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A tale of two histories
By Jonathan King
17 January 2005 – There will be no official celebration for tomorrow’s 217th anniversary
of the First Fleet’s arrival at Botany Bay. But the story will be remembered by at least one Aboriginal family.
You whitefellas have gotta have your own dreamtime stories. If you bury ’em, you’ll have no past, won’t know where you have come from and won’t know how to find your way into the future. » Aboriginal activist, the late Charlie Perkins, in 1988.
Until the 1980s, the arrival of the First Fleet was re-enacted every Australia Day by white Australians. A square-rigged tall ship would anchor in Farm Cove. Spectators lined the shore cheering as actors in 18th-century style uniforms and three-pointed tricorn hats rowed ashore.
The annual event was organised by historical societies and enthusiasts (including this writer), but there was moral support and financial backing from the Festival of Sydney and the Australia Day Council.
The aim was to remind people that European settlement was founded on January 26, 1788.
But this Australia Day there will be no official mention of this First Fleet – let alone first European settlement – by the Festival of Sydney or the Australia Day Council.
Once heralded as Australia’s « founding father », the hapless First Fleet leader, Captain Arthur Phillip – through no apparent fault of his own – has also fallen from grace. Phillip hardly rates a mention in some Australian school history courses, especially in NSW.
The State Government was not involved in any historical events to celebrate Australia Day, said a spokesman for the Premier’s Department, which partly funds the Australia Day Council. « The Premier is a well-established historian who personally appreciates the
significance of Australia Day, but he also lives in the modern world, » the spokesman said.
A spokesman for the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, said « historical re-enactments went out of vogue a few years ago ».
There is no mention of any such activities in the 2005 Australia Day Council program. « If it’s an entertaining day in the park you’re after on Australia Day, then you’ve got it all, » the program says. The Hyde Park schedule boasts family activities, a jazz concert, a
festival of food stalls, barbecues and a series of sponsored events including a tyre-
changing competition. There are ferry races in the harbour, country music in The Rocks and an RAAF display by the Roulettes.
But there is only one historical event: an indigenous welcome ceremony called Woggan-ma-gule, performed by the Garrabarra dance company at Farm Cove.
When asked why these fun-filled events were still held to mark January 26 – despite the absence of any reference to the First Fleet – the council’s publicity officer, Lyndel Molloy, pauses.
« That’s a good question. I do know that, but I wil have to get back to you once I have consulted my documents. » Molloy was unavailable for subsequent comment.
Ironically, the only people who will still be publicly discussing the First Fleet on Australia Day are Aboriginal people at La Perouse on the northern shore of Botany Bay, where Cook visited in 1770 and where Phillip arrived 217 years ago tomorrow, in 1788.
These include members of the Timbery family who were there when Cook – and later Phillip – dropped anchor. (La Perouse was named after the French navigator Comte de la Perouse who led a scientific expedition to New Holland, landing at Botany Bay on January 26, 1788.)
Timberys still live in the area. Their ancestors talked about the arrival of the colonialists so their descendants might remember in decades to come. One of their ancestors, known only as Timbere, King of the Five Islands, was sketched in 1819 by the Louis de
Freycinet expedition artist Jacques Arago. (Arago spelt the Aboriginal leader’s name
« Timbere ».)
Every year on Australia Day, storytellers such as Laddie Timbery show tourists where events took place at La Perouse, in between demonstrating and selling homemade boomerangs.
Another descendent, amateur historian Joanne Timbery, is writing a book, The Survivors: The Timbery Family from Captain Cook to Today.
« You see, we’ve got all that stuff in our blood because our Timbery ancestors helped Captain Cook, » says Joanne Timbery, a teacher’s aide at Matraville Soldiers Settlement primary school and a mother of four. « They showed him freshwater creeks and the best
fishing spots. Timberys are naturally friendly and want to shareeverything. »
Timbery said her ancestors also welcomed Captain Arthur Phillip, showing him the best fresh water sources and fishing spots and even offering his crew their women.
