First Nations Stories of Sydney Harbour

Explore the Harbour Trust's network of heritage destinations in Borogegal, Birrabirrigal, Cammeraygal, Gadigal, Gayamagal, Wallumedegal and Wangal Country, and discover their significance for the First Nations Peoples of Sydney and beyond.

By Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

View of Sydney Harbour as the rain cloud passes over (f.2.) (c. 1857 - c. 1861) by George Kilgour Ingelow (artist)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

The Harbour Trust acknowledges the Borogegal, Birrabirrigal, Cammeraygal, Gadigal, Gayamagal, Wallumedegal and Wangal People. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and Custodians, including their Elders past, present and emerging. 

Cockatoo Island (Aerial View) (21st Century) by NearmapSydney Harbour Federation Trust

Cockatoo Island / Wareamah

In 2001, the Harbour Trust was granted stewardship over Cockatoo Island. The largest island on Sydney Harbour, it intersects the homelands of the Wallumedegal, Wangal, Cammeraygal and Gadigal Peoples who know it as Wareamah.      

View of Cockatoo Island from ferry on Sydney Harbour (2020) by Harbour TrustSydney Harbour Federation Trust

Aboriginal people inhabited the area for thousands of years prior to European settlement and the island may also have been used for fishing. 

Horse Paddock, Woolwich Dock and Parklands, Hunters Hill Penninsula (2017) by Geoff Magee (Photographer)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

Visible signs of Aboriginal inhabitation were eroded by Cockatoo Island’s physical transformation into a convict penal establishment (1839-1869) and dockyard (1857-1991); however, the site continues to hold significance for Sydney’s First Nations Peoples.    

Cockatoo Island Dock (aka Fitzroy Dock) circa 1870 (c. 1870) by UnknownSydney Harbour Federation Trust

During the island’s convict era, First Nations Peoples were a small but notable segment of the prisoner population and were involved in general prison activities. This included being put to work on the island's Fitzroy Dock (as pictured), built between 1847 and 1857. 

Portrait of Mary Ann Bugg ("Thunderbolt ...Life and Legend" exhibition, McCrossin's Mill Museum) (19th Century) by UnknownSydney Harbour Federation Trust

Two of the most famous figures from this era are Frederick Ward, a serial horse thief, and his wife, Worimi woman Mary Ann Bugg (pictured). On 11 September 1863, Ward cemented his place in folklore when he became the first and only person to successfully escape Cockatoo Island. 

Although accounts vary, some hold that Bugg rescued Ward. Namely, she swam to the island from Balmain and left Ward a file to remove his chains. After a swim through shark-infested waters, Ward made it to shore where Bugg was waiting with a horse and they rode to freedom.
 

Aboriginal Tent Embassy Murals, Timber Shed and search light tower, Cockatoo Island (2018) by Aboriginal Tent Embassy (artwork), Harbour Trust (photo)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

One of Cockatoo Island’s contemporary First Nations stories is that of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy Land Claim. In 2000, an Aboriginal rights group, led by Wiradjuri woman Isabel Coe, established a camp on Cockatoo Island to support a land claim before the High Court.

Aboriginal Tent Embassy Mural, Timber Shed, Cockatoo Island Aboriginal Tent Embassy Mural, Timber Shed, Cockatoo Island (close-up of sulfur-crested cockatoo) (2020) by Aboriginal Tent Embassy (artwork), Ian Evans, Volunteer, Harbour Trust (photo)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

The group was a branch of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which has occupied land outside Old Parliament House, Canberra since 1972. They argued the island was a First Nations meeting place prior to colonisation and that Captain Cook had not claimed the island as part of Australia. 

Aboriginal Tent Embassy Mural, Timber Shed, Cockatoo Island Aboriginal Tent Embassy Mural, Timber Shed, Cockatoo Island (close-up of lizards) (2020) by Aboriginal Tent Embassy (artwork), Ian Evans, Volunteer, Harbour Trust (photo)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

In March 2001, after their application had been refused, the group left peacefully. A series of striking artworks are reminders of their four-month protest on the island. The artworks include murals painted on the timber shed (pictured) and search light tower near Biloela House.

Woolwich Dock and Parklands, Hunters Hill Penninsula (Aerial View) (2019) by NearmapSydney Harbour Federation Trust

Woolwich Dock and Parklands, Hunters Hill

Woolwich Dock and Parklands, Hunters Hill is a historic maritime precinct in Wallumedegal Country. It is located at the junction of Parramatta and Lane Cove rivers. As such, the Traditional Owners know the area as Moocooboola meaning ‘the meeting of the rivers.’ 

Woolwich Dock and Parklands, Hunters Hill Penninsula (2017) by Geoff Magee (Photographer)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

Owing to the transformation of the site, following European Settlement, signs of First Nations inhabitation are no longer visible.

Horse Paddock, Woolwich Dock and Parklands, Hunters Hill Penninsula (2017) by Geoff Magee (Photographer)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

However, it is understood that Aboriginal People lived in the area for thousands of years prior to colonisation.    

