|Historical notes: ||Aboriginal Land
Tribal groups including the Ngemba, Baranbinja, Morowari, Kula, Naualko, Ualarai, Weilwan, Kamilaroi, Kamu and Paarkinlji occupied the region since time immemorial. Under favourable conditions, it has been estimated that the area supported a population of about 3,000 people prior to European settlement. The river tribes generally settled along the main rivers in summer and moved to regular campsites located in drier country during the winter months.
In 1829 Charles Sturt came across what he considered to be a permanent camp of 70 huts each capable of housing 12-15 people beside the Darling River near present-day Bourke. Similarly, Thomas Mitchell reported the existence of permanent huts on both banks of the Darling River above present-day Wilcannia in 1835 (Rando, 2007, p9).
While the rivers acted as important travel and trade routes, each tribe had a clearly defined territory, the boundaries of which were commonly marked by prominent physical features. Evidence of the occupation and use of these tribal areas survives across the landscape in the form of open campsites, middens, scarred trees, stone quarries, stone arrangements, burial grounds, ceremonial sites and rock art. Archaeological remains are especially concentrated along riverine corridors, reflecting the intensive occupation of these areas (Rando, 2007, p9).
The riverbanks in the vicinity of the fish traps were occupied by thousands of people during important intertribal gatherings. They contain an extremely rich collection of Aboriginal sites consisting of axe grinding grooves, burial grounds, open campsites, knapping sites, scarred trees, ceremonial sites, middens and stone quarries. Prior to European disturbance of the area, both banks of the river at the fish traps were lined by almost continuous shell middens with an accumulation of shells and other objects more than a metre deep. In 1901, the anthropologist R.H. Mathews noted more than two dozen axe grinding places along the river banks at the fish traps. The Barwon Four Reserve alone, which adjoins the fish traps along the northern bank of the Barwon River, contains 250 recorded sites including two known burial grounds (Rando, 2007, p9).
The surviving archaeological material found across the landscape is likely to represent only a fraction of the Aboriginal activity in the region. Many Aboriginal sites are likely to have been destroyed or disturbed since the arrival of European settlers, while many others have succumbed to the natural elements (Rando, 2007, p9-10).
The creation of the Ngunnhu is enshrined in ancient tradition. Many Aboriginal people believe that the fish traps were designed and created by Baiame, a great ancestral being who is respected by numerous cultural groups in western NSW, including the Ngemba, Morowari. Walkwan, Wongaibon, Ualarai, Kamilaroi and Wlradjuri. The creation story is well known to Aboriginal people of the region, having been passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. Elements of the story have also been recorded by various European visitors to the fish traps, from Robert Hamilton Mathews in 1903 through to his granddaughter-in-law Janet Mathews in 1985 (Rando, 2007, p20).
According to legend, Baiame camped at a granite outcrop called Bai near present-day Byrock. A rock-hole located here was dug by him and the small depression nearby is where Baiame and his wives did their cooking. On the rock at Bai are impressions of a number of Baiame's weapons and utensils including his fighting club or 'bunid' spear and dilly bag. He moved from here to Cobar where he camped in a large cave. The visible copper at Cobar is said to have been formed by the excrement of Baiame. From Cobar he traveled north (Rando, 2007, p20).
Baiame reached the site where the Ngunnhu now stands during a time of drought. The Ngemba people were facing famine as Gurrungga (the deep waterhole at Brewarrina upstream of the rock bar) had completely dried up. Upon seeing their plight, Baiame conceived of a gift for the Ngemba - an intricate series of fish traps in the dry river bed. He designed the traps by casting his great net across the course of the river. Using the pattern of their father's net, Baiame's two sons Booma-ooma-nowi and Ghinda-inda-mui built the traps from stones (Rando, 2007, p20).
Baiame then showed the old men of the Ngemba how to call the rain through dance and song. Days of rain followed, filling the river channel and flooding Baiame's net which filled with thousands of fish. The old men rushed to block the entry of the stone traps, herding fish through the pens. Baiame instructed the Ngemba people in how to use and maintain the Ngunnhu. Although they were to be the custodians of the fishery, Baiame declared that the maintenance and use of the traps should be shared with other cultural groups in the area. People from all of the groups that came to use and rely upon the fish traps had deep feelings of gratitude to Baiame (Rando, 2007, p20).
Two large footprints made by Baiame remained at the Ngunnhu. One was located opposite the rock called Muja, the other was some 350m downstream of the traps on the southern bank of the river. One of these imprints is still visible. It is a strong belief that wherever Baiame camped, some of his spirit remains at the site.. This applies to the Ngunnhu (Rando, 2007, p21).
