The History of Sydney

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The first Sydneysiders

The first people here were the Eora people, and we walk on their land. If you know where to look, they marked it with engravings. I love these, and have done for almost 50 years. Luckily, most people don't know where to look, so the engravings remain safe.

Aboriginal engraving, Kuring-Gai Chase, America Bay track. Picture: you can see these engravings on the America Bay track.

Some cultures have recorded their versions of history in written form, like the Egyptians. Others concentrated more on myth and legend, an oral tradition, like the aborigines. Much of this tradition died when the blacks were decultured by a variety of means after the arrival of the whites. I note that there are various waves of political correctness, but for most of the period since 1788, the terms 'black' and 'white' have been used. These terms are inaccurate, but I plan to use them, with no offence intended.

Many of the whites were also decultured after their arrival, but their culture was largely a written one, so much more has survived. Customs may have disappeared, but language and religion for whites are largely as they were two hundred years ago. So are things like the whites' way of thinking about property. They may have lost a number of "pure" cultures, but the whites were still left with a consistent (if poor) culture.

The different Aboriginal tribes, for their part, have lost many of their customs, much of their language, and their religion. But they have not lost their way of thinking about property. The sharing of property is much more prevalent in aboriginal society, and widely misunderstood by whites. Why did they lose their culture? Largely because it was transmitted orally to members when they were ready. When European diseases killed large numbers of Aborigines, many of the teachings were lost.

If we still had the aboriginal legends for this area, we might know more of the local people than we do. But if it isn't possible to know much about their history, there are at least some things on which we can make good estimates.

We can conclude that the first Australians have been in Australia for at least 40,000 years, and that this may turn out to be an under-estimate, that the true date may be at least 60,000 years - or even more. What we cannot be so sure about is whether the present aboriginal population are descended from the original arrivals, but there is no evidence that the whole aboriginal population died out. We do know, though, that there must have been times when populations plummeted.

We estimate that the hunter-gatherer style of life probably supported some 300,000 people, but this may also be an under-estimate, based as it is on "white" assumptions. Maybe there were twice that number: today there are only about 150,000 people who call themselves Aboriginal.

We do know that they entered Australia from the north, and we can see evidence that they have altered the face of Australia, mainly by their regular use of small fires for hunting purposes, which we now recognise as an appropriate form of land management, given the animals and plants of Australia - we even call it firestick farming now. We know a fair amount about what they ate, and a fair amount about the materials that they used to make weapons, tools, implements, boats and so on.

Their life-style was what anthropologists call the hunter-gatherer style, where the men hunted food that moved, and the women gathered the food that stayed still. This involved a largely nomadic life, with certain points being visited at fixed times of year, when the next "crop" was ready.

All of this involved knowing what grew where, and when it would be ready: it was by no means a simple culture. This knowledge of the land, sometimes described romantically as "being as one with the land", seems to have been central to their culture. Without the land, they had lost their equivalent of the holy Scriptures.

Things started to go bad in 1770, when Lieutenant James Cook sailed into a bay that he first called Stingray Harbour, and later called Botany Bay. If you fly into Sydney, you will probably fly over that bay. Cook stayed for about a month then sailed north, naming places as he went. He called the next opening Port Jackson, but never sailed inside.

In January 1788, things went really sour, when a small fleet, with some 1200 people, arrived at Botany Bay. It became immediately obvious that Botany Bay was no use for a settlement, so they looked at Port Jackson, moved there, established Sydney, and before long, Port Jackson was better-known as Sydney Harbour.

White Perceptions and treatment of Aborigines

For some contemporary reactions, see these comments.

To the early white settlers, the local life-style was no more than wandering round, scavenging food. The aborigines were, they said, no more than simple ignorant savages, ready to be displaced to some other piece of land. They were not looking after it properly, said the whites.

It probably encouraged the whites in their thinking to know that this line of argument helped to justify their land grabs. But did they engage in genocide? It is hard to say, but there were certainly massacres of blacks by whites, and a few killings of whites by blacks. There was even a massacre of 100 blacks as recently as 1928, but few white Australians know of it: you can get the details at the The Australian Museum.

If you think about the matter logically, the killing of one white, no matter how well justified, was more likely to be publicised in the white-owned media than the murder of twenty blacks. The "victors" always get to write the history books, after all. To be brutal about it, there was no need to murder blacks when drink and diseases would do the job for you. Forced off their land, or part of it, and deprived of their main reason for living, many blacks turned to drink, or succumbed to diseases to which they had no immunity.

Even ordinary childhood diseases like measles killed huge numbers: with no previous exposure, they had no immunity. For the most part, we have no way of knowing what the diseases were: descriptions are scanty, and TB, for example, can show totally different symptoms when it hits a new population.

While you can find stories of "smallpox blankets" being given to the blacks, the contagion of such a disease in any unexposed population makes such a gift quite unnecessary: I suspect that such yarns are the work of people with rather more vivid imaginations than medical knowledge. The yarns may have their origins in North America.

It may have amounted to the same result as genocide, but I find it hard to believe that the whites were all vicious bloody-minded murderers. A few were, and certainly too many of them were, but not all of them. They didn't all care enough, but they didn't kill, either. They just failed to understand, and all too often, they carried disease, quite innocently. In the end, the result was the same.

The thing that was more damaging was the widely-held belieif that the Aboriginal race was doomed to extinction, though some people assumed that their genetic inheritance would be passed on, severely diluted with superior British blood. With that mindset, it is no wonder that people thought it right to take children from their families, in order to save them.

The Stolen Generation(s)

There are those (known as the White Blindfold Mob) who castigate people with my views as engaging in black armband history. This is because, for political reasons, they are prepared to deny the truth, to lie, to bully, and to generally prove the thesis that God invented Tories so that decent folk would have somebody to look down on in a guilt-free way.

The simple fact is that well-meaning people, with excellent motives, took children they deemed to be 'half-caste' away from their parents and their culture and placed them in institutions where they could be given European values. Too many of those kids were treated to bullying and worse, and were deprived of their culture. It was ignorant, stupid and destructive, but it was never meant to be any of those.

There are no easy answers: stealing children stopped in 1970, but even today, we see serious social and health problems in some communities. You can see why some nosey white know-all might decide that the best thing for the children was to take them away. It happened until 1970, and it was a failure with human victims.

Some particularly nasty lawyerly thugs argue that saying "stolen generation" is wrong, because they weren't all stolen. On the other side, people debate whether it might be better to talk of "stolen generations" in the plural.


One of the things that makes conservatives freak out is the suggestion that the stolen generation should, in some way, be financially compensated. I am not sure that I would agree with a simplistic dishing-out of money, but I would dearly love to see serious money being fed to small-scale self-help programs. Somewhere, there has to be a middle ground. Like most educated middle-class Australians, I know there is a problem, but I am unsure what the solution(s) might be.

Even that simple statement of the bleeding obvious will be enough to have me trounced by the sad excuses for humanity who have stolen the mantle of conservatism in this country. I will be called a chardonnay-swiller or a latte-sipper, even though I prefer red wines and short black coffees.

Saying sorry

That would be a start, but our Prime Minister says we should not say sorry for anything. The simple fact is that the whites were at fault, through bumbling ignorance, and sometimes, perhaps, through malice. We cannot change that now, but we can admit it, we can try to address some of the effects, and move on. Unlike our Prime Minister, I say "SORRY"! I walked the bridge with folk like me, some 400,000 of us, and we cheered when the skywriter wrote SORRY on the sky over Kirribilli House. Some of us see further than the bottom line on the balance sheet. By the way, some of the PM's colleagues agree that we should say sorry. Once the weasel goes, perhaps they will do the right thing.

Why The Blacks Did Not Fight Back

Wrong topic heading. Some blacks did fight back, though you will hear little enough of this. Yagan, a Nyungar man who fought against the whites in Perth is probably the most famous, but there were no aboriginal armies to oppose the advance of the whites. Pemulwuy fought back in the Sydney region, but it was a lonely task. In the Northern Territory, Nemarluk fought back, but he did it alone.

The hunter-gatherer style meant operating in small groups, rather than in hordes, so that organised resistance against the whites was unlikely. Here was more evidence for the white invaders that the blacks were degenerate and uncivilised. They couldn't even organise themselves to kill other people efficiently!

