- 26 Jan 2013
- Nicolas Rothwell
Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of AustraliaBy Phillip Parker King Friends of the State Library of South Australia, two volumes, 454pp and 642pp, with charts, $95
Portrait of Phillip Parker King (1816); right, portrait of Aboriginal leader Bungaree (c1826) by Augustus EarleTHE true nature of north Australia revealed itself only with the most tantalising slowness to Captain Phillip Parker King, the first native-born explorer of the continent, and the first surveyor of the cryptic and deceptive farthest reaches of its coastline.
King was a fitting pioneer. He had received his distinctive Christian name in honour of the First Fleet’s commander; he was the son of the third governor of NSW, born on Norfolk Island in Australia’s childhood days. He was always destined for the sea: when a five-year-old boy he informed his predecessor in northern surveying, Matthew Flinders, that once grown up he too would be a sailor and ‘‘ find islands of my own’’.
King was still only 26 when he set sail from Port Jackson in the 17m cutter Mermaid, Indian-built, from well-hewn, solid-seeming teak timber, a crew of 19 men under his authority. He had been entrusted with the task of examining the ‘‘ unexplored’’ coasts of the far north, and finding great rivers that might lead into Australia’s mysterious heart.
It was an empire-building mission as much as a task of science. He was sailing unknown waters not just to learn them and chart them but to become intimate with them, to open them up for colonial use. The three voyages he made between 1818 and 1822 form the subject of his drily titled Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia, the obscure and utterly compelling tale of the first Western discovery of the far north. At once adventure story and evocation of land and seascapes, natural history and account of enlightenment science, King’s work is also much darker: the record of a culture clash.
If King is known at all today, it is largely thanks to Marsden Hordern’s 1997 retelling of his explorations, King of the Australian Coast. Now, a new biography by Brian Abbott ( Phillip Parker King: A Most Admirable Australian, Glenburgh Press, 488pp, $100) has been readied to accompany the lavishly produced facsimile edition of the Narrative just published by the Friends of the State Library of South Australia.
This edition reprints the work entire, complete with the appendix containing ‘‘ various subjects relating to hydrography’’, with the lovely plates and the detailed sailing directions, still useful as a rough guide to the north’s treacherous currents today.
But the significance of this edition lies elsewhere. It makes available a basic document of history. It offers almost the only sketch of Aboriginal north Australian life on the verge of the colonial age.
King and his crew intrude into the coastal waters of Cape York and the Kimberley and Arnhem Land in the wake of the very first maritime explorers, and as harbingers of the initial British stabs at long-term settlement. They arrive at a point when the balance of technology between well-armed, spear wielding indigenous warriors and musket-bearing sailors is near equal: it is a hinge in time.
King had striking company. The Mermaid’s officers included the famous botanical collector Allan Cunningham, chosen intellectual heir of Joseph Banks, and John Septimus Roe, the future surveyor-general of Western Australia. There was also that extraordinary figure Bungaree, the ‘‘ king’’ of the Broken Bay tribe, a guide and mediator well-regarded by the new masters of NSW.
It was February 1818, a steamy time of year, when the Mermaid rounded North West Cape and began its transit of the Pilbara coastline, King and his officers naming and classifying as they went. Such atmospherics! Heat, sirocco winds, little bush flies creeping between the lips and crawling into the nostrils, nauseoustasting catfish in the water, giant anthills along the shore. And then there were the vast tidal movements, the lightning storms and mosquitoes at the campsites on river banks, ‘‘ which buzzing about in incredible numbers were not to be kept from stinging us by any measures we could devise’’.
Much of what the Mermaid’s crew saw they found almost impossible to credit: fires burning across vast stretches of the landscape, entire islands blazing, coasts that echoed, giant medusas of great beauty floating on the waves. Cunningham attempted to tame the landscape in systematic fashion, by planting useful seeds wherever he set foot ashore. It was a grand experiment in economic botany: he planted loquats and peach kernels and rose-hips, and tobacco as well.
But the attention of the Mermaid’s men was turned on the country’s inhabitants as much as its natural features. Soon King began to see signs of teeming coastal cultures: at Intercourse Island, close to where the town of Dampier and the North West Shelf liquefied natural gas complex stand today, his sailors chased down and captured a young man and subsequently were able to hold parleys with a large group of ‘‘ Indians’’. These encounters went with difficulty: the Aboriginal people seemed at once hostile and paralysed with fear.
The great themes of the journey were now set. From this point on, tension and violence increase throughout the narrative. At Goulburn Island in the Arafura Sea the crew decided to make land for water and timber, and were attacked with wooden projectiles. They fired back. The scene is recorded in almost comic manner in one of the engravings that accompany King’s text but there was little humour for the crew: they had only 12 slowloading muskets with them and most of these were quite unusable. Retreat when challenged was their sole option and so they were almost always on the run as they made their progress along the coast. Hostile contacts ensued repeatedly. The ship’s surgeon, Andrew Montgomery, was gravely wounded in one assault; Roe came under attack on a second disastrous visit to Goulburn.
