The Opera House


Many years ago I struggled over French philosophers and terms like ‘metonym’. The example to explain it was always something about fleets and ships and I would get lost in images of looming grey warships parked at Garden Island, their war navigation technology twirling and twisting over their decks. Correct me if I’m still wrong, but my understanding of metonym is that it is where you use one word to represent something to which it is related. Two images vie in my mind for metonym of the week. One is the sight of cockatoos in a bottlebrush, systematically, wilfully, wastefully stripping the tree of its luxuriant flowers, nipping off each branch and letting the flowers drop to a blood-red mass on the road below. The other – and maybe it is in essence saying the same thing in its metonymy – is the Opera House.

It has been a week of outrage over the pimping of the Opera House to the horse racing industry and Alan Jones. It may be seen as a drama worthy of an opera house, but is so much more distressing than entertaining, from the current prime minister proclaiming the Opera House ‘Sydney’s biggest billboard’ to Alan Jones, a radio commentator, suggesting he can ask the premier to sack a public servant – and everything in between.

The silver lining in this cloud is the avalanche of letters to the Sydney Morning Herald. Apart from the couple in support – parroting the parrots with their ‘take a chill pill’ line – a quieter form of bullying that dismisses an opposing opinion by implying the speaker is hysterical – many of the rest point out the differences between this current use of the sails and previous uses. 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. I came to my first viewing of the projections for Vivid unwittingly, sitting at the Opera Bar after a film, startled to see swirling colours where I was used to seeing white.

I’ve seen the Opera House as the backdrop to an opera (walking along dark paths overhung with trees, our way lit by fairy lights, the Botanic Gardens as I’ve never seen them before, I emerge into a clearing with an amphitheatre of seats, the set out in the cove and beyond, the Opera House, ready to dissolve into the background as Egypt is conjured on the stage and the fruit bats flap lazily overhead); I’ve sat in the opera hall for opera and the concert hall for concerts (these days we have the seats at the front, so close you can see the conductor’s baton and singers’ sweat – our approach is navigated, along the smooth path in the forecourt that becomes evident within the more gappy, bumpy pavers, up the lift then through the green room, where people uncostumed eat meat pies and chicken wraps); I’ve sat on those steps and watched concerts and ‘events’ (a car, smashed by a boulder; a bath filled with milk; Tim Minchin’s mad energy); I see it dissolving in rain or glistening with sun every time I take the ferry. Its sails tell me where I am on the harbour. It has, without me realising, become a part of my life.

But back to metonyms. My favourite letter was the shortest, from Barbara Simmons of Mirador. It reads in full, ‘Oh Sydney: all fur coat and no knickers.’


Labour Day


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On this public holiday, Labour Day or Eight-hour Day, we should be singing the songs of the workers. Songs like The Eight-hours System, a little history lesson in its own right, ending with the rousing stanza:

Eight hours to sleep in midnight deep.
Eight hours of toil a day:
Eight hours to rove in learning’s grove.
For pleasure and for play.

Or something more recent, like The Eight-Hour Day, which just seems to become more and more relevant.

But no, we spent the day at the Manly Jazz Festival, listening to songs of a different ilk. It was good to be in Manly, with the sun on my face and a light breeze blowing, as I’ve just read the section of Grace Karskens’ essential book, The Colony, in which she talks of the naming of Manly Cove. The core of the story is well known – as Governor Phillip entered Port Jackson, seeking an alternative to Botany Bay for the settlement, his boat was approached by about twenty Aboriginal men who Phillip found to be so ‘manly’ that he called the place ‘Manly Cove’. Those men would have called it Kay-ye-my but Phillip failed to ask the men about this.

In passing near a point of land in this harbour, the boats were perceived by a number of the natives, twenty of whom waded into the water unarmed, received what was offered them, and examined the boat with a curiosity which impressed a higher idea of them than any former accounts of their manners had suggested. This confidence, and manly behaviour, induced Governor Phillip, who was highly pleased with it, the give the place the name of Manly Cove.[1]

Two years later, Manly Cove was the place of an important interaction between the Aboriginal people and the British. The story started with a whale. In July 1790, four British men in a small boat came upon a whale in the harbour, ‘… (for the first time since we have been here) …spouting and dashing about in their usual manner. This monstrous creature, either through being mischievous or playful, no sooner espied the boat then he pursued and never left her till he had overturned and sent her to the bottom.’[2]Three of the four men drowned (the fourth was ‘sadly affected, and indeed disordered’) and the whale was subsequently pursued and harpooned. It died of its wounds and washed up in Manly Cove.

