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Aboriginal Sydney

Aboriginal people have an unbroken connection with this place we now call Sydney. They have always lived here. They are the traditional custodians of the land.

For thousands of years, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation lived harmoniously in and around Warrane (Sydney Harbour). A diverse and rich culture, the Gadigal used natural resources to prepare food, medicine and sustain their lifestyle.

As fish was available all year round, Aboriginal campsites were close to the shore. Men fished from the shoreline using multi-pronged spears tipped with bone while women paddled their bark canoes (nowies) across the harbour to cast lines made from the bark of kurrajong and hibiscus trees.

Aboriginal woman in canoe c1805. (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW - PXB 513)
Aboriginal woman in canoe c1805. (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW - PXB 513)

First contact

On 26 January 1788, the Gadigal people watched as the First Fleet landed in Warrane and Captain Arthur Phillip raised the Union Flag on Gadigal land.

As the colonisers began to fish, clear land and shoot wildlife, the local water source was polluted and Aboriginal lifestyles were disrupted and destroyed. Aboriginal people were soon forced out to Redfern, Centennial Park and South Head.

Despite many acts of resistance against the occupation of their land by brave warriors like Pemulwuy, Aboriginal people became destitute in their own land.

Ironically, at various times, the British relied on Aboriginal knowledge of the land for their own survival.

In 1789 as a result of a smallpox epidemic, almost half of Sydney’s Aboriginal population died. With this loss came social collapse, grief and bewilderment. Yet Gadigal culture survived.

As the town developed into a city, the Gadigal people were joined by Aboriginal people from around New South Wales to live, work and connect in a growing urban Aboriginal community.

Aboriginal in canoe. (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW)
Aboriginal in canoe. (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW)

Watkin Tench’s journal cheerfully describes 2 Aboriginal women bodysurfing on bark from Milson’s Point to Bennelong Point.

Today

The Customs House site is significant to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people as a site of first contact between the Eora and the Berewalgal (people from a distant place – the British).

The building stands metres from the original sandstone tidal foreshore and a short walk from the original fresh water of the Tank Stream, which flowed along what is now Pitt Street.

Sydney Harbour holds a deep spiritual connection for Aboriginal people.

Descendants of the Eora live in Sydney while surrounding bushland contains rock carvings and remnants of traditional plant, bird and animal life.

Discover the people, places and history of Aboriginal Sydney through our Barani website.

Celebrate a living culture by walking Sydney’s Aboriginal journey. Download our free self-guided walking tour and explore the lived experience of Sydney’s Aboriginal people.

Aborigine defending himself against an attack by spears. (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW)
Aborigine defending himself against an attack by spears. (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW)

Discoveries in The Rocks show remains of an Aboriginal fireplace and meal of rock oyster, hairy mussel, snapper and bream dated to about 340 years before British settlement. Traces of Aboriginal habitation can still be found in shell middens around the harbour foreshore.

A view of Sydney NSW entering the heads. (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW)
A view of Sydney NSW entering the heads. (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW)