8 Aboriginal engagement with European exploration

Just as had been the case in the Pacific, when European explorers of the Australian continent set out into their unknown they entered a place that was already well known to its inhabitants. European exploration along the coast  revealed unmistakable evidence of human habitation and often involved contact with Indigenous inhabitants. As European explorers travelled into the interior they travelled into populated regions. Some encounters between European explorers and Traditional Owners were distant, some confrontational, and some cooperative.

When the Australian continent was first glimpsed by European explorers it was clear it was a peopled place. Signs of habitation (including fires and the smoke from fires, dwellings, tools, and graves) were visible, even when people were not. And early contact with the Australian continent included contact with Indigenous people. In the north and west Dutch voyagers recorded their acts of violence and their confusion when trying to establish contact. Similarly, the early English explorer William Dampier was contemptuous when Aboriginal people judged his trade goods not worthy of working to obtain. On the east coast James Cook speculated about the virtues of Aboriginal ways of living, and during extended contact in the region of the Endeavour River he demonstrated his ignorance of local customs and resource management.

The establishment of the Sydney settlement brought more extended interactions between Europeans and the Aboriginal groups of that area. As expeditions set out from Sydney to explore first the coast, and then the interior of the Australian continent, Aboriginal people from the Sydney region travelled as guides. Like Tupaia (the Tahitian priest, navigator, and linguist who travelled on the Endeavour), such guides travelled beyond the bounds of their own country, but they had knowledge and skills that remained useful. Bolanderee and Colbee travelled with Watkin Tench in 1791 on an early overland expedition to explore Sydney’s hinterland. Guringai man Bungaree travelled with Matthew Flinders on his voyages to Moreton Bay in 1797, and around the continent in 1801-3, almost certainly becoming the first Indigenous person to circumnavigate the Australian continent.

Such guides did not share a language with all the people they encountered, but they understood cultural protocols and were able to guide the Europeans in behaving appropriately and being acceptable visitors. They also had bushcraft skills useful to the Europeans with whom they travelled. Those skills included tracking lost members of their party, human as well as animal. Many Aboriginal guides were valued by their companions for their personal attributes, as well as their value as workers. Aboriginal guides remained essential to European exploration until the middle of the nineteenth century, when improved technology and bushcraft meant that European explorers were able to survive without them. The Burke and Wills expedition of 1860-1 was the first European exploring party to dispense with permanent Aboriginal guides, and while that expedition ended in disaster it marked a turning point in the relationship between European explorers and Aboriginal people.

Exploring parties also made use of temporary guides. Aboriginal people at times joined expeditions, acted as guides in their own country, and left when their interest in the expedition waned. Most of the Aboriginal people involved with European explorers were men, suggesting that Aboriginal people saw the explorers as potentially dangerous. There were exceptions, including Wiradjuri woman Turandurey who acted as a temporary guide for Thomas Mitchell’s expedition in 1836. Such temporary guides probably acted from a range of motives, which may have included curiosity about the newcomers, a desire to move the explorers out of their country as quickly as possible, and the need to guide explorers away from sacred sites.

As European explorers travelled inland they encountered many people. When John Oxley pressed inland in 1817 he liked the country he was travelling through and acknowledged that it was already inhabited by people. Oxley recognised Aboriginal knowledge of country in that he considered the presence of people a clear indication of land rich in water, grass, and animals. Similarly, Hamilton Hume and William Hovell in 1824 noted that they actively looked for Aboriginal campfires as a way to find good country. Mitchell was able to claim a region as new, while also recording traditional names for its features and noting the presence of people. At times European explorers travelled along well-trodden paths linking important resources, and learned the names of significant landscape features from local informants: all inescapable signs that the country they were exploring was already well known.

Traditional Owners reacted to the presence of European expeditions in a variety of ways. Sometimes they simply kept their distance, at other times they interacted with explorers or with Aboriginal guides and shared resources, and at times explorers were made to feel unwelcome. Local people could use burning practices and the production of smoke to make explorers uncomfortable, speed them along, or exclude them from some areas. Some groups met explorers with threatening displays, including the shaking of weapons, and unnerving noises close by during the night. And sometimes local people attacked explorers, wounding or killing them. Explorers were constantly aware that they were in peopled places, and that they were outnumbered. Early explorers required guides to act as negotiators and peacemakers, later explorers were better able to depend on weapons to enforce their intrusions.

