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.

fishing with a line c1805 , from album 'Natives of New South Wales; drawn from life in Botany Bay' Courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (a1267013 / PXB 513, f.12)

Aboriginal woman with her baby, in a canoe fishing with a line c1805 , from album ‘Natives of New South Wales; drawn from life in Botany Bay’ Courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (a1267013 / PXB 513, f.12)

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.

Fish hooks of New South Wales and a feather of the cassowary c1789 from from 'Journal of a voyage to New South Wales 1790 by John White Courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (a2089433 / MRB/ Q991/ 2A2)

Fish hooks of New South Wales and a feather of the cassowary c1789 from from ‘Journal of a voyage to New South Wales’ 1790 by John White Courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (a2089433 / MRB/ Q991/ 2A2)

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.

 

Read Grace Karskens‘ article Barangaroo and the Eora Fisherwomen on the Dictionary of Sydney here.

Check the NAIDOC Calendar for Sydney celebrations and events here.

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.

Listen to the podcast with Nicole & Nic here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Nic Healey on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:15-8:20am to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney.

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