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historian’s perspective on Parramatta Park and aboriginal heritage

James, C. for NSW Department of Education and Training Sites and Scenes 1999

Could you advise me how I can go about finding out about the significance of the park to Aboriginal people?

The park is an important first contact site.

What’s a first contact site?

It’s a place where the settlers and the Aboriginal people first encountered each other. Some of these encounters have been recorded and I am happy to give you my perspective on these. However some aspects of the history will be best understood from the point of view of the traditional owners of the land.

So what you will tell me is only part of the story?

Yes, you will need to supplement what I tell you by contacting a group like the Darug Tribal Aboriginal Corporation who have special knowledge of Parramatta Park.

Why is it so complicated to find out about Aboriginal history?

The story of the meeting of the settlers – the people who were introducing their culture into Australia – and the traditional owners – the Aboriginal people who had been here for tens of thousands of years, is not a happy one. The effect of the settlers on the lifestyle of the aborigines was disastrous. Large numbers of Aborigines died from diseases introduced by the settlers and, as a result of acts of violence, those who survived became outsiders in their own country.

Why do we know so little about these things?

That is an excellent question. My answer will be a little complicated. History is not a tangible product like a car or a skateboard. It is an idea which we construct in our minds and that which helps us define who we are. The settlers and their descendants did not want to acknowledge that they occupied New South Wales at the expense of the Aboriginal inhabitants. They did not want to accept that they were the cause of much unhappiness. Now, if there is something in your life you don’t like, then one way of dealing with it is to pretend it doesn’t exist. All of us do this at some time. This is how Australian history was written for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The unhappy stories of the dispossession of the Aboriginal people were left out of the picture. Thousands of boys and girls grew up learning little about the Aboriginal people and their place in our culture. This is dishonest as it tells only part of the story. A third is the change in approach to dealing with indigenous peoples: the (nineteenth century approach was very different)

However, things cannot be kept a secret forever.The truth has to be faced if one is to lead a healthy life based on real experiences rather than comfortable fantasies. For this reason many historians are now working to reveal those things which have been hidden for so long. We are only at the beginning of this process, so there is much to be discovered. Knowledge will come both from the European way of understanding the past (through the disciplines of written history and archaeology) as well as the Aboriginal way, through oral history and traditional stories and rituals. I am going to talk about the things we know through the European methods — mainly through written history. It is very important that you talk to some Aborigines to get the other perspective.

How long had the Aborigines been in Parramatta?

Pre-historians tell us the Parramatta River Valley had been occupied for forty thousand years. The language of these people was Darug and the clan name for the people living at the head of the river was Burramatta. It is from this term that the name Parramatta is derived; it is an anglicised version of the Aboriginal name for the district which is "the place of many eels." Being at the head of the river there was abundant fresh water alive with mullet, crayfish and shellfish. Further east in the saltwater estuary were eels, shellfish and fish. On land there were possums to be hunted and insects and native fruits and vegetables. It was a place where the Burramatugals could live well.

What were relations like between the settlers and the Aborigines?

Watkin Tench, an officer from the First Fleet, noted in September 1790 that he had met two Aboriginal men from Rose Hill, what is now Parramatta Park, and they "expressed great dissatisfaction at the number of white men who had settled in their former territories."

The Aborigines saw their lands taken from them, and towns and farms were built where they had once been free to hunt. The settlers felt that it was their right to possess the land, that it was being improved as a result of their labour, and that it was an asset that the traditional owners did not know how to use. As the white population increased, the native animals which the Aborigines relied on for food diminished in number. Thus they not only lost their land but were also facing starvation. The situation was desperate and, understandably, led to desperate responses.

David Collins, the Deputy Judge Advocate of the colony, recorded in 1794: "the natives were troublesome again this month … accounts were sent down from Parramatta, of their having attacked, robbed and beaten some of the settlers’ wives who were passing between their farms. One of these women was so severely wounded by a party who robbed and stripped her of her wearing apparel that she lay for a long time dangerously ill at the hospital."

This may sound like a harsh attack, but if you consider the circumstances it is understandable why the Aborigines would retaliate for the wrongs that were done to them. Despite these difficulties the settlers continued to consolidate their position.

Was nothing done by the settlers to try to help the Aborigines?

Lachlan Macquarie, who was Governor from 1810 to 1822, initiated some policies to attempt to integrate the Aborigines into the culture of the settlers. He decided to set up a school for Aboriginal children. Premises were acquired near St John’s Church and in December 1814 the rules were published. In order to promote the school to parents, he held a feast in Parramatta for Aboriginal tribes on 28 December 1814. Roast beef, bread and ale were served. It was so successful that it was made an annual event. For the 1821 feast Governor Macquarie ordered the following:

1 good fat steer from the Government Herds

10 gallons of spirits

20 lbs of sugar { for punch }

20 lbs of plums { for punch }

Loaves of bread

Lbs of potatoes

Dozen of lemon or limes

NB Feast to be provided for 300 persons — LM

Was the school successful?

Not really: it was based on the goal of having the children reject their own culture. They were separated from their parents, the boys being trained in manual tasks and the girls as domestic servants. On leaving school they were encouraged to find employment with a "steady religious person".

How did the Governor persuade Aboriginal parents to place their children in the school?

Partly through the annual meeting of the tribes but also by receiving Aborigines at Old Government House. Macquarie’s diary for 12th January , 1817 records:

This day the Chief of the South Creek and Mary Mary the Chief of the Mulgowy Natives with their respective tribes amounting to 51 (men, women and children) … paid me a visit at Parramatta and were entertained in the Govt Domain there by a direction of breakfast and dinner…; the 17 Native Children at the Institution having been entertained with Fruit and presented to their Parents and Relatives belonging to those two Tribes. Narrang Jack, one of the hostile natives some time outlawed came in on this occasion and gave himself up …’

Were there any other meetings at Old Government House between the Governors and Aborigines?

This is the only one I know of, but more research is required.

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