Revisiting Australian History: ‘The Colony’, ‘People of the River’, ‘A History of Aboriginal Illawarra Vols 1 & 2’ and ‘The Story of Djeebahn/Deeban’

Karskens, G.  People of the River:  Lost worlds of early Australia.  Australia, Allen & Unwin, 2020

I had carried out, what I considered to be at the time, extensive research of colonial Australian history over 20 years ago when I embarked on our family history.[1]  Last year I had reached the moment in the story when my First Fleet convict ancestors, Elizabeth Pulley and Anthony Rope, were on the verge of moving out to the Nepean-Hawkesbury rivers (Dyarubbin).

Simultaneously, through various articles, documentaries and networks, I was introduced to the work of Emeritus Professor of History Grace Karskens, who had uncovered old diaries written by Reverend McGarvie in 1829 with Dharug and Darkinyung place-names and words[2] and was working with local Dharug peoples to bring the information to the attention of the Australian public.

One of the outcomes of that research and collaboration was ‘People of the River’.[3]  Intrigued I decided it was time to update my research and bought the book. 

Karskens presentation of the history of Dyarubbin is broad and meticulously researched – covering the environmental and human pre-colonial history of the area in deep time and evidence of cultural and agricultural life, as well as the complex and uneasy story of the arrival of the British and other settlers and what eventuated. 

What differs from other Australian history records I’ve read is the way in which she attempts to view and write about these events from multiple perspectives – that of the Original Inhabitants and landholders, that of the ex-convicts and convicts who began arriving in the area from 1794, and that of the free settlers and wealthy, identifying their names where known – and how change was a constant for everyone as the Fleets continued to arrive.

In addition she does not avoid confronting and detailing the conflicts, wars and massacres that exploded along the river between the Aboriginal families, clans and nations and the new arrivals: naming players and places (giving the original Indigenous name where known), identifying where the triggers and orders originated, and unravelling where possible the intricate web of cause, effect and motivation.

So pleased I purchase the book.  So much more had been uncovered than I expected and knew.  It was enlightening.  I decided to buy ‘The Colony’ as well.

Karskens, G.  The Colony: A History of Early Sydney.  Australia, Allen & Unwin, (2009) 2010

This is the first published of the two works and sets the style for the later People of the River.  Beginning with the deep time history of the environment and the Original Peoples and their cultural expression and life around Sydney/Warrane[4] it continues, as would be expected, with the temporary arrival of Captain Cook in 1770, and then the permanent arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 – the berewalgal (people from far away or across the sea).

The pre-Dyarubbin story of colonisation/invasion is forensically examined.  As the story unfolds and the settlement begins to expand there is general overlap in the two books but not in detail.  The different ways in which the material has been thematically organised, and the amount of information gathered during the research has meant that it has been possible for similar stories to be told from different perspectives, emphases and with different minor characters in play.  Much to learn and understand.

What I especially love about The Colony is that it also names and includes the stories of a number of First Nations peoples who were known to the British and had survived the smallpox and influenza epidemics, conflicts, wars, massacres and had found ways to live around the British.  I can’t say ‘with’ the British because we were always viewed, and still are, as intruders on land that belongs to them.[5]  Perhaps ‘in spite of’ is a more appropriate phrase.  Their names keep popping up throughout the book.  So many names of First Nations peoples around Sydney Cove/Warrane and the Sydney basin/Dharug country that were known and I have never heard of.  These people have been ignored and forgotten in the white-colonial focus of Australian history previously written and taught in school when I was growing up.[6]  So much of a gap.  Unforgivable.  I hope it is changing.

Having begun this journey I decided to also follow up and learn more of the history of Dharawal country, where I spent my childhood.

Donaldson, M., Bursill, L., Jacobs, M. A History of Aboriginal Illawarra, Volume 1 – Before Colonisation. Australia, Dharawal Publications, 2016.

I loved reading this book and came away with deep regret that I had never been taught this when I did my schooling on Dharawal country, and how rich and meaningful it could have been to have been introduced to Dharawal and Dhurga culture and life.  How our dad would have also loved to have known this deep history in our backyard.

