Aboriginal people and place

Title_People and Place

Aboriginal woman in a canoe (nawi) fishing with a line, c1805 (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW - PXB 513)

Author: Anita Heiss and Melodie-Jane Gibson

The Council of the City of Sydney acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the traditional custodians of our land – Australia. The City acknowledges the Gadigal of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of this place we now call Sydney. There are about 29 clan groups of the Sydney metropolitan area, referred to collectively as the Eora Nation. The Gadigal are a clan of the Eora Nation.

The territory of the Gadi (gal) people stretched along the southern side of Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) from South Head to around what is now known as Petersham. Their southern boundary is unclear.

The ‘Eora people’ was the name given to the coastal Aboriginal people around Sydney. The word Eora simply means ‘here’ or ‘from this place’. Local Aboriginal people used the word to describe to the British where they came from and so the word was then used to define the Aboriginal people themselves. The name Eora is proudly used today by the descendants of those very same people. Central Sydney is therefore often referred to as ‘Eora Country’.

Aboriginal groups in the Sydney area

With the invasion of the Sydney region, the Gadigal people were decimated but there are descendants of the Eora still living in Sydney today. The surrounding bushland contains remnants of traditional plant, bird and animal life with fish and rock oysters available from Blackwattle Bay.

There are about 29 clan groups of the Sydney metropolitan area, referred to collectively as the Eora Nation. There has been extensive debate about which group or nation these 29 clans belong to. It is generally acknowledged that the Eora are the coastal people of the Sydney area, with the Dharug (Darug) people occupying the inland area from Parramatta to the Blue Mountains. The Dharawal people’s lands are mostly confined to the area south of Botany Bay, extending as far south as the Nowra area, across to the Georges River in Sydney’s west.

Clans or bands (called ‘tribes’ by the Europeans) within Sydney belonged to several major language groups, often with coastal and inland dialects.

There is some disagreement as to the degree of cultural separateness of the people who traditionally lived in the adjoining lands which comprise greater Sydney, encompassing most of the western suburbs and stretching up to the Blue Mountains.

However, there is much evidence to suggest that the major language groups of greater Sydney were different groups using different languages and different initiation rites. There is evidence of Aboriginal people migrating in a north-south direction but none from east to west. The appearance of men from the inland group was different from that of coastal men who were missing their right incisor tooth, removed during their initiation.

Similarly, when Bennelong of the Wangal people went into Parramatta in 1789, he did not understand the language spoken there so that’s another practical example of clans being distinct entities. The 29 clan groups of the wider Sydney region were associated with specific areas of land by family boundaries, and distinguished by body decorations, hairstyles, songs and dances, tools and weapons.

Aboriginal Sydney

Sydney has always been a city with a high proportion of immigrants. As the town of Sydney developed into a city, the Gadigal were joined by other Aboriginal people from elsewhere in NSW, to live, work and forge relationships within the urban Aboriginal community.

Governor Arthur Phillip estimated there were about 1500 Aboriginal people within a 10 mile radius of Port Jackson in 1788. But there is much scepticism about population figures offered by historians and even those in official government parties. It must be remembered that there were bounties on the heads of Aboriginal people at one stage, and some whites went as far as digging bodies up to make money. Based on these circumstances and unreliable guesstimates, it is difficult to determine population figures at the point of contact or afterwards.

Having said that, historians have reported that the population reduced dramatically with the introduction of smallpox into Sydney’s Aboriginal community in the first years of European contact, with reports of bodies floating in the harbour and found in foreshore rock shelters. It is estimated that almost half of Sydney’s Aboriginal population died in the smallpox epidemic of 1789. Melinda Hinkson’s Aboriginal Sydney says that the Gadigal, ‘the recognised owners of Sydney Cove – were reduced in number from about 60 in 1788 to just three in 1791’ (Hinkson 2010, p. xx). Val Attenbrow, in Sydney’s Aboriginal Past, indicates that two of these three were Colebee and Nanbaree (Attenbrow 2010: 22). The source for this information is contained in the journals written by David Collins in 1798 (Collins 1971: 497).

