Tag Archives: Aboriginal people

Botany Bay

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One of the places I knew I wanted to visit before even coming to Australia was Botany Bay, the place where Cook and his men first landed in 1770.  On board the Endeavour were two naturalists, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, who gathered examples of local species of plants and insects.  In just eight days Sydney Parkinson, the ship’s artist, made as many drawings as he could of kangaroos, birds and flowers, as well as of the Aboriginal people they encountered. Altogether he made 243 drawings of Australian plants that have survived; although he didn’t, dying of dystentery and fever on the voyage home.

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No one I spoke to had been to Botany Bay; most looked askance, muttering about oil refineries, heavy industry and the working harbour.  There is no train station at Kurnell, the nearest settlement – getting there would involve a train ride then a bus.  There’s a cycle route from where I’m based but it’s too far to walk.  Many places in Sydney are harder to reach than they look because of all the inlets – it’s taken me a while just to get my bearings, to know where people mean when they talk about ‘the North Shore’ and the ‘Inner West’.

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In the midst of preparing myself for my departure, my lovely friend Donna kindly offered to drive me there on her day off.  We went south on the Princes Highway, crossed the Captain Cook Bridge over the George River and travelled down the peninsula to Botany Bay National Park.  They have renamed it Kamay Botany Bay to honour the original Aboriginal ownership and this sensitivity to its history is reflected in much of the interpretative information, created in consultation with local Indigenous elders.

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When the Englishmen set foot on their land, the Aboriginals went into hiding, watching from a distance.  That has been their strategy ever since as the White man has claimed governance of the colony, refusing to countenance a world view other than their own – anthropocentric, rationalist, linear, hierarchical and competitive.  Only in very recent times have gestures begun to be made towards apology and healing, allowing the Aborigines to come out of hiding and start to share some of their wisdom.  In the midst of the current global environmental crisis, their deep understanding of the rhythms of the natural world has an important part to play in managing change.

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When Banks took his inventory of the plant species at Kamay – first named Stingray Harbour by Cook, then Botanist’s Bay or Botany Bay because of the rich diversity found there – there was indeed a wealth of different trees, shrubs and flowers, recorded by Sydney Parkinson, and later added to Banks’s Florilegium.  In the subsequent years of clearing, development and industrialisation much variety has been lost and many individual species are in danger of disappearing altogether.  Work is underway to conserve as much as possible and regenerate ‘the bush’ here and elsewhere.  Although I’m afraid it will take a while – I’ve heard too many stories of a widespread scorn for anything ‘green’, seen as anti-patriotic and un-economic by many Australians.  Meanwhile scientists continue to report major extinctions of plant and animal life across this vast and beautiful continent.

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There’s not much botany at Botany Bay but I’m glad I saw it.  Maybe I’ll go back some time and do some of the longer walks they’re creating in the National Park.  It feels an important place – where something noxious started that can’t be erased but that can, like a bushfire, set in motion a whole new beginning.

Donna

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Gymea Lily

The name Gymea Lily  derives from the local Eora dialect.  The plant is indigenous to the coastal areas of New South Wales, where Aboriginal people used to roast the stems and roots for food.

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Its botanical name, Doryanthes excelsa, means ‘exceptional spear flower’.  I have seen it both in the wild and at the Botanic Gardens and it really is.  Even the leaves are about a metre long but the flower spike shoots up to around six metres.  I’ve yet to see one in flower and am hoping the ones in the garden might open before I leave.  These sound quite exceptional too – a large cluster of crimson blossoms – first described by priest, philosopher, statesman and botanist, Jose Francisco Correia de Serra (1750 – 1823), a close friend of Sir Joseph Banks, colonial botanist extraordinaire.

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Last week, inspecting a scorched (by sun or fire, I don’t know) Gymea head in the National Park, I found what I thought might be a seed.  It looked suitably exceptional.

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And then I put my glasses on.

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My research is not conclusive but I think it might have been a male Redback spider, the female of which is nastily venomous.  He’d found a perfect sleeping place in the Gymea seedpod and wasn’t bothered by my getting quite close to take the photos.  When he found himself disturbed, he slowly crawled away, trailing skeins of sticky silk behind him.

 

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Landing Place

harbour

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.

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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.

farm plaque

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.

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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.

mrs m's chair

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