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Welcome to Gadigal Land


It’s an often-repeated claim that Aboriginal clans completely disappeared from Sydney not long after European colonists arrived in 1788, due to disease and displacement. Not true.

Welcome to Gadigal land, Gadgal country

"Native Camp Near Cockle Bay with a view of Parramatta River. Taken from Dawes Point."

Probably Memel (Goat Island) in centre. 1813 engraving by John Eyre

Welcome to Gadigal land, welcome to Gadigal country” veteran Oz-rockers Midnight Oil sing in their chart-topping 2020 song Gadigal Land, their first new music in 17 years.

The lyrics criticise European justice and the unwelcome problems that were forced upon the Aboriginals when Warrane (Sydney Cove) was chosen for a British prison colony in 1788.

But Where is Gadigal Land?

Social anthropologists and historians have determined this historic region extended from the southern shores of Sydney Harbour south to Botany Bay – which Indigenous Dharug-speaking peoples called Gadi or Cadi (C and G were often interchangeable, as were the letters B and P).

The Gadigal (‘gal’ meaning ‘men of’, ie: ‘men of Gadi’, women were described with the suffix ‘gal-yan’) gathered foods, hunted and lived in this forested region, east from the Pacific Ocean to an approximate north-south interface that would now run between Pirrama (Pyrmont) and Bulanaming (Marrickville).

This area was enclosed by the waterways of Port Jackson in the north, Kamay (Botany Bay) to the south, where the Gadigal overlapped with the Kamaygal clans, and along the north-eastern banks of Goolay'yari (Cooks River – derived from the word for ‘pelican’) where the Gadigal overlapped with the Wangal clans from further west.

Gadigal people celebrate

"Aborigines At Night, Sydney" 1790 painting by Edward Dages

King Street in Newtown reportedly follows an old Aboriginal track that led (and still leads, via Prince’s Highway) south to the western shores of Botany Bay, while Broadway and Parramatta Rd follow a historic path west.

When Europeans established themselves in the bay known as Warrane (Sydney Cove), there were an estimated two dozen Indigenous clans of around 25-60 members each across the Sydney region - now known as the Eora peoples. Between them they spoke 7 dialects of the endemic Dharug language group - the Gadigal spoke Biyal-biyal.

The Gadigal People

Gadigal people of the coastal region were katungal (‘sea people’), primarily reliant on tidal river and harbour foods. These they gathered along the shoreline or hauled from the waters (Indigenous people inland who hunted and trapped animals were known as paienbera ‘tomahawk people’).

The men skewered their prey with garrara (barbed-end spears) and the women caught them with narrami (nets) and burra (fish hooks made from shells). Fish were often caught from nowie (bark canoes) and cooked fresh in the boats on hot coals atop clay slabs.

Prime fishing spots were typically marked with fish, whale and sea creature petroglyphs carved into sandstone on the shoreline, communicating favourable marine prey or tribal totems to others via ancient symbols, which were maintained by designated clan stewards.

Botany Bay and Gadigal country

"Botany Bay 1812" engraving by John Eyre

Indigenous people in nowie and along the shore.

In April 1789, a smallpox epidemic had a catastrophic impact on the Aboriginal peoples of Sydney and beyond. There’s a high probability Indigenous peoples were deliberately infected, perhaps by rogue Marines. Witnesses later claimed that the Indigenous inhabitants at Balmoral Beach, from where the contagion began and spread, accepted blankets from the British printed with red stripes and a crown – the same as Royal Navy blankets of the era.

With almost no immunity to European diseases, the majority of the Indigenous people living around the harbour foreshores succumbed to the deadly contagion or fled inland.

First Governor Arthur Phillip estimated that approximately half the Aboriginal population dwelling around Sydney Harbour died, but historians have since revised the figure upwards to between 60 to 90 per cent.

History of Gadigal People Interactions

A common misconception is that Aboriginal peoples completely vanished from central Sydney in the wake of the smallpox epidemic.

Despite the British colonists clearing forests and quarrying sandstone to build permanent dwellings, whilst expanding from a tent village into the neighbouring coves, west to establish farming in Rose Hill (Parramatta), and north to construct a military fort at Woodford Bay (Lane Cove), the latter built to suppress Indigenous resistance, surviving Aboriginal peoples from different clans regrouped.

