Bilingual contact, January 1788

Whura - 'begone'

Whura – ‘begone’


My interest in naval pennants was piqued when I noticed that there was a naval pennant that has been used when a boat was trying to communicate ‘I am stopped’. I was further interested that this pennant resembled St Andrew’s cross, which is located in the corner of the Australian flag.

Another of the crosses in the same corner of the Australian flag is St Patrick’s cross. St Patrick’s prayer acknowledges Christ in the mouth ‘of friend and stranger’. In naval signal pennant language, St Patrick’s cross aims to communicate ‘I need help’.

I reflected further on the Australian flag. It is a ship’s flag. It is based on the blue ensign, which is the blue cloth with the Union Jack in the corner.

The use of the blue ensign was extended by the Colonial Defence Act of 1865, which allowed ‘all vessels belonging to, or permanently in, the service of the Colonies” to use this ensign, ‘with the Seal or Badge of the Colony in the Fly thereof’.

This perspective that Australia’s flag is fundamentally a flag associated with ships is supported by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in its 2010 document entitled ‘Australian Flags, which says “On 1 January 1901, the six colonies united to form the Commonwealth of Australia.  In search of a flag for the new nation, the Commonwealth Government announced a worldwide competition.  Entrants were invited to submit colour sketches for two flags – one for official and naval purposes, the other for merchant ships.”

My view of this flag has changed significantly.  It is a flag of a vessel of the British Empire. It now reminds me of the threshold between life and death on the vast ocean beneath the vast sky, and people trying to communicate urgency, power and weakness without access to words.  The proliferation of Australian flags has become a way for me to secure and sustain an awareness of people who are in danger at sea.

Both Watkin Tench and Newton Fowell, of the First Fleet, made note of a common word in the days leading up to the 26th of January 1788.

They speak very Loud and mostly all together often Pronouncing the Words Worra Worra Wea and seemed quite surprised at not being answered. (Newton Fowell)

After nearly an hour’s conversation, by signs and gestures they repeated several times the word ‘whurra’, which signifies ‘begone’ and walked away from us to the head of the bay. (Watkin Tench)

Out of this reflection, I have begun to reflect more on words of the First Nations of this continent, using the sky and the wind as my ‘tablet’ for making notes and naval signal pennants as my alphabet. If you’re interested, you can follow this activity on Twitter @smoulderingwiq.

There is an intriguing exhibition in Brisbane at the moment, called ‘Unlimited’, which picks up many of the themes I am exploring.  This is a happy coincidence for me.  If you have some time for further reflection, go for a ride on the City Cat and visit the MAAP gallery in the Valley.


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