Image: 'The founding of Australia' (State Library of Victoria, H8731, colour reproduction of painting in the Tate Gallery by Algernon Talmage)
This excerpt was taken from Melinda Hinkson's 'Aboriginal Sydney' book, published in 2001.
A Story Of Survival
Sydney's Aboriginal history is a story about survival against enormous odds. In April and May 1789, just over a year after the British set up camp in Sydney Cove, an outbreak of a smallpox-like disease occurred among the Aboriginal communities of Sydney. In the tragedy that unfolded, it was thought that 50 - 90% of the Aboriginal population of the Sydney Town area may have died. The Cadigal people - the recognised traditional owners of Sydney Cove - were reduced in number from about 60 in 1788 to just three in 1791.
It is a common myth that all the Aboriginal people of Sydney died or moved out of the city in the years following the arrival of the British. Without doubt, it is a remarkable feat of resilience they did not. Tracing their movements through history books, however, is fraught with difficulty. The impression is that while Aboriginal people were a prominent feature of the city's life in the 1830s, by the 1860s they were no longer a visible presence. From this time onwards Aboriginal people literally begin to disappear from the historical record. Yet while they may have been increasingly marginalised, Aboriginal people themselves will attest that they were always there. A small group continued to camp at the boat sheds at Circular Quay, but by 1881 they had been 'moved on'. Members of this group then joined other Aboriginal people who had set up camp at La Perouse, to the south of Sydney. Others were dispersed to Sydney's western suburbs and further afield, while yet other people were absorbed into the burgeoning city, their Aboriginality becoming increasingly invisible or unrecognised.
Through the late 1800s and early 1900s, groups of Aboriginal people are known to have camped at Manly and Narrabeen in Sydney's north; on the Hawkesbury River at Sackville Reach to the west; and on the George's River at Salt Pan Creek in the south. By the 1950s, all of these camps had been closed by local councils, and their Aboriginal residents forced, yet again, to move on. The stories of these camps and the people who lived in them are yet to be fully brought to light.
Before the British invasion of Aboriginal territories, the economy of the entire continent was based on hunting, fishing, and foraging. It seems likely in the Port Jackson region that the diet and the cultural practices of the people who lived along the coast differed from those who lived inland. On the coast it appeared people subsisted on mainly on fish and seafood, supplementing this during the winter months with what small animals they could catch as well as roots, tubers, and edible plants along the coastal hinterland. People further inland reportedly fished rivers and waterways for eels, freshwater fish and shellfish, while also relying on yams and land-based animals such as possums, kangaroos and wallabies that inhabited the forests.
Ritual practices of those who lived in the two areas also appear to have differed - initiated men of the coastal communities were identified by their lack of an upper front tooth, which was removed in a tooth avulsion ceremony, their inland brothers were not. The women of coastal communities had the first two joints of their left little finger removed when they were infants (called malgun), while the fingers of inland women were said to be intact.
Before the colonial encounter had made its devastating impact, the people of the Sydney area, like the rest of Aboriginal Australia, had a rich cultural life reflected in diverse ritual practices such as these. Much of the knowledge regarding the spiritual and ceremonial aspects of this life has since been lost due to colonisation.