Thereafter they continued interacting with the European interlopers, albeit socially-distanced in communal campsites. These included The Domain, Woolloomooloo, Double Bay, Camp Cove and Bondi Beach, where Indigenous people remained until long after British land acquisitions encroached upon their habitat and neutered their way of life.

Cooks River in Gadigal country

"Cooks River At Botany Bay, 1830" painting by John Thompson

Native habitat is relatively unscathed as British sandstone dwellings start to appear.

Nevertheless, Sydney Aboriginals provided essential services to the British colonists that earned them respect and reliable incomes, and not just in labouring and domestic assistance. Many of them continued saltwater activities in which they specialised, like fishing, gathering seafood, sealing and whaling, and were utilised for other traditional skills, such as police trackers, game rangers and shooting guides.

As the burgeoning colony built ships and docks around Cockle and Blackwattle Bays, Sydney became a major importer/exporter of goods. Until 1834, fisheries products – principally whale oil and sealskins - dominated the primary exports of NSW, which relied heavily upon Aboriginal knowledge and skill in sourcing the marine life.

Thereafter wool (first exported to Britain in 1821) took over as the primary export, increasing to an annual 6.4 million kilograms in 1850. Agriculture supplanted marine industries, revealing the success of the pastoralist ‘squatters’ in their colonisation of Australia’s hinterland.

The squatters literally occupied territory not yet surveyed or legally available to them, clearing forests to establish vast sheep and cattle farms.

This frontier expansion came at the expense of the Indigenous inhabitants and the wildlife they relied upon for food and clothing, and led to clashes and massacres.

When convict transportation ceased in 1840, Sydney’s population was recorded at 35,000, but the discovery of gold in Ophir, near Orange, in Feb 1851, triggered a gold rush. This brought a massive influx of tens of thousands of speculators and other opportunity seekers to Australia, swelling the national population to 75,000 by the 1870s, substantially increasing Indigenous Australians' risk of further attacks and displacement.

History of Gadigal people

"Cooks River, Tempe, 1840s" painting by James Clark

Colonial land divisions for farming + timber have now completely displaced Indigenous clans.

Attempts were made to safeguard Indigenous people from the mass expansion of the city by placing them under government supervision in various ‘protectorates’ and state-sponsored missions. However, Europeans encroached and built on their semi-permanent encampments (the aforementioned Domain, Woolloomooloo, Double Bay, Camp Cove and Bondi Beach).

From the 1850s onward, most of Sydney’s city-dwelling Aboriginals were effectively subsumed into the British way of life.

The first Indigenous boy to receive a Christian burial in a British cemetery was Tommy, an 11-year-old with no surname who died of bronchitis in Sydney Infirmary. That wasn’t until 18 March 1863.

(Tommy is believed buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Camperdown Cemetery alongside bushranger Charles Ross, 57, who was hanged on 18 March at Darlinghurst Gaol for highway robbery and attempted murder).

Tommy’s name was finally carved into a stone monument with three other deceased Aboriginals in 1944, commemorating “the whole Aboriginal race.”

Aborigine child burial record

Burial record of an Indigenous boy named Tommy - the first Aboriginal to receive a Christian burial in a British cemetery in Australia - buried in an unmarked grave in Camperdown Cemetery alongside hanged bushranger Charles Ross in March 1863.

A large exhibition of Aboriginal Sydney, including spears, throwing sticks, artefacts and artworks, was held in the Garden Palace in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens near Macquarie Street, which was built for the Sydney International Exhibition in 1879.

Tragically, on 22 Sept 1882, a fire destroyed the building and its contents, taking with it assorted government records, the results of the 1881 Census, and disastrously, according to a plaque in the Botanic Gardens: “every publicly owned artefact of the Aboriginal tribe, Eora, who inhabited the area before European settlement.”

Newtown to Botany Bay

"Newtown looking south to Botany Bay, Dec 1862" painting by HGM Loyd

Illustration shows native habitat completely cleared as the Sydney settlement expands.

Yet despite enduring decades of dislocation, racism, brutality and neglect, Aboriginal contribution to Australia’s culture, arts, sporting achievements and social outlook has been tremendous, and continues to this day..

Further reading

Dharug dictionary

Sydney Aboriginal History



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