The Expedition to Botany Bay, by Watkin Tench


A Description of the Natives of New South Wales, and our Transactions with them.

I doubt not my readers will be as glad as I feel myself, to conclude the dull detail of the last chapter. If they please, they may turn from the subtle intricacies of the law, to contemplate the simple, undisguised workings of nature, in her most artless colouring.

I have already said, we had been but very few days at Port Jackson, when an alteration in the behaviour of the natives was perceptible; and I wish I could add, that a longer residence in their neighbourhood had introduced a greater degree of cordiality and intermixture between the old, and new, lords of the soil, than at the day on which this publication is dated subsists.

From their easy reception of us in the beginning, many were induced to call in question the accounts which Mr. Cook had given of this people. That celebrated navigator, we were willing believe, had somehow by his conduct offended them, which prevented the intercourse that would otherwise have taken place. The result, however, of our repeated endeavours to induce them to come among us has been such as to confirm me in an opinion, that they either fear or despise us too much, to be anxious for a closer connection. And I beg leave at once, to apprize the reader, that all I can here, or in any future part of this work, relate with fidelity of the natives of New South Wales, must be made up of detached observations, taken at different times, and not from a regular series of knowledge of the customs and manners of a people, with whom opportunities of communication are so scarce, as to have been seldom obtained.

In their persons, they are far from being a stout race of men, though nimble, sprightly, and vigorous. The deficiency of one of the fore teeth of the upper jaw, mentioned by Dampier, we have seen in almost the whole of the men; but their organs of sight so far from being defective, as that author mentions those of the inhabitants of the western side of the continent to be, are remarkably quick and piercing. Their colour, Mr. Cook is inclined to think rather a deep chocolate, than an absolute black, though he confesses, they have the appearance of the latter, which he attributes to the greasy filth their skins are loaded with. Of their want of cleanliness we have had sufficient proofs, but I am of opinion, all the washing in the world would not render them two degrees less black than an African negro. At some of our first interviews, we had several droll instances of their mistaking the Africans we brought with us for their own countrymen.

Notwithstanding the disregard they have invariably shewn for all the finery we could deck them with, they are fond of adorning themselves with scars, which increase their natural hideousness. It is hardly possible to see any thing in human shape more ugly, than one of these savages thus scarified, and farther ornamented with a fish bone struck through the gristle of the nose. The custom of daubing themselves with white earth is also frequent among both sexes: but, unlike the inhabitants of the Islands in the Pacific Ocean, they reject the beautiful feathers which the birds of their country afford.

Exclusive of their weapons of offence, and a few stone hatchets very rudely fashioned, their ingenuity is confined to manufacturing small nets, in which they put the fish they catch, and to fish-hooks made of bone, neither of which are unskilfully executed. On many of the rocks are also to be found delineations of the figures of men and birds, very poorly cut.

Of the use or benefit of cloathing, these people appear to have no comprehension, though their sufferings from the climate they live in, strongly point out the necessity of a covering from the rigour of the seasons. Both sexes, and those of all ages, are invariably found naked. But it must not be inferred from this, that custom so inures them to the changes of the elements, as to make them bear with indifference the extremes of heat and cold; for we have had visible and repeated proofs, that the latter affects them severely, when they are seen shivering, and huddling themselves up in heaps in their huts, or the caverns of the rocks, until a fire can be kindled.

Than these huts nothing more rude in construction, or deficient in conveniency, can be imagined. They consist only of pieces of bark laid together in the form of an oven, open at one end, and very low, though long enough for a man to lie at full length. There is reason, however, to believe, that they depend less on them for shelter, than on the caverns with which the rocks abound.

To cultivation of the ground they are utter strangers, and wholly depend for food on the few fruits they gather; the roots they dig up in the swamps; and the fish they pick up along shore, or contrive to strike from their canoes with spears. Fishing, indeed, seems to engross nearly the whole of their time, probably from its forming the chief part of a subsistence, which, observation has convinced us, nothing short of the most painful labour, and unwearied assiduity, can procure. When fish are scarce, which frequently happens, they often watch the moment of our hauling the seine, and have more than once been known to plunder its contents, in spite of the opposition of those on the spot to guard it: and this even after having received a part of what had been caught. The only resource at these times is to shew a musquet, and if the bare sight is not sufficient, to fire it over their heads, which has seldom failed of dispersing them hitherto, but how long the terror which it excites may continue is doubtful.

The canoes in which they fish are as despicable as their huts, being nothing more than a large piece of bark tied up at both ends with vines. Their dexterous management of them, added to the swiftness with which they paddle, and the boldness that leads them several miles in the open sea, are, nevertheless, highly deserving of admiration. A canoe is seldom seen without a fire in it, to dress the fish by, as soon as caught: fire they procure by attrition.