Written by Dharawal academics and educators it covers,

Dreaming and the Law 

Land, Forests






Power and Healing

People of the Sea

Crossing borders (trade and sharing ceremony across clans and nations) 

Our future

In the last chapter, Our Future, they write:

“Over 1,000 generations Dhurga and Dharawal Elders and their forbearers have maintained Illawarra, and they have good reason to be proud of their achievements. Illawarra’s Aboriginal population roughly equals its pre-invasion peak and Dhurga and Dharawal culture continues to gather strength.” (p. 27)

Bursill, L.  The Story of Djeebahn/Deeban: The Bay of Orcas and the Creation Serpent. Australia, Dharawal Publications, (2012), 2017.

I am inserting my response to this publication here as it draws the focus of A History of Aboriginal Illawarra Volume 1 to the area around Deeban/Port Hacking River.[7]  This compact book was written by Traditional Dharawal Knowledge Holder the late Les Bursill OAM and edited by Mary Jacob, lecturer in Early Childhood Development at Sydney Institute of TAFE.

The Story of Deeban is a summary of the deep history of the area. the extensive evidence of pre-colonial Dharawal life along the river – rock art, tool making, ceremony, the archaelogical discoveries of Bursill and his wife – as well as that of the first European settlers.  Original Dharawal names are given where known as well as the background to some of the people whose names are now carried in the area – Hacking (Port Hacking) and Gray (Gray’s Point).  The final chapter introduces plants traditionally used for food and medicine.

Again I would have loved to have learned this at school and the book itself is suitable as a text.  I hope all primary schools in the area have purchased and are teaching from it.

Donaldson, M., Bursill, L., Jacobs, M. A History of Aboriginal Illawarra, Volume 2 – Colonisation, Australia, Dharawal Publications, 2017

This book was not an easy read.  I wasn’t prepared for the different ways in which history can be told:  that reading well-researched events, from both colonial and state records and family histories, told by Dharawal academics and educators, could differ so much in impact to those same histories told by white historians.  I am still trying to get my head around it.

To read these stories and events and the repercussions they repeatedly had on family lives, who are named and have spoken of their experience and action, is devastating.  Underlying all was the taking of everything: land and children, and moving families on, again and again and again and…  This process continued even as Aboriginal individuals and families were working for the white man on their own land.  And then if anyone finally had enough money to set up house they had to buy their own land back from the white man and still hope that they would not be moved on again.  Of course this occurred everywhere around Australia.  I knew that.  This book brought it home for me.

This volume begins with ‘Strange Beings from Over the Sea’: the watched progress up the coast of the Endeavour carrying James Cook and company, the attempted landing at Botany Bay challenged by armed warriors of the Gweagal clan of the Dharawal nation, the musket-fire response that wounded two Gweagal men, the invader’s plundering of a nearby camp, the booty of which ended up in a Cambridge University museum, and their cutting down of trees and pollution of a spring.  Then there was the 1788 Fleet which also arrived in Botany Bay/Kamay, made a mess and then more or less left the area alone. 

It wasn’t until the arrival of the whalers and sealers in the Illawarra in 1801, who would call into the bays to refresh on the way further south, followed by the illegal loggers not long after who would decimate the forest of the sacred cedar trees[8] that things really came to a head.  Then there were the wealthy settlers who would be handed out thousands of acres of land for free by the government and function as absentee landlords while their farms were managed by convicts and ex-convicts.  No wonder the south coast ended up another war and massacre zone for decades.

I was also not aware that rampant discrimination and racism was still continuing not that far south from where I was growing up and I don’t remember ever hearing about it, or perhaps I did and let it roll over my head.[9]  I did not know that in 1960, when I was twelve, the south coast was functioning on a system of apartheid (p.60) or that when I was thirty-four the Mayor of Nowra burned the Aboriginal flag calling it a ‘rag’ (p.71).  How did I not know or put 2+2 together?

By the 1980’s I had moved and was slowly becoming aware that there was something not quite right in Australia;  not that I could really pinpoint it at that stage.

