In 2020 the National Museum partnered with the ABC in an ABC Iview series featuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people sharing the original names of the places Captain Cook renamed on his voyage of the east coast. Vanessa Milton recorded, for ABC SE NSW, an interview with Warren Foster, a Djiringanj Yuin traditional knowledge holder, concerning the likely reaction of the Yuin people of south-eastern Australia to the first sighting of James Cook‘s Endeavour, and commentary has come from other sources.
On April 19, 1770, the crew of Endeavour sighted the Australian coast at Tolywiarar — now known as Point Hicks in Victoria’s East Gippsland. The following day, they rounded the south-eastern tip of the Australian mainland and sailed into Yuin country. “Our old people, they saw him and they handed stories down,” Warren Foster said describing how, to his ancestors, Endeavour swimming on the ocean with its large white sails, resembled Gurung-gubba the pelican. “Now the story of Gurung-gubba, he’s a real greedy fella,” Mr Foster said,”When you’re fishing he’ll come and steal your fish. So, you had to watch him and “. . . just the same as us watching him when we’re fishing, we had to keep an eye out on that boat.” As Endeavour sailed past, the Yuin people lit fires on headlands to warn others further up the coast. “On all them points, you only had fires there in ceremony time,” Mr Foster said. “So when people saw the smoke burning, they were curious. “And when they went and had a look they saw this white boat sailing.”
On April 21, Cook wrote in his journal: “In the p.m. we saw the smoke of fire in several places; a certain sign that the country is inhabited.” Over the following days as Endeavour progressed northward toward Gamay, known today as Botany Bay, Cook frequently noted in his journal the sight of smoke along the shore after dark. “Them old people knew that there was something strange about this boat” Mr Foster said, “And eventually, this pelican would sail in, and he did eventually scoop up everything and steal everything off us.”
The same day Cook first saw smoke on the shore, Endeavor sailed past Gulaga, the Yuin people’s sacred mother mountain on the far-south coast of New South Wales. Cook’s journal records “At 6 we were abreast of a pretty high mountain laying near the shore which, on account of its figure, I named Mount Dromedary.” The Yuin people see a woman lying down when they look at Gulaga. James Cook saw a camel.
“Gulaga is as sacred to us as Uluru is to the Mutitjulu mob out in the desert,” Mr Foster said.
“She gave birth to all the Yuin people. “To name her after a camel is an insult to our people.”
The Yuin people were heavily impacted by the arrival of European settlers. More than a century after Cook first surveyed the coast, an Aboriginal reserve was established at the foot of Gulaga at Wallaga Lake. Aboriginal people from across southern NSW and Victoria were moved onto the reserve where their lives were tightly controlled. Traditional languages and cultural practices were forbidden and generations of families lived with the threat of removal of their children. The reserve was abolished after the 1967 referendum and in 1983, after decades of activism, the local Aboriginal community gained ownership of the land. The former reserve became the Wallaga Lake Koori Village — where Mr Foster has lived for most of his life.
Milton records that while cultural knowledge has been lost over two centuries of dispossession, dislocation and control, a lot of knowledge has been maintained. “Our old people knew the importance of keeping culture,” said Mr Foster “Even if that meant being quiet about it — [being] secretive — so that other people didn’t see it. “Even our own people, it was hidden from them, because they had to find the ones who were trustworthy to keep it, and keep it going. “I feel privileged and grateful that our old people preserved our culture, and kept ceremony going.” Mr Foster’s deep connection to the sacred mother mountain remains unbroken. “We look at Gulaga for guidance and strength” . . . “It helps us spiritually knowing that she’s always there and we live at the foot of her. “And when we travel up and down the coast it’s the first thing we look for to know we’re home.”
In 2006, Gulaga was handed back to its traditional owners in a joint management agreement with the NSW Government. She is known, once again, by her true name.
Though not directly related to the core topics of this web site I thought it would be of interest to include just one piece outlining – albeit from a distinctly European perspective – the lives of two Aboriginals from these early times: that of Bennelong, who spent time in England, is especially poignant as he clearly struggled with loyalties and the cultural divide before deciding to return to his own people.
Aboriginals though often treated with disdain were nevertheless respected as trackers, collectors, guides, interpreters, and go-betweens. For these reasons they soon became essential members of expeditions both on land and sea although their important role in early exploration has been largely unacknowledged. Europeans taking an interest in their culture, language, and extensive knowledge of the Australian environment were few. Today the synthesis of past knowledge has been the dedicated task of people like Philip Clarke (see references below).
These accounts of Bennelong and Boongaree are drawn largely from material available in greater detail in the Australian Dictionary of Biography and Philip Clarke’s Aboriginal Plant Collectors. They are included here to at least give a vague impression of interpersonal relationships in these times. The very few European accounts of individual Aboriginals is, in itself, a sad record. The apparent assumption that Aboriginals would be greatly honoured by introduction to the English king, along with polite English society and its entertainments seems, from today, to have been a gross miscalculation and lack of insight.