In September, a small party of British, accompanied by Nanbaree, an Aboriginal boy adopted by the colony’s surgeon, John White, when he was orphaned by the smallpox, landed at Manly Cove, intending to walk to Broken Bay. They came across a large group of Aboriginal people, including Bennelong, feasting on the remains of the whale. The two groups met without incident, and as the British were leaving they were given ‘three or four great junks of the whale … the largest of which Bennelong expressly requested might be offered, in his name, to the governor.’ Phillip was nearby, at South Head, and on hearing the news ‘procured all the firearms which could be mustered there, consisting of four muskets and a pistol’ and set out for Manly Cove.

According to Watkin Tench (an officer of the First Fleet commissioned by a publisher before his departure for Botany Bay to write an account of the voyage) this second boat was also well received by the feasters, and Phillip was conversing with Bennelong when ‘a native with a spear in his hand came forward, and stopped at the distance of between twenty and thirty yards from the place where the governor, Mr Collins, Lieutenant Waterhouse and a seaman stood.’ Phillip threw down the knife that he wore on his belt – an act which he understood to be one of peace – and walked towards the man, but the Aboriginal man – Wileemarin – threw his spear, wounding Phillip in the shoulder. [3]

This incident is the subject of much analysis by Inga Clendinnen, the author of the other essential book on early Sydney – Dancing with Strangers. She argues, very persuasively, that this spearing was a ritual act, ‘where Phillip would face a single spear-throw in penance for his and his people’s many offences’.[4]She conjectures that Wileemarin would have expected Phillip to deflect it, as Aboriginal warriors would have done, and was confused by Phillip approaching him rather than standing his ground in order to evade it.

I wonder if the timing of this ritual act may be explained by the arrival of the Second Fleet in June 1790. This was a disaster for all involved, with hundreds dying during the voyage and hundreds more sick and dying landed at Sydney. If the Aboriginal people hadn’t been worried by the ‘many offences’ of the British up until then, how would they have felt on seeing this new group of settlers?

[1]The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay, 1789

[2]Daniel Southwell, 27 July 1790, quoted in The birth of Sydney, Tim Flannery, Text Publishing, 1999, p104.

[3]Watkin Tench, 7 September 1790, quoted in The birth of Sydney, Tim Flannery, Text Publishing, 1999, p107.

[4]Inga Clendinnen, Dancing with Strangers, Text Publishing, 2003, p124.

The Freedom Ride


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A friend recently blogged about a book for young adults titled Freedom Ride, so it seems only proper to blog myself about the Freedom Ride that it’s referring to. And given that the Freedom Ride started at Sydney University, which is located on 128 acres of the Grose Farm site, this also follows neatly from my previous blog about ‘Grose’s Hill’.

In 1854 Edmund Blackett was appointed architect for the university, with James Barnet his Clerk of Works. Work began on the main building in 1855, and lessons commenced in the unfinished building in 1857.

The two storey sandstone building features high quality carved Gothic Revival style decorative details and tracery, coats of arms and medallions. The sandstone is thought to originate from Pyrmont but it is possible that quarrying occurred in front of the east range forming the terrace. The roofs are clad with Welsh Slate. The east range largely retains its original interiors with fine carved cedar joinery (also Gothic Revival in style), massive timber staircases, marble and timber floors and plastered walls. Externally the Great Hall is crenellated with a corner turret to the north east. The eastern gable has central stained glass window with carved tracery, as does the western facade.[i]

Outside that main building 110 years later, on 12 February 1965, 29 students boarded a bus that travelled to Orange, Wellington, Dubbo, Gulargambone, Walgett, Collarenebri, Moree, Boggabilla, Goodiwindi, Warwick, Tenterfield, Inverell, back to Moree, Glen Innes, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Bowraville, Kempsey, Taree and Newcastle. The bus had a banner along its side saying ‘Student Action for Aborigines’,[ii]and it became known as the Freedom Ride. In the two weeks of the tour the students surveyed people on the stations, reserves and shanty towns along the way about health, housing, racism, education.

