Saturday, 23 November 2013

The 'First Landowners'

 ‘Terra Nullius’

When engaging in Australian history such as that at Warrimoo, historians must inevitably confront the reality of ‘Terra Nullius’. Of course the real ‘first landowners’ were either Darug or Gundungarra peoples, and their ‘ownership’ was different in nature to that conceived by British tradition—it was more a question of ‘custodianship’, where the land in question was tended and replenished in a cyclical manner, in preparation for future visits and future generations.


Thus, ‘firestick farming’ occurred when a group was leaving a given area to replenish green grassland and remove unwanted shrubbery, so that hunting and general movement was made easier. Thick forest-land was left as such to retain bush habitat for edible vegetation and game. Tracks were maintained as groups moved through, simply  by uprooting and removing obstacles. The idea of ‘changing’ or ‘clearance’ or ‘building upon’ an identifiable stretch of ground and working upon it in a ‘lineal’, ‘progressive’ or ‘developmental’ way was not the aim.

A view of Lapstone Hill from the perspective of 'Emu Plains Road', painted by an early colonial artist, Augustus Earle.


 A very powerful case[1] can be made for the notion that British colonizers walked in to an ‘Eden of Plenty’ in 1788. Aside from the travails of the First Fleet, the members of which understood very little of the environment around them, colonial explorers more frequently spoke of ‘rich grasslands’, ‘abundant wildlife’ and ‘plentiful game’. At the same time, white settlers generally ignored the edible vegetation all around them and preferred to import European crops which often failed.


Indications—from available European writings of the period—tend to support the notion of both ‘clear forest areas’ as well as ‘dense bushland’ coexistent with ‘plenty’ upon first arrival. There were plenty of emus at ‘Emu Plains’ for example, and Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson, along with the other explorers of the time, were always able to shoot game when the necessity arose. They came across ‘open forest areas’ and clear streams such as that near Sun Valley as well as tough, bush-bashing vegetation which made progress difficult. In short, Darug and Gundungarra land management practices had provided a complex yet plentiful, some might say ‘idyllic’ environment, for human existence.

Kangaroos feeding at Euroka Clearing, near Glenbrook. Spaces such as these were cultivated by controlled burning, so that a 'patchwork' of cleared and thickly forested country was maintained.

 Yet by the 1860’s the ‘first landowners’ had effectively gone from Warrimoo. The density of traffic moving to and fro across the Great Western Road meant that all stock fodder had been stripped for kilometres on either side. Native animals had been hunted into scarcity or extinction (by the 1830’s there were no more emus at Emu Plains), and random but fairly frequent bushfire incidents had changed the shape and ecology of the bush forever.


It is logical to assume that these factors alone made survival and reproduction for Darug and Gundungarra clans vastly more difficult. Then there was the likelihood of killings and deaths from disease as the European population became more omnipresent. Many Indigenous people became fringe dwellers—there is certain evidence of a substantial presence of Aboriginal people at Springwood up until the 1830’s---and many sought work on the farms of the Marsdens (St. Marys), Blaxlands (St. Marys and Wallacia) and Coxes (Richmond and Mulgoa) down on the Cumberland plain.

Some of the Darug survivors: the Everinghams, Barbers and George H. Morley, photographed at the turn of the century. They came from clans in the Hawkesbury region.

As land became available and white settlement expanded during the latter half of the nineteenth century, Darug and Gundungarra families were herded into more confined settlements, generally termed ‘missions’ and ‘reserves’. There was the first gathering of families at Blacktown, but others sprang up at South Creek, Eastern Creek (this settlement had Darug burial grounds) Sackville Reach on the Hawkesbury, and in the Mountains, at ‘The Gully’ near Katoomba.


Three proud residents of 'The Gully': Aunty Joan Cooper, Aunty Dawn Colless and Aunty Betty Locke, did much to restore awareness of Darug/Gundungarra presence in the Blue Mountains.

The ‘Gully’ was a well known settlement in the Mountains which held descendants of both Darug and Gundungarra nations. It lasted until the 1950’s when a car racing circuit called “Catalina Park” was established there. The Aboriginal people were evicted and dispersed, although many of their descendants continued to live in their original ‘Country’[2]. According to the last census, there are currently about 1,000 Aboriginal people living in the Blue Mountains, several of whom live in Warrimoo.

[1] GAMMAGE, Bill, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2011
[2] LEAFLET and website: http:www.bluemountainstourismaboriginalhistory