NAIDOC Week is in full swing, celebrating the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples so we thought we’d take the opportunity to celebrate someone a very powerful woman in Sydney’s history – Barangaroo.
Listen now Barangaroo was a Cameragal woman, from the country around North Harbour and Manly. Professor Grace Karskens notes in her entry on Barangaroo in the Dictionary, that she was probably a part of a group of Cameragal women who met the ‘Berewalgal’ (people from a distant place) at Manly in February 1788.
The British officers first met Barangaroo in 1790, and found her striking and intimidating.
Barangaroo had survived the deadly smallpox epidemic of 1789 which had decimated the Eora population, and because of this was one of a reduced number of older women who had the knowledge of laws, teaching and women’s rituals.
She had lost two children and a husband during the epidemic, and had remarried another well-known figure in Sydney’s history, Bennelong. Barangaroo was fiercely determined, she refused to wear clothing offered by the Berewalgal, and aggressively challenged Bennelong’s relations with them, much to the surprise of the British. One officer, Watkin Tench, described her as a ‘scold’ and a ‘vixen’.
Barangaroo’s was an accomplished fisherwoman and main food provider for her people. Eora fisherwomen were highly skilled – they would balance their bark canoes (nowie) in sometimes rough conditions, simultaneously maneuvering their lines and hooks (burra) and diving to catch fish. Often, these women also had their children aboard and fires lit on clay pads for warmth and cooking, as they sang and rowed in synchrony. Eora men mostly used canoes to get from one part of the harbour to the next and would focus their hunting efforts onshore, yielding multi-pronged spears.
Barangaroo died in 1791, shortly after giving birth to a baby girl. She was cremated with her fishing gear beside her, and Bennelong buried her ashes in the gardens of First Government House, in the area around where the Museum of Sydney now stands.
Nicole Cama is a professional historian, writer and curator, and the Executive Officer of the History Council of NSW.
She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity.
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