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First Contact

As the first Englishman to encounter Australian Aborigines, William Dampier instilled in other Englishmen’s minds the preconceptions about these people when he wrote that they were “the miserablest [sic] people in the world” (Donaldson and Donaldson, 1985:37). Banks and Cook were strongly influenced by Dampier’s writing, to which Cook added “the worst I think I ever saw” (Donaldson and Donaldson, 1985:37). The preconceptions had germinated by 1788, and the Eurocentric view towards Aborigines was neither innocent or neutral.

Contrary of course were the Aboriginal views. Opposite to English preconceptions, the Aborigines were attempting to relate to the inexplicable and apply cultural comprehension to their encounters with the advancing Europeans.

This post draws on selected features of three such contact periods between Aborigines and the English:

  • With James Cook (1770): lasting impressions
  • Arthur Phillip’s party (1788): superiority and sex
  • The colonial period from 1788 – 1790: dispossession.

Encounters with Cook

To the people on the shores of Fraser Island, the sighting of the Endeavour as it sailed past heralded great excitement – and significance. As the ship sank into the horizon and took with it the pale men on board, the local Aborigines drew connotations to the event with beliefs in their own customs. The pale skin – was symbolic of a corpse ready for burial; sinking into the horizon – was like a burial; and the mere presence of the Europeans – was an omen of ghosts returning.

To those on board the Endeavour this passing moment left no impression of excitement or significance: they had encountered Aborigines before, and as then, such passions were not stirred. In 1770 at Botany Bay, Cook and Banks accepted the Aborigines as Dampier had earlier reported: ‘the miserablest [sic] people in the world’ (Donaldson and Donaldson, 1985:37). Cook and Banks themselves were to add ‘naked and treacherous’ (Bourke et al, 1994:4): a collection of cowardly, unfriendly and vindictive savages belonging to the lowest order in creation. Such reports were to confirm the European concept of the ‘Great Chain of Being:’

Those newly arrived … did not see any positive attributes among the Aboriginal people and believed in their own superiority. The land was declared terra nullius … and the various Aboriginal nations declared uncivilised. (Bourke et al, 1994:4).

The ‘ghosts’ were to return in 1788.

Governor Phillip

On 26th January 1788, the history of European-Aboriginal interactions began as the British flag was raised at Port Jackson. A ‘history,’ reflects Edwards, ‘that treated Aboriginal people as little more than impediments standing briefly in the way of inevitable white progress across the nation’ (Edwards, 1988:111). But the features of the 26th – and the surrounding days – were to carry no indication of this.

Governor Phillip and others – as noted – brought their preconceptions about Aborigines and also their intentions of their future. They were, after all, now part of Australia’s past, yet an acquaintance of confidence and friendship was to be cultivated by the ‘superior’ Europeans. These are important considerations to be kept in mind while discussing European interpretations or recordings of this period.

Contemporary writers offer a picture that suggests that in January, 1788 amicable relations between the Europeans and the Aborigines were established with comparative ease. Among them, Bradley wrote liberally of pleasant interactions; mutual curiosity; the offering and exchanging of gifts and the Aborigine’s friendly and inquisitive nature. (Bradley, 1969:1-9). ‘They will soon discover that we are not their enemies’ wrote Hunter, who also noted that the Aborigines were treating the whites as their equals: joining them in song and dance and playful imitation. (Cited in Kohen, 1993:48-49). In the art of dispossession – a perfect platform from which to launch a colonial stranglehold.

These pleasantries had a two-fold purpose: apart from planting the seeds of dispossession it was also a means to foster female exploitation. ‘Conquest of Aboriginal women was an anticipated part of the colonisation of Terra Australis.’ (Russell and White, 1994:28).

British gentlemen in the late eighteenth century believed it was natural to follow their sexual urges … and ‘native’ women were understood to be freely available to men travelling and establishing colonies.

The colonist’s perceptions of Aboriginal women remain one of the most fascinating features of this contact period. ‘They savoured the tantalising combination of nudity and timidity’ (Russell and White, 1994:34), which their ‘superior’ minds equated to primitiveness: ‘inseparable from the female characteristics in its rudest state’ (Tench, cited in Russell and White, 1994:36). Yet they were still highly attracted to the women and busied themselves in acts of chivalrous seduction. It is one of those moments in history that one regrets not witnessing: the amusing sight of European gentlemen offering handkerchiefs – the symbol of chivalry – in excited anticipation to the Aboriginal ‘temptress.’

Gender relations were also important to the Aborigines, though for different reasons. Their first impressions of the Europeans were similar to those of the Fraser Islanders: their pale-skin likening them to spirits of the dead. Such impressions require cultural description: ‘Why are they covered in plumes as elaborate and bright as a bird’s?’ ‘Perhaps they are half-cockatoo?’ ‘Are they men or women?’ The latter is of significance, because it soon became evident that these pale-skinned people were not ghosts. They were strangers.

In these initial encounters it is significant that the Aboriginal men’s first vital enquiry related to gender. Gender specificity was crucial to Aboriginal diplomacy. It determined both their behaviour towards and their expectations of the strangers.