European explorers could not ignore the presence of people, but their reactions to the people they met varied depending on their preconceptions and circumstances. Some Aboriginal guides, and some of the people encountered, fitted European expectations of noble savages and the records of them in explorer journals are glowing and recognise their physical beauty, grace, and skills. When explorers were made to feel unwelcome, or when resources were scarce, the people they encountered were described quite differently. When there was conflict, violence, or the threat of violence, European explorers considered the people they encountered to be ignoble savages and tended to compare them to demons and wild animals.

While an Aboriginal presence throughout the Australian continent is clear in the journals written by European explorers, it was until the late twentieth century  that historians subjected the interactions between  Aboriginal and European explorers to sustained scholarly scrutiny. The cooperation of Aboriginal guides with explorers who brought settler colonialism in their wake requires thoughtful interpretation. The worldviews of Aboriginal guides were complex and coherent, as were their motivations. Their actions were at times heroic, and their loyalties reflected their circumstances. The actions of Aboriginal guides, and of the Aboriginal people encountered by explorers, are known to us by reports written from a European viewpoint. Despite their distortions, the reports contained within explorer journals allow us to glimpse Traditional Owners, and offer us an opportunity to interpret their reported actions while considering their probable motivations, respecting their intelligence, and seeking to understand their cultural context.


Explorer Journals

Hovell, W. H., Hamilton Hume. Journey of Discovery to Port Phillip, New South Wales in 1824 and 1825, by W.H. Hovell and H. Hume, Esquires. 2nd ed. Sydney: James Tegg, 1837. https://digital.sl.nsw.gov.au/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?embedded=true&toolbar=false&dps_pid=IE4881573

Mitchell, T. L. Journal of an Expedition in the Interior of Tropical Australia in Search of a Route from Sydney to the Gulf of Carpentaria. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1848. https://adc.library.usyd.edu.au/data-2/mitjour.pdf

Mitchell, T. L. Three Expeditions in the Interior of Eastern Australia With Descriptions of the Recently Explored Region of Australia Felix and of the Present Colony of New South Wales. London: T. and W. Boone, 1839. https://adc.library.usyd.edu.au/data-2/mitthre.pdf

Oxley, John. Journals of Two Expeditions into the Interior of New South Wales Undertaken by Order of the British Government in the Years 1817-18. London: John Murray, 1820. https://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/ozlit/pdf/p00066.pdf

Tench, Watkin. A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson in New South Wales: Including an Accurate Description of the Situation of the Colony; Of the Natives; And of its Natural Productions Taken on the Spot. London: G. Nicol and J. Sewell, 1793. https://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks/e00084.html


Open access secondary sources

Cadzow, Allison. “Turandurey (c. 1806–?).” Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University, 2020. https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/turandurey-29903/text37019, 2020

Shellam, Tiffany, Maria Nugent,  Shino Konishi and Allison Cadzow, eds. Brokers and Boundaries: Colonial Exploration in Indigenous Territory. Canberra: ANU Press, 2016. https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.12657/32435/610748.pdf?sequence=1

Standfield, Rachel. Indigenous Mobilities: Across and Beyond the Antipodes. Canberra: ANU Press, 2018. https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.12657/29734/book3.pdf?sequence=1#page=45

Other secondary sources

Blyton, Greg. “Aboriginal Guides of the Hunter Region 1800–1850: A Case Study in Indigenous Labour History.” History Australia 9, no. 3 (2012): 89-106. 

Blyton, Greg. “Harry Brown (c. 1819-1854): Contribution of an Aboriginal Guide in Australian Exploration.” Aboriginal History 39 (2015): 63-82.

Clendinnen, Inga. Dancing with Strangers: Europeans and Australians at First Contact. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Gooch, Ruth. “Why did Aboriginal Guides Co-operate? Settlers and Guides in Victoria 1835–1845.” History Australia 15, no. 4 (2018): 785-803.

McLaren, Annemarie. “No Fish, No House, No Melons: The Earliest Aboriginal Guides in Colonial New South Wales.” Aboriginal History 43 (2019): 33-55.

McLaren, Glen. Beyond Leichhardt: Bushcraft and the Exploration of Australia. Perth: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1996.

Reynolds, Henry. Black Pioneers: How Aboriginal and Islander People Helped Build Australia. Melbourne: Penguin Books, 2000.

Reynolds, Henry. Truth-Telling: History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement. Sydney: NewSouth, 2021.



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Beyond Cook: Explorers of Australia and the Pacific by Claire Brennan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.