Year 1836: Captain Cook and Charles Darwin arrived in Sydney
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No, not James Cook, but the ship HMS Captain Cook with 228 convicts on board, a peculiar tribute to a great explorer.
Much further north, the brig HMS Stirling Castle was wrecked and a handful of survivors, including the Captain’s wife Ms Eliza Fraser, sought refuge on K’gari Island, later renamed Fraser Island. Other survivors having died, or been lost at sea, Ms Fraser was assisted by the local Badtjala people and after a few months, with the help of an escaped convict, made her way to Brisbane. Her eventful ordeal provided vivid material to feed Australia’s folkloric tradition, often consisting of mishap, endurance and fraud.
That same year, the Sydney or Colonial Museum was renamed the Australian Museum and placed under the Committee of Superintendence of the Australian Museum and Botanic Gardens. One member of the Committee, the distinguished navigator Phillip Parker King, took part in the expedition to Torres Strait, where one of the Museum’s first collections of indigenous artefacts was assembled.
In December the same year, the Colony of South Australia was established. But in January, in England, during the preparation for Settlement, a document produced by the Colonial Office instructing the Colonising Commission to make the ‘arrangements for purchasing the lands of the Natives.’ This document, as historian Henry Reynolds convincingly argued, implied most clearly the recognition of land ownership by Australian Aboriginal peoples within England’s, (and therefore colonial) legal system.
Also in January 1836, the brig-sloop HMS Beagle arrived in Sydney, the beginning of Charles Darwin’s short acquaintance with Australia. Darwin stayed few days in Sydney, where he and Captain Robert FitzRoy, the Beagle’s Commander, were entertained by Phillip Parker King in his Dunheved residence (Municipality of St Marys, western Sydney). Darwin also undertook a trip to the Blue Mountains and Bathurst, making some productive observations.
In February he visited Hobart in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), a few months before the renowned explorer Sir John Franklin was appointed the Governor of this Colony. By this time, only a little over one hundred Aboriginal Tasmanians were still alive, languishing in their confinement on Flinders Island in Bass Strait. A few others, mostly women, were living with sealers on the offshore islands out of reach of authority. In March Darwin visited King George Sound, (now Albany), a ten year old settlement in the southwest of Western Australia. In October he was back in England.
Impressed with Australian wildlife, especially the animals, as compared to the rest of the world, Darwin remarked that ‘Two distinct Creators must have been at work’. Comments he pencilled in his notebooks suggest that sketchy concepts of his theory were then crystallising. Inspired by the ideas developed in social theories in the 18th century, he eagerly observed Aboriginal Australians on his few encounters with them in 1836.