Eager to know the stranger’s sex, the Aboriginal men beckoned a response from the Europeans to disclose their gender. Upon being identified as men also, the Aborigines responded with an approving shout. The reasons for this approval were never recorded, but there are theories based on known traditions: The Aboriginal reaction may have been to persuade Aboriginal women to meet the British men. In many parts of Australia, a male-negotiated offer of women to outsiders is a sign of peace and hospitality.

Perhaps, at the time, the outsiders were welcome as visitors.


Within a few short years they had overstayed their welcome. In acts of ‘savagery’ they felled trees, cleared the ground, gouged the earth, and displayed barbarity by disturbing Aboriginal graves and sacred sights. The clearing of land had always met with Aboriginal resistance, but these increased depredations were a sign that the Aborigines were also no longer welcome in their own land. Further:

As Aboriginal people … had nothing the invader wanted but their land, the official attempts to maintain diplomatic relations with them were abandoned. (Kociumbas, 1992:55).

The land ‘grab’ in these early years engulfed the fertile Hawkesbury and Nepean River regions west of Sydney. These areas provided a livelihood for Aboriginal people by being rich in food resources, but they were also excellent farming regions for the Europeans who ruthlessly and violently drove out the Aborigines. Facing starvation from depleted food sources and being physically displaced from traditional lands, the Aboriginal resistance to the farming expansion was not passive. White responses to the ‘savage’s’ reprisals leave no doubt as to who the real savages were. Following one particular incident in 1790 which resulted in the death of a white man:

The Governor [Phillip] ordered a party of military to shoot any six Aborigines and bring back their heads in bags, as well as take two alive for hanging. (Kociumbas, 1992:55).

Dispossession took more devastating forms other than the farming expansion or forced removal. The introduced diseases such as smallpox had more impact on the Aboriginal population than any human agency, which by as early as 1789 had decimated the numbers in the Sydney and Hawkesbury regions. By 1791, the traditional lands were littered with the bodies of dead or dying Aborigines.

Kohen sums up the legacy of this colonial period:

In the space of three short years … [the local Aborigines] had been exposed to terrible diseases which wiped out entire clans, had been prevented from gathering their traditional foods, and were now being prevented from travelling across their own land. (Kohen, 1993:59).

And so the tone was set.


Bourke, C; Bourke, E; and Edwards, B. (1994). Editors Aboriginal Australians. University of South Australia.

Bradley, W. (1969). A voyage to New South Wales: the journal of lieutenant Bradley RN of HMS Sirius 1786-1792. Public Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

Broome, R. (1982). Aboriginal Australians. Allen and Unwin, North Sydney, NSW.

Donaldson, I; and Donaldson, T. (1985). Seeing the first Australians. George Allen and Unwin, Sydney, NSW.

Edwards, W.H. (1988). An introduction to Aboriginal societies. Social Science Press, Wentworth Falls, NSW.

Evans, R; and Walker, J. (1977). “These strangers, where are they going?” Aboriginal – European relations in the Fraser Island and Wide Bay region 1770-1905 in Occasional papers in anthropology, number 8, pages 39-105.

Kociumbas, B. (1992). The Oxford history of Australia volume 2: possessions 1770-1860. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Kohen, J. (1993). The Darug and their neighbours: the traditional Aboriginal owners of the Sydney region. Darug Link: Blacktown and District Historical Society, NSW.

McGrath, A. (1995). editor Contested ground. Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, NSW.

Russell, P; and White, R. (1994). editors Pastiche 1: reflections on nineteenth century Australia. Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, NSW.


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  1. Phil Pryor

    Always good to return, revise, rethink, with some bitterness about what agony existed behind the orthodox recording. We taught a history shaped by the syllabus, program, texts, and students had to face public exams, so, little “rocking of a boat” occurred. My studies under Russel Ward and some others made for some early rethinks, and today, one can find more resources, use material to re-evaluate. There is bitterness to come yet, hostility. Keep on…

  2. New England Cocky

    Uhm ….. Michael, have you joined the Black Arm Band Revisionists of Little Johnnie Howard’s thinking?? For example,
    1) ”The land was declared terra nullius” – this dates from a much later Court decision in Queensland about 1870. It certainly was NOT a consideration for Phillip in 1788.
    2) ”British gentlemen in the late eighteenth century believed it was natural to follow their sexual urges … and ‘native’ women were understood to be freely available to men travelling and establishing colonies.”

    Indeed, it was the Toongabbie ”massacre” of about 1789 (?) when two English persons abducted and repeatedly raped two Aboriginal women that led to the demise of those Poms and Phillip consenting to a ”shoot on sight policy” against Aborigines.

    For the record … in parts of regional NSW the European ”lords” continued these traditions well into the 20th century.
    3) The deliberate introduction of diseases for which Aborigines had no natural resistance was widely used in regional Australia after the American Civil War (1859-1865) had demonstrated the high death toll of American Indian populations.

    4) Have you considered referring to some earlier authorities that referred to historical documents, rather than writing the Black Armband History of their fertile racist imaginations?
    5) The history of English contact with Aborigines is not pretty and goes on to become state sponsored genocide thanks to Isaacs CJ (1906). Tell it as it happened rather than as you would like to assume the good English gentlemen behaved.

    There is certainly sufficient first hand documentary evidence, like Bloomfield, ”Baal Balboa, The End of the Dancing” and at least three other books based directly on first hand accounts of Aboriginal slaughters that went without justice being served.

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