Dancing with Strangers
Surgeon John White had this to say about an unexpected and potentially dangerous encounter with 'about three hundred natives' at Botany Bay on 1 June:
This was the greatest number of the natives we had ever seen together since our coming among them. What could be the cause of their assembling in such great numbers gave rise to a variety of conjectures. Some thought they were going to war among themselves. Others conjectured that some of them had been concerned in the murder of our men, notwithstanding we did not met with the smallest trace to countenance such an opinion, and that, fearing we should revenge it, they had formed this convention in order to defend themselves against us. Others imagined that the assemblage might be occasioned by a burial, a marriage, or some religious meeting.'A burial, a marriage, or some religious meeting'—or perhaps a preparation for war. It was certainly a deeply uncanny situation. It is against this background of casual contempt and intelligent anxiety that we have to locate Phillip's determined optimism. From the beginning, and remarkably, he recognised the Australians' wants and expressions to be as powerfully felt as his own, and as we will see he acknowledged some conflicts. But he also remained persuaded of something not at all evident: that in time the Australians would inevitably come to recognise the benefits of the British presence among them, not only in material matters, but in the unique, incomparable gift of British law.
First, for things material, Phillip:
It is undeniably certain that to teach the shivering savage how to clothe his body, and to shelter himself completely from the cold and wet, and to put into the hands of men, ready to perish one half of the year with hunger, the means of procuring constant and abundant provision, must confer upon them benefits of the highest value and importance.Phillip did not regard this conviction as prior and ideological, but as the fruits of observation. He had watched these people suffer hunger when fish supplies dropped off in colder weather. He noted the meagerness of their vegetables resources, and how long and painfully the women laboured to collect and prepare them. He watched them in bad weather, and knew they suffered. While they have not made any attempt towards clothing themselves, they are by no means insensible to the cold, and appear very much to dislike the rain. During a shower they have been observed to cover their heads with pieces of bark, and to shiver exceedingly.' His response was typically direct. He decided that the moment he established good contact with these poor cold savages he would introduce them to the benefits of clothing. He therefore requested the immediate dispatch from England of 'a supply of frocks and jackets to distribute amount them,' urging that the garments he made long and loose 'so they would be useful to both men and women.'
Phillip, unlike some of his compatriots, acknowledged the sensibilities might differ between the races. he noted, for example one Australian's disgust at the smell of salt park lingering on his fingers after he had touched a piece. He thought such differences to be trivial and ephemeral, and that civilising savages would be easy because, as rational beings, they would readily recognise the superiority of British material and moral arrangements. Like most of us, Phillip believed his home culture to be universally advantageous and desirable. Furthermore, he believed it to be universally applicable and therefore transportable, that it could flourish in any clime. The irony of this vision, given the total British dependence on imported supplies and their near-starvation in a milieu where Australians had survived for millennia, quite escaped him. One doubts it escaped the Australians.
Every Britisher thought their superiority manifest in their possessions, especially their manufactured goods—clothing, guns, tools—but also what Tench calls 'toys': the baubles brought to charm and disarm the natives. All of the officers and some of the men had brought stocks of such objects to barter for native artefacts, which were enjoying a vogue at home since the voyages of the great, good, and martyred Captain Cook. The model for pacification through trade had been established in Tahiti, that terrestrial Paradise. There Cook had seen an earth so spontaneously productive that 'in the article of food those people may almost be said to be exempt from the curse of our forefathers; scarcely can it be said that they earn their bread with the sweet of their brow, benevolent nature hath not only supply'd them with necessarys but with abundance of superfluities.' The human population also seemed blessed with superfluities of physical grace and natural intelligence. Immediately recognising the desirability of European goods, they leapt into enthusiastic trade, happily exchanging warm female flesh and wondrous variety of fresh foods for European products, especially iron nails. (The British ships, surreptitiously denailed, were soon in anger of falling apart.)
The responsiveness of these delightful savages had given their new trading partners a reassuring illusion of the 'naturalness' of trans-cultural understanding. The sturdiness of Tahitians' appetite for British goods—'red and yellow cloth, some tomahawks, axes, knives, scissors, skirts, jacket, etc.'—together with the convenience of a 'king' ready to accept the personal reward of 'a mantle and some other articles of dress decorated with red feathers, together with six muskets and some ammunition,' meant that as early as 1801 such items could be shipped to Tahiti from infant Sydney in full confidence that they would be exchanged for the pork the British hungered for.
After such encounters with village-dwelling agriculturalists long familiar with the benefit of trade, naked nomads—lacking pigs, fruits and kings, and cautiously frugal with their women—had to come as something of a disappointment, even to men uncorrupted by the mellow exchanges of Tahiti. These people did not covet the trinkets the British waggled at them. They seemed to lack a proper passion for novelties. Gifts of ribbons and neck-cloths were accepted, worn for a day, then hung on a bush and forgotten. They seemed also to regard most British foods as inedible. Nor did these natives have an 'abundance of superfluities' of their own available for exchange: it quickly became clear that every one of their hand-crafted multi-purpose possessions was essential for the daily business of surviving, and was duly cherished. they coveted only those British products which replicated the functions of their own tools, like metal hatchets, or fishhooks. Tench himself, engaging in his first day of serious trading, found that a man whose spear he wanted would part with it only in exchange for a hatchet, and Tench had to have himself rowed all the way back to Sydney from the northern shore of the harbour to get him one.
The British should have paid more attention to the experiences of their predecessors. A hundred years before Cook, William Dampier visited the north-western coast of Australia and met some of the inhabitants. He did not stay long—not more than two months—but that was time enough to identify some disturbing characteristics of these particular natives. He could define them only by the negatives of all the things they did not have: no clothes, no houses, no beds, no gods; no sheep, no poultry, no cultivated foods. And no decorum, either: they lived, he said, in heaps, twenty or thirty men, women and children piled together, sharing what they ate and eating what they could find. They were, in his opinion, 'the miserablest People in the World.'