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Indigenous prayer vigil held at site of first contact

Almost a hundred Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian leaders, accompanied by non-Indigenous friends, met yesterday to pray and “reclaim” the site of Captain James Cook’s landing at Kurnell, on the southern shores of Botany Bay – the country of the Gweagal clan of the Dharawal nation.

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A prayer gathering of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian leaders at the site of Captain James Cook's landing at Kurnell.

A prayer gathering of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian leaders at the site of Captain James Cook’s landing at Kurnell. Kaley Payne

“There have been a lot of ceremonies on this site,” said Pastor Ray Minniecon to the crowd, as he opened the event. “There is a lot of emotion. There is a lot more work to be done in our country.”

The prayer vigil was held as part of the Grasstree Gathering, an annual non-denominational meeting to celebrate, encourage, equip and inspire an emerging generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian leaders. Organiser Brooke Prentis, a descendant of the Waka Waka people in Queensland, said the landing place of Captain Cook “will bring up many things for many people.”

“This place is a place where, at first contact [with Aboriginal people], Cook’s first reaction was to shoot. This is a tragic story.”

The commemorative obelisk marking Captain James Cook's landing at Kurnell.

The commemorative obelisk marking Captain James Cook’s landing at Kurnell. Kaley Payne

Commemorations of the landing of Captain Cook at Kurnell have been at the centre of heated arguments for many years. Arriving in the southern Sydney suburb, visitors are greeted by a weathered sign: “Welcome to Kurnell, the birthplace of modern Australia.”

The sign was amended in the 1990s, replacing the “birthplace of a nation” with “the birthplace of modern Australia”, as an attempt to recognise the Aboriginal people who were already here when Cook arrived. Yet, as historian Mark McKenna wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald just this week: “To suggest that Cook’s landing at Botany Bay gave birth to ‘modern Australia’ is to leave Indigenous culture exactly where white Australia has long preferred to cast it – as ‘ancient,’ ‘traditional’ and ‘pre-modern’ – bands of men and women who wandered the country in search of their daily subsistence, waiting for history to begin.”

A plaque on the commemorative statue for the first landing of Captain Cook at Kurnell.

A plaque on the commemorative statue for the first landing of Captain Cook at Kurnell. Kaley Payne

The sign on the road to Kurnell.

The sign on the road to Kurnell. Kaley Payne

Prentis told the crowd before leaving the group for open prayer, “The Holy Spirit did not come on any boats. It didn’t come with Captain Cook. It was already here. God was always here.”

Leaders from across Australia brought sand and dirt from their homelands, and sprinkled it on a map of Australia’s Indigenous nations, including from Kununurra in Western Australia, Darwin, Eastern Cape York and Cairns.

For two hours on a 40 degree day in Sydney, a hundred people prayed for reconciliation on the site of Aboriginal first contact with Europeans. And they sang:

“We’re together again, just praising the Lord. We’re together again with one accord. Something good is going to happen. Something good is in store.”

The Grasstree Gathering prayer vigil at Kurnell.

The Grasstree Gathering prayer vigil at Kurnell. Kaley Payne

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