Australia in the 1780s

Cultural differences

On 26 January 1788, the British government through Governor Arthur Phillip (1738–1814) claimed sovereignty over the area that Captain James Cook had named New South Wales. They also claimed ownership of the land through the legal concept of terra nullius (land belonging to no-one), ignoring the already existing land ownership and lore of the Indigenous peoples there. Land was at the centre of the conflict between the Sydney clans and the British colonists.

In 1787 Lord Sydney of the Colonial Office had officially recognised the presence of Indigenous inhabitants by giving instructions to Governor Phillip to open friendly communications with them and encourage the convicts and marines to show them kindness. His instructions included measures of protection for the local Indigenous people, and punishments for those who harmed them. The British did not, however, acknowledge Indigenous ownership of the land.

The people of the First Fleet did not understand the ways of the local Indigenous peoples they encountered, and their diaries and journals record the lack of respect that many members of the First Fleet had for local Indigenous people.

The colonists did not understand the diversity of Indigenous Australian nations, each with a distinct language and culture, or the complexity of Indigenous systems of lore. For example, an important understanding is to seek permission to enter another group's country. On seeing the First Fleet, the Cadigal people ran down to the water's edge and shook their spears at them. But the Cadigal people were outnumbered and overpowered by the technology the strangers possessed.

Within a few days of landing at Port Jackson, the new colonists cut down trees, erected tents to house more than 1,000 people and tethered animals. They had claimed the land as Crown land and believed they could take and use anything on the land. The British Government did not acknowledge that Indigenous people had any rights to the land.

A good supply of fresh food was important for the British and when they brought back to shore their large catches of fish they could not understand the expectations of the Cadigal people to receive a portion of the catch. The Cadigal people had a very different way of working, with different value systems to the British. When fish were caught or other food sources gathered it was often customary to share a portion of this with others. The Cadigal people did not have the same concept of private property as the British and shared things communally. They placed less value on possessions that the British highly valued. It was easy for cultural misunderstandings to take place as their world views and languages were very different.

Cultural differences_1780

A snapshot of 1788

  • January
    • Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet sailed into Port Jackson.
    • The wife of Sergeant Thomas Whittle of the marines gave birth to the first non-Indigenous child born in the colony.

  • February
    • The first female convicts arrived at Port Jackson.
    • The Court of Criminal Justice Jurisdiction sat for the first time in the colony.

  • March
    • Lieutenant Philip Gidley King took formal possession of Norfolk Island.

  • June
    • The last of the cattle that arrived on the First Fleet strayed from the settlement. Some of the animals were still being found seven years later.

  • November
    • A colonial settlement was established at Rose Hill.

  • December
    • Governor Phillip ordered the capture of Arabanoo, a Cadigal man, to find out about Cadigal language and customs.


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