Encounters with Aborigines,1606 -1756.

From the book - ' Before the First Fleet' by John Kenny.

Papuans took many Dutch lives. Aborigines were known to have taken only one Dutch life , in 1606.The total number of Aborigines killed by Europeans is not known. Carstenz, who wrote the first European description of the Aborigines on the north coast in 1623, also described Papuans he encountered on his expedition. Carstenz had his first meeting with Aborigines on 18 April in the vicinity of the Mitchell River, on the lower west coast of Cape York Peninsula, and other meetings up and down the coast followed. His impressions were: These natives are coal-black,with lean bodies and stark- naked, having twisted baskets or nets round their heads; in hair and figure they are like the blacks of the Coromandel coast, but they seem to be less cunning, bold and evil- natured than the blacks at the western extremity of Nova Guinia; On the 19th.... when the men were engaged in cutting wood, a large number of blacks upwards of 200 came upon them, and tried every means to surprise and overcome them, so that our men were compelled to fire two shots, upon which the blacks fled, one of their number having been hit and having fallen; our men then proceeded somewhat farther up the country, where they found several weapons, of which they took some along with them by way of curiosities. During their march they observed in various places great quantities of human bones, from which it may be safely concluded that the coast Nova Guinia {i.e. Cape York] are man-eaters who do not spare each other when driven by hunger.[ Heeres, 36-7][ Heeres is Jan Ernst Heeres. He wrote Abel Janszoon Tasman. F919.4 Tas. It is a rare book. And ‘The Part Bourne’ by the Dutch in Australia 1606 - 1765. Q 994.01 Hee. Another rare book.] The natives are in general utter barbarians, all resembling each other in shape and features, coal-black, and with twisted nets wound round their heads and necks for keeping their food in; so far as we could make out, they chiefly they know anything about nutmegs, cloves and pepper, all live on certain evil-smelling roots which they dig out of the earth. We infer that during the eastern monsoon they live mainly on the beach, since we have there seen numerous small huts made of dry grass; we also saw great numbers of dogs, herons and curlews, and other wild fowl, together with plenty of excellent fish, easily caught with a seine-net; they are utterly unacquainted with gold, silver, tin, iron, lead and copper, nor do which spices we repeatedly showed them without their evincing any signs of recognising or valuing the same; from all which together with the rest of our observations it may be safely concluded that they are poor and abject wretches, caring mainly for bits of iron and strings of beads. Their weapons are shields, assagays,[ in the dictionary assegai or assaagai a slender spear of S Afr. tribes.] and callaways, of the length of 1 & half fathom, made of light wood and cane, some with fish-bones and others with human bones fastened to their tips; they are very expert in throwing the said weapons by means of a piece of wood, half a fathom in length (1 fathom=6 feet =1.828 metres) with a small hook tied to it in front, which they place upon the tip of the callagay or assagay.{Heeres,41-2}. As the instructions to Carstensz show , the VOC foresaw that it might be useful to have Aboringines as interpreters for trade: In places where you meet with natives, you will either by adroit (skilful, clever] management or by other means endeavour to get hold of a number of full-grown persons, or better still, of boys and girls, to the end that latter may be brought up here and be turned to useful purpose in the said quarters when occassion shall serve.[Heeres,31]

At this time, Europeans did not consider taking captives reprehensible. In 1606, the year of the DUYFKEN’s voyage, Torres captured 20 Papuans on the southern coast of New Guinea, probably hoping that they would learn Spanish, become Christians, and then help convert their fellows. In 1623, Carstensz also pursued this policy, offering the boats’ crews ten pieces-of-eight for each Aborigine taken. Not surprisingly, the Aborigines resisted capture, and violence was the result. The Dutch crews shot three Aborigines on three of their encounters with them. One who was wounded and taken captive at Port Musgrave died on the way to a boat. In his head net they found a piece of metal which almost certainly came from the encounter with the DUYFKEN seventeen years earlier. Carstensz recalled that the Aborigines had gained some knowledge of muskets ‘to their great damage’ on that occasion. This is how Carstensz captured two Aborigines to take to Batavia. The first one: when the boats returned, the skipper reported that as soon as the party had landed a great mob of BLACKS, some with arms and some without, had come up to them, and were so bold and free as to touch the men’s muskets and try to take them off their shoulders, and in fact, wanted to take everything they thought they might have use for. These being kept interested with iron and beads, an opportunity was espied, and one of them was seized by a string which he had around his neck and taken on board the boat. The others who where on the beach made a great hubbub and outcry, but those who were concealed in the bush remained there. The second one : When we had got the pinnace (ships tender or ships boat] again, the blacks emerged with their arms from the wood at two different points: by showing them bits of iron and strings of beads we kept them on the beach, until we had come near them, upon which one of them who had lost his weapon, was by the skipper seized round the waist, while at the same time the quartermaster put a noose round his neck, by which he was dragged to the pinnace; the other blacks seeing this, tried to rescue their captured brother by furiously assailing us with their assagays; in defending ourselves we shot one of them, after which the others took flight, upon which we returned on board without further delay......We cannot ....give any account of their customs and ceremonies, nor did we learn anything about the thickness of the population, since we had few or no opportunities for inquiring into these matters, meanwhile I hope that with God”s help Your Worships will in time get information touching these points from the black we have captured.[Heeres, 40].

