- A.N. Other
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Encounter I, HMAS Penguin (Shore Base - Garden Island)
- March 2001 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
From across the offshore reef two large canoes approached the shore, each with a tube of bark projecting over the bow. In them were about thirty men, who chanted as they paddled, and who jumped out and pulled the canoes high on the beach immediately they grounded.
They all wore helmet, breastplates, and thigh pieces fashioned from bark. Some carried long wooden swords, others had pieces of wood fastened together to resemble crossbows.
Their landing was followed by a chanted parley between their leaders and those of the warriors on the beach – interrupted suddenly by two loud blasts on conch shells. The cannon had opened fire and the battle was joined. The swordsman charged forward; the crossbowmen hurled short sticks at their opponents, and the defenders replied with showers and spears. At intervals the conch shells boomed, and at east blast several warriors fell dead. Occasionally all stood fast while individual champions fought in single combat – the vanquished expiring to an appropriate dirge while the victor boasted of his prowess.
The songmen chanted a continuous commentary on the progress of the battle.
At the end of an hour the last invader fell. The beach was littered with bodies, and the survivors roared a paean of triumph.
Thereupon the dead came to life, victory celebrations commenced, and the whole tribe crowded around the camp fires on which were roasting about a dozen turtles and a huge quantity of fish and game.
All having had long experience of aborigines, we white spectators had no doubt whatever we had witnessed the reenactment of an important event in tribal history. Our belief was confirmed by the full explanation subsequently given us by the tribal elders.
They of course had no idea of the nationality of the invaders, who they described as white men with skins like turtles and alligators – an obvious reference to their armour.
Speaking of the bark tubes in the bows of the canoes they used the Malay word for cannon, but they would not describe the guns or make any further reference to them. From this we assumed that, impressed by their destructive power, the original captors had adopted them as sacred totems and carried them off the tribal ritual ground – now known as Carronade Island – on which we were not permitted to land. As totems the guns could not, under any circumstances, be discussed with strangers to the tribe. We never saw them, but their subsequent discovery by HMAS Encounter confirmed our assumptions about them.
The island aborigines were able to count only to “two fives” and consequently had no conception of the number of years which had elapsed since the battle. By setting out pebbles on the beach in accordance with the intricate tribal marriage system, the elders could however demonstrate the number of generations between living tribesmen and their ancestor heroes whose names and marriage sects had been passed on from one generation to another. The pebbles showed seventeen generations had intervened, and indicated the battle had taken place about 350 years previously – about 1560 A.D.
Based as it is entirely on an aboriginal story, this calculation of date cannot be accepted as having any historical significance. It is however a possibility – a link in the chain of circumstantial evidence that the Portuguese may have been the first Europeans to discover the Australian continent.