Violence on the shore

Topic: First Contacts
Student activity

This is the student activity 1 of 8 of the Cook: it was only eight days learning activity.

Key inquiry question #1

What was the nature and consequence of contact between Gweagal people and the Endeavour crew?

Task No. 1

Protection of family and property

Joseph Banks - Endeavour journal, 15 August 1769 - 12 July 1771, p.244
James Cook - A Journal of the proceedings of His Majesty's Bark Endeavour on a voyage round the world, by Lieutenant James Cook, Commander, commencing the 25th of May 1768 - 23 Oct. 1770 p. 246
Joseph Banks - Endeavour journal, 15 August 1769 - 12 July 1771, p. 249

The Endeavour sailed into Kamay (Botany Bay) on 28 April 1770. This was the first opportunity for the crew to see the Gweagal people up close. It was also the first time the Gweagal people were able to get a close look at the ship they had been hearing about for so long.

What were the first impressions of these two groups of people, gazing across the shore at each other?

This quote from Dr Shayne Williams, senior knowledge holder of the Gweagal people, explains what the Gweagal people saw in 1770:

Our people saw the vessels coming up the coast, we thought they were gurras (that’s clouds) but as they got closer they started to change shape so we thought they were floating islands, which we call barangga’s, but as the vessel turned and came in here to Gamay/Botany Bay, we saw sailors actually going up and down the masts. (Shayne Williams, Living Language exhibition brochure, 2019)

The Endeavour sent a small crew ahead in a rowboat to survey the situation, before returning to report back about what they had observed. Joseph Banks wrote in his diary about this:

Our boat proceeded along shore and the Indians followd her at a distance. When she came back the officer who was in her told me that in a bay cove a little within the harbour they came down to the beach and invited our people to land by many signs and word which he did not at all understand; all however were armd with long pikes and a wooden weapon made something like a short scymetar. During this time a few of the Indians who had not followd the boat remaind on the rocks opposite the ship, threatening and menacing with their pikes and swords.

You can look at this page from Joseph Banks’ diary, by clicking on the first collection item below.

James Cook, keen to land and speak to the Gweagal people, recorded the following in his diary:

Saw, as we came in, on both points of the bay, several of the Natives and a few hutts; Men, Women, and Children on the South Shore abreast of the Ship, to which place I went in the Boats in hopes of speaking with them, accompanied by Mr. Banks, Dr. Solander, and Tupia. As we approached the Shore they all made off, except 2 Men, who seem’d resolved to oppose our landing.

As the crew tried to land, the two Gweagal warriors used hand gestures to try and communicate with them. However, Cook, not understanding what they were saying, continued to try to land. He records in his diary what happens next:

…threw them some nails, beads etc., a shore which they took up, and seem’d not ill pleased with, in so much that I thought they beckon’d to us to come ashore; but in this we were mistaken, for as soon as we put the boat in they again came to oppose us, upon which I fir’d a musquet between the 2, which had no other Effect than to make them retire back.

You can look at these quotes in James Cook’s diary, by clicking on the second collection item below.

Discuss what was happening on the shores of Kamay.

  • How are the Gweagal people communicating with Cook and his crew?
  • What might the Gweagal people be trying to say?
  • What were the two actions taken by Cook’s crew to communicate with the Gweagal people?

Look at the sketch, created by artist Sydney Parkinson, which is part of the exhibition, Eight Days in Kamay, here. This sketch depicts two Gweagal men defending the shore from the Endeavour crew, who are trying to land. These Gweagal men were following cultural protocol by waiting on the shore, painted in ochre, in preparation for the arrival of the British. Sydney Parkinson was on board the Endeavour and this is his impression of events:

On our approaching the shore, two men, with different kinds of weapons, came out and made towards us. Their countenance bespoke displeasure; they threatened us, and discovered hostile intentions, often crying to us, Warra warra wai. We made signs to them to be peacable, and threw them some trinkets; but they kept aloof, and dared us to come on shore. We attempted to frighten them by firing off a gun loaded with small shot; but attempted it in vain. (Sydney Parkinson, A journal of a voyage to the South Seas: in His Majesty’s ship, the Endeavour…, 1773)

Discuss the following:

  • What do you think ‘Warra warra wai’ means?
  • How do you think the Gweagal people felt when they saw these strangers approaching?

Watch the video of Dr Shayne Williams, below, explaining the meaning of ‘warra warra wai’.

Dr Williams explains that ‘Warra warra wai’ means ‘you are all dead’. This was an observation, rather than a threat, as the white skin of the Endeavour crew led the Gweagal people to believe they were ghosts.


View this video on the Gather website

Reflect on your own life and record your answers to the following questions:

If strangers came into your family home:

  • How would you feel?
  • Who would protect you?
  • Who would you protect?
  • How would you protect them?

