Nature conservation

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Sydney Basin - regional history

Aboriginal occupation

Several distinct indigenous groups occupied the Sydney Basin when the First Fleet arrived in 1788. The largest of these groups were the people of the Dharug language group, although it is uncertain that this is the name they called themselves, and alternative spellings include Dharuk and Dharook (Murray and White 1988).

The Dharug language group consisted of two dialects, one which was used east of Parramatta and between Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay, and the other which was spoken in the west to the Hawkesbury, Blue Mountains and Nepean districts (the latter known as Muru-Murak or 'mountain pathway'). A third group to the north of Sydney Harbour spoke the Kuringai language, while the Dharawal language region occurred from the Botany Bay south to Jervis Bay (Murray and White 1988).

The coast of the Sydney Basin Bioregion, as well as the coastlines of the other two coastal bioregions in NSW, offered a variety of environments between the sea and the ranges that were used by the Aboriginal people of the area (NSW NPWS 1980). The range of environments bore a profound influence of the lives of the Sydney Basin Aborigines. As hunters and gatherers they were reliant on their surroundings to provide food and this lifestyle affected the population size, social interactions and degree of mobility of the groups (NSW NPWS 1980).

Around Sydney itself, food availability, especially fish and shellfish gathered from the sea, changed seasonally and was more reliable in summer than in winter. Further inland Aboriginal people relied on possum, vegetable roots, seeds and berries as well as mullet, eel and kangaroo (Murray and White 1988).

The Aboriginal population for the Sydney region in 1788 has been estimated as being between 5,000 and 8,000 people, of which about 2,000 belonged to the inland Dharug people: 1,000 between Parramatta and the Blue Mountains and 1,000 between what are now Liverpool and Campbelltown (Murray and White 1988).

The Dharug people were thought to have lived in bands or communities of around 50 members each. Each band retained its own hunting district, and each lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle, regularly changing location within this district (Murray and White 1988). Typical dwellings were two-sided bark tents known as gunyahs throughout NSW, while sandstone rock shelters were used in harsh weather.

Men of the communities were responsible for hunting possums, fish, birds and kangaroo, often collaborating with other bands to hunt and eat the larger animals. Fire was used to reduce undergrowth and to catch game. Dharug women harvested what the Europeans called yams (the community's staple) with digging sticks. Food was cooked lightly on open fires or in ovens beneath the ground.

The religion of the Dharug people took the form of a deeply spiritual association with the land and was evident in singing, dancing and stories as well as the many engravings on the flat sandstone outcrops of the Sydney Basin, some of which have remained for thousands of years. The dialects of the Dharug language were fairly complex with a rich vocabulary and grammar complete with numerous tenses. Australian English reflects the influence of Dharug people on the culture of the Sydney Basin in words such as boomerang, corroboree, dingo, koala, kookaburra, wallaby and the bush call coo-ee, which were all derived from Dharug languages.

The arrival of Europeans to the country of the Dharug people in 1788 had swift and often devastating effects on the indigenous population of the Sydney Basin. The impact was so rapid that many records and stories of the people were lost early on. Violence and the destructive effects of a small pox epidemic wiped out most of the coastal people and soon after spread to the inland Dharug communities around the Hawkesbury-Nepean area.

Those who survived the epidemic that decimated much of the Dharug group went on living a semi-traditional life, often on the boundaries of European settlement (Murray and White 1988) or continued hunting on the estates that were formerly their country, supplementing their supplies with those of the new settlers. Despite this subsistence, Aboriginal numbers continued to decline and by 1827 the estimated population of 156 was around a third less than that estimated in 1788 and still declining as couples often did not have children (Murray and White 1988).

Further north in the bioregion, at the very tip where it meets the Brigalow Belt South Bioregion at what is now Towarri National Park, lay the traditional country of the Wonnarua people. The boundaries of this country, mainly in the Upper Hunter, is said to have bounded land that now includes the towns of Muswellbrook, Singleton and Scone, spanning north to Murrurundi and south to Newcastle and encompassing the upper northeast of the bioregion.

The patterns of land use undertaken by the Wonnarua differed little from those of the indigenous people in the rest of the Sydney Basin. Foods were gathered from the land and the rivers and both of these provided a rich variety of resources to the local community. Like their southern counterparts, the culture of the Wonnarua people was closely linked to their natural environment and stories, like the one below told by Tom Miller of the Wonnarua people, described the formation of the landscape (Veale 2001):

"When a group of warriors set out for a long journey to Broke Flats for a battle with the Kamilaroi, they left behind the old people, women and children. After the fight the remaining warriors returned to their camp. There was one girl that sat waiting and waiting for her man to return. When he didn't return she prayed to Biami to come and take her life because she could not carry on without her fellow. Biami felt sorry for the girl that never stopped crying for her man and made her into a stone feature looking down on the valley. She is still there today as part of the Wingen Maid, and the tears she cried fell upon Burning Mountain and ignited the fire that is still burning today." (Veale 2001).

European occupation

After the initial discovery of Botany Bay in 1770, the First Fleet arrived at this shallow bay in January 1788. Governor Arthur Phillip found that Botany Bay was not a suitable location for a colony, moving the fleet further north to Port Jackson (NSW NPWS 1991) where he founded the colony at Sydney Cove. The Tank Stream was dug early on, providing a source of fresh water for the colony (HO and DUAP 1996) and soon the population of about 1,000 people lived at Sydney Cove in tents, huts or wattle and daub houses (HO and DUAP 1996).

Within a year the newly settled population had more than doubled, reaching 2,500, a rise due mainly to the transportation of convicts to the colony (HO and DUAP 1996). By this time another settlement had begun on the fertile land at Parramatta and former convicts were farming the rich alluvial land near the Hawkesbury, much to the opposition of the local Aboriginal people (HO and DUAP 1996).

Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) held a significant place in the colony throughout the nineteenth century. It was an entry point for convicts, supplies and free settlers while goods produced by the new colony sailed out of the heads (NSW NPWS 1991). Wool, timber, gold and whale and seal products were all exported from Port Jackson at one time or another (NSW NPWS 1991).

Convicts or immigrants entering the harbour and suspected of carrying disease were, along with their ships, quarantined away from the populated areas (NSW NPWS 1991). One such place was North Head, which was used as a quarantine station for over 100 years. Fortifications were built on the major headlands to protect the harbour against attacks (NSW NPWS 1991).

The harbour provided an important means of communication. The upper reaches led to the Parramatta River, which became a vital link between the port and the farming lands in the west. Goods and people alike were transported to and from the fertile farming areas around the western town (NSW NPWS 1991).

On the south side of the harbour, transport on a rutted track along the Parramatta River allowed settlement to proceed to the west as well as south along the Cooks and Georges Rivers flowing into Botany Bay (NSW NPWS 1991). The 1820s saw the occupation of most of this land and settlers on smaller lands were forced further west by the occupation of large land holdings at Annandale, Petersham and Ultimo (NSW NPWS 1991).

The early Sydney was a wooden town replaced in time by grander, more permanent buildings (HO and DUAP 1996). Between 1810 and 1821 Governor Macquarie, with help from architect Francis Greenway, was responsible for the construction of some very grand buildings, some of which, such as the Mint Building and NSW Parliament House, still survive (HO and DUAP 1996).

In the early days of Sydney most of the colony's expenditure came from the Crown with few exports except for cedar, which was exported from 1806. However, it was in the 1820s that the new and profitable industry was discovered (HO and DUAP 1996). The hunting of whales and seals was at first a lucrative business, with shipping directly to England after the monopoly held by the East India Company was broken. When resources were drained, whaling ships were sent towards New Zealand. The shipping industry was also lucrative during the early 1800s, with so many ships leaving and arriving at Port Jackson that there began a significant market in shipping supplies.

Wool also became a significant industry, and was shipped from Port Jackson, increasing the harbour's trade (HO and DUAP 1996). It was in the early to mid-1800s that the market for consumer goods was realised and the colony began processing many of its own goods, from candles and sugar, to flour, beer, pottery and bricks (HO and DUAP 1996).

The suburbs on the southern side of Sydney town developed more quickly due to ease of transport, assisted by the construction of the railway in the 1850s. Tramways constructed during the 1880s were also a factor in the development of inner suburbs. Harbour crossings by road and railway began to link the two sides of the harbour.

Most of the land between the harbour and Botany Bay was increasingly used for industry, which was attracted by the water availability in the Botany swamps (NSW NPWS 1991). In addition, the industries around Sydney were under obligation to move outside the city boundaries to avoid polluting the city due to legislation passed in 1849. As industry consumed the south and east, upper-class housing moved towards the west with the railway, settling new suburbs such as Strathfield and Summer Hill (NSW NPWS 1991).

In contrast to the bustling southern side of the harbour, the northern side remained rural and was slower to develop (NSW NPWS 1991). To the north of the harbour there were orchards and small farms with some industrial areas such as brickworks at Gore Hill in the 1870s. Many areas on the north were reliant on ferries and punts to cross the harbour or the river (NSW NPWS 1991). Governor Macquarie made an unsuccessful attempt to establish an Aboriginal farming settlement at Middle Head, named Bungarees Farm after a prominent Aboriginal man, trying in the process to 'civilise' the local Aborigines (NSW NPWS 1991).

Urban development in the west was also gradual, at least initially, emerging from large farming estates used mainly for grazing and private towns on the Cumberland Plain. These were complemented by government towns such as Windsor and Narellan (HO and DUAP 1996). Parramatta, devoid of development for a long time, was considered to have become like an English country town until its eventual absorption into Sydney (HO and DUAP 1996).

The harbour remained an important resource for the people, and many feared it would become shut off to the majority of the population, with only the privileged being able to enjoy it. This prompted the government to reclaim harbour foreshores to ensure they remained in public ownership (NSW NPWS 1991). Members of the public were also concerned about the lack of public space for recreation around the new suburbs. Pushes to reserve the Lane Cove bushland around 1900 were rejected initially, but the Upper Lane Cove River area was declared parkland in 1925 (NSW NPWS 1991).

More recently, Sydney has undergone a vast population increase, and development, particularly in the west, has become rampant to cope with the increase. What were originally the far reaches of the colony have now become the outskirts of the city. Lying to the north and south of Sydney are two major coastal cities, Wollongong and Newcastle, both of which developed from industry and employed workers in steelworks run by BHP, although the Newcastle steelworks have now closed.


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Page last updated: 18 April 2016