Although the Aborigines were friendly from the start, her grandfather and father had always told her the whites responded badly and that « Captain Arthur Phillip’s men later raped our women and murdered our men and were not even punished for that – even though they definitely raped our women repeatedly.
« But it all happened – it would be wrong to deny it. You cannot sweep it under the carpet, even though I feel very sad about that.
« The whites put us down and never gave us any reward for helping Cook and Phillip, yet we’ve gotta keep telling the story to teach the younger ones. It’s our story of survival. I don’t feel any anger now because at least we are still alive. »
Had her ancestors fought back. Timbery believes « we would not be here today. We compromised so they did not wipe us out. We are still on the same land and we survived. That is what my book is all about. »
The Timbery family survives and managed to preserve the family’s name and story with generational retelling of the story of Cook and Phillip to anyone who asked.
In 1816 Governor Lachlan Macquarie crowned Joanne Timbery’s ancestor Joe Timbere King of the Five Islands at a gathering of Aborigines in Parramatta. Colonial governors presented engraved breastplates to each king so the government could sort the different
Aboriginal groups. Timbere was given five islands, clustered off Wollongong. His reastplate was lost for 90 years before turning up in an excavation site at La Perouse in 1929. It is now stored at the Mitchell Library.
In 1819 Timbere posed for the portrait by Arago. It is now owned by the Mitchell Library. Joanne Timbery’s grandfather, Joe, presented his handmade boomerangs to the Queen on her 1954 royal tour.
A world-champion boomerang thrower, Joe taught visitors, including the rock group Abba, how to throw them. A storyteller who helped keep the Botany Bay stories alive, Joe also wrote poetry, some of which was published.
Joanne’s grandmother, Hazel, spoke seven dialects and taught traditional language and culture. Her father, also called Joe, made boomerangs as well paintings and wooden carvings that depicted traditional landscapes. He also kept the stories alive, visiting schools where he taught children about the arrival of Captain Cook and Captain Phillip from the Aboriginal point of view.
Members of the extended family continue to tell their version of the European arrivals, paint, make boomerangs anddemonstrate how to throw them – especially on Australia Day.
« Our name Timbery comes from the word timber because we have always worked so closely with wood, » Joanne Timbery says. She has also told traditional stories at Matraville primary school where she says « the kids loved it and they want me to do it again ».
Such stories of survival are now critical to our understanding of Botany Bay, believes Monash University historian Dr Maria Nugent.
« By telling the stories of early contacts with Europeans for their own purposes as survival stories, they enable us to look at history through a new lens. »
Nugent, a lecturer in Monash’s school of historical studies, has been studying the La Perouse Aboriginal communities since 1985 and this year plans to publish a book Botany Bay – where histories meet.
Nugent says the stories of dispossession and survival against the odds are needed to compensate for « a blind spot in white history ». Aboriginal recall of events provides « a counterpoint to whites forgetting », she says.
« There has been a sense of denial about certain aspects of our history since the 1988 Bicentenary, which is a backward step as you can’t make political points with history that belongs to Aborigines. »
Though we might forget – or choose to erase aspects of our past – « the Aborigines won’t forget what happened.
« History is as important to Aborigines as to whites. They are very active storytellers and even though it must have been a big burden for the La Perouse people to be constantly reminded of the white arrival by the geographical presence of Botany Bay itself, Captain
Cook is now incorporated into their history.
« Captain Cook is a useful symbol as he confirms their rightful possession of Botany Bay and their survival against great odds.
« As the Aborigines of La Perouse have always been in such a marginal position, La Perouse itself has become a symbol of this survival as they are still there, despite repeated efforts to expel them. »
If the history of Botany Bay is to be representative, Australians need to blend both stories, black and white, rather than expunge one version or another, says Nugent.
« They should not be pitted against each other. » Both should be told to each generation, Nugent says.
Source: Sydney Morning Herald
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