Wellington was the first stop on the Freedom Ride. Ann Curthoys and others went to the settlement outside the town.

We got a tremendous shock. We really had no idea until this moment what it was we were protesting about. Here it was, the utmost poverty in our well-off First World industrialised country.[iii]

She started to write a diary. On that first night she wrote:

Interviewed about ten tin shacks of people. Most of us found the questionnaires unsuitable. Houses of tin, mud floors, very over-crowded, kids had eye diseases, had to cart water (very unhealthy) from river. People fairly easy to talk to, kids quite friendly. General picture of extreme poverty but not a great deal of social discrimination.[iv]

Despite that last statement, the combined surveys showed that:

When asked for examples of discrimination, the answers included ‘up to twelve months ago not allowed in pubs’, ‘Courthouse Hotel’, ‘hotels, shops’, ‘employment’, ‘putting them out of town’ and ‘won’t let them live in town even if can afford [it]’.[v]

They filmed an Aboriginal man going into the Courthouse Hotel – he is served, but possibly only because of the students’ presence. Then Charles Perkins is sent into the same hotel, ‘and there was some discussion between the barmaid and the publican before they served him’.[vi]

This was the pattern for the tour. Surveys, feeling out the town’s reactions, then sometimes demonstrations – outside segregated swimming pools and picture theatres, pubs and cafes. They received increasing levels of local, national and international attention and burst the bubble of apathy that surrounded the treatment of Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people in many of the towns visited gained strength from the students’ visit, forming groups to maintain the momentum that had been started. Although criticised at the time for ‘just stirring up trouble’, many of the students on the bus returned to the towns again and again, to assist in particular demonstrations, forming strong bonds with the Aboriginal inhabitants of the towns.

[i] 170 Register Report: 4726003: MAIN QUAD / EAST RANGE AND GREAT HALL

[ii]Ann Curthoys. Freedom ride: a freedom rider remembers. Allen & Unwin, 2002.

[iii]Ann Curthoys. Freedom ride: a freedom rider remembers. Allen & Unwin, 2002 p71

[iv]Ann Curthoys. Freedom ride: a freedom rider remembers. Allen & Unwin, 2002 p72

[v]Ann Curthoys. Freedom ride: a freedom rider remembers. Allen & Unwin, 2002 p72

[vi]Ann Curthoys. Freedom ride: a freedom rider remembers. Allen & Unwin, 2002 p73

Grose’s Hill


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‘Sydney from Paroquet Hill, Parramatta Road. From Grose’s Hill’ by Edward Charles Close (once attributed to Sophia Campbell) is a watercolour painted around 1820 showing the view from a partially fenced paddock over a landscape that appears to be recovering from bushfire – thin trunks of eucalypts with bushy remnants at their tops; low shrubs at their base; a fallen tree with blackened trunk and brown leaves. In the distance are two windmills – one on Observatory Hill, and one closer to the military barracks (now Wynyard). Sydney’s first windmill wasn’t built until 1797, Governor Hunter bringing the parts with him from England in 1795. The windmill was built where Sydney Observatory now stands, but can’t be the one in this painting as it was, by 1820, no longer in use, having lost its top and sails and left only with its stone tower. This painting probably shows the wooden windmill that was built in 1803 or 1804 on the southern side of Observatory Hill – the third mill built. The other mill in the painting is probably the Military Windmill, finished in 1802 and given over to military use in 1814.[i]How do I know so much about windmills? A few weeks after interviewing Mona Brand I found a book called Old Sydney Windmillsby her husband, Len Fox, in a second-hand shop. I bought it for the joy of the synchronicity before seeing how useful it was.

The distant straggling town, with the newly built Hyde Park Barracks and Rum Hospital dominating, is similar in two paintings by Joseph Lycett. They are painted from the same spot, but dated one year later. They show a green rolling hill with a picturesque wooden fence – bucolic, compared to Close’s more believable sparse bush. There are four windmills in one (Mitchell Library ML 55) but at least seven in the other (National Library of Australia RNK Accn. T 1631) – two at Miller’s Point, the same two as in Close’s painting, two where the Conservatorium now stands, and one at Darlinghurst.

