Cook and His Aborigines

I recently read an article in The Conversation by Alison Page, Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Technology Sydney, about James Cook and his contact with Indigenous Australians when he sailed up the eastern coastline of what he named as ‘New South Wales’ 250 years ago. Page portrays the encounters from an indigenous historic perspective and includes a diary entry by James Cook that not only sheds light on the real Aborigines, before Europeans invaded [my word] and settled their land, but also gives an insight into Cook himself.

Cook wrote:

From what I have said of the Natives of New-Holland, they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholy unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniencies so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them.

They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life; they covet not Magnificent Houses, Houshold-stuff […]

[…] they live in a warm and fine Climate and enjoy a very wholsome Air, so that they have very little need of Clothing and this they seem to be fully sencible of, for many to whome we gave Cloth to, left it carlessly upon the Sea beach and in the woods as a thing they had no manner of use for.

In short they seem’d to set no Value upon any thing we gave them, nor would they ever part with any thing of their own for any one article we could offer them; this, in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life and that they have no Superfluities —

This I fear will lead me to read more about James Cook, the man, and currently the obvious choice is probably Peter Fitzsimons’ latest book of the same name. I have read and enjoyed a number of Fitzsimons’ books and although he has attracted some criticism for his style and the fact that he employs a veritable army of researchers assisting him, it is the latter that holds promise that I might learn more about the man who was one of history’s greatest explorers.

Of course Cook and is not a complete stranger to me. His Australian landing place at Kurnell in Sydney has been visited on several occasions and we have “bumped into” him on our travels around the Pacific. We have seen him remembered in Fiji, Hawaii and far away Vancouver.

Getting back to the Aboriginal people, I can’t help but recall what I read not long ago and included in my post “Aboriginal Australians and Guns, Germs and Steel”:

“The reason we think of Aborigines as desert people is simply that Europeans killed or drove them out of the most desirable areas, leaving the last intact Aboriginal populations only in areas that Europeans didn’t want”

As a result it is probably fair to say that Indigenous Australians are generally no longer “far more happier than we Europeans,” as Cook described them. Understanding and accepting the importance of the ancient non-materialistic culture with its attachment to “Country” appears to be very difficult for many non-indigenous Australians.

Alison Page’s article certainly contributed to giving me a better knowledge of our history from a black as well as a white perspective. She ends her article with the following conclusion:

“Revealing our shared history is the only way to make peace with those ghostly visitors of the past. But we will only find that peace in the truth and it’s the truth of our history, which will be our new voyage of discovery.”

Aussie Sacrifices

What extraordinary times we are currently experiencing with the Covid-19 pandemic, which will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the significant events of modern times. Around the world people are being told by their governments of the need to make sacrifices in order to combat this Corona virus. To many, the imposed restrictions are seen as a virtual infringement on their personal liberties, impinging on individual rights, their lifestyle and for many their employment. In the main, these sacrifices have been borne well by the Australian community; a testament to our dichotomous culture of individualistic larrykinism and a communal spirit of “mateship.” The underlying acknowledgement of the need for a disciplined approach to this challenge, shown by the average citizen and the nation’s leaders appears to be making the sacrifices worthwhile.

Sapper Alfred Ernest Morrison

But today my mind also goes to other Aussie sacrifices as we prepare for a very different Anzac Day tomorrow. This day is important to a vast number of Australian (and or course New Zealanders) but it will be a very private Anzac Day this year while we are ‘social distancing.’ My private reflections will be of the sacrifices made by my own father, Alfred Ernest Morrison, in WW2.

At the age of 24, Alf was tall and athletic, a good all round sportsman. Sapper Morrison (NX300730) after enlisting in the 8th Division A.I.F. in June 1940, trained at Liverpool and Bathurst before sailing to Singapore with the 2/12 Field Company in August 1941. Not long after his arrival the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941. This was closely followed by attacks on Malaya and Singapore leading to the Fall of Singapore on 15 August 1942 and his capture and internment as a prisoners of war (POW).

He returned home after the war in October 1945 and throughout his life he spoke very little of his wartime experiences, but the following accounts from various authors illustrate some of the sacrifices he and thousands of other made, for us.

Map of the Railway and the POW Camps (for 70th Anniversary of the Thai-Burma Railway, Australian Railway Museum, 2013)

Changi Gaol was home for thousands of Allied prisoners for three and half years except for external work parties. Various “Forces” were dispatched to Japan, Borneo, Thailand and Burma to provide ‘slave’ labour for the Japanese war effort. In April 1942 Alf was part of the 7,000 strong “F” Force (3,444 British and nearly 3,600 Australians) that left Changi to work on the notorious Thailand to Burma railway, proposed to facilitate the invasion of India. “F” Force was later described as being “nine months of hell” and suffered the highest percentage of deaths of any Force on the railway.

