The ‘Australian Native’ – as Observed by Captain James Cook

On the 23rd of August 1770, Captain James Cook wrote of the ‘Australian Native’.  The following excerpts of his journal notes of the said date, record his observations of the Australian Aborigine – prior to the arrival of European settlers:

” . . . The Natives of this Country are of a middle Stature, streight Bodied and Slender limb’d; their Skins the Colour of Wood soot, their Hair mostly black, some Lank and others curled; they all wear it Cropt Short; their Beards, which are generally black, they likewise crop short, or Singe off.  There features are far from being disagreeable, and their Voices are soft and Tunable.  They go quite Naked, both Men and Women, without any manner of Cloathing whatever; even the Women do not so much as cover their privities, altho’ None of us was ever very near any of their Women, one Gentleman excepted, yet we are all of us as well satisfied of this as if we had lived among them.  Notwithstanding we had several interviews with the Men while we lay in Endeavour River, yet, wether through Jealousy or disregard, they never brought any of their women along with them to the Ship, but always left them on the Opposite side of the River, where we had frequent Opportunities viewing them thro’ our Glasses.  They wear as Ornaments, Necklaces made of Shells, Bracelets, or Hoops, about their Arms, made mostly of Hair Twisted and made like a Cord Hoop; these they wear tight about the upper parts of their Arms, and some have Girdles made in the same manner.  The Men wear a bone, about 3 or 4 Inches long and a finger’s thick, run thro’ the Bridge* [* The cartilage of the nostril.  Banks mentions that the bluejackets called this queer ornament the “spritsail yard.”] of their Nose; they likewise have holes in their Ears for Ear Rings, but we never saw them wear any; neither are all the other Ornaments wore in Common, for we have seen as many without as with them. Some of these we saw on Possession Island wore breast plates, which we supposed were made of Mother of Pearl Shells.  Many of them paint their Bodies and faces with a Sort of White paste or Pigment; this they apply different ways, each according to his fancy.

Their offensive weapons are Darts; some are only pointed at one end, others are barb’d, some with wood, others with Stings of rays, and some with Sharks’ Teeth, etc.; these last are stuck fast on with Gum.  They throw the Darts with only one hand, in the doing of which they make use of a piece of wood about 3 feet long, made thin like the blade of a Cutlass, with a little hook at one End to take hold of the End of the dart, and at the other end is fix’d a thin piece of bone about 3 or 4 Inches long; the use of this is, I believe, to keep the dart steady, and to make it quit the hand in a proper direction.  By the helps of these throwing sticks, as we call them, they will hit a mark at the Distance of 40 or 50 yards, with almost, if not as much, Certainty as we can do with a Musquet, and much more so than with a ball . . . “

Natives of New Holland Picture by Cooks Illustrator Sydney Parkinson c 1770 Full c

Australian Aborigines as illustrated by Capt James Cook’s Illustrator – Sydney Parkinson c 1770

” . . . These throwing sticks we at first took for wooden swords, and perhaps on some occasions they may use them as such; that is, when all their darts are expended.  Be this as it may, they never Travel without both them and their Darts, not for fear of Enemies, but for killing of Game, etc., as I shall show hereafter.  There defensive weapons are Targets, made of wood; but these we never saw used but once in Botany Bay.

I do not look upon them to be a warlike people; on the contrary, I think them a Timerous and inoffensive race, no ways inclined to Cruelty, as appear’d from their behaviour to one of our people in Endeavour River, which I have before mentioned, neither are they very numerous.  They live in small parties along by the Sea Coast, the banks of Lakes, Rivers, Creeks, etc.  They seem to have no fixed habitation, but move about from place to place like wild beasts in search of Food, and, I believe, depend wholy upon the Success of the present day for their Subsistance.  They have wooden fish Gigs, with 2, 3, or 4 prongs, each very ingeniously made, with which they strike fish.  We have also seen them strike both fish and birds with their Darts.  With these they likewise kill other Animals; they have also wooden Harpoons for striking Turtle, but of these I believe they get but few, except at the seasons they come ashore to lay.  In short, these people live wholy by fishing and hunting, but mostly by the former, for we never saw one Inch of Cultivated land in the whole Country.  They know, however, the use of Taara, and sometimes eat them; we do not know that they Eat anything raw, but roast or broil all they eat on slow small fires.  Their Houses are mean, small Hovels, not much bigger than an Oven, made of Peices of Sticks, Bark, Grass, etc., and even these are seldom used but in the Wet seasons, for in the daytimes we know they as often sleep in the Open Air as anywhere else.  We have seen many of their Sleeping places, where there has been only some branches or peices of Bark, grass, etc., about a foot high on the Windward side.

