The Settlement at Port Jackson, by Watkin Tench


Transactions of the Colony in part of September and October, 1790.

From so unfavourable an omen as I have just related, who could prognosticate that an intercourse with the natives was about to commence! That the foundation of what neither entreaty, munificence, or humanity, could induce, should be laid by a deed, which threatened to accumulate scenes of bloodshed and horror was a consequence which neither speculation could predict, or hope expect to see accomplished.

On the 15th a fire being seen on the north shore of the harbour, a party of our people went thither, accompanied by Nanbaree and Abaroo. They found there Baneelon, and several other natives, and much civility passed, which was cemented by a mutual promise to meet in the afternoon at the same place. Both sides were punctual to their engagement, and no objection being made to our landing, a party of us went ashore to them unarmed. Several little presents, which had been purposely brought, were distributed among them; and to Baneelon were given a hatchet and a fish. At a distance stood some children, who, though at first timorous and unwilling to approach, were soon persuaded to advance, and join the men.

A bottle of wine was produced, and Baneelon immediately prepared for the charge. Bread and beef he called loudly for, which were given to him, and he began to eat, offering a part of his fare to his countrymen, two of whom tasted the beef, but none of them would touch the bread. Having finished his repast, he made a motion to be shaved, and a barber being present, his request was complied with, to the great admiration of his countrymen, who laughed and exclaimed at the operation. They would not, however, consent to undergo it, but suffered their beards to be clipped with a pair of scissors.

On being asked where their women were, they pointed to the spot, but seemed not desirous that we should approach it. However, in a few minutes, a female appeared not far off, and Abaroo was dispatched to her. Baneelon now joined with Abaroo to persuade her to come to us, telling us she was Barangaroo, and his wife, notwithstanding he had so lately pretended that she had left him for Colbee. At length she yielded, and Abaroo, having first put a petticoat on her, brought her to us. But this was the prudery of the wilderness, which her husband joined us to ridicule, and we soon laughed her out of it. The petticoat was dropped with hesitation, and Barangaroo stood “armed cap-a-pee in nakedness.” At the request of Baneelon, we combed and cut her hair, and she seemed pleased with the operation. Wine she would not taste, but turned from it with disgust, though heartily invited to drink by the example and persuasion of Baneelon. In short, she behaved so well, and assumed the character of gentleness and timidity to such advantage, that had our acquaintance ended here, a very moderate share of the spirit of travelling would have sufficed to record, that amidst a horde of roaming savages, in the desert wastes of New South Wales, might be found as much feminine innocence, softness, and modesty (allowing for inevitable difference of education), as the most finished system could bestow, or the most polished circle produce. So little fitted are we to judge of human nature at once! And yet on such grounds have countries been described, and nations characterized. Hence have arisen those speculative and laborious compositions on the advantages and superiority of a state of nature. But to resume my subject.

Supposing, that by a private conversation, she might be induced to visit Sydney, which would be the means of drawing her husband and others thither, Abaroo was instructed to take her aside, and try if she could persuade her to comply with our wish. They wandered away together accordingly, but it was soon seen, that Barangaroo’s arguments to induce Abaroo to rejoin their society, were more powerful than those of the latter, to prevail upon her to come among us; for it was not without manifest reluctance, and often repeated injunctions, that Abaroo would quit her countrywomen; and when she had done so, she sat in the boat, in sullen silence, evidently occupied by reflection on the scene she had left behind, and returning inclination to her former habits of life.

Nor was a circumstance which had happened in the morning interview, perhaps, wholly unremembered by the girl. We had hinted to Baneelon to provide a husband for her, who should be at liberty to pass and repass to and from Sydney, as he might choose. There was at the time, a slender fine looking youth in company, called Imeerawanyee, about sixteen years old. The lad, on being invited, came immediately up to her, and offered many blandishments, which proved that he had assumed the ‘toga virilis’. But Abaroo disclaimed his advances, repeating the name of another person, who we knew was her favourite. The young lover was not, however, easily repulsed, but renewed his suit, on our return in the afternoon, with such warmth of solicitation, as to cause an evident alteration in the sentiments of the lady.

To heighten the good humour which pervaded both parties, we began to play and romp with them. Feats of bodily strength were tried, and their inferiority was glaring. One of our party lifted with ease two of them from the ground, in spite of their efforts to prevent him, whereas in return, no one of them could move him. They called him ‘murree mulla’ (a large strong man). Compared with our English labourers, their muscular power would appear very feeble and inadequate.

Before we parted, Baneelon informed us that his countrymen had lately been plundered of fish-gigs, spears, a sword, and many other articles, by some of our people, and expressed a wish that they should be restored, promising, that if they were, the governor’s dirk should be produced and returned to us to-morrow, if we would meet him here.

