'Bagi-La-M Bargan' as a Primary Source

For this researcher, if there was a soundtrack to the last twelve months – particularly, beginning research on a major project on Global Encounters during a worldwide, isolating pandemic – it would be threefold.

Firstly, there were the pop culture contributions. Throughout 2020, it seemed on every trip to the supermarket – masked, lathered in sanitiser and strictly distanced – Split Enz’s classic Six Months in a Leaky Boat seemed to be blaring, tapping into narratives of long and treacherous sea journeys, hope and despair, and, of course, perfectly encapsulating the ennui of extended lockdown. Following on hotly from this – though never heard in the supermarket – was Mashd N Kutcher’s Get on the Beers, which offered a contemporary and very localised, Victorian response to Covid restrictions. Whatever gets you through the lockdown.

Then, in late August, I “discovered” Kuku-Yalanji artist Tony Albert’s sublime You Wreck Me. An inspired, hilarious, but also deeply moving response to the 250th anniversary of the Endeavour’s east coast sail-by, it tackled head-on some of the more academic discussions we were having amidst the global Black Lives Matter reckoning about the role of monuments, commemorations, and whose story is prioritised. You Wreck Me, which is contextualised against Albert’s body of work in this Melbourne University Art Forum webinar, offered me – a non-Indigenous historian, wholly untrained in art theory – powerful insights. It informed both my reading of centuries-old European texts, and the process of trying to imagine the perspectives of the First Nations peoples being written about.

Shortly after first seeing You Wreck Me – literally, a matter of hours – and amidst the gloom of ever-tightening Covid restrictions in Melbourne, when our research team had still not met face to face, and options for research narrowed to strictly online (all of us being limited to a 5km radius) – Birdz’s Bagi-La-M Bargan (Fighting Boomerang) was released.

To say it came as a pleasant surprise is an understatement. The impact of the song – without even a music video at that point – was electrifying. It’s one of those cases where I’ll probably always remember when and where I was when I first heard it.

It’s not just because I know and respect Butchulla songman Fred Leone, who is featured on the track, through the Wunungu Awara – Animating Indigenous Cultures project at Monash Indigenous Studies Centre, plus his own significant reputation as a giant of Australian Indigenous music history.

Nor was it just because any new track from Birdz (Nathan Bird) makes it a good day.

Nor was it due to its place in the film, Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky, available here until August 2021, a brilliant intervention into the largely Covid-scuppered 250th commemorations of the Endeavour voyage.

Nor is it strictly because Bagi-La-M Bargan is one of the catchiest, most infectious four-odd-minutes of rhyme and melody I’d heard all year – though of course this did figure.

The power of first hearing Bagi-La-M Bargan for me – a non-Indigenous researcher charged with trying to tease out archival records of Indigenous responses to encounters with those who came uninvited from across the seas – was its power as inspired source material.

For months I had been scouring historical texts, collecting references to how First Nations people responded on first meeting outsiders. Our temporal interest is mostly in the pre-British invasion period, so I had been looking at what might be classed as visitor narratives, more than invasion ones, and almost always mediated through the eyes and pens of Europeans. The language was frequently derogatory, and the narrative framed to support the case they were often making in their reports to their backers – usually companies or governments seeking to exploit resources and get a foothold in the East Indies spice trade.

The Eurocentric nature of both the archival record, and the practise of history writing for much of the 20th century, meant that First Nations perspectives were often silenced or discredited. Dusty archival documents, written in the language (English) of the coloniser, have for too long been seen as the only reliable source. For generations of historians, they were the only game in town. I have written elsewhere about using “non-traditional” (from a western, academic point of view) texts to gain insight into First Nations perspectives, but for the most part, meaning needed to be made from accounts steeped in imperial motivations and justifications. For a non-Indigenous researcher to gain some sense of a First Nations perspective from these three and four hundred year old European accounts, liberal application of what ethnographic historian Greg Dening called the creative imagination was essential.

