Australia in the 1780s


First attempts at communication


Almost a year after their arrival at Sydney Cove, Governor Arthur Phillip (1738–1814) and his officers had acquired very little knowledge about the Eora people. Phillip had been instructed to open communications with the local people. Records from the time document that the people were perceived to be shy and mostly kept away from the new settlement. This was most likely to avoid the gunshots and the attacks.

On 29 January 1788, Phillip attempted to communicate with the local people. According to a young officer, William Bradley (1757?–1833), the local people invited the newcomers to join them in dancing together with much laughter and friendliness. Bradley later captured this scene in a series of drawings.

Governor Phillip ordered the capture of an Aboriginal man in order to learn more about the local culture, the country and its resources such as water and food. At this time of severe food shortage, he hoped to learn which plants were edible. Arabanoo (c 1759–1789), a Cadigal man, was captured at Manly Cove in December and taken to Government House. He was fearful at first but then amazed at seeing the settlement. According to the First Fleeter Captain Watkin Tench (1758?–1833), Arabanoo was very angry at finding that the handcuffs, which he originally thought were an ornament, restrained his movements and made him a prisoner. He remained restrained and accompanied by a convict until April 1789 when Governor Phillip decreed he was free to move around the settlement. Arabanoo learnt some English and taught those around him some of his own language. Soon after his release, Arabanoo became ill with smallpox and died in May 1789. An epidemic had spread through the colony. Governor Phillip, who had been fond of him, attended his funeral, ordering that he be buried in Phillip's own garden.

In November 1789 Bennelong (1764?–1813), a member of the Wangal people, and Colebee, a Cadigal man, both Elders within their distinct language groups, were captured. Watkin Tench described them as fine young men. Within a week Colebee escaped, but Bennelong remained and became familiar with British customs and language. His age was estimated to be about 26 years. Bennelong assisted Governor Phillip to learn about his culture and language after a friendship developed between the two men. Bennelong called Phillip 'Beanga' (father).

Barangaroo, Bennelong's second wife, opposed her husband's familiarity with the colonists and the governor. She refused to fraternise or integrate with the colonists. It is reported that when Barangaroo was to give birth she wanted to reconnect with her land, which at this time was where Governor Phillip's house was erected. Phillip refused her entry and encouraged Bennelong to take her to the hospital, which she thought of as a place of death. She died shortly after giving birth.


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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