joan Taylor, of Kings College London, at https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35120965

Just this week I came across a fascinating art project, seeking to depict the well-known characters of the Bible as the black-skinned Middle Easterners that they were. You can see the full gallery of art created by photographer James C. Lewis in the “Icons of the Bible” gallery at

https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/2-cornelius-lewis

Take some time to explore these images. As you do, remember that just as we know that #BlackLivesMatter now, today, so as we travel back in time, in our imaginations, into the world of the Bible, #BlackLivesMatter in those stories. We learn from these tales about these ancient black people. We gain guidance for living as faithful disciples today from these dark-skinned people of these ancient stories.

#BlackLivesMatter. Now—and Then.

Paul’s vision of “One in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28) and the Uniting Church

A sermon on the anniversary of the Uniting Church (for the Project Reconnect resource)

Galatians 3:23–27

On 22 June every year, across this continent, people gather to celebrate the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia. Today, rather than address the passages set in the lectionary, I want to turn to a section of one of Paul’s letters, from our New Testament. It’s from the latter part of chapter 3 of his letter to the church in Galatia.

It is good to have this passage as our focus. It speaks to who we want to be, together, as the church. It is a word for our times. In fact, I think that this passage could well express the fundamental calling of the Uniting Church.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written in the midst of an intense and ferocious debate within the early movement that had been started by Jesus. It was a time of great transition. Things were changing. Old practices were being challenged. New practices were being proposed.

In Galatians, those who advocated Circumcision came under criticism. In that place, as in many other places where the good news of the Jesus movement had been proclaimed, baptism was being proposed as a new ritual, to mark the new faith of the growing numbers of the followers of Jesus.

The argument about circumcision has behind it the issue as to how much, or how little, of the Jewish Law should apply to believers within that movement – those whom we now call the early Christians. This was an incredibly contentious issue at the time, which caused much dispute. Galatians is a letter that was created in the heat of this intense debate; so, at many points, it bears more evidence of rash fury than it does of considered reflection.

Paul’s language in Galatians is ferocious. He accuses the Galatian believers of being fools who have been bewitched by deceivers; he accuses them of biting and devouring one another; he criticises them for urging Gentile converts to be circumcised and to adopt full adherence to the Torah. This is no gentle, reflective spiritual meditation; this is full-on partisan polemics!

And yet, right within the midst of this turbulent flow of argument and disputation, we come across comments that provide cause for reflection; ideas that do invite deeper consideration; insights that do offer the opportunity for spiritual growth to those who would read, ponder, and reflect.

One of these passages is just two well-known verses from the third chapter of this letter: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27–28).

Here, Paul sets out a vision for people of faith; a vision for believers within community; we would say, a vision for the church. It could well be our central mission statement, as the Uniting Church in Australia, for we so much value grace-filled inclusiveness, we so strongly reject divisive and judgemental stances, we so yearn to live in accord with this grand vision, where all belong to a welcoming and loving community.

The vision of the church for Paul is one of harmony, concord, unity. Paul envisages great changes within the community of faith, because of Jesus. If the reality failed to achieve this change, nevertheless the vision stood firm; Paul envisaged a community that would bring together strikingly disparate opposites.

In this community, the religious differences of Jew and Gentile would matter no more; the different levels of social status, of people living in freedom and those serving as slaves, would become irrelevant; and the societal roles and expectations associated with the gender of a person —  male or female – would no longer function as dominant. These three conditions of difference would melt away, within the community of faith, into a cohesive unity of co-operation and interconnection. This was a huge change to took place all those centuries ago.

Indeed, as we ponder these three key instances of the way in which difference would disappear, we might even push it further: is this vision not simply one for the church, but even one for society as a whole? Might it be that the vision, the hope, which Paul set out in his letter to the Galatians, could be brought about within the patterns of living and relating right across his society? Was Paul passionate, not only about partisan points of religious practice, but also – and more significantly – about visionary ideals for human society as a whole?

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” – this unity within the church might well become a model for harmony within society. Certainly, that is the way that the church has interpreted this statement in the centuries since Paul wrote it.

The church of the late first century continued the battle begun in the time of Paul; over time, Jews and gentiles were equally welcomed within most of the faith communities of the ancient world.

The church of the Enlightenment was at the forefront of the movement to end the slave trade, to enable black Africans to live unhindered by white masters seeking to profit from selling them as slaves.

And the western church from the later part of the 20th century has been active alongside many other community organisations to ensure that the opportunities available to women were not less than those available to men.

