Anniversary hopes for a united future

Two Sydney students connected to the Endeavour’s landing site reflect on the 250th anniversary of first contact between Europeans and local Aboriginal people.

29 April 2020
A teenage girl stands on a rock shelf overlooking the water.
Image: Tristan Simms stands on the edge of Botany Bay at Bare Island with Kurnell in the background. Credit: James Alcock.

True histories need both stories

Tristan Simms, Year 11, Matraville Sports High School

April 29, 2020, marks 250 years since the HM Bark Endeavour sailed into the sheltered waters of Kamay, commonly known as Botany Bay.

This event is perceived by many as a moment when invasion occurred and our culture and way of life, which had existed since the beginning of time, was changed forever. Although British occupation was technically 18 years later, when the First Fleet arrived to establish a new penal colony, it was Cook’s expedition that adjoined Australia to the British Empire.

For families in my community, the La Perouse Aboriginal community who are descended from people that were present when the Endeavour sailed into Kamay, it is a time of mixed emotion.

Some see the anniversary as a time to protest, some as a time to celebrate our survival, and some as a time to reflect and heal. Some senior people within families look at those events that occurred through a cultural lens; they see the events that took place 250 years ago as a part of the local culture, a part of the local Dreaming which has stories, songs and dances associated with it and, therefore, take a neutral stance.

The arrival of Cook at Kamay in 1770 and the extensive story of how Cook “discovered” Australia has been told repeatedly from a European perspective. It has taken this long for my community to be given the opportunity to tell our story, our way. A prime example is the first Aboriginal words spoken to the British and the meaning of those words which have been misunderstood for 250 years.

The British heard the words ‘warra warra wa’ being projected towards them as they were approaching the shores of Kundell (the Dharawal name that was adapted for Kurnell). Those words were accompanied by threatening gestures with raised spears by two Gweagal warriors. It is clear from the Endeavour journals our old people did not want the British to land and it is quite simple to assume that the words being spoken simply meant “go away”.

It wasn’t until recently that our community’s language, culture and research group decided to confront this assumption. The group determined the phrase ‘warra warra wa’, from a Dharawal language perspective, literally translates to “you’re (they) all dead”.

In Dharawal ‘warra’ sometimes spelt ‘wara’ means dead and when the words are repeated it is highlighting its significance or suggesting large numbers of the dead. This perception is linked to a Dharawal Dreaming story that explains how spirits of the dead come back from an easterly direction. Our old people were seeing the British through a spiritual lens and seeing them as spirits of the dead.

There are other cultural linkages between the word ‘wara’ and objects that are associated with the colour white. This includes the iconic Australian flower, the waratah (‘waradha’ in Dharawal). In a Dharawal Dreaming story, connected with Dharawal women, the ‘waradha’ was originally white and was tainted red with the blood of the wonga pigeon.

So when we go beyond the British (or outsiders) interpretations about the events such as the landing of Cook and his crew at Kundall and we recognise the information from those that are best placed to give it, a different and more genuine picture emerges. If our people are able to share our story and perspective, views of these events are balanced. Perhaps at the 300th anniversary of the Endeavour in Kamay we may see a more united remembrance.

A boy sitting by a sculpture on the beach.
Image: Gus Kohu visits the stone plinth in Kamay Botany Bay National Park that marks the site where the first Englishman stepped on the shore of NSW on April 29, 1770. Credit: Dani Cooper.

The stone at the heart of our history

Gus Kohu, Year 11, Cronulla High School

A little more than 21 kilometres from Sydney’s CBD is a nine-kilometre stretch of road named after a certain lieutenant in the British Royal Navy. At the end of this road is a small village with a sign that reads “Welcome to Kurnell, the birthplace of modern Australia”. This town is my home and 250 years ago Lieutenant James Cook landed here leading to the foundation of the country we know today.

It’s hard to ignore the effect James Cook would have on this country, but even more so in the town I call home. The aforementioned Captain Cook Drive is not particularly subtle and neither is the sign you’re greeted with upon stumbling into the entrance of the town.

Numerous streets are named after famous explorers such as Luís Vaez de Torres and Abel Tasman. Other streets are named after the crew of the Endeavour with Sir Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander having stretches of asphalt named after them as well. Avoiding these references is impossible; even our local park, Marton Park, is named after the town in which James Cook was born.

Perhaps if you wished to escape the colonial homages, Kamay Botany Bay National Park would provide solace. But you would be incorrect. Among the amazing Australian flora and beautiful hiking tracks lie big blocks of stone inscribed with the names of important men who played a significant role in the “discovery” of this new land.

There is one stone in particular, which you might not even notice if it weren’t for the tourists who frequently leap across the rock pools to read its inscription, marking it as the landing place of the first Europeans.

As a child it never truly occurred to me how significant that stone was. I was fixated on the taxidermy animals and European artefacts in the discovery centre. But over time as I traversed the bike tracks and rode past the monuments I had a thought. This place wasn’t always like this. There was no city skyline, there were no modern houses or docks, but there was a people.

In primary school it was always about the Endeavour, James Cook and the First Fleet. Yet before them, for thousands of years the Dharawal people had enjoyed this stretch of land. While Cook’s landing alone did not lead to the loss of these people and their culture; there is no doubt it was a case of cause and effect. It was the events that stone in Kamay Botany Bay National Park recognise that led to the later massacres post-white settlement of many of our First Nations’ peoples and the attempt to destroy the ancient cultures and traditions of the people who lived on this land.

It was my ancestors who colonised this land and devastated the lives of thousands of people. But it is also because of what that stone represents that I am here today. I have no doubt that this stone commemorates a moment that led to many terrible things.

You only need to take a glimpse at the horizon to see what future good this stone can represent. I cannot take back what my ancestors did and I do not condone the atrocities that have been committed. But it is through this stone that we can recognise these atrocities and reconcile. It represents more than where someone simply set foot. It shows us how far we have come and how far we still have to go.

More insights into the significance of the arrival of HMB Endeavour in Kamay Botany Bay are included in online resources for students and teachers, developed by NSW Education to mark the 250th anniversary.

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