I now have a greater understanding of, and this publication has specified and detailed, the persistence of the fight by Aboriginal Peoples for their land and other rights, the repeated ignorance of and pushbacks by Councils, other government bodies and business, and how long this fight has been going on.  Also illuminating is the longterm collaboration and planning among different Aboriginal groups and organisations that this involved, the central position that Keven Cook and Tranby (as well as many others) played in coordinating, educating and actioning, as well as the role of the Labor party, Communist Party, Unions and independent religious in supporting.[10]   These were not just isolated events.  It is all beginning to make sense. 

The final chapter in this volume includes the long fight against a proposed major development at Sandon Point in 2000; an area which is of great cultural and spiritual significance.

“But in the end came victory. In 2008, Wollongong City Council was sacked for corruption on other counts after an Independent Commission Against Corruption inquiry. The fire ignited with embers from the 1972 Canberra Tent Embassy is still burning at Sandon Point. Artists played and children sang at SPATE in May 2007 to celebrate the declaration of 14 hectares at Sandon Point as the 55th Aboriginal Place in NSW. Non-alcoholic refreshments were provided and singer Jimmy Little, whose father is from Illawarra, gave a heartfelt performance that left no eyes dry. Community leaders spoke. South Coast Aboriginal Advancement League founder, Elder Mary Davis, said, “We got what we wanted, though not all that we wanted, land we can call our own” (p. 96)



[3] A more recent development has been the production of audio history walks, which are also available on youtbe,’11 Stories from the river Dyarubbin’.

[4] “The Aboriginal name for Sydney Cove as recorded in a number of First Fleet journals, maps and vocabularies, was Warrane, also spelt as War-ran, Warrang and Wee-rong” (

[5] There never was and never has been a Treaty or agreement made with the First Peoples of this country.

[6] Henry Reynolds also addresses this omission and bias during his schooling, including studying Australian history at University in his book, Why Weren’t we Told: A personal search for the truth about our history. Australia, Penguin, 1999.

[7] I grew up in the ‘Shire’: the Dharawal country between Botany Bay/Kamay and Port Hacking River/Deeban

[8] “By 1812 at least 10 vessels had carried away the trunks of more than 400 huge sacred cedar trees cut from Shoalhaven forests” p.8

[9] I have begun reading Henry Reynold’s, Why Weren’t we Told? which mirrors my journey over the last 25+ years.  However there is also the niggling thought that perhaps we did hear fragments and thought that it was just the way it was,  that it was isolated or that there must be something wrong with those involved and thought no further.

[10] For example, the Unions would refuse deliveries to businesses where apartheid and racism was practiced.


10 thoughts on “Revisiting Australian History: ‘The Colony’, ‘People of the River’, ‘A History of Aboriginal Illawarra Vols 1 & 2’ and ‘The Story of Djeebahn/Deeban’”

  1. As always, this is so interesting, Annette. Particularly your point re how much versions of history can differ, depending on whose perspective we get. Raises more questions re subjective vs. so-called objective telling. (The theme is very popular, & has been for decades, in literary fiction, whether dealing w/ events on a small or large scale, local or national etc.) While I can imagine the sorts of differences you’re talking about, re impact, it’d be interesting to hear your examples. But hey, you do say you’re still trying to get your head around it.

    This may well be my obtuseness: when you say ‘we were always viewed, and still are, as intruders on land that belongs to them’, do you mean very specifically the direct descendants of the first settlers? Or is the ‘we’ you refer to somewhat (or much) broader? The statement raises a number of questions for me.

    Also, I find the choice of cover design for each of the books you review here – all of which, to me, seem loosely similar – interesting: an artist’s vision implies a type of perspective. I wonder: do the covers of these books effectively represent the ground they cover?


    1. Re: impact. I’m referring to my emotional response to the descendants of the peoples and families who were directly affected as they ‘speak’, that is, write of the events. Although similar events were covered in Karsken’s books somehow or other I was able to view them more objectively. I guess it’s the same as hearing about the death toll and knowing the ugliness of war and then having friends with a family involved and listening to them talk about, and see, their pain and despair. Although that may not be the best example.