Walking track, Woolwich Dock and Parklands, Hunters Hill Penninsula (2017) by Geoff Magee (Photographer)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

Further Aboriginal sites that have experienced minimal disturbance have been identified in neighbouring areas Kelly’s Bush and Clarkes Point Reserve.    

Sub Base Platypus (Aerial View) (2019) by NearmapSydney Harbour Federation Trust

Sub Base Platypus, North Sydney

Formerly a gasworks, torpedo factory and submarine base, Sub Base Platypus is a waterfront community and work hub in North Sydney. It is situated in Cammeraygal Country, which extends from the west of Bradleys Head to the east of Lane Cove.  

View of Neutral Bay from North Shore (f.10.) (c. 1857 to 1861) by George Kilgour Ingelow (artist)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

Prior to European colonisation, the local Cammeraygal People camped in sandstone caves on the harbour foreshore and lived on a diet of fish, possum and kangaroo, as well as native roots and berries.

View of Sydney Harbour from Neutral Bay (f.15.) (c. 1857 to 1861) by George Kilgour Ingelow (artist)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

In the early 19th century, the areas surrounding Sub Base Platypus were known by two Aboriginal names – Wurru-birri, which referred to the western side of Kurraba Point, and Wéyé Wéyé, which referred to the head of Careening Cove.

Diramu Aboriginal Dance and Didgeridoo at Sub Base Platypus Community Open Day 2018 (2018) by Geoff MageeSydney Harbour Federation Trust

When the Harbour Trust launched Sub Base Platypus in May 2018, it was the first time the site had been open in 150 years. The occasion was marked with a community day featuring a smoking ceremony by Walangari Karntawarra and Diramu Aboriginal Dance and Didgeridoo.

Headland Park incl. Georges Heights, Middle Head and Chowder Bay at Mosman (Aerial View) (2019) by NearmapSydney Harbour Federation Trust

Headland Park, Mosman

Located on the Mosman peninsula, homeland of the Borogegal People, Headland Park comprises three precincts – Chowder Bay, Georges Heights, and Middle Head / Gubbuh Gubbuh. 

Traditional names for the area now known as Headland Park include Kuba Kaba and Cubba Cubba, which refers specifically to Middle Head / Gubbuh Gubbuh. 

Other traditional names recorded for the area include Koree, Gurugal and Taliangy for Chowder Bay. Taliangy specifically refers to the stretch of water between Chowder Bay and Obelisk Beach. 

View of the Heads at the Entrance to Port Jackson (c. 1824) by Joseph Lycett (Artist)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

The area holds special significance for its Traditional Owners, the Borogegal People. It served social and ceremonial purposes and the foreshore was a source of shelter, food and water.   

Although the original inhabitants were the Borogegal, the traditional owners of the Broken Bay area – the Garigal People – also have a notable connection to Headland Park 

In 1815, NSW Governor Lachlan Macquarie granted 16 Garigal families land at Georges Heights to settle and cultivate. Macquarie encouraged the group to adapt to the European way of living and appointed Bungaree, a celebrated Aboriginal pioneer and diplomat, as their leader.

Lithograph of Bungaree, drawn on stone by C. Pye [after Rodius] (1834) by C. Pye (after Charles Rodius)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

Bungaree has the distinction of being the first Australian to circumnavigate the continent. Referred to by Macquarie as the ‘Chief of the Broken Bay Tribe’, Bungaree had completed the historic, 13-month voyage aboard Mathew Flinder’s HMS Investigator in 1803. 

Location of plaque commemorating Bungaree's Farm at Mosman (facing Georges Heights Oval) (2020) by Harbour TrustSydney Harbour Federation Trust

The land grant at Georges Heights was coined as ‘King Bungaree’s Farm’ and was the first Aboriginal land grant in the colony. Ultimately, however, Macquarie's experiment was deemed a failure. 

Although the exact boundaries of the farm are unknown, the Sydney Gazette (1815) situated it on “the peninsula of Georges Head” and Thomas Florance’s Survey of Port Jackson (1828) placed it at Middle Head.

Plaque commemorating Bungaree's Farm at Georges Heights, one of the precincts of Headland Park, Mosman (2020) by Harbour TrustSydney Harbour Federation Trust

A  plaque commemorating Bungaree's Farm at Mosman is located between Middle Head Road and Georges Heights Oval. Additionally, a scenic trail linking Georges Heights to Chowder Bay was named 'Bungaree's Walkway' in honour of the First Nations icon.   

North Head Sanctuary, Manly (Aerial View) (2019) by NearmapSydney Harbour Federation Trust

North Head Sanctuary, Manly

A nature refuge, bordered by dramatic cliffs, North Head Sanctuary, Manly, is located on the peninsula at the northern entrance to Sydney Harbour. Traditionally known as Car-rang-gel, North Head holds special significance for its Traditional Owners, the Gayamagal People.    

