When I began researching this book I believed that first contacts between European explorers and Aboriginal people were momentous encounters, unutterably changing the lives of those involved. I agreed then with Henry Reynolds who has recently exclaimed of the ‘extraordinary encounters’ in Tasmania that ‘Nothing would ever be the same again’. My initial intention was to expound the political ramifications of first contact, and suggest how these encounters could illuminate complex discourses on race relations, imperialism and colonization. I planned to explain how these encounters offered insights into the historical trajectory that followed. In my desire to construct a vivid history I was mindful of contact narratives which relate dramatic scenes of mayhem and bloodshed or else depict the diplomacy of two cultures coming together. Over the course of my research, however, my thinking changed.
What crystallized the thinking behind this project was a particular incident concerning James Cook. Cook has been both idealized and vilified for his impact on Antipodean history, be it through his incredible navigational discoveries or as a rapacious harbinger of colonization. But I had a different Cook in mind. Upon his very first opportunity to make landfall in New Holland and meet the Aboriginal people of Botany Bay, hitherto unseen by European eyes, he decided to defer this epochal moment in Australian history, preferring instead to wait until ‘[a]fter dinner’. Perhaps, his nonchalance emulated the indifference that Aboriginal people had displayed at the Europeans’ arrival in the bay, for they ‘scarce[ly] lifted their eyes from their employment’ as the Endeavour sailed by. Neither the Europeans’ nor Aboriginal people's actions suggest that they believed their worlds would never be the same again.
In fact, many of the European explorers’ exchanges with Aboriginal people could be construed as mundane, concerning practical matters such as the search for a safe landing spot and water, or else eliciting seemingly trivial ethnographic information such as the Aboriginal word for ‘breaking wind’. This is not to say that there were no dramatic encounters between explorers and Aboriginal people, for there were certainly meetings which led to violence and tragic deaths, or provided new insights into the nature of indigenous life.