With such a loss came social collapse, grief and bewilderment. However archaeological and anthropological investigations suggest that the Gadigal survived, despite the effects of smallpox and other diseases, the alienation of Aboriginal people from food sources and land, and punitive missions. According to Val Attenbrow, Aboriginal people ‘remained living in many parts of the Sydney region – in places such as the Mulgoa Valley, Emu Plains, Plumpton, Manly, La Perouse, Salt Pan Creek and Campbelltown, in some cases continuing to live on what had been their traditional campsites until at least the mid-1800s’ (Attenbrow 2010: 22).

This unsigned portrait is entitled ‘One of the NSW Aborigines befriended by Governor Macquarie’ and was for many years in the possession of Mrs Macquarie. Like too many paintings of Aboriginal people, this individual is unnamed (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW – ML 696)

After the deaths of so many local people due to smallpox, other diseases and warfare, new groups of remnant clans formed. Those who gathered north of the harbour became known as the ‘Kissing Point Tribe’ (an old name for the Ryde area) while over 200 Aboriginal people lived in the area around Elizabeth Bay, Potts Point and Woolloomooloo, which remains an important site for Aboriginal people. Governor Lachlan Macquarie set aside land near Elizabeth Bay as a ‘model fishing village’ for Aboriginal people in 1820. At this settlement, known as Elizabeth Town, a number of huts were built, a patch of land was cleared for a garden, and boats were provided for the use of the Aboriginal people who lived there. John Palmer’s estate at nearby Woolloomooloo Bay was also an important gathering place for local Aboriginal people, and was the location of a corroboree in 1831 attended by Bungaree’s son, Young Bungaree.

Blanket distribution lists from the 1830s show that, apart from a group living in the government boatsheds at Circular Quay from 1879 to 1881, few people who identified as Aboriginal were living in the centre of Sydney. Many had moved to places such as La Perouse on Botany Bay, south of the city.

The government’s Marine Board boatsheds were on the eastern side of Circular Quay at Bennelong Point. Around 18 Aboriginal people were camped here from 1879 through to July 1881, including members of the Davis and Bundle families. Recent research suggests they were receiving weekly rations of meat, bread, tea and sugar (similar to the rations received by Aboriginal people at the Botany camp). It was likely they were forced to live in this by then derelict boatshed because they were dispossessed from their land due to farming and pastoral activities. The camp at the government boatsheds closed in July 1881, with many moving south to Daniel Matthew’s Maloga Mission. As well, large numbers of Aboriginal people were ‘encouraged’ to join the growing community at La Perouse.

In 1996, the Australian Bureau of Statistics noted that 117 people living within the City of Sydney local government area boundaries identified as Aboriginal people (this represented 0.9% of the City’s residential population while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples generally made up 2%, or around 386,000, of the overall national rate).

This low figure hides a greater population because many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have negative experiences of government intervention, and accordingly do not participate in census recording. (By the way, the surveys conducted by the Aborigines Welfare Board after 1943 categorised ‘full-bloods’, ‘half-castes’ and ‘lesser castes’, defining for Aboriginal people for the first time their own Aboriginality).

There is no secret to the formula of working out where Aboriginal people originally lived. They needed food to eat and clean water to drink. Camp sites were usually located close to the shore, especially during summer when fish and shellfish was the main food. Aboriginal people are known to have inhabited The Rocks area long before the invasion. A 1989 excavation at Lilyvale on Cumberland Street uncovered a campfire (radiocarbon dated to about 1500 AD) with the remains of a meal consisting of snapper and rock oysters. At the foot of the cannon at Dawes Point are large flat stones said to have been used for baking whole fish.

A stylised painting by Governor Philip Gidley King of Aboriginal people cooking and eating fish around a campfire soon after the arrival of the First Fleet (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW – Banks Papers Series 36a.04)

It is thought that some of Sydney’s main thoroughfares, such as George Street, Oxford Street and King Street in Newtown, followed Aboriginal tracks that had served as trading routes between farmed grasslands or bountiful fishing areas.

The harbour was exploited for food using fishing line made from the inner bark of the kurrajong and hibiscus trees and multi-pronged spears tipped with bone. The many varieties of fish and shellfish – oysters, mussels and cockles – were supplemented with vegetables, grubs, birds, possums, wombats and kangaroos. With fish available all year round, there was no need to leave the coast for food. Aboriginal people used bark canoes for fishing and as modes of transportation along the Parramatta River. Watkin Tench’s journals record him seeing two Aboriginal women bodysurfing on bark from Milson’s Point to Bennelong Point.

