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An old man 250 years ago made a gesture of peace that speaks to unfinished business today

But what now? A dozen men, each carrying four spears. And despite the fact that Cook and his men have muskets, and brandish them, the warriors do not draw back. Nor do they make an aggressive move. For now, all is deadly quiet. Maybe a little … too quiet? Birds have taken wing and the air is so still, that the lazy wisps of smoke trailing through the branches barely disperse. All is uncertain. If a full-pitched battle breaks out, each side can do major damage, but it is just not clear if that is the intent.

And now? One of the “Indians” stands and is coming towards them. And he has something in his hand! A spear? A spear! Hands fly to muskets.


It very well might be an attack, but … but, wait. They look closer, as the figure tentatively comes closer still. It is, as Joseph Banks describes him, “a little old man”, and he is carrying a deliberately broken spear, its once-dangerous spear-head now lying at a limp right-angle to the main shaft.

Several times he stops. But, encouraged by the white men beckoning him forward, he always starts approaching again, until – with extraordinary bravery and unwavering resolution – he stands before them, still holding his broken spear.

This man, a deeply respected tribal elder by the name of Ngamu Yarrbarigu, speaks to them. “Ngahthaan gadaai thawun maa naa thi hu,” he says. “We come to make friends.”

Of course, none of the Endeavour men can understand a word. Nevertheless, it is clear his broken spear is a gesture of peace. The little old man goes on to explain in his curious sign language what he wants. He uses a curious mannerism that includes, as described by Joseph Banks, “drawing moisture from under his armpits [and] blowing the sweat on his hands into the air”.


Unknown to the white men, he is performing a ritual known as “ngaala ngan daamal mal”, my sweat from me sent to you, a call for calm.

For Captain Cook and the ship’s company have been extremely fortunate to land in a sacred part of the Guugu Yimithirr’s bubu land, the place of the Waymburr clan, a place of peace where marriage and initiation ceremonies are performed, women come to give birth, celebrations are held and conflicts are resolved – a place where it is strictly forbidden for warring tribes and clans to spill blood.

The “little old man”, is – if not forgiving the invasion – at least making a gesture of peace, and in so doing is asking the white men to respect the lore and law of this sacred place.

As a Guugu Yimithirr elder of the clans, it is the duty of Ngamu Yarrbarigu to try to stop further desecration at Waymburr, and having identified Captain Cook as the elder of intruding clan, he is asking him to stop further desecrating the area by spilling blood in a conflict.


Clearly, the reaction he receives from the white men now – the smiles, their warmth and, perhaps most importantly the fact that he has been unharmed is a clear sign that the white men, too, want peace.

For now, he turns and calls to the other local people to come forward, clearly telling them to leave their spears. In the soft sunlight, throwing dappled shadows on their forms, they are seen to lay their spears beside a tree, before approaching, and joining the little old man as the black men and white men stand gazing each other.

What now? “We now returned the [spears] we had taken from them,” Cook will recount, “which reconciled everything.”

Hence Professor Molony’s point to me: The gesture of the tribal elder, and the broken spear he proffered, should be our national motif, a symbol on our coins, our currency, and maybe even our flag. Some nations want lots of spears, others want powerful spears that can destroy nations on the other side of the world. We are the people of the broken spears. We want to live together in peace with each other, and with the world.

Vale, the little old man, Ngamu Yarrbarigu. And thank you, 250 years on. I, for one, would love to give it a go. For me the story speaks to us of our unfinished business.

With deep thanks to Guugu Yimithirr man Harold Ludwick who vetted my account of this, in my book and to Guugu Yimithirr woman, Alberta Hornsby and her late uncle, Eric Deeral, as quoted in Mark McKenna’s Quarterly Essay from March 2018.

Twitter: @Peter_Fitz

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