In each of these battles, the church at large has understood Paul’s words to the Galatians to be words for both the church, and for the society as a whole. It is a grand vision. May it be a reality for you, in your community of faith, and amongst the people of the place where you live, sleep, eat, work, and rest.

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27–28).

+++++++

Some questions to consider:

What did you find to be the most significant idea in this message?

Can you describe a time when you experienced the “unity in Christ” that Paul wrote about?

In what way does your congregation today model the vision of inclusive acceptance for all that Paul wrote about?

In what way might you be able to show that vision to the people where you live, sleep, eat, work, and rest?

To read more on the distinctive contributions of the Uniting Church to Australian society, you may wish to read my blogs at https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/18/the-dna-of-the-uca-part-i/ and https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/18/the-dna-of-the-uca-part-ii/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/15/what-i-really-like-about-the-basis-of-union/ and https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/20/alongside-the-basis-of-union-there-was-the-statement-to-the-nation/

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/

“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/

This is the proper way: no climbing

34 years ago today, on 26 October 1985, Uluru was handed back to the Anangu peoples, the Traditional Custodians. On that day, the Governor-General, Sir Ninian Stephen, ceremonially handed over title for the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park to the Anangu peoples.

Now, 34 years later, as from today, 26 October 2019, Uluru will no longer be able to be climbed. The Anangu peoples have for a long time, decades even, asked visitors not to climb this sacred place. Now, that has come to be.

It is believed the first European explorer to climb Uluru was an Englishman, William Christie Gosse, in 1873. However, as there are no specific records for this, the first climb actually recorded climb was in 1936, with the introduction of tourism to the region.

Since the 1950s when records were first kept, there have been a total of 37 fatalities on the treacherous climb. The most recent fatality was on 4 July 2018, when a 76 year old Japanese tourist collapsed when he was attempting to ascend one of the steepest parts of the climb. There hadn’t been a death on the Uluru climb before this since 2010, when a 54-year old Victorian man collapsed while attempting to reach the top.

In 1966, after two fatalities occurred in 1964, a chain was installed along a portion of the climb, without consultation or consent from the Traditional Owners. The chain was upgraded and ultimately completed in 1976. What will happen with the chain, posts and landmark cairn installed on top of Uluru after the closure of the climb is yet to be determined.

(I obtained this information from https://www.ayersrockresort.com.au/uluru-and-kata-tjuta/uluru-and-kata-tjuta-national-park/can-i-climb-uluru)

The First People of the area are the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people, the traditional landowners of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. In their language, they call themselves Anangu. The landscape of the region is closely related to a series of stories from their heritage. What can be told in public about these stories can be found at https://parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru/discover/culture/stories/.

On the website of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, the Anangu people have said this about climbing Uluru:

We Anangu have a responsibility to teach and safeguard visitors to our land. The climb can be dangerous. Too many people have died while attempting to climb Uluru. Many others have been injured while climbing. We feel great sadness when a person dies or is hurt on our land. We worry about you and we worry about your family. Our traditional law teaches us the proper way to behave.

See https://parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru/discover/culture/uluru-climb/

And they offer these words, from Kunmanara, a traditional owner:

“That’s a really important sacred thing that you are climbing… You shouldn’t climb. It’s not the real thing about this place. And maybe that makes you a bit sad. But anyway that’s what we have to say. We are obliged by Tjukurpa to say. And all the tourists will brighten up and say, ‘Oh I see. This is the right way. This is the thing that’s right. This is the proper way: no climbing’.”

(Tjukurpa is the traditional law, stories and spirituality of the Anangu)

See https://parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru/discover/culture/uluru-climb/

Where will we find hope? When will we see justice?

There are people in some of the Congregations of the Presbytery where I am currently serving in ministry, who will be finding the events of the next three weeks a challenge. They will be looking for hope, and seeking for justice. People from my Congregation at Queanbeyan, and people in the Goulburn Parish, will especially be impacted.

Today at Queanbeyan, the Prayers of the People were led by Marg Cotton, who invited members of the Congregation to pray for these people.

i invite you to join with her and the people today who prayed:

Lord God, we come before you today

seeking to make sense of a world

where there are many contradictions.

Bad things happen to the young and the innocent.

Wrongdoers prosper and seem to have

no remorse for the havoc they cause.

Sometimes it seems that there is no justice,

and that inequality and incivility are increasing at an exponential rate.

We make the effort to build a respectful

and hopeful community,

but the work of a lifetime can seem fragile

and doesn’t seem to be able to survive

without our continuing vigilance.

