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On this public holiday, Labour Day or Eight-hour Day, we should be singing the songs of the workers. Songs like The Eight-hours System, a little history lesson in its own right, ending with the rousing stanza:

Eight hours to sleep in midnight deep.
Eight hours of toil a day:
Eight hours to rove in learning’s grove.
For pleasure and for play.

Or something more recent, like The Eight-Hour Day, which just seems to become more and more relevant.

But no, we spent the day at the Manly Jazz Festival, listening to songs of a different ilk. It was good to be in Manly, with the sun on my face and a light breeze blowing, as I’ve just read the section of Grace Karskens’ essential book, The Colony, in which she talks of the naming of Manly Cove. The core of the story is well known – as Governor Phillip entered Port Jackson, seeking an alternative to Botany Bay for the settlement, his boat was approached by about twenty Aboriginal men who Phillip found to be so ‘manly’ that he called the place ‘Manly Cove’. Those men would have called it Kay-ye-my but Phillip failed to ask the men about this.

In passing near a point of land in this harbour, the boats were perceived by a number of the natives, twenty of whom waded into the water unarmed, received what was offered them, and examined the boat with a curiosity which impressed a higher idea of them than any former accounts of their manners had suggested. This confidence, and manly behaviour, induced Governor Phillip, who was highly pleased with it, the give the place the name of Manly Cove.[1]

Two years later, Manly Cove was the place of an important interaction between the Aboriginal people and the British. The story started with a whale. In July 1790, four British men in a small boat came upon a whale in the harbour, ‘… (for the first time since we have been here) …spouting and dashing about in their usual manner. This monstrous creature, either through being mischievous or playful, no sooner espied the boat then he pursued and never left her till he had overturned and sent her to the bottom.’[2]Three of the four men drowned (the fourth was ‘sadly affected, and indeed disordered’) and the whale was subsequently pursued and harpooned. It died of its wounds and washed up in Manly Cove.

In September, a small party of British, accompanied by Nanbaree, an Aboriginal boy adopted by the colony’s surgeon, John White, when he was orphaned by the smallpox, landed at Manly Cove, intending to walk to Broken Bay. They came across a large group of Aboriginal people, including Bennelong, feasting on the remains of the whale. The two groups met without incident, and as the British were leaving they were given ‘three or four great junks of the whale … the largest of which Bennelong expressly requested might be offered, in his name, to the governor.’ Phillip was nearby, at South Head, and on hearing the news ‘procured all the firearms which could be mustered there, consisting of four muskets and a pistol’ and set out for Manly Cove.

According to Watkin Tench (an officer of the First Fleet commissioned by a publisher before his departure for Botany Bay to write an account of the voyage) this second boat was also well received by the feasters, and Phillip was conversing with Bennelong when ‘a native with a spear in his hand came forward, and stopped at the distance of between twenty and thirty yards from the place where the governor, Mr Collins, Lieutenant Waterhouse and a seaman stood.’ Phillip threw down the knife that he wore on his belt – an act which he understood to be one of peace – and walked towards the man, but the Aboriginal man – Wileemarin – threw his spear, wounding Phillip in the shoulder. [3]

This incident is the subject of much analysis by Inga Clendinnen, the author of the other essential book on early Sydney – Dancing with Strangers. She argues, very persuasively, that this spearing was a ritual act, ‘where Phillip would face a single spear-throw in penance for his and his people’s many offences’.[4]She conjectures that Wileemarin would have expected Phillip to deflect it, as Aboriginal warriors would have done, and was confused by Phillip approaching him rather than standing his ground in order to evade it.

I wonder if the timing of this ritual act may be explained by the arrival of the Second Fleet in June 1790. This was a disaster for all involved, with hundreds dying during the voyage and hundreds more sick and dying landed at Sydney. If the Aboriginal people hadn’t been worried by the ‘many offences’ of the British up until then, how would they have felt on seeing this new group of settlers?

[1]The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay, 1789 http://adc.library.usyd.edu.au/data-2/phivoya.pdf

[2]Daniel Southwell, 27 July 1790, quoted in The birth of Sydney, Tim Flannery, Text Publishing, 1999, p104.

[3]Watkin Tench, 7 September 1790, quoted in The birth of Sydney, Tim Flannery, Text Publishing, 1999, p107.

[4]Inga Clendinnen, Dancing with Strangers, Text Publishing, 2003, p124.