Prior to settlement. the area now known as the City of Canada Bay was occupied by the Wann-gal clan (also often referred to as ‘Wangal’) whose name was derived from the word for their country. The Wann-gal were a clan of the Darug (sometimes spelt Dharug) tribe or language group. They called themselves the Eora, meaning ‘the people’. The Wann-gal are believed to have occupied the area for over 20,000 years.
The Wann-gal 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.
First contact was made with local Aboriginals of the Wann-gal Clan by Captain John Hunter, who led an exploration of the Parramatta River. On the 5th February 1788, while having breakfast, he was met by Wann-gal at the location now referred to as Breakfast Point. The Wann-gal called the area Booridiow-o-gule.
One of the best-known members of the Wann-gall was Woollawawarre 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 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 Wann-gal 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. In nearby Sydney Olympic Park an area has been named the Wanngal Woodland.