From their manner of disposing of those who die, which will be mentioned hereafter, as well as from every other observation, there seems no reason to suppose these people cannibals; nor do they ever eat animal substances in a raw state, unless pressed by extreme hunger, but indiscriminately broil them, and their vegetables, on a fire, which renders these last an innocent food, though in their raw state many of them are of a poisonous quality: as a poor convict who unguardedly eat of them experienced, by falling a sacrifice in twenty-four hours afterwards. If bread be given to the Indians, they chew and spit it out again, seldom choosing to swallow it. Salt beef and pork they like rather better, but spirits they never could be brought to taste a second time.

The only domestic animal they have is the dog, which in their language is called Dingo, and a good deal resembles the fox dog of England. These animals are equally shy of us, and attached to the natives. One of them is now in the possession of the Governor, and tolerably well reconciled to his new master. As the Indians see the dislike of the dogs to us, they are sometimes mischievous enough to set them on single persons whom they chance to meet in the woods. A surly fellow was one day out shooting, when the natives attempted to divert themselves in this manner at his expense. The man bore the teazing and gnawing of the dog at his heels for some time, but apprehending at length, that his patience might embolden them to use still farther liberties, he turned round and shot poor Dingo dead on the spot: the owners of him set off with the utmost expedition.

There is no part of the behaviour of these people, that has puzzled us more, than that which relates to their women. Comparatively speaking we have seen but few of them, and those have been sometimes kept back with every symptom of jealous sensibility; and sometimes offered with every appearance of courteous familiarity. Cautious, however, of alarming the feelings of the men on so tender a point, we have constantly made a rule of treating the females with that distance and reserve, which we judged most likely to remove any impression they might have received of our intending aught, which could give offence on so delicate a subject. And so successful have our endeavours been, that a quarrel on this head has in no instance, that I know of, happened. The tone of voice of the women, which is pleasingly soft and feminine, forms a striking contrast to the rough guttural pronunciation of the men. Of the other charms of the ladies I shall be silent, though justice obliges me to mention, that, in the opinion of some amongst us, they shew a degree of timidity and bashfulness, which are, perhaps, inseparable from the female character in its rudest state. It is not a little singular, that the custom of cutting off the two lower joints of the little finger of the left hand, observed in the Society Islands, is found here among the women, who have for the most part undergone this amputation. Hitherto we have not been able to trace out the cause of this usage. At first we supposed it to be peculiar to the married women, or those who had borne children; but this conclusion must have been erroneous, as we have no right to believe that celibacy prevails in any instance, and some of the oldest of the women are without this distinction; and girls of a very tender age are marked by it.

On first setting foot in the country, we were inclined to hold the spears of the natives very cheap. Fatal experience has, however, convinced us, that the wound inflicted by this weapon is not a trivial one; and that the skill of the Indians in throwing it, is far from despicable. Besides more than a dozen convicts who have unaccountably disappeared, we know that two, who were employed as rush cutters up the harbour, were (from what cause we are yet ignorant) most dreadfully mangled and butchered by the natives. A spear had passed entirely through the thickest part of the body of one of them, though a very robust man, and the skull of the other was beaten in. Their tools were taken away, but some provisions which they had with them at the time of the murder, and their cloaths, were left untouched. In addition to this misfortune, two more convicts, who were peaceably engaged in picking of greens, on a spot very remote from that where their comrades suffered, were unawares attacked by a party of Indians, and before they could effect their escape, one of them was pierced by a spear in the hip, after which they knocked him down, and plundered his cloaths. The poor wretch, though dreadfully wounded, made shift to crawl off, but his companion was carried away by these barbarians, and his fate doubtful, until a soldier, a few days afterwards, picked up his jacket and hat in a native’s hut, the latter pierced through by a spear. We have found that these spears are not made invariably alike, some of them being barbed like a fish gig, and others simply pointed. In repairing them they are no less dexterous than in throwing them. A broken one being given by a gentleman to an Indian, he instantly snatched up an oyster-shell, and converted it with his teeth into a tool with which he presently fashioned the spear, and rendered it fit for use: in performing this operation, the sole of his foot served him as a work-board. Nor are their weapons of offence confined to the spear only, for they have besides long wooden swords, shaped like a sabre, capable of inflicting a mortal wound, and clubs of an immense size. Small targets, made of the bark of trees, are likewise now and then to be seen among them.

From circumstances which have been observed, we have sometimes been inclined to believe these people at war with each other. They have more than once been seen assembled, as if bent on an expedition. An officer one day met fourteen of them marching along in a regular Indian file through the woods, each man armed with a spear in his right hand, and a large stone in his left: at their head appeared a chief, who was distinguished by being painted. Though in the proportion of five to one of our people they passed peaceably on.

