Communication between European explorers and Aboriginal men was a messy and necessarily embodied practice far removed from the rational and polite conversational ideal of the eighteenth century public sphere in Europe. The body figured in European discussions of indigenous communication, ranging from their explanations of Aboriginal utterances, to determining the kinds of words, often the nouns of body parts, which fleshed out the vocabularies collected by the Europeans. But the corporeal focus was even more immediate: communication was mainly conducted through the body by use of gesture, and advances in verbal communication were achieved by kidnapping and incarcerating indigenous people. This chapter will explore the verbal, embodied and gestural intercourse between European explorers and Aboriginal men, and reveal the idiosyncratic texture of early cross-cultural communications as Europeans attempted to apprehend the slippery native tongues.
In first encountering Aboriginal languages many European explorers perceived them as incomprehensible and literally ‘guttural’. In 1688 the English buccaneer William Dampier observed that the Aboriginal people he encountered on the north-west coast of the continent ‘speak somewhat through the throat’, a characteristic which, during the seventeenth century, was considered ‘an infallible badge of an ancient language’. The British First Fleet officers initially perceived the Aboriginal language as ‘uncouth and different to the Ear’, and noted that that the men's voices were especially ‘harsh’, contrasting the women's ‘pleasingly soft and feminine’ tones. Before indigenous languages could become familiar to European ears they were considered as little more than crude noises. Upon arriving at Port Jackson, the First Fleet's marine lieutenant Watkin Tench recalled that his fellow officers were ‘inclined to stigmatise this language as harsh and barbarous in its sounds.’