After creating the Ngunnhu, Baiame's family group travelled further to the east. Their path is now the winding course of the Barwon River. The tracks of his spirit dogs who moved separately across the landscape formed the tributary streams of the Warrego, Culgoa, Bokhara and Bogan Rivers. Before rejoining Baiame at a camp between Cumborah and Walgett, the dogs camped together on an arid plain, transforming it into Narran Lake. The Ualarai people call Narran Lake 'Galiburima' which means Wild Dog Water.
The story of Baiame as creator of the fish traps was reported by Kathllen Langhoh Parker in her 1905 book,The Euahlayi Tribe: 'Byamee is the originator of things less archaic and important than totemism. There is a large stone fish-trap at Brewarrina, on the Barwan River. It is said to have been made by Byamee and his gigantic sons, just as later Greece attributed the walls of Tiryns to the Cyclops, or as Glasgow Cathedral has been explained in legend as the work of the Picts. Byamee also established the rule that there should be a common camping-ground for the various tribes, where, during the fishing festival, peace should be strictly kept, all meeting to enjoy the fish, and do their share towards preserving the fisheries.' (Parker, 1905)
The travels of Baiame are only one of the many creation stories set within the landscape of the Brewarrina district. Others include the stories of the kurrea serpent living in Boobera Lagoon on the Barwon River, the great warrior Toolalla, an eminent man called Yooneeara, and Mullian, the eagle, at nearby Cuddie Springs (Rando, 2007, p8).
The linkages between landscape features through long-distance creation stories means that many of them, including the fish traps, are important to Aboriginal people from distant places, as well as local communities (Rando, 2007, p9).
Age of the fish traps
It has been suggested that these fish traps may be the oldest human construction in the world. The age of the fish traps is currently unknown.
We do not know what the fish traps looked like before the arrival of Europeans, but given the location in the bed of a river, it would have been a dynamic structure, constantly changing. The river flow itself would have modified the fish traps which would also have been continually added to or altered by Aboriginal people over the course of hundreds or thousands of years. Beyond repairing the system, subsequent generations are likely to have expanded, improved and changed the network of traps, pens and walls, possibly obscuring any original pattern or design (Rando, 2007, p21). This constant reworking of the construction means that it is difficult to assign an original date to it.
An indication of when the Brewarrina fish traps were constructed may possibly be gauged by considering changes in the flow of .the Barwon River. Construction of the fish traps would only have worked if low water levels were relatively frequent and regular in the river. Evidence from the lower Darling River indicates that during the past 50,000 years prolonged periods of low flow occurred between 15,000 and 9,000 years ago, and then from about 3,000 years ago up until the present time. Whether or not these dates also apply to low flow periods in the Barwon River is currently unknown (Hope and Vines 1994 quoted in Rando, 2007, p21).
The earliest known reference to the fish traps by a European was made in 1848 by the then Commissioner of Crown Lands at Wellington, W.C. Mayne (Dargin 1976). His observations, albeit brief, were made within the first decade of European settlement of the district:
'In a broad but shallow part of the. head of the River where there are numerous rocks, the Aborigines have formed several enclosures or Pens, if I may use the word, into which the fish are carried, or as it were decoyed by the current, are there retained. To form these must have been a work of no trifling labour, and no slight degree of ingenuity and skill must have been exercised in their construction, as I was informed by men who have (p22:) passed several years in the vicinity, that not even the heaviest floods displace the stones forming these enclosures.' (Rando, 2007, p21-22).
A second, equally brief description was published in 1861 by William Richard Randell, the captain of the river boat Gemini, who had navigated the upper reaches of the Darling River as far as the 'Nonah' in 1859. His report in the Journal of the Royal Geographic Society states:
'The obstacle presented to the navigation at Nonah is a fall at low water and a very swift rapid at the time of the Gemini's visit; the descent being about 8 feet in 200 or 300 yards, and the water boiling and foaming over rocks for that distance. It is called the Black's fishing-grounds in consequence of their having (assisted by natural facilities) built a great number of circular walls of stone in the bed of the river extending from below the falls to a distance of half a mile above.' (Rando, 2007, p22).
The first known detailed studies of the fish trapswere made in the early years of the 20th century. The surveyor Robert Hamilton Mathews, one of the pioneers of Australian anthropology, visited the fish traps in 1901. He prepared the first detailed documentation of the fish traps, relying heavily upon the knowledge of Aboriginal people he had met. In 1903, Mathews described the construction and layout of the fish traps in a paper published in the journal of the Royal Society of New South Wales. Five years after Mathews' visit, A.W. Mullen, a surveyor with the Western Lands Board of New South Wales, also surveyed the fish traps. Two versions of his plan survive. The most detailed of these is drawn in his field notebook. The second plan, dated 15th June 1906, is based upon the first but has been simplified. (Rando, 2007, p22-24).
