9/10/13 - the first british encounter with the aborigines

In today's selection - from The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding by Robert Hughes. In 1788, when British ships first brought their cargo of convicts to inhabit the new British territory of Australia, they were greeted almost immediately by the Aborigines or "Indians"-- the native inhabitants of that territory. Any expectations they had that these natives would be like the beautiful, sexually generous natives of Tahiti that Captain James Cook had encountered nineteen years before would be disappointed -- since these aboriginal women "smeared their bodies with fish oil" and had "fresh drippings" of "Excrementitious Matter of the Nose." For the naked Aborig­ines, on the other hand, the great enigma was the gender of the whites:

"[As the British] fleet arrived in Botany Bay, ... the Aborigines began to assemble in greater numbers on the rock-strewn spits and white beaches. As [the ship] Sirius sailed past Point Solander, Captain John Hunter watched them flourish their spears at her and cry 'Warra, warra!' These words, the first recorded ones spoken by a black to a white in Australia, meant 'Go away!'

"But the intruders did not go away ... [and] before long the Aborigines were accepting presents from [British Captain Arthur] Phillip. They swarmed around the boats, plucking at the whites' clothes and shouting with amazement and pleasure whenever anyone lifted his hat. ...

"Soon the Englishmen ran out of beads and ribbon, but the hesitant con­tacts went on through the afternoon as more tribesmen gathered on the beach. King gave two Aborigines a taste of wine, which they spat out. Names for things were exchanged. But the great enigma, for the Aborig­ines, was the sex of the whites. They poked at the marines' breeches. Finally King ordered one of his men to satisfy their curiosity. The embar­rassed marine fumbled at his fly, and the first white cock was flashed on an Australian beach. 'They made a great shout of admiration,' ...

"The [aborigines] were not as attractive as the Tahitians, and they seemed less like that fiction of the liberal European mind, the Noble Savage. They exemplified 'hard' as against 'soft' primitivism. But cer­tainly the colonists did not wish to exterminate or enslave them, and they seemed at first to pose no threat.

"Nevertheless, they were destroyed. Cholera and influenza germs from the ships began the work. By 1789 black corpses were a common sight, huddled in the salt grasses and decomposing in the creamy uterine hol­lows of the sandstone. These epidemics were not meant to happen; the days of arsenic and the infected trading-blanket were still far off. ...

"If at first the officers of the fleet saw the Aborigines through a scrim of Arcadian stereotypes and Rousseauist fancies, this pleasant delusion did not last long. The proper denizens of Arcadia were nymphs, but those of Port Jackson were unlike the welcoming girls of Tahiti. Young aborig­inal women provoked mild longings in George Worgan, the surgeon on Sirius. 'I can assure you,' he wrote,

'there is in some of them a Proportion, a Softness, a roundness and Plump­ness in their limbs and bodies . . . that would excite tender & amorous Sensations, even in the frigid Breast of a Philosopher. ...'

"Their virtue, or at least their relative immunity to rape, was nonetheless secured by their dirtiness, repellent even by the norms of Georgian hy­giene. 'What with the stinking Fish-Oil,' Worgan complained,

'with which they seem to besmear their Bodies, & this mixed with the Soot which is collected on their Skins from continually setting over the Fires, and then in addition to those sweet Odours, the constant appear­ance of the Excrementitious Matter of the Nose which is collected on the upper pouting Lip, in rich Clusters of dry Bubbles, and is kept up by fresh Drippings; I say, from all these personal Graces & Embellishments, every Inclination for an Affair of Gallantry, as well as every idea of fond endear­ing Intercourse, which the nakedness of these Damssels might excite one to, is banished.' "


Robert Hughes


The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding


First Vintage Books Edition


Copyright 1986 by Robert Hughes


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