Accordingly on the following day we rowed to the spot, carrying with us the stolen property. We found here several natives, but not Baneelon. We asked for him, and were told that he was gone down the harbour with Barangaroo to fish. Although disappointed at his breach of promise, we went on shore, and mingled without distrust among those we found, acquainting them that we had brought with us the articles of which they had been plundered. On hearing this account, they expressed great joy, and Imeerawanyee darting forward, claimed the sword. It was given to him, and he had no sooner grasped it, than he hastened to convince his mistress, that his prowess in war, was not inferior to his skill in courtship. Singling out a yellow gum-tree for the foe, he attacked it with great fierceness, calling to us to look on, and accompanying his onset with all the gestures and vociferation which they use in battle. Having conquered his enemy, he laid aside his fighting face, and joined us with a countenance which carried in it every mark of youth and good nature.

Whether Abaroo’s coyness, and preference of another, had displeased him, or it was owing to natural fickleness, he paid her no farther attention, but seemed more delighted with us. He had no beard, but was highly gratified in being combed and having his hair clipped.

All the stolen property being brought on shore, an old man came up, and claimed one of the fish-gigs, singling it from the bundle, and taking only his own; and this honesty, within the circle of their society, seemed to characterize them all.

During this time, it was observed, that one of the Indians, instead of mixing with the rest, stood aloof, in a musing posture, contemplating what passed. When we offered to approach him, he shunned us not, and willingly shook hands with all who chose to do so. He seemed to be between 30 and 40 years old, was jolly, and had a thoughtful countenance, much marked by the smallpox. He wore a string of bits of dried reed round his neck, which I asked him to exchange for a black stock. He smiled at the proposal, but made no offer of what I wanted; which our young friend, Imeerawanyee, observing, flew to him, and taking off the necklace, directly fixed it about my neck. I feared he would be enraged, but he bore it with serenity, and suffered a gentleman present to fasten his black stock upon him, with which he appeared to be pleased. To increase his satisfaction, some other trifle was given to him.

Having remained here an hour we went in quest of Baneelon, agreeably to the directions which his companions pointed out. We found him and Barangaroo shivering over a few lighted sticks, by which they were dressing small fish, and their canoe hauled up on the beach near them. On first seeing the boat, they ran into the woods; but on being called by name, they came back, and consented to our landing. We carried on shore with us the remaining part of the fish-gigs and spears which had been stolen, and restored them to Baneelon. Among other things, was a net full of fishing lines and other tackle, which Barangaroo said was her property and, immediately on receiving it, she slung it around her neck.

Baneelon inquired, with solicitude, about the state of the governor’s wound, but he made no offer of restoring the dirk; and when he was asked for it, he pretended to know nothing of it, changing the conversation with great art, and asking for wine, which was given to him.

At parting, we pressed him to appoint a day on which he should come to Sydney, assuring him, that he would be well received, and kindly treated. Doubtful, however, of being permitted to return, he evaded our request, and declared that the governor must first come and see him, which we promised should be done.

The governor did not hesitate to execute the engagement which we had contracted for him. But Baneelon still resisted coming among us, and matters continued in this fluctuating state until the 8th of October, when a fire, which they had agreed to light as a signal for us to visit them, was observed. The eager desire by which we were stimulated to carry our point of effecting an intercourse had appeared. Various parties accordingly set out to meet them, provided with different articles, which we thought would prove acceptable to them. We found assembled, Baneelon, Barangaroo, and another young woman, and six men, all of whom received us with welcome, except the grave looking gentleman before mentioned, who stood aloof in his former musing posture. When they saw that we had brought hatchets, and other articles with us, they produced spears, fish-gigs, and lines, for the purpose of barter,* which immediately commenced, to the satisfaction of both parties. I had brought with me an old blunted spear, which wanted repair. An Indian immediately undertook to perform the task, and carrying it to a fire, tore with his teeth a piece of bone from a fish-gig, which he fastened on the spear with yellow gum, rendered flexible by heat.

[*It had long been our wish to establish a commerce of this sort. It is a painful consideration, that every previous addition to the cabinet of the virtuosi, from this country, had wrung a tear from the plundered Indian.]

October, 1790. Many of them now consented to be shaved by a barber whom we had purposely brought over. As I thought he who could perform an operation of such importance must be deemed by them an eminent personage, I bade him ask one of them for a fine barbed spear which he held in his hand; but all the barber’s eloquence was wasted on the Indian, who plainly gave him to understand that he meant not to part with his spear, without receiving an equivalent. Unfortunately, his price was a hatchet, and the only one which I had brought with me was already disposed of to the man who had pointed my spear. In vain did I tempt him with a knife, a handkerchief, and a hat; nothing but a hatchet seemed to be regarded. ‘Bulla mogo parrabugo’ (two hatchets to-morrow) I repeatedly cried; but having probably experienced our insincerity, he rejected the proposal with disdain. Finding him inflexible, and longing to possess the spear, I told him at length that I would go to Sydney and fetch what he required. This seemed to satisfy, and he accompanied me to my boat, in which I went away, and as quickly as possible procured what was necessary to conclude the bargain. On my return, I was surprised to see all our boats rowing towards home, and with them a canoe, in which sat two Indians paddling. I pulled to them, and found that Baneelon, and another Indian, were in one of the boats, and that the whole formed a party going over to visit the governor. I now learned, that during my absence, the governor had passed in a boat, on his return from Rose Hill, near the place where they were standing; and that finding he would not come to them, although they had called to him to do so, they had at once determined to venture themselves unreservedly among us. One of the men in the canoe was the person to whom I was to give the hatchet I had been to fetch; and directly as he saw me, he held up his spear, and the exchange took place, with which, and perhaps to reward me for the trouble I had taken, he was so delighted that he presented me with a throwing-stick ‘gratis’.

