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Cronulla History Part 1: The Gweagal


In the first installation (read Cronulla History Part 2 here) of our Cronulla History feature, we look at the Indigenous Gweagal people who lived on the southern shores of Kamay/Botany Bay, the first Aboriginals to encounter European colonisers.

Prior to Captain Cook’s confirmation in April 1770 that the fabled terra australis (‘great southern land’) existed, and before the establishment of NSW as an experimental penal colony in 1788, the Sydney region was occupied by an estimated 29 clan groups of Aboriginal peoples.

The coastal groups, who relied primarily on marine foods for their diet, are now referred to collectively as the Eora Nation (meaning ‘here, of this place’, a word Indigenous peoples used to describe themselves when asked by the British where they originated).

Cronulla history of the Gweagal

Two Gweagal men resist Captain Cook's 1770 landing party at Kurnell. (Sydney Parkinson)

Gweagal Languages

Two main languages were spoken, Dharug and Dharawal, which diversified into multiple dialects, depending on the clans and the areas they inhabited.

(For example, Dharug speakers, including the Cadigal on the southern shores of Sydney Harbour, the Wangal between Cooks and Parramatta rivers, the Cammeraygal on the Lower North Shore, the Durramurragal on the Upper North Shore, the Garigal on the upper Northern Beaches and the Burramategal in present-day Parramatta, were divided into seven distinct dialects).

Dharug speakers inhabited the regions north of the western shores of Botany Bay, inland along the rivers Goolay'yari (‘pelicans’, aka Cooks River) and Burramatta (‘place of eels’, aka Parramatta), west along the edge of the Blue Mountains and within approximate northern boundaries marked by the Yandhai (Hawkesbury/Nepean River).

Dharawal speakers’ territory began with the Gweagal clan, which inhabited the southern shores of Kamay (Botany Bay) and south to Deeban (Port Hacking), and inland along the southern banks of the Tucoerah (Georges River) where the Norongerragal clan inhabited present-day Menai region.

The language group continued south-west through Benkennie (‘dry land’, aka Camden) and Appin, where they overlapped with the western Gandangara peoples.

The Dharawal-speaking Wodi Wodi people ranged through the Illawarra (‘white clay mountains near the sea’) from Wollongong (‘seas of the south’) south to Shoalhaven/Nowra (‘black cockatoo’) district, where they shared resources with the Jerrinja and Walbanga peoples along the Shoalhaven River.

The Gweagal clans around present-day Cronulla (‘place of pink shells’) and Kurnell (‘place of wild carrots’), although Dharawal speakers, would almost certainly have understood Dharug to communicate with neighbouring clans.

Like, say, Belgium in Europe, where most of the population speak the languages of their two larger neighbours, French to the south, Dutch to the north, the Gweagal would have needed to be reasonably proficient in dual languages to communicate effectively with their neighbours.

This included the Dharug-speaking Kamaygal, resident on the north and west banks of Botany Bay, who also fished from nuwi (bark canoes) and gathered seafood like bithinga (oysters) and yaxa (crabs) along the shoreline.

Gwaegal Lifestyles

The Gweagal reportedly matted their hair into long thin clumps with tree gum that resembled a mop - now known as ‘dreadlocks’ and associated with Rastafarians – which they decorated with shells and souvenirs like kangaroo teeth.

Gwaegal woman in canoe

Aboriginal woman fishing from a nuwi - a canoe made from a sheet of bark cut from a tree

Gweagal were guardians of the white clay pits spread throughout their country, considered sacred. Traded with neighbouring clans, clay was used to shape tablets on which to light fires in the base of canoes, so fish could be cooked after it was hauled fresh from the water.

Clay was also used to decorate the body in corroborees and ritual dances, often dyed with berries, and eaten as an antacid medicine.

It appears there was less interaction between the coastal Eora, who sourced their marine-based meals from bays, tidal rivers and tributaries, and the Indigenous hunter-gatherers inland, than between clans along the north-south axis. Clan interactions typically involved inter-marriage, kinship and initiation rituals, although a trade in tools, such as flaked stone used for clubs and cutters, and fishing equipment including barbed spears, hooks and bark canoes, was reportedly undertaken along established routes via intermediaries.

As an example of important ritual ceremonies, the Eora peoples around Sydney practiced yira badjang (‘tooth hurting’) at a dedicated place called Yoolang on the shore of Wogganmagully (Farm Cove in Sydney Harbour). Here they knocked out the front left incisor of teenaged boys to initiate them into manhood.

