Of all the gardens I’ve visited Sydney definitely gets the gold for its setting. A two-pronged patch of land, its boundary extends right into that part of the Harbour called Farm Cove to commemorate the first attempts at planting by the English invaders.
Captain Cook claimed ownership of the whole of the east coast of Australia on 22nd August 1770 by raising the British flag at Possession Island off the northern tip of Cape York. Cook’s reports of only a few Aboriginal people, with nomadic habits, led to the fiction that possession was permitted since legally the land was ‘terra nullius’ – belonging to no one.
In fact for thousands of years the area around Farm and Sydney Coves had been inhabited by the Cadigal people, one of seven clans living in Coastal Sydney who spoke a common language, known as the ‘Eora’ people. ‘Eora’ means ‘people’ or ‘of this place’ – their identity, community, means of survival and spirituality inseparable from their ancestral land.
The eleven ships of the First Fleet arrived at Farm Cove, on the site of the Botanic Gardens, on 26th January 1788, under the command of Captain Philip. 700 convicts were transported across the globe to ease the pressure on Britain’s gaols. All city criminals, with no agricultural or horticultural experience, they cleared the land in order to establish a three and a half hectare farm, ‘nine acres in corn’. However their attempt at cultivation proved unsuccessful – the timing not taken into account, nor the high temperatures and low rainfall or the poor nutrients in the soil. Nor the rats! The plants the colonists brought with them as food crops, recommended by Cook’s botanist Joseph Banks, failed to thrive.
It is in this place that there is now a space within the Gardens called Cadi Jam Ora (‘I am in Cadi’), which grows all the native plants that the original indigenous people would have been familiar with and used for food and medicine and shelter.
Meanwhile, back in the 18th century, the Aboriginal people, steering clear of the Cove, swarming with armed soldiers and chained prisoners, were close to starvation, deprived of their regular supplies of fish, kangaroo and plant foods. In a matter of weeks the landscape had been completely transformed and it was becoming clear the intruders were there to stay.
In 1789 an outbreak of smallpox badly affected the local Aboriginal population and led to the beginnings of a sorry history of social collapse, grief and bewilderment. By 1791 only three people descended from the Cadigal were left alive.
By 1789, the farming venture had moved to Paramatta where it enjoyed greater success. In 1810 the Governor Lachlan Macquarie established the ‘Demesne’ (now known as the Domain) as parkland for himself and his wife. A new road system was built to navigate it. One served as a boundary for his kitchen garden (on the site of the current Botanic Gardens); its completion on 13th June 1816, celebrated with five gallons of spirits divided between 11 men, is taken as the Gardens’ Foundation Day. By 1820, Charles Fraser, Colonial Botanist and Superintendent, had created an independent Botanic Garden, with a catalogued collection of plants – one of the oldest in the Southern Hemisphere. Here in Sydney they are looking forward to their bicentennial celebrations on 13th June 2016. I’m sure it will also be quite a party.