Now when you stand on Grose’s Hill you’re standing in front of the Great Hall at the University of Sydney. When I look out and try to see Hyde Park Barracks my view is blocked by massive fig trees, and a cluster of tall buildings beyond. I have to go to the ninth floor of Fisher Library and peer through the narrow slits of windows to see where I am. I see the Anzac Bridge and Rozelle Bay and Pyrmont. The glimpse of water in Edward Close’s painting must have been Blackwattle Bay, when it came right up to Bay Street. He’s looking across the ridge of Pyrmont, the city in the centre of the painting and North Head an unexpected feature in the distance. I can see the fall of the land in front of me to the water, the ridge of the city, and the plateau of the northern suburbs that reaches to Middle Head. I can’t see North Head, but from the windows on the other side of the building I can see Botany Bay, its blue waters deep and glistening from this distance, its damaged seagrasses and degraded shoreline invisible.


[i]Old Sydney Windmills, Len Fox. Self-published 1978.

The Glebe


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Glebe Island, where Bill Gosling used to work, was once an island. Then it was connected to the mainland by a causeway. This was enlarged when abattoirs were constructed there in the 1850s, and the island was later further flattened for wharves and grain stores.

This was one of many different schemes that have changed the shape of the harbour foreshore. Blackwattle Bay is shown on an 1836 map as reaching up to Parramatta Road, where a small bridge crosses it – now only the street names, and some observation of topography, show us that it went that far. By 1854 Bay Street runs down to the head of the bay; by 1866 there is a bridge linking Pyrmont and Glebe about a third of the way up the bay; by 1868 the bridge is labelled as an embankment and Wattle St is a straight line marked where Black Wattle Creek used to run.

By 1885 the area that was filled in was called Wentworth Park.[i]The park provided space for the same late-19thcentury leisure activities as at the Sir Joseph Banks Pleasure Grounds, or the Como Pleasure Grounds, or the Avenue Pleasure Grounds at Hunters Hill: concerts, picnics and sports. In 1939 it became the permanent venue for a different kind of sport: greyhound racing.[ii]On the other side of Glebe, a similar story: Johnston’s Creek and Orphan School Creek met at the head of Rozelle Bay, where a little bridge now crosses a stormwater drain at the lowest point of Wigram Road.[iii]The area was reclaimed for parkland, and Harold Park Paceway – another racing venue, this one for trotting horses – established on its edge in 1902.[iv]

Glebe’s southern edge is formed by Parramatta Road, its intersection with Glebe Point Road opposite Victoria Park, filling in the angle between Parramatta Road and City Road as it has done since some of the earliest maps: behind that is Sydney University.

This stands on land granted in 1792 to Lieutenant-Governor Grose who had a lease of 30 acres out of the 400 acre Crown reserve that had been set aside for Crown, church and school purposes – ‘The Glebe’. He sold his lease on when he left the colony in 1794, but the name stuck as ‘Grose Farm’. This was the edge of the city for many years, as the old boundary marker at the end of Glebe Point Road shows. Paintings of Sydney in 1818 by Sophia Campbell (1777-1833), and in 1819 by Joseph Lycett (c.1774-1828) show the growing city from its periphery.[v]

[i]Ashton, P & Waterson, D. Sydney takes shape: a history in maps. Hema Maps, 2000.


[iii]Leichhardt: on the margins of the city. Max Solling and Peter Reynolds. Allen & Unwin, 1997, p10.


[v]First Views of Australia, 1788-1825. A history of early Sydney. Tim McCormick. David Ell Press, Longueville Publications, 1987.

On the waterfront


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The Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia (WWF) was a force on the wharves until 1993, when it was amalgamated into the Maritime Union of Australia. The WWF had presided over massive changes on the waterfront, always battling for improved conditions – slow battles, with reports still appearing in the 1940s commenting adversely on the huge danger to a man’s health in working on the wharves, and the lack of even basic sanitary facilities. One of its early battles was around the weight of the bags that the workers had to carry into the ships: in 1904 it asked for a weight limit of 150 lbs (68 kg) – the weight limit at the time was 240 lbs (109 kg) but this was often exceeded. In 1970 the safe limit for lifting was deemed to be 55 kg. The WWF also conducted political actions, such as the Pig Iron dispute, where waterside workers refused to load pig iron onto ships bound for Japan in 1937-38 as a protest against Japan’s aggression against China, or the embargo of 1945-49 against Dutch shipping in support of Indonesian independence from Dutch rule.

