Book Review – The Aborigines of the Sydney District before 1788 by Peter Turbet, Kangaroo Press 1989 (160 pages)

reviewed by Laurice Bondfield

The author collects together in this small book as much information as possible about the tribes who lived in the Sydney region before 1788. He covers such topics as social organisation, languages, food gathering, marriage and family life, medical treatments, religion, initiation and artistic expression. Although the Aboriginal people who lived along the coastline of NSW shared many customs, they were also diverse in languages, tools and cultural practices.

The writer cites three types of sources for the information he presents: the observations of the colonial diarists and missionaries, the memoirs and testimonies of Aboriginal people and the results of archaeological excavation.

The St George District was home to the Bidjigal people. It is possible that their territory extended as far as Castle Hill. The famous guerilla leader Pemulwuy had connections to this area. In 1790 he fatally speared a man named M’Entire near the Cooks River. Later in 1797 he took refuge in the country near the mouth of the Georges River after escaping from a hospital in Parramatta.

Local archaeological digs at Curracurang overhang in Royal National Park and a shell midden at Gymea Bay have yielded information about the shelter and diet of Bidjigal people. A tantalising reference by a colonial diarist to a “village of bark huts” that once stood near the mouth of the Cooks River makes you wish to know more- were they a permanent seasonal site or something more?

The evidence of rock art at La Perouse and in Royal National Park shelters gives evidence of a rich cultural and religious life.

The Aborigines of the Sydney District Before 1788 is a good first reference book. It was published in 1989 and in the 22 years since then more research has been carried out. Most of this research is published in academic journals and is sometimes difficult for the general reader to gain access to. In the last few years one or two more books on Aboriginal life in the Sydney region for a general audience have been published and I intend to review one of them, Rivers and Resilience about Aboriginal life past and present on the Georges River, for a later journal as Rockdale Library has a copy.

This article was first published in the January 2011 edition of our magazine.
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