      As for the second question – all of us ‘newer arrivals’ I suspect. From what I’m reading, #alwayswasandalwayswillbe and calls for #treaty and recognition of #sovereignty and watching a number of programs and discussions on NITV, SBS and ABC as well as following up groups like ‘Sovereign Nation’ I get the impression that this country still has not reached the moment where all we ‘newer arrivals’ are fully embraced. Interesting to watch the next generation of Aboriginal performers in ‘First and Forever’ (available now on ABCTV iview) the other night and how they are standing firm and strong and not yet letting this history go. I could be wrong, however the way I see it the anger and activism are still strong.

      No idea about the covers…the authors choice …how they want to present the content.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Back again. Decided to follow up on covers – they are reproductions of paintings of the area of focus from the 1800’s. The colonial project was recorded in a reasonable amount of artwork – drawings and paintings – from 1788 onwards (actually from 1770 when naturalist Joseph Banks came out with Cook…and, if I am remembering correctly, as well as remains of wildlife & nature, a large number of Aboriginal remains and artefacts ended up being sent back to him and have not yet been located). Of special interest to the new arrivals were the ‘exotic’ wildlife, ‘untamed nature’ and the First Nations peoples. Karskens also addresses this romanticism in the records.

      More thoughts on differences in telling the story – I have just begun reading another account of Dharawal (just in case I missed something and one of the Dharawal authors recommended I read it as well) written by a white man and, although I have just begun the book, he begins with an exposition of traditional pre-colonial Dharawal life and then moves on to Cooks arrival…an outsider presenting his research about ‘others’ neatly and in order. Donaldson et al begins the story of their people by placing the reader in the scene…”near Broulee Point…. Vol 2 ” and then it seemed to me the reader needs to travel the weaving pathway and take small jumps over stones every now and again. A couple of years ago I read Nola Turner-Jensen’s research on the different ways people of Indigenous and Anglo-Celtic descent approach problem solving and social situations and found it really helpful…different priorities…different expectations, etc

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for all these thoughts, Annette. No overload! It’s a conversation well worth having at any time! (Especially on a day our society celebrates a festival w/ its roots in a far-distant time/place).

        Re ‘newer arrivals’, where my thinking goes w/ that is that in the last few decades, immigration has radically shifted the balance of what was overwhelmingly Anglo; now we have a significant Asian population among others. And how much did our recent immigrants know about our dirty history before they came here? How much have they learned since arriving? And how must it be for First Nations people to see newcomers receive better treatment?

        Re the book covers, I’d assumed they were quite specific to the regions & time periods treated. Was just wondering why images representing or relevant to the original local culture weren’t used instead.

        Totally agree w/ Albo on that! Thanks for the link. And I don’t recall learning about the Holocaust at school either (maybe if I’d stuck around for the HSC?). A novel was my introduction to that episode in human history. As for different ways of learning, that goes for neurodivergent kids of all cultural backgrounds. The system is heavily skewed to left-brain, patriarchal, linear, hierarchical, digital thought processes. But today’s world is dominated by economic considerations. In theory, immigration boosts the economy. Our Indigenous population represents a need for expenditure more than anything, as w/ the disabled population. Hence their neglect at the hands of conservative governments. Racism recedes in the face of potential for profit or monetisation. ________________________________

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh and the cover artwork – yes, they are specific to the country/location and painted within the time period for The Colony, People of the River and Donaldson et al II. No Europeans around for the period in Donaldson I (pre-colonisation), but it is a later painting of the location & people there in the 1800’s. The cover of Deeban is Deeban.


