European description of the Guugu Yimithirr

European description of the Guugu Yimithirr – 1770

Banks – “The tribe with which we had connections consisted of 21 people, 12 men, 7 women a boy and a girl, so many at least we saw and there might be more, especially women whom we did not see”.

Banks – “They are a very small people, or at least this tribe consisted of very small people, in general about 5 feet 6 in height and very slender; one we measured 5 feet 2 and another 5 feet 9, but he was far taller than any of his fellows.”

Parkinson – “Their bones were so small that I could more than span their ankles, and their arms too, above the elbow joint. Though of a diminutive size, they ran very swiftly, and were very merry and facetious.”

Banks – “They were all to a man lean and clean limbed and seemed to be very light and active; On their bodies we observed very few marks of cutaneous disorders as scurf, scars of sores &c. Their spare thin bodies indicate a temperance of eating, the consequence either of necessity or inclination, equally productive of health particularly in this respect.”

Banks – “Their eyes were in many lively and their teeth even and good; of them they had complete sets, by no means wanting two of their fore teeth as Dampier’s New Hollanders did.”

Banks – “Their hair was strait in some and curled in others. They always wore it cropped close round their heads. It was of the same consistence with our hair, by no means woolly or curled like that of Negroes.”

Cook – “Their beards which are generally black, they likewise crop short, or singe off.”

Banks – “That they had no sharp instruments among them we ventured to guess from the circumstances of an old man who came to us one day with a beard rather larger than his fellows; the next day he came again, his beard was then almost cropped close to his chin and upon examination we found the ends of the hairs all burned so that he had certainly singed it off.”

Banks – “Cloths they had none, not the least rag, those parts which nature willingly conceals being exposed to view completely uncovered; yet when they stood still they would often or always with their hand or something they held in it hide them in some measure at least, seemingly doing that as if by instinct.”

Cook – “They go quite naked both men and women without any manner of clothing whatever, even the women do not so much as cover their privites.”

Banks – “Their colour was nearest to that of chocolate, not that their skins were so dark but the smoke and dirt with which they were all cased over, which I suppose served them instead of cloths, made them of that colour. I tried indeed by spitting upon my finger and rubbing but altered the colour very little. Dirty as these people are they seem to be entirely free from lice, a circumstance rarely observed among the most cleanly Indians, and which here is the more remarkable as their hair was generally matted and filthy enough.”

Banks – “They painted themselves with white and red, the first in lines and bars on different parts of their bodies, the other in large patches.”

Banks – “…the red they commonly lay on in broad patches on their shoulders or breasts; the white in stripes some of which were narrow and confined to small parts of their body, others were broad and carried with some degree of taste across their bodies, round their legs and arms &c; they also lay it on in circles round their eyes and in patches in different parts of their faces.”

Banks  – “On the fleshy parts of their arms and thighs and some of their sides were large scars in regular lines, which by their breadth and the convexity with which they had healed shewed plainly that they had been made by deep cuts of some blunt instrument, a shell perhaps or the edge of a broken stone. These as far as we could understand by the signs they made use of were the marks of their lamentations for the deceased, in honour to whose memory or to show the excess of their grief they had in this manner wept for in blood.”

Banks – “Their ornaments were few: necklaces prettily enough made of shells, bracelets worn round the upper part of their arms, consisting of strings lapped round with other strings as what we call gimp in England, a string no thicker than a pack thread tied round their bodies which was sometimes made of human hair, a piece of bark tied over their forehead.”

Parkinson –  “The Women, who did not approach nearer to us than the opposite shore had feathers stuck on the crown of their heads, fastened, as we were informed, to a piece of gum.”

Banks – “That on which they seem to set the greatest value is a bone about 5 or 6 inches in length and as thick as a man’s finger, which is thrust into a hole bored through that part which divides the nostril so that it sticks across their face, making in the eyes of Europeans a most ludicrous appearance, though no doubt they esteem even this as an addition to their beauty which is purchased with hourly inconvenience; for when the bone was in its place, or as our seamen termed it their spritsail yard was rigged across, it completely stopped up both nostrils so that they spoke in the nose in a manner one should think scarce intelligently.”

Cook – “They live in small parties along by the sea coast, the banks of lakes, rivers, creeks etc. Their houses are mean small hovels, not much bigger than an oven, made of pieces of sticks, bark, grass etc. And even these are seldom used but in the wet season for in the dry times we know that 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 pieces of bark raised about a foot from the ground on the windward side. They seem to have no fixed habitation but move about from place to place like wild beasts in search of food, and I believe depends wholly upon the success of the present day for their substance.”

Banks – “The only furniture belonging to these houses, that we saw at least, was oblong vessels of bark made by the simple contrivance of tying up the two ends of a longish piece with a with which not being cut off serves for a handle, these we imagined served for the purpose of water buckets to fetch water from the springs which may sometimes be distant. We have reason to suppose that when they travel these are carried by the women from place to place; indeed the few opportunities we had of seeing the women they were generally employed in some laborious occupation as fetching wood, gathering shellfish etc.”