Not seeing Barangaroo of the party, I asked for her, and was informed that she had violently opposed Baneelon’s departure. When she found persuasion vain, she had recourse to tears, scolding, and threats, stamping the ground, and tearing her hair. But Baneelon continuing determined, she snatched up in her rage one of his fish-gigs, and dashed it with such fury on the rocks, that it broke. To quiet her apprehensions on the score of her husband’s safety, Mr. Johnson, attended by Abaroo, agreed to remain as a hostage until Baneelon should return.

We landed our four friends opposite the hospital, and set out for the governor’s house. On hearing of their arrival, such numbers flocked to view them that we were apprehensive the crowd of persons would alarm them, but they had left their fears behind, and marched on with boldness and unconcern. When we reached the governor’s house, Baneelon expressed honest joy to see his old friend, and appeared pleased to find that he had recovered of his wound. The governor asked for Wileemarin, and they said he was at Broken Bay. Some bread and beef were distributed among them but unluckily no fish was to be procured, which we were sorry for, as a promise of it had been one of the leading temptations by which they had been allured over. A hatchet apiece was, however, given to them, and a couple of petticoats and some fishing tackle sent for Barangaroo, and the other woman.

The ceremony of introduction being finished, Baneelon seemed to consider himself quite at home, running from room to room with his companions, and introducing them to his old friends, the domestics, in the most familiar manner. Among these last, he particularly distinguished the governor’s orderly sergeant, whom he kissed with great affection, and a woman who attended in the kitchen; but the gamekeeper, M’Entire*, he continued to hold in abhorrence, and would not suffer his approach.

[*Look at the account of the governor being wounded, when his detestation of this man burst forth.]

Nor was his importance to his countrymen less conspicuous in other respects. He undertook to explain the use and nature of those things which were new to them. Some of his explanations were whimsical enough. Seeing, for instance, a pair of snuffers, he told them that they were “Nuffer* for candle,”— which the others not comprehending, he opened the snuffers, and holding up the fore-finger of his left hand, to represent a candle, made the motion of snuffing it. Finding, that even this sagacious interpretation failed, he threw down the snuffers in a rage, and reproaching their stupidity, walked away.

[*The S is a letter which they cannot pronounce, having no sound in their language similar to it. When bidden to pronounce sun, they always say tun; salt, talt, and so of all words wherein it occurs.]

It was observed, that a soft gentle tone of voice, which we had taught him to use, was forgotten, and his native vociferation returned in full force. But the tenderness which (like Arabanoo) he had always manifested to children, he still retained; as appeared by his behaviour to those who were presented to him.

The first wish they expressed to return, was complied with, in order to banish all appearance of constraint, the party who had conducted them to Sydney returning with them. When we reached the opposite shore, we found Abaroo and the other woman fishing in a canoe, and Mr. Johnson and Barangaroo sitting at the fire, the latter employed in manufacturing fish-hooks. At a little distance, on an adjoining eminence, sat an Indian, with his spear in his hand, as if sentinel over the hostages, for the security of his countrymen’s return. During our absence, Barangaroo had never ceased whining, and reproaching her husband. Now that he was returned, she met him with unconcern, and seemed intent on her work only, but this state of repose did not long continue. Baneelon, eyeing the broken fish-gig, cast at her a look of savage fury and began to interrogate her, and it seemed more than probable that the remaining part would be demolished about her head had we not interposed to pacify him. Nor would we quit the place until his forgiveness was complete, and his good humour restored. No sooner, however, did she find her husband’s rage subsided, than her hour of triumph commenced. The alarm and trepidation she had manifested disappeared. Elated at his condescension, and emboldened by our presence and the finery in which we had decked her, she in turn assumed a haughty demeanour, refused to answer his caresses, and viewed him with a reproaching eye. Although long absence from female society had somewhat blunted our recollection, the conduct of Barangaroo did not appear quite novel to us, nor was our surprise very violent at finding that it succeeded in subduing Baneelon who, when we parted, seemed anxious only to please her.

Thus ended a day, the events of which served to complete what an unhappy accident had begun. From this time our intercourse with the natives, though partially interrupted, was never broken off. We gradually continued, henceforth, to gain knowledge of their customs and policy, the only knowledge which can lead to a just estimate of national character.

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