Daily Archives: 26 June 2011

Capt. Cook, Guugu Yimidhirr, and Kangaroos

From: Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before, by Tony Horwitz (Picador, 2002), pp. 182-184:

Guns weren’t the settlers’ only weapons. Aborigines had little resistance to Western disease, or to alcohol. Chinese immigrants introduced opium, which Aborigines consumed by mixing the drug’s ash with water and drinking it. The Guugu Yimidhirr, like many Aboriginal clans, appeared headed for extinction—a fate little mourned by white Australians….

In the case of the Guugu Yimidhirr, it was Cook who proved their salvation, albeit indirectly. A German translation of Cook’s voyages inspired a young Bavarian, Johann Flierl, to set off in the 1880s “as a missionary to the most distant heathen land with its still quite untouched peoples.” He created a Lutheran mission near Cooktown that became a refuge for Aborigines. Flierl named the mission Elim, after an oasis the Israelites found during their exodus from Egypt. As oases went, Queensland’s Elim wasn’t much: a sandy, infertile patch north of Cooktown. But it grew into a stable community, and its school educated scores of Aborigines, some of whom became nationally prominent.

One such success story was Eric Deeral, who served in the 1970s as the first Aboriginal representative in Queensland’s parliament. I tracked him down late one afternoon at his daughter’s modest bungalow a few blocks from Cooktown’s main street. A small, very dark-skinned man, he met my knock at the door with a wary expression and a curt “May I help you?” When I burbled about my travels, his face widened into a welcoming smile. “Come in, come in, I love talking about Cook!” After several days of conversing about little except “ferals,” rooting crocodiles, and rugby league, it was a relief to find someone who shared my passion for the navigator.

Eric showed me into a small office he kept at the front of the bungalow. The bookshelf included several volumes about Cook. Like Johann Flierl, Eric had been fascinated since childhood by the image of first contact between Europeans and native peoples untouched by the West. He’d quizzed Aboriginal elders about stories they’d heard of Cook and his men. “At first, our people thought they were overgrown babies,” he said. Aboriginal newborns, Eric explained, are often much paler than adults. But once the Guugu Yimidhirr saw the newcomers’ power, particularly the noise and smoke of their guns, they came to believe the strangers were white spirits, or ghosts of deceased Aborigines. “Lucky for Cook, white spirits are viewed as benign,” Eric said. “If they’d been seen as dark spirits, my ancestors probably would have speared them.”…

Listening to Eric, I felt the giddy thrill of unlocking small mysteries that had been sealed inside the English journals for more than two centuries. Blind Freddy might know the answers, but no books I’d read had provided them. Eric ran his finger down the list of native words Parkinson had collected. “If you read closely, you can almost see these men, groping to understand each other,” he said. Yowall, for instance, meant beach, not sand, as Parkinson had written. “One of our men probably pointed across the river at the sandy shore on the other side,” Eric said. Similarly, wageegee meant scar, not head—perhaps the man who had told it to the English was pointing to a cut brow when he said the word.

As for kangooroo, this was a fair approximation of the Guugu Yimidhirr word, which Eric rendered gangurru. But Aborigines, unlike Maori and Tahitians, didn’t have a shared language; living in small, widely scattered groups, they spoke scores of different tongues. The English failed to recognize this. The result was a comically circular instance of linguistic transmission. Officers of the First Fleet, familiar with the Endeavour‘s journals, used the words Cook and his men had collected in Queensland to try and communicate with Botany Bay Aborigines eighteen years later.

“Whatever animal is shown them,” a frustrated officer on the Fleet reported, “they call kangaroo.” Even the sight of English sheep and cattle prompted the Gwyeagal to cheerfully cry out “Kangaroo, kangaroo!” In fact, the Gwyeagal had no such word in their vocabulary (they called the marsupial patagorang). Rather, they’d picked up “kangaroo” from the English and guessed that it referred to all large beasts. So a word that originated with an encounter between Cook and a small clan in north Queensland traveled to England with the Endeavour, then back to Botany Bay with the First Fleet, and eventually became the universal name for Australia’s symbol. There was an added twist. The Guugu Yimidhirr had ten different words for the marsupials, depending on their size and color. “Gangurru means a large gray or black kangaroo,” Eric said. “If Cook had asked about a small red one, the whole world would be saying nharrgali today.”


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