This piece is part of HWO’s feature on Radical Friendship. The feature is an exploration of different configurations of friendship, both intimate and symbolic, and the radical potential of these relationships. You can read an introduction to the series here.
The Governor’s plan with respect to the Natives, was, if possible to cultivate an acquaintance with them without their having an Idea of our great superiority over them, that their Confidence & Friendship might be more firmly fixed: we could not persuade any of them to go away in the Boat with us.
–Lieutenant William Bradley, A Voyage to New South Wales 1786-1792
Warrane, which the British called Sydney, was invaded in 1788. For Britain, this was a period of urbanisation and growing commercial wealth, colonial expansion, slavery and the era of Enlightenment. These developments were all connected.
The White men who colonised the Pacific, invaded South Asia, and participated in the slave trade and plantation slavery at the end of the eighteenth century were the same men who read periodicals and other Enlightenment texts, frequented assemblies and balls in urbane spaces, and participated in intellectual and convivial life. The masculinity of these men could be libertine, polite, and/or martial, but, crucially, they were products of late eighteenth-century British culture – they were men of the Enlightenment. They often contributed to the global circuit of knowledge production and they considered themselves civilised.
Interdependent and voluntary friendship in which the passions were balanced by reason and self-command was an important feature of idealised commercial and urban modernity. Moral philosopher Adam Smith argued that friendship was enhanced in commercial society via economic interdependence, whilst his friend David Hume emphasised the civilising effect of mixed-sex sociable exchange and the formation of voluntary societies in emerging urbanised spaces. But what did it mean when friendship was proclaimed on the ‘frontier’? Were radical White-Indigenous friendships of respect and reciprocity possible within the violent and unequal power dynamic of colonial invasion?
In colonial space friendship typically served to cloak rather than mitigate violence and it reinforced racialised hierarchies. However, there was at least one friendship, between Lieutenant William Dawes and Patyegarang, that undermined rather than reinforced racist White myths. This was not the case for his fellow First Fleet officers.
Enacting White Myths
Just as polite male gallantry in the eighteenth century enabled men to enact assumed gender superiority, in a colonial context friendship and civility became a performance of assumed racial superiority. Simultaneously, the ability of Indigenous people to return the offer of friendship became a means of determining their ability to be assimilated/eliminated to European civility. The first ‘friend’ the White invaders kidnapped, Arabanoo, was celebrated for the courtesy he displayed to White women and the adoption of polite mannerisms such as wiping his hands on a towel. Conversely, when the Eora and people of the surrounding nations resisted invasion they were deemed treacherous and incapable of true friendship.
In Britain, cross-class, hierarchical friendships did exist, as Naomi Tadmor has explored. In the metropole there was some reciprocity and interdependency in these relationships. In colonial space, the British imagined interdependency as a feature of their proffered friendship – they offered civilisation in return for Indigenous consent to occupation. But this was a White imaginary. Friendship was asserted but often not accepted, and sovereignty was never ceded. This is indicated by Lieutenant William Bradley (British naval officer and cartographer and one of the officers who participated in the First Fleet to Australia) in his first-hand account of the 1788 invasion when he notes that “we could not persuade any of them to go away in the boat with us”.
Ideas about the supposed savagery of Indigenous peoples, including assumptions regarding their incapacity for true friendship, littered the pages of Enlightenment racial theory. These ideas of savagery provided the intellectual bulwark to an invention of Whiteness as civilised. Friendship was one enactment of this myth.
Lieutenant James Cook was the first to claim British sovereignty over the lands of the east coast of what is now called Australia in 1770. Mythologised in Britain as the archetypal Enlightenment explorer, on Cook’s Pacific voyages friendship was deployed to symbolise European civility, imagine First Nations consent to invasion and deny violence. In Alecia Simmonds’ words “in the aftermath of battle friendship cleaned the beach of bloodshed”. In 1787, one of the eleven ships that sailed from Portsmouth to Warrane was called The Friendship.
