‘They have attack’d almost every person who has met with them’ – Re-reading William Bradley

In a previous post I discussed finding the name Bloody Point in Lieutenant William Bradley’s log book that had just been donated to the Australian National Maritime Museum. This honest place-naming of the most gruesome, violent event that had then occurred between the colonists and the Sydney people in 1788, made me revisit Bradley’s journal.

As a junior officer, the more senior colonists including his captain John Hunter didn’t give great credit to his work, and Hunter took much of it for himself. Indeed, Hunter largely ignored many of the place names Bradley had allocated around the harbour he surveyed in early 1788.

When checking Bradley’s journal again, it also seems workmanlike and honest – not (at least initially) written for audiences back in London as many others were. He was also, unlike other diarists, keen to note what events he personally witnessed, and what were told to him by others. So I decided to check Bradley’s journal and examine his notes on instances of conflict. I was looking to see if his daily record of events, as I suspected, shows a pattern of increasing conflict between the colonisers and the Sydney people during 1788.

In late January 1788, Bradley reported how the people they first met at Botany Bay were ‘Well disposed to us’ and for two days ‘our People & the Natives were mixed together’. In the first two weeks at Sydney Cove, he said ‘Men, Women & Children’ were ‘very friendly’. At the ‘Middle Branch’, they ‘met us in the most cheerful manner’ and ‘danced with us’ and at Spring Cove on the north shore Bradley met ‘several canoes’ and the people ‘had so much confidence in us’ they ‘mixed together and were quite sociable’.

Bradley also noted how the men were reluctant to allow the Europeans near women. He admired their tactical good sense, as even when ‘socialising’ they ‘had Arms ready to protect them’ {women}, or had someone guarding their weapons, which ‘increased my favourable opinion of them’. In the last few days of January Bradley recorded nine instances of communication that he witnessed, and only one of conflict (a spear thrown), and that was reported to him.

A view in upper part of Port Jackson; when the fish was shot, 1788 / possibly by William Bradley 
Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

During the month of February however he recorded several times where ‘the natives would not come nearer the camp’ or ‘ran off in great confusion’. But there also appeared to be a growing acceptance of the colonists – gifts of fish were readily received and Bradley witnessed several women fishing who ‘felt no interruption from our boat being among them’. There were two reports of conflict. On the 9th of February he wrote that the French under La Perouse at Botany Bay ‘had been obliged to fire on the Natives’ ‘to keep them quiet’ and at Garden Island how some Sydney men stole axes and shovels, ‘but not without their skin being well pepper’d with small shot’. Still, he recorded personally observing ten instances of ‘communication’ and only two of conflict.

In March, Bradley reported six instances of conflict. Most were from convicts who were ranging outside the encampment in Sydney Cove, or Aboriginal men who took tools from the colonists, who regarded this as stealing. Several convicts were wounded or beaten and at the end of the month Aboriginal people ‘would not come near the ship’ and others who were approached when fishing, ‘paddled to the shore and ran into the woods’. There were 18 instances of communication, and six of conflict noted in Bradley’s journal in March.

In April, suspicion and fear of the colonists increased and Bradley noted the Sydney people could ‘not be persuaded to go into Camp’, or ‘ran away to the woods’. In May, while most of Bradley’s references to the Sydney people were that they were ‘very friendly’, there were many ‘who appeared to be very hungry’. In mid-May a convict ‘sent out to get greens’ was wounded and an Aboriginal man at Garden Island wounded and possibly killed in what may have been again retaliation for ‘stealing’ tools and equipment. In the last days of May, Bradley noted that Captain Campbell went to the ‘SW arm’ to where two convicts had been left to gather rushes and found a trail of blood from their tent leading to the mangroves, where Campbell found the mutilated bodies of the convicts William Okey and Samuel Davis.

In one of the rare moments Bradley mused on the overall situation (and why I am certain this is where he marked ‘Bloody Point’ on his first draft map of the harbour), he felt that while ‘they have attack’d our people when they have met them unarmed, but that did not happen until they had been very ill treated by us in the lower part of the Harbour & fired upon at Botany Bay by the French’.

