Uninvited Guests

920134-christmas-islandThere’s a knock on your front door. You open it. There’s a stranger there, pleasant enough, say’s he’s looking around the neighbourhood for somewhere to live. You invite him in, give him a cup of tea. He goes on his way.

Some time later, he appears at the door again. This time with several friends, some of whom you really don’t like the  look of. Somewhat reticently, you invite them in. Gradually,  they begin to take over your house. Where you thought they only wanted to look around, it becomes obvious they’re not going away.

They bring in their own food, spread themselves around all the rooms, trash your furniture, clog up your plumbing and generally wreck your house while hardly taking notice of you.

Eventually you find yourself sleeping in the backyard.  They’ve taken over completely.

This is, more or less, what happened in what we now call Australia when the first Europeans arrived, although as an allegory, it doesn’t begin to describe the impact and the devastation that European invasion visited on the original Australians and the land that they had turned, over millennia, into what historian Bill Gammage has called, in his book of that name,  ‘the biggest estate on earth.’

It was on the 12th of November 1777 that the ships which would become known as The First Fleet weighed anchor in the Cape of Good Hope and set sail for the country that they would eventually name Australia.

The 962 people on board the eleven ships were to begin a colony in a land that had not been properly explored beforehand – Cook and his crew had merely made landfall on the east coast, stopped at  Botany Bay for a few days and sailed up the coast. No subsequent voyages were sent to reconnoitre. They had come half way around the world to an unknown land, officially to establish a colony. But that was not the real reason for the journey. As Robert Hughes wrote in The Fatal Shore, ‘In their most sanguine moments, the authorities hoped that  it (the voyage and subsequent ones) would swallow a whole class – the “criminal class”’ which they could then forget about.

But there was another agenda, as expressed by Lieutenant Watkin Tench in his first book A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay. As Tench saw it, upon leaving the Cape,

they ‘soon left far behind every scene of civilisation and humanised manners to explore a remote and barbarous land and plant in it those happy arts which alone constitute the pre-eminence and dignity of other countries’

A good start what? No pre-judging there. One could understand ‘remote’ but ‘barbarous’? How did they know that? The only reports they would have had from Cook and Banks’ visit eighteen years before  did not indicate barbarity, rather temerity. The first indigenous Australians they saw threw rocks, or threw spears (darts Cook called them) or ran away.  The first Europeans they saw fired guns.

On May 4th 1770, Banks wrote in his journal ‘One of our midshipmen stragling by himself a long way from any one else met by accident with a very old man and woman and some children: they were setting under a tree and neither party saw the other till they were close together. They shewd signs of fear but did not attempt to run away.’

This fear of the newcomer – as it turned out quite justified – didn’t change. Recalling the effect meeting explorers had on the locals much later, Henry Reynolds wrote in The Other Side of the Frontier ‘Meetings with Europeans were often terrifying experiences even when violence was absent. Screaming, perspiring, shaking, involuntary urination and defecation – all the normal human reactions to extreme fear were reported at one time or another by white observers’

He tells of explorer Edward Eyre coming upon a camp at night  and provoking ‘ a wild exclamation of dismay’ followed by a ‘look of indescribable horror and affright.’

As we have subsequently learnt, the original Australians had extraordinary methods of communication and doubtless stories like Philip’s capture and chaining of Arabanoo which, although the man came to no harm, would have been alarming. This was not how guests behaved to their hosts.

The first Europeans didn’t arrive empty-handed. Along with ‘trinkets for the natives’ they bought a considerable amount of food and livestock.

From England they had brought carrots, potatoes, lettuce, asparagus, onions, broccoli, beans, peas, watercress, wheat, barley, rye and oats. Also apples, pears, plums, cherries and a selection of citrus including navels, Seville oranges and Tahitian limes.

And in Rio de Janeiro they picked up tamarind, prickly pear plants complete with – and specifically for – the cochineal grubs – the first but not the last botanical blunder, the pear later ran rife and became an environmental problem – coffee, cotton, lemon, orange and guava. In Capetown, they added rice, maize (then known as Indian corn), apples, bamboo (the second mistake), pears, strawberries, quinces, apples, an assortment of trees and five hundred head of assorted livestock which included a bull, a bull calf, and seven cows – one of the cows died at sea.

So the uninvited guests arrived with their own food and their own methods of agriculture from the other side of the planet – methods that would prove disastrous. But first, they had to steal the land.



On the Treaty Republic website, Professor Stuart Banner wrote: ‘The British treated Australia as terra nullius—as un-owned land. Under British colonial law, Aboriginal Australians had no property rights in the land, and colonization accordingly vested ownership of the entire continent in the British government. The doctrine of terra nullius remained the law in Australia throughout the colonial period, and indeed right up to 1992.’

