Sunday, October 3, 2010

Kurnell's Aboriginal History

Kurnell has been described as a ‘melting pot of diverse attachments to place’. Before the arrival Captain Cook in 1770, and for many years afterwards, the Kurnell peninsula was home to a tribe of Aboriginal people commonly thought to be the Gweagal tribe of the Dharawal nation, although this is disputed (See interview with Les Bursill). Following the settlement of Australia, Kurnell became known to many Australians as the Birthplace of Modern Australia, because it was the site of Cook’s first landing on the Australian continent. In 1815, 27 years after the First Fleet departed from Botany Bay, the first official land grant in the pre-Sutherland Shire to James Birnie began a period of dispossession of the local Aboriginal population and a century of failed attempts at productively farming the land. From 1953 onwards Kurnell became a noxious trades area, beginning with the Australian Oil Refinery. Since the 1930s, and particularly since the 1988 bicentennary of British settlement in Australia, Kurnell has become a stage for Aboriginal protest and ceremony at a national level, and a key site in the process of reconciliation. 

A display on the Kurnell wharf depicts 1970 bicentennial celebrations at Kurnell and the sea of hands ceremony for reconciliation in 2001 (Else Kennedy)
Walking out onto the jetty from Cook’s landing place, a plaque reminds us:  “In the years since April 1770 when Cook and his landing party came ashore, the encounter has been ascribed many meanings; it has been made into history and this place into a historic site. But this is a process that is not natural or neutral, a process that does not happen once and then remain fixed. Here at this site history has been made and remade; here some histories have been remembered and celebrated, while others forgotten or silenced.” 

Not much is known about the original inhabitants of the Kurnell peninsula.  As Cook wrote in his journal, “…we could know but very little of their customs as we never were able to form any connections with them…”. Unable to ‘form any connection’ with the local people, Cook relied on observation alone to inform his accounts of the Aboriginal people. Although he described in detail the people and their belongings, their relationship to the land and their social, cultural and spiritual life were never understood or recorded by the British mariners. 

One thing known about the tribe that met Captain Cook’s landing party is that they resolutely disputed the white men’s landing. As Joseph banks wrote in his journal, “although they were but two, and we thirty or forty at least… They remained resolute so a musket was fired over them, the effect of which was that the youngest of the two dropped a bundle of lances on the rock… He, however, snatched them up again and both renewed their threats and opposition. A musket loaded with small shot was now fired at the oldest of the two who was about 40 yards from the boat. It struck him on the leg but he minded it very little, so another was immediately fired at him, on this he ran up to the house about 100 yards distant and soon returned with a shield. In the meantime we had landed on the rock.”Several “lances” were immediately thrown and fell amongst the party. This caused two further discharges of small shot, when, after throwing another lance, the natives fled.’ (from the MS Journal of Joseph Banks from April 28th 1770 describing the moments of first encounter on the beach of Kurnell)

Image: Jeanette Timbery, La Perouse 1988

Oral histories of the Dharawal way of life and accounts of the first landing were also passed down through generations of Dharawal peoples. As Gweagal elder Aunty Beryl Timbery Beller says, “One thing Aboriginal people can never forget is the landing of Lt Cook and his men at this place in 1770. The story of this landing has been told through generations and it marks the beginning of dispossession for Aboriginal people”. 

Today European monuments and plaques dot the landscape around the landing place. They were installed over the last 200 years, and mark the significance of this site for ‘modern’ Australia. 

On the Southern side of the peninsula, and extending out into Botany Bay, other modern Australian landmarks dot the landscape. The Caltex Oil Refinery, the Desalination plant, Sandmining Leases, and the Kurnell landfill are just some of the industries that have taken up residence on the peninsula after the land was made accessible by road in 1951. 

Dean Kelly, member of the La Perouse Aboriginal community and leader of the Towra Team, says “I understand and respect the importance of the monuments to non-Aboriginal people. But as an Aboriginal person my memories and values are in the natural environment which connects me to the country and the old people”. 

