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A ferry ride on Sydney Harbour is always a little holiday, a period of delight, rocking gently on the waves while the glinting buildings, the swathes of bushland, the waves at the shore, the yachts and warships and tugs and cruisers pass by.

Today is no exception. The ferry chugs its way out of Circular Quay, past the exuberant flamboyance of the Opera House. I’ve seen it blue, and pink; covered in paisley patterns and butterflies; I’ve seen it with ‘No War’ gallantly painted on its sails, the red paint dripping. Today it is gleaming white.

The point on which it stands, Bennelong Point, was named for Bennelong, an Aboriginal man of the Wangal people captured by Governor Phillip in late 1789 in a desperate attempt to communicate with the Aborigines. The first Aboriginal man kidnapped for the same purpose, Arabanoo, had died of the smallpox in May 1789. A house was built for Bennelong on Bennelong Point; since then, it has been Fort Macquarie, and a tram shed.

Fort Denison comes into view on our right hand side and the woman behind us excitedly tells her little girl, ‘That’s Fort Denison. We can go there too. That was here when the convicts used to come to Australia. Before anyone was here.’ The myth of terra nullius, so convenient in the 19thcentury, rejected in the Australian High Court in 1992, lives on.

It’s not true that no-one was here before ‘the convicts used to come to Australia’.

[there were] Colbee … Bereewan, Bondel, Imeerawanyee, Deedora, Wolarawaree, or Baneelon, among the men; … Wereeweea, Gooreedeeana, Milba, or Matilba, among the women. Parramatta, Gweea, Cameera, Cadi, and Memel, are names of places.[i]

The Cadigal, the people whose land was immediately usurped by the colonists, was a clan of about 60 people. Jakelin Troy calls their language ‘the Sydney language’, and defines it as being spoken by a tribe that lived across an area from the coast to the Hawkesbury and Nepean Rivers to the north and west, and as far south as Appin[ii]. According to Troy there were at least two dialects of the Sydney Language spoken by the various clans within the tribe, and the name ‘Eora’ or ‘Iyora’ is now given to the people who lived on the coast, and their dialect[iii]. A number of the early colonists were interested to record this language, despite the difficulties on both sides in understanding particular sounds. Troy points out that only the officers of the First Fleet recorded the Sydney Language. A contact language, New South Wales pidgin, rapidly took its place. The Aboriginal people were much more linguistically adept than the British, picking up both English and the pidgin. David Collins (deputy judge-advocate in Sydney 1788-1796) wrote in April 1792 that the Aboriginals, “conversed with us in a mutilated and incorrect language formed entirely on our imperfect knowledge and improper application of their words.”[iv]

Jakelin Troy’s book, The Sydney Language, provides a 50 page wordlist, bringing to life the people who spoke the language. Their words for people and kin, body parts, weapons, implements and other made objects, plants and animals show the priorities that they had – three words for different types of baskets, four types of shields, ten types of spears.  They had five different ways of saying ‘stop’, from ‘wari wari’, meaning to stop something being done that you don’t like, to ‘mayalya’ meaning ‘a little stop’.  It’s when you read their words for tickle (‘gidi gidi’), shiver, embrace, afraid, pick teeth, laugh, sexual desire, breathe, snore, love … that you feel the connection.[v]


[i]Tench, W. 1788. First published 1789 and 1793. Reproduced in Flannery, T, Two Classic Tales of Australian Exploration. Text Publishing, 2002, p265.

[ii]Troy, J. The Sydney Language. Produced with the assistance of the Australian Dictionaries project and AIATSIS, Canberra 1993 p8.

[iii]Troy, J. The Sydney Language. Produced with the assistance of the Australian Dictionaries project and AIATSIS, Canberra 1993 p9.

[iv]Collins, 28 April 1792. Quoted in Jack Egan, Buried alive: Sydney 1788-92, Allen & Unwin 1999 p287.

[v]Troy, J. The Sydney Language. Produced with the assistance of the Australian Dictionaries project and AIATSIS, Canberra 1993 p33-84.