When Mathews and Mullen surveyed the fish traps there were far fewer traps than in pre-European times due to disuse and lack of maintenance, and disturbance from the activities of early settlers. The key features of the construction of the fish traps as described by Mathews and Mullen are summarized in Hope and Vines (1994).
About the same time as the first surveys of the fish traps were being conducted, a number of photographs were taken of the fisheries. The most important of these are in the Tyrell Collection, now held by the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney. Some of these photographs were taken by Henry King, while others are unattributed. All were taken from the southern bank of the river (Rando, 2007, p27).
Disruption and Decline
The appearance of Europeans and their diseases on the banks of the Barwon River heralded the beginning of a prolonged period of dramatic, and often violent, disruption of Aboriginal society. It also marked the start of the deliberate and sometimes inadvertent degradation of Baiame's Ngunnhu (Rando, 2007, p37).
Introduced diseases ravaged Aboriginal populations in advance of the first European explorers and settlers. During the 1820s and 1830s, smallpox epidemics spread along the important travel routes of the Murray and Darling River systems causing many deaths. The recovery of Aboriginal groups from these outbreaks was hampered by the introduction of venereal diseases which caused sterility in some people (Dargin 1976 quoted in Rando, 2007, p37).
The first European explorer to visit the region, Captain Charles Sturt, reached the Darling River in 1829 by which time the most loathsome of disease prevailed throughout the tribes (Sturt 1833 quoted in Rando, 2007, p37).
Favourable reports from explorers such as Sturt and Mitchell encouraged European settlers to advance further and further into the remoter regions of the colony. By 1836, white settlement had reached the junction of the Barwon and Castlereagh Rivers. Within three years, settlers had occupied land at Baiame's Ngunnhu (Rando, 2007, p37-38).
The first legal title to land at Brewarrina was granted to the Lawson brothers in 1839. Their run, named 'Moheni', extended along the southern bank of the Barwon River adjacent to the fish traps. The opposite bank was included in Quantambone station which had been established by a Major Druitt. Within a decade, river frontage properties were occupied along the length of the Barwon River (Dargin 1976 quoted in Rando, 2007, p38).
With the concentration of settlers and their stock along the rivers of the region, Aboriginal people were dispossessed of many of their important waterholes, hunting grounds, camping areas and ceremonial sites. The disruption of the traditional life of the Ngemba, Kamilaroi, Weilwan and Ualarai people was underway in earnest (Rando, 2007, p38).
The twenty years that followed the initial pastoral invasion of Aboriginal lands were characterized by violent clashes. According to Dargin it was a time of 'many killings, retaliatory raids, punitive expeditions, revenge or fear killings, or more euphemistically, grazing or property management or sport. For the first decade of white settlement, guerrilla warfare prevailed' (Butlin 1983; Dargan, 1976; quoted in Rando, 2007, p38).
In addition to the loss of their tribal lands, a key grievance of Aboriginal people was the abduction and abuse of their women. Frontier life was considered to be too harsh for white women, leading to an imbalance between the numbers of men and women in the settler population. As a result, the abduction of Aboriginal women by white settlers became a common practice. In one recorded incident in 1859, a stockman at Walcha Hut on the Lawson run was warned by Aborigines to release one of their women. He refused, and both he and the woman were killed. In retaliation, the settlers shot a large number of Aboriginal men, women and children in what became known as the Hospital Creek Massacre (Rando, 2007, p38).
The rock bar across the Barwan River at the fish traps quickly became a common, watering and camping place for teamsters and drovers moving mobs of cattle. This appropriation of the fish traps angered the Ngemba people, as evidenced by the recollections of William Kerrigan, reputed to be the first white child born in Brewarrina:
'My father and his two brothers, Bob and Andrew, came to Brewarrina when the blacks were bad, my father had someone with him when he used to cart water from the rocky crossing, each one used to take turn about with the rifle in case a wild black showed his head in the scrub an the bank' (Dargin 1976 quoted in Rando, 2007, p38).
Prompted by the loss, or potential loss, of access to the fish traps for Aboriginal people, the then Commissioner of Crown Lands at Wellington, W.C. Mayne, attempted to have the area around the fishery reserved for Aboriginal people in 1848. Nothing came of Mayne's recommendation. Instead, the dispossession and lawlessness continued (Rando, 2007, p39).