In 1770, the Gweagal people would have felt scared, worried and curious about the strangers coming into their home. James Cook and his party spent eight days exploring, surveying and collecting specimens while they were in Kamay, but during this time they were also going into the houses of the Gweagal people, uninvited, and taking their personal belongings.

Consider the following quote, recorded in Joseph Bank’s journal:

We however thought it no improper measure to take away with us all the lances which we could find about the houses, amounting in number to forty or fifty.

You can see where he has written this in his journal, by clicking on the third collection item below.

The British did not think it was wrong to take things from the Gweagal people’s homes. 

Discuss and record your answers to the following questions:

  • How would you feel if a stranger took things from your family home and left you some beads and ribbons in exchange?
  • How do you think the Gweagal people felt about their food, spears and other personal items being taken?
Task No. 2

Reimagining the first conversation

James Cook - A Journal of the proceedings of His Majesty's Bark Endeavour on a voyage round the world, by Lieutenant James Cook, Commander, commencing the 25th of May 1768 - 23 Oct. 1770 p. 247
James Cook - A Journal of the proceedings of His Majesty's Bark Endeavour on a voyage round the world, by Lieutenant James Cook, Commander, commencing the 25th of May 1768 - 23 Oct. 1770 p. 248

What is consent?

Consent is when permission is given. For example, if a friend asks you if they can borrow your book, by answering, ‘Yes’, you give them your consent.

In Gweagal culture, it is not permissible to enter another people’s Country without due consent. Each Country has slightly different rules (protocol) and beliefs. Consent must always be negotiated. These protocols were intended to ensure that Country was respected and that others knew who was moving around, and to where.

Even today, consent should be sought if visiting any Aboriginal country or community.

Imagine if James Cook and his party had not been impatient and had taken the time to find a way to communicate with the Gweagal people; perhaps a lot of misunderstanding could have been avoided. Even though the Gweagal people and the British spoke different languages, the British could have found other ways to communicate instead of firing musket shots towards the warriors. To their credit, the Gweagal people never drew blood or injured the strangers. The spears they threw were to warn the strangers to stay away.

Cook refers to the spears as ‘darts’. Initially he thought they were poisonous but later discovered they were not:

Immediately after this we landed, which we had no sooner done than they throw’d 2 darts at us; this obliged me to fire a third shott, soon after which they both made off, but not in such haste but what we might have taken one; but Mr. Banks being of Opinion that the darts were poisoned, made me cautious how I advanced into the Woods…

They were all Arm’d with Darts and wooden Swords; the darts have each 4 prongs, and pointed with fish bones. Those we have seen seem to be intended more for striking fish than offensive Weapons; neither are they poisoned, as we at first thought.

Write a script and record a reimagined first conversation between James Cook and the Gweagal people seeking consent to visit. Consider the sharing of knowledge that could have taken place, including information about food and water sources, animals, plants, housing, ceremonies, and technology (e.g. their boats and spears.)

Task No. 3

Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country

Seeking permission to visit Indigenous communities and acknowledging Country are well-known protocols that existed long before 1770 and continue today.

You will often see either a Welcome to Country or an Acknowledgement of Country carried out before events. They are two very different things — only a recognised Aboriginal spokesperson from the local Aboriginal community can carry out a Welcome to Country. On the other hand, an Acknowledgment of Country can be given by either an Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal person, and is about recognising the Aboriginal people of that area as the traditional custodians of the land on which the event is taking place.

Read the information about Welcome to Country, below.

Aboriginal people have always had specific protocols that determine where people can travel and who they need to speak with before entering different parts of Country. These protocols were intended to ensure that Country was respected and that others knew who was moving, and to where.

Many older Welcome to Country protocols involved having the sweat of local Elders applied to strangers — so that the land and the ancestors would recognise and protect these outsiders while they were on another’s Country. If something bad were to happen to you while you were visiting, these protocols were part of a system that ensured your spirit would be looked after and returned to your own Country and ancestors.

For most Aboriginal people it was unthinkable to simply ignore these well-established rules. For the Gweagal people in 1770, it must have been extremely frustrating to be unable to communicate these protocols in a way that the strangers on the Endeavour could understand. The fact that the strangers then escalated this encounter into bloodshed would have been a serious breach of protocol and law.

Discuss the reason for Welcome to Country protocols.

Look at these examples of modern-day Welcome to Country from these different regions:


View this video on the Gather website


View this video on the Gather website


View this video on the Gather website


View this video on the Gather website

Answer the following questions:

  • Does your school have a Welcome/Acknowledgement of Country already written?
  • Who are the Indigenous custodians of the land where your school is built?

Write your own Acknowledgement of Country that could be read to open a school assembly.

Did you know this learning activity was just one in a series? To find more, click here