Aborigines in Canterbury
Photo: Aboriginal rock engraving of a lizard at Oatley, N.S.W.
Signs of occupation
Aboriginal people were living in the Sydney area for at least 10,000 years before the British invasion in 1788. Occupation sites are places where there is evidence of use by Aborigines. Rock shelters or caves gave protection from the weather and were used for cooking and camping and may show evidence of fires. Middens, made up of shells discarded from shellfish meals over hundreds of years, may be found near rock shelters. Three middens have been located in Canterbury, near Cooks River or Wolli Creek. Cooks River was a rich source of fish and seafood, including prawns, crabs, cockles, mussels and oysters. In the early days of the colony of New South Wales, the British settlers gathered shells from middens along Cooks River to produce lime, which was used in mortar for building before limestone deposits were found in the colony. This "mining" of shells would have drastically reduced the number of middens along the river.
A 1986 survey of the Wolli Creek Valley by Tranby Aboriginal Cooperative College, identified 24 rock shelters that Aborigines may have used, and two middens. Wolli Creek is a tributary of Cooks River.
Many rock shelters across Sydney contained art-work. Hand stencils were the most common form, and were probably produced by blowing a mixture of white pipe-clay and water over the object being stencilled, leaving a negative image.
At a rock shelter in Undercliffe (Earlwood ) we have the most important surviving artwork site in the environs of Cooks River. It contains 23 white hand stencils, two of them with forearms. There are also two foot stencils, which are rare in the Sydney region. There is an extensive midden at the site in front of the rock shelter. The site is on private property and is not accessible to the public, so its address cannot be revealed. The rock shelter was part of a rock formation that originally ran across the backyard of 3 neighbouring houses. It is listed on the Canterbury Heritage Study.
Tribe means a group of people who live in an area and speak a common language. Around Sydney, the Daruk language was spoken between Botany Bay and Port Jackson, north-west to the Hawkesbury and west into the Blue Mountains,[i] so that the entire Cumberland plain was occupied by Daruk speakers, or the Daruk tribe. So Aborigines in Canterbury would have spoken the Daruk language, and been of the Daruk tribe. Daruk can also be spelt Darug or Dharug.
The Daruk and nearby tribes used the term kuri (now Koori) to describe themselves.
The Georges River probably formed the boundary between Darug and Dharawal speakers, or tribes. The meaning of the tribal language names is not clear from records, although it is likely that Daruk meant yam, and that the Daruk speakers took their name from a staple food in their diet.
The basic unit of organisation of the tribe was the clan or band, which is the group which has traditional rights over certain land, and which owns sites of significance within those areas.[ii] Clans were groups of people who lived and hunted together. Each clan had about 50-60 members, and there was movement between clans. Women married out of their clan. One of the difficulties in establishing which clan was around the Canterbury area is that between 50% and 90% of all the Aborigines in the Sydney region died of smallpox within the first three years of white settlement. So clans had to combine to form new groups. As well, reliable records were not kept by the white settlers.
Aboriginal people who lived north of Cooks River in Hurlstone Park, Canterbury suburb, Ashbury and Croydon Park were in a different clan, the Cadigal Wangal clan of the Darug tribe. For information about these people, see the
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Along the coast, some clans probably lived at one campsite for a number of months each year, and regularly returned to that campsite. These coastal people had smaller territories and were more localised than the clans living across the plain. So possibly the people whose territory included the banks of the Cooks River may have been semi-permanent, sustained by the fish and seafood available in the Cooks River. Their territory may have been the area between the Cooks and Georges Rivers. Their neighbours on the coast were the Cadigal clan.
Early records describe the Bidjigal (or Bediagal) people as being the Botany Bay clan, living between the Cooks and Georges Rivers. So the local people here were probably of the Bediagal clan (pronounced Big-gee-gal) of the Daruk tribe.
Note that previous publications about the history of this area say the Gwiyagal (or Gweagal) people were the clan living between the Cooks and Georges Rivers. Kohen's motr recent research of early colonial records suggests that it was the Bediagal living here, and so his research has been accepted.
Kohen estimates the Aboriginal population of the greater Sydney region and the Blue Mountains was probably between 5000 and 8000 people before European settlement.[iii] The population near the coast was much denser than on the plains. Madden and Muir estimate that there were nearly 2000 people living in the environs of Botany Bay and Port Jackson.[iv]
Early contact / Invasion
Very little information was recorded about the local Aborigines by early settlers, but two accounts of clashes were recorded in The Sydney Gazette in 1809. A clash between displaced Aborigines with farmers in what is now Punchbowl, is commemorated on the heritage panel Site of Aboriginal resistance to settlers 1809.
In 1809, two First Fleeters were given land grants at Punchbowl: William Bond (50 acres) and Frederick Meredith (120 acres). On 26 September 1809, a group of Aborigines, including an Aboriginal leader, Tedbury, gathered on Bond's farm. They were probably of the Bediagul clan of the Darug tribe.
According to the Sydney Gazette, they "behaved in a very outrageous manner" and "manifested an inclination to plunder". Meredith joined in the defence of the farm and when spears were thrown, one grazed his ear. The farm was temporarily abandoned. The farm was located between two arms of Salt Pan Creek, so the area was probably an important food source for the Aborigines, who no doubt viewed with dismay the intention of Bond and Meredith to settle, clear and cultivate it.
The Sydney Gazette recorded another incident around the Canterbury area in 1809. On that occasion, some sheep were stolen from a white settlers' farm near Parramatta Road. A group of Aborigines was found roasting some of the sheep on a fire at their camp on Cooks River.
In both of these incidents, Tedbury, son of Pemulwy, was thought to be involved. Tedbury and Pemulwy were both Aboriginal leaders who led their people's resistance to their land being taken for white settlement. Between 1788 and 1802 Pemulwy led a guerrilla war against the British settlement from Botany Bay to the Parramatta area. The Indigenous community regarded him as a courageous resistance fighter and after he was shot in 1802, his son Tedbury continued his fight for the land.
[i] Kohen, James The Darug and their neighbours: the traditional Aboriginal owners of the Sydney region, Blacktown : Dharug Link in association with Blacktown Historical Society, 1993, p.9
[ii] Kohen, James, ibid, 1993, p15.
[iii] Kohen, James, ibid, 1993, p.19.
[iv] Madden, Brian and Lesley Muir Earlwood's past : a history of Earlwood, Undercliffe and Clemton Park, NSW, Campsie : Canterbury Municipal Council, 1988, p.1.
Terry Kass in association with Meredith Walker Canterbury heritage study, [Canterbury, N.S.W.] : Canterbury Municipal Council, 1988. 2 volumes.
Kohen, James The Darug and their neighbours: the traditional Aboriginal owners of the Sydney region, Blacktown : Dharug Link in association with Blacktown Historical Society, 1993, p.9
Kohen, James, ibid, 1993, p15.
Kohen, James, ibid, 1993, p.19.
Madden, Brian and Lesley Muir Earlwood's past : a history of Earlwood, Undercliffe and Clemton Park, NSW, Campsie : Canterbury Municipal Council, 1988.
Sydney Gazette v. 7, n. 300, 1 October 1809, p2.
Sydney Gazette v.7, n.302, 15 October 1809, p2.
Turbet, Peter The Aborigines of the Sydney district before 1788 Kenthurst : Kangaroo Press, 1989.
Available here are Aboriginal street names and their meanings in the City of Canterbury.