Rae Litting, New South Wales Regional Meeting
Many Quakers will know of Sydney Parkinson as the first Quaker to set foot in Australia. He was the botanical illustrator for Joseph Banks, and you can see many of his illustrations on-line. He was the subject of one of the first panels of the Australian Quaker tapestry.
I came across a copy of his journal on a visit to the library of the Herbarium in the Sydney Botanical Gardens. The book was open at the page describing his arrival in Botany Bay on the Endeavour. The paragraph begins “On the 28th, we got into a fine bay, and some of our people went on shore on the side of it, where we saw some houses.” Houses? Not humpies or shacks? I was intrigued. On shore the men from the Endeavour encountered two men, who are described as “hostile”, and Parkinson drew a particularly striking picture of them (see below). The encounter did not end well – the men on the Endeavour “made signs to them to be peaceable, and threw them some trinkets”, then attempted to frighten them with gun shot, and eventually wounded one of the men.
Fascinated by this one page I went home and found that I could purchase a facsimile copy of this journal for a rather large sum. In a fit of extravagance I ordered the book.
The journal of Sydney Parkinson does not contain any of his botanical sketches which were the property of Joseph Banks who employed him. Instead it contains a diary of the voyage, and depictions of the people he saw and their tools. These pictures display the attention to detail which is required of a botanical illustrator. They are true to life. So that even when he describes the inhabitants of Terra del Fuego as of “a very uncouth and savage appearance”, the picture of them proves him wrong. They have sad, sensitive faces, and do not look savage at all.
Perhaps Parkinson got used to people who looked different, because he says of the Tahitians that “I never beheld statelier men, having a pleasant countenance , large black eyes, black hair and white teeth. They behaved very courteously…”
Much of the journal is a description of trade between the ship’s crew and the Tahitians and Maori. Although both sides wanted to obtain goods from the other, contacts often ended in tragedy. Parkinson records that in Tahiti “A centinel being off his guard, one of the natives snatched a musket out of his hand, which occasioned the fray. A boy, a midshipman, was the commanding officer, and giving orders to fire, they obeyed with the greatest glee imaginable, as if they had been shooting at wild ducks, killed one stout man, and wounded many others. What a pity, that such brutality should be exercised by civilized people upon unarmed ignorant Indians!”
More than once we hear of the Europeans offering “trinkets” in exchange for food or cloth, and one suspects that the South Sea Islanders were often short-changed. Moreover, neither side really understood the value of the trade objects to the other side. At one time some Tahitians seized the astronomical quadrant which was to be used to make observations of the transit of Venus – this led to a lot of conflict. In New Zealand the Europeans could not understand why the Maori would not trade their greenstone axes.
Everywhere he went Parkinson tried to make notes of the local language. In New Zealand, where the crew of the Endeavour gave the places they visited English names, Parkinson tried to also record the name given by the local people. As an illustrator, he was in a good position to learn new words. One imagines him sitting with his paper and pencils drawing people, animals and tools. He would have attracted onlookers interested in this new style of art. As he drew, he could ask for words to match the drawings. In this way Parkinson made the first record of the word “kangooroo”, described as “the leaping quadruped”. He recorded this word in the area now called Cook Town, where the crew were repairing the ship. Not knowing that there were many languages in Australia, Parkinson calls his list “A Vocabulary of the Language of the People of New Holland”.
The language of the journal is mostly understated – truly plain speech. Describing a group of Maori who practised cannibalism, Parkinson merely says, “They neither sow nor plant any thing, but live chiefly on fish, and on their neighbours when they can catch them.”
Parkinson did not survive the trip, dying of disease contracted in Batavia (Jakarta) on the return journey. He was 26 years old. His journal was published by his brother, Stanfield Parkinson.
His journal is a fascinating record of a young Quaker man trying to understand different environments and cultures.
Parkinson, Sydney. A journal of a voyage to the South Seas in His Majesty’s ship Endeavour . . . London, Printed for Stanfield Parkinson, the editor, and sold by Messrs Richardson and Urquhart at the Royal Exchange . . . 1773.
Australiana Facsimile Editions No. A34. Adelaide. Libraries Board of South Australia. 1972.