  2. Re: later arrivals. It has not gone unnoticed, in what I’ve read and listened to, how upsetting it has been to see newer arrivals welcomed, their languages and cultures encouraged (even via education, ie. Saturday schools) when the culture and languages of the First Nations peoples have been determinedly eradicated and consciously ignored. It is only recently, by their own determination, that a number of First Nations languages have been ‘recovered’ and are being taught…in NSW through the work of Stan Grant Snr. at Charles Sturt University for Wiradjuri language, the Dharawal peoples have a strong cultural group who I think I heard is working towards this, and Darug Custodian group are finally advertising a Certificate 1 language course through TAFE. I met someone at UWS back in 1999-2002 who was trying to recover and attract interest in Dharug/Darug language, culture and recovery of sacred grounds even then. It’s been such a long, tough ride. As Noel Pearson said in his Boyer address this year “We are a much unloved people. We are perhaps the ethnic group Australians feel least connected to. We are not popular and we are not personally known to many Australians. Few have met us and a small minority count us as friends.” Everyone who arrived more recently just carried on the old colonial project and had no idea of the ghastly past in this country. I have been saying for a while that we need to do a 180 degree turn in this country and all begin viewing ourselves as migrants entering Aboriginal land…not colonial Australian land. With the moves by the current Australian government to accept the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full I can almost taste that it may be possible…step by step…Voice…Treaty…Truth…Makarrata. The members of the team working on this are brilliant and I suspect definitely know what they want by the end. This gov. just has to stay in power long enough and carry the Australian public with them. I doubt very much if the current opposition is really that interested….we seem to have stepped back in this area every time the conservatives are in power.

    Thank you so much for your responses. I have really enjoyed this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I, too, have enjoyed this exchange. I hope it’s OK that I haven’t quite finished w/ it. 🙂 Sometimes my responses take a while as I struggle to articulate them clearly. You refer to sacred grounds. And to me that’s the thing. At the risk of sounding clichéd, I think spirituality – if not in any sense that a spiritually hollowed out West understands – is a defining feature of Australia’s Indigenous people, hence they’ve lived so close to the land, in such deep attunement w/ it & thus w/ so little impact, for so long. The political left has in recent years made much of Indigenous agriculture, which I respect is necessary to address/redress historical blindness/oversight. But I’ve noticed, or think I have, this vibe in the discourse that has to do w/ the modern obsession w/ progress & not a little to do w/ the progressiveness (& maybe, too, the stereotypical atheism) of the left. Capitalism is in essence so thoroughly founded & grounded in agriculture, the methods of which are wreaking such vast destruction globally, yet it’s like, see! They had sustainable agriculture! Like, agriculture is incontrovertible proof of cultural sophistication. And of course Indigenous culture has much to teach us there – & fire management is a good place to start! – but it seems to me that another way we’re trashing our planet & degrading humanity has to do w/ our relationship to time; Western obsession w/ progress & how that affects our experience of time isn’t well (or at all) understood because we’re in it, it’s a vast compulsion we’re all subject to, however unwillingly, & traditional Indigenous culture inhabits time in a radically different way, which most folk, especially urban folk, apparently see as irrelevant. At the speed we’re consuming time, Indigenous spirituality can only be an abstract concept, can’t make it onto our radar.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Can’t disagree with you there. From the recorded commentary picked up by Karskens in her books the opinion among the Dharug and others seemed to be that we were ‘like slaves’ having to work so hard. Capitalism and progress have a lot to answer for globally. We’ve done wonders intellectually with amazing inventions and so-called ‘advances’ in so many areas yet left a heck of a mess behind that we are struggling and unlikely to be able to clean up. Perhaps we in the industrialised West have been so carried away with our own ‘brilliance’ that we can’t see beyond. Then others see and are sucked in.
        And from what I’ve read Land is integral to Aboriginal culture- spiritually, emotionally…and certainly is the driving force in Donaldson et al II and, I’d guess, all activism. Nola Turner-Jenson has explored how naming and language links to the land…Wiradjuri Language Toponymy Project -“of mapping around 200 Dhuray (place of) Wiradjuri place names. Now the big job of translating them into Wiradjuri meaning to see what it was the place of”… to reveal more of the silenced culture. Interesting that I’ve read so much on this and when I googled kept getting into sites where I was requested to register. I’m over it. It’ll be very much in our radar if, and when, the 180 degree turn takes place. We are already being invited to have our babies and children welcomed to country –

        Liked by 1 person

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