By proclaiming the land empty, in the eyes of the law –

and by extension, the eyes of the European populace – Aboriginal Australians did not really exist. How did this illogical and immoral doctrine come about in the first place? Nowhere else in the world, neither in New Zealand nor North America, had the British propounded or adopted such a policy. The reasons for the adoption of terra nullius are complex, and tied, in a great part, to agriculture: that is,

its invisibility to the colonisers.

Those who arrived in Australia in the late eighteenth century believed that a society without agriculture was a society without property rights in land.

Because the local peoples were assumed to have no agriculture, and therefore no farms, no fences, no stock, no gardens, they had no property rights. This was not a new way of looking at society, at property.  European thinkers like Adam Smith posited that all societies passed through four stages: hunting, pasturage, farming and commerce. Each of these stages corresponded to a set of political and economic institutions, one of which was property. Hunter-gatherers, as the indigenous Australians were thought to be, owned no property, did not know the meaning of property and, therefore, had no property rights. As we have begun to discover, although these stages of society were essentially correct for the much of the world, Australia, before 1788, was the exception. But there was more to the application of terra nullius than the perceived lack of agriculture.

The first settlers damned the locals as dirty, indigent, lazy and not quite human. On returning to England, William Dampier reported  ‘The Inhabitants of this Country are the miserablest People in the World…. setting aside their Human(e) Shape, they differ but little from Brutes.’ As for their diet, he wrote ‘There is neither herb, root, pulse, nor any sort of grain for them to eat that we saw; nor any sort of bird or beast that they can catch, having no instruments wherewithal to do so.’

In 1809, the naturalist George Caley who had been sent by Banks to gather botanical specimens told Banks that ‘The absence of agriculture implied the absence of any property rights the British were bound to respect and more broadly reinforced the prevailing belief in the Aborigines’ backwardness. No farms, no houses, no clothes—could a people be any more savage?’ Worse, according to missionary William Pascoe Cook in 1803 they ‘seemed to be amazing stupid.’

In short, as The Southern Australian saw the matter in 1839 ‘We found the country in the state in which ages before the black people had found it—its resources undeveloped, unappropriated!’ The answer was at hand. ‘Britons “cannot but feel ourselves delighted at the sight of smiling harvests taking place of naked wastes,” applauded one far-off observer, “since man’s business, as an inhabitant of this world, is to improve and cultivate the face of the earth.”’

Can the settlers be blamed for their disdain of the original Australians ? Can we judge them by the standards of today? A difficult but perhaps not a relevant question. By any standards they treated the people they found here as little better than animals and ignored their human rights.

Not all agreed.

In 1802 the French explorer Nicholas Baudin was in New South Wales, and he took the opportunity to give Governor Philip Gidley King a piece of his mind about terra nullius. “To my way of thinking,” Baudin declared, “I have never been able to conceive that there was justice and equity on the part of Europeans in seizing, in the name of the Governments, a land seen for the first time, when it is inhabited by men who have not always deserved the title of savages or cannibals which has been given them, whilst they were but the children of nature and just as little civilised as are actually your Scotch Highlanders or our peasants in Brittany….’ Baudin reproached King for “seizing the soil which they own and which has given them birth.”

The naturalist and zoologist François Auguste Péron, travelling with Baudin, obviously an enthusiast for the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, had an entirely different view of the locals, writing that ‘With inexpressible delight I had come to realize in them those brilliant descriptions of of happiness and simplicity of the state of nature of which I had savoured the seducing charm many times in my reading.’ We all bring our own baggage…

On a more down to earth note ‘It may be doubted,’ a correspondent to the Sydney Herald asserted in 1835, “that a people can be justified in forcibly possessing themselves of the territories of another people, who until then were its inoffensive, its undoubted, and ancient possessors.”

But the prevailing viewpoint is expressed in this editorial from  the Sydney Herald in 1838:

‘This vast land was to them (Aborigines) a common – they bestowed no labour upon the land, their right, was nothing  more than that of the emu or the kangaroo…..The British people…took possession…, and they had a perfect right to do so, under the Divine authority, by  which man is commanded to go forth and people, and till the land.”

And verily they did.


In his book Tukka,  Australian native food chef and restaurateur Jean Paul Bruneteau wrote ‘The total disregard of a civilisation’s cultural basis was evident from the theft and fencing of land within traditional cultivation areas. Unless a food could be cultivated, it was considered to be of no real value.’

