28 April, 2020

Captain James Cook

Captain James Cook
At this time, when we commemorate the 250th Anniversary of the discovery of the East coast of Australia by Captain James Cook, the following letter, which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1863, is of interest.  It was written by the priest in charge at that time of Saint Patrick's, Church Hill, Father John McEncroe.  Father McEncroe had arrived in the colony of NSW in the year 1832, the year before the incident described in this letter :

St. Patrick's [Church Hill], Sydney, April 24, 1863.

My dear Dr. Douglass,—As you are taking an active and praiseworthy part towards celebrating the
landing of Captain Cook in Botany Bay, the following account of a conversation that myself and the Right Rev. Dr. Ullathorne, now Bishop of Birmingham, had upwards of thirty years ago, with the son of one of the Botany tribe, may be interesting, who witnessed the arrival of the great and successful navigator, Captain James Cook, in 1770.

About the year 1833, one of the Botany tribe was killed by one of the Port Stephen tribe, inside the
Domain wall, just opposite St. Mary's [church]. Dr Ullathorne and myself were the two first to come to the scene of the murder; the body was soon after removed into an outhouse near St. Mary's, and an inquest was there held on the deceased native of the Botany tribe. I had several conversations with one of the aborigines, who said he was a brother to the murdered man; he was intelligent, and spoke English well, and appeared to be then about forty years of age.  I asked him, in the presence of Dr. Ullathorne, if he had any recollection of the landing of 'Cook' in Botany Bay ; he said "No", for he was not then born, but that he recollected well what his father told him about it, and I felt as curious to know his account as he seemed favourably inclined to give.

I then remarked, "What did your father and the Botany tribe think about Cook's ship and its crew?"
He said they thought at first that it was a big bird that came into the bay, and they saw something like
opossums running up and down about the legs and wings of the bird; but on viewing them closer they
thought them to be people something like themselves.  They kept away, however, for a few days, without coming near the people who came from the ship to the land, although these people made several signs to the natives, who were lurking about the bushes, to come near them.  At last it was agreed that two of the tribe would go down and meet the newcomers ; but they were directed by the women particularly, when going down to the water, not to eat or drink anything that the strangers may give them for fear of being poisoned. 

Several of the people from the ship went to meet the two natives, and showed every sign of friendship towards them ; one offered a jacket to the natives, which one of them put on, but when he found himself so cramped in it he threw it off ; another gave them a piece of bread or biscuit, which the native chewed and threw out of his mouth, and said it was like sawdust ; then they showed them a tomahawk and cut down some of the bushes with it ; the two natives were delighted with this, as it would help them very much in cutting down wood to make gunyahs and spears.  One of the sailors then put something into a vessel and drank it off, and wanted the natives to take some of the drink,
but they refused for fear of being poisoned ; he then offered them the tomahawk if they would drink ; they were very anxious to get it, but they were afraid of going against the gins' [native women] advice, to eat or drink nothing the strangers would give them. 

Archdeacon McEncroe
They then consulted what they had best do to get the tomahawk, and they said that, as the drink did not kill the stranger who took it, it was not likely to kill them, and they made signs to the sailor to put more drink into the vessel and drink some of it himself, and they would take the rest ; and then they considered that the drink would not kill them if it did not kill the stranger first. The sailor did as they directed, he took some of the drink, was quite merry, and gave them the tomahawk, upon which one of them took some of the drink out of the vessel, and he had hardly done so, when he thought he was burning alive, and cried out to his companion, in his own language, "fire in eyes, fire in nose, and fire all over," and ran off to throw himself into the water to quench the fire.  I could not help being amused by the expressive and energetic way in which the poor native of Botany conveyed this part of his narrative ; and when I seemed to express any doubt or surprise at his statements, he observed "I don't tell you this from myself, but it is what I heard from my father and others of the Botany tribe about the landing of Cook in this country."

Trusting that this traditionary native account of Cook's landing may be of some little interest in connexion with the proposed commemoration of the 28th April, I submit it to you for your acceptance, and publication if you think fit,

And remain, my dear Dr. Douglass,
Yours faithfully,


To :  H. G. Douglass, Esq., M.D.

P.S. On a future occasion I may give some account of the interment of the native killed in the Domain by one of the Port Stephen blacks, together with a request made to me by the man who gave the above account to beg of the Governor not to hang the man who killed his brother, but to give him up to the Botany tribe to kill him in their own way.
J. McE.


Father McEncroe's letter appeared on page 5 of The Sydney Morning Herald of Monday, 27th April 1863.


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