26 January 2016


It is something of a thrill for Your Amateur Researcher (YAR) when a little bit of the curtain shrouding the mysteries of the Tasmanian vocabularies is pulled aside. Take as an example of this the following records for ‘sun’ collected by French sailors in Recherche Bay on 11 February 1793, and again on a second visit two days later:
Fig. 1 ‘sun’ according to Willaumez senior, Ensign on the Recherche

Fig. 2 ‘sun’ according to Fier [illegible signature: possibly Piron, draughtsman on the Recherche, or Pierson, astronomer on the Esperance]

Fig. 3  a second version of ‘sun’ according to Fier [illegible signature: possibly Piron, draughtsman on the Recherche, or Pierson, astronomer on the Esperance]

Fig. 4 ‘sun’ according to Mérite, volunteer on the Recherche

Fig. 5 ‘sun’ according to Riche, naturalist on the Esperance

French ships in Tasmania two centuries ago
What were those French ships doing in Van Diemen’s Land in 1793, so soon after the English settlement in Sydney in 1788? It is quite a story, and it is necessary to backtrack a little.
It is worth bearing in mind that during the period covered here, between 1783 and 1793, for a change England and France were not at war — but who on the other side of the world could really know the current political situation at any moment?
Anyway, this particular Tasmanian sideshow began in 1785 when the French explorer La Pérouse (Jean François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse), under the sponsorship of the French king, Louis XVI, set off on a voyage of scientific discovery of the Pacific in two ships, the Bussoule and the Astrolabe.

The British First Fleet
They weren’t the only adventurers in those days. The British had finally assembled a convoy of 11 ships, containing mostly convicts and stores, for the purpose of setting up a colony on the other side of the world, in Botany Bay, ‘New Holland’—and to stake a claim to it. The fleet left Spithead, Portsmouth, on 13 May 1787, and after an 8-month voyage arrived safely in Botany Bay between 18 and 20 January the following year. The destination of Botany Bay was because of favourable comments made by by the James Cook expedition in the Endeavour 18 years earlier. High hopes of the suitability of this location  for the settlement, however, were to be dashed practically immediately on actual arrival there. This reality induced Governor Arthur Phillip the very next day, on 21 January, to look for somewhere better, setting out very early in a longboat, rowing northwards towards the inlet that Cook had noted and named Port Jackson. Phillip was to discover a stupendously better place, and on his return on 23 January he at once ordered the ships to get ready to transfer there. Guess what happened the very next day.

The French appear
On 24 January, to the ‘infinite surprise of everybody’, two European ships were seen just outside the heads to Botany Bay. This would have been nearly as remarkable as for Neil Armstrong to spot someone else springing about on the moon in July 1969. Well, a bit like that anyway: Phillip did know about the La Perouse expedition, and what was at once guessed in due course turned out to be the the reality and that these were indeed the La Perouse vessels. Were they hostile?

Transfer to Port Jackson
But the removal of the First Fleet northwards had already begun: Governor Phillip left on the Supply, together with four of the ‘transports’ (ships carrying the people), headed for Port Jackson, Phillip getting there the same day, 24 January.
All day on 25 January the French were thwarted by adverse conditions, but on 26 January finally anchored in Botany Bay. John Hunter, captain of the flagship Sirius, sent 2nd Lieutenant William Dawes, who was proficient in the French language, to make contact with the newcomers. For their part, La Perouse and his crews had expected to find the British settlement already well established and had hoped to replenish supplies from it. Instead he was startled to find they had only just arrived, and bizarrely were in the process of leaving again at the very moment of his own arrival. On the return of Dawes, Hunter in the Sirius, along with the remaining transports and storeships, with much difficulty owing to continuing adverse weather conditions, managed to get out of Botany Bay and reach for Port Jackson — leaving the French in the abandoned Botany Bay on their own.