The invaders soon polluted the local water source, the Tank Stream, which had been maintained for centuries by Aboriginal people, forcing them further out to Redfern, Centennial Park and South Head for clean drinking water. There is evidence of Aboriginal people continuing to frequent Pyrmont with its fresh springs (such as Tinker’s Well) up to the 1870s, and even later there are references to ceremonial gatherings at Ultimo.

Black and white people continued to coexist until the 1930s. The poor white population recognised the Aboriginal people’s ability to live, where possible, off the land. This was most apparent during the Great Depression when both peoples camped together around Sydney, especially at Happy Valley at La Perouse, proving that people form alliances in times of crisis.

Working class suburbs like Pyrmont, Balmain, Rozelle, Glebe and Redfern became natural places for Aboriginal people to congregate and live from the 1930s. Housing was cheap and there was plenty of work in nearby factories. Many travelled from northern and western NSW for the increased work opportunities after the outbreak of World War 2. Changes in government legislation in the 1960s provided freedom of movement enabling more Aboriginal people to choose to live in Sydney.

The term ‘Aboriginal site’ refers to archaeological sites that show evidence of Aboriginal occupation. Aboriginal sites found in central Sydney include items and remnants such as stone tools, weapons, midden deposits, scarred trees and sharpening grooves. The National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 provides statutory protection for all Aboriginal relics and for all Aboriginal places, while the Heritage Act 1977 protects the state’s natural and cultural heritage, including archaeological remains. (Aboriginal sites and relics are primarily cared for under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974, but if you have concerns or questions about a site in Sydney your first point of contact should be the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council or the Aboriginal Heritage Officer at the NSW Heritage Office.)

Aboriginal people used stone tools to engrave pictures on sandstone and other rocks as a form of connection with the land. Most engravings around Sydney represent animals, people and weapons. There were 17 engravings at Balls Head in Sydney’s inner harbour; many are now covered by road surfaces while two have been outlined with paint. In the late 1890s, W D Campbell made a formal recording of one for the Australian Museum, showing a man in a whale, with others made in 1963 and 1977.

Sydney has more rock engraving sites than any other city in Australia. These sites demonstrate occupation, art and social systems. Engraved pavement areas were once widespread in the Sydney city area, but many have been lost beneath shopping malls, hotels and office towers. Today, many residential backyards, industrial estates and parks in inner-city harbour settings are beneficiaries of the engraving sites that remain.

There are around 20 recorded archaeological sites within the boundaries of the City of Sydney local government area comprising middens, rock engravings, open campsites and burial sites. But there are many other commonly-known sites within the city including Angel Place, built over the former Tank Stream between George and Pitt streets. Fifty-four flaked stone artefacts were recovered here during excavation in 1996, providing evidence that Aboriginal people flaked stone along the banks of the former creek-line.

Analysis of these remains sheds further light on the manner in which the local people organised their stone-flaking technology. It appears that they may have been restricted in their access to good quality raw materials and were forced to use what was available to them. In this case, water-worn stream pebbles appear to have been the primary source of raw material flaked at the site.

The stone tool remains in Angel Place are indicative of open sites along minor and temporary creeks in the Sydney area, reflecting intermittent occupation and short-term camping events. Although there is limited archaeological evidence of Aboriginal use of the Tank Stream, because 200 years of European occupation and development has destroyed such resources, it does constitute a point of first contact between the local Aboriginal people living around the stream, and the European settlers who arrived in 1788.

North of Angel Place where the Tank Stream originally discharged into Sydney Harbour (near Bridge Street and Circular Quay), access to fish and shell-fish resources are likely to have provided a relatively predictable and concentrated range of dietary resources. South of the site, within the swampy margins of Hyde Park (where the Tank Stream originated), waterfowl and terrestrial mammals such as macropods may have been sought. Given the nature of the terrain around central Sydney, Aboriginal campsites would have been on ground least affected by swamp areas. Therefore major campsites would have been on the more habitable ground.