(It is thought that because Captain Arthur Phillip was missing a front left incisor, it enabled him to have a better relationship with Sydney’s Aboriginals).

At Warumbul, opposite Lilli Pilli, Gweagal often joined neighbouring clans to socialise or feast, sometimes on dolphin or whale meat if the cetaceans were driven into Port Hacking by orcas – the Gweagal’s totem animal – where they could be intercepted and butchered.

British Invasion

Although a few Europeans had set foot on the Australian continent since Dutch navigator Willem Janzoon made landfall at the Pennefather River in north Queensland in Feb 1606, the Gweagal were the first to encounter the pale-skinned Britons.

Gwaegal people see the British coming

This started with Captain Cook in April 1770, who, prior to claiming their land for Great Britain, attempted, unsuccessfully, to communicate and trade after anchoring his ship The Endeavour alongside Kurnell peninsula.

On 29 April, Cook, botanist Joseph Banks, Tahitian navigator Tupaia and a party of 30 crewmen rowed in two longboats to investigate a small collection of 6-8 gunyahs (bark huts) on Milgurrung (now known as Silver Beach). However, before they reached the shore, the Aboriginal inhabitants quickly fled into the surrounding forest (albeit leaving behind a few children to whom Cook later gave beads), except two Gweagal men who threw stones, fishing darts and a spear, shouting “warra warra wai!” (‘you are all dead!’).

From the boat Cook fired a warning from his musket aimed between the two. He then fired a second loaded with ‘small shot’ (probably lead pellets), some of which struck one man in the leg, who grabbed a defensive shield. (This was later souvenired by Cook and until recently believed to be the ‘Gweagal Shield’ on display in the British Museum. Recent analysis of the shield found it is made of red mangrove wood, sourced 400km north of Botany Bay, and a hole in it was not caused by gunshot).

A third shot fired over the heads of the two Aboriginal men caused them to retreat, but for the next eight days, whilst The Endeavour remained anchored in the bay and the crew gathered botanical specimens and documented flora and fauna, the Gweagal ignored them completely.

18 years later, the Gweagal were the first to witness the arrival of the First Fleet into Botany Bay on 18 January 1788, enthusiastically promoted by Cook’s celebrity naturalist Joseph Banks (who famously described the newly-claimed continent as ‘terra nullius’ – empty of people).

After felling trees and preparing a campsite, the Britons abandoned Milgurrung (Silver Beach) just a week later due to the poor trickle of the freshwater creek - unsustainable for a garrison of marines, settlers and 732 convicts - which Captain Cook had described as “ample fresh water”.

On 25 January the arrivals relocated to the next harbour north, Cadi (Port Jackson). There they found a more reliable water supply in Warrane (Sydney Cove) from where the colony of New South Wales began.

Gweagal Legacy

Although the majority of the Dharawal-speaking people were driven from their traditional hunting and fishing territories, and many succumbed to the deadly 1789 smallpox epidemic, their legacy is still with us in the form of petroglyphs (rock carvings), cave stencils and several words we use for native flora, fauna and familiar objects.

Examples of the latter include boomerang, wombat, woomera (spear thrower), dingu (variant on Dharug dingo), and wallaba (variant on the Dharug wallaby).

Gwaegal cave drawings

From Dharawal words, Britons named the following suburbs: Kirawee (‘sulphur-crested cockatoo’); Cabramatta (from ‘cabra’, an edible water-grub); Kogarah (‘place of reeds’); Illawong (‘between two waters’, ie: Georges and Woronora Rivers); Janalli (‘moonrise’); and Gymea (a type of lily).

The sand dunes of Gunamatta (‘sand hills’), which the present-day town of Cronulla occupies, was the name given to the adjacent bay.

In the former Gweagal territory, there is a wealth of petroglyphs, charcoal and ochre paintings and hand stencils, as well as countless rock overhangs and caves that were once used as Aboriginal dwellings.

At Jibbon Head, on the south side of the entrance to Port Hacking, near Bundeena, there is a collection of ancient petroglyphs carved into a large sandstone rock. Featuring kangaroos, killer whales, stingrays, turtles, and a figure with a large appendage who may represent Baiame the ‘sky father’, they can be seen from a viewing platform.

Exploring Gweagal country:

Aboriginal heritage sites around Cronulla



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