Botany Bay: April 28, 1770

by Ray Grigg

On April 28, 1770, the Endeavour sailed confidently into the deep and spacious waters of what came to be known as Botany Bay on the south-east coast of Australia. Under sail and close to the headlands, the three-masted barque must have been a spectacular sight. At 143 feet long, 30 feet wide and with a mainmast 92 feet high, it carried up to 16,260 square feet of canvas. The ship’s captain, James Cook, was on a voyage to claim and map territory for England. The botanist on board was Joseph Banks and the following is his detailed diary account of the response of the natives to their first contact with Europeans:

“… These people seemd to be totaly engag’d in what they were about: the ship passd within a quarter of a mile of them and yet they scarce lifted their eyes from their employment; I was almost inclind to think that attentive to their business and deafned by the noise of the surf they neither saw nor heard her go past them. At 1 we came to an anchor abreast of a small village consisting of about 6 or 8 houses. Soon after this an old woman followd by three children came out of the wood; she carried several peice[s] of stick and the children also had their little burthens; when she came to the houses 3 more younger children came out of one of them to meet her. She often lookd at the ship but expressd neither surprize nor concern. Soon after this she lighted a fire and the four Canoes [previously seen] came in from fishing; the people landed, hauld up their boats and began to dress their dinner to all appearance totaly unmovd at us, tho we were within a little more than 1/2 a mile of them. …”

As a botanist rather than a psychologist, Banks gave no further consideration to the bizarre indifference of the natives to the strange object that must have been so conspicuously obvious. Despite the looming presence of the Endeavour so close to them, they simply carried on with their normal activities as if the ship didn’t exist.

But this display of indifference has certainly attracted the attention of modern social scientists. They have speculated that some experiences may not register in our awareness if they are incompatible with our most fundamental sense of reality. Wholly nonconforming information gets excluded from our perception because we can find no place where it belongs in our system of understanding.

Some prominent thinkers are currently wondering if this explains our slow and casual response to the predicted environmental changes that could shake the foundations of human civilization and eventually shock us into corrective action. But our response doesn’t come close to matching the threat. Like the strange ship that sailed into Botany Bay, these threats are incongruous with our concept of the world and our relationship to it.

In recent human history — probably since the beginnings of agriculture about 10,000 years ago — we have considered ourselves as small and vulnerable beings struggling for survival against the indifferent forces of nature. Inverting this image would require that we acknowledge our power rather than emphasize our victimhood. But the mythologies and theologies that give us identity and form our strategies for survival have defined us as heroic survivors, not responsible custodians. Although our influence as a species is now altering the biophysical structure of our planet — the Anthropocene is here — we have yet to upgrade our image to recognize the changes we are effecting.

Only 245 years have passed since Banks wrote his diary entry for April 28, 1770. Even Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of North America in 1492 in still recent by most measures of history. Disregarding the warning of Svente Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist who predicted in 1896 that our burning of fossil fuels would eventually heat the planet, global warming has only become an indisputable fact during the last decade or two. This and its accompanying suite of dramatic implications have yet to fully register in our consciousness. The world is changing faster than we have been able to review our role in it.

We still think and act locally even though our influence has become global. We still identify ourselves as distinct political and ethnic groups rather than as a collective humanity of more than 7 billion now effecting ecological changes of planetary significance. Our sense of reality is not yet in accord with the evidence of who we are.

Even those who trust the authority of modern science have difficulty accepting its current onslaught of troubling environmental findings because they cast doubt on the centuries of ambition and effort that we confidently thought were progressive and wise. Our reflexive response is to reject these findings. But the evidence is overwhelming and convincing. So those who become unwilling converts rub their eyes, gaze intently across the bay and reluctantly acknowledge something they have never seen before.

Those who give priority to tradition and belief over evidence and fact are so engaged with the ordinary duties of their lives that they may not even look across the bay. And if they dare a glance, they will find their own creative ways to dismiss the sight of this strange ship that is destined to completely transform their lives.

Indeed, this strange ship is destined to completely transform the lives of every living thing on our planet. Although it is anchored a mere “1/2 a mile” from our village, our normal inclination is to deny its presence, disregard the future and attend to the moment. If we continue packing our wood, lighting our fires and preparing our food, we can innocently pretend that nothing will change.