Here, Bradley agrees with Collins, Tench and others that it was the colonisers who generated conflict. And this idea has held sway in almost all subsequent accounts of the first year of 1788. Added to the depletion of fish stocks in the harbour, these are the generally accepted reasons historians give to the conflict that began to increasingly occur and turn bloody.

But this suggests that the Sydney people were all quite happy to have the colonists in their midst. It says nothing about the earlier shows of force – displays of musketry and military capability that in my mind had the most important bearing on relations in the early colony. As Tench and Dawes noted, there was an association made between all the colonists and firearms – ‘gooroobeera’ according to Tench was the name given to the colonists as ‘those who carry guns’ and according to Dawes ‘djerebar’, the name given to the musket and which ‘the natives frequently called us by’.

The day after Phillip and his party had returned from the expedition in search of the people who killed Okey and Davis (where he had bumped into a group of over 200 warriors who had allowed his small party to return to the encampment at Sydney Cove) he gave orders ‘that no party under 6 armed Men were to go into the woods on account of the Natives being so numerous.’ During the cold month of June, few Aboriginal people were seen. Bradley noted at North Head he met three men and two boys who ‘made signs for us not to fire our Musquets’.

In July, Bradley described increasing hunger and further conflict. The Governor’s fishing boat met ‘a great number of the Natives in the lower part of the harbour’, gave them fish, but they were not satisfied and ‘took what they pleas’d’. At Camp Cove, he ‘found a Man & two Children ‘starving’, and gave them salt beef. A boat ‘down the Harbour’ had ‘several stones thrown at her on landing’ and a ‘musquet fired at them set them off’. In late July ‘convicts gathering greens’ were ‘attack’d by the Natives’ and one was wounded. A ‘straggling’ sailor only escaped conflict when he ‘presented a stick as if a musket’ and got away.

A view in Port Jackson taken from Sirius Island; the Sirius lying of [sic] the entrance of Sydney Cove, 1788 / possibly by William Bradley 
Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

In August some canoes were seen passing up and down the harbour. Bradley noted that on the Governor conducted a sort of ‘census’ of Aboriginal people around the harbour. They counted ’67 Canoes, 94 Men, 34 Women & 9 Children’. All those in the upper harbour were ‘very friendly’ but in the North Arm ‘were not so friendly’,  and ‘while speaking with the boat’ a ‘spear was thrown which passed about 6 feet right over the midships’. They ran off and a small shot round was fired at them. Women came to the shore and tried to entice the boats to land. Over the month there were 3 instances of communication and three of conflict.

In early September a convict at Major Ross’s farm was ‘wounded by a spear being thrown at him from behind a tree by a Native who ran away immediately’. At this point, Bradley’s account of events at Port Jackson ends as his ship HMS Sirius is ordered to sail for Norfolk Island. He then launches into a ‘collected account of the Natives’ based upon his ‘certain knowledge’.

He says his initial idea ‘of their being Friendly disposed’ had changed. By September he was convinced the Sydney people were only friendly when ‘we have them in our power’ or they ‘are well prepared by being armed’. He noted that lately ‘they have attack’d almost every person who has met with them that has not had a muskquet & have sometimes endeavoured to surprise some who had’. Indeed, he writes ‘the Musquet now seems to be the only thing to keep them in Awe’ and that some of them have been killed by Musquet balls … I have not the least doubt’.

Much has been made by historians of the cross-cultural encounters that occurred in the first few months of the Europeans arriving at firstly Botany Bay and then shortly after, Sydney Harbour. In The Sydney Wars I suggested that during the first year, before the devastating galgala disease of April 1789 killed probably more than half the population who lived around the harbour, instances of conflict grew in frequency and intensity.

Bradley’s journal gives us an excellent snapshot of this spiralling conflict in the first months of the colony. It points to a picture of growing discontent with the colonists, particularly on the North Shore, and a growing willingness to attack them. It also shows how the Sydney people had an understanding of the firepower of the British and a great concern with their military capability – tactics were already being adapted to counter this military superiority. Bradley’s matter of fact account focuses on this, rather than, as other officers accounts that speculate, often wildly, about the motivations of the people living around Sydney Harbour. It seems to me historians should have paid more attention to Lieutenant William Bradley.

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