Guest writer Marc Bennie explores the deep history of Wangal Country and invites you to explore our local area, dating back more than 20,000 years.
One of my favourite things to do is leave the mobile phone at home, jump on my pushy and roll through the neighbourhood soaking up the sights and sounds of modern-day life. Beyond the delights of the colonial heritage, there’s a deeper history that’s easy to find if you take the time to slow down and have a look around. As you amble through your favourite parks, backstreets or sit by the harbour to watch the world go by; beyond the sandstone terraces and shipyard history are the Aboriginal stories. Wangal people lived, cared for, and thrived in this area for thousands of years before colonisation, and a lot can be gained from connecting with their history.
As a non-Indigenous person I have come to appreciate Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history later in life. Unfortunately, the education system didn’t include much, if any, acknowledgement of First Peoples. It wasn’t until I started working as a tour guide that I learned that Aboriginal people and culture has been continuously practiced across the area known as Australia for over 60,000 years. Australians love to travel around the globe, but you can often find incredible, deep history right here on our doorstep.
Before colonisation, there were over 250 language groups with more than 700 dialects spoken across Australia. Balmain and Rozelle are home to Wangal people whom were among the very first to interact with and be impacted by the arrival of the First Fleet. Prior to colonisation, Wangal Country extended from Darling Harbour (home of Gadigal people), around the Balmain Peninsula including Me-Mel (Goat Island) to Burramattagal (Parramatta) in the west. Wangal people are known to have occupied the area for over 20,000 years and lived on a healthy diet of fish, oysters, and cockles as shown by the middens that adorn the coves in many places around the area. Unfortunately, due to the infiltration of smallpox that came with early colonisers, 90% of the estimated 8,000-9,000 Gadigal/Wangal population were almost wiped out in this area.
There is a growing movement to revitalise, recognise and share culture through arts, events, historical signage, and dual language naming. An example of culture that’s living locally is the use of Darug language place names for our local council wards. Balmain is known as Baludarri or Leather Jacket Fish in English which is a great way to recognise and respect Aboriginal history and culture. Furthermore, there’s descriptive signage throughout parks in the area which share people, historic events or traditional names for trees in local language.
Wangal Country was home to well-known Aboriginal leader Wolarwaree Bennelong. Bennelong was one of the first Aboriginal people to interact with Captain John Hunter and Arthur Phillip who captured and ‘civilised’ him into the European way of life. Bennelong learned how to speak English and took on settler customs before being the first Aboriginal person to travel to England in 1792 where he met King George III. To commemorate and thank him for his services, Phillip built a brick hut for Bennelong at Tubowgule which is now known as Bennelong Point, home to the Sydney Opera House. There are many more interesting pieces of history, language and customs practiced around our local area, so take the time to connect with the unique history and culture that has been present in this area for thousands of years.
Here’s a few tips to get you started:
- Learn Google Wangal or Bennelong to read more history.
- Experience Take a walk through Yurulbin Park in Balmain or visit Balmain West Wharf to find historical signage with Wangal cultural information.
- See Boomalli in Leichhardt, the first Aboriginal owned and run Art Gallery in Australia and visit Kate Owen Gallery in Rozelle.
- Buy products from Indigenous artists. Visit Bits of Australia in Balmain East and follow @blakbusiness and @tradingblack on Instagram.
- Experience Attend local events during National Reconciliation Week (27 May - 3 June) or NAIDOC Week (4-11 July).