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Thursday, August 14, 2014

East Coast Encounter

The First Australians remember the arrival of the Endeavour

 Ever since researching the background of Tupaia's iconic painting of three Aboriginals in two bark canoes in the bay that came to be called "Botany Bay,"  I have been fascinated by their reaction -- or conscious lack of reaction -- to the arrival of the great ship with wings that was going to change their way of life so drastically.

See what I mean?  Tupaia, in his inimitable fashion, has captured the emotion of the moment. Father, in his own canoe, concentrates completely on the fish he is about to spear.  The two little boys are both scared and intrigued -- look at their eyes.  But they, too, refuse to react to the appearance of this strange vessel.  Can you imagine how differently we would behave if a space ship materialized in a modern city street?  Yet to them the ship was equivalent to a UFO.

"Warra warra wai!" the Aborigines cried, as the landing party from the Endeavour set foot on the beach -- "Go away!" in the Gweagal language.  As I commented in my biography of Tupaia, this defiance was an act of great courage.  Order lived in the land, which was their spiritual home, while disorder came from the sea.  Anything from the sea was a menace to be sent away, and they were just a few against many.

Eventually, of course, the Endeavour did go away, leaving the First Australians to await the consequences of their discovery by the British, and try to make sense of the situation by incorporating it into their mythology.  In New Zealand, it was Tupaia who became legend.  In Australia, by contrast, if was Cook who became the symbol of dispossession, the man who brought disorder from the sea.

The Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney is encapsulating the moment by staging a remarkably evocative exhibit, called East Coast Encounter.  Surrounding the bark canoe pictured at the head of this post is an array of paintings, plus a remarkably eloquent poem.

It seems both ironic and fitting that the Endeavour replica lies at her moorings outside the museum.

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