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Australian Books: Prehistory lesson

This unique investigation of Sydney’s highly diverse Aboriginal past draws on the latest historical, archaeological, geological, environmental and linguistic research.

5 March 2011

12:00 AM

5 March 2011

12:00 AM

This unique investigation of Sydney’s highly diverse Aboriginal past draws on the latest historical, archaeological, geological, environmental and linguistic research.

Sydney’s Aboriginal Past
By Val Attenbrow
UNSW Press, 2nd Edition, pp 264, $59.95
ISBN 9781742231167

This unique investigation of Sydney’s highly diverse Aboriginal past draws on the latest historical, archaeological, geological, environmental and linguistic research. It also incorporates some oral evidence of present-day indigenous peoples although, wisely, this source of information has not been used extensively.

First published in 2002 and now greatly updated and revised, this superbly illustrated history of Aboriginal occupation of the Sydney region until the 1820s is a labour of love. Indeed, most of the more or less contemporary coloured photographs were taken by the author herself.

Currently principal research archaeologist in the anthropology unit of the Australian Museum, where she has worked since 1989, Val Attenbrow’s remarkable book also features a 30-page sites-to-visit supplement with extremely useful information about where to find specific places in Sydney and its suburbs where archaeological evidence of Aboriginal occupation survives. These fascinating sites range from Parramatta and the Hawkesbury through Balmoral Beach and Bondi to Captain Cook’s Landing Place and Botany Bay.

It may seem hard to believe but the city of Sydney, which stands on some of the oldest inhabited country in the world, is home to more that 5,000 archaeological sites. The area that Attenbrow calls the Sydney region is bounded by the coast to the east, the Hawkesbury-Nepean River to the north and west, and in the south by a line running east-west through Picton-Stanwell Park. Its northernmost point is at Wisemans Ferry. It includes the coastal and hinterland zones of the Darug language area, and the northern part of Dharawal and Gundungurra language areas.

Sydney’s Aboriginal Past is especially illuminating about the sometimes very different Aboriginal clans in the Sydney region before and during the first 30 years of British occupation and settlement. The original number of people in each clan in the Sydney region is difficult to determine, but it is likely that clan sizes varied from between 25 and 60 people, with the average usually falling below 50. What we do know is that the original inhabitants of the Sydney region were ‘fishers, hunters and gatherers of plants and small animals’. Moreover the land and its waters — the estuaries and rivers — supplied ‘a wide range of plants and animals from which they gained their foods and medicines as well as the raw materials used to make their tools, weapons, shelters and body decorations’.

As Attenbrow reveals, when the so-called ‘First Fleet’ of 11 ships carrying more than 1,000 people, including 759 convicts, arrived in 1788, the Sydney region was home to numerous indigenous communities, probably totalling between 3,000 and 6,000 people in number, who had been coexisting there for tens of thousands of years. Yet within 12 months, half of the local population had succumbed to a smallpox epidemic and to other introduced diseases. In addition, it was inevitable that the colonists’ activities alienated Aboriginal clans from their land and food sources. This, coupled with ‘punitive expeditions, guerrilla warfare and homicides … reduced the population numbers even further’. As the infant European colony of New South Wales expanded, ‘loss of country and acts of aggression made their traditional way of life impossible’. Yet today, the Sydney region is home to more than 4 million people, of whom approximately 44,000 are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples.

Sydney’s development had not only a ‘devastating impact on the original inhabitants’ but an associated destructive effect on the vegetation, animals and birds over much of the region, and the Aboriginal sites themselves. The sites of the Sydney region were the subject of attention when the British first arrived. However, it was not until the 1880s, some 100 years after white colonisation, that ‘a more scientific interest was taken in archaeological sites such as shell middens, and engraved images began to be recorded more systematically’. Fortunately some of the early British troops and colonists not only wrote about their observations of Aboriginal peoples, but a number of artists, including the unidentified but much published ‘Port Jackson Painter’, sketched and painted them as well.

The fact is that the Sydney region has one of ‘the richest suites of archaeological sites of any major world city’. Because European engagement with Aboriginal peoples started with Port Jackson, it seems fitting that Sydney is now home to Australia’s largest Aboriginal community stretching from Redfern, Waterloo and La Perouse to Blacktown and Mount Druitt. Leading indigenous activist and NSW state Labor minister Linda Burney is right to draw attention to the pivotal role of Bennelong, who tried to bridge Aboriginal and European cultures. Equally important is Pemulwuy, who along with his son Tedbury ‘took up arms, and led his people in struggle’. Attenbrow not only covers these leading indigenous men in considerable detail but, movingly and passionately, places them centrally in the racial histories of their times.

In the case of Bennelong, he not only stayed at Arthur Phillip’s home, but had a home built for him by the governor at the eastern point of Sydney Cove, which is now known as Bennelong Point. After sailing to England with Phillip in December 1792, he returned to Sydney three years later before succumbing to alcoholism. Although Attenbrow does not mention it, given what happened to this notable Aboriginal man from the Sydney region, it seems significant that the most successful centre in New South Wales for helping Aboriginal alcoholics to get and stay sober is called Bennelong’s Haven.

Ross Fitzgerald has written 33 books, most recently his memoir My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey and the co-authored biography Alan (The Red Fox) Reid.

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