Early European Observations of the Eurobodalla Area

In the year of 1797, during an official journey of exploration down the south coast, George Bass recorded his brief observations of the Eurobodalla area.

His descriptions indicate that his concern was with the potential of the area for European settlement and cultivation. Bass did not see any Aboriginal people during this trip but saw signs of their presence. In his report of the journey Bass wrote the following description of Bateman’s Bay which he visited on the 14th December 1797:

At 5 we entered Bateman Bay…. The north and south sides are hilly. Grass grows tolerably luxuriant upon them, but they seem only fit for feeding cattle. The land on the west side is low and wet, but a few grassy risings might afford good sites. The vallies (sic) and the slopes of several of the little hills at some distance back are capable of cultivation, some of them to great advantage. The only difference remarkable in the vegetable productions is the increased size of the she and swamp oaks.

On the 17th of December they were in the Tuross Lake area:

The form of the ground in general is either low and swampy or at once inclining to the mountainous, there being little or none upon a plane. The whole is intersected by extensive salt swamps and the arms of a branching lagoon that comes to the sea about a mile to the northward of the point… The qualities of the soil are but very indifferent. Some of the best of the low ground before you approach the edges of the swamps is thickly covered with long grass and fern, but the soil is sandy and light. A wet salt marsh then leads you down into the swamps. The sides of the hills where they do not rise up from the lake or swamp side very suddenly are really meadows, but these are few in number. The tops of some of the lower hills are well grassed, but the soil is too poor and sandy for cultivation. The country seems to be at all times but sparingly watered, but it is now in a state of drought. In the course of our round of not less than 12 or 14 miles we could not find a drop of fresh water, altho’ the heat of the day made us search for it with extreme eagerness. We met with numbers of native huts deserted, the cause of which appeared when we traced down their paths to the dried up waterholes they had dug in the very heart of the largest of the swamps. We saw here the only grey kangaroo we ever met with during our whole absence.

The next meeting recorded by Europeans with Aboriginal people in the Eurobodalla area was at Bateman’s Bay in 1808. A small vessel, the Fly, pulled into the Bay to escape a storm. Five of the sailors went on shore, a party of Aboriginal people met them and for reasons that are not recorded there was conflict between the two groups. Three of the five Europeans were killed; it is not recorded if any of the Aboriginal men were injured. The Sydney newspaper of the time recorded the incident in the following terms:

On Tuesday the Resource government vessel came in with coals and cedar from Hunter’s River. She brought accounts of the arrival there of the Fly colonial vessel, on Monday the 2d instant, with the loss of three of her crew out of five, who were murdered by the coast natives at Bateman’s bay a few days before. The Fly sailed from hence for Kangaroo Island some weeks since; but being overtaken by bad weather and contrary winds, was obliged to take shelter at Bateman’s bay, and then send on shore for water. The three unfortunate persons whose fate it was to fall under the barbarity of the natives, were sent on shore with a cask, having previously arranged a mode of giving an alarm from the vessel, in case of obvious danger, by the discharge of a musket. Shortly after they landed, a body of natives assembled about the boat, and a musket was accordingly discharged from the vessel – the unfortunate men returned precipitately to their boat, without any obstruction from the natives, but had no sooner put off from the shore than a flight of spears was thrown, which was continued until all the three fell from their oars. The savages immediately took and maned (sic) the boat, and with a number of canoes prepared to attack the vessel ; which narrowly escaped their fury by cutting the cable, and standing out to sea. The names of the murdered men were, Charles Freeman, Thomas Bly, and Robert Goodlet.

In 1821 another ship, this one carrying cedar cutters heading for the Illawarra, took shelter from a storm at Bateman’s Bay. The people of Bateman’s Bay again met the intruders with violence, killing one man and injuring another and forcing the ship to head back to sea.19 The following account is taken from the newspaper of the time and was based on the account of one of the cedar cutters, Thomas Whittaker:

Whittaker, from whom we obtain the present account, states, that he left Sydney (in company with [Jas.] Block and [Henry] Thorn) about midnight… and had a fine north-easterly breeze; that when they came off the place of their destination [the Illawarra], it was discovered they had too great an offing, and, owing to the wind freshening the boat was prevented from bearing up; they were therefore compelled, having overshot their port, to run to the southward, which they continued to do till they reached Bateman’s Bay, between 80 and 100 miles from Illawarra. In this bay they encountered a heavy squall, and after intense difficulty made a small island, on which they landed, kindled a fire, and after refreshing themselves, anchored off the shore. The next morning (Easter Sunday) at daylight, they were suddenly attacked by about twelve natives, with a discharge of 50 or 60 spears, followed up by a continued volley of stones. James Brock was thrice speared ; one entered a thigh, another slightly grazed his breast, and the third perforated the chest ; which produced instantaneous death. Whittaker was wounded by a spear in the right thigh ; and the other (Thorn) providentially escaped uninjured. The natives then left the island, at which they had, it was supposed, landed in the night, and made towards the boat in their canoes. The unfortunate men were now in a truly pitiable and forlorn condition ; Block was lying in the boat a corpse ; Whittaker was sorely wounded; and Thorn beheld nothing but a horrid and cruel death, at the hands of the savages, ready to meet him, or else the dread expectancy of being entomed in the ocean’s vast abyss. Whittaker, however, fortunately fired a loaded pistol at the approaching canoes, which had the effect of making them hastily sheer off. Block was then committed to the deep, and the two survivors exerted all their remaining strength to effect their escape into the main ocean, in which act they lost an oar. When clear of the bay, the wind still blowing from the north-east, they were reluctantly compelled to advance more southerly, till they came off Cape Dromedary, where, nearly exhausted, they got to a small island ; and just as they were in the act of lowering the killock, seven or eight natives presented themselves to view. Without a moment’s deliberation they continued to bear away along the coast….