Europeans first saw Aborigines in Western Australia on the north-west coast in 1628 from the merchantman VIANEN in the vicinty of Roebourne. (So far no other records have been found to suggest otherwise). The ship’s journal referred to ‘barren and dangerous coasts...and exceeding savage, black, barbarian inhabitants’ [Heeres,54]. The next year Pelsaert saw Aborigines on the coast between Geraldton and North-West Cape. Of a search for water while making his way to Batavia, he recorded: They also saw four men, who came creeping on hands and feet, to get near our people, then our men unseen by them out of a low place to the high came close, they sprang up and ran away at full speed...They where black men, quite naked, having no covering. [Sharp, 61] (Andrew Sharp, author of ‘The Voyages of Abel Janszoon Tasman’). Of his only other encounter, Pelsaert wrote: “Here we saw also 8 black men, who each had a stick in the hand, and approached about a musket-shot of us, then we went toward them, they ran away, and we could not make them stay, until we could come to them” [Sharp,62]. What kind of contract was had by the two muntineers whom Pelsaert later marooned is unknown. Where Aborigines are concerned, the records of the European explorers are almost silent for the next 60 years. By contrast, Tasman received instructions for his 1642 expedition to the Pacific (check who named it, was it Magellan?) to be most respectful and tolerant of natives. This read: [You] shall use great care at all places in landing with small craft, because it is apparent, the Southlands are peopled with very rough wild people, for which reason [you] must always be well armed and carefully on guard, since in all parts of the world, it has been found by experience, no barbarous people are to be trusted, because they usually think, that the people who appear so exceedingly strange and unexpected come only to take over their lands, which (because of carelessness and easy trust) has caused many a treacherous murder in the discovery of America. For which reason the barbarous people whom [you] may meet and come to speech with, [you] shall let passed unmarked, in an order so as not to cause enmity towards us by punishing them, but by showing of good countenances, attract them to us, so that [you] may the better find out, in what circumstances they and their lands are, and whether anything useful is to be got or done there.

Of the nature of the lands, what fruits and livestock be there, what sort of structure of houses, the form and appearance of the inhabitants, their clothing, weapons, customs, manners, food, livelihood, religion, government, war and other notable things, particularly whether [they] are good or ill-natured, [you] shall as time allows, duly try to observe, showing them various samples of the goods, given for this purpose, in order to find what wares and materials they have, and what [they] want of ours in return, all which [you[ shall keenly observe, properly draw and correctly describe, keeping for this purpose a full, and suitably extensive journal, in which all your encounters are completely noted, in order therewith on your return, to be able to make appropriate report to us.

If [you] visit any land populated with civilized people (as [is] not likely), [you] shall take more account of them, than of the wild savages, trying to get in conversation and acquaintance with the leaders and subjects, informing them, [you] come there to trade, showing the samples of the wares, given for this purpose, as [you] shall be able to see in invoice, duly observing what they esteem, and to what goods they are most attracted, particularly finding out what wares are among them, likewise about gold and silver, and if [it] is in value regard by them, representing yourself not to be eager for it, in order to keep the value of the same, and if [they] should give you gold or silver in any bartering, [you] must conduct yourself as if [you] did not value this specie, showing copper, spelter, and lead, as if these materials were with us of greater value.

All insolence and hostility of the crew towards the discovered peoples, [you] will carefully prevent, and take care no harm is done to them in their houses, gardens, craft, property or women &c. Likewise no inhabitants brought away form their land against their will, but if any are somewhat willingly inclined thereto, [you] may then duly bring these hither. (Tasman, 36-7)

De Vlamingh's expedition in 1696-97 was the last Dutch contact with the Aborigines on the west coast. De Vlamingh had with him two Malay interpreters 'familiar with many languages', whom it was hoped might be able to learn of the whereabouts of castaways from Aborigines. A report by Nicolas Witsen, based on journals of crewmen , is more informative about the Aborigines than the de Vlamingh's journal. Witsen wrote:

Our people had seen but twelve of the natives all as black as pitch, and stark naked, so terrified that it was impossible to bring them to conversation, or a meeting. They lodge themselves as Hottentots, in pavilions of small branches of trees. By night our people saw fires all over the country; but when they drew near, the natives were fled. The coasts is very low, the the country far from the sea is high...