There was nothing to suggest to these inobservant people that trade-routes existed across Australia, or that these "isolated" groups had trading contact with each other, yet the evidence was there all the time, in the stone of their tools, hundreds of kilometres from the source, and in plant products as well. Maybe the whites didn't want to know. . .

All the same, for one cause or another, the aboriginal population dropped remarkably in the 19th century, and many of the actions taken by white authority seemed to be aimed at destroying any remnants of black culture. So while there was no concerted genocidal push like the once that wiped out so many native Americans, there were many small acts that were undoubtedly a form of cultural genocide.

Black culture was regarded as useless, and something to be replaced as soon as possible with "civilised" values. Children were taken from their parents and families, and fostered into "white" homes, in the hope that this would break the links with their "black past", and make them fully civilised.

Many white Australians still have the same outlook today, while many Australians believe that the aboriginal culture had its own merits, quite different from those we hold dear. So the question arises: is the black culture one that is worth preserving? On purely practical grounds, it was, and is, worth preserving.

Aboriginal Culture

The black culture was one that had grown up around the plants and animals that are indigenous to Australia: if we throw that away, we almost certainly throw away valuable knowledge and ideas. Not that the early settlers did: look at the way they used bark as a building material: it isn't hard to guess where that part of our heritage came from.

The Australian culture has been developing as a blend of many elements since about 1820, with songs, humour, ways of speaking and ways of thinking from many parts of the world, and even a few home-grown ones, but it is still incomplete. We still need to return to our sources: the white consciousness of our black heritage is only just starting. But to return to the genocide argument, there is an even stronger reason for rejecting it: there are still aborigines around today. Some of them look rather white, as white conservatives like to point out, but there is more to race than how you look. There is the way of thinking.

Logically, if somebody has lived among whites and been accepted as white for a life-time, that person is white. So if a white-looking person has lived as a black and is accepted as black, why shouldn't that person be regarded as black? (Added to this, people have the notion that all Aboriginal people looked like the modern-day people of northern Australia: a bit like assuming that Spaniards and Swedes look the same. The people of the Sydney region were pale-skinned, compared with the Northerners.)

The only true test of aboriginality in Australia today is how you identify. We cannot rewrite the past: we have to live with it. And when we make judgements, it helps if we can seek the middle ground.

Few aboriginal people live today in the "tribal" style, although in some parts of Australia, they make a conscious effort to keep the old traditions alive for the next generation. Many live under urban conditions, far from "the bush". If you expect to meet painted warriors wielding spears on the streets of Sydney, you will be disappointed.

The "aboriginal" terms used in our language today came from many places. The word "kangaroo" was recorded by James Cook in North Queensland in 1770, and probably referred to a wallaby in any case. And some people suspect that "kangooroo" (as Cook spelt it) actually meant something like "What's this idiot asking that for?" - or maybe "What a funny nose!".

"Aboriginal" terms in common use or commonly understood by Australians include "waddy" or "nulla nulla", a striking stick, "woomera", a stick for throwing a spear further, "boomerang", a throwing-stick which returns, "dilly-bag", a small bag for carrying possessions, and "tucker", food (although this word is probably not aboriginal at all).

Geology and history

In the environment page, I look at the influences geology has had on the development of history.

Sydney expands

I have dealt with the later growth of Sydney in the Sydney expands page.

Looking at the other end of Sydney's history, we are now made up of many cultures, and multiculturalism is only a dirty word with rednecks. Not being a redneck, I am happy to draw your attention to the Migration Heritage Centre. The logic of multiculturalism is simple for me: my family were Scots, and almost everything we have left after we have been 180 years in Australia is something that was grimly clung to by my forebears. Nobody should have to fight to retain their culture.

Except maybe rednecks. Read, and chase the links from that page.

This file is, first created on February 28, 2006. Last recorded revision (well I get lazy and forget sometimes!) was on March 17, 2008. This page is now considered complete.

© The author of this work is Peter Macinnis. You are free to point at this page. Copies of this page or set of pages may be stored on PDAs or printed for personal use. You can't contact me at, but if you add my first name to the front of that email address, you can -- this is a low-tech way of making it harder to harvest the e-mail address I actually read.
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