Aborigines – Original Occupants of the Area

Prior to European settlement, the area now known as the City of Canada Bay was occupied by the Wangal clan

Prior to European settlement, the area now known as the City of Canada Bay was occupied by the Wangal clan whose name was derived from the word for their country, wanne meaning ‘west’. The Wangal were a clan of the Darug (sometimes spelt Dharug) tribe or language group. They called themselves the Eora, meaning ‘the people’. They were living in the Sydney area for at least 10,000 years.

The Wangal clan’s territory is thought to have originally extended from Darling Harbour, around the Balmain Peninsula almost to Parramatta in the west, the Parramatta River formed the northern boundary although it is uncertain how far south their land extended. Goat Island (which they called Me-mel or Memill) opposite Balmain was also part of their land.

The earliest recorded contact with local Aborigines of the Wangal Clan was by Captain John Hunter, who led an exploration of the Parramatta River. On the 5th of February 1788 while having breakfast he was met by Wangal at the location now referred to as Breakfast Point. The Wangal called the area Booridiow-o-gule.

This encounter was noted in the diary of Lieutenant William Bradly, RN.

At daylight having a guard of marines proceeded to the upper part of the harbour again, passing several natives in the caves as we went up and on the shore near the place we left beads and some other things, who followed us along the rocks calling to us. We landed to cook our breakfast on the opposite shore to them. We made signs for them to come over and waved green boughs. Soon after seven of them came over in two canoes and landed near our boats. They left their spears in the canoes and came to us. We tied beads, etc., about them and left them our fire to dress mussels which they went about as soon as we put off.

One of the best known members of the Wangal was Woollarawarre Bennelong, who was initially captured in November 1788 along with Colby, of the Cadigal clan, under the instructions of Governor Arthur Phillip so he could learn more about the local Aboriginal people. Although some sources give the impression that Bennelong was a willing collaborator, more recent sources suggest that Bennelong was a far more complex person in his dealings with the British. While he and Phillip formed cordial relations it is nevertheless thought that he probably instigated the spearing of Phillip in 1790 at Manly as a payback for his earlier abduction.

Bennelong was quick to learn English and adopted many British ways. A brick hut was built for him at Tubowgule (believed to mean ‘white-clay headland’) now known as Bennelong Point, the site of the Sydney Opera House. In 1792 he travelled with Phillip to England where he met King George III, returning to his country in 1795. Bennelong however found himself at variance both with his own people and the British settlers. In 1813 he died as a result of a tribal fight.

Few traces of Aboriginal occupation survive in the Canada Bay area. The Wangal today are remembered by the Wangal Bushland Reserve (Mortlake) and Wangal Place (Five Dock). Bennelong’s name has been perpetuated in numerous street names throughout Sydney and is also the name of a Federal Electorate.

Further information:

The Australian Encyclopaedia Sydney : Australian Geographic, 1996.
Entry for Bennelong vol. 2 pp. 440-441.

Coupe, Sheena Concord, a centenary history. Concord, NSW: Council of the Municipality of Concord, 1983. Contains useful information although it incorrectly identifies the local Aborigines as being part of the Kuringai tribe instead of the Darug.

Guider, Michael Aboriginal history of Concord Municipality Author, 1997.
Includes details of surviving remnants of Aboriginal occupation in the Canada Bay area and a short list of Darug words.

Smith, Keith Vincent Bennelong Sydney : Kangaroo Press, 2001.
The most recent of several publications on the life of Bennelong.

Turbet, Peter The Aborigines of the Sydney district before 1788 Sydney : Kangaroo Press, 2001. Details Aboriginal life and customs in the Sydney region.

Willey, Keith: When the sky fell down Sydney : Collins, 1979.

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