Their Canoes are as mean as can be conceived, especially to the Southward, where all we saw were made of one peice of the Bark of Trees about 12 or 14 feet long, drawn or Tied together at one end.  As I have before made mention, these Canoes will not Carry above 2 people, in general there is never more than one in them; but, bad as they are, they do very well for the purpose they apply them to, better than if they were larger, for as they draw but little water they go in them upon the Mud banks, and pick up Shell fish, etc., without going out of the Canoe.  The few Canoes we saw to the Northward were made out of a Log of wood hollow’d out, about 14 feet long and very narrow, with outriggers; these will carry 4 people.  During our whole stay in Endeavour River we saw but one Canoe, and had great reason to think that the few people that resided about that place had no more; this one served them to cross the River and to go a Fishing in, etc.  They attend the Shoals, and flatts, one where or another, every day at low water to gather Shell fish, or whatever they can find to eat, and have each a little bag to put what they get in; this bag is made of net work.  They have not the least knowledge of Iron or any other Metal that we know of; their working Tools must be made of Stone, bone, and Shells; those made of the former are very bad, if I may judge from one of their Adzes I have seen.

Bad and mean as their Canoes are, they at Certain seasons of the Year (so far as we know) go in them to the most distant Islands which lay upon the Coast, for we never landed upon one but what we saw signs of People having been there before.  We were surprized to find Houses, etc., upon Lizard Island, which lies 5 Leagues from the nearest part of the Main; a distance we before thought they could not have gone in their Canoes.

The Coast of this Country, at least so much of it as lays to the Northward of 25 degrees of Latitude, abounds with a great Number of fine bays and Harbours, which are Shelter’d from all winds; but the Country itself, so far as we know, doth not produce any one thing that can become an Article in Trade to invite Europeans to fix a settlement upon it.  However, this Eastern side is not that barren and miserable country that Dampier and others have described the Western side to be.  We are to consider that we see this country in the pure state of nature; the Industry of Man has had nothing to do with any part of it, and yet we find all such things as nature hath bestow’d upon it in a flourishing state.  In this Extensive Country it can never be doubted but what most sorts of Grain, Fruit, roots, etc., of every kind would flourish here were they once brought hither, planted and Cultivated by the hands of Industry; and here are Provender for more Cattle, at all seasons of the Year, than ever can be brought into the Country . . . “

” . . . When one considers the Proximity of this Country with New Guinea, New Britain, and several other Islands which produce Cocoa Nutts and many other fruits proper for the support of man, it seems strange that they should not long ago be Transplanted here; by its not being done it should seem that the Natives of this Country have no commerce with their Neighbours, the New Guineans . . . “

” . . .  It is very probable that they are a different people, and speak a different Language. For the advantage of such as want to Clear up this point I shall add a small Vocabulary of a few Words in the New Holland Language which we learnt when in Endeavour River . . . “


The Head : Whageegee.

The Hair of the head : Morye or More.

The Eyes : Meul.

The Ears : Melea.

The Lips : Yembe or Jembi.

The Teeth : Mulere or Moile.

The Chinn : Jaeal.

The Beard : Waller.

The Tongue : Unjar.

The Nose : Bonjoo.

The Naval : Toolpoor or Julpur.

The Penis : Keveil or Kerrial.

The Scrotum : Coonal or Kunnol.

The Arms : Aw or Awl.

The Hand : Marigal.

The Thumb : Eboorbalga.

The Fore, Middle and Ring fingers : Egalbaiga.

Little Finger : Nakil or Eboonakil.

The Thighs : Coman.

The Knees : Ponga.

The Legs : Peegoorgo.

The Feet : Edamal.

The Nails : Kolke or Kulke.

A Stone : Walba.

Sand : Joo’wal, Yowall, or Joralba.

A Rope or Line : Goorgo or Gurka.

Fire : Maianang or Meanang.

The Sun : Galan or Gallan.

The Sky : Kere or Kearre.

A Father : Dunjo.

A Son : Jumurre.

A Man : Bamma or Ba ma.

A Dog : Cotta or Kota.

A Lorryquet : Perpere or Pier-pier.

A Cocatoo : Wanda.

Male Turtle : Poonja or Poinja.

Female : Mamingo.

A great Cockle : Moenjo or Moingo.

Cocos Yams : Maracotu (?).

A Canoe : Maragan.

From what I have said of the Natives of New Holland they may appear to some to be the most wretched People upon Earth; but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans, being wholy unacquainted not only with the Superfluous, but with the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe; they are happy in not knowing the use of them.  They live in a Tranquility which is not disturbed by the Inequality of Condition.  The earth and Sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for Life.  They covet not Magnificient Houses, Household-stuff, etc.; they live in a Warm and fine Climate, and enjoy every wholesome Air, so that they have very little need of Cloathing; and this they seem to be fully sencible of, for many to whom we gave Cloth, etc., left it carelessly upon the Sea beach and in the Woods, as a thing they had no manner of use for; in short, they seem’d to set no Value upon anything we gave them, nor would they ever part with anything of their own for any one Article we could offer them.  This, in my opinion, Argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life, and that they have no Superfluities . . . “

– Source:  Captain Cook’s Journal – During His First Voyage Round the World – Made in H.M. Bark “ENDEAVOUR”
1768-71 – A Literal Transcription of the Original MSS – with Notes & Introduction Edited by Captain W.J.L. Wharton, R.N., F.R.S. – c 1893

View other important information on Discovering Terra Australis . . .

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.