[Our people] they made their way inland over a distance of a few miles, saw a body of water and some dilapidated huts, not unlike those which the Hottentots make at the Cape, and the footprints of people both young and old, but of an ordinary shape, which they have compared with their own feet and measured, they belonging to barefoot people...

The huts were only two or three feet high, made of stakes or crooked sticks on top of or against which some tree branches or brushwood had been placed, with an opening in one side in front of which the inhabitants commonly have a fire going, wherefore smoke is seen rising up everywhere by day, fire by night. In the simple huts some tree bark was found which was soft, which seemed to serve for lying on when asleep.

Dampier, who came to the King Sound region in 1688, provides the best description of the Aborigines in the seventeenth century. The first European known to fraternise with them, he wrote:

The Inhabitants of this Country are the miserablest People in the World. The Hodmadods of Monomatopa though nasty People, yet for wealth are Gentlemen to these; who have no skin Garments, Sheep, Poultry, and Fruits of the Earth, Ostrich Eggs, &c. as the Hodmadods have: And setting aside their Humane Shape, they differ but little from the Brutes. They are tall strait-bodied, and thin, with small long Limbs. They have great Heads, round Foreheads, and great Brows. Their Eyelids are always half closed, to keep the Flies out of their Eyes; they being so troublesome here, that no fanning will keep them from coming to one's Face; and without the Assistance of both Hands to keep them off, they will creep into one's Nostrils, and Mouth too, if the Lips are not shut very close: so that from their Infancy being thus annoyed with these Insects, they do never open their Eyes as other People: And therefore they cannot see far, unless they hold up their Heads, as if they were looking at somewhat over them.

They have great Bottle-Noses, pretty full Lips, and wide Mouths. The two Fore-teeth of their Upper-jaw are wanting in all of them, Men and Women, old and young; whether they draw them out, I know not: Neither have they any Beards. They are long-visaged, and of a very unpleasing Aspect, having no one graceful Feature in their Faces. Their Hair is black, short and curl'd, like that of the Negroes: and not long and lank like the common Indians. The colour of their Skins, both of their Faces and the rest of their Body, is Coal-black, like that of the Negroes of Guinea.

They have no sort of Cloaths, but a piece of Rind of a Tree tied like a Girdle about their Waists, a handful of long Grass, or three or four small Boughs full of Leaves, thrust under the Girdle, to cover the Nakedness.

They have no Houses, but lie in the open Air without any covering; the Earth being their Bed, and the Heaven their Canopy. Whether they cohabit one Man to one Woman, or promiscuously, I know not; but they do live in Companies, 20 or 30 Men, Women and Children together. Their only Food is a small sort of Fish, which they get by making Wares of Stones [weirs, i.e. stone fish traps] across little Coves or Branches of the Sea; every tide bringing in the small Fish, and there leaving them for a Prey to these People, who constantly attend there to search for them at Low-water. This small Fry I take to be the top of their Fishery: They have no Instruments to catch great Fish, should they come; and such seldom stay to be left behind at Low-water: Nor could we catch any Fish with our Hooks and Lines all the while we lay there. In other Places at Low-water they seek for Cockles, Muscles, and Periwinkles: Of these Shell-fish there are fewer still; so that their chiefest dependance is upon what the Sea leaves in their Wares; which, be it much or little they gather up, and march to the Places of their Abode. Their the old People that are not able to stir abroad by reason of their Age, and the tender Infants, wait their return; and what Providence has bestowed on them, they presently broil on the Coals, and eat in the common. Sometimes they get as many Fish as makes them a plentiful Banquet; and at other times they scarce get every one a taste; But be it little or much that they get, every one has his part, as well as the young and tender; the old and feeble, who are not able to go abroad, as the strong and lusty. When they have eaten they lie down till the next Low-water, and then all that are able to march out, be it Night or Day, rain or shine, 'tis all one; they must attend the Wares, or else they must fast: For the Earth affords them no Food at all. There is neither Herb, Root, Pulse or any sort of Grain for them to eat, that we saw; nor any sign of Bird or Beast that they can catch, having no Instruments to do so.

I did not perceive that they did worship any thing. These poor Creatures have a sort of weapon to defend their Ware, or fight with their Enemies, if they have any that will interfere with their poor Fishery. They did at first endeavour with their Weapons to frighten us, who lying ashore deterr'd them from one of their Fishing places. Some of them had wooden Swords, others had a sort of Lances. The Sword is a long strait Pole sharp at one end, and hardened afterwards by heat. I saw no Iron, nor any other sort of Metal; therefore it is probable that they use Stone-Hatchets, as some Indians in America do.

