If a flying saucer landed on the outskirts of a Nebraska farming town and the locals completely ignored it, and went about their humdrum business, they’d be sneered at as brain-dead rednecks.

What if the aliens persisted in trying to get attention by walking into the town square? And the cornhuskers responded by firing a few shots, before running away in a blind panic, leaving a couple of infants behind to face the Menace from Beyond the Stars alone?

We’d damn the overall-clad hayseeds as vicious cowards.

When Captain James Cook sailed the Endeavour into Botany Bay, it was for the local Aborigines’ just as if a flying saucer landed in the 21st century. So, how did they react?

No one on the beach waved: several armed men made threatening motions. Near the bay entrance were four canoes whose occupants were fishing and took no notice of the ship […]

Banks wondered if these men were deafened by the sounds of the surf and had not noticed them. Perhaps they were hungry and fish were present. At one point the canoes returned to the shore and the catch was immediately prepared for eating, everyone seemingly unconcerned with the presence of the Endeavour about half a mile distant.

So, the aliens walked into the town square, as it were.

Cook attempted to make contact but was rebuffed. [Botanical artist Sydney Parkinson] wrote that the locals called out something sounding like “Warra warra wai” and threw spears and stones. It was not very welcoming.

Somewhat curiously, given the huge divergence in the hundreds of Aboriginal languages across Australia (early explorers soon learned that bringing an Aboriginal interpreter along was often useless, as groups from different localities couldn’t understand one another), the same cry was repeated across the continent.

The historian Keith Vincent Smith has noted that “Warra wai” was recorded at times of first contact in Botany Bay in 1770, in both Botany Bay and Sydney Cove in 1788, Oyster Bay in Tasmania in 1791, and in Western Australia at the Swan River in 1829. Smith also cites a family letter by Daniel Southwell, written at Sydney Cove in 1788, which gives a different impression of the usage: “The ships saluted at sunrise, noon and sunset, which must have frightened the warra warras, for so we call the blacks, from their constant cry of ‘warra’ at everything they see that is new.”

Returning to Botany Bay, the visiting aliens soon got a rude – and violent – rebuff.
When the Endeavour moored in Botany Bay, Cook asked for help, in a search for water, and was refused – violently.

As Joseph Banks recorded, the indifference to their arrival led the explorers to assume they could safely land. “We were in this however mistaken.” As soon as the British approached the Aborigines, they were greeted with harsh shouts and threatening spears. The British tried to signal that they needed water, but the threats continued. A shot was fired over their heads, but this didn’t deter the Aborigines.

Of course the National Museum of Australia describes what followed in terms designed to make the British look as bad as possible.

Attempts to communicate failed, so Cook’s party forced a landing under gunfire […] one of the men was shot and injured.

No mention of the Aborigines throwing spears (as they did). Nor that the “gunfire” was small musket shot that couldn’t even penetrate the skin. As Banks noted, “it struck him on the legs but he minded it very little”.

The museum’s account continues:

After […] the Gweagal retreated. Cook and his men then entered their camp. They took artefacts and left trinkets in exchange. Seven days later, after little further interaction with Gweagal people, the Endeavour’s crew sailed away.

This alone debunks the contemporary whinge that the spears in question were “stolen”. The “trinkets” were objects that indigenous peoples invariably prized highly, though they seem mere “trinkets” to us moderns. So, for a couple of dozen workaday tools, the Aborigines received valuable gifts.

But Cook and his men discovered something else in the abandoned camp, which the museum and modern activists don’t like to mention.

We went up to the houses, in one of which we found the children hid behind the shield and a piece of bark in one of the houses. We were conscious from the distance the people had been from us when we fired that the shot could have done them no material harm; we therefore resolved to leave the children on the spot without even opening their shelter. We therefore threw into the house to them some beads, ribbands, cloths etc. as presents and went away.

So, the aliens invade our putative Midwest modern town, the locals fire a few shots and then skedaddled. But they leave their kids behind to face the alien menace alone.

What sort of parents abandon their children like this? The camp kids, surely used to wandering freely about, have been placed in a house – Parkinson’s sketch shows a rough shelter of branches. Have they been deserted or forgotten by their fearful and careless parents? Surely their placement and confinement are deliberate […]

From an Aboriginal perspective the children were not “found” by Cook and Banks, they were “given” by the Aborigines to famished spirits.

We’re constantly exhorted to re-examine these events from the Aboriginal perspective, after all.

Doing so, however, doesn’t exactly cast those Aborigines of Botany Bay in 1776 in the best light.

The Aborigines showed they were culturally incapable of dealing with outsiders without invoking their own rules of violence […]

If we are to see the past from both perspectives, as so many of us wish, then the original brutality of Aboriginal life has to be investigated and brought into our history writing. An inclusive ship-and-shore history needs truth, not invented oral histories, which should be named and removed.


Lest anyone doubt the brutality of Aboriginal existence at the time, consider another incident, this time in 1803. British settlers were present when an Aboriginal man fell from a high tree, fracturing his leg. The elders decided that the injuries were incurable – and promptly set up a pile of brush-wood and burned the unfortunate man alive.

Activists today make a great song and dance about “truth telling”.

So, let’s tell all the truth.

Punk rock philosopher. Liberalist contrarian. Grumpy old bastard. I grew up in a generational-Labor-voting family. I kept the faith long after the political left had abandoned it. In the last decade...