That their skill in throwing the spear sometimes enables them to kill the kangaroo we have no right to doubt, as a long splinter of this weapon was taken out of the thigh of one of these animals, over which the flesh had completely closed; but we have never discovered that they have any method of ensnaring them, or that they know any other beasts but the kangaroo and dog. Whatever animal is shewn them, a dog excepted, they call kangaroo: a strong presumption that the wild animals of the country are very few.

Soon after our arrival at Port Jackson, I was walking out near a place where I observed a party of Indians, busily employed in looking at some sheep in an inclosure, and repeatedly crying out, ‘kangaroo, kangaroo!’ As this seemed to afford them pleasure, I was willing to increase it by pointing out the horses and cows, which were at no great distance. But unluckily, at the moment, some female convicts, employed near the place, made their appearance, and all my endeavours to divert their attention from the ladies became fruitless. They attempted not, however, to offer them the least degree of violence or injury, but stood at the distance of several paces, expressing very significantly the manner they were attracted.

It would be trespassing on the reader’s indulgence were I to impose on him an account of any civil regulations, or ordinances, which may possibly exist among this people. I declare to him, that I know not of any, and that excepting a little tributary respect which the younger part appear to pay those more advanced in years, I never could observe any degrees of subordination among them. To their religious rites and opinions I am equally a stranger. Had an opportunity offered of seeing the ceremonies observed at disposing of the dead, perhaps, some insight might have been gained; but all that we at present know with certainty is, that they burn the corpse, and afterwards heap up the earth around it, somewhat in the manner of the small tumuli, found in many counties of England.

I have already hinted, that the country is more populous than it was generally believed to be in Europe at the time of our sailing. But this remark is not meant to be extended to the interior parts of the continent, which there is every reason to conclude from our researches, as well as from the manner of living practised by the natives, to be uninhabited. It appears as if some of the Indian families confine their society and connections within their own pale: but that this cannot always be the case we know; for on the north-west arm of Botany Bay stands a village, which contains more than a dozen houses, and perhaps five times that number of people; being the most considerable establishment that we are acquainted with in the country. As a striking proof, besides, of the numerousness of the natives, I beg leave to state, that Governor Phillip, when on an excursion between the head of this harbour and that of Botany Bay, once fell in with a party which consisted of more than three hundred persons, two hundred and twelve of whom were men: this happened only on the day following the murder of the two convict rush cutters, before noticed, and his Excellency was at the very time in search of the murderers, on whom, could they have been found, he intended to inflict a memorable and exemplary punishment. The meeting was unexpected to both parties, and considering the critical situation of affairs, perhaps not very pleasing to our side, which consisted but of twelve persons, until the peaceable disposition of the Indians was manifest. After the strictest search the Governor was obliged to return without having gained any information. The laudable perseverance of his Excellency to throw every light on this unhappy and mysterious business did not, however stop here, for he instituted the most rigorous inquiry to find out, if possible, whether the convicts had at any time ill treated or killed any of the natives; and farther, issued a proclamation, offering the most tempting of all rewards, a state of freedom, to him who should point out the murderer, in case such an one existed.

I have thus impartially stated the situation of matters, as they stand, while I write, between the natives and us; that greater progress in attaching them to us has not been made, I have only to regret; but that all ranks of men have tried to effect it, by every reasonable effort from which success might have been expected, I can testify; nor can I omit saying, that in the higher stations this has been eminently conspicuous. The public orders of Governor Phillip have invariably tended to promote such a behaviour on our side, as was most likely to produce this much wished-for event. To what cause then are we to attribute the distance which the accomplishment of it appears at? I answer, to the fickle, jealous, wavering disposition of the people we have to deal with, who, like all other savages, are either too indolent, too indifferent, or too fearful to form an attachment on easy terms, with those who differ in habits and manners so widely from themselves. Before I close the subject, I cannot, however, omit to relate the following ludicrous adventure, which possibly may be of greater use in effecting what we have so much at heart, than all our endeavours.

Some young gentlemen belonging to the Sirius one day met a native, an old man, in the woods; he had a beard of considerable length, which his new acquaintance gave him to understand, by signals, they would rid him of, if he pleased; stroaking their chins, and shewing him the smoothness of them at the same time; at length the old Indian consented, and one of the youngsters taking a penknife from his pocket, and making use of the best substitute for lather he could find, performed the operation with great success, and, as it proved, much to the liking of the old man, who in a few days after reposed a confidence in us, of which we had hitherto known no example, by paddling along-side the Sirius in his canoe, and pointing to his beard. Various arts were ineffectually tried to induce him to enter the ship; but as he continued to decline the invitation, a barber was sent down into the boat along-side the canoe, from whence, leaning over the gunnel, he complied with the wish of the old beau, to his infinite satisfaction. In addition to the consequences which our sanguine hopes led us to expect from this dawning of cordiality, it affords proof, that the beard is considered by this people more as an incumbrance than a mark of dignity.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:04