Bagi-La-M Bargan filled in the blanks. It works in concert with the accounts I was reading by Dutch, Spanish, French, and British mariners, who all recorded interactions marked by both caution and bravery – warriors prepared to defend their land and their people. From Dutch reports of the Duyfken’s visit to Cape York in 1606 and the Pera in 1623, to the Djawi and Bardi peoples’ interactions with William Dampier in 1688, through to Cook’s encounters along the east coast in 1770 and French-Palawa encounters in subsequent decades, the accounts are strikingly similar. Warriors watched, waited, and defended.

On 20 May 1770, when the Endeavour sailed past Butchulla country (K’gari, today’s Fraser Island), their presence across the waves was probably not a surprise: the ship’s progress had been noted for many weeks by coastal peoples, and – as Cook’s journals frequently attest – fires were lit along the way. This use of messaging is explored in Alison Page’s evocative film The Message – the Story from the Shore. Cook’s journal entry for 20 May 1770 notes,

At 1 oClock in the PM we pass’d at the distance of 4 Miles…a black bluf head or point of land on which a number of the natives were assembled, which occasioned my nameing it Indian Head.

Bagi-La-M Bargan puts us firmly in the feet and mind of Butchulla warriors watching the Endeavour from the shore, early on an autumn afternoon:

Standin’ on the shoreline, Cook man comin’
Muthar wanna cross mine, wanna take it from me
Fire in my eyes, but we ain’t runnin’
Wonamutta, let’s ride, ayy, ayy

Birdz’s telling of the story from a Butchulla, Wonamutta clan perspective is consistent with many of the European-recorded encounters. Those who came from the sea were watched. Word would spread. This perspective of a warrior observing the ship from the shore, or watching rowboats approach the beach, fits squarely with the historical record. This is exactly how countless Europeans describe their initial interactions with First Nations peoples – at a distance, across the waves, the sand, or the rocks. They reported being scrutinised carefully by armed adult men, and then having often tense encounters. Women, children and the elderly usually kept a safe distance.

Sometimes the warriors had encounters with the outsiders which, reading between the lines or against the grain, seemed peaceful and mutually acceptable. These often involved exchanges of food, clothing and words – this tended to depend on whether the Europeans were on journeys of imperial exploitation or scientific exploration. At times, these might suddenly erupt into violence, the cause for which is often quite clear in a critical reading of the account, even if the Europeans feigned ignorance or innocence: they had a tendency to forcibly kidnap people to use as interpreters, informants, or force them into labour and sexual slavery.

Bagi-La-M Bargan affords a powerful, contemporary perspective of the warrior on the shoreline, prepared to defend. Traditional Butchulla songs (as featured in Fiona Foley's film Out of the Sea like a Cloud) depict the Endeavour as travelling in a cloud, with a fire inside, like a bad water spirit, and also as large crab, moving sideways in fits and starts across the waves. Bagi-La-M Bargan can be seen as an updated version, carrying that traditional knowledge and those oral histories passed through the generations. It is these traditional stories, informed by contemporary discourses around invasion, sovereignty, resistance and resilience, expressed in contemporary vernacular:

Patiently waiting for someone I ain’t never seen before
They say he’s a captain of men, but he don't believe in our lore
From the land of the white skin
He’s self-righteous, a murder without license
With the spear, I’m the nicest
Thinkin’ that I might just wait ‘til night hits

These traditional and contemporary Butchulla perspectives of what they saw and felt from the shoreline, along with Cook’s written record of what he saw from the Endeavour’s deck that May afternoon, offer us a better understanding of the encounter on the northern tip of K’gari/Fraser Island – the place Cook named Indian Head. On that particular day, there was not a physical encounter involving exchange of words, physical material or armed conflict: however, in watching each other across the coastline, they were playing out an exchange which was replicated hundreds of times around the continent, over hundreds of years. Bagi-La-M Bargan – Fighting Boomerang – helps give voice to all of those First Nations warriors on guard, traditionally silenced in the historical record.

And, of course, it’s a rocking track.

Dr Leonie Stevens