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

Middens

Totems

Fire

Art

Knowledge

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)


[1] https://maietime.blogspot.com/2021/08/elizabeth-pulley-sets-sail-and-other.html

[2] https://dictionaryofsydney.org/artefact/rev_john_mcgarvies_list_of_native_names_of_places_on_the_hawkesbury_1829

[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’. https://www.oonaghsherrard.com/projects/11storiesfromtheriver/

[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” (https://www.sydneybarani.com.au/sites/sydney-cove-warrane/)

[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.

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Australia Day, Welcome to Country, Loving Country and sand talk.

Australia Day is looming on the horizon again and a feeling of unease is rising, including in someone like me whose ancestors arrived on the First Fleet and who has researched and is very aware of how that arrival impacted on the First Peoples. [1] However I am not the only one who experiences this inner conflict and sense of disconnect.

I recently read Australia Day written by Stan Grant, a well-known journalist who has worked overseas and is of Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi descent.  Yet Stan Grant also has Irish heritage.  In Australia Day he explores and analyses this mix and conflict, “Those of us who identify as Indigenous, as First Peoples, we too grapple with our whiteness”, and what it means in relation to the dating of Australia’s major national celebration. He explores and debates identity politics and mixed ancestry while being confronted by real problems and results of systemic racism and the white gaze. It is a complex and interesting journey, part of which led him, almost by accident in 2015 after writing an article for The Guardian in response to the incessant booing of Adam Goodes over a number of years as well as other instances, to become a public spokesperson for Indigenous rights – The Racism Debate .

I have also recently read Welcome to Country by Marcia Langton, who is a highly respected first Associate Provost at the University of Melbourne with a lifetime of Indigenous rights activism and is a respected advocate and voice for Indigenous Australia.  The subtitle reads “An introduction to our First peoples for young Australians” yet I found it suitable for anyone.  It gives an extensive background to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and culture, the history of colonial impact and growing activism, and some of the current leaders and icons.   It is a great introduction to the usually hidden parts of Australian history and should be in every school and community library.

Then there is Loving Country by Bruce Pascoe and Vicky Shukuroglou.  If ever you want to fall in love with Australia, this is the book to read.  It takes you on a tour around Australia from an Indigenous perspective, resting at places of significance along the way to listen to stories about the land, its First peoples, wildlife and importance.  The stories are beautifully told.  Suggestions are also made of Indigenous tours and guides if there is a desire to know more.  Of course it is impossible to avoid having to confront stories of the destruction which past and current practices are having on these sacred sites, the land itself and the sea, so there is also at times a deep sense of loss.  As Bruce says in relation to landuse since colonization, “Australians have been spending agricultural capital built by Aboriginal land care and that capital is all but gone, as if a wayward child had surrendered the family fortune to gambling and decadence”.  His challenge is that “all this beauty and soul satisfaction has a price” and there is a tax to be paid for our lifestyle. “It seems most Australians realise that the time has come to care for the planet and its history”.

I read Tyson Yunkaporta’s sand talk: How Indigenous Thanking Can Save the World in 2020 when a friend loaned me a copy.  This year I bought my own copy as I realised it was important to reference the book here, and I needed to reread to gain a deeper understanding of the content.  Although I am not yet finished the second read, here is a brief introduction.

Through yarns with ‘diverse peoples’ and his own thoughts and understanding Tyson presents Indigenous patterns of thinking, being and doing as a lens to view and critique contemporary systems.  As he is quick to point out ‘Indigenous’ is used as a catch-all phrase, as it is in the English language, for many diverse peoples all of whom may have fragments and related parts of a larger meta-story, which starts with parts of the interrelated songlines in Australia.  He begins with the challenge of the crisis of our age which is a result of humans thinking that they know better than nature.  The challenge and invitation of the book is for ‘us-two’ to walk and yarn with him and others to gain ‘understandings needed in the co-creation of sustainable systems’ (p.18) and, as I understand it, see what might emerge.

[1] I have explored the unease around and background to Australia Day in more detail in Australia Day: conflicts and alternatives.