When Governor Arthur Phillip led the invasion of Eora country in 1788, he acted in Cook’s shadow, repeating the myth of friendly colonisation. The echo is clear in the similar instructions they were issued. Whereas Cook was directed to “cultivate a Friendship and Alliance” with Indigenous people, Phillip was instructed to “to conciliate their affections, enjoining all Our Subjects to live in amity and kindness with them”. At first glance these directives suggest a less violent and more progressive colonisation at the end of the eighteenth century, but they actually speak to a denial of Indigenous sovereignty and agency.
In this process, class intersected with race. In Britain and in the colonies, the civility symbolised by friendship was associated with the upper and middling classes not plebeians, and especially not the criminal sort. The colony established on the unceded land of the Gadigal people was primarily a penal settlement and this gave the officer class an excuse for any outbreaks of violence – they could blame the convicts.
Blaming the Convicts
At the beginning of his Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson (1793), Captain Watkin Tench reflected that:
With the natives we were very little more acquainted than on our arrival in the country. Our intercourse with them was neither frequent or cordial. They seemed studiously to avoid us, either from fear, jealousy, or hatred. When they met with unarmed stragglers, they sometimes killed, and sometimes wounded them. I confess that, in common with many others, I was inclined to attribute this conduct, to a spirit of malignant levity. But a farther acquaintance with them, founded on several instances of their humanity and generosity, which shall be noticed in their proper places, has entirely reversed my opinion; and led me to conclude, that the unprovoked outrages committed upon them, by unprincipled individuals among us, caused the evils we had experienced.
Maintaining a belief in his own friendly civility, Lieutenant Governor David Collins also blamed the outbreak of hostilities on convict violence against Indigenous people. He noted that the Eora had initially “conducted themselves sociably and peaceably toward all the parties of our officers”, and he lamented, “How grateful to every feeling of humanity would it be could we conclude this narrative without being compelled to say, that these unoffending people had found reason to change both their opinions and their conduct.” This idea that convicts were to blame for any conflict was established prior to the First Fleet leaving Portsmouth, with Phillip writing:
I think it shall be a great point gained if I can proceed in this business without having any dispute with the natives, a few of which I shall endeavour to pursuade [sic] to settle near us, and who I mean to furnish with everything that can tend to civilise them, and to give them a high opinion of the new guests, for which purpose it will be necessary to prevent the new transports’ crews from having any intercourse with the natives, if possible. The convicts must have none, for if they have, the arms of the natives will be very formidable in their hands, the women abused, and the natives disgusted.
As Stephen Gapps’ study showed, by the 1790s the British invaders were met with sustained guerrilla warfare, led by Bidjigal warrior, Pemulwuy. As Collins himself wrote, as soon as they arrived in Eora country in 1788, the British were met with calls of “warra, warra, warra” [go away] from the shore. Blaming the convicts enabled Collins, Phillip and other polite officers to deny this coordinated resistance to an unwelcome invasion. They did this by presenting it as a passionate and treacherous rejection of their friendship.
Friendship at Gunpoint
In his account, Captain John Hunter recalled approaching a beach with “the most friendly disposition” only to be met with spears. He declared this act treacherous; using notions of passionate savagery to deny Indigenous sovereignty. Hunter had believed that “by residing some time amongst, or near them, they will soon discover that we are not their enemies; a light they no doubt considered us in on our first arrival.” This assertion of friendship framed Indigenous resistance as a failure of the Eora, Dharug and Dharawal to be friendly. It pre-empted any questioning of the nature and purpose of invasion by simultaneously casting the officer class as civilised.
In colonial space, Enlightenment ideologies of race and friendship coalesced, and if black lives really do matter in our scholarship then we must cease examining ideas of race in the abstract in Enlightenment studies. Instead, we need to consider the impact of these ideas on the subjects they discuss. Otherwise we risk contributing to ongoing colonial violence. As Shino Konishi has powerfully argued in a recent article, Indigenous experience and agency must become more central to understandings of settler colonialism alongside analyses of power and the structure it creates.