How they get their Fire I know not; but probably as Indians do, out of Wood. I have seen the Indians of Bon-Airy [an island off the coast of Venezuela] do it, and have myself tried the Experiment: they take a flat piece of Wood that is Pretty soft, and make a small dent in one side of it, then they take another hard round Stick. about the bigness of one's little Finger, and sharpening it at one end like a Pencil, they put that sharp end in the hole or dent of the flat soft piece, and then rubbing or twirling the hard piece between the Palms of their Hands, they drill the soft piece till it smoaks, and at last takes Fire.

These People speak somewhat thro' the Throat, but we could not understand one word that they said. We anchored as I said before, January the 5th, and seeing Men walking on the Shore, we presently sent a Canoa to get some Acquaintance with them; for we were in hopes to get some provisions among them. But the Inhabitants, seeing our Boat coming, run away and hid themselves. We searched afterwards three Days in hopes to find their Houses; but found none; yet we saw many places where they had made Fires. At last, being out of hopes to find their Habitations, we searched no farther; but left a great many Toys ashore, in such places where they thought that they would come. In all our search we found no Water, but old Wells on the sandy Bays.

At last we went over to the Islands, and there we found a great many of the natives; I do believe there were 40 on one Island, Men Women, and Children. The men at our first coming ashore threatened us with our Lances and Swords; but they were frighted by firing one Gun, which we fired purposely to scare them. The Island was so small that they could not hide themselves; but they were much disordered at our Landing, especially the Women and Children: for we went directly to their Camp. The lustiest of the Women snatching up their Infants ran away howling, and the little Children run after squeaking and bawling; but the Men stood still. Some of the Women and such People as could not go from us, lay still by a Fire, making a doleful noise, as if we had been coming to devour them; but when they saw we did not intend to harm them, they were pretty quiet, and the rest that fled from us at their first coming returned again. This their place of Dwelling was only a Fire, with a few Boughs before it, set up on that side the Winds was of.

After we had been here a little while, the Men began to be familiar, and we cloathed some of them, designing to have had some service of them for it; but we found some Wells of Water here and intended to carry 2 or 3 Barrels of it abroad. But it being somewhat troublesome to carry to the Canoas, we thought to have been made these Men to have carry'd it for us, and therefore we gave them some old Cloaths; to one an old pair of Breeches, to another a ragged Shirt, to the third a Jacket that was scarce worth owning; which yet would have been very acceptable at some places where we had been, and so we thought they might have been with these People. We put them on them, thinking that this finery would have brought them to work heartily for us; and our Water being filled in small long Barrels, about six Gallons in each, which were made purposely to carry Water in, we brought these new Servants to the Wells, and put a Barrel on each of their Shoulders for them to carry down to the Canoa. But all the signs we could make were to no purpose, for they stood like Statues, without motion, but grinn'd like so many Monkeys, staring one upon another: For these poor Creatures seem not accustomed to carry Burthens; and I believe one of our Ship-boys of 10 Years old, would carry as much as one of them. So we were forced to carry our Water our selves, and they were very fairly put the Cloaths off again, and laid them down, as if Cloaths were only made to work in. I did not perceive that they had any great liking to them at first, neither did they seem to admire anything that we had.

At another time our Canoa being among these Islands seeking for Game, espy'd a drove of these Men swimming from one Island to another; for they have no Boats, Canoas, or Bark-logs. They took up Four of them, and brought them aboard; two of them were middle aged, the other two were young men about 18 or 20 Years old.To these we gave boiled Rice, and with it Turtle and Manatee [Dugong] boiled. They did greedily devour what we gave them, but took no notice of the Ship, or any thing in it, and when they were set on Land again, they ran away as fast as they could. At our first coming, before we were acquainted with them, or they with us, a Company of them who liv'd on the Main, came just against our Ship, and standing on a pretty high Bank, threatened us with their Swords and Lances, by shaking them at us: At last the Captain ordered the Drum to be beaten, which was done of a sudden with much vigour, purposely to scare the poor Creatures. They hearing the noise, ran away as fast as they could drive; and when they ran away in haste, they would cry Gurry, Gurry, speaking deep in the Throat. Those Inhabitants also that live on the Main, would always run away from us; yet we took several of them. For, as I have always observed, they had such bad Eyes, that-they could not see us till we came close to them. We did always give them Victuals, and let them go again, but the Islanders, after our first time of being among them, did not stir for us. (Dampier, 1968, 312-16)



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17th August, 2000.


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