Yes, we occasionally ate native produce and game. Tench believed that a drink made from native sarsaparilla (Smilax glyciphilla) saved many from scurvy. And he wrote ‘A few wild fruits are sometimes procured, among which is the small purple apple mentioned by Cook, and a fruit which has the appearance of a grape, though in taste more like a green gooseberry, being excessively sour.’ (The editor of the Tench book,  Tim Flannery identifies the former fruit as ‘probably a lilly pilly Syzygium’ and the latter ‘possibly a geebung Persoonia).  Tench then went on to make the percipient observation that ‘Probably were it meliorated by cultivation, it would become more palatable.’

But we never really took to the native foods, treating them, as best, as substitutions for ‘the real thing.’ In Santich’s paper on early colonial experimentation with native produce, it is this idea of substitution which puts native produce in its place. In writing of her use of murnong, food historian and academic Barbara Santich quotes settler Katherine Kirkland remarking ‘ I have put it in soup for want of better vegetables before we had a garden.’

Colin Bannerman elaborates on this theme. ‘Thus from the earliest days of white occupation, Australian native food resources were exploited on every plane of feeding — survival, nurture and feasting. Their appearance was often tinged with adventure: exploring, pioneering or hunting. However, bush foods also represented failure: the depletion of stores, extreme poverty… or separation from the society of ‘home.’

But how did we steal their food if we didn’t eat it? By trampling all over it with an imported and, as we are now discovering,  totally unsuitable method of agriculture. Just one example.

The tubers of the Murnong plant (Microseris scapigera), or yam daisy, were an important food source. They were abundant and easily collected and one of the staple foods of Victorian Aborigines. G.A. Robinson, in north-central Victoria in 1840 saw ‘women spread over the plain as far as I could see them….I examined their bags and baskets on their return and each had a  load (of murnong tubers) as much as she could carry.’ But murnong grew in the rich soil of that country and favoured for grazing livestock. By 1831, 700,000 sheep were grazing across Victoria, eating the leaves and digging up the tubers of the murnong. In 1839, a Goulburn Aborigine Moonin-Moonin pointed out that ‘plenty eat it murnong, all gone murnong.’

The transformation of the land to grow more European food would lead to degradation. The activity that Grace Karskens notes in her book The  Colony in 1804 in the Castle Hill area, where ‘six hundred convicts were continually employed in felling trees to open roads through the forest…’ would be repeated across the entire country for at least the next 150 years.  Curiously, the clear-felling of the trees was not in and of itself necessarily a bad thing, but it was evidence of the ways in which these first settlers arrived on a continent which already had a complex land management plan in place, and trampled over it with their heavy boots. Clearfelling facilitated the overstocking of their imported animals, compacting the soil and encouraging run-off rather than allowing the rain to soak into the soil. But the cattle and sheep and imported agricultural methods did more than ruin the land: they broke a profound spiritual connection with it which enabled Aboriginal Australians to care for the entire continent – and to ensure an abundant food supply.


Gammage writes ‘Aboriginal landscape awareness is rightly seen as drenched in religious sensibility, but equally the Dreaming is saturated with environmental consciousness. Theology and ecology are fused.’

You’ve probably heard of totems. Each individual in pre-1788 society had a totem. This totem carried  a multitude of responsibilities, primeary amongst them to ensure the survival of that totem. Gammage writes of one man he met whose totem was the maggot, a most important link in the chain of creation.

The longest war any people fought against the settlers was on the Hawkesbury. In 1788, the Dharug people received Governor Phillip hospitably when he surveyed the river. Then, in the 1790s, he instructed farms to be built there.  Dharug means yam, and the yam was a major totem. The Europeans who stole the land where the Dharug used to farm and cultivate yams – for the original Australians did farm and cultivate  – took land, yam, totem and trade. The traded their yams with adjoining groups. ‘The clans fought back for 22 years, until all were dead or in hiding.’ Europeans did not understand this. The yams were more than food, they were ‘totem allies  needing help.

Gammage’s book painstakingly gathers and lays out the evidence  that ‘collectively (the original Australians) managed an Australian estate they thought of as single and universal…’ And that means from Cape York to Bruny Island. Some Europeans did get this. Gammage quotes pioneer squatter Edward Curr who wrote, in 1883 ‘It may perhaps be doubted whether any section of the human race has ever exercised a greater influence on the physical condition of any large portion of the globe than the wandering savages of Australia.’ Curr knew that what he said and the language that he used – ‘wandering savages’ and ‘greater influence’  would challenge the prevailing wisdom of the day.