The people of Bateman’s Bay had by this time acquired a reputation for fierceness among the Europeans.

Late in 1821 a government party, led by Lieutenant Robert Johnston, set off from Sydney in the Snapper to explore the Bateman’s Bay area. They travelled 25 miles up the Clyde River and along the river met with a group of Aboriginal people who told them of other Europeans who had been in the area including an escaped convict and another ship’s crew. Lieutenant Robert Johnston’s report of the voyage was reproduced in the Sydney Gazette:

… having closely examined the Line of Coast in the Snapper’s Boat, as far South as Bateman Bay, without succeeding in my Object, I returned on board, and determined upon running into that Bay to examine it… I perceived an Inlet in the Head of the Bay… which I have the Satisfaction to report to Your Excellency, proved to be the Entrance of a fine, clear, capacious River, having a Bar, over which I carried nine feet Water, and then deepened gradually in the Space of half a mile to six Fathoms, from whence I carried regular Soundings… the Distance of twenty-five Miles, and then encamped for the Night on the Western Bank. Considering this to be a Discovery, I named it “River Clyde”.

On my Way up I saw several Native Fires near the Banks. At one Place I landed, taking with me the two Natives who accompanied me from Sydney, upon which we were met by a Tribe of them, who shewed (sic) no Symptoms of Hostility towards us, but entered freely into Conversation ; and, through my Interpreters, I learnt the Particulars of the melancholy Loss of Mr. Stewart and his Boat’s Crew ; as also of a Man by the Name of Briggs, and his Companions, who some Time since deserted from the Colony in a Whale Boat ; viz. Stewart, losing his Boat near Two-fold Bay, was endeavouring to make his Way back by Land, in which Effort he was cut off by the Natives of Two-fold Bay. Briggs, and his Companions, were lost in Bateman Bay, by the Boat having upset ; and being so far from the Land, were not able to reach the Shore. This was the Account received from them ; but, from my own Observations, seeing Knives, Tomahawks, and Part of the Boats’ Geer in their Huts, I am induced to think they suffered the same Fate as the unfortunate Stewart.

The following year the Snapper returned to the Bay to record further information on the possibilities for European settlement in the area. It is further reported that in 1822 a young man by the name of William Kearns travelled, at the instigation of the explorer Charles Throsby, from Lake George to a hill around nine miles south of Bateman’s Bay. He is stated to have not gone any further south, “… because of the reputed hostility of the natives in this area”.

Also in 1821 survivors of the wreck of the ship Mary at Twofold Bay travelled north to Sydney by boat:

On the 9th instant, Captain Heany bid farewell to the scene of his calamity, and shortly after reached Montague Island off Mount Dromedary, where they remained a few hours in order to refresh. Provisions soon became exhausted, having been compelled to leave the wreck so suddenly as to preclude the possibility of procuring a sufficient supply, or even thinking of it, when existence seemed to be dubious; and had abundance been their portion at this critical juncture, the boat was too small to admit any greater bulk than that it contained. So reduced the sufferers became at length, that they were constrained to subsist on shellfish, or any other article that might obtrude itself on the beach; and what contributed to render their situation the more forlorn and terrific, was that of beholding the shores as they passed lined with the barbarous tribes. On Montague Island some nuts were found in a native hut, recently abandoned; eagerly and ravenously were they devoured; but they disagreed with those that partook them, so much so, that Captain Heany declares he has not yet recovered from the pernicious effects produced by them…

In October of 1826 John Harper, a member of the Wesleyan Missionary Society, travelled by boat down the south coast in search of a suitable location to establish a ‘Mission to the Aborigines’. On the 14th of that month the boat put in at Bateman’s Bay and remained there for two weeks. Harper recorded the visit in his Journal:

Oct 14th We arrived at Bateman Bay, it is forty miles from Jervis Bay. A black ran along the beach, setting fire to the grass at about every two hundred yards in order to hail us by the sight of the smoke.

Oct 15th. The black who ran along the beach the preceeding night, came on board, I gave him a blanket and some biscuits and dispatched him to fetch some more blacks; this I was obliged to do by making signs, as he could not talk one word of English Neither did he understand the Wellington language.

