Monday, 31 December 2007
Two hundred and nineteen years ago today marines acting on orders from Governor Arthur Phillip unlawfully imprisoned a member of the Cannalgal people, the original owners of Sydney Harbour’s northernmost arm.
The man had committed no crime; he was captured so that he might assist those ruling the eleven month old colony to learn more about the people whose communities had occupied Sydney for the preceding sixty thousand years – give or take a few dozen millennia.
Contemporary accounts of his capture and subsequent life are heart-breaking: he “was now fastened by ropes to the thwarts of the boat; and when he saw himself irretrievably disparted from his countrymen, set up the most piercing and lamentable cries of distress.”. Later that day he was given what he thought was an ornament to wear upon his wrist, which cheered him up. But it was actually a handcuff, and he was again enraged and distraught when its purpose was revealed.
There are no known portraits of the man, whose name was Arabanoo (although since this was considered too foreign and “primitive” he was commonly referred to by the place of his capture). One account says he was aged around 24, but another suggests he was older; about 30. He was not tall, but 'robustly made', with a thoughtful face and a soft, musical voice; his disposition was mild and gentle, but 'the independence of his mind never forsook him'. It’s recorded that he was horrified by the brutality of a public flogging, an everyday sight in the gulag that was European Sydney in 1788.
Shortly after his imprisonment a severe smallpox epidemic broke out among the indigenous communities, who had no prior exposure (and thus no immunity) to the disease. Arabanoo nursed two sick children named Nabaree and Abaroo, who had been found ill and possibly orphaned: they recovered, but he then fell victim himself and died on 18 May 1789. One year and four months after the invaders arrival: one year and four months after what must have seemed like the unleashing of hell itself.
As I’ve already said, there are no known pictures of Arabanoo., so the best picture I can find is this one taken with my cell phone from a spot now known as “Arabanoo’s Lookout”. The hills, beaches and bays shown once belonged to him and his people and, coincidentally, they’re also where I grew up. Where I learned to sail, and dive, to surf and to ride a bicycle. To read, and to make love, and to believe.
It was a wonderful place in which to be a child, and Arabanoo, and countless of his ancestors before him, doubtless loved it just as much I did. The difference, however, is that my joy was their loss: blissful ignorance is no excuse for the fact that all - absolutely everything - they loved, cherished and held sacred was taken from them just as brutally as Arabanoo was himself dragged away. He and his fellow Cannalgal people were gone for more than 150 years before I was born, but the places in which I played were still rightfully theirs. With friends I’d find their carvings in the bushland, and in the sandstone caves at the water’s edge, and I’d wonder about the people who’d created them. Now I am old enough to know: the artists were killed by my people, by members of my Church.
Instead of bringing Christ, my predecessors brought death. Instead of law, they brought injustice; injustice as epitomised by what was done to Arabanoo on this day so long ago. Lord God, forgive us, for the blood of our father’s sins stains our hands. Arabanoo, we remember. Too late for you and those whom you loved, but we remember. Our barbarous past kneels in shame before the dignity of your own.
And we are sorry.