In the 1950s the WWF expanded into social and cultural areas. The Sydney branch set up a Women’s Committee and organised the first WWF sports carnival. The Sussex Street headquarters were remodelled to include a range of facilities – a canteen, a library and reading room, an art studio, and even a theatre.[i]A film production unit was established, making short films to balance depictions in the mainstream press. The heroes are the trudging men bearing loads that bend them double, working in dirty and hazardous conditions.

In 1900 the NSW state government took control of the Port of Sydney under the Harbour Trust Act, following public shock over the outbreak of plague, attributed to the rats that infested the privately-owned waterfront. It wasn’t only rats that made conditions grim on the wharves – no toilets, shelter sheds, or even water taps; 30-hour shifts; no continuity of employment, with workers being chosen on a daily basis by the foreman.

The rats persisted, despite the Act, and in 1947 the Stevedoring Industry Commission authorised the WWF ‘to cease work on rat-infested ships in the port of Sydney’.[ii] I asked Bill Gosling about the rats when I interviewed him.[iii]

The rats around the wharf, the Sydney grey rats around the wharf are fairly common. But on this one occasion, the rat catcher came in to see me and he said, ‘I might have my lunch while I’m here’, so he opened his case, there was a dead rat, in a plastic bag. ‘It’s alright,’ he said, ‘I stored it in a plastic bag first.’ He thought nothing of eating his lunch with a dead rat alongside of him. Another occasion, this concerns the same rat catcher, he went into a shed and one of the clerks said to him, ‘Look at that scabby old cat there, why don’t you give him a shot of something and put him out of his misery.’ He turned round, he said, ‘That scabby old cat’s my chief officer.’ He turned to the clerk, ‘If you touch that cat,’ he said, ‘you’ll have me to deal with.’ He said, ‘That cat works at night when I’m home in bed.’


[i]Wharfies – The history of the Waterside Workers’ Federation. Margo Beasley, Halstead Press, 1996.

[ii]Wharfies – the History of the Waterside Workers’ Federation. Margo Beasley, Halstead Press 1996, p133.

[iii]Interview with Bill Gosling, 9 April 2005.

The seventh prime minister


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Two wharf labourers’ unions were formed in Sydney in 1872 – the West Sydney Labouring Men’s Association and the Labouring Men’s Union of Circular Quay. In 1882 they became the Sydney Wharf Labourers’ Union, but this collapsed after the 1890 strike, a strike that ran on the Sydney wharves from 19 August to 5 November. According to the unions, one of the reasons that the strike failed was because:

The whole artillery of daily journalism opened fire upon us. The few breaches of the peace that occurred, so much to the disgust of the [NSW Labour] Defence Committee, were magnified into riots, for which the very principles of Trade Unionism were held responsible. The most trivial circumstances, perverted into acts of intimidation, were gathered like so many rusty nails from the journalistic gutter for explosion in the shape of paragraphic bombs on the following morning. On the other hand, when clerks were dismissed from their employment for refusing to parade as special constables, when sermons and addresses favourable to the cause of labour were delivered by men in responsible public positions, the leader writers maintained an ominous silence.[i]

When the workers returned to the wharves they had to endure a loss of conditions and pay, and the stevedoring and shipping companies blacklisted anyone who attempted to resurrect the unions – so when William (Billy) Hughes started working to establish a Wharf Labourers’ Union at the end of 1899, he did it secretly. His strategy worked, and the union survived. Hughes was elected secretary.

Born in London in 1862, Billy Hughes came to Australia in 1884. By 1893 he was an organiser for the Labor Electoral League, travelling through country NSW, setting up meetings and signing up members to the fledgling party. He stood for parliament himself in 1894, and was elected, earning a decent wage for the first time in his life. In 1902 a national body, the Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia (WWF), was formed. Hughes became its president, and president of the Trolley, Draymen and Carters’ Union. In 1915 he became Australia’s seventh prime minister but left the Labor Party in 1916, walking out of caucus when the majority of his colleagues rejected conscription, despite his strong support for it. He was expelled from the Labor Party, and within weeks he had been expelled from the unions as well. Hughes retained the prime ministership until 1923, by forming new parties or setting up alliances with others.


[i]From the Official Report and Balance Sheet of the NSW Labour Defence Committee, Sydney 1890. Quoted in Select Documents in Australian History 1851-1900, CMH Clark. Angus & Robertson, 1955, p774.

