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aboriginal interpretation of Old Government House and Parramatta Park

From Reflections newsletter of The National Trust, Feb—April 2000

During a trial period in March and April 2000 some of the experiences of the Darug people will be incorporated into the interpretation of Old Government House and the surrounding area. The Darug are the traditional Aboriginal owners of the land in the Parramatta district. Their history and present day relationship to the site is of major significance to our understanding of the place and its meaning.

The Burramatta clan who lived in the area which became the Governor's Domain are remembered in the name Parramatta (it was mistranscribed by the Europeans) – 'burra' meaning eels and 'matta' meaning place.

With the assistance of a $l0 000 grant from the Australian Heritage Commission, this important project addresses the need to make the interpretation of Australian history more inclusive. School groups and weekend visitors will have the opportunity to hear a different view of Australia's colonial past from that which has previously focused on the lives of the governors, convicts and free settlers.

The aim of the program is to interpret this historic site from the perspective of the Darug people and to ensure that people are made aware of the continuity of Darug culture. Aboriginal community consultation is a vital element for the development and success of this project so a reference group including representatives of two key Darug organisations meets at critical stages.

The first stage of the program was commissioning historian, Jim Kohen, to prepare a study providing background information on the relationship between Aboriginal people and Parramatta Park, and in particular the Old Government House site, from prehistoric occupants to the 1830s. Dr Kohen is well respected by the Aboriginal community, having written The Darug and Their Neighbours, The Parramatta Native Institution and the Black Town, as well as A Dictionary of the Darug Language. He works as Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Aboriginal Studies and Research at Macquarie University. His report Uninvited Guests will provide the Aboriginal Education Officer, Cheryl Goh, with solid background for the development of her school and public programs.

The National Trust is fortunate to have Goh on board as she has a sound historical background, experience in teaching and is a Darug person who has grown up in Parramatta. Goh teaches Aboriginal Studies at Mt Druitt TAFE and is completing her Masters in History under the supervision of Professor Carol Liston at the University of Western Sydney. Her major project involves the creation of a web site on the early European history of the Nepean Valley.

Goh recalls that as a child and young adult travelling through Parramatta Park she was always curious about the big house on the hill yet felt that it did not relate to her. Today, standing on top of the hill that supports the house and looking out on to Parramatta River, she describes the site as allawah – a Darug word used to describe a nice place to be.

The fact that the site offers a well situated and ideal vantage point is what influenced Governor Phillip to establish his Rose Hill house there. The land around the hill was an important source of food for the Burramatta clan and had been fire stick farmed before colonisation. That made it attractive to the Governor who was looking for good farmland from which to feed a hungry colony of convicts and soldiers back at Sydney Cove.

The European occupation did not go unnoticed. It is recorded that a Burramatta elder told Phillip that he was very angry at the number of settlers at Rose Hill. Taking this as a direct threat, Phillip reinforced his military detachment there the next day.

Goh is keen to present the economic, spiritual and cultural factors that make up an Aboriginal sense of place. Old Government House's physical setting on high land overlooking the river makes it an ideal location to explore these issues.

The program will also look at Aboriginal policy in the Macquarie era. The house will provide a setting from which to consider the government perspective on racial policy. After Macquarie left, the importance of Parramatta as a focus of Aboriginal-European interaction gradually declined.

Combined with the well documented policies, incidents and attitudes towards Aborigines of the Macquarie era, the Aboriginal program on this site promises to be a highly relevant and engaging resource for school groups in years 7 and 8 studying the experiences of Aboriginal people during colonial occupation. The Aboriginal public program, to be incorporated into the current house tour, will also offer a fresh and stimulating perspective for visitors to Old Government House. An evaluation of the two programs will be used to ensure that the delivery and future of this new interpretation is as successful as possible.

A summary of main themes identified in the study 'Uninvited Guests: An Aboriginal Perspective on the Parramatta Government House and Parramatta Park', by historian Dr J.L.Kohen.

