Yesterday Governor David Hurley and Lord Mayor Clover Moore unveiled plans for a major new artwork overlooking Sydney Harbour on the Tarpeian Precinct Lawn above Dubbagullee (also known as Bennelong Point) that will celebrate and honour the clans of the Eora nation. I was honoured to be present at the announcement and I’m excited at the prospect of this newly commissioned artwork. bara by Aboriginal artist Judy Watson, is modelled after the crescent shapes of ‘bara’ – traditional fish hooks crafted and used by Gadigal women for thousands of years.
Eora women deserve to be recognised. They were the main food providers for their families; along the coast and harbour one of the staple foods were fish. There is an excellent article in the Dictionary of Sydney by Professor Grace Karskens that traces the history of Barangaroo and the Eora fisherwomen that you can read on the site here.
Women fished from their bark canoes (nowie or nawi) with lines and hooks, whereas men stood along the shoreline with their fish gigs. The women made their fishing lines (carr-e-jun) by twisting together two strands of fibre from kurrajong trees, Cabbage trees or flax plants. Sometimes animal fur or grass was also used.
The distinctively crescent-shaped fish hooks (burra or bara) were honed from the broadest part of the turban shell (Turbo torquata). The pearly reflection of the hook would have acted as a lure.
The women didn’t use bait, but would spit chewed shellfish on the surface of the water. The Australian Museum has examples of pre-European manufactured hooks in their collection, and have interesting articles on the manufacture of Eora hooks here and here.
European naval officers admired the technical accomplishment of these essential tools – First Fleet Surgeon George Worgan thought that they showed ‘the greatest ingenuity’ of all the Eora implements. The skill of the women in catching the fish and navigating the changeable harbour conditions in their modest nawi was also greatly admired.
Their skills were not only described in detail in journals, but also captured through multiple water colours showing Eora fisherwomen in nawi with fires going, fishing and minding and feeding their small children. They were a common sight all around Port Jackson for generations, singing as they rowed and fished. Eora women dominated the waters of the harbours, coves and bays, and the coastlines in between.
The fish hooks and lines were sometimes worn by Eora fisherwomen around their necks like a necklace. Although the hooks were beautiful, pearly and finely made, they weren’t worn as a frivolous piece of jewellery, but rather an essential working implement. They were also a symbol of women’s identity, power and status in the community.
It is wonderful to see Sydney’s history of Aboriginal women and their domination of the harbour represented and honoured in such an iconic rendering of the bara.
Read Grace Karskens’ article Barangaroo and the Eora Fisherwomen and Val Attenbrow’s Archaeological Evidence of Aboriginal Life in Sydney for more about shell fish hooks in Sydney.
Listen to historians Anna Clark and Tamson Pietsch searching for the fisherwomen’s world in the History Lab podcast Fishing for Answers.
Read about the newly commissioned artwork in the City of Sydney media release here.
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thank you Lisa!
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