Thursday, 11 October 2007

A Fringe Of Leaves

edited 16/10/07

LIEUTENANT James Cook made three mistakes on his voyage up the east coast of Australia. The first, though last chronologically, was the trial of Cape Tribulation, when his vessel the HMB Endeavour collided with the Great Barrier Reef. Second, though perhaps the most staggering, was his complete and utter failure to discover Sydney. That honour is bestowed upon Governor Arthur Phillip, who realized that Cook’s original landing site, Botany Bay, was entirely unsuitable for establishing a colony. His third mistake was failing to realize that Fraser Island is in fact an island. Naming it the Great Sandy Peninsula, he sailed by unaware of it being the largest sand island in the world.

When he passed the northern edge of the island, a group of the local Butchulla Aboriginal peoples climbed a rocky headland to watch his bemusing ship sail by. As a result, Cook named the point Indian Head. Today there are no Aboriginal people on Fraser Island, for they were rounded up and relocated by Aboriginal Missions, although some groups do continue to visit certain campsites. Indian Head, from being a place of gathering - at least for one day in 1770 - has now become a headland that is out of bounds for aboriginal tribes. This is because after white people began to inhabit the island, they rounded up 100 natives, marched them up the hill at gunpoint and forced them to jump to their deaths. If they refused they would be shot. Understandably it is now a place of bad memories and innate fear.

This tale exemplifies the complete contrast in aboriginal relations since the arrival of Europeans on Australia. For some explorers they were friends and people of immense intrigue, and for some they were enemies from the start. Sadly this did often reflect the colour of their skin.

The Dutch mariner Jan Carstensz arrived at Cape York in 1623. His diaries retell the kidnap and murder of two native individuals, for no other reason than desire to do so. William Dampier too called the inhabitants of Western Australia as the “miserablest people in the world… and, setting aside their human shape, they differ little from brutes.” In a later account he reformed his opinion, feeling remorse for a skirmish his crew had had with a local tribe – but he never attempted to stop the attack, himself shooting one the the local men. William de Vlamingh kidnapped two “black swans” aboard the Geelvinck, and even Sir Joseph Banks (he of the Royal Society) feared the natives upon first arrival, preferring to drown rather than to sail ashore and being unable to defend himself without arms from the ‘Indians’.

However Banks was won over, recounting in his diaries days when curious Aborigines sailed to their stricken vessel, sharing foods and displaying for their entertainment. Captain Watkin Tench also, a member of the First Fleet, mounted an expedition inland and befriended a group of aboriginal doctors. Upon leaving they “bade us adieu, in unabated friendship and good humour.” John Wilson, an Irish convict-turned explorer, left European society to join the Aborigines after serving his time. Governer Phillip was so impressed with the attitudes of a local group of Aborigines he named the region Manly, a name that stands today.

Aboriginal relations have always been fraught with tension, perhaps influenced by myth and suspicion. They were not helped therefore, by the tales and stories of one Eliza Fraser, for whom Fraser Island is named. Shipwrecked off the coast, the Aborigines claim to have cared and nurtured for her before she made her own way back to the mainland; she claims she was kidnapped, taken into slavery and that her husband was speared in the back and murdered by a violent tribe. Her story earned her fame and fortune, but she never told the same story twice, the details becoming more melodramatic with every telling. It is largely believed therefore that she was lying. The story led to a fierce dislike of Aboriginal peoples, and sadly bloodshed has frequently followed as a result.

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