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Aboriginal Watsons Bay

Before 1788 the South Head peninsular and sandstone headland that marks the entrance to Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour), around Watsons Bay, was intensively used by Aboriginal people as a base for settlement, fishing, shellfish collection, art and associated ritual.

The natural vegetation of this area was mixed Eucalypt forest – ranging from tall forest with denser undergrowth on the slopes and gullies leading into the harbour, and more open, lower, sparse woodland on the exposed cliff and ridge tops. The most exposed cliff tops carried only a heath flora.

This varied range of flora provided edible plant foods and fauna for Aboriginal people. But the main settlement use of the South Head before Europeans was for intensive exploitation of the resources of Port Jackson and the sea, both fishing and shellfish collection.

Well studied though mostly now invisible are the rock engravings at South Head in Watsons Bay, the site of the earliest reports by Europeans of Aboriginal art in Australia. They stretch along the cliff top, and along the areas accessible to Sydney Harbour, with a significant number at Inner South Head itself, which was a major Aboriginal fishing site. Subjects include humans, bandicoot, kangaroos and wallabies, and marine fauna – fish, whales, sharks – as well as geometric shapes.

Aboriginal names for the area were recorded as Woo la ra or Tarralbe for Outer South Head, Burra wa ra or Barraory for Inner South Head, and Mit ta la (or Metallar) for Green Point (Laing’s Point). A young Aboriginal informant, Nanbarry, made an unsubstantiated claim in 1790 that this area was 'famed for its great engagements' and here were the graves of the dead.

Protected and with clean water, Camp Cove was very important to the Aboriginal settlement of the area.

Behind Camp Cove lay a freshwater pond formed by a spring where now is a small park. The combination of fresh water and easy access to the waters of Port Jackson made this location important to the pre-European economic use of Port Jackson and the Heads by the Cadigal (Gadigal) people who occupied the southern reaches of the Harbour. Camp Cove was a launching place for canoes and a camp site base.

A small rock shelter holds some undated shell midden deposits. A local resident who died in 1948 referred to an Aboriginal burial place in a sandy area a little to the south of the steps down to Camp Cove at the end of Cliff. Just behind Camp Cove, in today’s Victoria Street, two skeletons were discovered in 1963.

Just two days after the settlement of Sydney Cove on 26th January 1788, officers Huntley and Bradley visited Camp Cove and encountered an Aboriginal group.

'In course of the forenoon we went to a Cove within the Inner South Head (Camp Cove) where we were cordially received by 3 Men, who left their women sitting in a Canoe at the other end of the beach...'

But there was soon conflict with other white settlers:

'...the governor ... on landing at Camp Cove, found the natives there who had before frequently come up to him with confidence, unusually shy, and seemingly afraid of him and his party; and one, who after much invitation did venture to approach, pointed to some marks upon his shoulders, making signs they were caused by blows given with a stick. Eleven canoes full of people passed very near the Sirius, which was moored without the two points of the cove, but paddled away very fast upon the approach of some boats toward them.'

The smallpox outbreak of 1789 brought a definitive break to Aboriginal settlement of South Head by the Cadigal people. Half a century later it was an Aboriginal figure from northern Sydney, not from the Cadigal, who was found in the area when in 1844 visitors observed:

'about a dozen natives of the Sydney and Broken Bay tribes were encamped among the bushes on the margin of a small fresh-water lake close to Camp Cove'

They described

'natives spearing fish by torch-light, in the sheltered bays around Camp Cove, and in Camp Cove itself. They wade into the water until about knee deep, each man brandishing a flaming torch. Made of inflammable bark; this attracts the fish, and with their four-pronged spears they strike them with wonderful dexterity'.

Aboriginal people entertained visitors with cultural displays near the ferry jetty in Watsons Bay into the 20th century.

Published with thanks to the Dictionary of Sydney

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Aborigines fishing
Attributed to Philip Gidley King, Mitchell Library, ca 1790's (series 36a)