  • The Government House at Parramatta is recognised as one of the most important items of European cultural heritage in western Sydney, and indeed in Australia. The building and the site identify the location where the second settlement of Parramatta was established. Within four months of the arrival of the First Fleet, Governor Phillip was writing to London indicating that he planned to set up farms at Rose Hill, and by early November 1788 the marines had built a redoubt and the first convict farms were established. However, the area was already occupied. It was home to the Burramatta clan, part of the Darug language group. The Darug had a territory extending from Katoomba to the coast and from the Hawkesbury River to Appin. The coastal clans of the Darug, sometimes referred to as the Eora, were the first Aborigines to encounter the European settlers.
  • There were some friendly contacts between the Darug and the settlers at Parramatta, with several Aborigines including Ballooderry bartering fish with the officers and settlers in June 1791. But the following month some of the convicts destroyed Ballooderry's canoe and he speared a man near Kissing Point as payback. For this he was outlawed. Without the use of his canoe, he would have found it very difficult to feed himself and his family. He died a few months later, and was buried in the Governor's garden at Sydney.
  • By most accounts, the hostilities which developed near the outer settlements were instigated by the convicts and the soldiers. Between Parramatta and Kissing Point, and west to Toongabbie, spearings in retaliation were not uncommon. The Parramatta Darug had the unwanted distinction of being the first Aborigines to have their heads removed and sent to England. Pemulwuy, a Bediagal man from the headwaters of the George's River, was another who was decapitated. His head was sent back to England preserved in spirits. Darug people are still trying to have it returned.
  • By 1800 the conflicts around Parramatta had developed to the stage where Governor King issued a proclamation allowing any Aborigine west of Parramatta to be shot on sight. George Caley, who collected botanical specimens for Joseph Banks, suggested that the hostilities began when convict shepherds lost some of their sheep and, in fear of being punished, blamed the Darug people. Accordingly, "war was declared" and when the Darug retaliated a state of panic gripped the settlers living in western Sydney for over a year.
  • Hostilities around Parramatta continued until Macquarie's time, often led by Tedbury, Pemulwuy's son. Macquarie initiated a series of actions which were to dramatically impact on the local Aboriginal people, and it resulted in Parramatta and Government House becoming the centre of Aboriginal European interactions until Macquarie departed. In 1814, on the advice of the missionary William Shelley, he set up the Parramatta Native Institution to "civilise, Christianise and educate" Aboriginal children, and this was followed by the introduction of the annual feast, which continued at Parramatta until the 1830s. Many of the children who attended this school have descendants still living in western Sydney.
  • Macquarie's ambivalence towards the Aborigines was demonstrated in 1816 when, in response to raids on farms from Lane Cove to the Nepean River, he sent out a military detachment to kill as many Aborigines as they could find, but also gave orders to bring back children to be placed in the Native Institution. He developed a strategy of nominating a 'chief' to be responsible for each of the clans, identified by the wearing of a brass breast-plate engraved with his name and title. This was a typically European way of negotiation, but it often reflected the actual status of certain elders and 'clever men' within each clan. However, to make sure that the 'chiefs' controlled their relatives, Macquarie asked each of them to give up one of their children to be placed in the Native Institution. People like Nurragingy of the Wianamattagal clan (South Creek Tribe) and Merimeri of the Mulgowi clan (Mulgoa Tribe) each gave up one of their children and for a short time the relationships between the Europeans and the Darug remained peaceful.
  • Following the punitive expeditions in 1816 and the subsequent conciliatory attempts by Macquarie in rewarding 'friendly' Aborigines, the Darug demonstrated their attitude towards the new relationship when Nurragingy, Merimeri and their entire clans visited the Governor and Mrs Macquarie at Parramatta on 12 January 1817. They were entertained but it was pointed out that they were uninvited. Of course, from the perspective of the local Darug owners of this area, it was the Europeans who were the uninvited guests on their land.

Reproduced with the permission of the National Trust of Australia (NSW)

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