The Mosman area with its extensive shoreline and wooded headlands is surely unique in this city. The bushland contains many species typical of the Hawkesbury sandstone heaths and woodlands of the Sydney Basin… angophoras, banksias, grass trees and acacias, for instance. Indeed from some points of view the natural environment of Mosman might seem to be just as it was in 1788 when from Cubba Cubba, now known as Middle Head, people of the Kuringgai tribe (or language group) saw the Europeans sail into the harbour for the first time.
But Mosman has not always been part of a marine environment. Nearly 10,000 years ago during the last Ice Age much of the sea was frozen in polar ice caps, so that the coast was between 20 and 30 kilometres further east. At that time the headlands formed an inland range something like the Lower Blue Mountains. Aboriginal people lived here then, too.
What do we know about these clans of the Kuringgai tribe, people whose country we now enjoy in some ways very much as they did?
Because the Cammeraigal and Borogegal clans were quickly forced from their lands in this area soon after the arrival of the Europeans, what little we can know of them must be learned from the archaeological record and from the observations of early colonists, informed by an understanding of how Aboriginal people in other parts of the country continue to maintain aspects of traditional life today. After all, if Captain Cook had landed in Darwin the Dharawal, Dharug and Kuringgai people of Sydney Harbour might still be living a traditional life!
A thorough ground-based archaeological survey has never been attempted over the whole of Mosman but still there are 79 known sites (NPWS 1999) and archaeologists believe that many more exist, particularly along the shorelines. These sites are occupation sites, for example middens, religious or ceremonial sites and rock art sites. Many of course have been destroyed or lie under buildings, but many others are assumed by archaeologists to survive in the foreshore bushland. There is a rock shelter occupation site open to public view at the southern end of The Esplanade at Balmoral, opposite the swimming pool. The National Parks and Wildlife Service from time to time offers tours of other sites within The Sydney Harbour National Park.
A lot of items that were in everyday use have not survived, being of organic material, but these would have included canoes, spears, dishes, baskets, cloaks and childrens’ toys, fishing nets and lines. The early settlers saw the people fishing but they were mistaken in thinking that therefore the Aboriginal people depended solely on the fruits of the sea for their existence. There were edible plants on the heaths and in the woodlands behind the shoreline. The flowers of the banksia, for instance, were steeped in water to make a sweet refreshing drink; the fruit of the macrozamia was processed to remove toxins and yielded a carbohydrate-rich paste which was baked. The Aboriginal name for this tree, burrawang, survives as the street name Burrawong in Clifton Gardens. (A list of Mosman’s Aboriginal place names can be found in Dalton “Jack” Carroll’s book Streets of Mosman in the Library).
The people also hunted mammals and reptiles. Each of these plants and creatures would have been linked totemically by birthright to an individual or group within the tribe, and it would have been the responsibility of that person or that group to ensure its survival. For example there might have been a prohibition or “taboo” on taking fruit from a certain area at a certain season; or perhaps a particular area containing a spring was out of bounds so as to maintain the purity of the water supply. There would have been a certain amount of ritual attached to these practices which were essentially ways of conserving resources and knowledge for future generations. Many thousands of years of intimate contact had given the people a deep understanding of their environment, but almost all of this knowledge has been lost.
When the British convict ships first sailed into Sydney Harbour their arrival would not have been entirely unexpected, since news of their presence in Botany Bay would have travelled north very quickly overland. Some people indeed would have remembered that eighteen seasons earlier another strange, huge and winged vessel had passed across the gap between The Heads on its way north.
Perhaps it was with some sense of relief that they realised that the vessels contained beings who appeared to be quite human, so that when the first meetings took place the people of the Sydney Harbour tribes responded in much the same way that they would have to any visiting group, that is with a guarded and ritualised courtesy. A few days after the landing at Sydney Cove the Kuringgai people of this area showed Captain Hunter’s survey party at Middle Head where to make a safe landing. Lieutenant Bradley reported that both parties then danced together.
Being responsible for that land the Aboriginal people probably believed that they would remain in control of this relationship, but of course that fateful meeting was the beginning of the end for this group of people. Within a few years many had died of disease and the survivors had moved away or had been dispersed. Living on the clan lands of their neighbours, these people would have begun the process of working out strategies to maintain their obligations to the land they had been forced to leave. The colonists, for their part unaware of the richness of the food resources all around them, depended largely on a line of supply that stretched all the way back to the southern African continent and even to England! After a few years of unsuccessful attempts at farming and erratic resupplying from Britain the colony was on the brink of extinction by starvation.
By 1815 all the original inhabitants of this area were either dead or living on the clan lands of other groups such as the Kuringgai people of the rugged Broken Bay area further north. Under enormous stress, the people of that area had given up on the cooperative approach and were becoming openly hostile. In an attempt to pacify them Governor Macquarie gave them a grant of land which the earliest map shows covered the whole of Middle Head. (Florence’s Trig Survey of Port Jackson, A.O. Map 4752). Huts were erected and the people were also given some seed, some farming tools and a boat. With their own economy disintegrating the Aboriginal people were unable to make a living farming the infertile soils of this area, and indeed successive European farmers also failed in this attempt. The famous “King” Bungaree was put in charge of this group of about 60 people, which may well have included some of those whose “born country” this land actually was, members of the Cammeraigal and Borogegal clans. It is very likely that somewhere in the area are the archaeological remains of this failed experiment in race relations, but no-one knows exactly where the huts were erected and the attempts at cultivation took place.
As far as we know, no descendants of the original inhabitants live in Mosman now, but there are around 80,000 Aboriginal Australians living in the Sydney Basin as a whole, some of whom would be descended from the people who lived in this area. The world of the Borogegal and Cammeraigal people of the Kuringgai tribe remains for us all to experience wherever the built environment has not totally obscured the natural environment. Bushland, sandstone, sea and sky remain … sometimes just a glimpse, sometimes as an expansive and breathtaking view. But we should not take it all for granted. Because some headlands were reserved for defence occupation since the early nineteenth century land that would otherwise have been developed has been quarantined for 200 years. Some of it is in public ownership as part of The Sydney Harbour National Park and another large parcel is to be returned to all Australians under a new trust. It is up to all of us: Mosman Council, The National Parks and Wildlife Service, The Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council and the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust to care for this land. More than anyone else though, the future of Aboriginal Mosman depends on us, the Australian Citizens.
- D Benson & J Howell Taken For Granted: the Bushland of Sydney and Its Suburbs Kangaroo Press Sydney 1990
- Heather Goodall Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal Politics in NSW, 1770 – 1972 Allen & Unwin 1996
- Margrit Koettig Aboriginal Sites in the Mosman Municipality Vols 1 & 2 Sydney 1991 (copy in Barry O’Keefe Library Local Studies)
- Gavin Souter Mosman: a History Melbourne University Press 1994
A publication of The Mosman Aboriginal Reconciliation Community Group, with the assistance of Mosman Council, The Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council and The Guringai Local Aboriginal Education Consultative Group.
© Anne Cook 2000.
With thanks to Annette Webb of Eora College of TAFE Chippendale, who supplied illustrations.