Misunderstood and misunderstanding,

we ponder our next steps.

Like the people in Jeremiah,

we feel cut off from your fountains of living water

and all we can see the is the cracked cistern

that can hold no water at all.

Where will we find hope?

When will we see justice?

Teach us, Lord, how we should be acting

in the current circumstances.

Let us first turn to you in humility

and recognise our need to be remade

and refreshed by you.

Come Lord and show us the path to take.

On this first day of spring

give us hope for the future

and a sense of purpose and optimism.

With the coming of spring

there is the hope of new life.

Help us to be ready to grow

and work together in this new season,

to hear your plans for us

and act to bring them into being.

In the name of Christ, we pray: Amen.

International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

Today, 9 August, has been designated since 1982 by the United Nations as International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. This year’s observance is dedicated to Indigenous Peoples’ Languages, since 2019 is being marked as the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

A person’s right to use his or her chosen language is a prerequisite for freedom of thought, opinion and expression, access to education and information, employment, building inclusive societies, and other values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Many of us take it for granted that we can conduct our lives in our home languages without any constraints or prejudice. But this is not the case for everyone. Of the almost 7,000 existing languages, the majority have been created and are spoken by indigenous peoples who represent the greater part of the world’s cultural diversity. 

Yet many of these languages are disappearing at an alarming rate, as the communities speaking them are confronted with assimilation, enforced relocation, educational disadvantage, poverty, illiteracy, migration and other forms of discrimination and human rights.

It is estimated that, every 2 weeks, an indigenous language disappears, placing at risk the respective indigenous cultures and knowledge systems. That is why, on this International Day, the goal is to draw attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote them at both national and international levels.

It is believed that there were more than 250 Indigenous Australian languages, as well as 800 local dialectal varieties, which were spoken on the continent of Australia at the time of European settlement in 1788. Today, only 13 of those traditional Indigenous languages are still acquired by children. Approximately another hundred or so are spoken to various degrees by older generations, with many of these languages at risk as Elders pass away.

A map indicative of the language groups across the continent (in the image above) was created in 1994 to illustrate the diversity of Indigenous cultures across the continent. It includes many language groups but is not definitive in this regard; it provides a visual representation of that cultural diversity. The map was developed along with the Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia as part of a national research project. The Encyclopedia is available in libraries and contains more detailed information about the groups represented on the map.

Today Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia are speaking out about the need to maintain, preserve and strengthen Indigenous Australian languages. There is currently a wave of activity, with people in many communities working to learn more about their languages, and to ensure they are passed on to the next generation.

An important resource for the preservation and revival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages is the Australian Indigenous Languages Collection maintained by AIATSIS. The collection brings together over 4500 items such as children’s’ readers, bible translations, dictionaries, grammars, vocabularies, works of imagination and learning kits in 200 languages. The collection’s significance was recognised in 2009 when it was added to the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register.

Approximately 20 dictionaries of Australian Indigenous languages are being supported through the end of production cycle. This includes what will become an iconic Warlpiri encyclopedic dictionary, based on 60 years of research by teams of speakers and linguists, to support language maintenance in that community, and a facsimile edition of The Sydney Language (1993), to support language awareness and revival of the language which the First Fleet first encountered in 1788.

In 2016, then Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull made history by being the first Prime Minister to speak an Australian Indigenous language in a parliamentary speech. He gave an acknowledgment of country in Ngunawal for the annual Closing the Gap speech. The acknowledgment was written by Ngunawal men Tyronne Bell and Glen Freeman, with assistance from AIATSIS linguist Doug Marmion. This is particularly significant as the Ngunawal language has not been spoken fluently for almost a century, but AIATSIS has been working with the Ngunawal community for several years to revitalise it.

****

I have taken the above information from these websites:

https://www.un.org/en/events/indigenousday/

https://en.iyil2019.org/international-day-of-the-worlds-indigenous-peoples-9-august-2019/

https://en.iyil2019.org/role-of-language/

https://en.iyil2019.org

https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/indigenous-australian-languages

https://aiatsis.gov.au/collections/about-collection/languages

https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/aiatsis-map-indigenous-australia

https://aiatsis.gov.au/news-and-events/blog/indigenous-languages-australian-parliaments

https://aiatsis.gov.au

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330293198_The_Encyclopaedia_of_Aboriginal_Australia

https://australianarchaeologicalassociation.com.au/journal/review-of-encyclopaedia-of-aboriginal-australia-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-history-society-and-culture-edited-by-d-horton/