On the wharves



Many years after Bennelong’s time, as Bill Gosling told me, Goat Island was the source of a strike.

I tell you what, they had a lot of sheep roaming loose on Goat Island. That was the cause of another disruption, because they had sheep on the island. One day the boss issued an instruction to the men to shear the sheep. They said we’re not bloody shearers and so they all sat down and went on strike.

… Talking about strikes, there was one occasion over Redfern they had a bit of trouble over the lack of repairs to the housing, which they complained they couldn’t get the corrugated iron needed to repair the roofs on all the houses.

And these were wharfies’ houses were they? I asked him.

No, this was general trouble. And a local parson had taken up the case to try and get supplies. There was a ship down in the Darling Harbour and it was loading steel, corrugated steel and that, to go up the islands and this parson chappy went down and addressed the wharfies, told them that the stuff they were exporting was needed at home here. So the wharfies went back to work, and instead of loading any more, they took out what they’d already put in. Of course, that caused a strike. But most of the things, when the wharfies went on strike, they usually had a very good reason and the way the waterfront was being run at the time gave them plenty of reasons. [i]

Bill Gosling was a senior inspector in the shipping branch, and his work covered everything on the waterfront: revenue, services, supplying ships with water, power supply from the shore, checking cargoes and dangerous goods. He was stationed at Glebe Island which, before containers took over shipping, was the main general cargo section of the waterfront.

I was Senior Patrolman, policing regulations, making sure that everyone had done the right thing … [One] time, I was working on a tanker at Balmain. One of the men that was working there said, you’re over here breathing down our necks, look across there. And I looked across the water to the other wharf where the wheat silos were, they were pouring wheat and the air was filled with wheat dust. And somebody was using an acetylene, a blowtorch on a winch, preparing a winch right alongside where they were pouring the wheat. Now, if a spark had ignited the dust it would have set up a chain reaction, like an atomic bomb. As soon as I saw it, I dived for the phone, rang up the boss of the silos and told him immediately to hit the emergency button which closed all the doors to stop the wheat from running until he’d investigated and stopped them alongside where the wheat was pouring. That chap had a reaction afterwards – that was the last thing he ever did. He had a heart attack at his desk that night.

[i]Interview with Bill Gosling, 9 April 2005.

Bennelong (part 2)


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Judge-Advocate David Collins clearly acknowledged that it wasn’t just Bennelong who could lay claim to a particular area of land:

Each family has a particular place of residence, from which is derived its distinguishing name. This is formed by adding the monosyllable Gal to the name of the place: thus the southern shore of Botany Bay is called Gwea, and the people who inhabit it style themselves Gweagal. Those who live on the north shore of Port Jackson are called Cam-mer-ray-gal, that part of the harbour being distinguished from others by the name of Cam-mer-ray[i]…

But Governor Phillip, the man who had carefully observed the Aborigines, had, within his own limitations, been positive about their courage and generosity, and in nearly every altercation assumed that the whites had been the aggressors; the man who had said, “Conciliation is the only plan intended to be pursued”[ii]returned to Britain in 1792. This left Major Francis Grose, as lieutenant-governor, in charge of the colony for two years, then Captain Paterson as administrator until John Hunter arrived as governor in September 1795. Grose “displayed no desire to follow Phillip’s practice of maintaining a close personal watch over every aspect of the settlement”.[iii]He encouraged members of the NSW Corps to trade, and to farm the land that he granted them. He opened up the Hawkesbury River area for settlement, taking the colony’s survival out of the hands of the governor and into the hands of private enterprise. It worked as a means of motivating trade and agriculture, but it removed the protection and respect for the Aborigines afforded by Phillip’s inclination, and instructions. By the time Hunter arrived the damage was done. The NSW Corps was accustomed to rule, and their rule was for personal profit. Land was for farming and making money from the proceeds – not for the Aboriginal people.

So although no-one in the very early days of the colony disputed Bennelong’s claim to custodianship of Me-mel, that claim wasn’t honoured. Me-mel became Goat Island, and it went the way of all colonised land. In the 1830s it was quarried, and the stone used to build a wharf and gunpowder complex by convicts housed firstly in the hulk Phoenix, and then on the island, in wooden ‘boxes’. They wore fetters around their ankles for the first two years and were controlled by the threat of the cat-o-nine tails. One convict was chained to a rock for several weeks in 1837. A number of Aboriginal people were also imprisoned there, separated from the whites. In 1900, during the outbreak of plague in The Rocks, Goat Island was used by the Health Department for bacteriological research. (Twelve years earlier, Rodd Island had been used for a similar purpose when a laboratory was set up to find a biological agent to combat the rabbit plague. From 1890 the laboratory was used to produce a vaccine against anthrax.) As the gunpowder complex neared completion on Goat Island, Cockatoo Island was selected as the next prison and workplace. Convicts dug silos out of the rock with hand tools, quarried sandstone for building Sydney’s edifices, and excavated the dry dock. From 1871 to 1887 there was an Industrial School and Reformatory for Girls on the island, and from 1888 to 1908 an overflow prison for Darlinghurst Gaol. Convicts also toiled away at Spectacle Island, building a Powder Magazine between 1863 and 1865 as Goat Island’s became inadequate.[iv]

These days Goat Island is a little green mound with a row of pretty stone houses. You’ll see it if it’s daytime as you come round under the bridge towards Balmain, Hunters Hill, Meadowbank or Parramatta, and you might dream of a life in the middle of the harbour.

[i]An Account of the English Colony of NSW Vol 1 by David Collins, Appendix 1.

[ii]The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay, London 1789 (facsimile edition Hutchinson 1982, p140).

[iii]ADB online. Francis Grose.

[iv]The Islands of Sydney Harbour. Mary Shelley Clark and Jack Clark. Kangaroo Press, 2000.




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Bennelong must have been a very adaptable man. Captured by the British in November 1789 he stayed in captivity, learning the English language and customs and teaching some of his own to the British – an act that seems voluntary as the man captured with him, Colbee, was able to escape almost immediately. In May 1790 Bennelong went back to his people, but returned to the settlement after Governor Phillip was speared at Manly in September – an event that Inga Clendinnen convincingly argues was a ritual spearing, designed to redress the many wrongs that the colonists had committed since settling the area.[i]

Not only was Bennelong willing to change from a life within the only framework that he and his relations had ever known – he was then willing to sail, with Phillip, and Yemmerrawannie, to England. They left Sydney in December 1792. Bennelong was presented to King George III in 1793, and didn’t return to Sydney until 1795, with Governor Hunter. Yemmerrawannie succumbed to respiratory disease in the damp British climate, but Bennelong survived, adopting the new clothes and customs that he found.

It’s hard to imagine a more courageous act than the steps taken by Bennelong and Yemmerrawannie onto the Atlantic, sailing with strangers, on a strange vessel, to a completely unknown land, when only five years earlier their physical world had been defined by what could be walked or travelled in a canoe.

Bennelong was from the Wangal people – most sources say that their territory extended from Goat Island to Auburn and Silverwater, although other sources say it starts further west at Leichhardt.  He told the colonists that Goat Island (more tunefully called Me-mel) belonged to him and his family. Judge-Advocate David Collins noted:

… Bennillong, both before he went to England and since his return, often assured me, that the island Me-mel (called by us Goat Island) close by Sydney Cove was his own property; that it was his father’s, and that he should give it to By-gone, his particular friend and companion. To this little spot he appeared much attached; and we have often seen him and his wife Ba-rang-a-roo feasting and enjoying themselves on it. He told us of other people who possessed this kind of hereditary property, which they retained undisturbed.[ii]

Bennelong’s understanding of ownership would have been very different to ours. Heather Goodall explains it as:

In Aboriginal societies, individual men and women hold particular relationships to land, inherited from parents and arising from their own conception and birth sites … Yet despite the specificity of these relationships, they do not allow automatic rights. Instead they confer obligations and responsibilities … It is the fulfilment of one’s obligations, the active embracing of responsibility, which allows a custodian to be accorded the fullest benefits of their landholding role …[iii]

So if you were barred from carrying out your responsibilities, by a fence or a gun, you would lose your whole heritage.

[i]Inga Clendinnen, Dancing with Strangers, Text Publishing, 2003.

[ii]An Account of the English Colony of NSW Vol 1 by David Collins, Appendix 1X.

[iii]Heather Goodall, Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal Politics in New South Wales 1770-1972, Allen & Unwin in association with Black Books, 1996, p9.