The railway was 415km (258m) long starting at Ban Pong in Thailand and finishing at Thanbyuzayat in Burma. Between 180,000 and 250,000 civilian labourers and about 61,000 Allied prisoners of war worked as forced (slave) labourers during its construction and about 90,000 civilian labourers and more than 12,000 Allied prisoners died.
(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burma_Railway)

“The work was so physically exhausting that some men died at work and were carried back to camp to be cremated. The work involved digging the cuttings, building the embankments and keeping the roads between camps open by cutting logs and laying them on the mud to make a ‘corduroy’ road.”
(Arneil, Stan, ‘One Man’s War’, Macmillan, Sydney, 1980, p.92)

When the remnants of “F” Force returned to Changi just prior to Christmas 1942, Arneil recalls that they were “… at the very end of our physical resources…” and that at Changi “We have at last fallen into a prisoners paradise…”

“All prisoners of the Japanese wherever they were starved to the brink of death and thus we were not shocked by emaciated bodies.  … Even so, we were totally unprepared for the human wreckage which returned to Changi as the survivors of “F” Force. In the trucks sat slowing moving skeletons emaciated almost beyond belief, many with dreadful sores and peeling skin, some unable to move and others so light that a Changi prisoner had no difficulty in lifting them.”
(Wall, Don, “Heros of F Force”, 1993, p.140)

The survivors of “F” Force (like so many of those that have served our country) displayed the discipline and comradeship that has been an inspiration and a further example of the Anzac spirit. On the Thai-Burma railway:

Anzac Day March

“… The Australians concentrated solely on the business of living, almost ‘willing’ themselves to live.”
(Arneil, p.91)

On Anzac Day 2020, remembering the sacrifices that my father and others made for us, puts our current predicament into some sort of perspective. Of course the Covid-19 pandemic brings some loss of lives, hardships and sacrifices to the high standard of living. However the example of the sacrifices made by our parents and grandparent has surely made it possible for us to endure this current situation and look forward positively to the future.

Aboriginal Australians and Guns, Germs and Steel

This long title covers two matters that I address in this blog post. I start with a brief (completely inadequate) synopsis of the book by Professor Jared Diamond entitled Guns, Germs and Steel and variously subtitled A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years, in 1997 when it was first published, or more recently in the 20th anniversary edition, The Fates of Human Societies. This book, which only recently came to my attention, won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1998 and is widely considered one of the best nonfiction books of all time. I will then look at how Diamond’s theory relates to Aboriginal Australians.

Professor Diamond proposed to take a scientific look at the history of the differential development of societies across the world in an effort to explain how and why they are different. He stresses that he has taken a completely non-racist approach to this question.

Diamond’s premise is that the evolution of human societies follows a certain path. Homo sapiens started off as small groups of hunter-gatherers, becoming sedentary farmers, enabling formation of villages, towns and cities (and finally nation states) where crafts, innovation, writing and governments developed.

He argues that “Eurasian civilization is not so much a product of ingenuity, but of opportunity and necessity. That is, civilization is not created out of superior intelligence [genetic superiority], but is the result of a chain of developments, each made possible by certain preconditions.” (Wikipedia)

The basic driver for the development societies was food production. Back to Wikipedia, Diamond argues “geographic, climatic and environmental characteristics which favoured early development of stable agricultural societies ultimately led to immunity to diseases endemic in agricultural animals and the development of powerful, organized states capable of dominating others”.

Eurasia gained an early advantage due to the greater availability of suitable plant and animal species for domestication. The basic staple crops and domesticated animals that make up the bulk of the world’s diet had their origin in the Fertile Crescent where early civilisation thrived. In those early times these plants and animal did not exist in, or could not be diffused to, other parts of the world because of different climates, growing, seasons or geographical barriers to their movement. It was only from the sixteenth century that it was possible to export these plants and animals to other parts of the world with similar conditions.

Let’s look at Australia and Aboriginal Australians.

Firstly, Diamond tells us [what we Aussies already know] that “Australia is by far the driest, smallest, flattest, most infertile, climatically most unpredictable, and biologically most impoverished continent”.

He also contends that “most laypeople would describe as the most salient feature of Native Australian societies their seeming ‘backwardness.’ Australia is the sole continent where, in modern times, all native peoples still lived without any of the hallmarks of so-called civilization—without farming, herding, metal, bows and arrows, substantial buildings, settled villages, writing, chiefdoms, or states. Instead, Australian Aborigines were nomadic or semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, organized into bands, living in temporary shelters or huts, and still dependent on stone tools”. The question is, why?

The simple answer is that Aboriginal Australians had no other option than to remain hunter-gatherers. There is not a single animal indigenous to Australia that could be (or has ever been) domesticated and farmed as a food source. Similarly the only plant indigenous to Australia that has ever been farmed is the macadamia. Hence the people had to live off the land as small groups of nomads. They were unable to create permanent settlements that could develop into villages, towns and cities. The other main (geographic) factor inhibiting Aboriginal Australian development was the remoteness.

Many other characteristics of how and why Aboriginal Australians lived can be explained in the approach Diamond takes in his book.  “The reason we think of Aborigines as desert people is simply that Europeans killed or drove them out of the most desirable areas, leaving the last intact Aboriginal populations only in areas that Europeans didn’t want”. The story is the same for native Americans.

Diamond also explains his theory with regards the development throughout the world in North and South America, Africa, China, Japan, Korea and South-East Asia, New Guinea and the Pacific Islands. The improvements in food production and the consequential “civilising” effects on the various locations and societies is a factor of geography and often the starting dates from which that process started.

Aboriginal Australians never had the opportunity to start that process before Europeans arrived.