French turmoil
The French were to stay there about six weeks, leaving on 10 March to return home. But alas it was not to be. They were never to be heard from again. This was to cause consternation in France.
There was other reason for consternation in that country too. The French Revolution began in 1789, the Bastille in Paris being ‘stormed’ on 14 July that year, now the national day. But, the missing La Perouse . . . In 1791, such was the anxiety about La Perouse by then, that a search was mounted for him, under Bruny d’Entecasteaux, in two ships, the Recherche and the Esperance.
Back home in France the Revolution well under way. By September 1792 the monarchy had been overthrown and a republic established. They were heady days: in fact the guillotine had been introduced in April that year. And on 21 January 1793, Louis XVI was executed by this means, in what is now the Place de la Concorde. On his way to the scaffold he stoically enquired: ‘A-t-on des nouvelles de monsieur de Lapérouse ?” (Is there any news of La Perouse?’) Famous last words. It was not until 1826 was it to be discovered that disaster had overtaken the the French ships and crew, in the Solomon Islands.

La Perouse search expedition
Meanwhile d’Entecasteaux and his search party were having their own adventures and difficulties in southern oceans. His first visit to Recherche Bay in Tasmania was in May 1791, followed by a second on 22 January 1793. In the interval he had been to New Caledonia, Indonesia and Cape Leeuwin in south-west WA. He had even passed the Solomon Islands, little knowing he was so close to the wrecked La Perouse ships.
It was on this second visit to the bay named after d’Entecasteaux’s own ship Recherche that the above records were taken.

Tasmanian vocabularies
Two of the records are for panubere and two for panumere. While they may seem to be different in reality they are not greatly. The sounds for the letters ‘m’ and ‘b’ are formed in much the same way, with the lips together and a bit of a puff after. They can often be confused as a consequence. In the case of these two words, for the sake of argument, let’s assume the proper version is panubere, respelt as banubiri.
banubiri is something of a long word, and it is reasonable to assume it might actually be two run together. banu biri perhaps? Possibly. There are quite a few biri words, meaning ‘breast’, ‘foot’, ‘nail’ (as in finger / toe-nail), and even ‘presently’, among other meanings. However, it is another word altogether that seems more likely: nubiri, making the division of banubiri: ba nubiri. Two examples of the second part of the word, nubiri, should suffice to give its meaning:
Fig. 6 nubiri: ‘eye’

If the sun might reasonably be perceived as an ‘eye’  in the sky, then what might the preceding ba in the combination ba-nubiri represent? A great many words in Tasmanian languages begin with ba, and virtually any might be a candidate for offering a meaning for the sky–eye combination. One of the more promising of these possibilities is bagana: ‘man’. Could it be a man’s eye in the sky? Maybe . . . at least until the database offered a more attractive alternative:
Fig. 7: ba: ‘big’

In the source column in Fig. 7 above, the small ‘st’ after ‘Plomley’ refers to Charles Sterling. Of this man the document collector, the Rev. T.H. Braim, wrote in about 1832:
“It is now impossible to remedy the loss which has been sustained by Sterling’s death: he was a young man who had made the aboriginal languages his study, and had reduced them to some sort of order.”
From this accolade it might be assumed that Sterling was correct in claiming ba to mean ‘big’.
When that concept is accepted, new ways emerge for regarding some ‘big thing’ ba… words. Consider the following:
Fig. 8: ‘big’ things beginning ba…

Of these only the first, ba-gana, is truly satisfying. As gani / gana is a common word for ‘speak’, ba-gana can be literally translated as ‘big speak’, and so equivalent to ‘call’ or ‘shout’.
The examples in Fig. 8 constitute a very select list. There are many other ba… words that have no likely link to the ‘big’ concept. Nevertheless it is indisputable that ‘sea’, ‘porpoise’ and ‘bullcow’ (one of several invented terms in the Bayala databases) are big entities; as is ‘four’ to those who regard numbers greater than two or three as ‘plenty’. And a ‘man’ might well be big, too, from some points of view.

Jeremy Steele
Thursday 17 December 2015


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