Cooktown & The First Reconciliation

HMB Endeavour replica (Photo: ANMM)
Did you know that the First Reconciliation between Aboriginal Australians and Europeans took place here in Cooktown nearly 250 years ago?

Lt James Cook's meeting with members of my tribe, the Guugu Yimithirr, at Gungardie where Cooktown now stands, is now recognised as the first recorded reconciliation between Indigenous Australians and Europeans. 

I have told this story from our own perspective in 'Cooktown - a small town whose history changed the world'. Now here's the story from the viewpoint of Lt James Cook and Sydney Parkinson - and from Emeritus Professor of History at ANU, John Molony.

HMB Endeavour careened (Tim Johnson)
In June 1770, Cook careened his damaged ship, HMB Endeavour, on the banks of Wahalumbaal Birri (now called Endeavour River) after it was holed on the Reef. He and his crew spent nearly 7 weeks here carrying out repairs, meeting the local Guugu Yimithirr on many occasions. This was the first time Cook had ever met Aboriginal people. Although he had seen Aborigines during his week's stay In Botany Bay, they had not been interested in making contact and seemed terrified of the whites, suggesting Cook was not the first white person they had encountered and that previous experiences had been violent.

In contrast, Cook's encounter with the Guugu Yimithirr at Gungardie was open and based on trust - the amicable relationship marred only by the refusal of Cook and his men to share the many turtle they caught. The story of the resulting hostilities, and the reconciliation which followed, is told in the in the Journals of Lt James Cook and Sydney Parkinson.

Cook's Journal, 19 July 1770
James Cook
“In the AM we were visited by 10 or 11 of the natives the most of them came from the other side of the River where we saw six or seven more; the most of them were women and like the men were quite naked; those that came on board were very desirous of having some of our turtle and took the liberty to haul two to the gangway to put over the side; being disappointed in this they grew a little troublesome, and were for throwing everything over board they could lay their hands upon; as we had no victuals dress’d at the time I offer’d them some bread to eat, which they rejected with scorn as I believe they would have done anything else excepting turtle – soon after this they all went ashore Mr Banks and myself and five or six of our people being a shore at the same time.  Emmediately upon their landing one of them took a handful of dry grass and lighted it at a fire we had a shore and before we well know’d what he was going about he made a large circuit round about us and set fire to the grass in his way and in an instant the whole place was in flames, luckily at this time we had hardly any thing ashore besides the forge and a sow with a litter of young pigs one of which was scorched to death in the fire – 

as soon as they had done this they all went to a place where some of our people were washing and where all our nets and a good deal of linen were laid out to dry; here with the greatest of obstinacy they again set fire to the grass which I and some others present could not prevail until I was oblig’d to fire a musquet load with small shot at one of the ring leaders which sent them off; as we were apprised of this last attempt of theirs we got the fire out before it got a head; but the first spread like wild fire in the woods and grass.

Reconciliation Rocks, Cooktown
Notwithstanding my firing which must have been a little hurt because we saw a few drops of
blood on some linen he had gone over; they did not go far from us for we soon heard their voices in the woods upon which Mr Banks and I and 3 or 4 more went to look for them and very soon met them comeing towards us as they had each 4 or 5 darts a piece and not knowing their intention we seized upon six or seven of the first darts we met with; this alarm’d them o much that they all made off and we followed them for near half a mile and then set down and call’d to them and they stopped also; after some little unintelligible conversation had passed they lay down their darts and came to us in a very friendly manner; we now returned the darts we had taken from them which reconcil’d every thing.”

 Parkinson's Journal, 19 July 1770
Sydney Parkinson
“And a little before we left the land; they set fire to the grass around the spot where we had pitched our tent; but luckily for us, most of our things were on-board; or they would, in all probability, have been consumed as the fire burnt very fiercely; and had like to have destroyed a litter of pigs; and some other thing. 

We shot one of them who ran up a hill with a fore brand, and wounded him.  Several of them came to us afterwards, and made peace with us.”

During his stay, Parkinson recorded 130 words of the Guugu Yimithirr language in his journal. It is likely that this was the first written record of any Aboriginal language in this country.

With thanks to the Cooktown Re-enactment Association.

More about historic Cooktown...
Picture Gallery: Welcome to Cooktown!

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