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Strange Days: Science


Questioning perceptual blindness
I see no ships

European explorers found indigenous peoples unable to see their tallships – or did they?

Are people blind to unexplained phenomena because their brains simply can’t handle anything they don’t understand? This story, quoted in social science circles and popular with New Agers, was repeated in the recent film What The Bleep Do We Know? – “When the tall European ships first approached the early Native Americans, it was such an ‘impossible’ vision in their reality that their highly filtered perceptions couldn’t register what was happening, and they literally failed to ‘see’ the ships.” 1
Just because people ignore you it doesn’t mean you really have vanished

A more detailed account, “allegedly found in a diary in Magellan’s own handwriting”, 2 describes how South Americans could see the boats that the explorers landed in, but not the ships anchored offshore. Their shaman stared out to sea and by imagining what he was looking for, was finally able to make out the ships. He was then able to point them out to others, until at last everyone could see the ships. The shaman could do this because he alone was open to the possibilities of strange things from other worlds. There are many versions of this story, sometimes referring to Magellan, sometimes to Columbus,3 sometimes to Captain Cook 4 – but the details are spurious. For example, Magellan didn’t keep a diary, and the only account of his voyage comes from Antonio Pigafetta.

The story actually traces back to Captain Cook and his landing in Australia in April 1770. In other first encounters, the locals sailed or paddled out to meet Cook’s ship.5 At Sandwich Sound in Alaska, they came in canoes, showing open hands as a sign of friendship. Off New Zealand, canoes full of Maoris were more aggressive: “They brandish their spears, hack the air with their patoo patoos and shake their darts as if they meant every moment to begin the attack.” 6 But when Cook arrived off Australia, his ship drew no reaction. According to the historian Robert Hughes: “It was the largest artefact ever seen on the East Coast of Australia, an object so huge, complex and unfamiliar as to defy the natives’ understanding.” This is clearly the origin of the tale of invisible ships. It was only when the Europeans landed in canoes that the natives took action: “The sight of men in small boats was comprehensible to them: it meant invasion.” 7

Looking more closely at the accounts left by Captain Cook and the botanist Joseph Banks who travelled with him, we can see how this came about. They make it clear that the aborigines could see the ship: “We soon saw about 10 people, who on our approach left the fire and retird to a little emminence where they could conveniently see the ship.” 8 But their fishermen ignored it: “The ship passd within a quarter of a mile of them and yet they scarce lifted their eyes from their employment; I was almost inclind to think that attentive to their business and deafned by the noise of the surf they neither saw nor heard her go past them.” 9

Villagers also saw, but ignored: “Soon after this an old woman followd by three children came out of the wood… She often lookd at the ship but expressd neither surprize nor concern.” Aborigines began to prepare dinner “to all appearance totaly unmovd at us, tho we were within a little more than a mile of them”. The Europeans were determined to make contact. “We set out from the ship intending to land at the place where we saw these people… as soon as we aproachd the rocks two of the men came down upon them, each armd with a lance… in all appearance resolvd to dispute our landing to the utmost tho they were but two and we 30 or 40 at least.”

This is a repeated pattern, with the aborigines ignoring the Europeans offshore but reacting when they become a potential threat by attempting to land. Each time they either flee or meet the explorers with spears and threats, and are frequently met with musket fire in return. A few days later, Banks is still baffled by the indifference: “Not one was once observd to stop and look towards the ship; they pursued their way in all appearance intirely unmovd by the neighbourhood of so remarkable an object as a ship must necessarily be to people who have never seen one.” 10

This reveals what is going on. Used to being the star attraction wherever they go, the Europeans fail to realise that some people may have other priorities. When you are living on a thin edge of survival, anything not an immediate threat or a source of food is of little interest. Their actions show that the aborigines invariably assumed the visitors were hostile, so it is understandable why they did not go out to greet them. Clearly the aborigines did not think that this outsize canoe was quite so ‘remarkable’ as Banks himself did, 11 though they were always ready to react when a landing was threatened. But as wheelchair users and D-list celebrities could tell him, just because people ignore you it doesn’t mean you really have vanished.

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