Governor Phillip’s voyage to New South Wales and the first year of the colony are recorded in a book published by John Stockdale in London in 1789[1]. There can be no question, from reading these accounts, that the British understood that the land they had started to clear and plunder was owned by other people. Much of the volume reports their encounters with tribes of Aboriginal people – people who took them to their encampments, who helped them to find water, to make fires, to find shelter. People who Phillip realises, within his first 12 months in NSW, were farming the land with fire, knew how to process foods to make them edible (removing the ‘noxious qualities’ from ‘the kernels of that fruit which resembles a pine-apple’ – the cycad[2]), and ‘are not without notions of sculpture’[3] – his response to the rock carvings of ‘figures of animals, of shields, and weapons, and even of men’. He holds their apparent lack of clothing or permanent shelter against them, but contemplates on the fact that they have developed ‘the arts of imitation and amusement … [which] seems an exception to the rules laid down by theory for the progress of invention.’[4] He follows this train of thought by adding that it may just be that they don’t need clothing and shelter and that ‘had these men been exposed to a colder atmosphere, they would doubtless have had clothes and houses, before they attempted to become sculptors.’ He has a high regard for their courage and bravery and their ‘lack of treachery’.

Phillip’s main purpose in his dealings with the Aboriginal people seems to be based on a blind belief that British influence will improve their lot. He cannot help but believe that, once the Aboriginal people start to mix with ‘their new countrymen’ they will ‘enrich themselves with some of their implements, and to learn and adopt some of the most useful and necessary of their arts.’ He allows himself the doubt ‘whether many of the accommodations of civilized life, be not more than counterbalanced by the artificial wants to which they give birth’ but steadies himself with the thought that they would be teaching ‘the shivering savage how to clothe his body, and to shelter himself completely from the cold and wet, and to put into the hands of men, ready to perish for one half of the year with hunger, the means of procuring constant and abundant provision, must be to confer upon them the benefits of the highest value and importance.’[5] This despite the fact that he has previously acknowledged both that their needs for clothing and shelter are limited, and that his colony is depriving them of their food stocks.

He believes that the land can only be improved by blind adherence to British principles too.

Nothing can more fully point out the great improvement which may be made by the industry of a civilized people in this country, than the circumstances of the small streams which descend into Port Jackson. [By clearing the streams of all obstacles they will flow more freely, be ‘more useful’, and the adjacent ground will be drained] … habitable and salubrious situations will be gained where at present perpetual damps prevail, and the air itself appears to stagnate.[6]

Phillip acknowledges that the presence of the British is not welcome. In a journey of exploration between Port Jackson and Broken Bay his group encounters a party of about 60 Aboriginal people: “Some hours were passed with them in a peaceful and very friendly manner, but … they seemed best pleased when their visitors were preparing to depart. This has always been the case, since it has been known among them that our people intend to remain on the coast.”[7] Despite this sensitivity to the feelings of the Aboriginal people, Phillip has no qualms about digging open a mound, suspected of being a grave. What punishment for grave-robbing in England?


[1] The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay, London 1789 (facsimile edition Hutchinson 1982)
[2] p135
[3] p106
[4] p107
[5] p141
[6] p98
[7] p133