Banks – “Of land animals they probably eat every kind that they can kill which probably does not amount to any large number, every species being here shy and cautious in a high degree. The only vegetables we saw them use were yams of two sorts, one long and like a finger, the other round and covered with stringy roots, both sorts very small but sweet. They were so scarce where we were that we never could find the plants that produced them, though we often saw the places where they had been dug by the Indians very newly. It is very probable that the Dry season which was at its height when we were there had destroyed the leaves of the plant so that we had no guides, while the Indians knowing well the stalks might find them easily.”

Banks –  “Those of the fruits of a low palm (Cycas media) they certainly eat, though they are so unwholesome that some of our people who though forewarned depending upon their example eat one or two of were violently affected by them both upwards and downwards, and our hogs whose constitutions we thought might be as strong as those of the Indians literally died after having eat them. It is probable however that these people have some method of preparing them by which their poisonous quality is destroyed…”

Banks –  “Their victuals they generally dress by broiling or toasting them upon the coals, so we judged by the remains we saw; they knew however the method of baking or stewing with hot stones and sometimes practised it, as we now and then saw the pits and burned stones which had been made use off or that purpose.”

Banks – “They get fire very expeditiously with two pieces of stick very readily and nimbly: the one must be round and eight or nine inches long and both it and the other should be dry and soft; the round one they sharpen a little at one end and by pressing it upon the other turn it round with the palms of their hands just as Europeans do a chocolate mill, often shifting their hands up and running them down quick to make the pressure as hard as possible; in this manner they will get fire in less than two minutes and once possessed of the smallest spark increase it in a manner truly wonderful.”

Cook – “In short these people live solely by fishing and hunting, but mostly by the former, for we never saw one inch of cultivated land in the whole country.”

Banks – “Their lances were all of them single pointed, and some pointed with the stings of sting-rays and bearded with two or three beards of the same, which made them indeed a terrible weapon.”

Cook – “They throw the dart with only one hand, in the doing of which they make use of a piece of wood about three 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 fixed a thin piece of bone about three or four 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 help of these throwing sticks as we call them, they will hit a mark at a distance of forty or fifty yards, with almost, if not as much certainty as we can do with a musket, and much more so than with a ball.”

Banks – “The men carry their arms in their hands, three or four lances in one and the machine with which they throw them in the other; these serve them in the double capacity of defending them from their enemies and striking any animal or fish that they may meet with.”

Banks – “Their manner of hunting and taking wild animals we had no opportunity of seeing; We guessed that the fires we saw extending over large tracts of country and by which we could constantly trace the passage of the Indians who went from us in Endeavour River up into the country, were intended in some way or other for the taking of the animal called by them Kanguru, which we found to be so much afraid of fire that we could hardly force it with our dogs to go over places newly burnt.”

Banks – “For striking of turtle they use a peg of wood well bearded and about a foot long; this fastens into a socket of a staff of light wood as thick as a mans wrist and 8 or 9 feet long, besides which they are tied together by a loose line 3 or 4 fathoms in length (18 or 24 feet). The use of this must undoubtedly be that when the turtle is struck the staff flies off from the peg and serves for afloat to show them where the turtle is as well as assist to tire him till they can with their canoes overtake and haul him in.”

Banks – “The Reef was a plenty of turtle hardily to be credited, every shoal swarmed with them. Most of those we have caught have been green turtles from 200 to 300 pounds weight.”

Banks – “Their canoe was not above 10 feet long and very narrow built, They were regularly hollowed out of the trunk of a tree and fitted with an outrigger to prevent them from oversetting; they in shallow waters set her on with poles, in deep paddled her with paddles about 4 feet long; What burthen it was capable of carrying we had many times an opportunity to see: three people or at most four were as many as dare venture in it and if any more wanted to come over the river, which in that place was half a mile broad, one of these would carry back the canoe and fetch them.”

Cook – “Bad and mean as their canoes are they at certain seasons of the year, as 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.”

Banks – “These people seem to have no idea of traffic nor could we teach them; indeed it seemed that we had no one thing on which they set a value equal to induce them to part with the smallest trifle; except one fish which weighed about half a pound which they brought as a kind of token of peace no one in the ship procured from them the smallest article. They readily received the things we gave them but never would understand our signs when we asked for returns. This however must not be forgot, that whatever opportunities they had they never once attempted to take anything in a clandestine manner; whatever they wanted they openly asked for and in almost all cases bore the refusal if they met with one with much indifference, except turtles.”

Cook –  “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 happier than we Europeans.”

Banks – “Content with little nay almost nothing, far enough removed from the anxieties attending upon riches, or even the possessions Of what we Europeans call common necessities. From them appear how small are the real wants of human nature.”