Large gatherings of Aboriginal people were now viewed with suspicion. A policy of detribalisation was introduced, in which family groups were separated from each other at different pastoral stations. The effects of this policy and the ongoing violence on the use of the fish traps by Aboriginal people were catastrophic. The last time the fish traps were fully utilised and regularly maintained was probably during the 1850s or 1860s (Rando, 2007, p39).
Township of Brewarrina
European occupation of the Brewarrina district not only put an end to the traditional use and maintenance of the fish traps, it also resulted in much active destruction of the fish traps (Rando, 2007, p39).
The rock bar at the fish traps provided a ready-made river crossing for settlers establishing stations to the north. The abundant stones of the fish traps were used to fill in holes in the crossing to make a ford suitable for bullock drays. But it was the arrival of Captain William Randall in his riverboat the 'Gemini' in 1859 that dramatically hastened the demise of the traps. As the head of navigation on the Darling River, the site had great potential to be developed as a port to service the riverboat trade (Rando, 2007, p39-40).
The township of Brewarrina was surveyed in 1861 and formally proclaimed on 28 April 1863. As the town developed, rocks were removed from the fish traps for use in building foundations and to upgrade the ford across the river into a causeway. Randell, in an 1861 report on his pioneering trip, had noted that:
'I believe that a passage may be very easily made through these rocks [the fish traps], so that steamers could ascend the rapids with the assistance of warps in seasons of moderate flow' (Rando, 2007, p40).
His suggestion was acted upon and rocks that formed parts of the fish traps were removed to create a passage for steamers and barges. Additional rocks were removed or displaced to free riverboats that periodically became trapped in the fish traps at low water levels (Rando, 2007, p40).
In 1872 a pontoon bridge was constructed across the river just downstream of the fish traps for the crossing of sheep, wool and other goods. Two years later a public punt was established nearby for the ferrying of light vehicles (Rando, 2007, p40).
At this time, some 300 Aboriginal people lived at the Fishery. But with the arrival in Brewarrina of a Sergeant Steele in 1878, Aboriginal people were forced to camp away from the town on the northern bank of the Barwon River adjacent to the fish traps. They were instructed to only visit town during daylight hours and at 6pm each evening Steele enforced a curfew with a horsewhip (Dargin 1976 quoted in Rando, 2007, p40).
The 'problem' of Aboriginal people camping around Brewarrina was deemed by the first Protector of Aborigines to be one of most pressing issues in NSW (Heritage Division, 2006). In 1885 the Aborigines Protection Board moved the Aboriginal people to a reserve on the northern bank of the river two miles from town. In the following year they were moved again, still further from town, to a mission established by the Aborigines Protection Association. This new mission was located ten miles out of town on a 5,000 acre reserve. On the mission, people were prevented from eating their traditional foods, instead they were served rations of sugar, tea, coffee and refined flour. They were also forbidden to speak their own language or participate in any of their cultural practices or customs (Rando, 2007, p40).
Despite this segregation and the forced abandonment of their cultural traditions, a report in the Sydney Mail in 1888 claimed that:
'The blacks still adhere to their old habit of frequenting the Fisheries at proper seasons, when they rejoice in high living, coupled with corroborees' (Dargin 1976 quoted in Rando, p40). But by then, the great corroborees of earlier times were no more, with gatherings attracting hundreds rather than thousands of people (Rando, 2007, p40-41).
By 1897 the Brewarrina Aboriginal Mission was home to only 43 Aboriginal people (Heritage Division, 2006). According to A.W. Mullen writing in 1906, the last Aboriginal man who knew how the fish traps worked had died a few years before:
'there is a woman at present at the Mission station called Murray or Nelly Taylor whose husband (now dead) for years back helped to keep these Fishery in repair and told the younger members of the tribe that the aborigines built the Fishery - this woman is now about 70 years of age and her husband was much older than she was' (Rando, 2007, p41).
Yet during the early years of the 20th century, the fish traps continued to receive some use and parts of the system were still kept in repair by the small community of Ngemba and Morowari people living at the mission and along the Culgoa River. Doreen Wright of the Ngemba tribe recalled that:
'Old King Clyde, he was the boss of the stone fish traps here in the river at Brewarrina. When the old people wanted to get fish down at the traps the old King would tell them all to stand out on the banks. The old King would dive down into the fish going into the stone fish traps. The old people wouldn't have to spear the fish, they would just walk into the river and catch them under the gills and fill their bugguda, their dilly bags, up with them' (Wright, 1965 quoted in Rando, 2007, p41-42).
