The Aboriginal Tribes of the Sydney Region

by B. J. Madden – Kingsgrove

In the short space of 70 years, the world of the Aboriginal tribes of the Sydney region, which had remained unchanged since the Dreamtime, became a living nightmare. The land which had been theirs alone for so long was suddenly and irretrievably lost to the fair-skinned newcomers of the First Fleet. The aborigines were in no way prepared for the cataclysm which engulfed them as settlement spread, and they found themselves dispossessed not only materially but also spiritually.

A recently-published book by Keith Willey, When the Sky Fell Down, traces the dynamic years of the colony’s growth between 1788 and 1860. It is the story of the effects of the exploits and achievements of the white men on the country’s original inhabitants. Keith Willey had used such information as is available in personal journals, newspaper articles and official documents to find the world of the nineteenth-century aborigine.

A number of the incidents mentioned in the book are of interest to our local area.

The attack by aborigines on Bond’s far at Punchbowl on 1 October, 1809 was not an isolated incident. It was part of the resistance, verging on what we would now call guerilla warfare, by the aborigines to the white settlers who were taking possession of their hunting grounds. As mentioned in an article in the Canterbury and District Historical Society Journal Series 2 No.8, the aborigines were led by Tedbury, who was the son of Pemulwoy, and both father and son had been leaders of the resistance to the white settlers over a number of years. Keith Willey’s book discusses this quite extensively.

Willey refers to a trial of a number of settlers on the Hawkesbury in 1799 on charges of having murdered two aboriginal boys. During the trial, Sarah Hodgkinson, whose husband had been killed by aborigines about 3 weeks earlier, admitted asking the defendants to kill the boys. Is this the same Sarah Hodgkinson who was given 60 acres at the present-day Canterbury-Ashfield on 12 November 1799? If so, it is an example of the possibility of finding local history information and references in a variety of unlikely sources.

Another interesting reference is to Mahroot, also known as the Boatswain, who was said to be the last man of the Botany Bay tribe, who gave evidence to the N.S.W. Legislative Council’s Select Committee on Aborigines in 1845. Mahroot was born at Cooks River, probably about 1796 and he related the changes which had resulted from the arrival of the white men. Some of his evidence was hearsay, since the First Fleet arrived 8 years before he was born. When he was born, the Botany Bay tribe numbered about 400. By 1845, it had been reduced to 4 people, himself and 3 women. His evidence stands almost alone as an aboriginal overview of the succession of calamities which befell the tribes of the Sydney area after the arrival of the First Fleet.

Not mentioned in Willey’s book is the fact that Boatswain died on 31 January 1850. The Sydney Morning Herald of 2 February 1850 refers to him as “the well-known Aboriginal Boatswain, whose intelligence and superior manner, coupled with the fact of his being the last of the Botany Bay tribe, rendered him a favourite with all who knew him, and especially with his white countrymen.”

Willey’s book, which is very readable, increases our understanding of this era of Australia’s history.

This article was first published in the September 1980 edition of our magazine.

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