Cooktown - the small town whose history changed the world

When Lt Cook and his ship the Endeavour first landed on our shores, Cooktown, of course, didn't exist. To our ancestors the place where Cooktown now stands was called Gungardie, after the word gun-gaar which is a type of white crystal quartz found in the area. 

Gun-gaar was very important to Aboriginal people as it was used to cut chest skin during our initiation ceremonies. (You can see these chest cuts on the rock painting of an Elder below.) Because of this Gungardie was a neutral area where our own people and the neighbouring Kuku Yalanji tribe could have safe, unhindered access to collect the quartz stones.

This neutral strip of land lay between the Yuku Baja (River Annan) and Wahalumbaal Birri (Endeavour River), and in 1770, when Lt James Cook damaged his ship HMB Endeavour on the reef, this was where he eventually came ashore, remaining almost seven weeks whilst he repaired his ship. It was to be the longest and most significant of Cook's landings, and the first time Cook and his men had had any meaningful contact with Aboriginal people. 

For our ancestors the first sight of a white man was terrifying. They thought they were ghosts and called them wangaar, the white spirits of dead ancestors. But over the weeks that the Endeavour was being repaired, relations between them were largely friendly, and they spent sufficient time together for Cook, Banks and the Endeavour's team of naturalists to record more than 130 words of our language. One of the words recorded was gangurru, which was spelt 'kangaroo'. 

Then relations took a turn for the worse. The Endeavour crew caught some turtle and refused to share them with the local clan. This was a sign of great disrespect for the Guugu Yimithirr. The meat of ngawiya was so highly valued that it would always be given first to the Elders, and only when they had finished would the remainder be eaten by the rest of the clan. Cook's men, of course, knew nothing of this and thought the turtle was rightfully theirs.
The Guugu Yimithirr were incensed, and the scuffle that followed could easily have led to bloodshed - the Guugu Yimithirr greatly outnumbered the Endeavour crew and there were numerous opportunities to spear them. But our ancestors took no further action - perhaps because they were on neutral ground - allowing Lt Cook and his men to leave unharmed. 

Had this not been the case, how different our history would be! The British Admiralty would not have been told of the discovery of a new land and, eighteen years later, the First Fleet would not have arrived at Sydney Cove to begin building the country we now call Australia.

The First Reconciliation - How Lt James Cook told the story
51st Re-enactment of Cook's landing 
What's On in Cooktown
About our tours 


Indica Man said...

But...if that had happened (the taking of the turtle without due respect in non-neutral country), I may well have been born in Wales, or Sweden, or maybe Germany...
...that would be a bummer...I like being Australian :o)
But then, local history would have been far less heart-breaking if Europe didn't hear of here.

Anonymous said...

Is there any truth in the story that 'gungurru' means 'I don't understand'?

Magical, award-winning Aboriginal rock art tours with Nugal-warra Elder, Willie Gordon said...

There are many different Aboriginal languages in Australia, so I suppose anything is possible! But in Guugu Yimithirr 'gungurru' is the word we use for the Eastern Grey kangaroo.