It all starts with the names. Taking the train from Sydney International Airport, station names like Allawa, Bullaburra, Turramurra and Wollongong sit comfortably side by side with Aberdeen, Kings Cross and Liverpool on sign boards.
Then you see a striking red, black and yellow flag often flown with the all-too-familiar Australian flag across the city. Next, a serious young man at the Sydney Opera House starts a show by saying: “Sydney Opera House is built upon Tubowgulle, Gadigal country, so I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal People, the traditional custodians of this land.” For an outsider uncovering the history of the first people of Australia is like peeling an onion – layer by layer and sometimes shedding a little tear in the process.
The indigenous name that has really resonated with me is Barangaroo. It has a lovely ring to it and you can repeat it over and over again as your running shoes pound the pavements of Sydney. Barangaroo, Barangaroo …. And then I can also see the Barangaroo Reserve from the window of our flat in Sydney, way across the bay.
A visit to the Sydney Museum sheds some light on Barangaroo. When Governor Phillip arrived in Australia with his fleet of convict ships, he kidnapped a senior Wangal man, Woollarawarre Bennelong who lived on the banks of the Parramatta River with his community. Phillip cleaned him up nicely, gave him a suit and a tie to wear and taught him English. Bennelong later escaped and after some payback – spearing Phillip in the shoulder – he renewed ties with the governor. Good friends again, Benelong asked that the governor build him a hut on a rocky outcrop, jutting into the sea, right there where the Sydney Opera House stands today.
Benelong had a wife called Barangaroo who was not such a push-over. She declined to join her husband to live in Government House but visited him often. A write-up on her in the Sydney Museum says that she was not keen on wearing the Western clothes she was given to make her a respectable visitor. Because of her reluctance she was flogged by a soldier but promptly grabbed the stick and gave him a good thrashing. Barangaroo – my kind of girl.
But it was not all spunk and action. A more wretched account of her visit to Government House was relayed by Watkin Tench, a British marine officer in his book on the early settlers, titled A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson. He describes how Barangaroo visited her husband wearing a petticoat. “But this was the prudery of the wilderness, which her husband (Bennelong) joined us to ridicule, and we soon laughed her out of it. The petticoat was dropped with hesitation, and Barangaroo stood ‘armed cap-a-pee in nakedness’.” Tench also recounts that Bennelong requested that “we combed and cut her hair, and she seemed pleased with the operation”. It is hard to imagine what Barangaroo felt, but I would suspect bewilderment, embarrassment, shame and anger?
A year after the British arrived, around 80% of the first people living in and around what is now Sydney was wiped out due to disease, hunger and persecution. During my time here I have not seen many indigenous people, beside the sad little group in front of the Opera House playing digeridoos and selling CDs to tourists streaming from cruise ships. Documentaries on television show reduced lives of poverty, domestic violence and a massive tendency towards suicide amongst Aboriginal youths.
Bringing up the issues facing the first people while socialising with locals is often met with an embarrassed silence or a call to talk about more cheerful stuff. So, all in all, it’s quite difficult to know what Australians really feel about Aboriginal people. I suppose if I had more time to dig myself into this culture I would be able to peel more layers off the onion. But for now, all I can do is to sometimes whisper the name ‘Barangaroo’ as I walk the streets of Sydney.