Entrance to Sydney Harbour, showing North Head (f.4) (c. 1857 to 1861) by George Kilgour Ingelow (artist)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

“Car-rang gel (North Head) stood out as a monolith, towering above the plains to the east and looking over the lands to the west… Baiame [The Creator] is still known to sit and watch over her lands from this sacred place."

“Car-rang gel is in fact a giant pelican, one of two created by Baiame, who lay down and passed on after raising the first pelican chicks in the inland sea.”  –Excerpt from “What The Colonists Never Knew” by Dennis Foley and Peter Read (National Museum of Australia Press, 2020)

North Head was a special place for the Koradgee (medicine men and women healers). They used the area for spiritual ceremonies and rituals. Rock engravings, rock art, campsites, burials, and middens are reminders of the Gayamagal People’s connection to the area.  

View of Sydney Harbour from the Third Quarantine Cemetery, North Head Sanctuary, Manly (Discovery Day 2018) (2018) by Geoff Magee (Photographer)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

Some of the early interactions between First Nations Peoples and the European colonists occurred in the North Head area. Notably, the First Fleet – led by Captain Arthur Phillip – made contact with the local Aboriginal People in 1788. 
 

The following year, three locals –Arabanoo, Bennelong and Colbee – were captured by early settlers who intended to use them as interpreters. In 1790, at nearby Collins Flat Beach, Governor Phillip was speared in the shoulder at a feast conducted over a stranded whale. 

 

Macquarie Lightstation (incl. Macquarie lighthouse), Vaucluse (2019) by NearmapSydney Harbour Federation Trust

Macquarie Lightstation and the Marine Biological Station

The Harbour Trust protects two heritage sites in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. Macquarie Lightstation in Vaucluse is the site of Australia’s first lighthouse. Meanwhile, the Marine Biological Station at Watsons Bay dates back to 1881. Both are located in Birrabirragal Country.     

Macquarie Lighthouse, Vaucluse (2018) by Harbour Trust PhotographerSydney Harbour Federation Trust

Perched above the cliffs at Vaucluse, Macquarie Lighthouse is a navigational beacon with 200 years of history. First lit on 30 November 1818, Macquarie Lighthouse was designed by convict architect Francis Greenway and named for Lachlan Macquarie, the Governor of NSW. 

Crumbling foundations led to the construction of a replacement lighthouse. Completed in 1883, the new tower – also named Macquarie Lighthouse – was designed by James Barnet, the Colonial Architect for NSW. This iteration of Macquarie Lighthouse survives to this day. 

An archaeological survey of the lightstation noted that the shell mortar contained in the Greenway Wall  –  a remnant of the original lighthouse –  is likely to have come from an Aboriginal midden and appears to contain at least one possible artefact.  

Former Marine Biological Station at Camp Cove, Watsons Bay (Aerial View) (21st Century) by NearmapSydney Harbour Federation Trust

The Marine Biological Station is located less than two kilometres from Macquarie Lightstation at Camp Cove, Watsons Bay – the site where the First Fleet rested for a night before landing at Sydney Cove. 

Former Marine Biological Station at Camp Cove, Watsons Bay, (2008) by Ashley Mackevicius (Photographer)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

Designed by prominent colonial architect John Kirkpatrick and completed in 1881, the beautiful sandstone cottage is recognised as the first biological research station in the Southern Hemisphere.       

Former Marine Biological Station at Camp Cove, Watsons Bay (2008) by Ashley Mackevicius (Photographer)Sydney Harbour Federation Trust

There are numerous accounts of Aboriginal inhabitation at Camp Cove. One of the most evocative is a description by George French Angas – an English explorer, naturalist, painter and poet –  who visited Camp Cove in c1845-1846... 

The Former Marine Biological Station at Camp Cove, Watsons Bay. (c. 1881) by UnknownSydney Harbour Federation Trust

“It is a wild and picturesque site to watch a party of natives spearing fish by torch-light in the sheltered bays around Camp Cove and in Camp Cove itself." 

"They wade into the water until about knee deep, each man brandishing a flaming torch, made of inflammable bark; this attracts the fish and with their four-pronged spears they strike them with wonderful dexterity." – George French Angas

Archaeological sites, including a rock shelter as well as rock engraving depicting marine life, offer insights about the area’s original inhabitants.   

View of Sydney Harbour from the Third Quarantine Cemetery, North Head Sanctuary, Manly, 5 July 2018 (2018) by Harbour TrustSydney Harbour Federation Trust

Sydney Harbour is arguably the location of first continuous contact between First Nations Peoples and Non-Indigenous Australians. As a caretaker of heritage sites across the region, the Harbour Trust has a responsibility to assist in the national journey towards Reconciliation. 

This includes preserving the First Nations heritage of its sites and pursuing respectful ways to share the lived experiences of their Traditional Owners and Custodians.  We hope you enjoyed this story sharing some of the First Nations stories of our sites on Sydney Harbour.

Harbour Trust — Extraordinary Places on the World's Best Harbour

Discover more sites and stories in our Google Arts & Culture collection or visit harbourtrust.gov.au to follow our Reconciliation Journey.

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