Governor Phillip decided to build Sydney around the Tank Stream, and it became the colony’s water source, quickly destroyed by settlers.

Bennelong Point is most famous for the Sydney Opera House but the local Aboriginal people knew it as ‘Dubbagullee’. It then became known as Cattle Point because of the livestock landed there from the First Fleet, and was later renamed Bennelong Point after a hut was built there for Bennelong. This hut was a gathering place for the Aboriginal people at Sydney Cove. Adjacent to here, at Farm Cove / Wughanmaggalee, the colonists in 1790 first recorded seeing a corroboree. Bennelong spoke of how he and his wife were attached to ‘Memel’, now known as Goat Island, which was the original place of his father.

Excavations in 1989 at Lilyvale Cottage, near the site of the Shangri-La Hotel on Cumberland Street, uncovered a camp site dated around 500 years old; referred to as the Lilyvale camp site, it is located almost 100 metres from the first European cemetery which included the remains of the Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people, who had lived alongside each other. Excavation of a site at Moores Wharf at Millers Point in 1980 also revealed contact period artefacts.

There are a number of cemeteries that are now built over which contain Aboriginal remains, including the old burial ground under Sydney Town Hall. Cora Gooseberry was buried in 1847 in the Devonshire Street cemetery which has since been disturbed for the building of Central Railway. The first Aboriginal person buried in the European way was named Tommy in the Aboriginal section at Camperdown Cemetery. This cemetery also contains a sandstone obelisk erected in 1944 by the Rangers League of NSW in memory of him and three other Aboriginal people buried there: Mogo, William Perry (died 1849 aged 26) and Wandelina (or Mandelina) Cabrorigirel (who died in 1860 aged 18). However their graves are no longer identifiable.

Other sites include the Museum of Sydney on the corner of Bridge and Phillip streets, which is also site of the First Government House. One of the three known burials there was that of Arabanoo. The Museum of Sydney has recognised the Gadigal people with its Gadigal Place Gallery and its sculpture ‘The Edge of the Trees’.

There are some post-contact sites that represent the continuing history and culture of Sydney’s Aboriginal people. One of the most important sites is Australian Hall at 150 Elizabeth Street. Originally built as the German Club Concordia in 1912, it was renamed Australian Hall in 1923 and later as the Cyprus-Hellene Club. It was the venue for ‘Day of Mourning’ Conference held on 26 January 1938, organised by the Aborigines Progressive Association and the Australian Aborigines League. This was a protest against the European celebrations of their arrival 150 years before, and the meeting is considered a crucial milestone in the development of an Aboriginal political movement.

The issue of the conservation of the building generated a long and passionate campaign by the Aboriginal and wider historical community which resulted in the placing of a Permanent Conservation Order (PCO) on it in 1996. On 2 April 1999, the building was listed on the NSW State Heritage Register. The building, then managed by the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, underwent conservation works around this time. Now in the ownership of the Indigenous Land Corporation, the building was placed on the National Heritage List in 2008.

Taken by a photographer from Man: the magazine for men, this image shows a section of the Day of Mourning meeting which took place in the Australian Hall at 150 Elizabeth Street on 26 January 1938; John Patten is standing on the right (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW – MLQ059/9)

The Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs was a popular haunt in the 1960s, while other ‘contemporary corroborees’ were happening at the Airforce Hall, the Railway Institute and the Redfern and Darlington town halls.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to reside and actively participate in central Sydney and greater Sydney, making significant contributions to its cultural, economic and social fabric.

About the author

Dr Anita Heiss is from the Wiradyuri nation of central NSW, the author of over 20 books and Professor of Communications at the University of Queensland.


Attenbrow, Val 2012, Archaeological evidence of Aboriginal life in Sydney, Dictionary of Sydney, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/archaeological_evidence_of_aboriginal_life_in_sydney , viewed 11 August 2015

Attenbrow, Val 2010, Sydney’s Aboriginal Past: Investigating the Archaeological and Historical Records, 2nd ed, University of NSW Press, Sydney

Collins, David 1971 (reprint), An account of the English colony in New South Wales, Libraries Board of South Australia, Adelaide

Hinkson, Melinda & Harris, Alana2010, Aboriginal Sydney: a guide to important places of the past and present, 2nd ed, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra