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. http://gutenberg.net.au/first-fleet.html
[iii]ADB online. http://www.adb.online.anu.edu.au/biogs/A010444b.htm. Francis Grose.