The key phase of the drama unfolded on the two Tiwi Islands, which King named, with supreme tact, Bathurst and Melville, for the twin masters he served in his commission, the principal secretary of state for the colonies and the first lord of the Admiralty. The Mermaid drew near these islands in mid-May, in the dreamy weather of the early dry season, and explored the northern bays and cliffs before putting in near Luxmore Head. The men found themselves in a deep and sheltered harbour in a strait between the islands. They went ashore with their equipment, were attacked and fled, leaving behind Cunningham’s theodolite. That clash is part of Tiwi history still. An ‘‘ interview’’ with the natives followed: communications, enticements, deceptions, odd bargains offered and rejected.
Eventually, things turned. The natives enacted a scene of fierce defiance, which is closely described by King; indeed, he gives here one of the most detailed accounts of such a clash in the contact history of the north. The natives try to lure the sailors into a trap; the attempt fails; then they perform a dance in the water shallows, designed to show their physical prowess. It is a dance of intimidation. They are thigh-deep in the waves, they leap clear of the water, then thrash their legs until all around is foam, they shout and laugh ‘‘ immoderately’’, then run through the waves repeatedly. What was the reaction? King writes: We were all thoroughly disgusted with them, and felt a degree of distrust that could not be conquered. The men were more muscular and better formed than any we had before seen; they were daubed over with a yellow pigment, which was the colour of the neighbouring cliff; their hair was long and curly, and appeared to be clotted with a whitish paint.
King got the point. The Tiwi were repelling him, rejecting him, and at the same time showing him their culture’s core. Theirs was a world of male strength, and will and intensity. They were staring him down: they were at one with the country they were defending, they were themselves the land, they wore its ochre as their guard and armour on their skin. As for the brilliant pipe-clay on their coiffed hair, it was full of power, it was meant to dazzle and to blind the strangers’ eyes.
What King then volunteers is intriguing: it is one of the strongest passages in the literature of Australian exploration. He feels ‘‘ disgust’’, as he puts it — but it seems clear from the flow and context that what he really feels is fear, and dismay: he understands there is simply no bridge, no point of contact with this society, no space for conversation or exchange.
The natives are supreme in themselves, they do not desire the enlightenment he brings with him in his ship. Subjugation is the only answer. Such was the pattern across the north coast. King was very likely describing the remote frontier as it was before devastating epidemics of smallpox swept through the Australian tropics, recording contact when it was on something fairly close to equal terms. It is plainly a pattern more like war than peaceful engagement.
But there was a higher logic at play. King and his officers understood the need for control of the continent and its northern maritime approaches. His survey mission had a second purpose: he was looking for a strongpoint where the British crown could place a fortress outpost to protect the interests of the new colony. It was for this that he and his men kept surveying and searching, staying at their tasks until disaster threatened and they had to rush to safe ports to reprovision; enduring the depredations of rats and cockroaches; staying on the wave as nail sickness rotted their vessel’s hull half-away.
As the months and years of their mission lengthened, sickness had taken increasing hold among the men. A quarter of the watch crew were feverish, their ailments worsening: ‘‘ we had never been entirely free from sickness since our arrival upon the coast’’. And where were they? In geography, they were near today’s Broome, and Gantheaume Point, but the senses said otherwise, as King recorded: The horizon was occupied by haze, and produced a very remarkable effect upon the land, which was so raised above the horizon by refraction that many distant objects became visible that could not otherwise have been seen: the coast line appeared to be formed of high chalky cliffs crowned by a narrow band of woody hillocks: and the land of Cape Villaret was so elevated as to be distinctly seen at the distance of 40 miles.
There was fierce evaporation when the sun was in the sky; dew fell so heavily by evening that it resembled a shower of rain. It was a new world that defied rationality. Time to retreat, and King did, to Mauritius, as Flinders had before him, and only one more coastal survey remained to him before he turned to writing up his tale.
In his preface, he highlights the chief result of his voyage: the decision to raise a harbour fort on Melville Island, the first British settlement in north Australia, founded in 1824 on the very spot where his duel with the Tiwis had taken place. King felt he could see the sweep of history. In the last words of his Narrative, he sets forth the outcome: an enclave on a promontory, walled and fortified, with 30 solid, thatch-roofed huts built for the soldiers and convicts living there. Relations with the natives had begun well enough, but soon worsened: there were ambushes, the guns were used to fatal effect. The claiming of the north was under way: ‘‘ Such is the state of the settlement of Fort Dundas, which at some future time must become a place of considerable consequence.’’
That time is yet to come. The fort and its buildings have mouldered away, almost no trace of their foundations remains. The north is Australia’s future still, much as it seemed to be when King was on the wave.