Some of the traps were still being maintained by old people from the mission in 1912. They replaced smaller fallen rocks and frequently diverted the water flow to cut away deposits of silt. But by 1915, only one man, by the name of Steve Shaw was working the traps. He would block the entrance to a trap with an iron wheel covered with wire and wade through the trap; disturbing any fish with a length of wire and driving them into the shallow end where he caught them in a small wire net (Dargin 1976).
Between World War I and World War II, the fish traps, then known as 'The Rocks' became a place for Aboriginal people to drink alcohol. With police patrols searching for drunks, many Aboriginal people stopped visiting the area during this period (Rando, 2007, p42).
During the 1920s and 1930s, many people were brought to the Brewarrina mission from places such as Tibooburra, Angledool, Goodooga, Culgoa, Collarenebri and Walgett as Aboriginal settlements in those towns were closed down (Heritage Division, 2006). This centralisation of Aboriginal communities resulted in the Brewarrina mission becoming the largest such institution in Australia until it was closed in 1966 (Bell and Herring 2001 quoted in Rando, 2007, p42).
Dray loads of stone continued to be taken from the fish traps during the 1920s, with even larger quantities of stone removed in later years for roadworks (Dargin 1976). Yet even at this time, the custom by which members of another tribe could only catch fish at the fish traps after gaining permission from a Ngemba elder was still recognized (Mathews 1985 quoted in Rando, 2007, p42).
Floods also took their toll on the fish traps. Two large floods in the 1950s caused large parts of the fisheries to be covered in silt (Mathews 1985 quoted in Rando, 2007, p42).
Construction of the Brewarrina Weir, which was opened in 1971, resulted in the destruction of the remaining parts of the upstream set of fish traps. As part of the weir development, a 90m-long channel was built from the original fishway at the weir to the middle of the river course. This involved the removal of additional stones and the pouring of concrete in the river channel in order to back water up to the fishway (Mallen-Cooper 2002 quoted in Rando, 2007, p42). A single Aboriginal man, Cassidy Samuels, protested against the construction of the weir, chaining himself to the safety nets erected at the site during blasting works. Rocks have also been knocked off the walls of the traps by fishermen or by children playing or hunting for yabbies (Rando, 2007, p42).
For more than 160 years, the fish traps has endured deliberate and inadvertent destruction and suffered from the loss of traditional management and maintenance. Yet despite this, elements of the fish traps and its significance to Aboriginal people have survived (Rando, 2007, p42).
Two attempts to reconstruct or repair sections of the fish traps have occurred in recent times. In the early 1970s the Brewarrina Council obtained a grant from the Directorate of Aboriginal Welfare to employ local Aboriginal people to restore parts of the fish traps. The work undertaken was not documented, though there are theories about which structures were possibly associated with this early reconstruction exercise. More of the contemporary stone wall structures may be the result of building work reportedly undertaken in recent years by children and adults wishing to privately reconstruct the fish traps (Rando, 2007, p52).
Despite their less than perfect condition, the Brewarrina Fish Traps / Baiame's Ngunnhu remain a destination for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike. Beyond its role as a tourism drawcard, the fish traps is also viewed by Aboriginal people as a teaching place - one that can contribute to cultural renewal, understanding and tolerance (Rando, 2007, p46).
The recreational. and educational centrepiece at the fish traps is the Brewarrina Aboriginal Cultural Museum. Located within the curtilage on the southern bank of the Barwon River, the museum is a free-form curvilinear building consisting of a series of earth-covered domes that represent traditional shelters or gunyas. Funded by a bicentennial grant, the museum was designed by the NSW Government Architect's office under project architect Olga Kosterin and officially opened in 1988. It won an Australian Institute of Architects Balcakett Award for regional architecture in 1991. The mission statement for the museum, was enunciated by Les Darcy,chair of the museum:
'To preserve, develop and promote our ancient culture, heritage and tradition. To enlighten the broader community and most importantly our own young. To let them be made aware of their ancestors, let them be proud of their descendants, and let them know how they struggled, suffered and created happiness, so that we still survive in the driest continent on earth - knowing that through different governments and policies over the last 150 years we still have our own identity. This project Is about Aboriginal pride' (Rando, 2007, p46).
In 2000 the Brewarrina Fish Traps were listed on the NSW State Heritage Register (SHR) and in 2006 they were listed on the National Heritage Register (called by their Aboriginal name, 'Baiame's Ngunnhu").
Between 2006 and 1012, the NSW Department of Fisheries underwent an extensive local consutlation process to build a new fishway in the Brewarrina weir just east of the fish traps to allow more indigenous fish to navigate the river upstream. In its final form as a curving rock stairway near the south bank of the river edging on to Weir Park, the fishway should not be confused with the traditional fish traps nearby.