Paul Irish, Hidden in Plain View: The Aboriginal People of Coastal Sydney

NewSouth Publishing, (May) 2017, ISBN  9781742235110, pp 1-149 pages, plus scholarly apparatus and Index, (pp. 150-207) Formats: Paperback, ebook, ePDF

Walking along the foreshores of Rozelle Bay and Black Wattle Bay in Sydney’s Inner West, we often marvel at how quickly the mangroves are regenerating in the muddy tidal inlets. We can see oysters clinging to the rocks and as the tide turns, we watch fish jumping. Surviving shell middens here and there provide plenty of evidence of feasting taking place in these and other watery coves.  Sitting quietly under a large spreading Morton Bay Fig tree, it’s not difficult to imagine the Aboriginal people who fished, travelled around and stayed here without interruption, right up to the first colonial settlement in 1788. Sydney’s bays, coves and rivers have always provided a bounty and a place to live.

Paul Irish, author of Hidden in Plain View: The Aboriginal People of Coastal Sydney, estimates that when the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Harbour, there were ‘at least two dozen clans’ or up to fifteen hundred Aboriginal peoples living on loosely defined estates and territories – clan lands – spread across the Sydney region. (pp.17-19). This territory he defines as encompassing the area south from Sydney Harbour to Port Hacking, inland from Botany Bay to the tidal limits of the Georges River at Liverpool, and today’s bustling concrete CBD. Irish calls this region, coastal Sydney. Irish poses the important question – ‘what happened to Sydney’s Aboriginal people between the devastating impact of white settlement and increased government intervention a century later?’ (Chapter 6).

Irish cannot be precise about the number of Aboriginal people who lived in the Sydney region as reliable records were not properly kept in the late 19th century. But he estimates from various contemporary observations that after European settlement the numbers were and remained relatively small. Importantly, after European settlement and the obvious displacement, epidemics and disruption to customary life, Aboriginal people did not go away. They stayed. By the 1840s, Irish suggests that the ‘fifty to one hundred Aboriginal people living across coastal Sydney were still a significant and visible minority, comprising up to a tenth of the population outside of Sydney town’. By this time around thirty thousand Europeans were ‘packed into the town’. (p.34)

From the earliest and the later accounts and journals, Aboriginal people were obvious to visitors and, indeed, many individuals were well-known to Sydneysiders. Familiar with the country, even if they accepted charity blankets from charities and the administration, Aboriginal people could still rely on the harbour, the rivers and the land to provide food. With the aid of a bark canoe (nowie), or later with a cast-off boat, or simply moving around on foot, Aboriginal people could reach different parts of the shoreline to sustain themselves. Travelling to other clan estates for ceremonies and exchange rituals, ‘conducting business’, or gathering food, mobility was relatively easy for those who survived the intruders’ onslaught. Life went on.

Paul Irish asks important questions. Even with a rudimentary knowledge of where and how Aboriginal people lived in the Sydney region prior to and soon after Europeans’ arrival, what happened to these people once colonial settlement spread beyond Sydney Town? What happened in the early decades and later through the nineteenth-century? How great were the effects of physical and psychological displacement? What were the best intentions of humanitarian governors and the worst intentions of certain settlers on Aboriginal people and how did this impinge? How did Aboriginal people develop coping mechanisms to retain culture and custom once Europeans where here to stay?

For anthropologists and archaeologists, the formal answer usually provided is by ‘adaptation’. But what does this mean in the Sydney coastal context? When, through dire circumstances major disruption happens, most human beings are capable of adapting. And this ability was no less for Aboriginal people living in coastal Sydney.

But if we are curious to know more of the how, and where, and in what circumstances Aboriginal people could adapt to remain in safety, how they interacted with the new settlers, how relatively small numbers of Aboriginal people could stand their ground and survive, these and other fundamental questions are answered in Paul Irish’s accessible and yet scholarly history.

In seven comprehensive, chronological and thematic chapters Irish has aimed to fill in gaps to provide ‘a readable narrative for people with no prior knowledge of Sydney’s Aboriginal history.’ The book begins ‘by challenging an enduring myth that Aboriginal culture has never changed and cannot change without ceasing to be ‘authentic’’ (p.7). With careful interweaving, Irish has succeeded in providing information that has been overlooked or missed, and he has joined the gaps through a careful re-scrutiny of contemporary documents and records. And he has used his eyes to look around!

He has also consulted with Aboriginal communities still living in plain sight in the Sydney region. He has taken into account their testimonies and oral histories. He has looked at particular family histories, consulted widely and, as a bonus, has provided informative maps and copious illustrations to emphasise his thesis. Irish has opened up a vital view of Aboriginal people he pertinently describes as having been ‘hidden in plain view’.

Paul Irish readily acknowledges and draws on the scholarship of others (among them Grace Karskens, Maria Nugent, Val Attenbrow and Ann Curthoys and more), and he provides useful, detailed references to a host of specialised works in the book’s final section devoted to ‘Further Reading’ and ‘Image References’. In addition to detailed ‘Chapter Notes’, there is also a comprehensive Index. This book is rich in source material that can be followed up by interested readers.

Today, kayakers and sailboarders share the Sydney waters and foreshores with container ships, tankers, jet planes, sailing boats and sea planes, dinghies and tinnies, ferries, tug boats and dredges, ocean liners, as well as millionaires’ cruisers.

In these same places, we must not forget that Aboriginal families lived here first. They hunted and fished, collected shellfish, trapped eels and land-bound creatures, and found shelter under soaring trees and rocky outcrops. With all Sydney’s CBD and suburban distractions, it may be hard for some to imagine the original custodians of Sydney living and using special knowledge and familiarity with locations, to sustain their families, their culture and clan life from one season to the next.

Paul Irish displays an even-handedness as an historian and archaeologist, and as such he wants to expand our knowledge and thinking to replace ‘The enduring perception of timeless territoriality [that] has imagined Aboriginal culture as a sheet of glass, strong and cohesive in isolation but highly vulnerable to the hammer blow of colonial impact’ (p.18). Rather the author wants readers to consider Aboriginal peoples’ resilience and mobility and to understand how Aboriginal people dealt with change.  Irish moves deftly from the early days of settlement to a period he considers less well known, ‘poorly understood’ and least documented, from the 1830s to the 1900s.

Paul Irish has successfully brought this history of the coastal people of Sydney much closer to home. By drilling down to people and places into territory also well explored by the Dictionary of Sydney, he has improved focus and concentrated our view. Just take a stroll around the ‘new’ Barangaroo Reserve to imagine and combine new and old perspectives. As Stan Grant, Aboriginal journalist, writer and commentator suggests, through this shared history, Paul Irish has ‘breathed new life into people written out of history’.  This book will endure, inform and open our eyes.

© Dr Suzanne Rickard

April 2017


Click here to read Paul Irish’s Dictionary of Sydney entry First people of the Cook’s River

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