Oct 16th. A number of blacks hailed us from the north side of the Bay; I immediately sent the boat to fetch some of them off to the Vessel. Five of them came but they knew not one word of English. I took this deficiency as a very good omen, and immediately went on shore to see the rest of them. they appear to be much cleaner than any other blacks I have yet seen in the Colony. One man particularly attracted my notice for his monstrous size; and another old man for the seeming authority he had over the rest. I was much surprised to find that the latter acted as King or chief among them a circumstance I never knew among the blacks at Wellington. Ships are not in the habit of putting in here; the consequence is the blacks are uncontaminated. I distributed a few pre
sents among them for which they shewed (sic) every token of satisfaction and contentment. If I meet with a good prospect of usefulness here, I shall confine myself to this tribe and proceed no farther.

Oct 17th. I took an excursion with the blacks, whom I saw and conversed with (in the best manner I could) the day before. As we had to pass through a thick Scrub, the blacks went before me and broke down the sticks and (?) that were in my way. They seemed to be highly amused at every trifling thing which I did. No man of pure motives need be afraid of travelling with the blacks, even in the most obscure place. Alltho’ this assertion is not credited in the Colony by some people, yet I know from experience more than thousands who would object to it. For my part I never was afraid of meeting blacks who had never seen a white man before : neither will I ever be. Let the whites reform their conduct and they need never be afraid. Oct 18th. I told the Master of the Vessel to proceed to Twofold Bay as soon as possible.

Oct 20th. We weighed anchor, and were leaving the Bay, when I found myself very much dissatisfied for leaving this place so suddenly; but my reason for leaving was, because I could not meet with a sufficient number of natives to confine my labours to. This was my only objection to this place. But while musing with myself whether I should stay a day or two…

At this point in the manuscript there is unfortunately a page missing which appears to record the arrival of a large party of Aboriginal men and women at Bateman’s Bay. As a result of the arrival of a large group of people Harper decided to remain at the Bay. He went on to describe his first interactions with the newly arrived group:

[I] began to converse with them through my interpreter, telling them the object of my visit, and the kindness of the good people in Sydney, in sending me to them. I then distributed my little presents among them, with which act they were highly pleased. I knew several of the words which they spoke, but I knew not whether they bore the same signification. The women made me several presents which consisted of kangaroo teeth, shells, and red ocre (sic), The kangaroo teeth are fastened to a string, made from the hair of the Opossom, with gum which answers the purpose of wat (sic) or glue. They then began to enclose me round, each endeavouring to lay a hand upon me. They were completely in a state of nudity. This was done out of good humour, but I must own that I was very much disgusted with the smell of them. After the women had left me, and seated themselves at a distance by themselves ; I sat down along with the men and began to converse with them through my interpreter upon various subjects ; after which I wrote down the following observations: –

1st. They are the cleanest blacks that I have yet seen in the Colony: they have no cutaneous sores upon them.

2ndly They are very kind to their women and children; the blankets which I gave to the men they gave to their wives and children. On my first approach to this new tribe I was not a little surprised to see an aged man and woman, walking arm in arm, towards me at the same time the man was pointing his finger at me their hair was nearly white. They were a very venerable pair.

3rdly The men appear to be of the middle size; some of them, however, are rather tall most of them appear to be very athletic. The women are rather short, but, I believe this generally arises from carrying immense burdens. Both men and women are remarkable for their docility; I do not think they are very refractory.

4thly They are not contaminated by the whites.

5thly My interpreter tells me they are on good terms with the rest of the surrounding tribes.

6thly They do not appear to be so vagrant as the tribes at Jervis Bay, Shoals Haven, but it is impossible that they should be free from it, otherwise, they could not get a subsistence. Their principal manner of living is in catching fish, and marine animals (seals) and in procuring the fruits that grow wild in the woods on which they chiefly subsists. They generally repose at about half a mile from the sea coast. They have temporary huts, ornamented with a tuft of grass fastened to a stick, and projecting from the front part of the top.

In his journal a few days later Harper recorded a brief trip he took around the Bay:

Oct 23rd. I took an excursion with a few blacks to the south side of the Bay. We had not gone far, before we met a black, who, on his first sight of me, began to shew (sic) a number of tricks, by dancing, jumping, swinging himself round, and beating himself with a stick; then running backwards and forwards. At last he stood still and began gazing at the sky, with his head quite back, at the same time mouvering (sic) his Stick in all Directions. I really thought the man was mad, and more particularly as he had a very ordinary countenance. This man looked very sternly at me, and viewed me till he was almost tired. I went up to him and asked him to shake hands, he then offered me the upper part of his arm. This black was very friendly to me afterwards and brought me a large fish.

On October the 27th Harper recorded, “I have taken my leave of the blacks, they will
anxiously expect my return. Oct 28th. We left Bateman Bay. When we were sailing out, the blacks waved their hands, as much as to say ‘Goodbye’.” However, Harper never did return. The application of the Wesleyan Missionary Society for a land grant at Bateman’s Bay was refused. Governor Darling stated in 1827 that, “I have… lately declined authorizing the Wesleyan Missionary Society to select land, which they had applied for along the Coast of Bateman’s Bay, considering it would have been prejudicial to the interests of the Settlers”.

Taken from Eurobodalla Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Study, South Coast New South Wales. View the full study

Excerpt from Eurobodalla Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Study, South Coast New South Wales, 2005. Story contributed by Martin Ind from Moruya High School.