April 18, 2020 12:01:06
James Cook first sighted the Australian continent 250 years ago this month, and went on to claim it as British territory.
But few of us have ever heard the story of this moment as told by the first inhabitants of this land.
On April 19, 1770, the crew of Endeavour first laid eyes on the Australian coast at Tolywiarar now known as Point Hicks in Victoria’s East Gippsland.
The following day, they rounded the south-eastern tip of the Australian mainland and sailed into Yuin country.
“Our old people, they saw him and they handed stories down,” Warren Foster said.
‘We had to keep an eye on that boat’
Mr Foster is a Djiringanj Yuin traditional knowledge holder.
He described how, to his ancestors, Endeavour swimming on the ocean with its large white sails, resembled Gurung-gubba the pelican.
“Now the story of Gurung-gubba, he’s a real greedy fella,” Mr Foster said.
“When you’re fishing he’ll come and steal your fish. So, you had to watch him.
“And just the same as us watching him when we’re fishing, we had to keep an eye out on that boat.”
As Endeavour sailed past, the Yuin people lit fires on headlands to warn others further up the coast.
“On all them points, you only had fires there in ceremony time,” Mr Foster said.
“So when people saw the smoke burning, they were curious.
“And when they went and had a look they saw this white boat sailing.”
Cook sights smoke along shoreline
On April 21, Cook wrote in his journal:
“In the p.m. we saw the smoke of fire in several places; a certain sign that the country is inhabited.”
Over the following days as Endeavour progressed northward toward Gamay, known today as Botany Bay.
Cook’s repeatedly noted in his journal the sight of smoke along the shore after dark.
“Them old people knew that there was something strange about this boat,” Mr Foster said.
“And eventually, this pelican would sail in, and he did eventually scoop up everything and steal everything off us.”
The same day Cook first saw smoke on the shore, Endeavor sailed past Gulaga, the Yuin people’s sacred mother mountain on the far-south coast of New South Wales.
Cook’s journal captured the moment:
“At 6 we were abreast of a pretty high mountain laying near the shore which, on account of its figure, I named Mount Dromedary.”
But, while Cook looked at the mountain and saw a camel, the Yuin people saw a woman laying down.
“Gulaga is as sacred to us as Uluru is to the Mutitjulu mob out in the desert,” Mr Foster said.
“She gave birth to all the Yuin people.
“To name her after a camel is an insult our people.”
Moved to reserves, cultural practices forbidden
The Yuin people were heavily impacted by the arrival of European settlers.
More than a century after Cook first surveyed the coast, an Aboriginal reserve was established at the foot of Gulaga at Wallaga Lake.
Aboriginal people from across southern NSW and Victoria were moved onto the reserve where their lives were tightly controlled.
Traditional languages and cultural practices were forbidden and generations of families lived with the threat of removal of their children.
The reserve was abolished after the 1967 referendum and in 1983, after decades of activism, the local Aboriginal community gained ownership of the land.
The former reserve became the Wallaga Lake Koori Village where Mr Foster has always lived.
‘I feel privileged and grateful’
And while cultural knowledge has been lost over two centuries of dispossession, dislocation and control, a lot of knowledge has been maintained.
“Our old people knew the importance of keeping culture,” Mr Foster said.
“Even if that meant being quiet about it [being] secretive so that other people didn’t see it.
“Even our own people, it was hidden from them, because they had to find the ones who were trustworthy to keep it, and keep it going.
“I feel privileged and grateful that our old people preserved our culture, and kept ceremony going.”
And, for Mr Foster, the deep connection to the sacred mother mountain remains unbroken.
“We look at Gulaga for guidance and strength,” he said.
“It helps us spiritually knowing that she’s always there and we live at the foot of her.
“And when we travel up and down the coast it’s the first thing we look for to know we’re home.”
In 2006, Gulaga was handed back to its traditional owners in a joint management agreement with the NSW Government.
She is known, once again, by her true name.
The National Museum has partnered with the ABC in an ABC iview series featuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people sharing the original names of the places Captain Cook renamed on his voyage of the east coast.
Walking Together is taking a look at our nation’s reconciliation journey, where we’ve been and asks the question where do we go next?
Join us as we listen, learn and share stories from across the country, that unpack the truth-telling of our history and embrace the rich culture and language of Australia’s First People.
More stories from Walking Together:
April 18, 2020 11:51:23
Contact Vanessa Milton
stories from New South Wales