The local Eora people responded to invasion and hierarchical cross-racial ‘friendship’ in various ways. Sometimes resisting and sometimes participating for personal and diplomatic ends. The most well-known of the latter group was Wangal man, Woollarawarre Bennelong. Kidnapped in 1789 with his friend Colebee, Bennelong was dressed in European gentleman’s clothes and kept shackled at night. He escaped and later returned to the British settlement voluntarily, following the spearing of Governor Phillip (who had ordered his kidnapping). Bennelong then sailed to Britain with Phillip in 1792, remaining there from 1793-1795. His Wangal compatriot, Yemmerrawanne, who had also joined the voyage, died in London in 1794. Bennelong, however, returned to Eora country, and on his return rejected British culture, resulting in condemnation from the White settlers. Highlighting the importance of Indigenous perspectives, Keith Vincent Smith rejects assumptions that Bennelong was a broken man, demonstrating instead that he “returned to a respected position in the Eora clan networks”.
As Konishi has discussed, Bennelong called Phillip Be-anna [father] and Phillip referred to Bennelong as Dooroow [son]. In their exchange of names, Bennelong also called himself governor. In a later study, emphasising Bennelong’s agency, Konishi explains how Bennelong “was a key cultural broker” in the early colony. Perhaps echoing paternalistic, hierarchal friendships between landed and middling men in Britain, Bennelong’s relationship with Phillip was interdependent but unequal. It seems that what Phillip understood as friendship, Bennelong considered diplomacy.
It would be difficult to classify the relationship between Phillip and Bennelong as radical. One friendship with radical potential was that between Lieutenant William Dawes, and Patyegarang, a woman probably of the Cammeraygal clan of the Eora nation. From Patyegarang, Dawes learnt and recorded the local Dharuk language.
Ross Gibson writes that this friendship between Dawes and Patyegarang offers an “imaginative space” where there was a “sense of possibility” in the colonial encounter. This radical relationship reveals that the British made a choice to be violent, to impose our culture and to refuse to read the landscape. Dawes made a different choice. The colony’s astronomer, he appears to have brought a more radical Enlightenment ideology with him to the colony than his fellow officers, and his refusal to carry out lethal attacks on Indigenous people resulted in him being forced to leave the colony.
In his notebooks of the Dharuk language, Dawes groups friends alongside kin. This reflects the close association of kin and friend in Britain, as illustrated in Tadmor’s study. That Dawes used this categorisation indicates that, to some degree, he remained trapped within a European epistemology. Yet Dawes challenged the dominant racist outlook and actions of his fellow officers. Learning the language and possibly attempting to learn Patyegarang’s way of thinking places Dawes in the category of Gou-al-gar, Babunna, Cou-el-gon, as well as friend in British parlance.
Dawes was not typical. The self-proclaimed enlightened civility of his fellow invading naval officers did not mean that they were not violent. Instead, these officers employed Enlightenment concepts to comprehend and deny their violence; presenting themselves as polite, and thus – in their minds – racially superior to those over whom they asserted power. One of the ways they did this was through proclaiming their friendship with ‘the natives’. However, when Lieutenant Bradley writes that Governor Phillip planned to “cultivate an acquaintance with them without their having an Idea of our great superiority over them, that their Confidence & Friendship might be more firmly fixed”, he reveals that in colonial space friendship served to deny a power imbalance that rested upon an unequal capacity for lethal violence. It was a White myth attempting to cloak the violence of an invasion that is ongoing.
Rosalind Carr teaches at Birkbeck, University of London, and is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Queen Mary. A cultural historian, they are the author of Gender and Enlightenment Culture in Eighteenth-Century Scotland (Edinburgh University Press, 2014) and several articles on gender and Enlightenment in eighteenth-century Britain. Their current research ‘Empire at the End of Enlightenment: Politeness and Violence in Warrane/Sydney 1788-1815’ examines masculinity, civility, Enlightenment ideology and violence in colonial space. This project began with a Menzies Bicentennial Fellowship held at the University of Sydney and has also been supported by a Hakluyt Society research grant. Rosalind tweets @DrRosiCarr.