Sand mining on the Kurnell Peninsula (Else Kennedy)

There are few places in where such a stark contrast in the value and significance of a landscape could be found. According to Les Bursill, a D’harawal elder, anthropologist and archeologist, “Where the Shell refinery is now there were once lagoons and marshland that abounded in frogs and fish. It was a proper paradise.” And of Sandmining on the peninsula, he says “when the Holts and the other bloodsuckers came in, layer upon layer of campsites were dug up and destroyed. They were just destroyed as they sucked the sand out of the place. I saw that myself… There were definitely campsites all through that area.” Much of the area is now no longer useful for hunting and gathering “The degradation of the sites means it would be useless for traditional purposes now. The water is polluted, the native species have been taken out. It is just scrubland, it’s pretty but it’s just a place. It’s not productive land any more.” 

Dean Kelly saysAboriginal people’s identity depends on their spiritual connection with the land, water, plants and animals. If any of these things are removed from country, then part of the people’s identity is also removed. Although this has happened here at Kurnell, the Aboriginal people have always retained their spiritual connection to this land.” 

"Aboriginal striking fish". Courtesy of the British Natural History Museum

Following British settlement, Aboriginal people from the Botany Bay area were dispersed. Yet despite this dislocation, Aboriginal people have maintained their cultural connection with Kurnell. One way this connection was maintained with through the ferry service that ran from La Perouse to Kurnell. For local Aboriginal people, who had been dispersed and ‘re-settled’ in the reserves and settlements on the bay’s northern shore, the ferry offered important access to traditional lands. According to Dharawal elder Aunty Gloria Ardler , “We virtually lived at Kurnell on the weekends. We’d spend all day surfing, fishing and roaming the bush.” However, due to improved road access and surging car ownership, the ferry service ceased in 1965, further alienating the La Perouse Aboriginal community from the land at Kurnell. 

Because of its significance to both White and Aboriginal Australia, Kurnell has been the site of both celebration and protest of the nation’s history, and is connected to national struggles for Aboriginal land rights and recognition. Kurnell as been the site of White Australian ceremonies and celebrations, speeches and flag-raisings, royal visits and re-enactments on anniversaries of the Endeavour’s landing, Cook’s birthday and national days like Australia Day, the Queen’s birthday and Anzac Day. However it has also been the site for a 1988 smoking ceremony hosted by Aboriginal elders, which signified a shift in perspectives from Invasion Day to Survival Day. More recently it has been the site of the laying of wreaths on national Sorry Day to mourn the dispossession and suffering of Australia’s Indigenous people and celebrate their survival and enduring connection with this land. 

Source: Sea of Hands ceremony for reconciliation Kurnell 2001 (
Today Aboriginal people are working to preserve what remains of the natural landscape of Botany Bay. Through the National Parks and Wildlife Service, a project called the Towra Team manages dune stabilization works, weeding and bush regeneration to reduce the impact of introduced plants, and a fox baiting program. This is run in collaboration with the La Perouse Aboriginal community. Through the participation of young people from La Perouse, the project aims to renew connections to culture and country through protecting and regenerating land and habitat.

The Towra Team 2008 (NPWS)

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Kennedy, E, Sept 27 2010, Interview with Merv Ryan, 

Kijas, J, 2005, Revival, Renewal and Return: Ray Kelly and the NSW Sites of Significance Survey, NSW: Department of Environment and Conservation 

National Parks and Wildlife Service, Nov 2008, Wild About Terns: Looking after our shorebirds, NSW: Department of Environment and Climate Change NSW 

National Parks and Wildlife Service, July 2001, Towra Point Nature Reserve Plan of Management,^22011_4000_0__ , last accessed 1/10/10 

Nugent, M, Botany Bay: where histories meet, Crows Nest, N.S.W: Allen & Unwin 2005 

Salt, D.F, 2000, Kurnell: Birthplace of Modern Australia, Australia: Clarion House 

Waugh, J, (ed), 2001, Aboriginal people of the Eastern coast of Sydney: Source documents, Randwick and District Historical Society

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