What exactly did we take from them? According to  native Australian food merchant and nutrition scientist Vic Cherikoff,  ‘The average Australian (today) would be eating 70 to 80 different foods a year – in the cities. The gourmand who’d be eating white asparagus when it came into season, all the mushrooms, Asian vegetables, herbs and spices – you’d be touching 100 ingredients a year. Move away from the city they’ll eat 40, sometimes less. I’ve been out on stations where they’re surviving on sheep, mutton, beef, occasionally yabbies, local river fish – kangaroo they feed to the dogs they wouldn’t consider eating it – and a handful of vegetables. The Aboriginal people in traditional times, in the western desert, 150 different foods in a year. Move up into the tropical north, 750 different foods.’ And, according to Cherikoff, the nutritional density of these foods far surpassed our cultivated foods today.

And what happened to the diet of the original Australians when they were removed from their land, when they could no longer hunt or dig for murnong? Symons writes that they ‘drifted into  the mining settlements, stations and coastal towns’ and ‘became tragically dependent’, their diet came to ‘consist of white flour for damper, white sugar for tea, camp pie, salt and beer.’ Considerably less than  150 different foods. The result? Diabetes, third world mortality rates, and other problems only too well-known, many of which are specifically linked to poor nutrition.


So we came and stole their land, their culture and cut off their food supply. To add insult to considerable injury, we refused, for over 200 years, to  eat the food that grew here. This began early – and in many ways, still goes on

The annals and journals of those who explored the Australian outback make compelling reading for their encounters with native foods. They often ran out of the supplies they took with them, and had to make decisions about ‘going native’, often with disastrous results.

One of the best know of these stories is that of Burke and Wills, documented by Sarah Murgatroyd in The dig tree: the story of Burke and Wills. In August of 1860, Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills set  off with eighteen companions and camels to cross the country from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. They carried eight tonnes of food for a journey planned to last between eighteen months and two years.  After travelling through the desert, they reached Cooper’s Creek  which was, during a rare period of higher than average rainfall, ‘crowded, noisy and brimming with life.’

This rain had produced a feast for the local Yandruwandha people – and other groups invited in to share the bounty – along the creek.  And after millennia living near the Cooper, they knew how to eat well, even in times of drought. But at this time of  abundance, they chose  from among the thirteen fish, yabbies and fresh water mussels and  ate marsupials, lizards and snakes, all of which would have been herded by fire to facilitate their capture. From the land they took mulga apples, native figs coolibah seeds and, importantly, a small aquatic fern known as nardoo. As Murgatroyd writes ‘harvesting the local bush tucker demanded knowledge, skill and patience’ but Burke, the expedition leader, possessed none of these qualities, and had  ‘no interest in the intricacies and possibilities of his new environment. He had come to conquer, not to learn’

The end of the expedition – which failed within twenty kilometres of their goal, the northern coast in the Gulf of Carpentaria – is tragic. They returned to their Coopers Creek  camp only to find that it had been abandoned that same day.

Having previously rejected the locals, Wills now realised that ‘the men and women he had despised for their “primitive appearance” were now his only chance of survival.’ and became interested in nardoo, but at first had no idea where it grew. He and Burke began trying to live off the land but realised it was not as easy as they had thought, and ‘without the proper tools and traditional knowledge,

the three explorers prepared their nardoo incorrectly’

Eventually, after futile attempts to find help and quarrels with the Yandruwandha people, they died in agony. To die either of ignorance or malnutrition in a land with abundant supplies  of food, and inhabited by ‘a tall athletic people’ is difficult to comprehend.

In a similar vein, Anne Gollan writes in The Tradition of Australian Cooking of the death of a man called Brooks at the Carlo Border Netting Camp near Mulligan River who insisted on eating only his European food. ‘It is strange and sad to think of him dying so bravely, in his lonely grave, when all around him were wild yams, anyeroo nuts, growing prolifically in the sand hills, and the various wild bananas and nuts of the region’

Have we changed?  I recently interviewed Raymond and Jennice Kersh, two  contemporary pioneers of Australian native cuisine in their three consecutive restaurants called Edna’s Table, the last of which closed in 2005.

At their first location in Kent Street, chef Raymond Kersh used native ingredients, but he told me ‘you couldn’t put it on the menu what you were using because nobody knew what they were anyway – we were just using them to create flavours…’

When they moved to their next restaurant, in the MLC Centre, they began to name the ingredients on the menu, and, as Raymond said ‘… that scared the living daylight out of the customers.’

Raymond went on to recount a story from that time. ‘We had a customer who was a real regular. He was a fantastic customer when we were at Kent Street. He came to the MLC and ate the same food and read on the menu  what he’d been eating all along and he turned around and said to me “what are you using this Aboriginal shit for?” That was the late 1990s, and that was, the Kersh told me, a common reaction.

So, finally, we stole their land, their culture, their spirituality, and their food. Which we not only refused to eat, but thought of as ‘shit.’


Have we been good guests?


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